by Eugene Lee-Hamilton
He shook his head. " No, no, " he said, " a man
Need neither be insane nor wholly bad
Who does that kind of thing. I say again,
That there are minutes in the lives of all
When Satan seems to pass across the heart
Just as a shadow flits across the path;
And if it happen that we be possessed
Of power in such minutes, woe betide
Ourselves and others. Bring not yet the lamp,
But let the twilight have its way; the fire
Is light enough; I have a tale to tell,
And care not, as I tell it, to be watched.
My children, you shall hear what made me leave,
Some fifty years ago, my native land,
And seek this colony, then barely formed.
I speak at last; for I am old, so old
That human justice, even if it cared,
Could scarce o'ertake me on the final brink.
But human justice cares not; I am safe.
All has been long forgotten in that land
Whose very language I have long unlearned.
I would to God I could forget as well
A desperate shriek, which ever and anon
Rings in my ears.
Now listen. I was born
In the Black Forest, on the Upper Murg,
A noble torrent, which with rush and roar
Fights its way out through many a fir-crowned gorge
And rocky pass, till, with diminished strength
And slackened pace, it falls into the Rhine.
A noble torrent truly: not pale green
With silvery shallows, like the rivers here,
But with clear coppery gleamings and a grand
Voluminous impulsion. Fast as light
Across the rapids, down the watery slopes
Swoop many rafts — long, narrow, supple —
Which men with pikes, one standing at each end,
Guide past projecting rocks, to right and left,
With perilous dexterity. And then
There are the shoots of timber. Once a year
All that the ever-sounding axe has felled
Of giant trunks for miles and miles around
Stored in a mighty mountain reservoir
Is hurled into the stream, and rushes down
In one terrific and tumultuous race.
Ten thousand struggling, rolling, tossing trunks.
Press like a routed army through the gorge,
And, hampered by their number and the rocks,
O'erride each other in their desperate flight,
Sink, reappear, and sink o'erwhelmed once more;
Crashing with splintery crunchings and a roar
Like never-ending thunder. So for hours
The furious rush continues, and the stream
Appears alive with logs. Then by degrees
The numbers thin, the crown contends no more,
And single stragglers, leaving far behind
Their stranded comrades, gently make their way
To distant saw-mills. On the lower Murg,
At Ottenau and Gernsbach, where the deal
Is stored and sold and floated down the Rhine
To Rotterdam, the timber merchants drive
A busy commerce — or at least they did;
All may have altered.
When I did the thing
Which changed my life, and made me, like a thief,
Desert the country, I was twenty-five.
My father was the owner of a mill.
And well-to-do. We sawed a many plank.
The heaps of sawdust in the wide mill yard
Grew year by year, the income keeping pace;
For sawing is a profitable trade,
With small fatigue: the water does the work.
I had obtained the liking of a girl,
The daughter of a miller higher up,
And we were to be married. All men thought
That I was over lucky, as my bride
Was heiress to her father's mill, and I
Would thus inherit two. As I have said,
I had a deal of leisure — far too much.
My uncle was a ranger of the Duke's;
He gave me shooting in the neighbouring hills,
And many a roebuck fell beneath my gun.
And then I left the fish but little peace.
The fish abounded in the shallow runs;
You saw the greyling turning on their sides
In shoals, like flashing mirrors, and the trout,
Large, yellow-bellied trout, leapt at the flies
By scores at dusk.
It was an August night —
Warm, moonlit, still, and breezeless. I had spent
The evening at the miller's, and had met,
On my way home, a village chum, with whom,
Before we parted company, I took
A glass of spirits at the village inn.
I fear it was not much: I say I fear ,
Because each single drop that I can plead,
When I shall answer for that evening's work,
Will be of value at the bar of Heaven.
O God Almighty! would I had gone home
And sought my bed as usual! But instead
The evil powers which obstruct our fate
Made me pass on along the riverside,
And seek a certain spot, there to rebait
Some night-lines which I'd sunk the day before.
It was a quiet pool, in which a raft
Would sometimes moor and wait for break of day
Before it crossed a longish stretch of stream
Of ticklish navigation just beyond,
Where long, dark slopes of water, which were split
By tooth-like points, sucked down the rafts like straws,
And called for proven skill, for ready wits,
And for good light. Woe to the luckless raft
Which lacking these passed in: its fate was sealed.
Well, to resume. I reached the shallow pool
Above the entrance of the gorge — the place
Where I had laid the night-lines; there I found
What I had not expected on that night,
A raft, with men asleep; three lay curled up,
While, in the middle of the raft, a sort
Of little cabin served, perhaps, to shield
Women or children from the dew; the poles
With which they steered the raft were on the bank,
Together with an axe; and by ill luck
The raft was moored upon the very spot
Where I had sunk the night-lines. What to do?
The men were fast asleep; the river's roar,
Monotonous and ceaseless, drowned my step.
I bared my arm, and tried to find the lines
Beneath the raft; it was of no avail;
Then with the axe O tried to fish them up,
But with no more success. Then by the raft
I sat me down. I think my mind at first
Was with the lines; then by degrees my thoughts
Passed to the sleeping men, on whom my eyes
Mechanically rested; and I thought
How wondrously unconscious were these men
Of my existence and my presence there;
In what security they slept; while I
Was moving, watching, thinking not two yards
From where they lay. Something like a sense
Of power over them began to grow
Upon me as I looked. And then it was
That Satan's shadow passed across my heart:
Together with the power came the wish
To play them, in their false security,
A sort of monster trick. The single rope
Which held the raft was close beside my knee,
The axe within my hand. Within myself
I heard a voice which seemed to say,
" Cut it, and send them spinning. Cut it quick.
Thou hast enormous power in thy hands;
Thou need'st but raise a finger. What, afraid?
They are unconscious: see how sound they sleep,
The careless fools. On thee alone depends
A mighty wakening. Never will these hills
Have seen so great a scamper. Cut it quick;
Cut it, I say! " And with a single stroke
I cut the tether, and I pushed the raft.
It drifted slowly out into the light
And left me in the shadow. Suddenly
The current caught it, swung it sharply round,
So that it struck a rock, and off it shot.
There was a shout of men, a woman's shriek,
Some figures flitted wildly to and fro
Upon it as it vanished. I was free
To find my lines at leisure.
But I stood
Upon the bank and trembled. Long I looked
Adown the stream, and tried to see and hear;
But all was hushed except the water's roar,
Monotonous and ceaseless. Then I turned,
And, like a man who bears a crushing weight
Which may not be set down, and who succeeds
Only by rapid staggering straight ahead
In reaching to his goal, I staggered home,
Crushed and pushed forward and deprived of thought
By the great weight of crime which was to rest
Upon my head until I reached the grave.
What roundabout untrodden path I took
I have no notion, nor how long I walked:
Next day I found red clay upon my clothes,
And there was none for miles. And yet I doubt
If what I felt in that first great recoil
Was what you call remorse; what crushed my soul
Was not the horror of the new-done thing,
But its enormity: I was as yet
A culprit, not a criminal, and felt
Responsible to men, and not to God.
Whether or not I slept I cannot tell.
I think I must have slept, for I have heard
That the first sleep of murderers is deep.
A sudden crime exhausts. 'Tis later on,
When Fear begins to sit beside your bed,
And makes a danger of each sound of night,
And at each moment twitches you and cries,
" Awake! awake! they come! " 'Tis later on,
When from behind your pillow sharp remorse
Whispers, " Not yet to sleep, not yet, not yet! "
And fills you with self-horror, that you hear
The weary striking of the tardy hours,
And pray for dawn. I think that when I woke
And slowly dressed I had alone a sense
That a misfortune had o'ertaken me, that now
I had an awful secret to preserve,
And that my life was changed. The daily hum,
The clatter, and the sawing of the mill,
The cackling of the poultry, and the song
Of lighter-hearted neighbours, hurt my ear.
Then thought began, and I surveyed the deed,
But only as we measure the extent
Of some great accident. Beyond a doubt
Whoever passed the rapids unprepared
(Even supposing that the raft should stick,
And not be shivered by repeated shocks),
Would be swung off or washed away at once.
Below the rapids, both to right and left,
The banks were high and rocky: no escape.
An ugly job, a very ugly job,
And inconceivable. But it was done.
What most was to be feared was that my looks,
When men began to talk, would let it out,
And then I prayed an impious prayer to God,
That this event might vanish and be lost,
Just as the raft had vanished into night;
That none might seek or mourn, and that the flood
Into whose awful keeping I had given
These unknown men and women in their sleep
Might be for ever dumb.
I heard a step:
It was my father bidding me get up,
And seek a distant village, down the stream,
To settle some transaction for the mill.
Down stream! I thought — Oh not for worlds down stream!
But he insisted, and I feared to rouse
Suspicion by refusal; so I went.
The road, at first, was not along the bank,
It met it only nearly two miles off
Below the rapids, when both road and stream
Passed through a gorge. On entering this gorge
There fell upon my heart, I know not why,
Together with the shadow of the place,
A sudden fear: I feared to be alone
With this dark river, even as a man
May fear to be alone with one whose hand
For price of gold had served him over well.
The aspect of the gorge was sinister,
The road and river both were tightly squeezed
To half their width, in Nature's rocky gripe:
A sunless home of echoes, where you saw,
On looking up, a narrow strip of sky,
On which the kites, which circled round and round,
Were sharply printed. Rapid, deep, and black,
The stream, between two cruel walls of rock,
Formed whirling pools, and ever and anon
Rolled some huge root, which in the distant gloom
Looked like a drowning wretch that none could help.
I stopped in doubt; but to retrace my steps
Was dangerous; and so I hurried on,
Not looking at the river by my side.
Half through the gorge, just where it made a bend,
The banks were less abrupt; some ridge-like rocks
Ran out into the water, shelving down
To meet the current. On the first of these
Lay something dark. I had to pass close by,
And had to look; it was a human form;
The body of a woman lately drowned.
She lay half in, half out; the circling flood,
Which still retained possession of her feet,
Gave her strange tugs and twitches, and kept up
A lapping and a flapping of her clothes
Beyond all measure horrible. Her eyes,
Wide open like her mouth, seemed fixed on mine,
Drawing me onwards by resistless force.
She seemed to be still young — thirty at most.
I dared not turn, and yet I dared not pass;
At last I passed her quickly, and I fled;
And as I fled I shrank as one pursued
Who feels a hand descending on his back.
I seemed to feel at every step I took
Her clammy hand upon me, and to hear
Her ever louder and more threatening voice
Claim back her stolen life.
Beyond the gorge
There was a little village, where I heard
That fragments of a raft had floated down,
And that the body of a man, fresh drowned,
Had just been found. I dared not let them know
What I myself had seen upon the rock,
Lest they should make me lead them to the spot.
They'll find the body soon enough, I thought.
Not all the riches that the world contained
Would have induced me, quaking still with fear,
To face that sight or pass that gorge again;
And when the business which I had to do
Was settled (how I did it Heaven knows),
And I returned, it was by rugged paths,
Which passed not near the river, but which went
Across the fir-clad mountains.
One by one
The bodies were recovered; they were six:
Three men, two women, and a little girl.
All went to see them, I alone held back.
And soon a rumour spread from door to door
That the catastrophe was not the work
Of accident; that where the raft had moored,
And where the poles were lying with an axe,
A bit of rope, sharp severed, had been found,
Which tallied with another severed rope,
Still dangling from a piece of shivered raft
Upon the rocks. But who had done the deed?
There was no evidence, and I was safe.
If altered looks and habits could convict,
I think you might have hung me; for in truth
Whate'er I was, I was no hypocrite;
And great as was the need, I hid but ill
The gloom of guilt. To smile and seem at ease
And live as usual was beyond my strength;
I held aloof from all my village friends;
As you may think, I left the trout in peace;
And if, at times, I still would take my gun
And wander in the hills, it was because
It took me from the river. I was changed.
And yet the neighbours, strange as it may seem,
Had no suspicion; men are sometimes blind.
One person only, almost from the first,
Suspected me, and that was my betrothed.
I saw it, and I writhed. When once or twice
The raft was spoken of, I caught her eye
Rest on me for one moment in a way
That made me turn aside; and when anon
She told me that the match was broken off,
I bowed my head, although I loved her still,
And asked no explanation.
Oh God's hand
Was heavy on me then, and I believe,
By all that is most holy upon earth,
That those whom I had hurried unprepared
Into destruction were as well avenged
As if the Law had held me in its gripe.
Nay, there were moments when the Law's revenge
Seemed lighter in the balance; and the dread
Of heaping shame upon my father's home
Alone withheld me, hounded by remorse,
From giving myself up; and there were times
(I shudder at the memory) when the stream,
Desisting from its old accusing roar,
Made wild seductive music in my ears
And lured me to its brink. Then, bending o'er
Some dark and whirling pool, about to leap,
A hideous fear would seize me that the corpse
Of the drowned woman might be in its depth
Awaiting my embrace. Oh, I repeat,
God's hand was heavy on me. When, at night,
Great storms would shake the hills, and dazzling shafts
Would fall with rattling simultaneous crash
Of thunder near the mill, and make it quake
Even to its foundations, I would start
And, cowering like a craven in my bed,
Would think, " It is the messenger of God
Who seeks me in the darkness. "
Such a life,
Had it gone on much longer, would have led
Either to madness or to further crime.
There came a moment when I felt that nought
Could save me but departure and a life
Of all engrossing enterprise. And so,
Within six months of that most fatal night,
And unconvicted, save by God above,
I fled my country like a hunted thief,
Without a blessing or a farewell wish,
Nor have I seen it since. For fifty years,
Out here beyond the ocean, I have lived
A life of work, acquiring by degrees
Both wealth and influence; and have obtained
With bitter satisfaction the respect
Of men unstained by crime; and I believe
That what a man may do to purchase back
His self-respect and win a smile from Heaven
I have not left undone. But all the schools
And all the hospitals which I could found
Would not bring back again the dead to life.
And, like the captives who in former days
Were fettered to a heavy cannon ball,
Which, if they wished to move from place to place,
They had to raise and carry, I am chained
To one great load of guilt; the cannon ball
Which I have dragged through life has been unseen;
But not the less immense has been its weight.
Last updated December 12, 2017