A Tribute of Souls by Robert Smythe Hichens
The matter of Carlounie, the village of Perthshire in Scotland, is
become notorious in the world. The name of its late owner, his
remarkable transformation, his fortunate career, his married life, the
brooding darkness that fell latterly upon his mind, the flaming deed
that he consummated, its appalling outcome, and the finding of him by
Mr Mackenzie, the minister of the parish of Carlounie, sunk in a pool
of the burn that runs through a den close to his houseall these
things are fresh in the minds of many men. It has been supposed that he
had discovered a common intrigue between his wife, Kate, formerly an
hospital nurse, and his tenant, Hugh Fraser of Piccadilly, London. It
has been universally thought that this discovery led to the last action
of his life. The following pages, found among his papers, seem to put a
very different complexion on the affair, although they suggest a
mediæval legend rather than a history of modern days. It may be added
that careful enquiries have been made among the inhabitants of
Carlounie, and that no man, woman, or child has been discovered who
ever saw, or heard of, the grey traveller mentioned in Alistair
THE STRANGER BY THE BURN
Can a fever change a man's whole nature, giving him powers that he
never had before? Can he go into it impotent, starved, naked, emerge
from it potent, satisfied, clothed with possibilities that are wonders,
that are miracles to him? It must be so; it is so. And yetI must go
back to that sad autumn day when I walked beside the burn. Can I write
down my moods, my feelings of that day and of the following days? And
if I can, does that power of pinning the butterfly of my soul down upon
the boarddoes that power, too, bud, blossom from a soil mysteriously
fertilised by illness? Formerly, I could as easily have flown in the
air to the summit of cloud-capped Schiehallion as have set on paper
even the smallest fragment of my mind. Nowwell, let me see, let me
still further know my new, my marvellous self.
Yes, that first day! It was Autumn, but only early Autumn. The
leaves were changing colour upon the birch trees, upon the rowans. At
dawn, mists stood round to shield the toilet of the rising sun. At
evening, they thronged together like a pale troop of shadowy mutes to
assist at his departure to the under world. It was a misty season,
through which the bracken upon the hillsides of my Carlounie glowed
furtively in tints of brown and of orange; and my mind, my whole being,
seemed to move in mists. I was just twenty-two, an orphan, master of my
estate of Carlounie, a Scotch laird, and my own governor. And some
idiots envied me then, as many begin to envy me now. I even remember
one ghastly old man who clapped me on the shoulder, and, with the
addition of an unnecessary oath, swore that I was a lucky youngster.
I, with my thin, chétif body, my burning, weakly, starved, and yet
ambitious soullucky! I remember that I broke into a harsh laugh, and
longed to kill the babbling beast.
And it was the next day, in the afternoon, that I took that bookmy
Bibleand went forth alone to the long den in which the burn hides and
cries its presence. Yes, I took Goethe's Faust, and my own
complaining spirit, and went out into the mist with my misty, clouded
mind. My cousin Gavin wanted me to go out shooting. He laughed and
rallied me upon my ill-luck on the previous day, when I had gone out
and been the joke of my own keepers because I had missed every bird;
and I turned and railed at him, and told him to leave me to myself.
And, as I went, I heard him muttering, That wretched little fellow! To
think that he should be owner of Carlounie! Now, he sings another
With Faust in my hand, and hatred in my heart, I went out into the
delicately chilly air, down the winding ways of the garden, through the
creaking iron gateway. I emerged on to the wilder land, irregular,
grass-covered ground, strewn with grey granite boulders, among which
coarse, wiry ferns grew sturdily. The blackfaced sheep whisked their
broad tails at me as I passed, then stooped their ever-greedy mouths to
their damp and eternal meal again. I heard the thin and distant cry of
a hawk, poised somewhere up in the mist. The hills, clothed in the
death-like glory of the bracken, loomed around me, like some phantom,
tricked-out procession passing through desolate places. And then I
heard the voice of the burnthat voice which is even now for ever in
my ears. To me that day it was the voice of one alive; and it is the
voice of one alive to me now. I descended the sloping hill with my
lounging, weak-kneed gait, at which the creatures who called me master
had so often looked contemptuously askance. (I was often tired at that
time.) I descended, I say, until I reached the edge of the tree-fringed
den, and the burn was noisy in my ears. I could see it now, leaping
here and there out of its hiding-placeivory foam among the dripping
larches, and the birches with their silver stems; ivory foam among the
deep brown and flaming orange of the bracken, and in that foam a voice
callingcalling me to come down into its hiding-place, presided over
by the miststo come down into its hiding-place, away from men: away
from the living creatures whom I hated because I envied them, because
they were stronger than I, because they could do what I could not do,
say what I could not say. Gavin, Dr Wedderburn, my tenants, the
smallest farm boy, the grooms, the little leaping peasantsI hated, I
hated them all. And then I obeyed the voice of the ivory foam, and I
went down into the hiding-place of the burn.
It ran through strange and secret places where the soft mists hung
in wet wreaths. I seemed to be in another world when I was in its lair.
On the sharply rising banks stood the sentinel trees like shadows, some
of them with tortured and tormented shapes. As I turned and looked
straight up the hill of the burn's descending course, the mountain from
which it came closed in the prospect inexorably. A soft gloom hemmed us
inme and the burn which talked to me. We two were out of the world
which I hated and longed to have at my feet. Yes, we were in another
world, full of murmuring and of restful unrest; and now that I was
right down at the water-side, the ivory face of my friend, the ivory
lips that spoke to me, the ivory heart that beat against my heartso
sick and so wearywere varied and were changed. As thoughts streak a
mind, the clear amber of the pools among the rocks streaked the
continuous foam that marked the incessant leaps taken by the water
towards the valley. The silence of those pools was brilliant, like the
pauses for contemplation in a great career of action; and their silence
spoke to me, mingling mysteriously with the voice of the foam. The
course of the burn is broken up, and attended by rocks that have been
modelled by the action of the running water into a hundred shapes. Some
are dressed in mosses, yellow and green, like velvet to the touch, and
all covered with drops of moisture; some are gaunt and naked and
deplorable, with sharp edges and dry faces. The burn avoids some with a
cunning and almost coquettish grace, dashes brutally against others, as
if impelled by an internal violence of emotion. Others, again, it
caresses quite gently, and would be glad to linger by, if Nature would
allow the dalliance. And this army of rocks helps to give to the burn
its charm of infinite variety, and to fill its voice with a whole gamut
of expression; for the differing shape of each boulder, against which
it rushes in its long career, gives it a different note. It flickers
across the small and round stone with the purling cry of a child. From
the stone curved inwards, and with a hollow bosom it gains a crooning,
liquid melody. The pointed and narrow colony of rocks which break it
into an intricate network of small water threads, toss it, chattering
frivolously, towards the dark pool under the birches, where the trout
play like sinister shadows and the insects dance in the sombre pomp of
Autumn; and when it gains a great slab that serves it for a
spring-board, from which it takes a mighty leap, its voice is loud and
defiant, and shrieks with a banshee of triumphin which, too, there is
surely an undercurrent of wailing woe. Oh, the burn has many voices
among the rocks, under the ferns and the birch trees, in the brooding
darkness of the mists and shadows, between the steep walls of the green
banks that hem it in! Many voices which can sing, when they choose, one
song, again and again andmonotonouslyagain!
Sonow on this sad Autumn dayI was with the burn in its
hiding-place, cool, damp, fretful. Carlounie sank from my sight. My
garden, the wilder land beyond, the moors on which yesterday my
incompetence as a shot had roused the contempt of my cousin and of my
hirelingsall were lost to view. I was away from all men in this
narrow, tree-shrouded cleft of a world. I sat down on a rock, and,
stretching out my legs, rested my heels on another rock. Beneath my
legs the clear brown water glided swiftly. I sat and listened to its
murmur. And, just then, it did not occur to me that water can utter
words like men. The murmur was suggestive but definitely inarticulate.
I had come down here to be away and to think. The murmur of my mind
spoke to the murmur of the burn; and, as ever, in those days, it
lamented and cursed and bitterly complained.
Why, why was I pursued by a malady of incompetence that clung to
both mind and body? (So ran my thoughts.) Why was I bruised and beaten
by Providence? Why had I been given a soul that could not express
itself in the frame of a coward, a weakling, a thin, nervous, dwarfish,
almost a deformed, creature? If my soul had corresponded exactly to my
body, then all might have been well enough. I should have been more
complete, although less, in some way, than I now was. For such a soul
would have accepted cowardice, weakness, inferiority to others as
suitable to it, as a right fate. Such a soul would never have known the
meaning of the word rebellion, would never have been able to understand
its own cancer of disease, to diagnose the symptoms of its villainous
and creeping malady. It would never have aspired like a flame, and
longed in vain to burn clearly and grandly or to flicker out for ever.
Rather would such a soul have guttered on like some cheap and
ill-smelling candle, shedding shadows rather than any light, ignorant
of its own obscurity, regardless of the possibilities that teem like
waking children in the wondrous womb of life, oblivious of the contempt
of the souls around it, heedless of ambition, of the trumpet call of
success, of the lust to be something, to do something, of the magic, of
the stinging magic of achievement. With such a soul in my hateful,
pinched, meagre, pallid bodyI thought, sitting thus by the burnI
might have been content, an utterly low, and perhaps an utterly
satisfied product of the fiend creation.
But my soul was not of this kind, and so I was the most bitterly
miserable of men. Godor the Devilhad made me ill-shaped, physically
despicable, with the malign sort of countenance that so often
accompanies and illustrates a bad poor body. My limbs, without being
actually twisted, were shrunken and incompetentthey would not obey my
desires as do the limbs of other men. My legs would not grip a horse.
When I rode I was a laughing-stock. My arms had no swiftness, no
agility, no delicate and subtle certainty. When I tried to box, to
fence, I was one whirling, jigging incapacity. I had feeble sight, and
objects presented themselves to my vision so strangely that I could not
shoot straight. I, Alistair Ralston the young Laird of Carlounie! When
I walked my limbs moved heavily and awkwardly. I had no grace, no
lightness, no ordinary, quite usual competence of bodily power. And
this was bitter, yet as nothing to the Marah that lay beyond. For my
body was in a way complete. It was a wretch. But when you came to the
mind you had the real tragedy. In many decrepit flesh temples there
dwells a commanding spirit, as a great God might dwellof mysterious
choicein a ruinous and decaying lodge in a wilderness. And such a
spirit rules, disposes, presides, develops, has its own full and superb
existence, triumphing not merely over, but actually through the
contemptible body in which it resides, so that men even are led to
worship the very ugliness and poverty of this body, to adore it for its
power to retain such a mighty spirit within it. Such a spirit was not
mine. Had it been, I might have been happy by the burn that Autumn day.
Had it been, I might neverBut I am anticipating, and I must not
anticipate. I must sit with the brown water rushing beneath the arch of
my limbs, and recall the horror of my musing.
In a manner, then, my soul matched my body. It was feeble and
incompetent too. My brain was dull and clouded. My intellect was
sluggish and inert. Butand this was the terror for me!within the
rank nest of my soulmy spiritlay coiled two vipers that never
ceased from biting me with their poisoned fangsSelf-consciousness and
Ambition. I knew myself, and I longed to be other than I was. I watched
my own incompetence as one who watches from a tower. I divined how
others regarded meprecisely. The blatant and comfortable egoism of a
dwarf mind in a dwarf body was never for one moment mine. I was that
terrible anomaly, an utterly incomplete and incompetent thing that
adored, with a curious wildness of passion, completeness, competence.
Nor had I a soul that could ever be satisfied with a one-sided
perfection. My desires were Gargantuan. When I was with my cousin
Gavin, a fine all-round sportsman, I longed with fury to be a good
shot, to throw a fly as he did, to have a perfect seat on a horse. I
felt that I would give up years of life to beat him once in any of his
pursuits. When I was with Dr Wedderburn, my desires, equally intense,
were utterly different. He represented in my neighbourhood
Intellectwith a capital I. A man of about fifty, minister of the
parish of Carlounie, he was astonishingly adroit as a controversialist,
astonishingly eloquent as a divine. His voice was full of music. His
eyes were full of light and of the most superb self-confidence. He
rested upon his intellect as a man may rest upon a rock. The power of
his personality was calm and immense. I felt it vehemently. I shook and
trembled under it. I hated and loathed the man for it, because I wanted
and could never possess it. So, too, I hated my cousin Gavin for his
possessions, his long and sure-sighted eyes, great and strong arms,
broad chest, lithe legs, bright agility. My body could do nothing. My
soul could do nothingexcept one great thing. It could fully observe
and comprehend its own impotence. It could fully and desperately envy
and pine to be what it could never be. Could never be, do I say? Wait!
Remember that is only what I thought then as I sat upon the rock, and,
with haggard young eyes, watched the clear brown water slipping
furtively past between my knees.
My disease seemed to culminate that day, I remember. I was a sick
invalid alone in the mist. Somethingit might have been vitriolwas
eating into me, eating, eating its way to my very heart, to the core of
me. Oh, to be stunted and desire to be straight and tall, to be dwarf
and wish to be giant, to be stupid and long to be a genius, to be ugly
and yearn to be in face as one of the shining gods, to have no power
over men, and to pine to fascinate, hold, dominate a world of menthis
indeed is to be in hell! I was in hell that Autumn day. I clenched my
thin, weak hands together. I clenched my teeth from which the pale lips
were drawn back in a grin; and I realised all the spectral crowd of my
shortcomings. They stood before me like demons of the Brockenyes,
yes, of the Brocken!and I cursed God with the sound of the burn
ringing and chattering in my ears. And I devoted Gavin, Doctor
Wedderburn, every man highly placed, every lowest peasant, who could do
even one of all the things I could not do, to damnation. The paroxysm
that took hold of me was like a fit, a convulsion. I came out of it
white and feeble. And, suddenly, the voice of the burn seemed to come
from a long way off. I put out my hand, and took up from the rock on
which I had laid it, Faust. And, scarcely knowing what I did, I began
mechanically to readto the dim rapture of the burn
Scene III.The Study. Faust (entering, with the poodle). I
began to read, do I say, mechanically? Yes, it is true, but soon, very
soon, the spell of Goethe was laid upon me. I was in the lofty-arched,
narrow Gothic chamber, with that living symbol of the weariness, broken
ambition, learned despair of all the ages. I was engrossed. I heard the
poodle snarling by the stove. I heard the spirits whispering in the
corridor. Vapour roseor was it indeed the mist from the mountains
among the birch trees?and out of the vapour came Mephistopheles in
the garb of a travelling scholar. And thenand then the great bargain
was struck. I heardyes, I did, I actually, and most distinctly, heard
a voiceFaust'ssay, Let us the sensual deeps explore.... Plunge
we in Time's tumultuous dance, In the rush and roll of circumstance.
A pause; then the Student's grave and astonished tones came to me:
Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum. The cloak was spread,
and on the burning air Faust was wafted to his new lifenay, not to
his new life merely, but to life itself. He vanished with his guide in
a coloured, flower-like mist. I dropped my hand holding the book down
upon the cold rock by which the cold water splashed. It felt burning
hot to my touch. My head fell upon my breast, and I had my
dreamsdreams of the life of Faust and of its glories, gained by this
bargain that he made. And thenyes, then it was!the voice of the
burn, as from leagues away in the bosom of this very mist, began to
sing like a fairy voice, or a voice in dreams, and in visions of the
night, If it was so then, it might be so now. At first I
scarcely heeded it, for I was enwrapt. But the song grew louder, more
insistent. It was travelling to me from a far country. I heard it
coming: If it was so then, it might be so nowIf it was
so then, it might be so now. How near it was at last, how loud in
my ears! And yet always there was something vague, visionary about it,
something of the mist, I think. At length I heard it with the attention
that is of earth. I came to myself, out of the narrow Gothic chamber in
which the genius of Goethe had prisoned me, and I stared into the mist,
which was gathering thicker as the night began to fall. It seemed
flower-like, and full of strange and mysterious colour. I trembled. I
got up. Still I heard the voice of the burn singing that monotonous
legend, on, and on, and on. Slowly I turned. I climbed the bank of the
den. The sheep scattered lethargically at my approach. I passed through
the creaking iron gate into the garden. Carlounie was before me. There
was something altered, something triumphant about its aspect. The voice
of the burn faded in a long diminuendo. Yet, even as I gained the door
of my house, and, before entering it, paused in an attentive attitude,
I heard the water chanting faintly from the denIf it was so then,
it might be so now. ... As I came into the hall, in which Gavin
and Dr Wedderburn stood together talking earnestly, I remember that I
shivered. Yet my cheeks were glowing.
* * * * *
From that moment not a day passed without my visiting the burn. It
summoned me. Always it sang those words persistently. The sound of the
water can be very faintly heard from the windows of Carlounie. Each
day, at dawn, I pushed open the lattice of my bedroom and hearkened to
hear if the song had changed. Each night, at moon-rise, or in the
darkness through which the soft and small rain fell quietly, I leaned
over the sill and listened. Sometimes the wind was loud among the
mountains. Sometimes the silence was intense and awful. But in storm or
in stillness the burn sang on, ever and ever the same words. At moments
I fancied that the voice was as the voice of a man demented, repeating
with mirthless frenzy through all his years one hollow sentence. At
moments I deemed it the cry of a fair woman, a siren, a Lorelei among
my rocks in my valley. Then again I said, It is a spirit voice, a
voice from the inner chamber of my own heart. Andwhy I know notat
that last fantasy I shuddered. Even in the midnight from my window
ledge I leaned while the world slept and I heard the mystic message of
the burn. My visits to its bed were not unobserved. One morning my
cousin Gavin said to me roughly, Why the devil are you always stealing
off to that ditchso he called the den that was the home of my
voicewhen you ought to be practising to conquer your infernal
deficiencies? Why, the children of your own keepers laugh at you. Try
to shoot straight, man, and be a real man instead of dreaming and
idling. I stared at him and answered, You don't understand
everything. Once Dr Wedderburn, who had been my tutor, said to me more
kindly, Alistair, action is better for you than thought. Leave the
burn alone. You go there to brood. Try to work, for work is the best
man-maker after all.
And to him I said, Yes, I know! and flew with a strong wing in the
face of his advice. For the voice of the burn was more to me than the
voice of Gavin, or of Wedderburn; and the mind of the burn meant more
to me than the mind of any man. And so the Autumn died slowly, with a
lingering decadence, and shrouded perpetually in mist. I often felt
ill, even then. My body was dressed in weakness. Perhaps already the
fever was upon me. I wish I could know. Was it crawling in my veins?
Was it nestling about my heart and in my brain? Could it be that?...
Certainly during this period life seemed alien to me, and I moved as
one apart in a remote world, full of the music of the burn, and full,
too, of vague clouds. That is so. Looking back, I know it. Still, I
cannot be sure what is the truth. In the late Autumn I paid my last
visit to the burn before my illness seized me. The cold of early Winter
was in the air and a great stillness. It was afternoon when I left the
house walking slowly with my awkward gait. My face, I know, was white
and drawn, and I felt that my lips were twitching. I did not carry my
volume of Goethe in my hand; but, in its place, held an old book on
transcendental magic. The voice of the burnyes, that alonehad led
me to study this book. So now I took it down to the burn. Why? Had I
the foolish fancy of introducing my live thing of the den to this
strange writing on the black art? Who knows? Perhaps the fever in my
veins put the book into my hand. I shivered in the damp cold as I
descended the steep ground that lay about the water, which that day
seemed to roar in my ears the sentence I had heard so many days and
nights. And this time, as I hearkened, my heart and my brain echoed the
last wordsIt might be so now. Gaining the edge of the burn,
then in heavy spate, I watched for a while the passage of the foam from
rock to rock. I peered into the pools, clouded with flood water from
the hills, and with whirling or sinking dead leaves. And all my meagre
body seemed pulsing with those everlasting words: Why not now? I
murmured to myself, with a sort of silent sneer, too, at my own
absurdity. I remember I glanced furtively around as I spoke. Grey
emptiness, grey loneliness, dripping bare trees through whose branches
the mist curled silently, cold rocks, the cold flood of the swollen
burnsuch was the blank prospect that met my eyes.
There was no man near me. There was no one to look at me. I was
remote, hidden in a secret place, and the early twilight was already
beginning to fall. No one could see me. I opened my old and ragged
book, or, rather, let it fall open at a certain page. Upon it I looked
for the hundredth time, and read that he who would evoke the Devil must
choose a solitary and condemned spot. The burn was solitary. The burn
was condemned surely by the despair and by the endless incapacities of
the wretched being who owned it. I had taken off my shoes and placed
them upon a rock. My feet were bare. My head was covered. I now
furtively proceeded to gather together a small heap of sticks and
leaves, and to these I set fire, after several attempts. As the flames
at last crept up, the mist gathered more closely round me and my fire,
as if striving to warm itself at the blaze. The voice of the burn
mingled with the uneasy crackle of the twigs, and a murmur of its words
seemed to emanate also from the flames, two elements uniting to imitate
the utterance of man to my brain, already surely tormented with fever.
And now, with my eyes upon my book, I proceeded to trace with the sharp
point of a stick in some sandy soil between two rocks a rough Goetic
Circle of Black evocations and pacts. From time to time I paused in my
work and glanced uneasily about me, but I saw only the mists and the
At length my task was finished, and the time had arrived for the
supreme effort of my insane and childish folly. Standing at Amasarac in
the Circle, I said aloud the formula of Evocation of the Grand
Grimoire, ending with the words Jehosua, Evam, Zariat, natmik, Come,
My voice died away in the twilight, and I stood among the grey rocks
waiting, mad creature that I surely was! But only the rippling voice of
the burn answered my adjuration. Then I repeated the words in a louder
tone, adding menaces and imprecations to my formula. And all the time
the fire I had kindled sprang up into the mist; and the twilight of the
heavy Autumn fell slowly round me. Again I paused, and again my madness
received no satisfaction, no response. But it seemed to me that I heard
the browsing sheep on the summit of the right bank of the gully scatter
as if at the approach of some one. Yet there was no stir of footsteps.
It must have been my fancy, or the animals were merely changing their
feeding ground in a troop, as they sometimes will, for no assignable
cause. And now I made one last effort, urged by the voice of the burn,
which sang so loudly the words which had mingled with my dream of
Faust. I cried aloud the supreme appellation, making an effort that
brought out the sweat on my forehead, and set the pulses leaping in my
thin and shivering body. Chavajoth! chavajoth! chavajoth! I command
thee by the Key of Solomon and the great name Semhamphoras.
* * * * *
A little way up the course of the burn the dead wood cracked and
shuffled under the pressure of descending feet. Again I heard a
scattering of the sheep upon the hillside. My hair stirred on my head
under my cap, and the noise of the falling water was intolerably loud
to me. I wanted to hear plainly, to hear what was coming down to me in
the mist. The brush-wood sang nearer. In the heavy and damp air there
was the small, sharp report of a branch snapped from a tree. I heard it
drop among the ferns close to me. And then in the mist and in the
twilight I saw a slim figure standing motionless. It was vague, but
less vague than a shadow. It seemed to be a man, or a youth, clad in a
grey suit that could scarcely be differentiated from the mist. The
flames of my fire, bent by a light breeze that had sprung up, stretched
themselves towards it, as if to salute it. And now I could not hear any
movement of the sheep; evidently they had gone to a distance. At first,
seized with a strange feeling of extreme, almost unutterable fear, I
neither moved nor spoke. Then, making a strong effort to regain control
of my ordinary faculties, I cried out in the twilight
What is that? What is it?
Only a stranger who has missed his way on the mountain, and wants
to go on to Wester Denoon.
The voice that came to me from the figure beyond the fire sounded, I
remember, quite young, like the voice of a boy. It was clear and level,
and perhaps a little formal. So that was all. A touristthat was all!
Can you direct me on the way? the voice said.
I gave the required direction slowly, for I was still confused,
nervous, exhausted with my insane practices in the den. But the
youthas I supposed he wasdid not move away at once.
What are you doing by this fire? he said. I heard your voice
calling by the torrent among the trees when I was a very long way off.
Strangely, I did not resent the question. Still more strangely, I
was impelled to give him the true answer to it.
Raising the Devil! he said. And did he come to you?
No; of course not. You must think me mad.
And why do you call him?
Suddenly a desire to confide in this stranger, whose face I could
not see now, whose shadowy form I should, in all probability, never see
again, came upon me. My usual nervousness deserted me. I let loose my
heart in a turbulent crowd of words. I explained my impotence of body
and of mind to this grey traveller in the twilight. I dwelt upon my
misery. I repeated the cry of the burn and related my insane dream of
imitating Faust, of making my poor pact with Lucifer, with the Sphinx
of mediæval terrors. When I ceased, the boy's voice answered:
They say that in these modern days Satan has grown exigent. It is
not enough to dedicate to him your own soul; but you must also pay a
tribute of souls to the Cæsar of hell.
A tribute of souls?
Yes. You must bring, they say, the mystic number, three souls to
Suddenly I laughed.
I could never do that, I said. I have no power to seduce man or
woman. I cannot win souls to heaven or to hell.
But if you received new powers, such as you desire, would you use
them to win souls, three souls, to Lucifer?
Yes, I said with passionate earnestness. I swear to you that I
Suddenly the boy's voice laughed.
Quomodo cecidisti, Lucifer! he said. When thou canst not
contrive to capture souls for thyself! But, he added, as if addressing
himself once more to me, after this strange ejaculation, your words
have, perhaps, sealed the bond. Who knows? Words that come from the
very heart are often deeds. For, as we can never go back from things
that we have done, it may be that, sometimes, we can never go back from
things that we have said.
On the words he moved, and passed so swiftly by me into the twilight
down the glen that I never saw his face. I turned instinctively to look
after him; and, this was strange, it seemed that the wind at that very
moment must have turned with me, blowing from, instead of towards, the
mountain. This certainly was so; for the tongues of flame from my fire
bent backward on a sudden and leaned after the grey traveller, whose
steps died swiftly away among the rocks, and on the shuffling dead wood
and leaves of the birches and the oaks.
And then there came a singing in my ears, a beating of many drums in
my brain. I drooped and sank down by the fire in the mist. My fever
came upon me like a giant, and presently Gavin and Doctor Wedderburn,
searching in the night, found me in a delirium, and bore me back to
THE SOUL OF DR WEDDERBURN
To emerge from a great illness is sometimes dreadful, sometimes
divine. To one man the return from the gates of death is a progress of
despair. He feels that he cannot face the wild contrasts of the
surprising world again, that his courage has been broken upon the
wheel, that energy is desolation, and sleep true beauty. To another
this return is a marvellous and superb experience. It is like the vivid
re-awakening of youth in one who is old, a rapture of the past
committing an act of brigandage upon the weariness of the present, a
glorious substitution of Eden for the outer courts where is weeping and
gnashing of teeth. It will be supposed that I found myself in the first
category, a terror-stricken and rebellious mortal when the fever gave
me up to the world again. For the world had always been cruel to me,
because I was afraid of it, and was a puny thing in it. Yet this was
not so. My convalescence was like a beautiful dream of rest underneath
which riot stirred. A simile will explain best exactly what I mean. Let
me liken the calm of my convalescence to the calm of earth on the edge
of Spring. What a riot of form, of scent, of colour, of movement, is
preparing beneath that enigmatic, and apparently profound, repose. In
the simile you have my exact state. And I alone felt that, within this
womb of inaction, the child, action, lay hid, developing silently, but
inexorably, day by day. This knowledge was my strange secret. It came
upon me one night when I lay awake in the faint twilight, shed by a
carefully shaded lamp over my bed. Rain drummed gently against the
windows. There was no other sound. By the fire, in a great armchair,
the trained nurse, Kate Walters, was sitting with a bookJane Eyre
it wasupon her knees. I had been sleeping and now awoke thirsty. I
put out my hand to get at a tumbler of lemonade that stood on a table
by my pillow. And suddenly a thought, a curious thought, was with me.
My hand had grasped the tumbler and lifted it from the table; but,
instead of bringing my hand to my mouth I kept my arm rigidly extended,
the tumbler poised on my palm as upon the palm of a juggler.
How long my arm is! that was my thought, and how strong!
Formerly it had been short, weak, awkward. Now, surely, after my
illness, my arms would naturally be nerveless, useless things. The odd
fact was that now, for the first time in my life, I felt joy in a
physical act. An absurd and puny act, you will say, I daresay. What of
that? With it came a sudden stirring of triumph. I lay there on my back
and kept my arm extended for full five minutes by the watch that ticked
by my bed-head. And with each second that passed joy blossomed more
fully within my heart. I drank the lemonade as one who drinks a glad
toast. Yet I was puzzled. Is thiscan this be a remnant of delirium?
I asked myself. And beneath the clothes drawn up to my chin I fingered
my arm above the elbow. It was the limb of a big, strong man. Surprise,
supreme astonishment forced an exclamation from my lips. Kate got up
softly and came towards me; but I feigned to be asleep, and she
returned to the fire. Yet, peering under my lowered eyelids, I noticed
an expression of amazement upon her young and pretty face. I knew
afterwards that it was the sound of my voicemy new voicethat drew
it there. After that night my convalescence was more than a joy to me,
it was a rapture, touched by, and mingled with something that was
almost awe. Is not the earth awe-struck when she considers that Spring
and Summer nestle silently in her bosom? With each day the secret which
I kept grew more mysterious, more profound. Soon I knew it could be a
secret no longer. The feverit must be that!had wrought magic within
my body, driving out weakness, impotence, lassitude, developing my
physical powers to an extent that was nothing less than astounding.
Lying there in my bed, I felt the dwarf expand into the giant. Think of
it! Did ever living man know such an experience before? A bodily spring
came about within me. And I was already twenty-two years old before the
fever took me. My limbs grew large and strong; the muscles of my chest
and back were tensely strung and knit as firmly as the muscles of an
athlete. I lay still, it is true, and felt much of the peculiar
vagueness that follows fever; but I was conscious of a supine, latent
energy never known before. I was conscious that when I rose, and went
out into the world again, it would be as a man, capable of holding his
own against other strong, straight men. That was a wonder. But it was
succeeded by a greater marvel yet.
One afternoon, while I was still in bed, Doctor Wedderburn came to
see me and to sit with me. He had been away on a holiday, and,
consequently, had not visited me before, except once when I had been
delirious. The doctor was a short, spare man, with a sharply cut
brick-red face, lively and daring dark eyes, and straight hair already
on the road to grey. His self-possession bordered on self-satisfaction;
and, despite his good heart and the real and anxious sanctity of his
life, he could seldom entirely banish from his manner the contempt he
felt for those less intellectual, less swift-minded than himself. Often
had I experienced the stinging lash of his sarcasm. Often had I
withered beneath one of his keen glances that dismissed me from an
argument as a profound sage might kick an urchin from the study into
the street. Often had I hated him with a sick hatred and ground my
teeth because my mind was so clouded and so helpless, while his was so
lucent and so adroit. So now, when I heard his tap on the door, his
deep voice asking to come in, a rage of self-contempt seized me, as in
the days before my illness. The doctor entered with an elaborate
softness, and walked, flat-footed, to my bed, pursing his large lips
gently as men do when filled with cautious thoughts. I could see he
desired to moderate his habitual voice and manner; but, arrived close
to me, he suddenly cried aloud, with a singularly full-throated
Boyboy, what's come to you? he called. Then, abruptly putting
his finger to his lips, he sank down in a chair, his bright eyes fixed
It's a miracle, he said slowly.
What is? I asked with an invalid's pettishness.
The voice, toothe voice!
I grew angry easily, as men do when they are sick.
Why do you say that? Of course I've been badof course I'm
Changed! Look at yourselfand praise God, Alistair.
He had caught up a hand-mirror that lay on the dressing-table and
now put it into my hand. For the first time since the fever I saw my
face. It was as it had been and yet it was utterly different, for now
it was beautiful. The pinched features seemed to have been smoothed
out. The mouth had become firm and masterful. The haggard eyes were
alight as if torches burned behind them. My expression, too, was
powerful, collected, alert. I scarcely recognised myself. But I
pretended to see no change.
Wellwhat is it? I asked, dropping the glass.
The doctor was confused by my calm.
Your look of health startled me, he answered, sitting down by the
bed and examining me keenly.
All at once I was seized by a strange desire to get up an argument
with this man, by whom I had so often been crushed in conversation. I
leaned on my elbow in the bed, and fixing my eyes on him, I said:
And why should I praise God?
The doctor seemed in amazement at my tone.
Because you are a Christian and have been brought back from death,
he replied, but with none of his usual half-sarcastic self-confidence.
You think God did that?
Alistair, do you dare to blaspheme the Almighty?
I felt at that moment like a cat playing with a mouse. My lips, I
know, curved in a smile of mockery, and yet I will swearyes, even to
my own heartthat all I said that day I said in pure mischief, with no
evil intent. It seemed that I, Alistair Ralston, the dolt, the
ignoramus, longed to try mental conclusions with this brilliant and
opinionated divine. He bade me praise God. In reply I praisedthe
Devil, and I forced him to hear me. Absolutely I broke into a flood of
words, and he sat silent. I compared the good and evil in the scheme of
the world, balancing them in the scales, the one against the other. I
took up the stock weapon of atheism, the deadly nature, the deadly
outcome of free will. I used it with skill. The names of Strauss,
Comte, Schopenhauer, Renan, a dozen others, sprang from my lips. The
dreary doctrine of the illimitable triumph of sin, of the appalling
mistake of the permission granted it to step into the scheme of
creation, in order that its presence might create a raison d'être
for the power of personal action one way or the other in mankindsuch
matters as these I treated with a vehement eloquence and command of
words that laid a spell upon the doctor. Going very far, I dared to
exclaim that since God had allowed his own scheme to get out of gear,
the only hope of man lay in the direction of the opposing force, in
frank and ardent Satanism.
When at length I ceased from speaking, I expected Dr Wedderburn to
rise up in his wrath and to annihilate me, but he sat still in his
chair with a queer, and, as I thought, puzzled expression upon his
face. At last he said, as if to himself:
The miracle of Balaam; verily, the miracle of Balaam.
The ass had indeed spoken as never ass spoke before. I waited a
moment, then I said:
Well, why don't you rebuke me, or why don't you try to controvert
Again he looked upon me, very uneasily I thought, and with something
that was almost fear in his keen eyes.
Ah! he said, I have praised the Lord many a morning and evening
for his gift of words to me. It seems others bestow that gift too.
Alistairand here his voice became deeply solemnwhere have you
been visiting when you lay there, mad to all seeming? In what dark
place have you been to gather destruction for men? With whom have you
Suddenly, I know not why, I thought of the grey stranger, and, with
a laugh, I cried:
The grey traveller taught me all I have said to you.
The grey traveller! Who may he be?
But I lay back upon the pillows and refused to answer, and very soon
the doctor went, still bending uneasy, nervous eyes upon me.
In those eyes I read the change that had stolen over my intellect,
as in the hand-mirror I had read the change that had stolen over my
face. This strange fever had caused both soul and body to blossom. I
trembled with an exquisite joy. Had Fate relented to me at last? Was it
possible that I was to know the joys of the heroes? I longed for, yet
feared my full recovery. In it alone should I discover how sincere was
my transformation. Doctor Wedderburn did not come to me again. The days
passed, my convalescence strengthened, watched over by the pretty
nurse, Kate Walters, a fresh, pure, pious, innocent, beautiful soul,
tender, temperate, and pitiful for all sorrow and evil. At length I was
well. At length I knew, to some extent, my new, my marvellous self. For
I had, indeed, been folded up in my fever like a vesture, and, like a
vesture, changed. I had grown taller, expanded, put forth mighty
muscles as a tree puts forth leaves. My cheeks and my eyes glowed with
the radiance of strong health. I went out with my cousin Gavin, whose
estate marched with mine, and I shot so well that he was filled with
admiration, and forthwith conceived a sort of foolish worship for
mehaving a sportsman's soul but no real mind. For the first time in
my life I felt absolutely at home on a horse, an unwonted skill came to
my hands, and I actually schooled Gavin's horses over some fences he
had had set up in a grass park at the Mains of Cossens. The keepers who
had once secretly jeered at me were now at my very feet. Their children
looked upon me as a young god. I rejoiced in my strength as a giant.
But I asked myself then, as I ask myself nowwhat does it mean? The
days of miracles are over. Yet, is this not a miracle? And in a miracle
is there not a gleam of terror, as there is a gleam of stormy yellow in
the fated opal? But here I leave my condition of body alone, and pass
on to the episode of Doctor Wedderburn, partially related in the
newspapers of the day and marvelled at, I believe, by all who ever
knew, or even set eyes upon him.
The doctor, as I have said, did not come again to see me, but I felt
an over-mastering desire to set forth and visit him. This was
surprising, as hitherto I had rather avoided and hated him. Now
something drew me to the Manse. At first I resisted my inclination, but
a chance word led me to yield to it impulsively. Since my illness I had
not once attended church. Moved by a violent distaste for the religious
service, that was novel in me, I had frankly avowed my intention of
keeping away. But, as I did not go to the kirk, I missed seeing Dr
Wedderburn; and I wanted to see him. One day, leaning by chance against
a stone dyke in the Glen of Ogilvy, smoking a pipe and enjoying the
soft air of Spring as it blew over the rolling moorland, I heard two
ploughmen exchange a fragment of gossip that made excitement start up
quick within me.
The doctor's failin'. Man, he was fairly haverin' last Sabbath, on
and on, wi'out logic or argeyment or sense.
The other answered:
Ay; he's greatly changed. He's no the man he was. It fairly beats
me; I canna mak' it out. Ye've heard that And here he lowered his
voice and I could not catch his words.
I turned away from the wall, and walking swiftly, set out for the
Manse with a busy mind. The afternoon was already late, and when I
gained a view of the Manse, a cold grey house standing a little apart
in a grove of weary-looking sycamores, one or two lights smiled on me
from the small windows that stared upon the narrow and muddy road. The
minister's study was on the right of the hall door; and, as I pulled
the bell, I observed the shadow of his head to dance upon the drawn
white blind, a thought fantastically, or with a palsied motion, I
fancied. The yellow-headed maidservant admitted me with a shrunken
grin, that suggested wild humour stifled by achieved respect, and I was
soon in the minister's study. Then I saw that Doctor Wedderburn was
moving up and down the room, and that his head was going this way and
that, as he communed in a loud voice with himself. My entrance checked
him as soon as he observed me, which was not instantly, as, at first,
his back was set towards me and the mood-swept maid. When he turned
about, his discomposure was evident. His gaze was troubled, and his
manner, as he shook hands with me, had in it something of the
tremulous, and was backward in geniality. We sat down on either side of
the fire, the tea service and the hot cakes, loved of the doctor,
between us. At first we talked warily of such things as my recovery,
the weather, the condition of affairs in the parish and so forth. I
noticed that though the doctor's eyes often rested with an almost
glaring expression of scrutiny or of surprise upon me, he made no
remark on the change of my appearance. Nor did I on the change of his,
which was startling, and suggested I know not what of sorrow and of the
attempt to kill it with evil weapons. The healthy brick-red of his
complexion was now become scarlet and full of heat; his mouth worked
loosely while he talked; the flesh of his cheeks was puffed and
wrinkled; his eyes had the clouded and yet fierce aspect of the
drunkard. But, absurdly enough, what most struck me in him was his
abstinence from an accustomed act. He drank his tea, but he ate no hot
cakes. This was a departure from an established, if trifling custom of
many years' standing, and worked on my imaginative conception of what
the doctor now was more than would, at the first blush, appear likely,
or even possible. Instead of, as of old, feeling myself on the worm
level in his presence, I was filled with a sense of pity, as I looked
upon him and wondered what subtle process of mental or physical
development or retrogression had wrought this dreary change. Presently,
while I wondered, he put his cup down with an awkward and errant hand
that set it swaying and clattering in the tray, and said abruptly:
And what have you come for, Alistair, eh? what have you come for?
To go on with what you've begun? Well, well, lad, I'm ready for you;
I'm ready now.
His voice was full of timorous irritation, his manner of pitiable
I've thought it out, I've thought it all out, he continued; and I
can combat you, I can combat you, Alistair, wherever you've got your
fever-mind from and your fever-tongue.
I knew what he meant, and suddenly I knew, too, why I had wanted so
eagerly to come to the Manse. My instinct of pity and of sympathy died
softly away. My new instinct of cruel rapture in the ruthless exercise
of myshall I call them fever-powers then?woke, dawned to sunrise.
And Doctor Wedderburn and I fell forthwith into an animated theological
discussion. He was desperately nervous, desperately ill at ease. His
argumentative struggles were those of a drowning man positively
convincednote this,that he would drown, that no human or divine aid
could save him. There was, too, a strong hint of personal anger in his
manner, which was strictly undignified. He fought a losing battle with
bludgeons, and had an obvious contempt for the bludgeons while in the
act of using them in defence or in attack. And at last, with a sort of
sharp cry, he threw up his hands, and exclaimed in a voice I hardly
knew as his:
God forgive you, Alistair, for what you're doing! God forgive
This dolorous exclamation ran through me like cold water and chilled
all the warmth of my intellectual excitement.
Murderer! I repeated inexpressively.
Doctor Wedderburn sat in his chair trembling, and looking upon me
with despairing and menacing eyes, the eyes of a man who curses but
cannot fight his enemy.
Of a soul, of a soul, he said. The poisoned dagger?doubt, the
poisoned daggeryou've plunged it into me, boy.
Then raising his voice harshly, he exclaimed:
Curse you, curse you!
I was thunderstruck. I declare it here, for it is true. I had
defamedand deliberatelythe doctor's dearest idols. I had driven my
lance into his convictions. I had blasphemed what he worshipped, and
had denied all he affirmed. But that I had made so terrific an
impression upon his mind, his soulthis astounded me. Yet what else
could his passionate denunciation mean? Had I, a boy, unused to
controversy, unskilled in dialectics, overthrown with my hasty words
the faith of this strong and fervent man? The thought thrilled one side
of my dual nature with triumph, pierced the other with grim horror. My
emotions were divided and complex. As I sat silent, my face dogged yet
ashamed, the doctor got up from his chair trembling like one with the
Away from meaway, he cried in a hoarse voice, and pointing at
the door. I'll have no more talk with the Devil, no moreno more!
I had not a word. I got up and went, bending a steady, fascinated
look upon this old mentor of mine, who now proclaimed himself my
victim. Arrived in the garden I found a thin moon riding above the
sycamores, and soft airs of Spring playing round the doctor's
habitation. Strangely, I had no mind to begone from it immediately. I
crossed the garden bit and paced up and down the country lane that
skirted it, keeping an eye upon the lighted window of the study. So I
went back and forth for full an hour, I suppose. Then I heard a sound
in the Spring night. The doctor's hall door banged, and, peering
through the privet hedge that protected his meagre domain, I perceived
him come out into the air bareheaded. He took his way to the small path
that ran by the hedge parallel to the lane, coming close to the place
by which I crouched, spying upon his privacy. And there he paced,
bemoaning aloud the ill fate that had come upon him. I heard all the
awful complaining of this soul in distress, besieged by doubts,
deserted by the faith and hope of a lifetime. It was villainous to be
his audience. Yet, I could not go. Sometimes the poor man prayed with a
desolate voice, calling upon God for a sign, imploring against
temptation. Sometimesand this was terriblehe blasphemed, he
imprecated. And then again he prayedto the Devil, as do the
Satanists. I heard him weeping in his garden in the night, alone under
the sycamores. It was a new agony of the garden and it wrung my heart.
Yet I watched it till the spectral moon waned, and the trees were black
as sins against the faded sky.
About this time, as I have said, his parishioners began to mark the
outward change of Dr Wedderburn that signified the inward change in
him. The talking ploughmen had their fellows. All who sat under the
doctor were conscious of a difference, at first vague, in his eloquent
discourses, of a diminuendo in the full fervour of his delivery and
manner. Gossip flowed about him, and presently there were whisperings
of change in his bodily habits. He had been seen by night wandering
about his garden in very unholy condition, he who had so often rebuked
excess. Children, passing his gate in the dark of evening, had endured
with terror his tipsy shoutings. A maidservant left him, and spread
doleful reports of his conduct through the village. By degrees, rumours
of our minister's shortcomings stole, like snakes, into the local
papers, carefully shrouded by the wrappings that protect
scandal-mongers against libel actions. The congregation beneath the
doctor's pulpit dwindled. Women looked at him askance. Men were surly
to him, orand that was less kindjocular. I, alone, followed with
fascination the paling to dusk of a bright and useful career. I, alone,
partially understood the hell this poor creature carried within him.
For I often heard his dreary night-thoughts, and assisted, unperceived
of him, at the vigils that he kept. The lamp within his study burned
till dawn while he wrestled, but in vain, with the disease of his soul,
the malady of his tortured heart.
One night in Summer time, towards midnight, I bent my steps
furtively to the Manse. It was very dark and the weather was dumb and
agitating. No leaf danced, no grass quivered. Breathless, dead, seemed
the woods and fields, the ocean of moorland, the assemblage of the
mountains. I heard no step upon the lonely road but my own, and life
seemed to have left the world until I came upon the Manse. Then I saw
the light in the doctor's window, and, drawing near, observed that the
blind was up and the lattice thrust open among the climbing dog-roses.
Craftily I stole up the narrow garden path, and, keeping to the side of
the window, looked into the room.
Doctor Wedderburn lounged within at the table facing me. A pen was
in his shaking hand. A shuffle of manuscript paper was before him, and
a Bible, in which he thrust his fingers as if to keep texts already
looked out. Beyond the Bible was a bottle, three-quarters full of
whiskey, and a glass. His muttering lips and dull yet shining eyes
betokened his condition. I saw before me a drunkard writing a sermon.
The vision was sufficiently bizarre. A tragedy of infinite pathos
mingled with a comedy of hideous yet undeniable humour in the live
picture. I neither wept nor did I laugh. I only watched, shrouded by
the inarticulate night. The doctor took a pull at the bottle, then
swept the leaves of the Bible....
Let me die the death of the righteous, he murmured thickly.
That's itthat'sthat's He wrote on the paper before him with a
wandering pen, then pushed the sheet from him. It fell on the floor by
And let my last end be like hisAhah!
He drank again, and again wrote with fury. How old and how wicked he
looked, yet how sad! He crouched down over the table and the pen broke
in his hand. A dull exclamation burst from him. Taking up the bottle,
he poured by accident some of the whiskey over the open Bible.
A baptism! A baptism! he ejaculated, bursting into laughter.
Nownowlet's seelet's see.
Again he violently turned the sodden leaves and shook his head. He
could not read the words, and that angered him. He drank again and
again till the bottle was empty, then staggered out of the room. I
heard his frantic footsteps echoing in the uncarpeted passage. Quickly
I leaned in at the window and caught up the sheet of paper that had
fallen to the floor. I held it up to the light. Only one sentence
writhed up and down over it, repeated a dozen times; There is no God!
While I read I heard the doctor returning, and I shrank back into the
night. He came stumbling in, another whiskey bottle full in his hand.
Falling down in the chair he applied his lips to it and drankon and
on. He was killing himself there and then. I knew it. I wanted to leap
into the room, to stop him, yet I only watched him. Why?I want to
At last he fell forward across the Bible with a choking noise. His
limbs struggled. His arms shot out wildly, the table broke under
himthere was a crash of glass. The lamp was extinguished. Darkness
crowded the little roomand silence.
* * * * *
The papers recorded the shocking death of a minister. They did not
As I stole home that night, alone in my knowledge of the doctor's
appalling end, I heard going before me light and tripping footsteps,
those, apparently, of some youth, not above three yards or so from me.
What wanderer thus preceded me, I asked myself, with a certain tingling
of the nerves, shaken, perhaps, by what I had just seen? I paused. The
steps also paused. The person was stopping too. I resumed my way. Again
I heard the tripping footfalls. Their sound greatly disquieted me, yet
I hurried, intending to catch up the wayfarer. Still the steps hastened
along the highway, and always just before me. I ran, yet did not come
up with any person. I called Stop! Stop! There was no reply. Again I
waited. This manor boy(the steps seemed young) waited also. I
started forward once more. So did he. Then a fury of fear ran over me,
urging me at all hazards to see in whose train I travelled. We were now
close to Carlounie. We entered the policies. Yes, this person turned
from the public road through my gates into the drive, and the footfalls
reached the very house. I stopped. I dared not approach quite close to
the door. With trembling fingers I fumbled in my pocket, drew out my
match-box, and, in the airless night, struck a match. The tiny flame
burned steadily. I stretched my hand out, approaching it, as I
supposed, to the face of the stranger.
But I saw nothing. Only, on a sudden, I heard some one hasten from
me across the sweep of gravel in the direction of the burn. And then,
after an interval, I heard the rush of startled sheep through the
Just so had they scattered on the day I spoke with the grey
traveller by the waterside.
THE SOUL OF KATE WALTERS
It is more than two years since I wrote down any incident of my
life. Two years ago I seemed to myself a stranger. To-day an intimacy
has sprung up between myself and that observant, detached something
within methat little extra spirit which looks on at me, and yet is,
somehow, me. I am at home with my own power. I am accustomed to my
strength of personality. From my fever I rose like some giant. Long ago
my world recognised the obedience it owed me. Long ago, by many signs,
in many ways, it taught me the paramount quality of the emanation from
my soul that is called my influence. Yet sometimes, even now, I seem to
stare at myself aghast, to turn cold when I am alone with myself. I am
seized with terrible fancies. I think of the voice of the burn. I think
of that childish Autumn ceremony upon its bank among the mists and the
flying leaves. I think of the grey youth who spoke with me in the
twilight, and my soul is full of questions. I muse upon the Wandering
Jew, upon Faust, upon Van Der Decken, upon the monstrous figures that
are legends, yet sometimes realities to men. And thenand this is
ghastlyI say to myself, can it be that I, too, shall become a legend?
Can it be that my name will be whispered by the pale lips of good men
long after I am dead? For, is there not a whirl of white faces
attending my progress as the whirl of dead leaves attends the Autumn?
Do I not hear a faint symphony of despairing cries like a dreadful
music about my life? Is not my power upon men malign? Boys with their
hopes shattered, men with their faiths broken, women with their love
turned to galldo they not crowd about my chariot wheels? Or is it my
vain fancy that they do? Here and there from the sea of these beings
one rises like a drowned creature whom the ocean will not hide, stark,
stiff, corpse-like. Doctor Wedderburn was the first. Kate Walters is
the secondKate Walters.
* * * * *
When my convalescence was well advanced she left Carlounie and went
back to Edinburgh. Some months afterwards I heard casually that she was
working in an hospital there. But a year and a half went by before I
saw this girl again. Her fresh, pure, ministering face had nearly faded
from my memory. Yet, she had attended intimately upon my marvellous
transformation from my death of weakness to the life of strength. She
had lifted me in her girl's arms when I was nothing. Yes, I had been in
her arms then. How strange, how close are the commonest relations
between the invalid and his nurse! When I chanced to meet Kate again I
had no thought of this. I had forgotten. I came to Edinburgh on some
business connected with a mine discovered on my estate, which seemed
likely to make a great fortune for me, and is already on the way to
accomplishing this first duty of a mine. My business done, I stayed on
at my hotel in Princes Street amusing myself, for I had a multitude of
friends in Edinburgh. One of these friends was a medical student
attached to the hospital there, and he chanced to invite me to go with
him through the wards one day. In one of the wards I encountered Kate
Walters, fresh, clear, calm as in the old Carlounie days of my illness.
She did not know me till I recalled myself to her recollection; then
she looked into my face with the frankest astonishment. My superb
physique amazed her, although she had attended upon its beginnings. I
asked after her life in the interval since our last meeting; and she
told me, with a delightful blush, that her period of nursing was nearly
concluded, as she was engaged to be married to one Hugh Fraser, a
handsome, rich, andstrange thing this!most steadfast youth, who
lived in England in the south, and who loved her tenderly. I
congratulated her, and was on the point of moving away down the ward
with my friend when my eyes were caught again by Kate's blushing cheeks
and eyes alight with the fiery shames and joys of love. How beautiful
is the human face when the torches of the heart are kindled thus. How
beautiful! I paused, and, before I went, invited Kate to tea one
afternoon at my hotel. She accepted the invitation. Why not? In our
meeting the old chain of sympathy between patient and nurse seemed
forged anew. We felt that we were indeed friends. As we left the ward,
my student chum chaffed meI let his words go by heedlessly. I was not
in love with Kate, but I was half in love with her love for Hugh
Fraser. It had such pretty features. She came to tea and told me all
about him; and when she talked of him she was so fascinating that I was
loath to let her go. It was a sweet evening, and, as Kate had not to be
back at the hospital early, I suggested that we should go for a stroll
on Carlton Hill, and talk a little more about Hugh Fraser. The bribe
tempted her. I saw that. And she agreed after a moment's hesitation.
There is certainly an influence that lives only out of doors and can
never enter a house, or exercise itself within four walls. There is a
wandering spirit in the air of evening, a soul that walks with
gathering shadows, speaks in the distant hum of a city, and gazes
through its twinkling lights. There is a grey traveller who journeys
in the twilight. (What am I saying? To-day, as I write, I am full
of fancies.) I felt that, so soon as Kate and I were away from the
hotel, out under the sky and amid the mysteries of Edinburgh, we were
changed. In a flash our intimacy advanced, the sympathy already
existing between us deepened. Leaving the streets, we mounted the
flight of steps that leads to the hill, and joined the few couples who
were walking, almost like gods on some Olympus, above the world. They
were all obviously lovers. I pointed this fact out to Kate, saying,
Hugh Fraser should be here, not I.
She smiled, but scarcely, I thought, with much regret. For the
moment it seemed that a confidant satisfied her; and this pleased me. I
drew her arm within mine.
We must not alarm the lovers, I said. We must appear to be as
they are, or we shall carry a fiery sword into their Eden.
You seem to understand us very well, she answered with a smile.
And she left her arm in mine.
The mention of us chilled me. It seemed to set me outside a magic
circle within which she, Hugh Fraser, these people sauntering near us,
like amorous ghosts in the dimness, moved. I pressed her arm ever so
Tell me how lovers feel at such a time as this, I whispered,
looking into her eyes.
* * * * *
From Carlton Hill at night one sees a heaving ocean of yellow
lights, gleaming like phosphorescence on ebon waves. Towards Arthur's
Seat, towards the Castle, they rise; by Holyrood, by the old town, they
fall. That night I could fancy that this sea of light spoke to me,
murmured in my ear, urging me to prosecute my will, ruthlessly stirring
a strange and, perhaps, evanescent romance in my heart. I know that
when I parted from Kate that night I bent and kissed her. I know that
she looked up at me startled, even terrified, yet found no voice to
rebuke me. I know that I did not leave Edinburgh, as I had originally
intended, upon the morrow. And I know this best of allthat I had no
ill-intent in staying. I was caught in a net of impulse despite my own
desire. I was held fast. There areI believe it unalterably
nowinfluences in life that are the very Tsars of the empires of men's
souls. They must be obeyed. Possiblyis it so I wonder?they only
mount upon their thrones when they are urgently invoked by men who, as
it were, say, Come and rule over us! But once that invocation has
been made, once it has been responded to, there is never again free
will for him who has rashly called upon the power he does not
understand, and bowed before the tyrant whose face he has not seen. I
tremble now, as I write; I tremble as does the bond slave. Yet I
neither speak with, nor hear, nor have sight of, my master. Unless,
indeedbut I will not give way to any madness of the brain. No, no; I
do not hear, I do not see, although I am conscious of, my Tsar, whose
unemancipated serf I am.
I need not tell all the story of my soul's impression that was
stamped upon the soul of Kate Walters. Perhaps it is old. Certainly it
is sad. I stamped deceit upon the nature which had not known it,
knowledge of evil where only purity had been, satiety upon temperance.
And, worst of all, I expelled from this girl's heart love for a good
man who loved her, and planted, in its stead, passion for amust I say
a bad, or may I not cry, a driven man? And all this time Hugh Fraser
knew nothing of his sorrow, growing up swiftly to meet him like a
giant. Even now, while I write these words, he knows nothing of it. As
I had carelessly taken possession of the mind, the very nature of Dr
Wedderburn, so now I took possession of the very nature of Kate
Walters. My immense strength, my abounding physical glory drew herwho
had known me a puny invalidirresistibly. I won the doctor by my mind;
this girl, in the main, I think, by my body. And when at length I tired
of her slightly, the woman, the gentle woman, sprang up a tigress. I
had said one night that, since I was obliged to go to London, we must
part for a while. I had added that it was well Hugh Fraser lived in
complete ignorance of his betrayal.
Why? Kate suddenly cried out.
Becausebecause it is best so. He and yousome day.
I paused. She understood my meaning. Instantly the tigress had
sprung upon me. The scene that followed was eloquent. I learned what
lives and moves in the very depths of a nature, stirred by the
inexhaustible greed of passion, twisted by passion's fulfilment, the
ardent touched by the inert. But upon that hurricane has followed an
immense and very strange calm. Kate is almost cold to me, though very
sweet. She has acquiesced in my departure for town. She has come to one
mind with me on the subject of Hugh Fraser. More, she has even written
a letter to him asking him to come to her, pressing forward their
marriage, and I am to be the bearer of it to him. This is only a
woman's whim. She insists that I must see once the man who is to be her
So, after all, the tragedy of Dr Wedderburn is not to be repeated.
II shall not hear, stealing along the steep and windy streets of
Edinburgh, anyany strange footsteps.
* * * * *
What is the awful fate that pursues me? A year ago I left Edinburgh
carrying with me the letter which I understood to contain the request
of Kate Walters to her lover, Hugh Fraser, to hasten on their marriage.
As the train roared southwards, I congratulated myself on my clever
management of a woman. I had, it is true, stepped in between Kate and
the calm happiness she had been anticipating when I first met her in
the hospital ward. But now I had withdrawn. And, I told myself, in
time. All would be well. This girl would marry the boy who loved her.
She would deceive him. He would never know that the girl he married was
not the girl he originally loved. He would never perceive that a human
being had intervened between her and purity, truth, honour. In this
letterI touched it with my fingers, congratulating myselfHugh
Fraser would read the summons to the future he desired, the future with
Kate Walters. His soul would rush to meet hers, and surely, after a
little while, hers would cease to hold back. She would really once more
be as she had been. I forgot that no human soul can ever retreat from
knowledge to ignorance.
Hugh Fraser's rooms in London were in Piccadilly. Directly I arrived
in town I wrote him a note, saying that I was from Edinburgh with a
message from Kate Walters for him. I explained that she had nursed me
through a severe illness, and hoped I might have the pleasure of making
his acquaintance. In reply, I received a most friendly note, begging me
to call at an hour on the evening of the following day.
That evening I drove in a hansom from the Grand Hotel to Piccadilly,
taking Kate's note with me. I was conscious of a certain excitement,
and also of a certain moral exultation. Ridiculously enough, I felt as
if I were about to perform a sort of fine, almost paternal act,
blessing these children with genuine, as opposed to stage, emotion.
Yes; I glowed with a consciousness of personal merit. How incredible
human beings are! Arrived at Hugh Fraser's rooms, I was at once shown
in. How vividly I remember that first interview of ours, the exact
condition of the room, Hugh's attitude of lively anticipation, the
precise way in which he held his cigarette, the grim, short bark of the
fox-terrier that sprang up from a sofa when I came in. Hugh was almost
twenty-four years old, rather tall, slim, with intense, large, dark
eyesfull of shining cheerfulness just thenvery short, curling black
hair, and fine, straight features. His expression was boyish; so were
his movements. As soon as he saw me, he sprang forward and gave me an
enthusiastic welcomefor the sake of Kate, I knew. He led me to the
fire and made me sit down. I at once handed him my credentials, Kate's
letter. His face flushed with pleasure, and his fingers twitched with
the desire to tear it open, but he refrained politely, and began to
talkabout her, I confess. I understood in three minutes how deeply he
was in love with her. I told him all about her that might please him,
and hinted at the contents of the letter.
What! he exclaimed joyously. She wants to hasten on our marriage
at last. And she's kept me offbut you know what girls are! She
couldn't leave the hospital immediately. She swore it. There were a
thousand reasons for delay. But nowby Jove!
His eyes were suddenly radiant, and he clutched hold of my hand like
You are a good chap to bring me such a letter, he cried.
Read it, I said, again filled with moral self-satisfaction, vain,
paltry egoist that I was.
But I insisted; and at length he complied, enchanted to yield to my
importunity. He opened the letter, and, as he broke the seal, his face
was like morning. Never shall I forget the change that grew in it as he
read. When he had finished his face was like starless night. He looked
old, haggard, black, shrunken. I watched him with a sensation that
something had gone wrong with my sight. Surely radiance was fully
before me and my tricked vision saw it as despair. Raising his blank,
bleak eyes from the letter, Hugh stared towards me and opened his lips.
But no sound came from them. He frowned, as if in fury at his own
dumbness. Then at last, with a sharp shake of his head sideways, he
said in a low and dry voice:
You know what is in this letter, you say?
II thought so, I answered, growing cold and filled with anxiety.
Well, read it, will you?
I took the paper from his hand and read:
DEAR HUGH,Make the man who brings you this letter marry me.
If you don't, I will kill myself; for I am ruined. KATE.
I looked up at Hugh Fraser over the letter which my hand still
mechanically held near my eyes. I wonder how long the silence through
which we stared lasted.
* * * * *
A month later I was married to Kate Walters!
THE SOUL OF HUGH FRASER
It may seem strange that my influence upon the soul of Hugh Fraser
should follow upon such a situation as I have just described; but
everything connected with my life, since the day when I met the grey
boy by the burn, has been utterly strange, utterly abnormal. My
treachery, one would have thought, must have led Fraser to hate me. I
had wrecked his happiness. I had done him the deepest injury one man
can do to another, and at first he hated me. When he had wrung from me
a promise to marry Kate, he left me, and I did not see him again until
after the wedding. But then, it seemed, he could not keep away from
her. For he forgave us the wrong we had done him; and, after a while,
wrote a friendly letter in which he suggested that we should all forget
Why should I not see you sometimes? he concluded. I only wish you
both good, there is no longer any evil in my heart.
Poor boy! It was to be, I suppose. The Tsar of the empire of my soul
set forth his edict, and one winter day carriage wheels ground harshly
upon the gravel sweep, and Hugh Fraser was my guest at Carlounie. I
welcomed him upon the very spot where those light footsteps paused that
black night of Doctor Wedderburn's dreary end. And the faint sound of
the burn mingled with our voices in greeting and reply.
The boy was changed. He had aged, grown grave, heavier in movement,
fiercer in observation, less ready in speech. But his manner was
friendly even to me, and it was plain to see that Kate still had his
heart. They met quietly enough, but a flush ran from his cheek to hers
as they touched hands. Their voices quivered when they spoke a
commonplace of pleasure at the encounter. So the wheels of Fate began
slowly to turn on this winter's day.
I must tell you that my fortunes had greatly changed before Hugh
Fraser came to Carlounie. I was grown rich. My investments, my
speculations had prospered almost miraculously. The mine I have spoken
of was proving a gold mine to me. All worldly things went well with
meall worldly things, yes.
Now, I believe that all mighty circumstances are born tiny, like
children, at some given moment. As a rule, they usually seem so
insignificant, so puny at the birth, that we take no heed of the fact
that they have come into being, and that, in process of time, they will
grow to might, perhaps to horrible majesty. Only, when we trace events
backwards do we know the exact moment when their first faint wail broke
upon our mental hearing. Generally this is so. But I affirm that I
felt, at the very time of its first coming, the presence of the shadow,
the tiny shadow of the events which I am about to describe. I even said
to myself, This is a birthday.
Among many improvements on my estate I had built a new Manse, in
which, of course, our new minister lived. The old habitation of Doctor
Wedderburn stood empty and deserted among its sycamores. One winter's
day Hugh Fraser, Kate, and I, in our walk, passed along the lane by the
now ragged privet hedge through which I had so often observed the
doctor's agonies. It was a black and white day of frost, which crawled
along the dark trees and outlined twig and branch. The air was misty,
and distant objects assumed a mysterious importance. Slight sounds,
too, suggested infinite activities to the mind. As we neared the Manse,
Hugh Fraser said to me:
Who lives in that old house?
Nobody, I replied.
Hugh glanced at me very doubtfully.
Nobody, I reiterated.
Really, he rejoined. But the garden?
Hardly, he exclaimed, pointing with his hand. Look!
Yes, said Kate, as if in agreement.
And she grew duskily pale.
I looked over the privet hedge, seeing only the rank and
frost-bitten grass, the wild bushes and narrow mossy paths. Then I
stared at my two companions in silence. Their eyes appeared to follow
the onward movement of some object invisible to me.
The old man makes himself at home, Hugh said. He has gone into
the summer-house now.
Yes, Kate said again.
There was fear in her eyes.
I felt suddenly that the air was very chill.
That house is unoccupied, I repeated shortly.
We all walked on in silence. But, through our silence, it certainly
seemed to me that there came a sound of some one lamenting in the
A day or two later Fraser said to me:
Why is that old house shut up?
Who would occupy it? I said. Of course, if I could get a
I'll take it, he rejoined quickly. You can let me some shooting
with it, can't you?
But, I began; and then I stopped. I had an instinct to keep the
old Manse empty, but I fought it, merely because it struck me as
unreasonable. How seldom are our instincts unreasonable! Godhow
I've been looking out for a shooting-box, Hugh said. That house
would suit me admirably.
All right, I answered. I shall be very glad to have you for a
So it was arranged. When Kate heard of the arrangement, I observed
her to go very pale; but she made no objection. Hugh Fraser rented the
house, furnished it, engaged servants, a gardener, enlarged the
stables, and took up his abode there. Doctor Wedderburn's old study was
now his den. When I looked in at the window through which I had seen
the doctor die, I saw Fraser smoking, or playing with his setters. I
don't know why, but the sight turned me sick.
My relations with Kate, of which I have said nothing, were rather
cold and distant. My passion, such as it was, had died before marriage.
Hers seemed to languish afterwards. I believe that she had really loved
me, but that the shame of being with me, after I had wedded her
actually against my will, struck this sentiment to the dust. When one
feeling that has been very strong dies, its place is generally filled
by another. Sometimes I fancied that this was so with Kate, that the
bitterness of shattered self-respect gradually transformed her nature,
that a cruel frost bound the tendernesses, the warm vagaries of what
had been a sweet woman's heart. But, to tell the truth, I did not
trouble much about the matter. My affairs were prospering so greatly,
my health was so abounding, I had so much beside the mere egotism of
brilliant physical strength to occupy me, that I was heedless,
recklessat first. Yet, I had moments of a dull alarm connected with
the dweller at the Manse.
If Hugh Fraser changed as he read that fateful letter in London, he
changed far more after he came to live at the Manse. And it seemed to
me that there were times whenhow shall I put it?when he bore a
curious, and, to me, almost intolerable likeness tosome one who was
dead. A certain old man's manner came upon him at moments. His body, in
sitting or standing, assumed, to my eyes, elderly and damnable
attitudes. Once, when I glanced in at the study window before entering
the Manse, I perceived him lounging over a table facing me, a pen in
his hand and paper before him, and the spectacle threw all my senses
into a violent and most distressing disorder. Instead of going into the
house, as I had intended, I struck sharply upon the glass at the
window. Fraser looked up quickly.
Whatwhat are you writing? I cried out.
He got up, came to the window, and opened it.
Eh? What's the row, man? he said. Why don't you come in?
I repeated my question, with an anxiety I strove to mask.
Writing? Only a letter to town, he said, looking at me in wonder.
Not a sermon? I blurted forth.
A sermon? Good heavens, no. Why should I write a sermon?
Oh, I replied, forcing an uneasy laugh. Youyou live in a Manse.
Doctor Wedderburn used to write his sermons in that room.
That evening I remember that I said to Kate:
Don't you think Fraser is getting to look very old at times?
I haven't observed it, she replied coldly.
Another curious thing. Very soon after he took up his abode in the
Manse, Fraser, who had been a godly youth, became markedly averse to
religion. He informed us, with some excitement, that he had changed his
views, and seemed much inclined to carry on an atheistical propaganda
among the devout people of the neighbourhood. He declared that much
evil had been wrought by faith in Carlounie, and appeared to deem it as
his special duty to preach some sort of a crusade against the accepted
Christianity of the parish. I began to combat his views, and once
sought the reason of his ardour and self-election to the post of
teacher. His answer struck me exceedingly. He said:
Why should I be the one to clear away these senseless beliefs in
phantasms, you say? Why, because I suppose they were woven by my
predecessor in the Manse. Didn't the minister live and die there? Do
you know, Ralston, sometimes, as I sit in that study at night, I have a
feeling that instead of turning to what is called repentance when he
died, the minister turned the other way, recanted in his last hour the
faith he had professed all through his life, and expired before he
could give words to his new mind and heart. And then I feel as if his
influence was left behind him in that room, and fell upon me and
imposed on me this mission.
And as he spoke, he suddenly plucked at his face with an old,
habitual action of Doctor Wedderburn's when excited. I scarcely
restrained a cry, and with difficulty forced myself to go out slowly
from his presence. Nevertheless, I felt strongly impelled to fight
against the atheism of this boy, I who had formerly sown the seeds of
destruction in the soul of Doctor Wedderburn. But it was as if my own
act of the past rose and conquered me in the present. I declare
solemnly it was so. Some emanation from the poor dead creature's soul
clung round that cursed place of his doom, and, seizing upon the soul
of Fraser, spread tyranny from its throne. And whom did it take first
as its victim, think you? Kate, my wife.
Let our individual beliefs be what they may, one thing we must
allwhen we thinkacknowledge, that the pulse which beats eternally
in the heart of life is reparation.
Kate, as I have said, was originally finely pure and finely dowered
with the blessings of faith in a divine Providence, trust in the
eventual redemption of the world, hope that sin, sorrow, and sighing
would, indeed, flee away, and all mankind find eternal and unutterable
peace. In my worst moments I had never tried to destroy this beauty of
her soul; and, in her fall, now repaired, she had never abandoned her
religion. It was, I know, a haunting memory of the last moments of the
doctor that held me back from ever attacking the faith of another. For
myself, I did not think much of my future beyond death. Life filled my
But now, after a short absence in England, during which I left Kate
at Carlounie, I returned to find her infected with Fraser's pestilent
notions. She declined to go to the kirk, declaring that it was better
to act up to her real convictions than to set what is called a good
example to her dependants. She and Fraser gloried openly in their
new-found damnation. I say damnation, for this was actually how the
matter struck me when I began carefully to consider it. Men often see
only what irreligion really is and means when they find it existing in
a woman. I was appalled at this deadly fire flaring up in the heart of
Kate, and I set myself, at first feebly, at length determinedly, to
quench it and stamp it out.
But I fought against my own former self. I fought against the
influence of the spectre that surely haunted the Manse, and that
spectre rose originally from the very bosom of the burn at my summons.
Am I mad to think so? No, no. Oh, the eternal horror that may spring
from one wild and lawless action, from the recital of one diabolic
litany! This was surely the strangest, subtlest reparation that ever
beat in the inexorable heart of Life. Hugh Fraser was enveloped by the
influence, still retained mysteriously in his abode, of the soul that
was gone to its account. Through him it seized upon Kate, and thus the
mystic number was made up, three souls were bound and linked together.
(I hear as I write the voice of the grey traveller by the burn in the
twilight.) And in the first soul I had planted the seed of death, and
so in the second and in the third. Now, thrusting as it were backward
through Kate and Hugh Fraser, I fought with a dead man, long ago,
perhaps, wrapped in pain unknown. But, as the influence of Doctor
Wedderburn had formerlybefore the feverdominated my influence, so
now it dominated my influence from the tomb. Indeed, this man whom I
had destroyed had a drear revenge upon me. There had been an
interregnum when the doctor wavered from Christianity to atheism. But
that had ceased to be. He died undoubting, a blatant unbeliever. Hence,
surely, his deadly power now. He returned, as it were, to slay me. The
spectre at the Manse defied me.
Slowly I grew to feel, to know, all this. It did not come upon me in
a moment; for sometimes my worldly affairs still occupied me. My glory
of health and of strength still delighted me. I was as FaustI was as
Faust in his monstrous and damnable youth. But there came a time when
the spectre at the Manse touched me with the hand of Hugh Fraser. And
then I rose up to battle with it, trembling at the thought of the grey
boy's words at the thought of the Cæsar of hell whose tribute was three
Kate and I were taking tea one evening with Fraser. We sat around
the hearth, by which was placed the table with the tea-service and the
hot cakes. Fraser began, as was his habit now, to discuss religious
subjects and to rail against the professors of faith. Kate listened to
him eagerlya filthy fire, so I thought, gleaming in her great eyes. I
was silent, watching. And presently it seemed to me that Fraser's
gestures in talking grew like the dead gestures of the doctor. He threw
his hands abroad with the fingers divided in a manner of Wedderburn's.
He struck his knees sharply, and simultaneously, with both his palms to
emphasise his remarks, a frequent habit of the dead man's. So vehement
was the similarity that I began presently to feel that the doctor
himself declaimed in the firelight, and I was seized with a desire to
combat effectively his wicked, but forcible arguments. I broke in,
then, upon Fraser's tirade and cried the cause of religion. He turned
upon me, dealt with my pleas, scattered my contentionsgrowing, I
fancied, very old and with the rumbling voice of age,thrust at me
with the lances of sarcasm, sore belaboured me into silence and mute
fury. And all the time Kate sat by, and I seemed to see her soul, with
fluttering outstretched wings, sinking down to hell, as a hawk drops
out of sight into a dark cleft of the mountains. And then, in the last
resort, Fraser struck his hand down on mine to clinch his defeat of me.
And I, looking upon that poor Kate, cried out:
God forgive you, Fraser, for what you're doingmurderer!
Scarcely had my cry died away than I knew I had borrowed the very
words of Wedderburn to me. A cold, like ice, came upon me. This
reversal of the past in the present was too ironic. I heard the doctor
chuckling drearily in Hades. I suddenly sprang up like one pursued, and
got away into the night, leaving Kate and Fraser together by the fire.
But the spectre of the Manse surely pursued me. I heard its soft but
heavy footsteps coming in my wake. I heard its old laughter in the dark
behind me; and I sickened and faltered, and was in fear beyond all
human fear of an enemy. The next day I told Fraser he must leave the
Manse; I would build him a shooting-lodge on any part of my estate that
No, he said, no; I have grown to love the old place; I never feel
I looked in his eyes, searching after his meaning.
I would rather pull down the Manse, I said.
In reply, he touched with his forefinger the lease I had signed with
him, which lay on his writing-table.
You cannot, my friend, he said.
I cannot do anything that I would. I am driven on a dark road by the
creature with the whip that is surely after every man who once yields
to his worst desires.
Just after this I received a visit from Mr. Mackenzie, the new
minister, a young and fervent, but not very knowledgeable man, whose
zeal was red-hot, but incompetent, and who would have died for the
faith he could never properly expound, like many young ministers of our
church. The little man was in a twisting turmoil of distress, and was
moved, so he said, to deal very plainly with me. I bade him deal on. It
seemed that his flock was becoming infected with atheism, which spread
like the plague, from the old Manse. The young children lisped it to
each other in the lanes; lovers talked it between their kisses; youths
chattered perdition at the idle corner by the church wall. Even the old
began to look askance at the Bible that had been their only book of
age, and to shiver wantonly at the inevitable approach of death. The
young minister cried denunciation upon Fraser, like a vague-minded, but
angry Jonah before a provincial Nineveh.
Turn him out, Mr. Ralston, drive him forth, he ejaculated. What
is his rent to you? What is his money in comparison with the immortal
souls of men? Away with him, away with him.
I mentioned the small matter of the lease. The young minister, with
a quivering scarlet face, replied stammering:
A lease! Butbutyour own wifeshe isis
I do not discuss her, I said sternly.
Well; they are deserting the services. You see that yourself. They
will not come to hear me preach. They will not listen to me.
The man was tasting bitterness. He was almost crying. I was terribly
sorry for him. Yet, all I could do was to think of the spectre at the
Manse and answer:
I can do nothing.
His words were true. Carlounie's soul was being devoured as by a
plague. A colony of unbelievers was springing up in the midst of the
beautiful woods and the mountains. Soon the evil fame of the place
began to spread abroad, and men, in distant parts of Scotland, to speak
of mad Carlounie. The matter weighed intolerably upon me, and at last
became a fixed idea. I could think of nothing else but this devil's
home in the hills, this haunted and harassed centre of doom and
darkness which was my possession and in which I lived. I fell into
silence. I ceased to stir abroad beyond my own land. It seemed to me
that Carlounie should keep strict quarantine, should be isolated, and
that each person who went over its borders carried a strange infection
and was guilty of murder. I forbade Kate to drive beyond my estates.
I never wish to, she said.
And I knew that where Fraser was she was happy. He had her soul fast
by this; or, it would be truer to say, the spectre of the Manse had
both him and her. And he aged apace and bore on his countenance the
stamp of evil. And I brooded and brooded upon the whole matter. But,
from whatever point I started, I came back to the Manse and to the
spectre dwelling in it with Hugh Fraser. I had given death to Doctor
Wedderburn, in return for the life so miraculously given to me, and now
his spirit, retained in its ancient abiding-place, spread death about
it in its turn. This was, and is, my conviction. The influence of the
departed clings to roof, to walls, to floors, leans on the accustomed
window-seat, trembles by the bed-head, sits by the hearthstone, stands
invisible in the passage way. To kill it one must destroy its home.
It was my duty to kill it, therefore it was my duty to destroy the
Manse. This thought at length took complete possession of me, and,
following it, I strove in every imaginable way to oust Fraser from the
house among the sycamores. But he would not go. He loved the place, he
said. He stood by his lease and I was powerless.
Oh, God, I have, surely I have, my excuse for what I have done! I
meant to be a saviour, not a destroyer! I would have restored Fraser
and my poor Kate to their freedom of heart. That was what I meant. Ay,
but the grey traveller fought against me. Shut up here by night in my
house, on the verge ofthat which I cannot, dare not speak of, I
declare that I am guiltless. Let him bear the burden, him alone! In
these last moments, before my deed is known, I write the truth that men
may exonerate me. This is the truth.
Overwhelmed with this idea that Carlounie must be rescued, that Hugh
Fraser and Kate must be rescued from this damnation that was preying
upon them, I determined, secretly, on the destruction of the Manse, in
which the spectre of the doctor stayed to work such evil. But, to do
this, I must first make sure that Hugh Fraser was at a distance, and
that his small householdhe only kept two servants, hired from the
villagewere away from the haunted dwelling. I, therefore, suggested
to Fraser that he should come and spend a week with me, and give his
maids a holiday. After a little demur, and drawn, I see now, by his
hidden passion for Kate, he accepted my invitation. He dismissed the
maids to their homes for a week, and moved over to us. When the
minister knew of it, he, no doubt, fully included me in his prayers for
the damnation of those who worked evil among his flock. Will he ever
read these pages, I wonder? Kate was now an avowed atheist, and she and
Fraser were continually together, glorying in their complete freedom
from old prejudices, and their new outlook upon life. They had, I heard
them say, broken through the ties that bound poor, terrified
Christians; and, when they said this, they smiled, the one upon the
other. I did not then know why. Meanwhile, I was preparing for my deed
of redemption, as I called it, and meant it to be. I was resolved to go
out by night to the empty Manse, and secretly to set it in flames. It
stood alone. The country people slept sound at night. I calculated that
if I chose midnight for my act none would see the flames, and, ere the
peasants woke at dawn, the Manse and the spectre within it would be
destroyed for ever. Such was my beliefsuch the spirit in which I
prepared myself for this strange work.
THE RETURN OF THE GREY TRAVELLER
I write these last words after the dead of night, towards the coming
of the dawn. Ere the light is grey in the sky I shall be away to the
burn to meet him, the grey traveller. He is there waiting for me. He
has come back. I go to meet him, and I shall never return. Carlounie
will know my face no more. All is done as he ordained. My words have
been as deeds, have marched on inevitably to actual deeds. Long ago he
said that sometimes, even as we can never go back from things that we
have done, we can never go back from things that we have said. So,
indeed, it is.
According to my fixed intention, I determined on a night for the
destruction of the Manse. The house was old and would burn like tinder.
I should break into it through the window of the study, which was never
shuttered. I should set fire to the interior at several points, and
escape in the darkness of the night. By dawn the accursed place would
be a ruin, and thenthen I looked for a new era. Fool! Fool! I looked
to see the burden of the vile influence of the spectre lifted from the
soul of Fraser, and so from the soul of Kate, which was infected by
him. I looked to see my people sane and satisfied as of old, Carlounie
no more a plague-spot in the land, that poor and zealous man, the
minister, calm and at rest with his little faithful flock once more.
All this I looked for confidently. And so, when the black and starless
night of my deed came, I was happy and serene. That night Kate pleaded
a headache, and went to bed very early, before nine. She begged me not
to come to her room to bid her good-night, as she wanted perfect quiet
and sleep. All unsuspecting, I agreed to her request. Soon after she
had gone, Fraser, who had seemed heavy with unusual fatigue all through
the evening, also went off to bed, and I was left alone. But it was not
yet time for me to start on my errand of the darkness. The burning
Manse would surely attract attention before midnight. People might be
out and about in the village. A belated peasant might be on his way
home by the lane that skirted the privet hedge. I must wait till all
were sleeping. The time seemed very long. Once I fancied I heard a
movement in the houseagain I dreamed that soft and hurried footsteps
upon the gravel outside broke on the silence. But I said to myself that
I was nervous, highly strung because of my strange project, that my
imagination tricked me. At last the hour came. Without going upstairs I
drew on my thickest overcoat, took my hat and a heavy stick, opened the
hall door, and passed out into the night. It was still and very cold,
and the voice of the burn came loudly to my ears. Treading quietly, I
made my way into the road, and set forth along it in the direction of
the Manse. The ground was hard, and scarcely had I gone a few yards
before I thought that some one was furtively following me. I stopped
rather uneasily, and listened, but heard nothing. I went on, and again
seemed aware of distant footsteps treading gently behind me. The sound
made me suppose that some one of my household must be after me, moved
by curiosity as to the reason of my present pilgrimage; but I was not
minded to be watched, so I turned sharply, yet very softly, around and
faced the way I had come. I encountered no one, nor did I any longer
catch the patter of feet. So, reckoning that my nerves must be playing
with me, I pursued my way. But the whole of the distance between my
dwelling and the Manse I seemed vaguely to hear a noise of one treading
behind me. And, although I said to myself that there was nobody out
beside myself, I was filled with the stir of a shifting uneasiness. I
entered the lonely and narrow lane that led beside the Manse, and
presently arrived in front of the house; when, what was my astonishment
to perceive a light gleaming in the study window. My hand was on the
gate when it went out, and all the front of the house was black and
eyeless. For so brief a moment had I seen the light that I was moved to
think that it, too, existed, like the sound of steps, only in my
excited brain. Nevertheless, I did not go up at once to the house, but
paced the lane for a full half-hour, alwaysso it seemed to
metracked by some one. But, since I kept turning about, and the
footfalls were always at my back, I grew certain that they were nothing
more nor less than a fantasy on my part. It must have been well after
twelve when I summoned courage to enter the garden and to approach the
Manse. The steps, I thought, followed me to the gate and then paused,
as if a sentinel was posted there to keep watch. Arrived at the stone
step which preceded the hall door, I, too, paused in my turn and
listened. Did the spectre that inhabited this abode know of my coming,
of my purpose? Was it crouching within, like some frantic shadow,
fearful of its impending fate? Or was it, perhaps, preparing to attack,
to repel me? Strangely, I had now no fear of it, or of anything. I was
calm. I felt that my deed was one of rescue, even though, by performing
it, I wrought destruction. I moved to the study window, and was about
to smash in the glass with my heavy stick when a mad idea came to me to
try the hall door. I put my hand upon it and found it not locked. This
opening of the door sent a shiver through me, and a ghastly sense of
the occupation of this deserted abode. I was filled again with an acute
consciousness of the indwelling spectre, whom, in truth, I came to
murder. But, I reasoned, this door has been left unbarred by the
carelessness of Fraser's servants, that is all.
I stood on the lintel, struck a match and set it to a candle end
which I drew from my coat pocket. The flame burned up, showing the
narrow passage, the umbrella stand, the doors on either side. I entered
the study softly, looking swiftly on all sides of me as I did so. Did I
expect a vision of Doctor Wedderburn lounging at the table, his fingers
thrust into a Bible? I scarcely know; but I saw nothing except the
grimly standing furniture, the lamp on the table, the vacant chairs,
the books in their shelves. I listened. There was no rustle of the
spectre that I came to kill. Did it watch me? Did it see me there? I
set fire to the room, passed quickly to the chamber on the other side
of the passage, from thence to the kitchen and the dining-parlour,
leaving a track of dwarf flames behind me. The means of destruction I
had prepared and carried with me. They availed. When I once more
reached the garden, the ground floor of the Manse was in a blaze. But
now came the incredible event which I must chronicle before I go down
to the burn for the last time.
Having gained the garden, I waited there in the darkness to watch my
work progress. I saw the light within the Manse, at first a twinkle,
grow to a glare. I heard the faint crackle of the burning rooms
increase to a soft and continuous roar. And, as I watched and listened,
a mighty sense of relief ran through me. Thus did I burn up my past!
thus did I sacrifice grandly and gladly the ill spirit my wild desires
had evoked! Thusthus! All the base of the Manse was red-hot, when, on
a sudden, I heard a great shout that seemed to come from the sky. Light
sprang in an upper window. There followed a sound like the smash of
glass, and I saw two arms shoot out, the top part of a figure and a
face framed in the glare. I deemed it the vision of the poor spectre
that I destroyed. I looked upon it and fancied I could detect the
tortured lineaments of the doctor, his accustomed gestures distorted by
fear and fury. But then I seemed to see behind him another figure,
struggling, and to hear the failing scream of a woman. But the flames
from below leaped to the roof. The floors fell in with an uproar. The
figure, or figures, disappeared.
Trembling I turned to go, my mind shuddering at the thought of the
apparition I had seen. I got into the lane and hastened towards home.
Soon the burning Manse was out of sight, and I was swallowed up in the
Now, as I went along, a terrible and very peculiar sensation came
upon me. I heard no footsteps; all was silence. Yet I seemed to be
aware that I was closely companioned, that at my very side somethingI
knew not whatwalked, keeping pace with me. And so close did I believe
this thing to be, that at moments I even felt it pressing against me
like a slim figure in the night. Once, when it thus nestled to me, as
if in affection, I could not refrain from crying out aloud. I stretched
forth my arms to grasp this surely amorous horror of the darkness, but
found nothing, and pursued my road in a sweat of apprehension. And
still, the thing was certainly with me, and seemed, I thought, to
praise me as I walked, as the good man is praised on his journey. My
great horror was that this creature that I could not see, could not
hear, could not feel, and yet was so sharply conscious of, was well
disposed towards me. My heart craved its hatredbut it loved me I
knew. My soul demanded its curses. I almost heard it bless me as I
moved. My knees knocked together, my limbs were turned to wax, as it
was borne in upon me that I had surely done this terror that walked in
darkness a service of some kind. To be pursued in fury by one of the
dreadful beings that dwell in the borderland beyond our sight is sad
and dreary; but to be followed thus by one as by a dog, to be fawned
upon and caressedthis is appalling. I longed to shriek aloud. I broke
into a run, and, like one demented, gained the gate of Carlounie; but
always the thing was with mefull of joy and laudation. At the house
door I paused, facing round. I was moved to address this thing I could
Who is it that walks with me? I cried, and my voice was high and
A voice I knew, young, clear, level, a little formal, answered out
of the darkness:
It is I.
It was the voice of the grey traveller whom I had seen long ago by
the burnside. I leaned back against the door and my shoulders shook
What do you want of me?
I come to thank you.
What, then, have I done?
You have brought the tribute money.
I did not understand, and I answered:
No. One soul I may have destroyed, but two I have saved to-night.
For I have slain the spectre that preyed upon them and I have set them
free from bondage.
The voice answered:
Go into the house and see.
Then again I was filled with apprehension. I turned to go in at my
door, and, as I did so, I heard footsteps treading in the direction of
the burn, and a fading voice which cried, like an echo:
And then come to me.
And, as the voice died, I heard the rush of sheep in the night.
* * * * *
Filled with nameless fear and a cold apprehension, I entered the
house, and, led by some cruel instinct, made my way to Kate's room. The
lamp she always had at night burned dimly on the dressing-table and
cast a grave radiance upon an empty bed.
What could this mean?
I stole to the room of Fraser, bearing the lamp with me. His chamber
was also untenanted; but, on the quilt of the bed, lay a piece of paper
written over. I took it up and readwith the sound of the burn in my
You stole her from me. I take back my own. To-night we stay
at the old Manse. To-morrow we shall be far away. HUGH FRASER.
The paper dropped from my hand upon the quilt. A woman's scream rang
in my ears above the roar of flames. I understood.
* * * * *
The tribute money has been paid. I go down to the burn. The grey
traveller is waiting there for me.