Part 2 out of 4
fifteen miles. Thick-set and stout, she was seen about the country, on
foot or in an acquaintance's cart, perpetually moving, in spite of her
fifty-eight years, in steady pursuit of business. She had houses in
all the hamlets, she worked quarries of granite, she freighted
coasters with stone--even traded with the Channel Islands. She was
broad-cheeked, wide-eyed, persuasive in speech: carrying her point
with the placid and invincible obstinacy of an old woman who knows her
own mind. She very seldom slept for two nights together in the same
house; and the wayside inns were the best places to inquire in as to
her whereabouts. She had either passed, or was expected to pass there
at six; or somebody, coming in, had seen her in the morning, or
expected to meet her that evening. After the inns that command the
roads, the churches were the buildings she frequented most. Men of
liberal opinions would induce small children to run into sacred
edifices to see whether Madame Levaille was there, and to tell her
that so-and-so was in the road waiting to speak to her about potatoes,
or flour, or stones, or houses; and she would curtail her devotions,
come out blinking and crossing herself into the sunshine; ready to
discuss business matters in a calm, sensible way across a table in the
kitchen of the inn opposite. Latterly she had stayed for a few days
several times with her son-in-law, arguing against sorrow and
misfortune with composed face and gentle tones. Jean-Pierre felt the
convictions imbibed in the regiment torn out of his breast--not by
arguments but by facts. Striding over his fields he thought it over.
There were three of them. Three! All alike! Why? Such things did not
happen to everybody--to nobody he ever heard of. One--might pass. But
three! All three. Forever useless, to be fed while he lived and . . .
What would become of the land when he died? This must be seen to. He
would sacrifice his convictions. One day he told his wife--
"See what your God will do for us. Pay for some masses."
Susan embraced her man. He stood unbending, then turned on his heels
and went out. But afterwards, when a black soutane darkened his
doorway, he did not object; even offered some cider himself to the
priest. He listened to the talk meekly; went to mass between the two
women; accomplished what the priest called "his religious duties" at
Easter. That morning he felt like a man who had sold his soul. In the
afternoon he fought ferociously with an old friend and neighbour who
had remarked that the priests had the best of it and were now going to
eat the priest-eater. He came home dishevelled and bleeding, and
happening to catch sight of his children (they were kept generally out
of the way), cursed and swore incoherently, banging the table. Susan
wept. Madame Levaille sat serenely unmoved. She assured her daughter
that "It will pass;" and taking up her thick umbrella, departed in
haste to see after a schooner she was going to load with granite from
A year or so afterwards the girl was born. A girl. Jean-Pierre heard
of it in the fields, and was so upset by the news that he sat down on
the boundary wall and remained there till the evening, instead of
going home as he was urged to do. A girl! He felt half cheated.
However, when he got home he was partly reconciled to his fate. One
could marry her to a good fellow--not to a good for nothing, but to a
fellow with some understanding and a good pair of arms. Besides, the
next may be a boy, he thought. Of course they would be all right. His
new credulity knew of no doubt. The ill luck was broken. He spoke
cheerily to his wife. She was also hopeful. Three priests came to that
christening, and Madame Levaille was godmother. The child turned out
an idiot too.
Then on market days Jean-Pierre was seen bargaining bitterly,
quarrelsome and greedy; then getting drunk with taciturn earnestness;
then driving home in the dusk at a rate fit for a wedding, but with a
face gloomy enough for a funeral. Sometimes he would insist on his
wife coming with him; and they would drive in the early morning,
shaking side by side on the narrow seat above the helpless pig, that,
with tied legs, grunted a melancholy sigh at every rut. The morning
drives were silent; but in the evening, coming home, Jean-Pierre,
tipsy, was viciously muttering, and growled at the confounded woman
who could not rear children that were like anybody else's. Susan,
holding on against the erratic swayings of the cart, pretended not to
hear. Once, as they were driving through Ploumar, some obscure and
drunken impulse caused him to pull up sharply opposite the church. The
moon swam amongst light white clouds. The tombstones gleamed pale
under the fretted shadows of the trees in the churchyard. Even the
village dogs slept. Only the nightingales, awake, spun out the thrill
of their song above the silence of graves. Jean-Pierre said thickly to
"What do you think is there?"
He pointed his whip at the tower--in which the big dial of the clock
appeared high in the moonlight like a pallid face without eyes--and
getting out carefully, fell down at once by the wheel. He picked
himself up and climbed one by one the few steps to the iron gate of
the churchyard. He put his face to the bars and called out
"Hey there! Come out!"
"Jean! Return! Return!" entreated his wife in low tones.
He took no notice, and seemed to wait there. The song of nightingales
beat on all sides against the high walls of the church, and flowed
back between stone crosses and flat gray slabs, engraved with words of
hope and sorrow.
"Hey! Come out!" shouted Jean-Pierre, loudly.
The nightingales ceased to sing.
"Nobody?" went on Jean-Pierre. "Nobody there. A swindle of the crows.
That's what this is. Nobody anywhere. I despise it. Allez! Houp!"
He shook the gate with all his strength, and the iron bars rattled
with a frightful clanging, like a chain dragged over stone steps. A
dog near by barked hurriedly. Jean-Pierre staggered back, and after
three successive dashes got into his cart. Susan sat very quiet and
still. He said to her with drunken severity--
"See? Nobody. I've been made a fool! Malheur! Somebody will pay for
it. The next one I see near the house I will lay my whip on . . . on
the black spine . . . I will. I don't want him in there . . . he only
helps the carrion crows to rob poor folk. I am a man. . . . We will
see if I can't have children like anybody else . . . now you
mind. . . . They won't be all . . . all . . . we see. . . ."
She burst out through the fingers that hid her face--
"Don't say that, Jean; don't say that, my man!"
He struck her a swinging blow on the head with the back of his hand
and knocked her into the bottom of the cart, where she crouched,
thrown about lamentably by every jolt. He drove furiously, standing
up, brandishing his whip, shaking the reins over the gray horse that
galloped ponderously, making the heavy harness leap upon his broad
quarters. The country rang clamorous in the night with the irritated
barking of farm dogs, that followed the rattle of wheels all along the
road. A couple of belated wayfarers had only just time to step into
the ditch. At his own gate he caught the post and was shot out of the
cart head first. The horse went on slowly to the door. At Susan's
piercing cries the farm hands rushed out. She thought him dead, but he
was only sleeping where he fell, and cursed his men, who hastened to
him, for disturbing his slumbers.
Autumn came. The clouded sky descended low upon the black contours of
the hills; and the dead leaves danced in spiral whirls under naked
trees, till the wind, sighing profoundly, laid them to rest in the
hollows of bare valleys. And from morning till night one could see all
over the land black denuded boughs, the boughs gnarled and twisted, as
if contorted with pain, swaying sadly between the wet clouds and the
soaked earth. The clear and gentle streams of summer days rushed
discoloured and raging at the stones that barred the way to the sea,
with the fury of madness bent upon suicide. From horizon to horizon
the great road to the sands lay between the hills in a dull glitter of
empty curves, resembling an unnavigable river of mud.
Jean-Pierre went from field to field, moving blurred and tall in the
drizzle, or striding on the crests of rises, lonely and high upon the
gray curtain of drifting clouds, as if he had been pacing along the
very edge of the universe. He looked at the black earth, at the
earth mute and promising, at the mysterious earth doing its work of
life in death-like stillness under the veiled sorrow of the sky. And
it seemed to him that to a man worse than childless there was no
promise in the fertility of fields, that from him the earth escaped,
defied him, frowned at him like the clouds, sombre and hurried above
his head. Having to face alone his own fields, he felt the inferiority
of man who passes away before the clod that remains. Must he give up
the hope of having by his side a son who would look at the turned-up
sods with a master's eye? A man that would think as he thought, that
would feel as he felt; a man who would be part of himself, and yet
remain to trample masterfully on that earth when he was gone? He
thought of some distant relations, and felt savage enough to curse
them aloud. They! Never! He turned homewards, going straight at the
roof of his dwelling, visible between the enlaced skeletons of trees.
As he swung his legs over the stile a cawing flock of birds settled
slowly on the field; dropped down behind his back, noiseless and
fluttering, like flakes of soot.
That day Madame Levaille had gone early in the afternoon to the house
she had near Kervanion. She had to pay some of the men who worked in
her granite quarry there, and she went in good time because her little
house contained a shop where the workmen could spend their wages
without the trouble of going to town. The house stood alone amongst
rocks. A lane of mud and stones ended at the door. The sea-winds
coming ashore on Stonecutter's point, fresh from the fierce turmoil of
the waves, howled violently at the unmoved heaps of black boulders
holding up steadily short-armed, high crosses against the tremendous
rush of the invisible. In the sweep of gales the sheltered dwelling
stood in a calm resonant and disquieting, like the calm in the centre
of a hurricane. On stormy nights, when the tide was out, the bay of
Fougere, fifty feet below the house, resembled an immense black pit,
from which ascended mutterings and sighs as if the sands down there
had been alive and complaining. At high tide the returning water
assaulted the ledges of rock in short rushes, ending in bursts of
livid light and columns of spray, that flew inland, stinging to death
the grass of pastures.
The darkness came from the hills, flowed over the coast, put out the
red fires of sunset, and went on to seaward pursuing the retiring
tide. The wind dropped with the sun, leaving a maddened sea and a
devastated sky. The heavens above the house seemed to be draped in
black rags, held up here and there by pins of fire. Madame Levaille,
for this evening the servant of her own workmen, tried to induce them
to depart. "An old woman like me ought to be in bed at this late
hour," she good-humouredly repeated. The quarrymen drank, asked for
more. They shouted over the table as if they had been talking across a
field. At one end four of them played cards, banging the wood with
their hard knuckles, and swearing at every lead. One sat with a lost
gaze, humming a bar of some song, which he repeated endlessly. Two
others, in a corner, were quarrelling confidentially and fiercely
over some woman, looking close into one another's eyes as if they had
wanted to tear them out, but speaking in whispers that promised
violence and murder discreetly, in a venomous sibillation of subdued
words. The atmosphere in there was thick enough to slice with a knife.
Three candles burning about the long room glowed red and dull like
sparks expiring in ashes.
The slight click of the iron latch was at that late hour as unexpected
and startling as a thunder-clap. Madame Levaille put down a bottle she
held above a liqueur glass; the players turned their heads; the
whispered quarrel ceased; only the singer, after darting a glance at
the door, went on humming with a stolid face. Susan appeared in the
doorway, stepped in, flung the door to, and put her back against it,
saying, half aloud--
Madame Levaille, taking up the bottle again, said calmly: "Here you
are, my girl. What a state you are in!" The neck of the bottle rang on
the rim of the glass, for the old woman was startled, and the idea
that the farm had caught fire had entered her head. She could think of
no other cause for her daughter's appearance.
Susan, soaked and muddy, stared the whole length of the room towards
the men at the far end. Her mother asked--
"What has happened? God guard us from misfortune!"
Susan moved her lips. No sound came. Madame Levaille stepped up to her
daughter, took her by the arm, looked into her face.
"In God's name," she said, shakily, "what's the matter? You have been
rolling in mud. . . . Why did you come? . . . Where's Jean?"
The men had all got up and approached slowly, staring with dull
surprise. Madame Levaille jerked her daughter away from the door,
swung her round upon a seat close to the wall. Then she turned
fiercely to the men--
"Enough of this! Out you go--you others! I close."
One of them observed, looking down at Susan collapsed on the seat:
"She is--one may say--half dead."
Madame Levaille flung the door open.
"Get out! March!" she cried, shaking nervously.
They dropped out into the night, laughing stupidly. Outside, the two
Lotharios broke out into loud shouts. The others tried to soothe them,
all talking at once. The noise went away up the lane with the men, who
staggered together in a tight knot, remonstrating with one another
"Speak, Susan. What is it? Speak!" entreated Madame Levaille, as soon
as the door was shut.
Susan pronounced some incomprehensible words, glaring at the table.
The old woman clapped her hands above her head, let them drop, and
stood looking at her daughter with disconsolate eyes. Her husband had
been "deranged in his head" for a few years before he died, and now
she began to suspect her daughter was going mad. She asked,
"Does Jean know where you are? Where is Jean?"
"He knows . . . he is dead."
"What!" cried the old woman. She came up near, and peering at her
daughter, repeated three times: "What do you say? What do you say?
What do you say?"
Susan sat dry-eyed and stony before Madame Levaille, who
contemplated her, feeling a strange sense of inexplicable horror creep
into the silence of the house. She had hardly realised the news,
further than to understand that she had been brought in one short
moment face to face with something unexpected and final. It did not
even occur to her to ask for any explanation. She thought:
accident--terrible accident--blood to the head--fell down a trap door
in the loft. . . . She remained there, distracted and mute, blinking
her old eyes.
Suddenly, Susan said--
"I have killed him."
For a moment the mother stood still, almost unbreathing, but with
composed face. The next second she burst out into a shout--
"You miserable madwoman . . . they will cut your neck. . . ."
She fancied the gendarmes entering the house, saying to her: "We want
your daughter; give her up:" the gendarmes with the severe, hard faces
of men on duty. She knew the brigadier well--an old friend, familiar
and respectful, saying heartily, "To your good health, Madame!" before
lifting to his lips the small glass of cognac--out of the special
bottle she kept for friends. And now! . . . She was losing her head.
She rushed here and there, as if looking for something urgently
needed--gave that up, stood stock still in the middle of the room, and
screamed at her daughter--
"Why? Say! Say! Why?"
The other seemed to leap out of her strange apathy.
"Do you think I am made of stone?" she shouted back, striding towards
"No! It's impossible. . . ." said Madame Levaille, in a convinced
"You go and see, mother," retorted Susan, looking at her with blazing
eyes. "There's no money in heaven--no justice. No! . . . I did not
know. . . . Do you think I have no heart? Do you think I have never
heard people jeering at me, pitying me, wondering at me? Do you know
how some of them were calling me? The mother of idiots--that was my
nickname! And my children never would know me, never speak to me. They
would know nothing; neither men--nor God. Haven't I prayed! But the
Mother of God herself would not hear me. A mother! . . . Who is
accursed--I, or the man who is dead? Eh? Tell me. I took care of
myself. Do you think I would defy the anger of God and have my house
full of those things--that are worse than animals who know the hand
that feeds them? Who blasphemed in the night at the very church door?
Was it I? . . . I only wept and prayed for mercy . . . and I feel the
curse at every moment of the day--I see it round me from morning to
night . . . I've got to keep them alive--to take care of my misfortune
and shame. And he would come. I begged him and Heaven for mercy. . . .
No! . . . Then we shall see. . . . He came this evening. I thought to
myself: 'Ah! again!' . . . I had my long scissors. I heard him
shouting . . . I saw him near. . . . I must--must I? . . . Then take!
. . . And I struck him in the throat above the breastbone. . . . I
never heard him even sigh. . . . I left him standing. . . . It was a
minute ago. How did I come here?"
Madame Levaille shivered. A wave of cold ran down her back, down her
fat arms under her tight sleeves, made her stamp gently where she
stood. Quivers ran over the broad cheeks, across the thin lips, ran
amongst the wrinkles at the corners of her steady old eyes. She
"You wicked woman--you disgrace me. But there! You always resembled
your father. What do you think will become of you . . . in the other
world? In this . . . Oh misery!"
She was very hot now. She felt burning inside. She wrung her
perspiring hands--and suddenly, starting in great haste, began to
look for her big shawl and umbrella, feverishly, never once glancing
at her daughter, who stood in the middle of the room following her
with a gaze distracted and cold.
"Nothing worse than in this," said Susan.
Her mother, umbrella in hand and trailing the shawl over the floor,
"I must go to the priest," she burst out passionately. "I do not know
whether you even speak the truth! You are a horrible woman. They will
find you anywhere. You may stay here--or go. There is no room for
you in this world."
Ready now to depart, she yet wandered aimlessly about the room,
putting the bottles on the shelf, trying to fit with trembling hands
the covers on cardboard boxes. Whenever the real sense of what she had
heard emerged for a second from the haze of her thoughts she would
fancy that something had exploded in her brain without, unfortunately,
bursting her head to pieces--which would have been a relief. She blew
the candles out one by one without knowing it, and was horribly
startled by the darkness. She fell on a bench and began to whimper.
After a while she ceased, and sat listening to the breathing of her
daughter, whom she could hardly see, still and upright, giving no
other sign of life. She was becoming old rapidly at last, during those
minutes. She spoke in tones unsteady, cut about by the rattle of
teeth, like one shaken by a deadly cold fit of ague.
"I wish you had died little. I will never dare to show my old head in
the sunshine again. There are worse misfortunes than idiot children. I
wish you had been born to me simple--like your own. . . ."
She saw the figure of her daughter pass before the faint and livid
clearness of a window. Then it appeared in the doorway for a second,
and the door swung to with a clang. Madame Levaille, as if awakened by
the noise from a long nightmare, rushed out.
"Susan!" she shouted from the doorstep.
She heard a stone roll a long time down the declivity of the rocky
beach above the sands. She stepped forward cautiously, one hand on
the wall of the house, and peered down into the smooth darkness of the
empty bay. Once again she cried--
"Susan! You will kill yourself there."
The stone had taken its last leap in the dark, and she heard nothing
now. A sudden thought seemed to strangle her, and she called no more.
She turned her back upon the black silence of the pit and went up the
lane towards Ploumar, stumbling along with sombre determination, as if
she had started on a desperate journey that would last, perhaps, to
the end of her life. A sullen and periodic clamour of waves rolling
over reefs followed her far inland between the high hedges sheltering
the gloomy solitude of the fields.
Susan had run out, swerving sharp to the left at the door, and on the
edge of the slope crouched down behind a boulder. A dislodged stone
went on downwards, rattling as it leaped. When Madame Levaille called
out, Susan could have, by stretching her hand, touched her mother's
skirt, had she had the courage to move a limb. She saw the old woman
go away, and she remained still, closing her eyes and pressing her
side to the hard and rugged surface of the rock. After a while a
familiar face with fixed eyes and an open mouth became visible in the
intense obscurity amongst the boulders. She uttered a low cry and
stood up. The face vanished, leaving her to gasp and shiver alone in
the wilderness of stone heaps. But as soon as she had crouched down
again to rest, with her head against the rock, the face returned, came
very near, appeared eager to finish the speech that had been cut short
by death, only a moment ago. She scrambled quickly to her feet and
said: "Go away, or I will do it again." The thing wavered, swung to
the right, to the left. She moved this way and that, stepped back,
fancied herself screaming at it, and was appalled by the unbroken
stillness of the night. She tottered on the brink, felt the steep
declivity under her feet, and rushed down blindly to save herself from
a headlong fall. The shingle seemed to wake up; the pebbles began to
roll before her, pursued her from above, raced down with her on both
sides, rolling past with an increasing clatter. In the peace of the
night the noise grew, deepening to a rumour, continuous and violent,
as if the whole semicircle of the stony beach had started to tumble
down into the bay. Susan's feet hardly touched the slope that seemed
to run down with her. At the bottom she stumbled, shot forward,
throwing her arms out, and fell heavily. She jumped up at once and
turned swiftly to look back, her clenched hands full of sand she had
clutched in her fall. The face was there, keeping its distance,
visible in its own sheen that made a pale stain in the night. She
shouted, "Go away!"--she shouted at it with pain, with fear, with all
the rage of that useless stab that could not keep him quiet, keep him
out of her sight. What did he want now? He was dead. Dead men have no
children. Would he never leave her alone? She shrieked at it--waved
her outstretched hands. She seemed to feel the breath of parted lips,
and, with a long cry of discouragement, fled across the level bottom
of the bay.
She ran lightly, unaware of any effort of her body. High sharp rocks
that, when the bay is full, show above the glittering plain of blue
water like pointed towers of submerged churches, glided past her,
rushing to the land at a tremendous pace. To the left, in the
distance, she could see something shining: a broad disc of light in
which narrow shadows pivoted round the centre like the spokes of a
wheel. She heard a voice calling, "Hey! There!" and answered with a
wild scream. So, he could call yet! He was calling after her to stop.
Never! . . . She tore through the night, past the startled group of
seaweed-gatherers who stood round their lantern paralysed with fear at
the unearthly screech coming from that fleeing shadow. The men leaned
on their pitchforks staring fearfully. A woman fell on her knees, and,
crossing herself, began to pray aloud. A little girl with her ragged
skirt full of slimy seaweed began to sob despairingly, lugging her
soaked burden close to the man who carried the light. Somebody said:
"The thing ran out towards the sea." Another voice exclaimed: "And the
sea is coming back! Look at the spreading puddles. Do you hear--you
woman--there! Get up!" Several voices cried together. "Yes, let us
be off! Let the accursed thing go to the sea!" They moved on, keeping
close round the light. Suddenly a man swore loudly. He would go and
see what was the matter. It had been a woman's voice. He would go.
There were shrill protests from women--but his high form detached
itself from the group and went off running. They sent an unanimous
call of scared voices after him. A word, insulting and mocking, came
back, thrown at them through the darkness. A woman moaned. An old man
said gravely: "Such things ought to be left alone." They went on
slower, shuffling in the yielding sand and whispering to one another
that Millot feared nothing, having no religion, but that it would end
badly some day.
Susan met the incoming tide by the Raven islet and stopped, panting,
with her feet in the water. She heard the murmur and felt the cold
caress of the sea, and, calmer now, could see the sombre and confused
mass of the Raven on one side and on the other the long white streak
of Molene sands that are left high above the dry bottom of Fougere Bay
at every ebb. She turned round and saw far away, along the starred
background of the sky, the ragged outline of the coast. Above it,
nearly facing her, appeared the tower of Ploumar Church; a slender and
tall pyramid shooting up dark and pointed into the clustered glitter
of the stars. She felt strangely calm. She knew where she was, and
began to remember how she came there--and why. She peered into the
smooth obscurity near her. She was alone. There was nothing there;
nothing near her, either living or dead.
The tide was creeping in quietly, putting out long impatient arms of
strange rivulets that ran towards the land between ridges of sand.
Under the night the pools grew bigger with mysterious rapidity, while
the great sea, yet far off, thundered in a regular rhythm along the
indistinct line of the horizon. Susan splashed her way back for a few
yards without being able to get clear of the water that murmured
tenderly all around and, suddenly, with a spiteful gurgle, nearly took
her off her feet. Her heart thumped with fear. This place was too big
and too empty to die in. To-morrow they would do with her what they
liked. But before she died she must tell them--tell the gentlemen in
black clothes that there are things no woman can bear. She must
explain how it happened. . . . She splashed through a pool, getting
wet to the waist, too preoccupied to care. . . . She must explain. "He
came in the same way as ever and said, just so: 'Do you think I am
going to leave the land to those people from Morbihan that I do not
know? Do you? We shall see! Come along, you creature of mischance!'
And he put his arms out. Then, Messieurs, I said: 'Before
God--never!' And he said, striding at me with open palms: 'There is no
God to hold me! Do you understand, you useless carcase. I will do what
I like.' And he took me by the shoulders. Then I, Messieurs, called to
God for help, and next minute, while he was shaking me, I felt my long
scissors in my hand. His shirt was unbuttoned, and, by the candle-
light, I saw the hollow of his throat. I cried: 'Let go!' He was
crushing my shoulders. He was strong, my man was! Then I thought: No!
. . . Must I? . . . Then take!--and I struck in the hollow place. I
never saw him fall. . . . The old father never turned his head. He is
deaf and childish, gentlemen. . . . Nobody saw him fall. I ran out
. . . Nobody saw. . . ."
She had been scrambling amongst the boulders of the Raven and now
found herself, all out of breath, standing amongst the heavy shadows
of the rocky islet. The Raven is connected with the main land by a
natural pier of immense and slippery stones. She intended to return
home that way. Was he still standing there? At home. Home! Four
idiots and a corpse. She must go back and explain. Anybody would
understand. . . .
Below her the night or the sea seemed to pronounce distinctly--
"Aha! I see you at last!"
She started, slipped, fell; and without attempting to rise, listened,
terrified. She heard heavy breathing, a clatter of wooden clogs. It
"Where the devil did you pass?" said an invisible man, hoarsely.
She held her breath. She recognized the voice. She had not seen him
fall. Was he pursuing her there dead, or perhaps . . . alive?
She lost her head. She cried from the crevice where she lay huddled,
"Ah! You are still there. You led me a fine dance. Wait, my beauty, I
must see how you look after all this. You wait. . . ."
Millot was stumbling, laughing, swearing meaninglessly out of pure
satisfaction, pleased with himself for having run down that
fly-by-night. "As if there were such things as ghosts! Bah! It took an
old African soldier to show those clodhoppers. . . . But it was
curious. Who the devil was she?"
Susan listened, crouching. He was coming for her, this dead man. There
was no escape. What a noise he made amongst the stones. . . . She saw
his head rise up, then the shoulders. He was tall--her own man! His
long arms waved about, and it was his own voice sounding a little
strange . . . because of the scissors. She scrambled out quickly,
rushed to the edge of the causeway, and turned round. The man stood
still on a high stone, detaching himself in dead black on the glitter
of the sky.
"Where are you going to?" he called, roughly.
She answered, "Home!" and watched him intensely. He made a striding,
clumsy leap on to another boulder, and stopped again, balancing
himself, then said--
"Ha! ha! Well, I am going with you. It's the least I can do. Ha! ha!
She stared at him till her eyes seemed to become glowing coals that
burned deep into her brain, and yet she was in mortal fear of making
out the well-known features. Below her the sea lapped softly against
the rock with a splash continuous and gentle.
The man said, advancing another step--
"I am coming for you. What do you think?"
She trembled. Coming for her! There was no escape, no peace, no hope.
She looked round despairingly. Suddenly the whole shadowy coast, the
blurred islets, the heaven itself, swayed about twice, then came to a
rest. She closed her eyes and shouted--
"Can't you wait till I am dead!"
She was shaken by a furious hate for that shade that pursued her in
this world, unappeased even by death in its longing for an heir that
would be like other people's children.
"Hey! What?" said Millot, keeping his distance prudently. He was
saying to himself: "Look out! Some lunatic. An accident happens soon."
She went on, wildly--
"I want to live. To live alone--for a week--for a day. I must explain
to them. . . . I would tear you to pieces, I would kill you twenty
times over rather than let you touch me while I live. How many times
must I kill you--you blasphemer! Satan sends you here. I am damned
"Come," said Millot, alarmed and conciliating. "I am perfectly alive!
. . . Oh, my God!"
She had screamed, "Alive!" and at once vanished before his eyes, as if
the islet itself had swerved aside from under her feet. Millot rushed
forward, and fell flat with his chin over the edge. Far below he saw
the water whitened by her struggles, and heard one shrill cry for help
that seemed to dart upwards along the perpendicular face of the rock,
and soar past, straight into the high and impassive heaven.
Madame Levaille sat, dry-eyed, on the short grass of the hill side,
with her thick legs stretched out, and her old feet turned up in their
black cloth shoes. Her clogs stood near by, and further off the
umbrella lay on the withered sward like a weapon dropped from the
grasp of a vanquished warrior. The Marquis of Chavanes, on horseback,
one gloved hand on thigh, looked down at her as she got up
laboriously, with groans. On the narrow track of the seaweed-carts
four men were carrying inland Susan's body on a hand-barrow, while
several others straggled listlessly behind. Madame Levaille looked
after the procession. "Yes, Monsieur le Marquis," she said
dispassionately, in her usual calm tone of a reasonable old woman.
"There are unfortunate people on this earth. I had only one child.
Only one! And they won't bury her in consecrated ground!"
Her eyes filled suddenly, and a short shower of tears rolled down the
broad cheeks. She pulled the shawl close about her. The Marquis leaned
slightly over in his saddle, and said--
"It is very sad. You have all my sympathy. I shall speak to the Cure.
She was unquestionably insane, and the fall was accidental. Millot
says so distinctly. Good-day, Madame."
And he trotted off, thinking to himself: "I must get this old woman
appointed guardian of those idiots, and administrator of the farm. It
would be much better than having here one of those other Bacadous,
probably a red republican, corrupting my commune."
AN OUTPOST OF PROGRESS
There were two white men in charge of the trading station. Kayerts,
the chief, was short and fat; Carlier, the assistant, was tall, with a
large head and a very broad trunk perched upon a long pair of thin
legs. The third man on the staff was a Sierra Leone nigger, who
maintained that his name was Henry Price. However, for some reason
or other, the natives down the river had given him the name of Makola,
and it stuck to him through all his wanderings about the country. He
spoke English and French with a warbling accent, wrote a beautiful
hand, understood bookkeeping, and cherished in his innermost heart the
worship of evil spirits. His wife was a negress from Loanda, very
large and very noisy. Three children rolled about in sunshine before
the door of his low, shed-like dwelling. Makola, taciturn and
impenetrable, despised the two white men. He had charge of a small
clay storehouse with a dried-grass roof, and pretended to keep a
correct account of beads, cotton cloth, red kerchiefs, brass wire, and
other trade goods it contained. Besides the storehouse and Makola's
hut, there was only one large building in the cleared ground of the
station. It was built neatly of reeds, with a verandah on all the four
sides. There were three rooms in it. The one in the middle was the
living-room, and had two rough tables and a few stools in it. The
other two were the bedrooms for the white men. Each had a bedstead
and a mosquito net for all furniture. The plank floor was littered
with the belongings of the white men; open half-empty boxes, torn
wearing apparel, old boots; all the things dirty, and all the things
broken, that accumulate mysteriously round untidy men. There was also
another dwelling-place some distance away from the buildings. In it,
under a tall cross much out of the perpendicular, slept the man who
had seen the beginning of all this; who had planned and had watched
the construction of this outpost of progress. He had been, at home, an
unsuccessful painter who, weary of pursuing fame on an empty stomach,
had gone out there through high protections. He had been the first
chief of that station. Makola had watched the energetic artist die of
fever in the just finished house with his usual kind of "I told you
so" indifference. Then, for a time, he dwelt alone with his family,
his account books, and the Evil Spirit that rules the lands under the
equator. He got on very well with his god. Perhaps he had propitiated
him by a promise of more white men to play with, by and by. At any
rate the director of the Great Trading Company, coming up in a steamer
that resembled an enormous sardine box with a flat-roofed shed erected
on it, found the station in good order, and Makola as usual quietly
diligent. The director had the cross put up over the first agent's
grave, and appointed Kayerts to the post. Carlier was told off as
second in charge. The director was a man ruthless and efficient, who
at times, but very imperceptibly, indulged in grim humour. He made a
speech to Kayerts and Carlier, pointing out to them the promising
aspect of their station. The nearest trading-post was about three
hundred miles away. It was an exceptional opportunity for them to
distinguish themselves and to earn percentages on the trade. This
appointment was a favour done to beginners. Kayerts was moved almost
to tears by his director's kindness. He would, he said, by doing his
best, try to justify the flattering confidence, &c., &c. Kayerts had
been in the Administration of the Telegraphs, and knew how to express
himself correctly. Carlier, an ex-non-commissioned officer of
cavalry in an army guaranteed from harm by several European Powers,
was less impressed. If there were commissions to get, so much the
better; and, trailing a sulky glance over the river, the forests, the
impenetrable bush that seemed to cut off the station from the rest of
the world, he muttered between his teeth, "We shall see, very soon."
Next day, some bales of cotton goods and a few cases of provisions
having been thrown on shore, the sardine-box steamer went off, not to
return for another six months. On the deck the director touched his
cap to the two agents, who stood on the bank waving their hats, and
turning to an old servant of the Company on his passage to
headquarters, said, "Look at those two imbeciles. They must be mad at
home to send me such specimens. I told those fellows to plant a
vegetable garden, build new storehouses and fences, and construct a
landing-stage. I bet nothing will be done! They won't know how to
begin. I always thought the station on this river useless, and they
just fit the station!"
"They will form themselves there," said the old stager with a quiet
"At any rate, I am rid of them for six months," retorted the
The two men watched the steamer round the bend, then, ascending arm in
arm the slope of the bank, returned to the station. They had been in
this vast and dark country only a very short time, and as yet always
in the midst of other white men, under the eye and guidance of their
superiors. And now, dull as they were to the subtle influences of
surroundings, they felt themselves very much alone, when suddenly left
unassisted to face the wilderness; a wilderness rendered more
strange, more incomprehensible by the mysterious glimpses of the
vigorous life it contained. They were two perfectly insignificant and
incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible
through the high organization of civilized crowds. Few men realize
that their life, the very essence of their character, their
capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their
belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the
composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great
and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to
the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible
force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of its
police and of its opinion. But the contact with pure unmitigated
savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and
profound trouble into the heart. To the sentiment of being alone of
one's kind, to the clear perception of the loneliness of one's
thoughts, of one's sensations--to the negation of the habitual, which
is safe, there is added the affirmation of the unusual, which is
dangerous; a suggestion of things vague, uncontrollable, and
repulsive, whose discomposing intrusion excites the imagination and
tries the civilized nerves of the foolish and the wise alike.
Kayerts and Carlier walked arm in arm, drawing close to one another as
children do in the dark; and they had the same, not altogether
unpleasant, sense of danger which one half suspects to be imaginary.
They chatted persistently in familiar tones. "Our station is prettily
situated," said one. The other assented with enthusiasm, enlarging
volubly on the beauties of the situation. Then they passed near the
grave. "Poor devil!" said Kayerts. "He died of fever, didn't he?"
muttered Carlier, stopping short. "Why," retorted Kayerts, with
indignation, "I've been told that the fellow exposed himself
recklessly to the sun. The climate here, everybody says, is not at all
worse than at home, as long as you keep out of the sun. Do you hear
that, Carlier? I am chief here, and my orders are that you should not
expose yourself to the sun!" He assumed his superiority jocularly, but
his meaning was serious. The idea that he would, perhaps, have to bury
Carlier and remain alone, gave him an inward shiver. He felt suddenly
that this Carlier was more precious to him here, in the centre of
Africa, than a brother could be anywhere else. Carlier, entering into
the spirit of the thing, made a military salute and answered in a
brisk tone, "Your orders shall be attended to, chief!" Then he burst
out laughing, slapped Kayerts on the back and shouted, "We shall let
life run easily here! Just sit still and gather in the ivory those
savages will bring. This country has its good points, after all!" They
both laughed loudly while Carlier thought: "That poor Kayerts; he is
so fat and unhealthy. It would be awful if I had to bury him here. He
is a man I respect." . . . Before they reached the verandah of their
house they called one another "my dear fellow."
The first day they were very active, pottering about with hammers and
nails and red calico, to put up curtains, make their house habitable
and pretty; resolved to settle down comfortably to their new life. For
them an impossible task. To grapple effectually with even purely
material problems requires more serenity of mind and more lofty
courage than people generally imagine. No two beings could have been
more unfitted for such a struggle. Society, not from any tenderness,
but because of its strange needs, had taken care of those two men,
forbidding them all independent thought, all initiative, all departure
from routine; and forbidding it under pain of death. They could only
live on condition of being machines. And now, released from the
fostering care of men with pens behind the ears, or of men with gold
lace on the sleeves, they were like those lifelong prisoners who,
liberated after many years, do not know what use to make of their
freedom. They did not know what use to make of their faculties, being
both, through want of practice, incapable of independent thought.
At the end of two months Kayerts often would say, "If it was not for
my Melie, you wouldn't catch me here." Melie was his daughter. He had
thrown up his post in the Administration of the Telegraphs, though he
had been for seventeen years perfectly happy there, to earn a dowry
for his girl. His wife was dead, and the child was being brought up by
his sisters. He regretted the streets, the pavements, the cafes, his
friends of many years; all the things he used to see, day after day;
all the thoughts suggested by familiar things--the thoughts
effortless, monotonous, and soothing of a Government clerk; he
regretted all the gossip, the small enmities, the mild venom, and the
little jokes of Government offices. "If I had had a decent brother-
in-law," Carlier would remark, "a fellow with a heart, I would not be
here." He had left the army and had made himself so obnoxious to his
family by his laziness and impudence, that an exasperated
brother-in-law had made superhuman efforts to procure him an appoint-
ment in the Company as a second-class agent. Having not a penny in the
world he was compelled to accept this means of livelihood as soon as
it became quite clear to him that there was nothing more to squeeze
out of his relations. He, like Kayerts, regretted his old life. He
regretted the clink of sabre and spurs on a fine afternoon, the
barrack-room witticisms, the girls of garrison towns; but, besides, he
had also a sense of grievance. He was evidently a much ill-used man.
This made him moody, at times. But the two men got on well together
in the fellowship of their stupidity and laziness. Together they did
nothing, absolutely nothing, and enjoyed the sense of the idleness
for which they were paid. And in time they came to feel something
resembling affection for one another.
They lived like blind men in a large room, aware only of what came in
contact with them (and of that only imperfectly), but unable to see
the general aspect of things. The river, the forest, all the great
land throbbing with life, were like a great emptiness. Even the
brilliant sunshine disclosed nothing intelligible. Things appeared and
disappeared before their eyes in an unconnected and aimless kind of
way. The river seemed to come from nowhere and flow nowhither. It
flowed through a void. Out of that void, at times, came canoes, and
men with spears in their hands would suddenly crowd the yard of the
station. They were naked, glossy black, ornamented with snowy shells
and glistening brass wire, perfect of limb. They made an uncouth
babbling noise when they spoke, moved in a stately manner, and sent
quick, wild glances out of their startled, never-resting eyes. Those
warriors would squat in long rows, four or more deep, before the
verandah, while their chiefs bargained for hours with Makola over an
elephant tusk. Kayerts sat on his chair and looked down on the
proceedings, understanding nothing. He stared at them with his round
blue eyes, called out to Carlier, "Here, look! look at that fellow
there--and that other one, to the left. Did you ever such a face? Oh,
the funny brute!"
Carlier, smoking native tobacco in a short wooden pipe, would swagger
up twirling his moustaches, and surveying the warriors with haughty
indulgence, would say--
"Fine animals. Brought any bone? Yes? It's not any too soon. Look at
the muscles of that fellow third from the end. I wouldn't care to get
a punch on the nose from him. Fine arms, but legs no good below the
knee. Couldn't make cavalry men of them." And after glancing down
complacently at his own shanks, he always concluded: "Pah! Don't they
stink! You, Makola! Take that herd over to the fetish" (the storehouse
was in every station called the fetish, perhaps because of the spirit
of civilization it contained) "and give them up some of the rubbish
you keep there. I'd rather see it full of bone than full of rags."
"Yes, yes! Go and finish that palaver over there, Mr. Makola. I will
come round when you are ready, to weigh the tusk. We must be careful."
Then turning to his companion: "This is the tribe that lives down
the river; they are rather aromatic. I remember, they had been once
before here. D'ye hear that row? What a fellow has got to put up with
in this dog of a country! My head is split."
Such profitable visits were rare. For days the two pioneers of trade
and progress would look on their empty courtyard in the vibrating
brilliance of vertical sunshine. Below the high bank, the silent river
flowed on glittering and steady. On the sands in the middle of the
stream, hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. And
stretching away in all directions, surrounding the insignificant
cleared spot of the trading post, immense forests, hiding fateful
complications of fantastic life, lay in the eloquent silence of mute
greatness. The two men understood nothing, cared for nothing but for
the passage of days that separated them from the steamer's return.
Their predecessor had left some torn books. They took up these wrecks
of novels, and, as they had never read anything of the kind before,
they were surprised and amused. Then during long days there were
interminable and silly discussions about plots and personages. In the
centre of Africa they made acquaintance of Richelieu and of
d'Artagnan, of Hawk's Eye and of Father Goriot, and of many other
people. All these imaginary personages became subjects for gossip as
if they had been living friends. They discounted their virtues,
suspected their motives, decried their successes; were scandalized at
their duplicity or were doubtful about their courage. The accounts of
crimes filled them with indignation, while tender or pathetic passages
moved them deeply. Carlier cleared his throat and said in a soldierly
voice, "What nonsense!" Kayerts, his round eyes suffused with tears,
his fat cheeks quivering, rubbed his bald head, and declared. "This is
a splendid book. I had no idea there were such clever fellows in the
world." They also found some old copies of a home paper. That print
discussed what it was pleased to call "Our Colonial Expansion" in
high-flown language. It spoke much of the rights and duties of
civilization, of the sacredness of the civilizing work, and extolled
the merits of those who went about bringing light, and faith and
commerce to the dark places of the earth. Carlier and Kayerts read,
wondered, and began to think better of themselves. Carlier said one
evening, waving his hand about, "In a hundred years, there will be
perhaps a town here. Quays, and warehouses, and barracks,
and--and--billiard-rooms. Civilization, my boy, and virtue--and all.
And then, chaps will read that two good fellows, Kayerts and Carlier,
were the first civilized men to live in this very spot!" Kayerts
nodded, "Yes, it is a consolation to think of that." They seemed to
forget their dead predecessor; but, early one day, Carlier went out
and replanted the cross firmly. "It used to make me squint whenever I
walked that way," he explained to Kayerts over the morning coffee. "It
made me squint, leaning over so much. So I just planted it upright.
And solid, I promise you! I suspended myself with both hands to the
cross-piece. Not a move. Oh, I did that properly."
At times Gobila came to see them. Gobila was the chief of the
neighbouring villages. He was a gray-headed savage, thin and black,
with a white cloth round his loins and a mangy panther skin hanging
over his back. He came up with long strides of his skeleton legs,
swinging a staff as tall as himself, and, entering the common room of
the station, would squat on his heels to the left of the door. There
he sat, watching Kayerts, and now and then making a speech which the
other did not understand. Kayerts, without interrupting his
occupation, would from time to time say in a friendly manner: "How
goes it, you old image?" and they would smile at one another. The two
whites had a liking for that old and incomprehensible creature, and
called him Father Gobila. Gobila's manner was paternal, and he seemed
really to love all white men. They all appeared to him very young,
indistinguishably alike (except for stature), and he knew that they
were all brothers, and also immortal. The death of the artist, who was
the first white man whom he knew intimately, did not disturb this
belief, because he was firmly convinced that the white stranger had
pretended to die and got himself buried for some mysterious purpose of
his own, into which it was useless to inquire. Perhaps it was his way
of going home to his own country? At any rate, these were his
brothers, and he transferred his absurd affection to them. They
returned it in a way. Carlier slapped him on the back, and recklessly
struck off matches for his amusement. Kayerts was always ready to let
him have a sniff at the ammonia bottle. In short, they behaved just
like that other white creature that had hidden itself in a hole in the
ground. Gobila considered them attentively. Perhaps they were the same
being with the other--or one of them was. He couldn't decide--clear up
that mystery; but he remained always very friendly. In consequence
of that friendship the women of Gobila's village walked in single file
through the reedy grass, bringing every morning to the station,
fowls, and sweet potatoes, and palm wine, and sometimes a goat. The
Company never provisions the stations fully, and the agents required
those local supplies to live. They had them through the good-will of
Gobila, and lived well. Now and then one of them had a bout of fever,
and the other nursed him with gentle devotion. They did not think much
of it. It left them weaker, and their appearance changed for the
worse. Carlier was hollow-eyed and irritable. Kayerts showed a drawn,
flabby face above the rotundity of his stomach, which gave him a weird
aspect. But being constantly together, they did not notice the change
that took place gradually in their appearance, and also in their
Five months passed in that way.
Then, one morning, as Kayerts and Carlier, lounging in their chairs
under the verandah, talked about the approaching visit of the
steamer, a knot of armed men came out of the forest and advanced
towards the station. They were strangers to that part of the
country. They were tall, slight, draped classically from neck to heel
in blue fringed cloths, and carried percussion muskets over their
bare right shoulders. Makola showed signs of excitement, and ran out
of the storehouse (where he spent all his days) to meet these
visitors. They came into the courtyard and looked about them with
steady, scornful glances. Their leader, a powerful and
determined-looking negro with bloodshot eyes, stood in front of the
verandah and made a long speech. He gesticulated much, and ceased very
There was something in his intonation, in the sounds of the long
sentences he used, that startled the two whites. It was like a
reminiscence of something not exactly familiar, and yet resembling the
speech of civilized men. It sounded like one of those impossible
languages which sometimes we hear in our dreams.
"What lingo is that?" said the amazed Carlier. "In the first moment I
fancied the fellow was going to speak French. Anyway, it is a
different kind of gibberish to what we ever heard."
"Yes," replied Kayerts. "Hey, Makola, what does he say? Where do they
come from? Who are they?"
But Makola, who seemed to be standing on hot bricks, answered
hurriedly, "I don't know. They come from very far. Perhaps Mrs. Price
will understand. They are perhaps bad men."
The leader, after waiting for a while, said something sharply to
Makola, who shook his head. Then the man, after looking round, noticed
Makola's hut and walked over there. The next moment Mrs. Makola was
heard speaking with great volubility. The other strangers--they were
six in all--strolled about with an air of ease, put their heads
through the door of the storeroom, congregated round the grave,
pointed understandingly at the cross, and generally made themselves
"I don't like those chaps--and, I say, Kayerts, they must be from the
coast; they've got firearms," observed the sagacious Carlier.
Kayerts also did not like those chaps. They both, for the first time,
became aware that they lived in conditions where the unusual may be
dangerous, and that there was no power on earth outside of themselves
to stand between them and the unusual. They became uneasy, went in and
loaded their revolvers. Kayerts said, "We must order Makola to tell
them to go away before dark."
The strangers left in the afternoon, after eating a meal prepared for
them by Mrs. Makola. The immense woman was excited, and talked much
with the visitors. She rattled away shrilly, pointing here and there
at the forests and at the river. Makola sat apart and watched. At
times he got up and whispered to his wife. He accompanied the
strangers across the ravine at the back of the station-ground, and
returned slowly looking very thoughtful. When questioned by the white
men he was very strange, seemed not to understand, seemed to have
forgotten French--seemed to have forgotten how to speak altogether.
Kayerts and Carlier agreed that the nigger had had too much palm wine.
There was some talk about keeping a watch in turn, but in the evening
everything seemed so quiet and peaceful that they retired as usual.
All night they were disturbed by a lot of drumming in the villages. A
deep, rapid roll near by would be followed by another far off--then
all ceased. Soon short appeals would rattle out here and there, then
all mingle together, increase, become vigorous and sustained, would
spread out over the forest, roll through the night, unbroken and
ceaseless, near and far, as if the whole land had been one immense
drum booming out steadily an appeal to heaven. And through the deep
and tremendous noise sudden yells that resembled snatches of songs
from a madhouse darted shrill and high in discordant jets of sound
which seemed to rush far above the earth and drive all peace from
under the stars.
Carlier and Kayerts slept badly. They both thought they had heard
shots fired during the night--but they could not agree as to the
direction. In the morning Makola was gone somewhere. He returned about
noon with one of yesterday's strangers, and eluded all Kayerts'
attempts to close with him: had become deaf apparently. Kayerts
wondered. Carlier, who had been fishing off the bank, came back and
remarked while he showed his catch, "The niggers seem to be in a deuce
of a stir; I wonder what's up. I saw about fifteen canoes cross the
river during the two hours I was there fishing." Kayerts, worried,
said, "Isn't this Makola very queer to-day?" Carlier advised, "Keep
all our men together in case of some trouble."
There were ten station men who had been left by the Director. Those
fellows, having engaged themselves to the Company for six months
(without having any idea of a month in particular and only a very
faint notion of time in general), had been serving the cause of
progress for upwards of two years. Belonging to a tribe from a very
distant part of the land of darkness and sorrow, they did not run
away, naturally supposing that as wandering strangers they would be
killed by the inhabitants of the country; in which they were right.
They lived in straw huts on the slope of a ravine overgrown with
reedy grass, just behind the station buildings. They were not happy,
regretting the festive incantations, the sorceries, the human
sacrifices of their own land; where they also had parents, brothers,
sisters, admired chiefs, respected magicians, loved friends, and other
ties supposed generally to be human. Besides, the rice rations served
out by the Company did not agree with them, being a food unknown to
their land, and to which they could not get used. Consequently they
were unhealthy and miserable. Had they been of any other tribe they
would have made up their minds to die--for nothing is easier to
certain savages than suicide--and so have escaped from the puzzling
difficulties of existence. But belonging, as they did, to a warlike
tribe with filed teeth, they had more grit, and went on stupidly
living through disease and sorrow. They did very little work, and had
lost their splendid physique. Carlier and Kayerts doctored them
assiduously without being able to bring them back into condition
again. They were mustered every morning and told off to different
tasks--grass-cutting, fence-building, tree-felling, &c., &c., which no
power on earth could induce them to execute efficiently. The two
whites had practically very little control over them.
In the afternoon Makola came over to the big house and found Kayerts
watching three heavy columns of smoke rising above the forests. "What
is that?" asked Kayerts. "Some villages burn," answered Makola, who
seemed to have regained his wits. Then he said abruptly: "We have got
very little ivory; bad six months' trading. Do you like get a little
"Yes," said Kayerts, eagerly. He thought of percentages which were
"Those men who came yesterday are traders from Loanda who have got
more ivory than they can carry home. Shall I buy? I know their camp."
"Certainly," said Kayerts. "What are those traders?"
"Bad fellows," said Makola, indifferently. "They fight with people,
and catch women and children. They are bad men, and got guns. There is
a great disturbance in the country. Do you want ivory?"
"Yes," said Kayerts. Makola said nothing for a while. Then: "Those
workmen of ours are no good at all," he muttered, looking round.
"Station in very bad order, sir. Director will growl. Better get a
fine lot of ivory, then he say nothing."
"I can't help it; the men won't work," said Kayerts. "When will you
get that ivory?"
"Very soon," said Makola. "Perhaps to-night. You leave it to me, and
keep indoors, sir. I think you had better give some palm wine to our
men to make a dance this evening. Enjoy themselves. Work better
to-morrow. There's plenty palm wine--gone a little sour."
Kayerts said "yes," and Makola, with his own hands carried big
calabashes to the door of his hut. They stood there till the evening,
and Mrs. Makola looked into every one. The men got them at sunset.
When Kayerts and Carlier retired, a big bonfire was flaring before the
men's huts. They could hear their shouts and drumming. Some men from
Gobila's village had joined the station hands, and the entertainment
was a great success.
In the middle of the night, Carlier waking suddenly, heard a man shout
loudly; then a shot was fired. Only one. Carlier ran out and met
Kayerts on the verandah. They were both startled. As they went across
the yard to call Makola, they saw shadows moving in the night. One of
them cried, "Don't shoot! It's me, Price." Then Makola appeared close
to them. "Go back, go back, please," he urged, "you spoil all." "There
are strange men about," said Carlier. "Never mind; I know," said
Makola. Then he whispered, "All right. Bring ivory. Say nothing! I
know my business." The two white men reluctantly went back to the
house, but did not sleep. They heard footsteps, whispers, some groans.
It seemed as if a lot of men came in, dumped heavy things on the
ground, squabbled a long time, then went away. They lay on their hard
beds and thought: "This Makola is invaluable." In the morning Carlier
came out, very sleepy, and pulled at the cord of the big bell. The
station hands mustered every morning to the sound of the bell. That
morning nobody came. Kayerts turned out also, yawning. Across the yard
they saw Makola come out of his hut, a tin basin of soapy water in his
hand. Makola, a civilized nigger, was very neat in his person. He
threw the soapsuds skilfully over a wretched little yellow cur he had,
then turning his face to the agent's house, he shouted from the
distance, "All the men gone last night!"
They heard him plainly, but in their surprise they both yelled out
together: "What!" Then they stared at one another. "We are in a proper
fix now," growled Carlier. "It's incredible!" muttered Kayerts. "I
will go to the huts and see," said Carlier, striding off. Makola
coming up found Kayerts standing alone.
"I can hardly believe it," said Kayerts, tearfully. "We took care of
them as if they had been our children."
"They went with the coast people," said Makola after a moment of
"What do I care with whom they went--the ungrateful brutes!"
exclaimed the other. Then with sudden suspicion, and looking hard at
Makola, he added: "What do you know about it?"
Makola moved his shoulders, looking down on the ground. "What do I
know? I think only. Will you come and look at the ivory I've got
there? It is a fine lot. You never saw such."
He moved towards the store. Kayerts followed him mechanically,
thinking about the incredible desertion of the men. On the ground
before the door of the fetish lay six splendid tusks.
"What did you give for it?" asked Kayerts, after surveying the lot
"No regular trade," said Makola. "They brought the ivory and gave it
to me. I told them to take what they most wanted in the station. It is
a beautiful lot. No station can show such tusks. Those traders wanted
carriers badly, and our men were no good here. No trade, no entry in
books: all correct."
Kayerts nearly burst with indignation. "Why!" he shouted, "I believe
you have sold our men for these tusks!" Makola stood impassive and
silent. "I--I--will--I," stuttered Kayerts. "You fiend!" he yelled
"I did the best for you and the Company," said Makola, imperturbably.
"Why you shout so much? Look at this tusk."
"I dismiss you! I will report you--I won't look at the tusk. I forbid
you to touch them. I order you to throw them into the river.
"You very red, Mr. Kayerts. If you are so irritable in the sun, you
will get fever and die--like the first chief!" pronounced Makola
They stood still, contemplating one another with intense eyes, as if
they had been looking with effort across immense distances. Kayerts
shivered. Makola had meant no more than he said, but his words seemed
to Kayerts full of ominous menace! He turned sharply and went away to
the house. Makola retired into the bosom of his family; and the tusks,
left lying before the store, looked very large and valuable in the
Carlier came back on the verandah. "They're all gone, hey?" asked
Kayerts from the far end of the common room in a muffled voice. "You
did not find anybody?"
"Oh, yes," said Carlier, "I found one of Gobila's people lying dead
before the huts--shot through the body. We heard that shot last
Kayerts came out quickly. He found his companion staring grimly over
the yard at the tusks, away by the store. They both sat in silence for
a while. Then Kayerts related his conversation with Makola. Carlier
said nothing. At the midday meal they ate very little. They hardly
exchanged a word that day. A great silence seemed to lie heavily over
the station and press on their lips. Makola did not open the store; he
spent the day playing with his children. He lay full-length on a mat
outside his door, and the youngsters sat on his chest and clambered
all over him. It was a touching picture. Mrs. Makola was busy cooking
all day, as usual. The white men made a somewhat better meal in the
evening. Afterwards, Carlier smoking his pipe strolled over to the
store; he stood for a long time over the tusks, touched one or two
with his foot, even tried to lift the largest one by its small end. He
came back to his chief, who had not stirred from the verandah, threw
himself in the chair and said--
"I can see it! They were pounced upon while they slept heavily after
drinking all that palm wine you've allowed Makola to give them. A
put-up job! See? The worst is, some of Gobila's people were there, and
got carried off too, no doubt. The least drunk woke up, and got shot
for his sobriety. This is a funny country. What will you do now?"
"We can't touch it, of course," said Kayerts.
"Of course not," assented Carlier.
"Slavery is an awful thing," stammered out Kayerts in an unsteady
"Frightful--the sufferings," grunted Carlier with conviction.
They believed their words. Everybody shows a respectful deference to
certain sounds that he and his fellows can make. But about feelings
people really know nothing. We talk with indignation or enthusiasm; we
talk about oppression, cruelty, crime, devotion, self-sacrifice,
virtue, and we know nothing real beyond the words. Nobody knows what
suffering or sacrifice mean--except, perhaps the victims of the
mysterious purpose of these illusions.
Next morning they saw Makola very busy setting up in the yard the big
scales used for weighing ivory. By and by Carlier said: "What's that
filthy scoundrel up to?" and lounged out into the yard. Kayerts
followed. They stood watching. Makola took no notice. When the balance
was swung true, he tried to lift a tusk into the scale. It was too
heavy. He looked up helplessly without a word, and for a minute they
stood round that balance as mute and still as three statues. Suddenly
Carlier said: "Catch hold of the other end, Makola--you beast!" and
together they swung the tusk up. Kayerts trembled in every limb. He
muttered, "I say! O! I say!" and putting his hand in his pocket found
there a dirty bit of paper and the stump of a pencil. He turned his
back on the others, as if about to do something tricky, and noted
stealthily the weights which Carlier shouted out to him with
unnecessary loudness. When all was over Makola whispered to himself:
"The sun's very strong here for the tusks." Carlier said to Kayerts in
a careless tone: "I say, chief, I might just as well give him a lift
with this lot into the store."
As they were going back to the house Kayerts observed with a sigh:
"It had to be done." And Carlier said: "It's deplorable, but, the men
being Company's men the ivory is Company's ivory. We must look after
it." "I will report to the Director, of course," said Kayerts. "Of
course; let him decide," approved Carlier.
At midday they made a hearty meal. Kayerts sighed from time to time.
Whenever they mentioned Makola's name they always added to it an
opprobrious epithet. It eased their conscience. Makola gave himself a
half-holiday, and bathed his children in the river. No one from
Gobila's villages came near the station that day. No one came the next
day, and the next, nor for a whole week. Gobila's people might have
been dead and buried for any sign of life they gave. But they were
only mourning for those they had lost by the witchcraft of white men,
who had brought wicked people into their country. The wicked people
were gone, but fear remained. Fear always remains. A man may destroy
everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt;
but as long as he clings to life he cannot destroy fear: the fear,
subtle, indestructible, and terrible, that pervades his being; that
tinges his thoughts; that lurks in his heart; that watches on his lips
the struggle of his last breath. In his fear, the mild old Gobila
offered extra human sacrifices to all the Evil Spirits that had taken
possession of his white friends. His heart was heavy. Some warriors
spoke about burning and killing, but the cautious old savage dissuaded
them. Who could foresee the woe those mysterious creatures, if
irritated, might bring? They should be left alone. Perhaps in time
they would disappear into the earth as the first one had disappeared.
His people must keep away from them, and hope for the best.
Kayerts and Carlier did not disappear, but remained above on this
earth, that, somehow, they fancied had become bigger and very empty.
It was not the absolute and dumb solitude of the post that impressed
them so much as an inarticulate feeling that something from within
them was gone, something that worked for their safety, and had kept
the wilderness from interfering with their hearts. The images of home;
the memory of people like them, of men that thought and felt as they
used to think and feel, receded into distances made indistinct by the
glare of unclouded sunshine. And out of the great silence of the
surrounding wilderness, its very hopelessness and savagery seemed to
approach them nearer, to draw them gently, to look upon them, to
envelop them with a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting.
Days lengthened into weeks, then into months. Gobila's people drummed
and yelled to every new moon, as of yore, but kept away from the
station. Makola and Carlier tried once in a canoe to open
communications, but were received with a shower of arrows, and had to
fly back to the station for dear life. That attempt set the country up
and down the river into an uproar that could be very distinctly heard
for days. The steamer was late. At first they spoke of delay jauntily,
then anxiously, then gloomily. The matter was becoming serious. Stores
were running short. Carlier cast his lines off the bank, but the river
was low, and the fish kept out in the stream. They dared not stroll
far away from the station to shoot. Moreover, there was no game in the
impenetrable forest. Once Carlier shot a hippo in the river. They had
no boat to secure it, and it sank. When it floated up it drifted away,
and Gobila's people secured the carcase. It was the occasion for a
national holiday, but Carlier had a fit of rage over it and talked
about the necessity of exterminating all the niggers before the
country could be made habitable. Kayerts mooned about silently; spent
hours looking at the portrait of his Melie. It represented a little
girl with long bleached tresses and a rather sour face. His legs were
much swollen, and he could hardly walk. Carlier, undermined by fever,
could not swagger any more, but kept tottering about, still with a
devil-may-care air, as became a man who remembered his crack regiment.
He had become hoarse, sarcastic, and inclined to say unpleasant
things. He called it "being frank with you." They had long ago
reckoned their percentages on trade, including in them that last deal
of "this infamous Makola." They had also concluded not to say anything
about it. Kayerts hesitated at first--was afraid of the Director.
"He has seen worse things done on the quiet," maintained Carlier, with
a hoarse laugh. "Trust him! He won't thank you if you blab. He is no
better than you or me. Who will talk if we hold our tongues? There is
That was the root of the trouble! There was nobody there; and being
left there alone with their weakness, they became daily more like a
pair of accomplices than like a couple of devoted friends. They had
heard nothing from home for eight months. Every evening they said,
"To-morrow we shall see the steamer." But one of the Company's
steamers had been wrecked, and the Director was busy with the other,
relieving very distant and important stations on the main river. He
thought that the useless station, and the useless men, could wait.
Meantime Kayerts and Carlier lived on rice boiled without salt, and
cursed the Company, all Africa, and the day they were born. One must
have lived on such diet to discover what ghastly trouble the necessity
of swallowing one's food may become. There was literally nothing else
in the station but rice and coffee; they drank the coffee without
sugar. The last fifteen lumps Kayerts had solemnly locked away in his
box, together with a half-bottle of Cognac, "in case of sickness," he
explained. Carlier approved. "When one is sick," he said, "any little
extra like that is cheering."
They waited. Rank grass began to sprout over the courtyard. The bell
never rang now. Days passed, silent, exasperating, and slow. When the
two men spoke, they snarled; and their silences were bitter, as if
tinged by the bitterness of their thoughts.
One day after a lunch of boiled rice, Carlier put down his cup
untasted, and said: "Hang it all! Let's have a decent cup of coffee
for once. Bring out that sugar, Kayerts!"
"For the sick," muttered Kayerts, without looking up.
"For the sick," mocked Carlier. "Bosh! . . . Well! I am sick."
"You are no more sick than I am, and I go without," said Kayerts in a
"Come! out with that sugar, you stingy old slave-dealer."
Kayerts looked up quickly. Carlier was smiling with marked insolence.
And suddenly it seemed to Kayerts that he had never seen that man
before. Who was he? He knew nothing about him. What was he capable of?
There was a surprising flash of violent emotion within him, as if in
the presence of something undreamt-of, dangerous, and final. But he
managed to pronounce with composure--
"That joke is in very bad taste. Don't repeat it."
"Joke!" said Carlier, hitching himself forward on his seat. "I am
hungry--I am sick--I don't joke! I hate hypocrites. You are a
hypocrite. You are a slave-dealer. I am a slave-dealer. There's
nothing but slave-dealers in this cursed country. I mean to have sugar
in my coffee to-day, anyhow!"
"I forbid you to speak to me in that way," said Kayerts with a fair
show of resolution.
"You!--What?" shouted Carlier, jumping up.
Kayerts stood up also. "I am your chief," he began, trying to master
the shakiness of his voice.
"What?" yelled the other. "Who's chief? There's no chief here. There's
nothing here: there's nothing but you and I. Fetch the sugar--you
"Hold your tongue. Go out of this room," screamed Kayerts. "I dismiss
Carlier swung a stool. All at once he looked dangerously in earnest.
"You flabby, good-for-nothing civilian--take that!" he howled.
Kayerts dropped under the table, and the stool struck the grass inner
wall of the room. Then, as Carlier was trying to upset the table,
Kayerts in desperation made a blind rush, head low, like a cornered
pig would do, and over-turning his friend, bolted along the verandah,
and into his room. He locked the door, snatched his revolver, and
stood panting. In less than a minute Carlier was kicking at the door
furiously, howling, "If you don't bring out that sugar, I will shoot
you at sight, like a dog. Now then--one--two--three. You won't? I
will show you who's the master."
Kayerts thought the door would fall in, and scrambled through the
square hole that served for a window in his room. There was then the
whole breadth of the house between them. But the other was apparently
not strong enough to break in the door, and Kayerts heard him running
round. Then he also began to run laboriously on his swollen legs. He
ran as quickly as he could, grasping the revolver, and unable yet to
understand what was happening to him. He saw in succession Makola's
house, the store, the river, the ravine, and the low bushes; and he
saw all those things again as he ran for the second time round the
house. Then again they flashed past him. That morning he could not
have walked a yard without a groan.
And now he ran. He ran fast enough to keep out of sight of the other
Then as, weak and desperate, he thought, "Before I finish the next
round I shall die," he heard the other man stumble heavily, then stop.
He stopped also. He had the back and Carlier the front of the house,
as before. He heard him drop into a chair cursing, and suddenly his
own legs gave way, and he slid down into a sitting posture with his
back to the wall. His mouth was as dry as a cinder, and his face was
wet with perspiration--and tears. What was it all about? He thought it
must be a horrible illusion; he thought he was dreaming; he thought he
was going mad! After a while he collected his senses. What did they
quarrel about? That sugar! How absurd! He would give it to him--didn't
want it himself. And he began scrambling to his feet with a sudden
feeling of security. But before he had fairly stood upright, a
commonsense reflection occurred to him and drove him back into
despair. He thought: "If I give way now to that brute of a soldier, he
will begin this horror again to-morrow--and the day after--every
day--raise other pretensions, trample on me, torture me, make me his
slave--and I will be lost! Lost! The steamer may not come for
days--may never come." He shook so that he had to sit down on the
floor again. He shivered forlornly. He felt he could not, would not
move any more. He was completely distracted by the sudden perception
that the position was without issue--that death and life had in a
moment become equally difficult and terrible.
All at once he heard the other push his chair back; and he leaped to
his feet with extreme facility. He listened and got confused. Must run
again! Right or left? He heard footsteps. He darted to the left,
grasping his revolver, and at the very same instant, as it seemed to
him, they came into violent collision. Both shouted with surprise. A
loud explosion took place between them; a roar of red fire, thick
smoke; and Kayerts, deafened and blinded, rushed back thinking: "I am
hit--it's all over." He expected the other to come round--to gloat
over his agony. He caught hold of an upright of the roof--"All over!"
Then he heard a crashing fall on the other side of the house, as if
somebody had tumbled headlong over a chair--then silence. Nothing
more happened. He did not die. Only his shoulder felt as if it had
been badly wrenched, and he had lost his revolver. He was disarmed and
helpless! He waited for his fate. The other man made no sound. It was
a stratagem. He was stalking him now! Along what side? Perhaps he was
taking aim this very minute!
After a few moments of an agony frightful and absurd, he decided to go
and meet his doom. He was prepared for every surrender. He turned the
corner, steadying himself with one hand on the wall; made a few paces,
and nearly swooned. He had seen on the floor, protruding past the
other corner, a pair of turned-up feet. A pair of white naked feet in
red slippers. He felt deadly sick, and stood for a time in profound
darkness. Then Makola appeared before him, saying quietly: "Come
along, Mr. Kayerts. He is dead." He burst into tears of gratitude; a
loud, sobbing fit of crying. After a time he found himself sitting in
a chair and looking at Carlier, who lay stretched on his back. Makola
was kneeling over the body.
"Is this your revolver?" asked Makola, getting up.
"Yes," said Kayerts; then he added very quickly, "He ran after me to
shoot me--you saw!"
"Yes, I saw," said Makola. "There is only one revolver; where's his?"
"Don't know," whispered Kayerts in a voice that had become suddenly
"I will go and look for it," said the other, gently. He made the round
along the verandah, while Kayerts sat still and looked at the corpse.
Makola came back empty-handed, stood in deep thought, then stepped
quietly into the dead man's room, and came out directly with a
revolver, which he held up before Kayerts. Kayerts shut his eyes.
Everything was going round. He found life more terrible and difficult
than death. He had shot an unarmed man.
After meditating for a while, Makola said softly, pointing at the dead
man who lay there with his right eye blown out--
"He died of fever." Kayerts looked at him with a stony stare. "Yes,"
repeated Makola, thoughtfully, stepping over the corpse, "I think he
died of fever. Bury him to-morrow."
And he went away slowly to his expectant wife, leaving the two white
men alone on the verandah.
Night came, and Kayerts sat unmoving on his chair. He sat quiet as if
he had taken a dose of opium. The violence of the emotions he had
passed through produced a feeling of exhausted serenity. He had
plumbed in one short afternoon the depths of horror and despair, and
now found repose in the conviction that life had no more secrets for
him: neither had death! He sat by the corpse thinking; thinking very
actively, thinking very new thoughts. He seemed to have broken loose
from himself altogether. His old thoughts, convictions, likes and
dislikes, things he respected and things he abhorred, appeared in
their true light at last! Appeared contemptible and childish, false
and ridiculous. He revelled in his new wisdom while he sat by the man
he had killed. He argued with himself about all things under heaven
with that kind of wrong-headed lucidity which may be observed in some
lunatics. Incidentally he reflected that the fellow dead there had
been a noxious beast anyway; that men died every day in thousands;
perhaps in hundreds of thousands--who could tell?--and that in the
number, that one death could not possibly make any difference;
couldn't have any importance, at least to a thinking creature. He,
Kayerts, was a thinking creature. He had been all his life, till that
moment, a believer in a lot of nonsense like the rest of mankind--who
are fools; but now he thought! He knew! He was at peace; he was
familiar with the highest wisdom! Then he tried to imagine himself
dead, and Carlier sitting in his chair watching him; and his attempt
met with such unexpected success, that in a very few moments he became
not at all sure who was dead and who was alive. This extraordinary
achievement of his fancy startled him, however, and by a clever and
timely effort of mind he saved himself just in time from becoming
Carlier. His heart thumped, and he felt hot all over at the thought of
that danger. Carlier! What a beastly thing! To compose his now
disturbed nerves--and no wonder!--he tried to whistle a little. Then,
suddenly, he fell asleep, or thought he had slept; but at any rate
there was a fog, and somebody had whistled in the fog.
He stood up. The day had come, and a heavy mist had descended upon the
land: the mist penetrating, enveloping, and silent; the morning mist
of tropical lands; the mist that clings and kills; the mist white and
deadly, immaculate and poisonous. He stood up, saw the body, and threw
his arms above his head with a cry like that of a man who, waking from
a trance, finds himself immured forever in a tomb. "Help! . . . . My
A shriek inhuman, vibrating and sudden, pierced like a sharp dart the
white shroud of that land of sorrow. Three short, impatient screeches
followed, and then, for a time, the fog-wreaths rolled on,
undisturbed, through a formidable silence. Then many more shrieks,
rapid and piercing, like the yells of some exasperated and ruthless
creature, rent the air. Progress was calling to Kayerts from the
river. Progress and civilization and all the virtues. Society was
calling to its accomplished child to come, to be taken care of, to be
instructed, to be judged, to be condemned; it called him to return to
that rubbish heap from which he had wandered away, so that justice
could be done.
Kayerts heard and understood. He stumbled out of the verandah, leaving
the other man quite alone for the first time since they had been
thrown there together. He groped his way through the fog, calling in
his ignorance upon the invisible heaven to undo its work. Makola
flitted by in the mist, shouting as he ran--
"Steamer! Steamer! They can't see. They whistle for the station. I go
ring the bell. Go down to the landing, sir. I ring."
He disappeared. Kayerts stood still. He looked upwards; the fog rolled
low over his head. He looked round like a man who has lost his way;
and he saw a dark smudge, a cross-shaped stain, upon the shifting
purity of the mist. As he began to stumble towards it, the station
bell rang in a tumultuous peal its answer to the impatient clamour of
The Managing Director of the Great Civilizing Company (since we know
that civilization follows trade) landed first, and incontinently lost
sight of the steamer. The fog down by the river was exceedingly dense;
above, at the station, the bell rang unceasing and brazen.
The Director shouted loudly to the steamer:
"There is nobody down to meet us; there may be something wrong, though
they are ringing. You had better come, too!"
And he began to toil up the steep bank. The captain and the
engine-driver of the boat followed behind. As they scrambled up the
fog thinned, and they could see their Director a good way ahead.
Suddenly they saw him start forward, calling to them over his
shoulder:--"Run! Run to the house! I've found one of them. Run, look
for the other!"
He had found one of them! And even he, the man of varied and startling
experience, was somewhat discomposed by the manner of this finding.
He stood and fumbled in his pockets (for a knife) while he faced
Kayerts, who was hanging by a leather strap from the cross. He had
evidently climbed the grave, which was high and narrow, and after
tying the end of the strap to the arm, had swung himself off. His toes
were only a couple of inches above the ground; his arms hung stiffly
down; he seemed to be standing rigidly at attention, but with one
purple cheek playfully posed on the shoulder. And, irreverently, he
was putting out a swollen tongue at his Managing Director.
The inner circle train from the City rushed impetuously out of a
black hole and pulled up with a discordant, grinding racket in the
smirched twilight of a West-End station. A line of doors flew open and
a lot of men stepped out headlong. They had high hats, healthy pale
faces, dark overcoats and shiny boots; they held in their gloved hands
thin umbrellas and hastily folded evening papers that resembled stiff,
dirty rags of greenish, pinkish, or whitish colour. Alvan Hervey
stepped out with the rest, a smouldering cigar between his teeth. A
disregarded little woman in rusty black, with both arms full of
parcels, ran along in distress, bolted suddenly into a third-class
compartment and the train went on. The slamming of carriage doors
burst out sharp and spiteful like a fusillade; an icy draught
mingled with acrid fumes swept the whole length of the platform and
made a tottering old man, wrapped up to his ears in a woollen
comforter, stop short in the moving throng to cough violently over his
stick. No one spared him a glance.
Alvan Hervey passed through the ticket gate. Between the bare walls
of a sordid staircase men clambered rapidly; their backs appeared
alike--almost as if they had been wearing a uniform; their indifferent
faces were varied but somehow suggested kinship, like the faces of a
band of brothers who through prudence, dignity, disgust, or foresight
would resolutely ignore each other; and their eyes, quick or slow;
their eyes gazing up the dusty steps; their eyes brown, black, gray,
blue, had all the same stare, concentrated and empty, satisfied and
Outside the big doorway of the street they scattered in all
directions, walking away fast from one another with the hurried air of
men fleeing from something compromising; from familiarity or
confidences; from something suspected and concealed--like truth or
pestilence. Alvan Hervey hesitated, standing alone in the doorway for
a moment; then decided to walk home.
He strode firmly. A misty rain settled like silvery dust on clothes,
on moustaches; wetted the faces, varnished the flagstones, darkened
the walls, dripped from umbrellas. And he moved on in the rain with
careless serenity, with the tranquil ease of someone successful and
disdainful, very sure of himself--a man with lots of money and
friends. He was tall, well set-up, good-looking and healthy; and his
clear pale face had under its commonplace refinement that slight tinge
of overbearing brutality which is given by the possession of only
partly difficult accomplishments; by excelling in games, or in the art
of making money; by the easy mastery over animals and over needy men.
He was going home much earlier than usual, straight from the City and
without calling at his club. He considered himself well connected,
well educated and intelligent. Who doesn't? But his connections,
education and intelligence were strictly on a par with those of the
men with whom he did business or amused himself. He had married five
years ago. At the time all his acquaintances had said he was very much
in love; and he had said so himself, frankly, because it is very well
understood that every man falls in love once in his life--unless his
wife dies, when it may be quite praiseworthy to fall in love again.
The girl was healthy, tall, fair, and in his opinion was well
connected, well educated and intelligent. She was also intensely bored
with her home where, as if packed in a tight box, her individuality--
of which she was very conscious--had no play. She strode like a
grenadier, was strong and upright like an obelisk, had a beautiful
face, a candid brow, pure eyes, and not a thought of her own in her
head. He surrendered quickly to all those charms, and she appeared to
him so unquestionably of the right sort that he did not hesitate for a
moment to declare himself in love. Under the cover of that sacred and
poetical fiction he desired her masterfully, for various reasons; but
principally for the satisfaction of having his own way. He was very
dull and solemn about it--for no earthly reason, unless to conceal his
feelings--which is an eminently proper thing to do. Nobody, however,
would have been shocked had he neglected that duty, for the feeling he
experienced really was a longing--a longing stronger and a little more
complex no doubt, but no more reprehensible in its nature than a
hungry man's appetite for his dinner.
After their marriage they busied themselves, with marked success, in
enlarging the circle of their acquaintance. Thirty people knew them
by sight; twenty more with smiling demonstrations tolerated their
occasional presence within hospitable thresholds; at least fifty
others became aware of their existence. They moved in their enlarged
world amongst perfectly delightful men and women who feared emotion,
enthusiasm, or failure, more than fire, war, or mortal disease; who
tolerated only the commonest formulas of commonest thoughts, and
recognized only profitable facts. It was an extremely charming sphere,
the abode of all the virtues, where nothing is realized and where all
joys and sorrows are cautiously toned down into pleasures and
annoyances. In that serene region, then, where noble sentiments are
cultivated in sufficient profusion to conceal the pitiless
materialism of thoughts and aspirations Alvan Hervey and his wife
spent five years of prudent bliss unclouded by any doubt as to the
moral propriety of their existence. She, to give her individuality
fair play, took up all manner of philanthropic work and became a
member of various rescuing and reforming societies patronized or
presided over by ladies of title. He took an active interest in
politics; and having met quite by chance a literary man--who
nevertheless was related to an earl--he was induced to finance a
moribund society paper. It was a semi-political, and wholly scandalous
publication, redeemed by excessive dulness; and as it was utterly
faithless, as it contained no new thought, as it never by any chance
had a flash of wit, satire, or indignation in its pages, he judged it
respectable enough, at first sight. Afterwards, when it paid, he
promptly perceived that upon the whole it was a virtuous undertaking.
It paved the way of his ambition; and he enjoyed also the special kind
of importance he derived from this connection with what he imagined to
This connection still further enlarged their world. Men who wrote or
drew prettily for the public came at times to their house, and his
editor came very often. He thought him rather an ass because he had
such big front teeth (the proper thing is to have small, even teeth)
and wore his hair a trifle longer than most men do. However, some
dukes wear their hair long, and the fellow indubitably knew his
business. The worst was that his gravity, though perfectly portentous,
could not be trusted. He sat, elegant and bulky, in the drawing-room,
the head of his stick hovering in front of his big teeth, and talked
for hours with a thick-lipped smile (he said nothing that could be
considered objectionable and not quite the thing) talked in an unusual
manner--not obviously irritatingly. His forehead was too
lofty--unusually so--and under it there was a straight nose, lost
between the hairless cheeks, that in a smooth curve ran into a chin
shaped like the end of a snow-shoe. And in this face that resembled
the face of a fat and fiendishly knowing baby there glittered a pair
of clever, peering, unbelieving black eyes. He wrote verses too.
Rather an ass. But the band of men who trailed at the skirts of his
monumental frock-coat seemed to perceive wonderful things in what he
said. Alvan Hervey put it down to affectation. Those artist chaps,
upon the whole, were so affected. Still, all this was highly
proper--very useful to him--and his wife seemed to like it--as if she
also had derived some distinct and secret advantage from this
intellectual connection. She received her mixed and decorous guests
with a kind of tall, ponderous grace, peculiarly her own and which
awakened in the mind of intimidated strangers incongruous and
improper reminiscences of an elephant, a giraffe, a gazelle; of a
gothic tower--of an overgrown angel. Her Thursdays were becoming
famous in their world; and their world grew steadily, annexing street
after street. It included also Somebody's Gardens, a Crescent--a
couple of Squares.
Thus Alvan Hervey and his wife for five prosperous years lived by the
side of one another. In time they came to know each other sufficiently
well for all the practical purposes of such an existence, but they
were no more capable of real intimacy than two animals feeding at the
same manger, under the same roof, in a luxurious stable. His longing
was appeased and became a habit; and she had her desire--the desire
to get away from under the paternal roof, to assert her individuality,
to move in her own set (so much smarter than the parental one); to
have a home of her own, and her own share of the world's respect,
envy, and applause. They understood each other warily, tacitly, like a
pair of cautious conspirators in a profitable plot; because they were
both unable to look at a fact, a sentiment, a principle, or a belief
otherwise than in the light of their own dignity, of their own
glorification, of their own advantage. They skimmed over the surface
of life hand in hand, in a pure and frosty atmosphere--like two
skilful skaters cutting figures on thick ice for the admiration of the
beholders, and disdainfully ignoring the hidden stream, the stream
restless and dark; the stream of life, profound and unfrozen.
Alvan Hervey turned twice to the left, once to the right, walked along
two sides of a square, in the middle of which groups of tame-looking
trees stood in respectable captivity behind iron railings, and rang
at his door. A parlourmaid opened. A fad of his wife's, this, to have
only women servants. That girl, while she took his hat and overcoat,
said something which made him look at his watch. It was five o'clock,
and his wife not at home. There was nothing unusual in that. He said,
"No; no tea," and went upstairs.
He ascended without footfalls. Brass rods glimmered all up the red
carpet. On the first-floor landing a marble woman, decently covered
from neck to instep with stone draperies, advanced a row of lifeless
toes to the edge of the pedestal, and thrust out blindly a rigid white
arm holding a cluster of lights. He had artistic tastes--at home.
Heavy curtains caught back, half concealed dark corners. On the rich,
stamped paper of the walls hung sketches, water-colours, engravings.
His tastes were distinctly artistic. Old church towers peeped above
green masses of foliage; the hills were purple, the sands yellow, the
seas sunny, the skies blue. A young lady sprawled with dreamy eyes in
a moored boat, in company of a lunch basket, a champagne bottle, and
an enamoured man in a blazer. Bare-legged boys flirted sweetly with
ragged maidens, slept on stone steps, gambolled with dogs. A
pathetically lean girl flattened against a blank wall, turned up
expiring eyes and tendered a flower for sale; while, near by, the
large photographs of some famous and mutilated bas-reliefs seemed to
represent a massacre turned into stone.
He looked, of course, at nothing, ascended another flight of stairs
and went straight into the dressing room. A bronze dragon nailed by
the tail to a bracket writhed away from the wall in calm convolutions,
and held, between the conventional fury of its jaws, a crude gas flame
that resembled a butterfly. The room was empty, of course; but, as he
stepped in, it became filled all at once with a stir of many people;
because the strips of glass on the doors of wardrobes and his wife's
large pier-glass reflected him from head to foot, and multiplied his
image into a crowd of gentlemanly and slavish imitators, who were
dressed exactly like himself; had the same restrained and rare
gestures; who moved when he moved, stood still with him in an
obsequious immobility, and had just such appearances of life and
feeling as he thought it dignified and safe for any man to manifest.
And like real people who are slaves of common thoughts, that are not
even their own, they affected a shadowy independence by the
superficial variety of their movements. They moved together with him;
but they either advanced to meet him, or walked away from him; they
appeared, disappeared; they seemed to dodge behind walnut furniture,
to be seen again, far within the polished panes, stepping about
distinct and unreal in the convincing illusion of a room. And like the
men he respected they could be trusted to do nothing individual,
original, or startling--nothing unforeseen and nothing improper.
He moved for a time aimlessly in that good company, humming a popular
but refined tune, and thinking vaguely of a business letter from
abroad, which had to be answered on the morrow with cautious
prevarication. Then, as he walked towards a wardrobe, he saw appearing
at his back, in the high mirror, the corner of his wife's dressing-
table, and amongst the glitter of silver-mounted objects on it, the
square white patch of an envelope. It was such an unusual thing to be
seen there that he spun round almost before he realized his surprise;
and all the sham men about him pivoted on their heels; all appeared
surprised; and all moved rapidly towards envelopes on dressing-tables.
He recognized his wife's handwriting and saw that the envelope was
addressed to himself. He muttered, "How very odd," and felt annoyed.
Apart from any odd action being essentially an indecent thing in
itself, the fact of his wife indulging in it made it doubly offensive.
That she should write to him at all, when she knew he would be home
for dinner, was perfectly ridiculous; but that she should leave it
like this--in evidence for chance discovery--struck him as so
outrageous that, thinking of it, he experienced suddenly a staggering
sense of insecurity, an absurd and bizarre flash of a notion that the
house had moved a little under his feet. He tore the envelope open,
glanced at the letter, and sat down in a chair near by.
He held the paper before his eyes and looked at half a dozen lines
scrawled on the page, while he was stunned by a noise meaningless and
violent, like the clash of gongs or the beating of drums; a great
aimless uproar that, in a manner, prevented him from hearing himself
think and made his mind an absolute blank. This absurd and distracting
tumult seemed to ooze out of the written words, to issue from between
his very fingers that trembled, holding the paper. And suddenly he
dropped the letter as though it had been something hot, or venomous,
or filthy; and rushing to the window with the unreflecting
precipitation of a man anxious to raise an alarm of fire or murder, he
threw it up and put his head out.
A chill gust of wind, wandering through the damp and sooty obscurity
over the waste of roofs and chimney-pots, touched his face with a
clammy flick. He saw an illimitable darkness, in which stood a black
jumble of walls, and, between them, the many rows of gaslights
stretched far away in long lines, like strung-up beads of fire. A
sinister loom as of a hidden conflagration lit up faintly from below
the mist, falling upon a billowy and motionless sea of tiles and
bricks. At the rattle of the opened window the world seemed to leap
out of the night and confront him, while floating up to his ears there
came a sound vast and faint; the deep mutter of something immense and
alive. It penetrated him with a feeling of dismay and he gasped
silently. From the cab-stand in the square came distinct hoarse
voices and a jeering laugh which sounded ominously harsh and cruel. It
sounded threatening. He drew his head in, as if before an aimed blow,
and flung the window down quickly. He made a few steps, stumbled
against a chair, and with a great effort, pulled himself together to
lay hold of a certain thought that was whizzing about loose in his
He got it at last, after more exertion than he expected; he was
flushed and puffed a little as though he had been catching it with his
hands, but his mental hold on it was weak, so weak that he judged it
necessary to repeat it aloud--to hear it spoken firmly--in order to
insure a perfect measure of possession. But he was unwilling to hear
his own voice--to hear any sound whatever--owing to a vague belief,
shaping itself slowly within him, that solitude and silence are the
greatest felicities of mankind. The next moment it dawned upon him
that they are perfectly unattainable--that faces must be seen, words
spoken, thoughts heard. All the words--all the thoughts!
He said very distinctly, and looking at the carpet, "She's gone."
It was terrible--not the fact but the words; the words charged with
the shadowy might of a meaning, that seemed to possess the tremendous
power to call Fate down upon the earth, like those strange and
appalling words that sometimes are heard in sleep. They vibrated round
him in a metallic atmosphere, in a space that had the hardness of iron
and the resonance of a bell of bronze. Looking down between the toes
of his boots he seemed to listen thoughtfully to the receding wave of
sound; to the wave spreading out in a widening circle, embracing
streets, roofs, church-steeples, fields--and travelling away, widening
endlessly, far, very far, where he could not hear--where he could not
imagine anything--where . . .
"And--with that . . . ass," he said again without stirring in the
least. And there was nothing but humiliation. Nothing else. He could
derive no moral solace from any aspect of the situation, which
radiated pain only on every side. Pain. What kind of pain? It occurred
to him that he ought to be heart-broken; but in an exceedingly short
moment he perceived that his suffering was nothing of so trifling and
dignified a kind. It was altogether a more serious matter, and partook
rather of the nature of those subtle and cruel feelings which are
awakened by a kick or a horse-whipping.
He felt very sick--physically sick--as though he had bitten through
something nauseous. Life, that to a well-ordered mind should be a
matter of congratulation, appeared to him, for a second or so,
perfectly intolerable. He picked up the paper at his feet, and sat
down with the wish to think it out, to understand why his wife--his
wife!--should leave him, should throw away respect, comfort, peace,
decency, position throw away everything for nothing! He set himself to
think out the hidden logic of her action--a mental undertaking fit for
the leisure hours of a madhouse, though he couldn't see it. And he
thought of his wife in every relation except the only fundamental one.
He thought of her as a well-bred girl, as a wife, as a cultured
person, as the mistress of a house, as a lady; but he never for a
moment thought of her simply as a woman.
Then a fresh wave, a raging wave of humiliation, swept through his
mind, and left nothing there but a personal sense of undeserved
abasement. Why should he be mixed up with such a horrid exposure! It
annihilated all the advantages of his well-ordered past, by a truth
effective and unjust like a calumny--and the past was wasted. Its
failure was disclosed--a distinct failure, on his part, to see, to
guard, to understand. It could not be denied; it could not be
explained away, hustled out of sight. He could not sit on it and look
solemn. Now--if she had only died!
If she had only died! He was driven to envy such a respectable
bereavement, and one so perfectly free from any taint of misfortune
that even his best friend or his best enemy would not have felt the
slightest thrill of exultation. No one would have cared. He sought
comfort in clinging to the contemplation of the only fact of life that
the resolute efforts of mankind had never failed to disguise in the
clatter and glamour of phrases. And nothing lends itself more to lies
than death. If she had only died! Certain words would have been said
to him in a sad tone, and he, with proper fortitude, would have made
appropriate answers. There were precedents for such an occasion. And
no one would have cared. If she had only died! The promises, the
terrors, the hopes of eternity, are the concern of the corrupt dead;
but the obvious sweetness of life belongs to living, healthy men. And
life was his concern: that sane and gratifying existence untroubled by
too much love or by too much regret. She had interfered with it; she
had defaced it. And suddenly it occurred to him he must have been mad
to marry. It was too much in the nature of giving yourself away, of
wearing--if for a moment--your heart on your sleeve. But every one
married. Was all mankind mad!
In the shock of that startling thought he looked up, and saw to the
left, to the right, in front, men sitting far off in chairs and
looking at him with wild eyes--emissaries of a distracted mankind
intruding to spy upon his pain and his humiliation. It was not to be
borne. He rose quickly, and the others jumped up, too, on all sides.
He stood still in the middle of the room as if discouraged by their
vigilance. No escape! He felt something akin to despair. Everybody
must know. The servants must know to-night. He ground his teeth . . .
And he had never noticed, never guessed anything. Every one will know.
He thought: "The woman's a monster, but everybody will think me a
fool"; and standing still in the midst of severe walnut-wood
furniture, he felt such a tempest of anguish within him that he seemed
to see himself rolling on the carpet, beating his head against the
wall. He was disgusted with himself, with the loathsome rush of
emotion breaking through all the reserves that guarded his manhood.
Something unknown, withering and poisonous, had entered his life,
passed near him, touched him, and he was deteriorating. He was
appalled. What was it? She was gone. Why? His head was ready to burst
with the endeavour to understand her act and his subtle horror of it.
Everything was changed. Why? Only a woman gone, after all; and yet he
had a vision, a vision quick and distinct as a dream: the vision of
everything he had thought indestructible and safe in the world
crashing down about him, like solid walls do before the fierce breath
of a hurricane. He stared, shaking in every limb, while he felt the
destructive breath, the mysterious breath, the breath of passion,
stir the profound peace of the house. He looked round in fear. Yes.
Crime may be forgiven; uncalculating sacrifice, blind trust, burning
faith, other follies, may be turned to account; suffering, death
itself, may with a grin or a frown be explained away; but passion is
the unpardonable and secret infamy of our hearts, a thing to curse, to
hide and to deny; a shameless and forlorn thing that tramples upon
the smiling promises, that tears off the placid mask, that strips the
body of life. And it had come to him! It had laid its unclean hand
upon the spotless draperies of his existence, and he had to face it
alone with all the world looking on. All the world! And he thought
that even the bare suspicion of such an adversary within his house
carried with it a taint and a condemnation. He put both his hands out
as if to ward off the reproach of a defiling truth; and, instantly,
the appalled conclave of unreal men, standing about mutely beyond the
clear lustre of mirrors, made at him the same gesture of rejection and
He glanced vainly here and there, like a man looking in desperation
for a weapon or for a hiding place, and understood at last that he was
disarmed and cornered by the enemy that, without any squeamishness,
would strike so as to lay open his heart. He could get help nowhere,
or even take counsel with himself, because in the sudden shock of her
desertion the sentiments which he knew that in fidelity to his
bringing up, to his prejudices and his surroundings, he ought to
experience, were so mixed up with the novelty of real feelings, of
fundamental feelings that know nothing of creed, class, or education,
that he was unable to distinguish clearly between what is and what
ought to be; between the inexcusable truth and the valid pretences.
And he knew instinctively that truth would be of no use to him. Some
kind of concealment seemed a necessity because one cannot explain. Of
course not! Who would listen? One had simply to be without stain and
without reproach to keep one's place in the forefront of life.
He said to himself, "I must get over it the best I can," and began to
walk up and down the room. What next? What ought to be done? He