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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHenry Brocken - Chapter 8
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Henry Brocken - Chapter 8 Post by :mikman Category :Long Stories Author :Walter De La Mare Date :May 2012 Read :3445

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Henry Brocken - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

If I see all, ye're nine to ane!

--OLD BALLAD.


I was awoke by a sustained sound as of an orator speaking in an unknown tongue, and found myself in a sunny-shadowy loft, whither I suppose I must have been carried in my sleep. In a delicious languor between sleeping and waking I listened with imperturbable curiosity awhile to that voice of the unknown. Indeed, I was dozing again when a different sound, enormous, protracted, abruptly aroused me. I got up, hot and trembling, not yet quite my own master, to discover its cause.

Through a narrow slit between the timbers I could view the country beneath me, far and wide. I saw near at hand the cumbrous gate of the stockade ajar, and at a little distance on the farther side Mr. Gulliver and his half-human servant standing. In front of them was an empty space--a narrow semicircle of which Gulliver was the centre. And beyond--wild-eyed, dishevelled, stretching their necks as if to see, inclining their heads as if to hearken, ranging in multitude almost to the sky's verge--stood assembled, it seemed to me, all the horses of the universe.

Even in my first sensation of fear admiration irresistibly stirred. The superb freedom of their unbridled heads, the sun-nurtured arrogance of their eyes, the tumultuous, sea-like tossing of crest and tail, their keenness and ardour and might, and also in simple truth their numbers--how could one marvel if this solitary fanatic dreamed they heard him and understood?

Unarmed, bareheaded, he faced the brutal discontent of his people. Words I could not distinguish; but there was little chance of misapprehending the haughty anguish with which he threatened, pleaded, cajoled. Clear and unfaltering his voice rose and fell. He dealt out fearlessly, foolishly, to that long-snouted, little-brained, wild-eyed multitude, reason beyond their instinct, persuasion beyond their savagery, love beyond their heed.

But even while I listened, one thing I knew those sleek malcontents heard too--the Spirit of man in that small voice of his--perplexed, perhaps, and perverted, and out of tether; but none the less unconquerable and sublime.

What less, thought I, than power unearthly could long maintain that stern, impassable barrier of green vacancy between their hoofs and him? And I suppose for the very reason that these were beasts of a long-sharpened sagacity, wild-hearted, rebellious, yet not the slaves of impulse, he yet kept himself their king who was, in fact, their captive.

"Houyhnhnms?" I heard him cry; "pah--Yahoos!" His voice fell; he stood confronting in silence that vast circumference of restless beauty. And again broke out inhuman, inarticulate, immeasurable revolt. Far across over the tossing host, rearing, leaping, craning dishevelled heads, went pealing and eddying that hostile, brutal voice.

Gulliver lifted his hand, and a tempestuous silence fell once more. "Yahoos! Yahoos!" he bawled again. Then he turned, and passed back into his hideous garden. The gate was barred and bolted behind him.

Thus loosed and unrestrained, surged as if the wind drove them, that concourse upon the stockade. Heavy though its timbers were, they seemed to stoop at the impact. A kind of fury rose in me. I lusted to go down and face the mutiny of the brutes; bit, and saddle, and scourge into obedience man's serfs of the centuries. I watched, on fire, the flame of the declining sun upon those sleek, vehement creatures of the dust. And then, I know not by what subtle irony, my zeal turned back--turned back and faded away into simple longing for my lost friend, my peaceful beast-of-evening, Rosinante. I sat down again in the litter of my bed and earnestly wished myself home; wished, indeed, if I must confess it, for the familiar face of my Aunt Sophia, my books, my bed. If these were this land's horses, I thought, what men might here be met! The unsavouriness, the solitude, the neighing and tumult and prancing induced in me nothing but dulness at last and disgust.

But at length, dismissing all such folly, at least from my face, I lifted the trap-door and descended the steep ladder into the room beneath.

Mr. Gulliver sat where I had left him. Defeat stared from his eyes. Lines of insane thought disfigured his face. Yet he sat, stubborn and upright, heedless of the uproar, heedless even that the late beams of the sun had found him out in his last desolation. So I too sat down without speech, and waited till he should come up out of his gloom, and find a friend in a stranger.

But day waned; the sunlight went out of the great wooden room; the tumult diminished; and finally silence and evening shadow descended on the beleaguered house. And I was looking out of the darkened window at a star that had risen and stood shining in the sky, when I was startled by a voice so low and so different from any I had yet heard that I turned to convince myself it was indeed Mr. Gulliver's.

"And the people of the Yahoos, Traveller," he said, "do they still lie, and flatter, and bribe, and spill blood, and lust, and covet? Are there yet in the country whence you come the breadless bellies, the sores and rags and lamentations of the poor? Ay, Yahoo, and do vicious men rule, and attain riches; and impious women pomp and flattery?--hypocrites, pandars, envious, treacherous, proud?" He stared with desolate sorrow and wrath into my eyes.

Words in disorder flocked to my tongue. I grew hot and eager, yet by some instinct held my peace. The fluttering of the dying flames, the starry darkness, silence itself; what were we who sat together? Transient shadows both, phantom, unfathomable, mysterious as these.

I fancied he might speak again. Once he started, raised his arm, and cried out as if acting again in dream some frenzy of the past. And once he wheeled on me extraordinary eyes, as if he half-recognised some idol of the irrevocable in my face. These were momentary, however. Gloom returned to his forehead, vacancy to his eyes.

I heard the outer gate flung open, and a light, strange footfall. So we seated ourselves, all three, for a while round the smouldering fire. Mr. Gulliver's servant scarcely took his eyes from my face. And, a little to my confusion, his first astonishment of me had now passed away, and in its stead had fallen such a gentleness and humour as I should not have supposed possible in his wild countenance. He busied himself over his strips of skin, but if he caught my eye upon his own he would smile out broadly, and nod his great, hairy head at me, till I fancied myself a child again and he some vast sweetheart of my nurse.

When we had supped (sitting together in the great room), I climbed the ladder into the loft and was soon fast asleep. But from dreams distracted with confusion I awoke at the first shafts of dawn. I stood beside the narrow window in the wall of the loft and watched the distant river change to silver, the bright green of the grass appear.

This seemed a place of few and timorous birds, and of fewer trees. But all across the dews of the grasses lay a tinge of powdered gold, as if yellow flowers were blooming in abundance there. I saw no horses, no sign of life; heard no sound but the cadent wail of the ash-grey birds in their flights. And when I turned my eyes nearer home, and compared the distant beauty of the forests and their radiant clouds with the nakedness and desolation here, I gave up looking from the window with a determination to be gone as soon as possible from a country so uncongenial.

Moreover, Mr. Gulliver, it appeared, had returned during the night to his first mistrust of my company. He made no sign he saw me, and left his uncouth servant to attend on me. For him, indeed, I began to feel a kind of affection springing up; he seemed so eager to befriend me. And whose is the heart quite hardened against a simple admiration? I rose very gladly when, after having stuffed a wallet with food, he signed to me to follow him. I turned to Mr. Gulliver and held out my hand.

"I wish, sir, I might induce you to accompany me," I said. "Some day we would win our way back to the country we have abandoned. I have known and loved your name, sir, since first I browsed on pictures--Being measured for your first coat in Lilliput by the little tailors:--Straddling the pinnacled city. Ay, sir, and when the farmers picked you up 'twixt finger and thumb from among their cornstalks...."

I had talked on in hope to see his face relax; but he made no sign he saw or heard me. I very speedily dropped my hand and went out. But when my guide and I had advanced about thirty yards from the stockade, I cast a glance over my shoulder towards the house that had given me shelter. It rose, sad-coloured and solitary, between the green and blue. But, if it was not fancy, Mr. Gulliver stood looking down on me from the very window whence I had looked down on him. And there I do not doubt he stayed till his fellow-yahoo had passed across his inhospitable lands out of his sight for ever.

I was glad to be gone, and did not, at first, realise that the least danger lay before us. But soon, observing the extraordinary vigilance and caution my companion showed, I began to watch and hearken, too. Evidently our departure had not passed unseen. Far away to left and to right of us I descried at whiles now a few, now many, swift-moving shapes. But whether they were advancing with us, or gathering behind us, in hope to catch their tyrant alone and unaware, I could not properly distinguish.

Once, for a cause not apparent to me, my guide raised himself to his full height, and, thrusting back his head, uttered a most piercing cry. After that, however, we saw no more for a while of the beasts that haunted our journey.

All morning, till the sun was high, and the air athrob with heat and stretched like a great fiddlestring to a continuous, shrill vibration, we went steadily forward. And when at last I was faint with heat and thirst, my companion lifted me up like a child on to his back and set off again at his great, easy stride. It was useless to protest. I merely buried my hands in his yellow hair to keep my balance in such a camel-like motion.

A little after noon we stayed to rest by a shallow brook, beneath a cluster of trees scented, though not in blossom, like an English hawthorn. There we ate our meal, or rather I ate and my companion watched, running out ever and again for a wider survey, and returning to me like a faithful dog, to shout snatches of his inconceivable language at me.

Sometimes I seemed to catch his meaning, bidding me take courage, have no fear, he would protect me. And once he shaded his eyes and pointed afar with extreme perturbation, whining or murmuring while he stared.

Again we set off from beneath the sweet-scented shade, and now no doubt remained that I was the object of very hostile evolutions. Sometimes these smooth-hooved battalions would advance, cloudlike, to within fifty yards of us, and, snorting, ruffle their manes and wheel swiftly away; only once more in turn to advance, and stand, with heads exalted, gazing wildly on us till we were passed on a little. But my guide gave them very little heed. Did they pause a moment too long in our path, or gallop down on us but a stretch or two beyond the limit his instinct had set for my safety, he whirled his thong above his head, and his yell resounded, and like a shadow upon wheat the furious companies melted away.

Evidently these were not the foes he looked for, but a subtler, a more indomitable. It was at last, I conjectured, at scent, or sight, or rumour of these that he suddenly swept me on to his shoulders again, and with a great sneeze or bellow leapt off at a speed he had, as yet, given me no hint of.

Looking back as best I could, I began to discern somewhat to the left of us a numerous herd in pursuit, sorrel in colour, and of a more magnificent aspect than those forming the other bands. It was obvious, too, despite their plunging and rearing, that they were gaining on us--drew, indeed, so near at last that I could count the foremost of them, and mark (not quite callously) their power and fleetness and symmetry, even the sun's gold upon their reddish skins.

Then in a flash my captor set me down, toppled me over (in plain words) into the thick herbage, and, turning, rushed bellowing, undeviating towards their leaders, till it seemed he must inevitably be borne down beneath their brute weight, and so--farewell to summer. But almost at the impact, the baffled creatures reared, neighing fearfully in consort, and at the gibberish hurled back on them by their flamed-eyed master, broke in rout, and fled.

Whereupon, unpausing, he ran back to me, only just in time to rescue me from the nearer thunder yet of those who had seized the very acme of their opportunity to beat out my brains.

It was a long and arduous and unequal contest. I wished very heartily I could bear a rather less passive part. But this fearless creature scarcely heeded me; used me like a helpless child, half tenderly, half roughly, displaying ever and again over his shoulder only a fleeting glance of the shallow glories of his eyes, as if to reassure me of his power and my safety.

But the latter, those distant savannahs will bear witness, seemed forlorn enough. My eyes swam with weariness of these crested, earth-disdaining battalions. I sickened of the heat of the sun, the incessant sidelong jolting, the amazing green. But on we went, fleet and stubborn, into ever-thickening danger. How feeble a quarry amid so many hunters!

Two things grew clearer to me each instant. First, that every movement and feint of our pursuers was of design. Not a beast that wheeled but wheeled to purpose; while the main body never swerved, thundered superbly on toward the inevitable end. And next I perceived with even keener assurance that my guide knew his country and his enemy and his own power and aim as perfectly and consummately; knew, too--this was the end.

Far distant in front of us there appeared to be a break in the level green, a fringe of bushes, rougher ground. For this refuge he was making, and from this our mutinous Houyhnhnms meant to keep us.

There was no pausing now, not a glance behind. His every effort was bent on speed. Speed indeed it was. The wind roared in my ears. Yet above its surge I heard the neighing and squealing, the ever-approaching shudder of hoofs. My eyes distorted all they looked on. I seemed now floating twenty feet in air; now skimming within touch of ground. Now that sorrel squadron behind me swelled and nodded; now dwindled to an extreme minuteness of motion.

Then, of a sudden, a last, shrill paean rose high; the hosts of our pursuers paused, billow-like, reared, and scattered--my poor Yahoo leapt clear.

For an instant once again in this wild journey I was poised, as it were, in space, then fell with a crash, still clutched, sure and whole, to the broad shoulders of my rescuer.

When my first confusion had passed away, I found that I was lying in a dense green glen at the foot of a cliff. For some moments I could think of nothing but my extraordinary escape from destruction. Within reach of my hand lay the creature who had carried me, huddled and motionless; and to left and to right of me, and one a little nearer the base of the cliff, five of those sorrel horses that had been chief of our pursuers. One only of them was alive, and he, also, broken and unable to rise--unable to do else than watch with fierce, untamed, glazing eyes (a bloody froth at his muzzle,) every movement and sign of life I made.

I myself, though bruised and bleeding, had received no serious injury. But my Yahoo would rise no more. His master was left alone amidst his people. I stooped over him and bathed his brow and cheeks with the water that trickled from the cliffs close at hand. I pushed back the thick strands of matted yellow hair from his eyes. He made no sign. Even while I watched him the life of the poor beast near at hand welled away: he whinnied softly, and dropped his head upon the bracken. I was alone in the unbroken silence.

It seemed a graceless thing to leave the carcasses of these brave creatures uncovered there. So I stripped off branches of the trees, and gathered bundles of fern and bracken, with which to conceal awhile their bones from wolf and fowl. And him whom I had begun to love I covered last, desiring he might but return, if only for a moment, to bid me his strange farewell.

This done, I pushed through the undergrowth from the foot of the sunny cliffs, and after wandering in the woods, came late in the afternoon, tired out, to a ruinous hut. Here I rested, refreshing myself with the unripe berries that grew near by.

I remained quite still in this mouldering hut looking out on the glens where fell the sunlight. Some homely bird warbled endlessly on in her retreat, lifted her small voice till every hollow resounded with her content. Silvery butterflies wavered across the sun's pale beams, sipped, and flew in wreaths away. The infinite hordes of the dust raised their universal voice till, listening, it seemed to me their tiny Babel was after all my own old, far-off English, sweet of the husk.

Fate leads a man through danger to his delight. Me she had led among woods. Nameless though many of the cups and stars and odours of the flowers were to me, unfamiliar the little shapes that gamboled in fur and feather before my face, here dwelt, mummy of all earth's summers, some old ghost of me, sipper of sap, coucher in moss, quieter than dust.

So sitting, so rhapsodising, I began to hear presently another sound--the rich, juicy munch-munch of jaws, a little blunted maybe, which yet, it seemed, could never cry Enough! to these sweet, succulent grasses. I made no sign, waited with eyes towards the sound, and pulses beating as if for a sweetheart. And soon, placid, unsurprised, at her extreme ease, loomed into sight who but my ox-headed Rosinante in these dells, cropping her delightful way along in search of her drowned master.

I could but whistle and receive the slow, soft scrutiny of her familiar eyes. I fancied even her bland face smiled, as might elderliness on youth. She climbed near with bridle broken and trailing, thrust out her nose to me, and so was mine again.

Sunlight left the woods. Wind passed through the upper branches. So, with rain in the air, I went forward once more; not quite so headily, perhaps, yet, I hope, with undiminished courage, like all earth's travellers before me, who have deemed truth potent as modesty, and themselves worth scanning print after.

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