A. M. (Alice Muriel) Williamson.

Where the Path Breaks online

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"Only the dark, where the path breaks off and the milestones end."



Copyright, 1916, by

The Century Co.

Published, March, 1916








In dim twilight a spark of life glittered, glinted like a bit of mica
catching the sun, on a vast face of gray cliff above a dead gray sea.
There was nothing else in the world but the vastness and the grayness
of the cliff and the sea, till the spark felt the faint thrill of
warmth which gave to it the knowledge of its own life. "I am alive,"
the whisper stirred, far down in the depths of consciousness. Next the
question came, "What am I?"

At first just that infinitesimal bright glint lived where all the rest
was dead, or creation not yet begun. Then slowly the answer followed
the question: "I am I. A man. I was a man. I am dead. This is the
twilight between worlds. I must dream back. I must know myself as I
was. Later I shall wake and know what I am."

The soul was very still, tired after an all-but-forgotten struggle. It
was beginning to remember that it had suffered infinitely. It was
patient, with all the patience of eternity before it. There was no
hurry. Hurry and turmoil seemed strange and remote, part of some
outworn experience. Lying still, it passively waited for the dream to
begin. For a moment - or perhaps years - there remained only the gray
blankness of the empty world; but the spark of life grew in brightness
as a star grows to visibility in the pallor of an evening sky. Then,
suddenly, a face flashed into existence - a girl's face.

"I knew her. I loved her," the soul remembered with a thrill, like a
shooting ray of the star that was itself. "Where? Who was she? What
were we to each other?"

The dream began to take on definiteness. The soul groped back to find
its body and its lost place in the world. Not this gray limbo, but the
sad and happy, the glorious and terrible world whence it had somehow

The girl's face faded away for an instant, and the face of a man seemed
to be reflected in a blurred mirror. The eyes of the soul looked into
the man's eyes and knew them. They were his own. He was that man, or
had been. "What a dull dog you are," he heard himself say, as if he had
said it long ago, said it often, and the echo had followed him to this
twilit place beyond death. He thought the face was rather like a dog's,
an ugly mongrel dog's. The girl could not possibly care for him! Yet
some one had told him that she did care, and that she would marry him
if he asked. "I'm her mother. I ought to know!" As he heard the woman's
voice speaking the words, he saw the face that belonged to the voice:
the face of a pretty woman, young looking till the girl came near....
The girl had come now! The cream-and-rose tints of her youth made the
other face old. This was rather pathetic. He remembered that it had so
impressed him more than once. Yet he had never been able to like the

The dream was growing in distinctness. They three - he and the girl and
the woman - were in a house. It was a beautiful old house, in the
country. Outside it was black and white, with elaborate patterns of oak
on plaster. A sheet of water lay so near that the black and white front
was reflected in it, like a dream within a dream. The calm water was
asleep, and dreaming the house; and some great dark trees and clumps of
rhododendrons were dreaming also, which seemed very confusing, and made
him doubt whether there were any such soul as his, or whether after all
he were only the spirit of the water or the trees, and had never known
this girl who was walking with the ugly man. Yet it seemed to be the
ugly man's house, and he knew what the man was thinking. They were one
and the same, at all events in the dream. And though he was out of
doors with the girl, he could see every room in the house as plainly as
he could see the lake and the trees and the pink rhododendrons. He
seemed to pass through each room, one after another, because the girl
was extolling the charm of the house, and his mind moved here and there
following her words, picturing her, white and flower-like against a
dark oak paneling, or old brocade, or hanging of faded tapestry.

Yes, it was a beautiful house. He had that to offer her, and money too.
There were women who would take him because of what he had to give. And
there was something else. What was it? Oh, a title. Not much of a
title. He couldn't believe she would be influenced by a trifle like
that. She was too perfect, too wonderful. A great many men with nobler
titles and more money must have asked her to marry them, or they would
ask her in future; for she was still very young. So far she had never
fallen in love. She had told him so.

"Not seriously in love," she had said, half laughing, and half in
earnest. "There was only my cousin. I adored him when I was child. But
I haven't seen him since I was sixteen. And now I'm twenty-one. He was
most awfully good looking, and I thought he was a knight and a hero.
Perhaps if he came back from India I should be disappointed in him."

Queer that the groping soul should hold an echo of these chance words
about India, though there was none for the name of the cousin, nor even
of the girl herself. This made the awakening man wonder again if the
girl had existed, or whether she lived only in his dreams. It was a
vaguely sweet, vaguely sad dream, which seemed to have ended before it
was fairly begun, with a very sorrowful ending which he couldn't quite
recall yet. He wished to go on dreaming, and to change the end if he

The girl and her mother were visiting the ugly man at the old black and
white house. He - whoever he was - had to go away. He was begging the
girl to stop until he came back. "If I do come back," he added. "Your
mother is willing to stay if you are. It would make me happy to think
of you in my house, and if anything happens to me...."

"Oh, don't speak of such things!" she broke in. "It's terrible that you
must go."

This was very kind of her, because it was not reasonable that she could
really care much - such a girl - for such a man, who had never been able
to interest her, he felt. But she looked at him, looked up mistily with
her dear eyes of smoke-blue. There was some message in them, behind a
glaze of tears.

Drowned in those eyes, he heard himself stammering out things he had
not thought that he would ever dare to say. "If you could marry me ...
I don't suppose you could ... but if...."

Her answer did not come into the dream. Perhaps she had not answered.
But he could see the ugly man holding out his hands, and the girl
putting her hands into them. He could see her looking up at him again,
and in the beautiful eyes there was that message she wanted him to
read. There, at that place, was the end of the dream-picture; it never
went further, though he tried over and over to carry it on; the girl
looking up, a tall slender shape in white, with the afternoon sun
burnishing her hair, and giving to it the color of a copper beech tree
under which she stood. He knew that he had thought, "I shall never
forget her as she is now, not even when I'm dead." He had kept his
word. He was dead; hovering on the borderland of the unknown: and he
had not forgotten. But just where the dream ended, before he could read
the girl's look and hear what she had to say, her mother had come
quickly out of the house, with an open book in her hand. That seemed to
be the reason why the picture broke.

It seemed afterwards too, though there was no clear vision, that the
girl was willing to marry him, just barely willing. Her mother took it
for granted that she had said "yes" when he asked her, and the girl let
it go as if it were true; though he could not be sure it was what she
had meant when she looked up with the strange light in her eyes, and
tried to speak. He would have given years of the future he hoped for
then, to have been sure, without any doubts.

When he stammered out his questions he had not thought of anything
better than an engagement, to end in marriage if he came home safely
after the war.... The war!... Dim remembrance of hideous suffering
suddenly stirred the slow current of his dream. There had been war.
That was how it had happened! He had been killed in battle. Or else,
none of the dream was true! There had been no such man, no such girl,
no such black and white house reflected in a crystal lake. This was a
dream of things that had never been. A veil of unreality began to fall
between him and the picture he had seen. No, it couldn't have been true
of his life, of course, because the dream had begun again, and was
carrying him on to a wedding. The church in the village ... (he knew
that church well, and the way to it from the big gates and the little
gates; the long way and the short cut) ... The girl, and a man in khaki
were standing together ... the same ugly man, uglier than ever in his
soldier clothes, he thought. He heard the words which a clergyman in a
white surplice was reading out of the prayer book. "To have and to
hold, till death do you part." And he saw himself putting a ring on the
girl's finger. She held her left hand out to him - the long, slim hand
he used to think must be like St. Cecilia's, because of the genius of
music in its finger tips. He could see no following picture of her
alone with him. He saw himself going away, waving good-by: then a train
and a boat, and a train again, with a crowd of other men, all soldiers.

He was an officer. (He had left the army before that dream-time, he
could not remember why, but it had something to do with money - and with
the black and white house: and he had offered himself again for the
war.) In the dream he rode a horse along a straight sunlit road, with
poplars on either side that gave no shade. There were days of marching
in furnace heat. Then came a night of silver moonlight reddened by
fire; a village burning. There was a noise as of hell let loose: and
since he had been dead he hated noise. It was the one unbearable thing.
Hearing noise in his dream, the star which was his soul shattered
itself into a thousand sparks, each spark a red-hot nerve of pain. All
round him in the crowded dream there was fighting. Smoke stung his
eyelids. He breathed it in, and choked. His horse trampled men down.
Their cries were in his ears. Some voice he knew called to him for
help. He pulled a man up on his horse; a friend, he thought it was,
some one he cared for. Now the horse stopped, reared, and fell. By and
by the man whose soul dreamed, struggled to his feet, dazed, but
remembering his friend dragged him from under the hurt animal. Helmets
glittered in the moonlight. Eyes glinted red in the copper glare. He
fought with a sword and kept off men that pressed on him and his
friend, trying to kill them both. A stab of pain shot through his hand.
A bugle sounded. Men were running away. He thought they were men of the
enemy; a stream of helmets going. He heard his own voice shout an
order, but before it could be obeyed a din as of mountains rent asunder
roared his voice down. His whole being was swallowed up as a raindrop
is swallowed in a cataract. A huge round shape rushed towards him,
black against moonlight and flame. Then the world burst and tore him in
a million fragments....

His soul coming back to knowledge of its continuance held the
impression that this rending anguish of death had been long, long ago,
thousands of years ago in time: and that he was now or soon would be
waking into eternity. The breaking of the dream and the pain he had
suffered ought not to seem important. It ought not to matter to a
disembodied spirit. Yet it did matter terribly. Most of all did it
matter that the girl with the smoke-blue eyes and copper-beech hair had
been swept away from him forever. She was somewhere in the world he had
left behind. He did not even know her name, or whether indeed she had
really been in his life. Henceforth he would have to wander through
space and eternity without finding her again.

The man groaned.

"He's coming round at last!" a woman's voice said.

The voice sounded muffled, and far off. It sounded harsh, too. It was
not a sweet voice, and it was not speaking his language. Through the
gray dimness which hung over him like a cloud, trickled this
impression. He wondered why, if the language were not his, he should
understand what the voice said.

"G-erman," he struggled to say, and succeeded with pain in whispering
the word.

Somebody laughed. "He knows he's in German hands!" chuckled the same

An agony of regret fell upon him like an ice avalanche. He was alive,
then, whoever he was, and there had never been a girl with smoke-blue
eyes and copper-beech hair! She was only a dream. That must be so,
because the words she had said to him were all gone from his mind. He
could no longer remember anything about her except her face - and those
eyes. Those eyes! His interest in past and present abruptly ceased. He
let himself slide away into blank oblivion.


Hours or years later he waked up with a start, and stared at the light.
It was daylight, and he was in an immense room. It seemed big enough
for a theater. Perhaps it was a theater. The walls had red panels
painted on them, and on each panel one or two cupids danced and threw
flowers: repulsive, stout cupids. The ceiling was very far up above his
eyes, and there was a dome in the center. From this dome depended a
huge crystal chandelier like a bulbous stalactite. There were a great
many high windows, with panes here and there opened for ventilation.
The windows had no curtains, and the room had no furniture except
beds - beds - endless rows of beds, surely hundreds of beds.

He lay in one of these. All were occupied. He could see heads of men
whose bodies looked extraordinarily flat. On some of the heads were
bandages. Others were shaved, so that they appeared quite bald. They
were very pale heads in the bleak, grayish light filtering dimly
through the high windows. A number of bunks were hidden by screens. He
wished dully that he had this privacy, but his narrow bed had been
given no such protection.

A man was slowly walking down an aisle between rows of narrow cots all
exactly alike. Beside the man, who had a remarkably large head with a
shock of rough, straw-colored hair, was a woman dressed as a nurse. The
newly awakened one knew she was a nurse, though she was not dressed in
the costume familiar to him in some vague past. There were many in the
room wearing the same sort of cap and apron and prim gown that she
wore: young women, middle-aged women, old women. They had kind faces,
but the watcher saw no beautiful ones. Not that he cared for that, or

He had not been awake long when a big girl came towards him, paused,
peered, and went away again. She stopped the nurse who walked with the
shock-headed man, and spoke to her. The woman's cap and the man's
tousled hair turned from the direction they had been taking, and
approached his bed. They bent over it, and he gazed up stupidly at
their faces. The shock-headed man had a beard even lighter than his
hair. He smoothed it with a white, strong-looking hand, a capable hand,
the hand of the born surgeon. The woman had hard features, but soft
eyes, wistful, and pathetic.

"You see, he is getting along finely," she said to her companion. "I
think we shall have no more trouble with him now."

The man in bed remembered that he had heard her voice before, and that
she had spoken German then, as now. He did not wonder this time why he
understood what she said, though the language was not his own. He
remembered that he had learned German when he was a boy, and had hated
learning it because of the verbs.

"How do you feel?" the surgeon enquired, in English.

The man in bed tried to answer. His voice came in a weak whisper. This
surprised him, and made him ashamed. "Very - well," he heard himself
say, as he had seemed to hear himself speak in the dream which was gone
now, far away, out of reach.

"Good!" said the surgeon. "Can you tell me your name?"

The sick man thought for a moment, and the question went echoing
through his brain as a voice calling one who is absent echoes through a
deserted house. Knowledge of his helplessness brought a sense of
physical disintegration, as if the marrow of his bones was melting.

"Never mind!" the shock-headed surgeon said, in a quiet, reassuring
tone. "It's all right. You'll remember by and by, when you're stronger.
Don't worry about yourself. I've performed an operation on you, which
is known as trepanning. That was some days ago. It has been a success.
But we will let you rest a while longer before we bother you with
questions. The only thing is, the sooner we learn your name the sooner
we can take steps to let your people hear that you're alive. It's a
long time since you were wounded: eight months. We couldn't operate on
your head till now. There were too many other things to mend about you!
_Somebody_ must be anxious. Go to sleep again when you've had your
food, and perhaps the past will all come back to your mind. But if it
doesn't, don't make an effort. That will do you harm."

The sick man expressed his thanks with the faint ghost of a smile. When
the nurse had fed him with warm liquid, which he drank through a tube
without lifting his bandaged head from the pillow, he closed his eyes
and tried to find his way into the dream again. But the door of the
dream was shut. He could see only the face of the girl. She alone
remained to him, as if she had lingered and found herself locked out
when the dream-door shut. She had no name, and he had none. But that
seemed to be of little importance. It was easy to obey the surgeon and
not make an effort. The difficult thing would have been to struggle
toward any end. He felt that to do so would shatter his brain. And as
he was very sure nobody cared what had become of him, there was no
need. Why he was so sure of this, he could not tell. But something
inside him, which remembered things _he_ had forgotten, was absolutely

How long his lethargy of mind and body lasted, he did not know. Days
faded grayly into nights, and nights brightened grayly into days.
Neither the surgeon nor the two nurses who had charge of him asked
further questions. He took no real interest in anything except the
effort to find his way back into the lost dream, which he could never
do; and sometimes even the beloved face was blotted out. But at last,
the objective began to dominate the subjective in the man. He gave a
little thought to his surroundings. He noticed his neighbors who
occupied the beds near him, and listened dully when they talked to the
nurses. They were all Germans. One day he asked the nurse with the
patient eyes, if there were any other Englishmen besides himself in her
charge. And as he spoke the word, with confidence which he could not
analyze, it sent a faint thrill through his veins, a sense of unity
with something. "Englishmen!" He was an Englishman.

He had to speak in German, for the nurse had no other language. Oddly
enough, it seemed easy to make her understand.

"We had four Englishmen with you when you came," she replied. "They
are - gone now."

He understood that they were dead, and that she did not like to tell
him so. He smiled faintly, but asked no more questions then.

Next, he wanted to know where the hospital was, and how long he had
been in it.

"You are in Brussels," the nurse told him. "This used to be a
restaurant. All the hospitals were full. You have been here only a few
weeks, but we had heard of you, for yours was a wonderful case. Many
doctors have talked about it. Just before your operation, you came to
us. You were brought to Herr Doctor Schwarz for that. He is a great man
for the brain. You were lucky to have him to operate. It was thought
you might be an officer, because you spoke both German and French, when
you didn't know what you were saying. A bit of bone pressed on the
brain. Your head had been hurt. And you had many other wounds, which
another great surgeon had cured, when every one else said you would
surely die. That was why they waited so long before operating on your
brain. You had suffered so much already. You had to grow strong after
what you had gone through, and get over the nerve-shock, which was
worst of all."

"Let me see, how long did Dr. Schwarz tell me it was, before they
operated?" he asked.

"Eight months," the nurse answered reluctantly, as if she feared to
excite him, yet saw no real reason why, now that he was getting well,
he might not hear all the truth about himself. Besides, it might help
him to remember the past. She knew that Dr. Schwarz was anxious for him
to do so now. He had always been an extremely interesting and rather
mysterious "case," sent from a distance by a brother surgeon to
Schwarz, and specially recommended to his attention. "Eight months,"
the woman repeated. "I think you were wounded in some battle early in
August. We have the record that came from the first hospital where you
were. Now it is the 15th of April."

"Eight months," the man counted dreamily with his fingers. "Why don't
they know whether or not I was an officer?"

"It was like this," the nurse explained, with her stolid yet kindly and
truthful look; "it was like this: Your cavalry and our cavalry fought.
That is the account we have, though it is not very clear. You were
getting the better of us, but our artillery came up and our Uhlans were
ordered to retreat. When they were safely out of the way, your lancers
were shelled. I think they were cut to pieces. Nobody on either side
could get at the dead and wounded for days. When they did go to help
the living, it was our Germans who went. Most of the English were
killed. You and the others who lived (unless a few escaped), were
brought to a hospital of ours, in the north of France. Our soldiers
would not do such a thing, so it must have been prowling
people - thieves - who stripped off your clothes. One reason why our
doctors thought you might be an officer, even before you spoke, was
because the little finger of your left hand had been partly cut off. It
had been done with a knife. That seemed as if you must have worn a
valuable ring, so tight it couldn't be got off in a hurry."

"My mother's ring," muttered the man. The words spoke themselves.
Again, it was not he who remembered, but something which seemed to be
separate and independent, hiding inside him, though not in his brain.
It knew all about him, but would not give up the secret. Impishly, it
threw out a sop of knowledge now and then, just as it pleased. The
nurse tried to encourage this Something to go on, but it would not be
coaxed. When she repeated the conversation to Schwarz afterwards,
however, he said, "That's encouraging. Don't press him too much. Let
body and brain recover tone. Then we'll try more suggestions. It's the
most interesting case we've had. What is it to me that he's friend or
enemy? Nothing. He's a man. I shall think of a way to set up the right

The way he thought of was to commandeer a bundle of English papers
which had been passing from hand to hand in Brussels. These papers had
been smuggled into the town by a German who had escaped from a
concentration camp in England. He was a doctor, and had got into
Belgium through Holland. Such newspapers as he had were very old ones,
but that did not matter, because the man in whom Schwarz, the surgeon,
was interested had lost touch with the world since a day soon after the
breaking out of war. He must have been among the first troops sent over
from England to France, and rushed straight to the front.

For a few days he had been very silent, asking no questions. He seemed
always to be thinking. By Schwarz's orders he was left alone. Then, one
morning, he was surprised by the news that he was well enough to sit
up. When he had been propped with pillows, the nurse he liked best - the
one with the hard features and soft eyes - slipped a roll of dilapidated
newspapers under the listless hands that lay on the turned-over sheet.

"English," she said, and saw that his eyes brightened.

* * * * *

His left hand, with the tell-tale mutilated finger, began painfully to

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