The Blood Red
One by Maxwell
From Scribner's Magazine
It was a February evening, so it seems, about five o'clock, and old
Mr. Vandusen, having left his hat and ulster in the coatroom, had
retraced his steps along the entrance hall of the St. Dunstan Club to
the wide doorway that led into the first-floor library. He usually
sought the library at this time of day; a little group of men, all of
whom he knew well, were as a rule to be found there, and they were
friendly, not overly argumentative, restful. Now he paused between the
heavy portières, partly drawn aside, and peered for a moment into the
room. The light from the hall behind him made a pool of faint
illumination at his feet, but beyond that there was only a brown
darkness, scented with the smell of books in leather bindings, in which
the figures of several men, sprawled out in big chairs before the
window, were faintly visible. The window itself, a square of blank
fog-blurred dusk, served merely to heighten the obscurity. Mr.
Vandusen, a small, plump shadow in the surrounding shadows, found an
unoccupied chair and sank into it silently.
And that's just it, said Maury suddenly, and as if he was picking
up the threads of a conversation dropped but a moment before; and
that's just the pointand his usually gentle voice was heavy with a
didacticism unlike itselfthat affects most deeply a man of my
temperament and generation. Nemesisfatewhatever you choose to call
it. The fear that perhaps it doesn't exist at all. That there is no
such thing; or worse yet, that in some strange, monstrous way man has
made himself master of ithas no longer to fear it. And man isn't fit
to be altogether master of anything as yet; he's still too much half
devil, half ape. There's this damned choked feeling that the world's at
loose ends. I don't know how to put itas if, that is, we, with all
the devilish new knowledge we've acquired within the past fifty years,
the devilish new machines we've invented, have all at once become
stronger than God; taken the final power out of the hands of the
authority, whatever it is, toward which we used to look for a reckoning
and balancing in the end, no matter what agony might lie between.
Perhaps it's all rightI don't know. But it's an upsetting conclusion
to ask a man of my generation offhandedly to accept. I was brought
upwe all wereto believe in an ordered, if obscure, philosophical
doctrine that evil inevitably finds its own punishment, and now!
But began Tomlinson.
Maury interrupted him. Yes, yes, he said, I know all that; I know
what you are going to say. I am perfectly aware of the fact that the
ways of Nemesis are supposed to be slow waysexceedingly. I am aware
of the fact that in the Christian doctrine the process is not usually
completed until after death, but nowadays things are different. How,
since all else moves so swiftly, can a just God afford any longer to be
patient? Time has been obliterated in the last four years; space and
centuries telescoped; the sufferings of a century compressed into a few
cycles of months. No, there is something wrong, some break in the
rhythm of the universe, or those grotesque ghouls who started the whole
thing, those full-bodied, cold-blooded hangmen, who for forty years
have been sitting back planning the future of men and women as they
planned the cards of their sniggering skat games, would awake to a sun
dripping blood. He paused for a moment. And as for that psychiatric
cripple, their mouthpiece, he concluded sombrely, that maimed man who
broods over battle-fields, he would find a creeping horror in his brain
like death made visible.
And you think he will not?....
In the darkness Mr. Vandusen suddenly sat up very straight and tried
to pierce with his eyes the shadows to the right of him.
Again the chair creaked.
And you think he will not? asked the voice again.
The words fell one by one into the silence, like stones dropped into
a pool by a precise hand. As the ripples of sound they created died
away in the brown dusk, the room seemed for a moment to hold a hushed
expectation that made ordinary quiet a matter of movement and sound.
From the drab street outside the voice of a newsboy, strident and
insistent, put a further edge to the sharp minute. N'extra! he
shouted. N'extra! 'Nother big raid on west'n front!
It was Torrance who asked the question. What he said. But,
butwhy! And then his wheezing inarticulateness broke like a
Mr. Vandusen, leaning forward in his chair, did not realize at the
time the unreasonableness of the sharp blaze of irritation that at the
interruption burned within him. It was not until much later, indeed,
that he realized other odd circumstances as well: Torrance's broken
amazement, for instance; the silence of Maury, and Wheeler, and, above
all, of Tomlinson. At the moment he realized nothing, except an intense
curiosity to hear what the man who had just sat down next to him had to
say. An extraordinary voice! Altogether extraordinary! Like a bell,
that is, if a bell could by any chance give a sense of an underlying
humor. And yet, even considering all this, when one is old and has
heard so many voicesBut here he was quite rigid in the darkness. Do
be quiet! he whispered sharply. Can't we be quiet!
Thanks! said the voice, with its cool, assured inflections. There
is nothing so very extraordinary. Men's brains are not unalike.
Merelyshall I go on?
And before Mr. Vandusen's hurried assent could be uttered, the quiet
tones assumed the accent of narration. Good, they said. Very well,
then. But first I must ask of you a large use of your imagination. I
must ask you, for instance, to imagine a scene so utterly unlike this
February night that your eyes will have to close themselves entirely to
the present and open only to my words. I must ask you to imagine a
beech forest in early November; a beech forest dreaming beneath the
still magic of warm, hazy days; days that come before the first sharp
cold of winter. Will you imagine that?
Yes! murmured Mr. Vandusen; and he noticed that the other men did
not answer at all.
The mild sunlight, continued the voice, filters through the naked
boughs and touches the smooth silver trunks and the moss about their
feet with a misty gold as iridescent as the wings of dragonflies. And
as far as you can see on every side stretch these silver boles, dusted
with sunlight; in straight lines, in oblique columns, until the eye
loses itself in the argent shadows of the distance.
In the hidden open places, where the grass is still green toward
its roots, wild swine come out of the woods and stare with small red
eyes; but save for the crackling of the twigs beneath their feet it is
very quiet. Marvellously so. Quiet with the final hush of summer. Only
rarely a breeze stirs the legions of the heaped-up gray leaves, and
sometimes, but rarely, one hears far off the chattering of a squirrel.
So!that is my forest.
Through it runs like a purple ribbon a smooth, well-kept road. And
it, too, adds to the impression of stillness, as the untenanted
handiwork of man always does. On the rolled, damp surface are the marks
of the cloven feet of the swine.
Now there is a snapping of dead wood, a rustling of leaves, and an
immense tuskera grizzled leader of a herdcomes ponderously through
the sun-dappled aisles to the edge of the road. For a moment he stands
there, secure and unperturbed, and then suddenly he throws up his head,
his little eyes wide and startled, and, wheeling, charges back to where
his satellites are browsing. There is a breathless scurrying of huge
bodies; then utter silence again, except that far away a limb cracks.
But only for a moment is the road deserted. It seems as if the shadow
of the great tusker was still upon it when, beyond the bend, a horn,
sweet as a hunting-horn, blows once, twice, ends in a fanfare of treble
notes, and a long, gray motor-car sweeps into view, cutting the
sunlight and the pooled shadow with its twinkling prow. Behind it is
another, and another, and another, until six in all are in sight; and
as they flash past one has a glimpse, on the seats of the landaulets,
of a number of men in long cloaks and helmets; big and little men; fat
men and sharp-featured; elderly men and young men, and particularly of
one man, in the second car from the front, who looks straight ahead of
him and is not interested in the chatter of his companions. He is a
stern man, rather terrible, and his face wears a curious pallor. On the
crest of a wooded slope, a quarter of a mile away, the giant boar
sniffs the odor of the gasolene and delicately wrinkles his nose.
And this, said the voice, this convoy of motor-cars, these horns,
almost as gay as the hunting-horns of former days, was, as you have
guessed, The Maimed Manas you choose to call himcome back to a
hunting-lodge to rest, to slip from his shoulders for a while, if he
could, the sodden cloak he had been wearing for the past three years
and as many months.
It was dark when they came to the hunting-lodge, a long,
two-storied building of white plaster and timber-work above. The sun
had been gone a while beyond the low hills to the west, and in the open
place where the house stood only a remnant of the red dust of the
sunset still floated in the pellucid air. Here the beeches gave way to
solid ranks of pines and firs, and the evening sweetness of these fell
upon the senses like the touch of cool water upon tired eyes. The
headlights of the motor-cars cut wide arcs of blinding light in the
gathering darkness. One by one the cars stopped before the entrance
with throbbing engines and discharged their loads. The short flight of
stairs became for a few minutes a swaying tableau of gray cloaks. There
was a subdued ringing of spurs. The lamps from within the doorway
touched the tips of the helmets so that they twinkled like little
The Maimed Man descended slowly and passed between his waiting
suite. The scent of the pines had stirred his heart with memories. He
was thinking of the last time he had been here, years beforewell, not
really so many years before, only four years, and yet it seemed like a
recollection of his boyhood. He paused inside the threshold to remove
his cloak. A hand, with a curious lack of duplication to it, stretched
itself forward. The Maimed Man turned abruptly to see a servant with
one arm bowing toward him. For a moment he paused, and then:
'You are wounded?' he asked, and, although nothing was further from
his desire, his voice had in it a little rasping sound; anger it
seemed, although it might very well have been fear.
The man turned a brick-red. He had never quite been able to recover
from the feeling that in some way to be crippled was a shameful thing.
He had been very strong before.
'At Liège, your Majesty,' he murmured. 'In the first year.'
'Always the left arm,' said The Maimed Man. 'Always the left. It
seems always so.' But now he was angry. He turned to one of his suite.
'Can I not escape such things even here?' he asked. He went up without
further words to his rooms. From his study a long door of glass opened
onto a balcony. He remembered the balcony well. He opened the door and
stepped out. The twilight had gone now. The night was very still and
touched with a hint of crispness. Stars were beginning to show
themselves. The black pines that came down to the edge of the clearing
were like a great hidden army.
There was a little pause.
And so, said the voice, I can come now almost at once to the
first of the two incidents I wish to tell you. I choose only two
because there is no need of more. Two will do. And I shall call the
first 'The story of the leaves that marched.'
The warm days still held, and at the hunting-lodge there was much
planning to keep things moving and every one busy and content. But
secret planning, you understand. The Maimed Man is not an easy person
for whom to plan unless he thinks that he has the final decision
himself. There were rides and drives and picnics and, in the
afternoons, usually a long walk, in which the older and stouter members
of the suite either stayed at home or else followed painfully in the
rear of their more active companions. The Maimed Man is a difficult
person to keep up with; he walks very fast across country, swinging his
stick, choosing, it would seem, the roughest ways. It is almost as if
he wished to rid himself of others; and he is inordinately proud of his
own activity. It was a curious sight to see his straggling attendants,
spread out through the silver vistas of the beeches, like earnest
trolls, all in one way or another bent upon a common end. And I suppose
it was on account of this trick of The Maimed Man that one afternoon,
toward dusk, he found himself almost completely alone, save for myself,
who managed somehow to keep step, and a silent huntsman in gray who
strode on ahead with the quiet, alert step of a wild animal.
It was very still. There was no breeze at all. Not a sound except
the sound of the dead leaves beneath our feet; and The Maimed Man was
not, as was his usual wont, talking. Indeed, he seemed very
preoccupied, almost morosely so. Every now and then he cut with his
stick at a bush or a yellowed fern as he passed. Presently the trees
opened upon a little glade swimming in sunlight. And then there was a
brook to cross, and beyond that a gentle slope before the trees began
again. The sunlight was pleasantly warm after the coolness of the
forest, and the slope, with its soft dried grass, seemed an inviting
place to rest. The Maimed Man continued until he had reached the
farther belt of trees, and then he turned about and faced the sinking
sun, that by now was changing itself into a nebulous radiance on the
horizon. The forest stretched in gentle billows as far as the eye could
'We will stop here,' said The Maimed Man, 'until the others catch
up. Lazy-bones! If they had one-half the work to do that my poorest man
has to the south they would not lose their legs so readily.' Then he
sat down and lit a cigarette. I sat beside him. Farther up on the
slope, in the shadow of the trees, sat the huntsman. We waited. The sun
burned away its quivering aura and began to sink blood-red below the
hills. Long shadows fell, penetrated with the dancing flecks of
'Here they come!' said The Maimed Man suddenly. 'I see gray moving.
Therebelow there, amongst the trees!' He pointed with his cane. Far
back in the secret aisles of the forest across the brook there did
indeed seem to be a movement. The Maimed Man half arose to his feet. 'I
will shame them, the lazy-bones,' he said, and then he sat down again,
with an odd, soft collapse.
For, you see, it was very still, as I have said. Not a trace of
wind. The forest seemed to be slumbering. And yet there had come out of
it, and across the open place, and up the slope, so that it touched the
hair and chilled the cheek, something that was not wind and yet was
like it. A little clammy cat's-paw. So! And then was gone. And on its
heels came the leaves. Yes, millions of them. But not blown; not
hurriedly. Very hesitatingly; as if by their own volition. One might
have said that they oozed with a monstrous slowness out from between
the crepuscular tree-trunks and across the open space toward the brook.
Gray leaves, creeping forward with a curious dogged languor. And when
they came to the brook they paused on its farther edge and stopped, and
the ones behind came pushing up to them. And looking down upon them,
they might have been the backs of wounded men in gray, dragging
themselves on their knees to water....
I don't know how long this moment lastedminutes perhaps; perhaps
no longer than the drawing in and letting out of a breath. It was
broken by the figure of a manan upstanding man, this timewho
stepped out of the forest opposite and, halting for a moment on the
edge of the clearing, looked up to where The Maimed Man was sitting.
Then he signalled to some one behind him, and presently one by one the
figures of the belated suite appeared. They formed themselves in a
little group and with some precision marched across the clearing. As
they trampled upon the stricken leaves by the brookside the fixed stare
in The Maimed Man's eyes faded, and he watched them with a rigid
attention. Shortly they came to where he had got to his feet. A huge
elderly man with a red face led them.
'But your Majesty,' he objected, 'it is not fitting. You should not
leave us in this way. Even here, is it altogether safe?'
The Maimed Man did not answer. Covertly and with a sly
shamefacedness, unlike himself, he was trying to read the expression in
the huntsman's face. But that faithful fellow's eyes were bland. There
was no sign that he had seen anything out of the ordinary....
There is no need, said the voice, for delay. From this to the
second incident I would describe to you is only a step. I shall not go
into details. For these I can safely trust to your imaginations. And
yet I would not, of course, have you gather that what I have just told
you is without backgroundwas out of a clear sky. Naturally, it was
not; it was a cumulation, an apex. Such things do not happen altogether
suddenly. There is a nibbling away at the banks, a little rivulet here
and there, and then, all at once, a torrent like a hunted river under
the moon. I called the first apex 'The story of the leaves that
marched'; I shall call the second 'The mist that came up suddenly.'
Two weeks had passed; quiet days, slow weeks, quiet and slow as the
sunlight through the trees. The two doctors at the hunting-lodge,
round, sharp-spoken men, with big, near-sighted spectacles, rubbed
their hands together and nodded with certainty when they held their
daily consultations. 'He is improving rapidly,' they said. 'The lines
in his face are going. A little more exercise, a little more
diversionso!' They imagined crosses on their chests.
Have you ever known mist on a moonlight night in a forest? Not a
woods, not an open country with timber scattered through it, but a real
forest; so limitless, so close-pressing, that one has the same sense of
diminished personality and at the same time the same sense of all
obstructions cleared away between oneself and the loneliness of the
universe that one has at sea. As if, that is, you found yourself, a
mere shadow in the darkness, kneeling close before an altar on which
blazed, so that you could not altogether raise your head, the
magnificence of a star. But mist in a moonlight forest is even more
disembodying than mist on a moonlight sea. There are the dark masses of
the trees, showing every now and then above the changing wraiths of
white, and the summits of half-seen hills, to give an impression of a
horizon near yet seemingly unattainable.
They had finished supper in the great oak-ceilinged room down
below, where a fire burned in the stone embrasure, and the soft lights
of candles in silver candelabra made only more tenebrous the darkness
overhead. The Maimed Man leaned back in his chair and peered with
narrowed eyelids through the smoke of his cigar at the long table
stretching away from him. For a moment he felt reassured; a hint of the
old assurance that had once been one of his greatest gifts. It was
partly a physical thing, stirring in his veins like the cool blood that
follows the awakening from healthy sleep. The sight of all these
friends of his, these followers of his, with their keen, sunburnt
faces, or their wrinkled and wise ones! Surely he occupied a position
almost unassailable; almost as unassailable as that of the God of Force
whose purposes of late had at times puzzled him in a new and disturbing
way. What nonsense! He gripped power as securely as he could grip, if
he wished, his sword. What strength in heaven or earth could break a
man's will, provided that will had been sufficiently trained? He felt
pleasantly tired from the walk of the afternoon; he thought that he
would go up to his rooms for a while, perhaps write a personal letter
or two, afterward come down again for a game of cards. He stood up; the
long double lines of men at the table rose with him, as a unit, at
attention. The Maimed Man looked at them for a prolonged second, his
heart stirred with pride; then he wheeled about and departed.
In his workroom above, two secretaries were writing at a table
under the rays of a green-shaded lamp. They jumped to their feet as he
entered, but he waved them aside.
'I shall return in a moment,' he said. 'First I wish to finish my
He opened the glass door onto the balcony, but, as it was cool, he
stepped back and asked for his military cloak. When this was adjusted,
he stepped once more into the moonlight.... And then, suddenly, there
was no moonlight at all, or just the faintest glimmer of it, like light
seen through milky water. Instead, he had stepped into a swirling vapor
that in an instant lost him completely from the door he had just left;
a maelstrom of fog, that choked him, half blinded him, twisted about
him like wet, coiling ropes, and in a dreadful moment he saw that
through the fog were thrust out toward him arms of a famine thinness,
the extended fingers of which groped at his throat, were obliterated by
the fog, groped once more with a searching intentness.
'God!' said The Maimed Man. 'God!'and fought drunkenly for the
wall behind him. His hands touched nothing. He did not even know in
which direction the wall lay. He dreaded to move, for it seemed as if
there was no longer a railing to save him from falling. There was no
solidity anywhere. The world had become a thing of hideous flux,
unstable as when first it was made. Gelid fingers, farther reaching
than the rest, touched the back of his neck. He gave a hoarse,
strangled cry and reeled forward, and fell across the balustrade that
came up out of the mist to meet him. And slowly the mist retreated;
down from the balcony and across the open place beneath. A narrow line
of dew-brightened grass appeared and grew wider. The tops of the trees
began to show. But The Maimed Man could not take his eyes off the mist,
for it seemed to him that the open place was filled with the despairing
arms of women and of children, and that through the shifting whiteness
gleamed the whiteness of their serried faces. Behind him was the warm
glow of the room, shining through the glass doors. But he did not dare
go in as yet; it was necessary first to control the little flecks of
foam that despite his endeavor still wet his lips. For you see, said
the voice, and in the darkness its accents took on a slow, rhythmical
sombreness, like the swish of a sword in a shuttered room, this was
far worse than the leaves. For, after all, the dead are only the dead,
but to the living there is no end.
At least a minutefully a minutemust have passed, a minute in
which the brown shadows of the library, held back for now this long
while by the weaving magic of the voice, stepped forward once more into
their places, while Mr. Vandusen waited for the voice to continue. Then
the spell broke like a shattered globe, and, with a sudden realization
of many things, he leaned forward and felt the chair to the right of
him. There was no one there. He paused with his hand still on the
leather seat. Would you mind telling me, he asked, and he found that
he was speaking with some effort and with great precision, if any of
you know the gentleman who has just left?
Left? said Tomlinson sharply.
Tomlinson's voice was incredulous. But he couldn't have, he
insisted. From where I am sitting I would have seen him as he reached
the door. Although, if he really is gone, I can say, thank the Lord,
that I think he's a faker.
On silent feet young Wheeler had departed for the hall. Now he
returned. It may interest you to know, he said, that I have just
interviewed the doorman and the boy who is stationed at the steps
leading back, and they both say no one has come in or out in the last
Suddenly his careful voice rose to a high note. What the devil!
he sputtered. He strode over to the electric switch. For Heaven's
sake, let's have some light, he said. Why do we always insist upon
sitting in this confounded darkness?