The Tarn of
John Holt, a vague excitement in him, stood at the
door of the little inn, listening to the landlord’s directions
as to the best way of reaching Scarsdale. He was on
a walking tour through the Lake District, exploring the
smaller dales that lie away from the beaten track and are
accessible only on foot.
The landlord, a hard-featured north countryman, half
innkeeper, half sheep farmer, pointed up the valley. His
deep voice had a friendly burr in it.
“You go straight on till you reach the head,” he
said, “then take to the fell. Follow the ‘sheep-trod’ past
the Crag. Directly you’re over the top you’ll strike the
“A road up there!” exclaimed his customer incredulously.
“Aye,” was the steady reply. “The old Roman road.
The same road,” he added, “the savages came down when
they burst through the Wall and burnt everything right
up to Lancaster——”
“They were held—weren’t they—at Lancaster?” asked
the other, yet not knowing quite why he asked it.
“I don’t rightly know,” came the answer slowly.
“Some say they were. But the old town has been that
built over since, it’s hard to tell.” He paused a moment.
“At Ambleside,” he went on presently, “you can still see
the marks of the burning, and at the little fort on the
way to Ravenglass.”
Holt strained his eyes into the sunlit distance, for he
would soon have to walk that road and he was anxious to
be off. But the landlord was communicative and interesting.
“You can’t miss it,” he told him. “It runs
straight as a spear along the fell top till it meets the Wall.
You must hold to it for about eight miles. Then you’ll
come to the Standing Stone on the left of the track——”
“The Standing Stone, yes?” broke in the other a little
“You’ll see the Stone right enough. It was where the
Romans came. Then bear to the left down another ‘trod’
that comes into the road there. They say it was the war-trail
of the folk that set up the Stone.”
“And what did they use the Stone for?” Holt inquired,
more as though he asked it of himself than of his companion.
The old man paused to reflect. He spoke at length.
“I mind an old fellow who seemed to know about such
things called it a Sighting Stone. He reckoned the sun
shone over it at dawn on the longest day right on to the
little holm in Blood Tarn. He said they held sacrifices in
a stone circle there.” He stopped a moment to puff at his
black pipe. “Maybe he was right. I have seen stones
lying about that may well be that.”
The man was pleased and willing to talk to so good
a listener. Either he had not noticed the curious gesture
the other made, or he read it as a sign of eagerness to
start. The sun was warm, but a sharp wind from the
bare hills went between them with a sighing sound. Holt
buttoned his coat about him. “An odd name for a mountain
lake—Blood Tarn,” he remarked, watching the landlord’s
“Aye, but a good one,” was the measured reply. “When
I was a boy the old folk had a tale that the savages flung
three Roman captives from that crag into the water.
There’s a book been written about it; they say it was a
sacrifice, but most likely they were tired of dragging them
along, I say. Anyway, that’s what the writer said. One,
I mind, now you ask me, was a priest of some heathen
temple that stood near the Wall, and the other two were
his daughter and her lover.” He guffawed. At least he
made a strange noise in his throat. Evidently, thought
Holt, he was sceptical yet superstitious. “It’s just an old
tale handed down, whatever the learned folk may say,” the
old man added.
“A lonely place,” began Holt, aware that a fleeting
touch of awe was added suddenly to his interest.
“Aye,” said the other, “and a bad spot too. Every
year the Crag takes its toll of sheep, and sometimes a man
goes over in the mist. It’s right beside the track and
very slippery. Ninety foot of a drop before you hit the
water. Best keep round the tarn and leave the Crag alone
if there’s any mist about. Fishing? Yes, there’s some
quite fair trout in the tarn, but it’s not much fished.
Happen one of the shepherd lads from Tyson’s farm may
give it a turn with an ‘otter,’” he went on, “once in a
while, but he won’t stay for the evening. He’ll clear out
“Ah! Superstitious, I suppose?”
“It’s a gloomy, chancy spot—and with the dusk falling,”
agreed the innkeeper eventually. “None of our folk
care to be caught up there with night coming on. Most
handy for a shepherd, too—but Tyson can’t get a man
to bide there.” He paused again, then added significantly:
“Strangers don’t seem to mind it though. It’s only our
“Strangers!” repeated the other sharply, as though
he had been waiting all along for this special bit of information.
“You don’t mean to say there are people living
up there?” A curious thrill ran over him.
“Aye,” replied the landlord, “but they’re daft folk—a
man and his daughter. They come every spring. It’s
early in the year yet, but I mind Jim Backhouse, one of
Tyson’s men, talking about them last week.” He stopped
to think. “So they’ve come back,” he went on decidedly.
“They get milk from the farm.”
“And what on earth are they doing up there?” Holt
He asked many other questions as well, but the answers
were poor, the information not forthcoming. The landlord
would talk for hours about the Crag, the tarn, the
legends and the Romans, but concerning the two strangers
he was uncommunicative. Either he knew little, or he
did not want to discuss them; Holt felt it was probably
the former. They were educated town-folk, he gathered
with difficulty, rich apparently, and they spent their time
wandering about the fell, or fishing. The man was often
seen upon the Crag, his girl beside him, bare-legged,
dressed as a peasant. “Happen they come for their health,
happen the father is a learned man studying the Wall”—exact
information was not forthcoming.
The landlord “minded his own business,” and inhabitants
were too few and far between for gossip. All Holt
could extract amounted to this: the couple had been in a
motor accident some years before, and as a result they
came every spring to spend a month or two in absolute
solitude, away from cities and the excitement of modern
life. They troubled no one and no one troubled them.
“Perhaps I may see them as I go by the tarn,” remarked
the walker finally, making ready to go. He gave
up questioning in despair. The morning hours were
“Happen you may,” was the reply, “for your track
goes past their door and leads straight down to Scarsdale.
The other way over the Crag saves half a mile, but it’s
rough going along the scree.” He stopped dead. Then he
added, in reply to Holt’s good-bye: “In my opinion it’s
not worth it,” yet what he meant exactly by “it” was not
The walker shouldered his knapsack. Instinctively he
gave the little hitch to settle it on his shoulders—much
as he used to give to his pack in France. The pain that
shot through him as he did so was another reminder of
France. The bullet he had stopped on the Somme still
made its presence felt at times.... Yet he knew, as
he walked off briskly, that he was one of the lucky ones.
How many of his old pals would never walk again, condemned
to hobble on crutches for the rest of their lives!
How many, again, would never even hobble! More terrible
still, he remembered, were the blind.... The dead,
it seemed to him, had been more fortunate....
He swung up the narrowing valley at a good pace
and was soon climbing the fell. It proved far steeper
than it had appeared from the door of the inn, and he
was glad enough to reach the top and fling himself down
on the coarse springy turf to admire the view below.
The spring day was delicious. It stirred his blood. The
world beneath looked young and stainless. Emotion rose
through him in a wave of optimistic happiness. The bare
hills were half hidden by a soft blue haze that made them
look bigger, vaster, less earthly than they really were.
He saw silver streaks in the valleys that he knew were
distant streams and lakes. Birds soared between. The
dazzling air seemed painted with exhilarating light and
colour. The very clouds were floating gossamer that he
could touch. There were bees and dragon-flies and fluttering
thistle-down. Heat vibrated. His body, his physical
sensations, so-called, retired into almost nothing. He
felt himself, like his surroundings, made of air and sunlight.
A delicious sense of resignation poured upon him.
He, too, like his surroundings, was composed of air and
sunshine, of insect wings, of soft, fluttering vibrations that
the gorgeous spring day produced.... It seemed that
he renounced the heavy dues of bodily life, and enjoyed
the delights, momentarily at any rate, of a more ethereal
Near at hand, the hills were covered with the faded
gold of last year’s bracken, which ran down in a brimming
flood till it was lost in the fresh green of the familiar
woods below. Far in the hazy distance swam the sea of
ash and hazel. The silver birch sprinkled that lower world
with fairy light.
Yes, it was all natural enough. He could see the road
quite clearly now, only a hundred yards away from where
he lay. How straight it ran along the top of the hill!
The landlord’s expression recurred to him: “Straight as
a spear.” Somehow, the phrase seemed to describe exactly
the Romans and all their works.... The Romans, yes,
and all their works....
He became aware of a sudden sympathy with these
long dead conquerors of the world. With them, he felt
sure, there had been no useless, foolish talk. They had
known no empty words, no bandying of foolish phrases.
“War to end war,” and “Regeneration of the race”—no
hypocritical nonsense of that sort had troubled their minds
and purposes. They had not attempted to cover up the
horrible in words. With them had been no childish, vain
pretence. They had gone straight to their ends.
Other thoughts, too, stole over him, as he sat gazing
down upon the track of that ancient road; strange
thoughts, not wholly welcome. New, yet old, emotions
rose in a tide upon him. He began to wonder.... Had
he, after all, become brutalized by the War? He knew
quite well that the little “Christianity” he inherited had
soon fallen from him like a garment in France. In his
attitude to Life and Death he had become, frankly, pagan.
He now realized, abruptly, another thing as well: in
reality he had never been a “Christian” at any time.
Given to him with his mother’s milk, he had never accepted,
felt at home with Christian dogmas. To him they had
always been an alien creed. Christianity met none of his
But what were his “requirements”? He found it difficult
Something, at any rate, different and more primitive,
Even up here, alone on the mountain-top, it was hard
to be absolutely frank with himself. With a kind of
savage, honest determination, he bent himself to the task.
It became suddenly important for him. He must know
exactly where he stood. It seemed he had reached a turning
point in his life. The War, in the objective world,
had been one such turning point; now he had reached
another, in the subjective life, and it was more important
than the first.
As he lay there in the pleasant sunshine, his thoughts
went back to the fighting. A friend, he recalled, had
divided people into those who enjoyed the War and those
who didn’t. He was obliged to admit that he had been
one of the former—he had thoroughly enjoyed it. Brought
up from a youth as an engineer, he had taken to a soldier’s
life as a duck takes to water. There had been plenty of
misery, discomfort, wretchedness; but there had been compensations
that, for him, outweighed them. The fierce
excitement, the primitive, naked passions, the wild fury,
the reckless indifference to pain and death, with the loss
of the normal, cautious, pettifogging little daily self all
these involved, had satisfied him. Even the actual
He started. A slight shudder ran down his back as
the cool wind from the open moorlands came sighing
across the soft spring sunshine. Sitting up straight, he
looked behind him a moment, as with an effort to turn
away from something he disliked and dreaded because it
was, he knew, too strong for him. But the same instant
he turned round again. He faced the vile and dreadful
thing in himself he had hitherto sought to deny, evade.
Pretence fell away. He could not disguise from himself,
that he had thoroughly enjoyed the killing; or, at any
rate, had not been shocked by it as by an unnatural and
ghastly duty. The shooting and bombing he performed
with an effort always, but the rarer moments when he
had been able to use the bayonet ... the joy of feeling
the steel go home....
He started again, hiding his face a moment in his
hands, but he did not try to evade the hideous memories
that surged. At times, he knew, he had gone quite mad
with the lust of slaughter; he had gone on long after he
should have stopped. Once an officer had pulled him up
sharply for it, but the next instant had been killed by a
bullet. He thought he had gone on killing, but he did
not know. It was all a red mist before his eyes and he
could only remember the sticky feeling of the blood on
his hands when he gripped his rifle....
And now, at this moment of painful honesty with himself,
he realized that his creed, whatever it was, must cover
all that; it must provide some sort of a philosophy for it;
must neither apologize nor ignore it. The heaven that
it promised must be a man’s heaven. The Christian heaven
made no appeal to him, he could not believe in it. The
ritual must be simple and direct. He felt that in some
dim way he understood why those old people had thrown
their captives from the Crag. The sacrifice of an animal
victim that could be eaten afterwards with due ceremonial
did not shock him. Such methods seemed simple, natural,
effective. Yet would it not have been better—the horrid
thought rose unbidden in his inmost mind—better to have
cut their throats with a flint knife ... slowly?
Horror-stricken, he sprang to his feet. These terrible
thoughts he could not recognize as his own. Had he slept
a moment in the sunlight, dreaming them? Was it some
hideous nightmare flash that touched him as he dozed a
second? Something of fear and awe stole over him. He
stared round for some minutes into the emptiness of the
desolate landscape, then hurriedly ran down to the road,
hoping to exorcize the strange sudden horror by vigorous
movement. Yet when he reached the track he knew that
he had not succeeded. The awful pictures were gone perhaps,
but the mood remained. It was as though some new
attitude began to take definite form and harden within
He walked on, trying to pretend to himself that he
was some forgotten legionary marching up with his fellows
to defend the Wall. Half unconsciously he fell into the
steady tramping pace of his old regiment: the words of
the ribald songs they had sung going to the front came
pouring into his mind. Steadily and almost mechanically
he swung along till he saw the Stone as a black speck on
the left of the track, and the instant he saw it there rose
in him the feeling that he stood upon the edge of an
adventure that he feared yet longed for. He approached
the great granite monolith with a curious thrill of anticipatory
excitement, born he knew not whence.
But, of course, there was nothing. Common sense,
still operating strongly, had warned him there would be,
could be, nothing. In the waste the great Stone stood upright,
solitary, forbidding, as it had stood for thousands
of years. It dominated the landscape somewhat ominously.
The sheep and cattle had used it as a rubbing-stone, and
bits of hair and wool clung to its rough, weather-eaten
edges; the feet of generations had worn a cup-shaped hollow
at its base. The wind sighed round it plaintively.
Its bulk glistened as it took the sun.
A short mile away the Blood Tarn was now plainly
visible; he could see the little holm lying in a direct line
with the Stone, while, overhanging the water as a dark
shadow on one side, rose the cliff-like rock they called “the
Crag.” Of the house the landlord had mentioned, however,
he could see no trace, as he relieved his shoulders
of the knapsack and sat down to enjoy his lunch. The
tarn, he reflected, was certainly a gloomy place; he could
understand that the simple superstitious shepherds did
not dare to live there, for even on this bright spring day
it wore a dismal and forbidding look. With failing light,
when the Crag sprawled its big lengthening shadow across
the water, he could well imagine they would give it the
widest possible berth. He strolled down to the shore after
lunch, smoking his pipe lazily—then suddenly stood still.
At the far end, hidden hitherto by a fold in the ground,
he saw the little house, a faint column of blue smoke rising
from the chimney, and at the same moment a woman
came out of the low door and began to walk towards the
tarn. She had seen him, she was moving evidently in his
direction; a few minutes later she stopped and stood waiting
on the path—waiting, he well knew, for him.
And his earlier mood, the mood he dreaded yet had
forced himself to recognize, came back upon him with
sudden redoubled power. As in some vivid dream that
dominates and paralyses the will, or as in the first stages
of an imposed hypnotic spell, all question, hesitation,
refusal sank away. He felt a pleasurable resignation steal
upon him with soft, numbing effect. Denial and criticism
ceased to operate, and common sense died with them. He
yielded his being automatically to the deeps of an adventure
he did not understand. He began to walk towards the
It was, he saw as he drew nearer, the figure of a young
girl, nineteen or twenty years of age, who stood there
motionless with her eyes fixed steadily on his own. She
looked as wild and picturesque as the scene that framed
her. Thick black hair hung loose over her back and
shoulders; about her head was bound a green ribbon; her
clothes consisted of a jersey and a very short skirt which
showed her bare legs browned by exposure to the sun and
wind. A pair of rough sandals covered her feet. Whether
the face was beautiful or not he could not tell; he only
knew that it attracted him immensely and with a strength
of appeal that he at once felt curiously irresistible. She
remained motionless against the boulder, staring fixedly
at him till he was close before her. Then she spoke:
“I am glad that you have come at last,” she said
in a clear, strong voice that yet was soft and even tender.
“We have been expecting you.”
“You have been expecting me!” he repeated, astonished
beyond words, yet finding the language natural, right and
true. A stream of sweet feeling invaded him, his heart
beat faster, he felt happy and at home in some extraordinary
way he could not understand yet did not question.
“Of course,” she answered, looking straight into his
eyes with welcome unashamed. Her next words thrilled
him to the core of his being. “I have made the room
ready for you.”
Quick upon her own, however, flashed back the landlord’s
words, while common sense made a last faint effort
in his thought. He was the victim of some absurd mistake
evidently. The lonely life, the forbidding surroundings,
the associations of the desolate hills had affected her
mind. He remembered the accident.
“I am afraid,” he offered, lamely enough, “there is
some mistake. I am not the friend you were expecting.
I——” He stopped. A thin slight sound as of distant
laughter seemed to echo behind the unconvincing words.
“There is no mistake,” the girl answered firmly, with
a quiet smile, moving a step nearer to him, so that he
caught the subtle perfume of her vigorous youth. “I saw
you clearly in the Mystery Stone. I recognized you at
“The Mystery Stone,” he heard himself saying, bewilderment
increasing, a sense of wild happiness growing
Laughing, she took his hand in hers. “Come,” she
said, drawing him along with her, “come home with me.
My father will be waiting for us; he will tell you everything,
and better far than I can.”
He went with her, feeling that he was made of sunlight
and that he walked on air, for at her touch his own
hand responded as with a sudden fierceness of pleasure
that he failed utterly to understand, yet did not question
for an instant. Wildly, absurdly, madly it flashed across
his mind: “This is the woman I shall marry—my
woman. I am her man.”
They walked in silence for a little, for no words of
any sort offered themselves to his mind, nor did the girl
attempt to speak. The total absence of embarrassment between
them occurred to him once or twice as curious,
though the very idea of embarrassment then disappeared
entirely. It all seemed natural and unforced, the sudden
intercourse as familiar and effortless as though they had
known one another always.
“The Mystery Stone,” he heard himself saying
presently, as the idea rose again to the surface of his
mind. “I should like to know more about it. Tell me,
“I bought it with the other things,” she replied softly.
“What other things?”
She turned and looked up into his face with a slight
expression of surprise; their shoulders touched as they
swung along; her hair blew in the wind across his coat.
“The bronze collar,” she answered in the low voice that
pleased him so, “and this ornament that I wear in my
He glanced down to examine it. Instead of a ribbon,
as he had first supposed, he saw that it was a circlet of
bronze, covered with a beautiful green patina and evidently
very old. In front, above the forehead, was a small disk
bearing an inscription he could not decipher at the
moment. He bent down and kissed her hair, the girl
smiling with happy contentment, but offering no sign of
resistance or annoyance.
“And,” she added suddenly, “the dagger.”
Holt started visibly. This time there was a thrill in
her voice that seemed to pierce down straight into his
heart. He said nothing, however. The unexpectedness
of the word she used, together with the note in her voice
that moved him so strangely, had a disconcerting effect
that kept him silent for a time. He did not ask about
the dagger. Something prevented his curiosity finding
expression in speech, though the word, with the marked
accent she placed upon it, had struck into him like the
shock of sudden steel itself, causing him an indecipherable
emotion of both joy and pain. He asked instead, presently,
another question, and a very commonplace one: he asked
where she and her father had lived before they came to
these lonely hills. And the form of his question—his
voice shook a little as he said it—was, again, an effort
of his normal self to maintain its already precarious
The effect of his simple query, the girl’s reply above
all, increased in him the mingled sensations of sweetness
and menace, of joy and dread, that half alarmed, half
satisfied him. For a moment she wore a puzzled expression,
as though making an effort to remember.
“Down by the sea,” she answered slowly, thoughtfully,
her voice very low. “Somewhere by a big harbour with
great ships coming in and out. It was there we had the
break—the shock—an accident that broke us, shattering
the dream we share To-day.” Her face cleared a little.
“We were in a chariot,” she went on more easily and
rapidly, “and father—my father was injured, so that I
went with him to a palace beyond the Wall till he grew
“You were in a chariot?” Holt repeated. “Surely
“Did I say chariot?” the girl replied. “How foolish
of me!” She shook her hair back as though the gesture
helped to clear her mind and memory. “That belongs,
of course, to the other dream. No, not a chariot; it was
a car. But it had wheels like a chariot—the old war-chariots.
“Disk-wheels,” thought Holt to himself. He did not
ask about the palace. He asked instead where she had
bought the Mystery Stone, as she called it, and the other
things. Her reply bemused and enticed him farther, for
he could not unravel it. His whole inner attitude was
shifting with uncanny rapidity and completeness. They
walked together, he now realized, with linked arms, moving
slowly in step, their bodies touching. He felt the
blood run hot and almost savage in his veins. He was
aware how amazingly precious she was to him, how deeply,
absolutely necessary to his life and happiness. Her words
went past him in the mountain wind like flying birds.
“My father was fishing,” she went on, “and I was on
my way to join him, when the old woman called me into
her dwelling and showed me the things. She wished to
give them to me, but I refused the present and paid for
them in gold. I put the fillet on my head to see if it
would fit, and took the Mystery Stone in my hand. Then,
as I looked deep into the stone, this present dream died all
away. It faded out. I saw the older dreams again—our
“The older dreams!” interrupted Holt. “Ours!” But
instead of saying the words aloud, they issued from his
lips in a quiet whisper, as though control of his voice had
passed a little from him. The sweetness in him became
more wonderful, unmanageable; his astonishment had
vanished; he walked and talked with his old familiar happy
Love, the woman he had sought so long and waited for, the
woman who was his mate, as he was hers, she who alone
could satisfy his inmost soul.
“The old dream,” she replied, “the very old—the oldest
of all perhaps—when we committed the terrible sacrilege.
I saw the High Priest lying dead—whom my father slew—and
the other whom you destroyed. I saw you prise
out the jewel from the image of the god—with your short
bloody spear. I saw, too, our flight to the galley through
the hot, awful night beneath the stars—and our
Her voice died away and she fell silent.
“Tell me more,” he whispered, drawing her closer
against his side. “What had you done?” His heart was
racing now. Some fighting blood surged uppermost. He
felt that he could kill, and the joy of violence and slaughter
rose in him.
“Have you forgotten so completely?” she asked very
low, as he pressed her more tightly still against his heart.
And almost beneath her breath she whispered into his ear,
which he bent to catch the little sound: “I had broken
my vows with you.”
“What else, my lovely one—my best beloved—what
more did you see?” he whispered in return, yet wondering
why the fierce pain and anger that he felt behind still
lay hidden from betrayal.
“Dream after dream, and always we were punished.
But the last time was the clearest, for it was here—here
where we now walk together in the sunlight and the wind—it
was here the savages hurled us from the rock.”
A shiver ran through him, making him tremble with
an unaccountable touch of cold that communicated itself
to her as well. Her arm went instantly about his shoulder,
as he stooped and kissed her passionately. “Fasten your
coat about you,” she said tenderly, but with troubled
breath, when he released her, “for this wind is chill
although the sun shines brightly. We were glad, you
remember, when they stopped to kill us, for we were tired
and our feet were cut to pieces by the long, rough journey
from the Wall.” Then suddenly her voice grew louder
again and the smile of happy confidence came back into
her eyes. There was the deep earnestness of love in it, of
love that cannot end or die. She looked up into his face.
“But soon now,” she said, “we shall be free. For you
have come, and it is nearly finished—this weary little
“How,” he asked, “shall we get free?” A red mist
swam momentarily before his eyes.
“My father,” she replied at once, “will tell you all.
It is quite easy.”
“Your father, too, remembers?”
“The moment the collar touches him,” she said, “he
is a priest again. See! Here he comes forth already to
meet us, and to bid you welcome.”
Holt looked up, startled. He had hardly noticed, so
absorbed had he been in the words that half intoxicated
him, the distance they had covered. The cottage was now
close at hand, and a tall, powerfully built man, wearing a
shepherd’s rough clothing, stood a few feet in front of
him. His stature, breadth of shoulder and thick black beard
made up a striking figure. The dark eyes, with fire in
them, gazed straight into his own, and a kindly smile
played round the stern and vigorous mouth.
“Greeting, my son,” said a deep, booming voice, “for
I shall call you my son as I did of old. The bond of the
spirit is stronger than that of the flesh, and with us three
the tie is indeed of triple strength. You come, too, at an
auspicious hour, for the omens are favourable and the time
of our liberation is at hand.” He took the other’s hand
in a grip that might have killed an ox and yet was warm
with gentle kindliness, while Holt, now caught wholly into
the spirit of some deep reality he could not master yet
accepted, saw that the wrist was small, the fingers shapely,
the gesture itself one of dignity and refinement.
“Greeting, my father,” he replied, as naturally as
though he said more modern words.
“Come in with me, I pray,” pursued the other, leading
the way, “and let me show you the poor accommodation
we have provided, yet the best that we can offer.”
He stooped to pass the threshold, and as Holt stooped
likewise the girl took his hand and he knew that his
bewitchment was complete. Entering the low doorway, he
passed through a kitchen, where only the roughest, scantiest
furniture was visible, into another room that was completely
bare. A heap of dried bracken had been spread on
the floor in one corner to form a bed. Beside it lay two
cheap, coloured blankets. There was nothing else.
“Our place is poor,” said the man, smiling courteously,
but with that dignity and air of welcome which
made the hovel seem a palace. “Yet it may serve, perhaps,
for the short time that you will need it. Our little
dream here is wellnigh over, now that you have come. The
long weary pilgrimage at last draws to a close.” The girl
had left them alone a moment, and the man stepped
closer to his guest. His face grew solemn, his voice deeper
and more earnest suddenly, the light in his eyes seemed
actually to flame with the enthusiasm of a great belief.
“Why have you tarried thus so long, and where?” he
asked in a lowered tone that vibrated in the little space.
“We have sought you with prayer and fasting, and she has
spent her nights for you in tears. You lost the way, it
must be. The lesser dreams entangled your feet, I see.”
A touch of sadness entered the voice, the eyes held pity in
them. “It is, alas, too easy, I well know,” he murmured.
“It is too easy.”
“I lost the way,” the other replied. It seemed suddenly
that his heart was filled with fire. “But now,” he
cried aloud, “now that I have found her, I will never,
never let her go again. My feet are steady and my way is
“For ever and ever, my son,” boomed the happy, yet
almost solemn answer, “she is yours. Our freedom is at
He turned and crossed the little kitchen again, making
a sign that his guest should follow him. They stood together
by the door, looking out across the tarn in silence.
The afternoon sunshine fell in a golden blaze across the
bare hills that seemed to smoke with the glory of the fiery
light. But the Crag loomed dark in shadow overhead,
and the little lake lay deep and black beneath it.
“Acella, Acella!” called the man, the name breaking
upon his companion as with a shock of sweet delicious fire
that filled his entire being, as the girl came the same
instant from behind the cottage. “The Gods call me,”
said her father. “I go now to the hill. Protect our guest
and comfort him in my absence.”
Without another word, he strode away up the hillside
and presently was visible standing on the summit of the
Crag, his arms stretched out above his head to heaven,
his great head thrown back, his bearded face turned upwards.
An impressive, even a majestic figure he looked,
as his bulk and stature rose in dark silhouette against the
brilliant evening sky. Holt stood motionless, watching
him for several minutes, his heart swelling in his breast,
his pulses thumping before some great nameless pressure
that rose from the depths of his being. That inner attitude
which seemed a new and yet more satisfying attitude
to life than he had known hitherto, had crystallized.
Define it he could not, he only knew that he accepted it as
natural. It satisfied him. The sight of that dignified,
gaunt figure worshipping upon the hill-top enflamed
“I have brought the stone,” a voice interrupted his
reflections, and turning, he saw the girl beside him. She
held out for his inspection a dark square object that looked
to him at first like a black stone lying against the brown
skin of her hand. “The Mystery Stone,” the girl added,
as their faces bent down together to examine it. “It is
there I see the dreams I told you of.”
He took it from her and found that it was heavy, composed
apparently of something like black quartz, with a
brilliant polished surface that revealed clear depths within.
Once, evidently, it had been set in a stand or frame, for
the marks where it had been attached still showed, and
it was obviously of great age. He felt confused, the mind
in him troubled yet excited, as he gazed. The effect upon
him was as though a wind rose suddenly and passed across
his inmost subjective life, setting its entire contents in
“And here,” the girl said, “is the dagger.”
He took from her the short bronze weapon, feeling at
once instinctively its ragged edge, its keen point, sharp
and effective still. The handle had long since rotted
away, but the bronze tongue, and the holes where the
rivets had been, remained, and, as he touched it, the confusion
and trouble in his mind increased to a kind of turmoil,
in which violence, linked to something tameless, wild
and almost savage, was the dominating emotion. He
turned to seize the girl and crush her to him in a passionate
embrace, but she held away, throwing back her lovely head,
her eyes shining, her lips parted, yet one hand stretched
out to stop him.
“First look into it with me,” she said quietly. “Let us
She sat down on the turf beside the cottage door, and
Holt, obeying, took his place beside her. She remained
very still for some minutes, covering the stone with both
hands as though to warm it. Her lips moved. She seemed
to be repeating some kind of invocation beneath her breath,
though no actual words were audible. Presently her hands
parted. They sat together gazing at the polished surface.
They looked within.
“There comes a white mist in the heart of the stone,”
the girl whispered. “It will soon open. The pictures
will then grow. Look!” she exclaimed after a brief pause,
“they are forming now.”
“I see only mist,” her companion murmured, gazing
intently. “Only mist I see.”
She took his hand and instantly the mist parted. He
found himself peering into another landscape which opened
before his eyes as though it were a photograph. Hills
covered with heather stretched away on every side.
“Hills, I see,” he whispered. “The ancient hills——”
“Watch closely,” she replied, holding his hand firmly.
At first the landscape was devoid of any sign of life;
then suddenly it surged and swarmed with moving figures.
Torrents of men poured over the hill-crests and down their
heathery sides in columns. He could see them clearly—great
hairy men, clad in skins, with thick shields on their
left arms or slung over their backs, and short stabbing
spears in their hands. Thousands upon thousands poured
over in an endless stream. In the distance he could see
other columns sweeping in a turning movement. A few
of the men rode rough ponies and seemed to be directing
the march, and these, he knew, were the chiefs....
The scene grew dimmer, faded, died away completely.
Another took its place:
By the faint light he knew that it was dawn. The
undulating country, less hilly than before, was still wild
and uncultivated. A great wall, with towers at intervals,
stretched away till it was lost in shadowy distance. On
the nearest of these towers he saw a sentinel clad in
armour, gazing out across the rolling country. The
armour gleamed faintly in the pale glimmering light, as
the man suddenly snatched up a bugle and blew upon it.
From a brazier burning beside him he next seized a brand
and fired a great heap of brushwood. The smoke rose in
a dense column into the air almost immediately, and from
all directions, with incredible rapidity, figures came pouring
up to man the wall. Hurriedly they strung their
bows, and laid spare arrows close beside them on the coping.
The light grew brighter. The whole country was
alive with savages; like the waves of the sea they came
rolling in enormous numbers. For several minutes the
wall held. Then, in an impetuous, fearful torrent, they
It faded, died away, was gone again, and a moment
later yet another took its place:
But this time the landscape was familiar, and he recognized
the tarn. He saw the savages upon the ledge that
flanked the dominating Crag; they had three captives with
them. He saw two men. The other was a woman. But
the woman had fallen exhausted to the ground, and a
chief on a rough pony rode back to see what had delayed
the march. Glancing at the captives, he made a fierce
gesture with his arm towards the water far below. Instantly
the woman was jerked cruelly to her feet and
forced onwards till the summit of the Crag was reached.
A man snatched something from her hand. A second later
she was hurled over the brink.
The two men were next dragged on to the dizzy spot
where she had stood. Dead with fatigue, bleeding from
numerous wounds, yet at this awful moment they
straightened themselves, casting contemptuous glances at
the fierce savages surrounding them. They were Romans
and would die like Romans. Holt saw their faces clearly
for the first time.
He sprang up with a cry of anguished fury.
“The second man!” he exclaimed. “You saw the
The girl, releasing his hand, turned her eyes slowly
up to his, so that he met the flame of her ancient and
undying love shining like stars upon him out of the night
“Ever since that moment,” she said in a low voice
that trembled, “I have been looking, waiting for you——”
He took her in his arms and smothered her words with
kisses, holding her fiercely to him as though he would
never let her go. “I, too,” he said, his whole being burning
with his love, “I have been looking, waiting for you.
Now I have found you. We have found each other...!”
The dusk fell slowly, imperceptibly. As twilight slowly
draped the gaunt hills, blotting out familiar details, so
the strong dream, veil upon veil, drew closer over the soul
of the wanderer, obliterating finally the last reminder of
To-day. The little wind had dropped and the desolate
moors lay silent, but for the hum of distant water falling
to its valley bed. His life, too, and the life of the girl,
he knew, were similarly falling, falling into some deep
shadowed bed where rest would come at last. No details
troubled him, he asked himself no questions. A profound
sense of happy peace numbed every nerve and stilled his
He felt no fear, no anxiety, no hint of alarm or uneasiness
vexed his singular contentment. He realized one
thing only—that the girl lay in his arms, he held her fast,
her breath mingled with his own. They had found each
other. What else mattered?
From time to time, as the daylight faded and the sun
went down behind the moors, she spoke. She uttered
words he vaguely heard, listening, though with a certain
curious effort, before he closed the thing she said with
kisses. Even the fierceness of his blood was gone. The
world lay still, life almost ceased to flow. Lapped in the
deeps of his great love, he was redeemed, perhaps, of
violence and savagery....
“Three dark birds,” she whispered, “pass across the
sky ... they fall beyond the ridge. The omens are
favourable. A hawk now follows them, cleaving the sky
with pointed wings.”
“A hawk,” he murmured. “The badge of my old
“My father will perform the sacrifice,” he heard again,
though it seemed a long interval had passed, and the
man’s figure was now invisible on the Crag amid the
gathering darkness. “Already he prepares the fire. Look,
the sacred island is alight. He has the black cock ready
for the knife.”
Holt roused himself with difficulty, lifting his face
from the garden of her hair. A faint light, he saw,
gleamed fitfully on the holm within the tarn. Her father,
then, had descended from the Crag, and had lit the sacrificial
fire upon the stones. But what did the doings of the
father matter now to him?
“The dark bird,” he repeated dully, “the black victim
the Gods of the Underworld alone accept. It is good,
Acella, it is good!” He was about to sink back again,
taking her against his breast as before, when she resisted
and sat up suddenly.
“It is time,” she said aloud. “The hour has come.
My father climbs, and we must join him on the summit.
She took his hand and raised him to his feet, and
together they began the rough ascent towards the Crag.
As they passed along the shore of the Tarn of Blood, he
saw the fire reflected in the ink-black waters; he made
out, too, though dimly, a rough circle of big stones, with
a larger flag-stone lying in the centre. Three small fires
of bracken and wood, placed in a triangle with its apex
towards the Standing Stone on the distant hill, burned
briskly, the crackling material sending out sparks that
pierced the columns of thick smoke. And in this smoke,
peering, shifting, appearing and disappearing, it seemed
he saw great faces moving. The flickering light and twirling
smoke made clear sight difficult. His bliss, his
lethargy were very deep. They left the tarn below them
and hand in hand began to climb the final slope.
Whether the physical effort of climbing disturbed the
deep pressure of the mood that numbed his senses, or
whether the cold draught of wind they met upon the ridge
restored some vital detail of To-day, Holt does not know.
Something, at any rate, in him wavered suddenly, as
though a centre of gravity had shifted slightly. There
was a perceptible alteration in the balance of thought and
feeling that had held invariable now for many hours. It
seemed to him that something heavy lifted, or rather, began
to lift—a weight, a shadow, something oppressive that
obstructed light. A ray of light, as it were, struggled
through the thick darkness that enveloped him. To him,
as he paused on the ridge to recover his breath, came this
vague suggestion of faint light breaking across the blackness.
It was objective.
“See,” said the girl in a low voice, “the moon is rising.
It lights the sacred island. The blood-red waters turn to
He saw, indeed, that a huge three-quarter moon now
drove with almost visible movement above the distant line
of hills; the little tarn gleamed as with silvery armour;
the glow of the sacrificial fires showed red across it. He
looked down with a shudder into the sheer depth that
opened at his feet, then turned to look at his companion.
He started and shrank back. Her face, lit by the moon
and by the fire, shone pale as death; her black hair framed
it with a terrible suggestiveness; the eyes, though brilliant
as ever, had a film upon them. She stood in an attitude
of both ecstasy and resignation, and one outstretched arm
pointed towards the summit where her father stood.
Her lips parted, a marvellous smile broke over her
features, her voice was suddenly unfamiliar: “He wears
the collar,” she uttered. “Come. Our time is here at last,
and we are ready. See, he waits for us!”
There rose for the first time struggle and opposition
in him; he resisted the pressure of her hand that had
seized his own and drew him forcibly along. Whence
came the resistance and the opposition he could not tell,
but though he followed her, he was aware that the refusal
in him strengthened. The weight of darkness that oppressed
him shifted a little more, an inner light increased;
The same moment they reached the summit and stood beside—the
priest. There was a curious sound of fluttering.
The figure, he saw, was naked, save for a rough blanket
tied loosely about the waist.
“The hour has come at last,” cried his deep booming
voice that woke echoes from the dark hills about them.
“We are alone now with our Gods.” And he broke then
into a monotonous rhythmic chanting that rose and fell
upon the wind, yet in a tongue that sounded strange; his
erect figure swayed slightly with its cadences; his black
beard swept his naked chest; and his face, turned skywards,
shone in the mingled light of moon above and fire
below, yet with an added light as well that burned within
him rather than without. He was a weird, magnificent
figure, a priest of ancient rites invoking his deathless
deities upon the unchanging hills.
But upon Holt, too, as he stared in awed amazement,
an inner light had broken suddenly. It came as with a
dazzling blaze that at first paralysed thought and action.
His mind cleared, but too abruptly for movement, either
of tongue or hand, to be possible. Then, abruptly, the
inner darkness rolled away completely. The light in the
wild eyes of the great chanting, swaying figure, he now
knew was the light of mania.
The faint fluttering sound increased, and the voice of
the girl was oddly mingled with it. The priest had ceased
his invocation. Holt, aware that he stood alone, saw the
girl go past him carrying a big black bird that struggled
with vainly beating wings.
“Behold the sacrifice,” she said, as she knelt before
her father and held up the victim. “May the Gods accept
it as presently They shall accept us too!”
The great figure stooped and took the offering, and
with one blow of the knife he held, its head was severed
from its body. The blood spattered on the white face of
the kneeling girl. Holt was aware for the first time that
she, too, was now unclothed; but for a loose blanket, her
white body gleamed against the dark heather in the moonlight.
At the same moment she rose to her feet, stood
upright, turned towards him so that he saw the dark hair
streaming across her naked shoulders, and, with a face
of ecstasy, yet ever that strange film upon her eyes, her
voice came to him on the wind:
“Farewell, yet not farewell! We shall meet, all three,
in the underworld. The Gods accept us!”
Turning her face away, she stepped towards the ominous
figure behind, and bared her ivory neck and breast
to the knife. The eyes of the maniac were upon her own;
she was as helpless and obedient as a lamb before his
Then Holt’s horrible paralysis, if only just in time,
was lifted. The priest had raised his arm, the bronze
knife with its ragged edge gleamed in the air, with the
other hand he had already gathered up the thick dark
hair, so that the neck lay bare and open to the final blow.
But it was two other details, Holt thinks, that set his
muscles suddenly free, enabling him to act with the swift
judgment which, being wholly unexpected, disconcerted
both maniac and victim and frustrated the awful culmination.
The dark spots of blood upon the face he
loved, and the sudden final fluttering of the dead bird’s
wings upon the ground—these two things, life actually
touching death, released the held-back springs.
He leaped forward. He received the blow upon his
left arm and hand. It was his right fist that sent the
High Priest to earth with a blow that, luckily, felled him
in the direction away from the dreadful brink, and it was
his right arm and hand, he became aware some time afterwards
only, that were chiefly of use in carrying the fainting
girl and her unconscious father back to the shelter of
the cottage, and to the best help and comfort he could
It was several years afterwards, in a very different
setting, that he found himself spelling out slowly to a
little boy the lettering cut into a circlet of bronze the child
found on his study table. To the child he told a fairy
tale, then dismissed him to play with his mother in the
garden. But, when alone, he rubbed away the verdigris
with great care, for the circlet was thin and frail with age,
as he examined again the little picture of a tripod from
which smoke issued, incised neatly in the metal. Below
it, almost as sharp as when the Roman craftsman cut it
first, was the name Acella. He touched the letters tenderly
with his left hand, from which two fingers were missing,
then placed it in a drawer of his desk and turned the key.
“That curious name,” said a low voice behind his
chair. His wife had come in and was looking over his
shoulder. “You love it, and I dread it.” She sat on the
desk beside him, her eyes troubled. “It was the name
father used to call me in his illness.”
Her husband looked at her with passionate tenderness,
but said no word.
“And this,” she went on, taking the broken hand in
both her own, “is the price you paid to me for his life.
I often wonder what strange good deity brought you upon
the lonely moor that night, and just in the very nick of
time. You remember...?”
“The deity who helps true lovers, of course,” he said
with a smile, evading the question. The deeper memory,
he knew, had closed absolutely in her since the moment
of the attempted double crime. He kissed her, murmuring
to himself as he did so, but too low for her to hear,
“Acella! My Acella...!”