The Raft

by Eugene Lee-Hamilton

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