Algernon Blackwood.

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still slept soundly, and I was glad that this was so. Provided my
experiences were not corroborated, I could find strength somehow to deny
them, perhaps. With the daylight I could persuade myself that it was all a
subjective hallucination, a fantasy of the night, a projection of the
excited imagination.

Nothing further came in to disturb me, and I fell asleep almost at once,
utterly exhausted, yet still in dread of hearing again that weird sound of
multitudinous pattering, or of feeling the pressure upon my heart that had
made it difficult to breathe.

The sun was high in the heavens when my companion woke me from a heavy
sleep and announced that the porridge was cooked and there was just time to
bathe. The grateful smell of frizzling bacon entered the tent door.

"River still rising," he said, "and several islands out in mid-stream have
disappeared altogether. Our own island's much smaller."

"Any wood left?" I asked sleepily.

"The wood and the island will finish tomorrow in a dead heat," he laughed,
"but there's enough to last us till then."

I plunged in from the point of the island, which had indeed altered a lot
in size and shape during the night, and was swept down in a moment to the
landing-place opposite the tent. The water was icy, and the banks flew by
like the country from an express train. Bathing under such conditions was
an exhilarating operation, and the terror of the night seemed cleansed out
of me by a process of evaporation in the brain. The sun was blazing hot;
not a cloud showed itself anywhere; the wind, however, had not abated one
little jot.

Quite suddenly then the implied meaning of the Swede's words flashed across
me, showing that he no longer wished to leave post-haste, and had changed
his mind. "Enough to last till tomorrow" - he assumed we should stay on the
island another night. It struck me as odd. The night before he was so
positive the other way. How had the change come about?

Great crumblings of the banks occurred at breakfast, with heavy splashings
and clouds of spray which the wind brought into our frying-pan, and my
fellow-traveler talked incessantly about the difficulty the Vienna-Pesth
steamers must have to find the channel in flood. But the state of his mind
interested and impressed me far more than the state of the river or the
difficulties of the steamers. He had changed somehow since the evening
before. His manner was different - a trifle excited, a trifle shy, with a
sort of suspicion about his voice and gestures. I hardly know how to
describe it now in cold blood, but at the time I remember being quite
certain of one thing - that he had become frightened?

He ate very little breakfast, and for once omitted to smoke his pipe. He
had the map spread open beside him, and kept studying its markings.

"We'd better get off sharp in an hour," I said presently, feeling for an
opening that must bring him indirectly to a partial confession at any rate.
And his answer puzzled me uncomfortably: "Rather! If they'll let us."

"Who'll let us? The elements?" I asked quickly, with affected indifference.

"The powers of this awful place, whoever they are," he replied, keeping his
eyes on the map. "The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the
world."

"The elements are always the true immortals," I replied, laughing as
naturally as I could manage, yet knowing quite well that my face reflected
my true feelings when he looked up gravely at me and spoke across the
smoke:

"We shall be fortunate if we get away without further disaster."

This was exactly what I had dreaded, and I screwed myself up to the point
of the direct question. It was like agreeing to allow the dentist to
extract the tooth; it had to come anyhow in the long run, and the rest was
all pretence.

"Further disaster! Why, what's happened?"

"For one thing - the steering paddle's gone," he said quietly.

"The steering paddle gone!" I repeated, greatly excited, for this was our
rudder, and the Danube in flood without a rudder was suicide. "But what - "

"And there's a tear in the bottom of the canoe," he added, with a genuine
little tremor in his voice.

I continued staring at him, able only to repeat the words in his face
somewhat foolishly. There, in the heat of the sun, and on this burning
sand, I was aware of a freezing atmosphere descending round us. I got up to
follow him, for he merely nodded his head gravely and led the way towards
the tent a few yards on the other side of the fireplace. The canoe still
lay there as I had last seen her in the night, ribs uppermost, the paddles,
or rather, the paddle, on the sand beside her.

"There's only one," he said, stooping to pick it up. "And here's the rent
in the base-board."

It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that I had clearly noticed two
paddles a few hours before, but a second impulse made me think better of
it, and I said nothing. I approached to see.

There was a long, finely made tear in the bottom of the canoe where a
little slither of wood had been neatly taken clean out; it looked as if the
tooth of a sharp rock or snag had eaten down her length, and investigation
showed that the hole went through. Had we launched out in her without
observing it we must inevitably have foundered. At first the water would
have made the wood swell so as to close the hole, but once out in
mid-stream the water must have poured in, and the canoe, never more than
two inches above the surface, would have filled and sunk very rapidly.

"There, you see an attempt to prepare a victim for the sacrifice," I heard
him saying, more to himself than to me, "two victims rather," he added as
he bent over and ran his fingers along the slit.

I began to whistle - a thing I always do unconsciously when utterly
nonplussed - and purposely paid no attention to his words. I was determined
to consider them foolish.

"It wasn't there last night," he said presently, straightening up from his
examination and looking anywhere but at me.

"We must have scratched her in landing, of course," I stopped whistling to
say. "The stones are very sharp."

I stopped abruptly, for at that moment he turned round and met my eye
squarely. I knew just as well as he did how impossible my explanation was.
There were no stones, to begin with.

"And then there's this to explain too," he added quietly, handing me the
paddle and pointing to the blade.

A new and curious emotion spread freezingly over me as I took and examined
it. The blade was scraped down all over, beautifully scraped, as though
someone had sand-papered it with care, making it so thin that the first
vigorous stroke must have snapped it off at the elbow.

"One of us walked in his sleep and did this thing," I said feebly, "or - or
it has been filed by the constant stream of sand particles blown against it
by the wind, perhaps."

"Ah," said the Swede, turning away, laughing a little, "you can explain
everything."

"The same wind that caught the steering paddle and flung it so near the
bank that it fell in with the next lump that crumbled," I called out after
him, absolutely determined to find an explanation for everything he showed
me.

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

Once alone with these perplexing evidences of personal agency, I think my
first thoughts took the form of "One of us must have done this thing, and
it certainly was not I." But my second thought decided how impossible it
was to suppose, under all the circumstances, that either of us had done it.
That my companion, the trusted friend of a dozen similar expeditions, could
have knowingly had a hand in it, was a suggestion not to be entertained for
a moment. Equally absurd seemed the explanation that this imperturbable and
densely practical nature had suddenly become insane and was busied with
insane purposes.

Yet the fact remained that what disturbed me most, and kept my fear
actively alive even in this blaze of sunshine and wild beauty, was the
clear certainty that some curious alteration had come about in his
mind - that he was nervous, timid, suspicious, aware of goings on he did not
speak about, watching a series of secret and hitherto unmentionable
events - waiting, in a word, for a climax that he expected, and, I thought,
expected very soon. This grew up in my mind intuitively - I hardly knew how.

I made a hurried examination of the tent and its surroundings, but the
measurements of the night remained the same. There were deep hollows formed
in the sand I now noticed for the first time, basin-shaped and of various
depths and sizes, varying from that of a tea-cup to a large bowl. The wind,
no doubt, was responsible for these miniature craters, just as it was for
lifting the paddle and tossing it towards the water. The rent in the canoe
was the only thing that seemed quite inexplicable; and, after all, it was
conceivable that a sharp point had caught it when we landed. The
examination I made of the shore did not assist this theory, but all the
same I clung to it with that diminishing portion of my intelligence which I
called my "reason." An explanation of some kind was an absolute necessity,
just as some working explanation of the universe is necessary - however
absurd - to the happiness of every individual who seeks to do his duty in
the world and face the problems of life. The simile seemed to me at the
time an exact parallel.

I at once set the pitch melting, and presently the Swede joined me at the
work, though under the best conditions in the world the canoe could not be
safe for traveling till the following day. I drew his attention casually to
the hollows in the sand.

"Yes," he said, "I know. They're all over the island. But you can explain
them, no doubt!"

"Wind, of course," I answered without hesitation. "Have you never watched
those little whirlwinds in the street that twist and twirl everything into
a circle? This sand's loose enough to yield, that's all."

He made no reply, and we worked on in silence for a bit. I watched him
surreptitiously all the time, and I had an idea he was watching me. He
seemed, too, to be always listening attentively to something I could not
hear, or perhaps for something that he expected to hear, for he kept
turning about and staring into the bushes, and up into the sky, and out
across the water where it was visible through the openings among the
willows. Sometimes he even put his hand to his ear and held it there for
several minutes. He said nothing to me, however, about it, and I asked no
questions. And meanwhile, as he mended that torn canoe with the skill and
address of a red Indian, I was glad to notice his absorption in the work,
for there was a vague dread in my heart that he would speak of the changed
aspect of the willows. And, if he had noticed that, my imagination could no
longer be held a sufficient explanation of it.




III


At length, after a long pause, he began to talk.

"Queer thing," he added in a hurried sort of voice, as though he wanted to
say something and get it over. "Queer thing. I mean, about that otter last
night."

I had expected something so totally different that he caught me with
surprise, and I looked up sharply.

"Shows how lonely this place is. Otters are awfully shy things - "

"I don't mean that, of course," he interrupted. "I mean - do you think - did
you think it really was an otter?"

"What else, in the name of Heaven, what else?"

"You know, I saw it before you did, and at first it seemed - so much bigger
than an otter."

"The sunset as you looked up-stream magnified it, or something," I replied.

He looked at me absently a moment, as though his mind were busy with other
thoughts.

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

"That was the sun too," I laughed, a trifle boisterously. "I suppose you'll
wonder next if that fellow in the boat - "

I suddenly decided not to finish the sentence. He was in the act again of
listening, turning his head to the wind, and something in the expression of
his face made me halt. The subject dropped, and we went on with our
caulking. Apparently he had not noticed my unfinished sentence. Five
minutes later, however, he looked at me across the canoe, the smoking pitch
in his hand, his face exceedingly grave.

"I did rather wonder, if you want to know," he said slowly, "what that
thing in the boat was. I remember thinking at the time it was not a man.
The whole business seemed to rise quite suddenly out of the water."

I laughed again boisterously in his face, but this time there was
impatience, and a strain of anger too, in my feeling.

"Look here now," I cried, "this place is quite queer enough without going
out of our way to imagine things! That boat was an ordinary boat, and the
man in it was an ordinary man, and they were both going down-stream as fast
as they could lick. And that otter was an otter, so don't let's play the
fool about it!"

He looked steadily at me with the same grave expression. He was not in the
least annoyed. I took courage from his silence.

"And, for Heaven's sake," I went on, "don't keep pretending you hear
things, because it only gives me the jumps, and there's nothing to hear but
the river and this cursed old thundering wind."

"You fool!" he answered in a low, shocked voice, "you utter fool. That's
just the way all victims talk. As if you didn't understand just as well as
I do!" he sneered with scorn in his voice, and a sort of resignation. "The
best thing you can do is to keep quiet and try to hold your mind as firm as
possible. This feeble attempt at self-deception only makes the truth harder
when you're forced to meet it."

My little effort was over, and I found nothing more to say, for I knew
quite well his words were true, and that I was the fool, not he. Up to a
certain stage in the adventure he kept ahead of me easily, and I think I
felt annoyed to be out of it, to be thus proved less psychic, less
sensitive than himself to these extraordinary happenings, and half ignorant
all the time of what was going on under my very nose. He knew from the very
beginning, apparently. But at the moment I wholly missed the point of his
words about the necessity of there being a victim, and that we ourselves
were destined to satisfy the want. I dropped all pretence thenceforward,
but thenceforward likewise my fear increased steadily to the climax.

"But you're quite right about one thing," he added, before the subject
passed, "and that is that we're wiser not to talk about it, or even to
think about it, because what one thinks finds expression in words, and what
one says, happens."

That afternoon, while the canoe dried and hardened, we spent trying to
fish, testing the leak, collecting wood, and watching the enormous flood of
rising water. Masses of driftwood swept near our shores sometimes, and we
fished for them with long willow branches. The island grew perceptibly
smaller as the banks were torn away with great gulps and splashes. The
weather kept brilliantly fine till about four o'clock, and then for the
first time for three days the wind showed signs of abating. Clouds began to
gather in the south-west, spreading thence slowly over the sky.

This lessening of the wind came as a great relief, for the incessant
roaring, banging, and thundering had irritated our nerves. Yet the silence
that came about five o'clock with its sudden cessation was in a manner
quite as oppressive. The booming of the river had everything in its own way
then; it filled the air with deep murmurs, more musical than the wind
noises, but infinitely more monotonous. The wind held many notes, rising,
falling always beating out some sort of great elemental tune; whereas the
river's song lay between three notes at most - dull pedal notes, that held a
lugubrious quality foreign to the wind, and somehow seemed to me, in my
then nervous state, to sound wonderfully well the music of doom.

It was extraordinary, too, how the withdrawal suddenly of bright sunlight
took everything out of the landscape that made for cheerfulness; and since
this particular landscape had already managed to convey the suggestion of
something sinister, the change of course was all the more unwelcome and
noticeable. For me, I know, the darkening outlook became distinctly more
alarming, and I found myself more than once calculating how soon after
sunset the full moon would get up in the east, and whether the gathering
clouds would greatly interfere with her lighting of the little island.

With this general hush of the wind - though it still indulged in occasional
brief gusts - the river seemed to me to grow blacker, the willows to stand
more densely together. The latter, too, kept up a sort of independent
movement of their own, rustling among themselves when no wind stirred, and
shaking oddly from the roots upwards. When common objects in this way be
come charged with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination
far more than things of unusual appearance; and these bushes, crowding
huddled about us, assumed for me in the darkness a bizarre grotesquerie of
appearance that lent to them somehow the aspect of purposeful and living
creatures. Their very ordinariness, I felt, masked what was malignant and
hostile to us. The forces of the region drew nearer with the coming of
night. They were focusing upon our island, and more particularly upon
ourselves. For thus, somehow, in the terms of the imagination, did my
really indescribable sensations in this extraordinary place present
themselves.

I had slept a good deal in the early afternoon, and had thus recovered
somewhat from the exhaustion of a disturbed night, but this only served
apparently to render me more susceptible than before to the obsessing spell
of the haunting. I fought against it, laughing at my feelings as absurd and
childish, with very obvious physiological explanations, yet, in spite of
every effort, they gained in strength upon me so that I dreaded the night
as a child lost in a forest must dread the approach of darkness.

The canoe we had carefully covered with a waterproof sheet during the day,
and the one remaining paddle had been securely tied by the Swede to the
base of a tree, lest the wind should rob us of that too. From five o'clock
onwards I busied myself with the stew-pot and preparations for dinner, it
being my turn to cook that night. We had potatoes, onions, bits of bacon
fat to add flavor, and a general thick residue from former stews at the
bottom of the pot; with black bread broken up into it the result was most
excellent, and it was followed by a stew of plums with sugar and a brew of
strong tea with dried milk. A good pile of wood lay close at hand, and the
absence of wind made my duties easy. My companion sat lazily watching me,
dividing his attentions between cleaning his pipe and giving useless
advice - an admitted privilege of the off-duty man. He had been very quiet
all the afternoon, engaged in re-caulking the canoe, strengthening the tent
ropes, and fishing for driftwood while I slept. No more talk about
undesirable things had passed between us, and I think his only remarks had
to do with the gradual destruction of the island, which he declared was not
fully a third smaller than when we first landed.

The pot had just begun to bubble when I heard his voice calling to me from
the bank, where he had wandered away without my noticing. I ran up.

"Come and listen," he said, "and see what you make of it." He held his hand
cupwise to his ear, as so often before.

"Now do you hear anything?" he asked, watching me curiously.

We stood there, listening attentively together. At first I heard only the
deep note of the water and the hissings rising from its turbulent surface.
The willows, for once, were motionless and silent. Then a sound began to
reach my ears faintly, a peculiar sound - something like the humming of a
distant gong. It seemed to come across to us in the darkness from the waste
of swamps and willows opposite. It was repeated at regular intervals, but
it was certainly neither the sound of a bell nor the hooting of a distant
steamer. I can liken it to nothing so much as to the sound of an immense
gong, suspended far up in the sky, repeating incessantly its muffled
metallic note, soft and musical, as it was repeatedly struck. My heart
quickened as I listened.

"I've heard it all day," said my companion. "While you slept this afternoon
it came all round the island. I hunted it down, but could never get near
enough to see - to localize it correctly. Sometimes it was overhead, and
sometimes it seemed under the water. Once or twice, too, I could have sworn
it was not outside at all, but within myself - you know - the way a sound in
the fourth dimension is supposed to come."

I was too much puzzled to pay much attention to his words. I listened
carefully, striving to associate it with any known familiar sound I could
think of, but without success. It changed in the direction, too, coming
nearer, and then sinking utterly away into remote distance. I cannot say
that it was ominous in quality, because to me it seemed distinctly musical,
yet I must admit it set going a distressing feeling that made me wish I had
never heard it.

"The wind blowing in those sand-funnels," I said determined to find an
explanation, "or the bushes rubbing together after the storm perhaps."

"It comes off the whole swamp," my friend answered. "It comes from
everywhere at once." He ignored my explanations. "It comes from the willow
bushes somehow - "

"But now the wind has dropped," I objected. "The willows can hardly make a
noise by themselves, can they?"

His answer frightened me, first because I had dreaded it, and secondly,
because I knew intuitively it was true.

"It is because the wind has dropped we now hear it. It was drowned before.
It is the cry, I believe, of the - "

I dashed back to my fire, warned by the sound of bubbling that the stew was
in danger, but determined at the same time to escape further conversation.
I was resolute, if possible, to avoid the exchanging of views. I dreaded,
too, that he would begin about the gods, or the elemental forces, or
something else disquieting, and I wanted to keep myself well in hand for
what might happen later. There was another night to be faced before we
escaped from this distressing place, and there was no knowing yet what it
might bring forth.

"Come and cut up bread for the pot," I called to him, vigorously stirring
the appetizing mixture. That stew-pot held sanity for us both, and the
thought made me laugh.

He came over slowly and took the provision sack from the tree, fumbling in
its mysterious depths, and then emptying the entire contents upon the
ground-sheet at his feet.

"Hurry up!" I cried; "it's boiling."

The Swede burst out into a roar of laughter that startled me. It was forced
laughter, not artificial exactly, but mirthless.

"There's nothing here!" he shouted, holding his sides.

"Bread, I mean."

"It's gone. There is no bread. They've taken it!"

I dropped the long spoon and ran up. Everything the sack had contained lay
upon the ground-sheet, but there was no loaf.

The whole dead weight of my growing fear fell upon me and shook me. Then I
burst out laughing too. It was the only thing to do: and the sound of my
laughter also made me understand his. The stain of psychical pressure
caused it - this explosion of unnatural laughter in both of us; it was an
effort of repressed forces to seek relief; it was a temporary safety-valve.
And with both of us it ceased quite suddenly.

"How criminally stupid of me!" I cried, still determined to be consistent
and find an explanation. "I clean forgot to buy a loaf at Pressburg. That
chattering woman put everything out of my head, and I must have left it
lying on the counter or - "

"The oatmeal, too, is much less than it was this morning," the Swede
interrupted.

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

"There's enough for tomorrow," I said, stirring vigorously, "and we can get
lots more at Komorn or Gran. In twenty-four hours we shall be miles from
here."

"I hope so - to God," he muttered, putting the things back into the sack,
"unless we're claimed first as victims for the sacrifice," he added with a
foolish laugh. He dragged the sack into the tent, for safety's sake, I
suppose, and I heard him mumbling to himself, but so indistinctly that it
seemed quite natural for me to ignore his words.

Our meal was beyond question a gloomy one, and we ate it almost in silence,
avoiding one another's eyes, and keeping the fire bright. Then we washed up


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Online LibraryAlgernon BlackwoodThe Willows → online text (page 3 of 5)