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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Child Of The Dawn - Chapter 17
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The Child Of The Dawn - Chapter 17 Post by :Prd2BHawn Category :Long Stories Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2167

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The Child Of The Dawn - Chapter 17


I was alone in an instant, and in terrible pain--pain not in any part of me, but all around and within me. A cold wind of a piercing bitterness seemed to blow upon me; but with it came a sense of immense energy and strength, so that the pain became suddenly delightful, like the stretching of a stiffened limb. I cannot put the pain into exact words. It was not attended by any horror; it seemed a sense of infinite grief and loss and loneliness, a deep yearning to be delivered and made free. I felt suddenly as though everything I loved had gone from me, irretrievably gone and lost. I looked round me, and I could discern through a mist the bases of some black and sinister rocks, that towered up intolerably above me; in between them were channels full of stones and drifted snow. Anything more stupendous than those black-ribbed crags, those toppling precipices, I had never seen. The wind howled among them, and sometimes there was a noise of rocks cast down. I knew in some obscure way that my path lay there, and my heart absolutely failed me. Instead of going straight to the rocks, I began to creep along the base to see whether I could find some easier track. Suddenly the voice of Amroth said, rather sharply, in my ear, "Don't be silly!" This homely direction, so peremptorily made, had an instantaneous effect. If he had said, "Be not faithless," or anything in the copybook manner, I should have sat down and resigned myself to solemn despair. But now I felt a fool and a coward as well.

So I addressed myself, like a dog who hears the crack of a whip, to the rocks.

It would be tedious to relate how I clambered and stumbled and agonised. There did not seem to me the slightest use in making the attempt, or the smallest hope of reaching the top, or the least expectation of finding anything worth finding. I hated everything I had ever seen or known; recollections of old lives and of the quiet garden I had left came upon me with a sort of mental nausea. This was very different from the amiable and easy-going treatment I had expected. Yet I did struggle on, with a hideous faintness and weariness--but would it never stop? It seemed like years to me, my hands frozen and wetted by snow and dripping water, my feet bruised and wounded by sharp stones, my garments strangely torn and rent, with stains of blood showing through in places. Still the hideous business continued, but progress was never quite impossible. At one place I found the rocks wholly impassable, and choosing the broader of two ledges which ran left and right, I worked out along the cliff, only to find that the ledge ran into the precipices, and I had to retrace my steps, if the shuffling motions I made could be so called. Then I took the harder of the two, which zigzagged backwards and forwards across the rocks. At one place I saw a thing which moved me very strangely. This was a heap of bones, green, slimy, and ill-smelling, with some tattered rags of cloth about them, which lay in a heap beneath a precipice. The thought that a man could fall and be killed in such a place moved me with a fresh misery. What that meant I could not tell. Were we not away from such things as mouldering flesh and broken bones? It seemed not; and I climbed madly away from them. Quite suddenly I came to the top, a bleak platform of rock, where I fell prostrate on my face and groaned.

"Yes, that was an ugly business," said the voice of Amroth beside me, "but you got through it fairly well. How do you feel?"

"I call it a perfect outrage," I said. "What is the meaning of this hateful business?"

"The meaning?" said Amroth; "never mind about the meaning. The point is that you are here!"

"Oh," I said, "I have had a horrible time. All my sense of security is gone from me. Is one indeed liable to this kind of interruption, Amroth?"

"Of course," said Amroth, "there must be some tests; but you will be better very soon. It is all over for the present, I may tell you, and you will soon be able to enjoy it. There is no terror in past suffering--it is the purest joy."

"Yes, I used to say so and think so," I said, closing my eyes. "But this was different--it was horrible! And the time it lasted, and the despair of it! It seems to have soaked into my whole life and poisoned it."

Amroth said nothing for a minute, but watched me closely.

Presently I went on. "And tell me one thing. There was a ghastly thing I saw, some mouldering bones on a ledge. Can people indeed fall and die there?"

"Perhaps it was only a phantom," said Amroth, "put there like the sights in the _Pilgrim's Progress_, the fire that was fed secretly with oil, and the robin with his mouth full of spiders, as an encouragement for wayfarers!"

"But that," I said, "would be too horrible for anything--to turn the terrors of death into a sort of conjuring trick--a dramatic entertainment, to make one's flesh creep! Why, that was the misery of some of the religion taught us in old days, that it seemed often only dramatic--a scene without cause or motive, just displayed to show us the anger or the mercy of God, so that one had the miserable sense that much of it was a spectacular affair, that He Himself did not really suffer or feel indignation, but thought it well to feign emotions, like a schoolmaster to impress his pupils.--and that people too were not punished for their own sakes, to help them, but just to startle or convince others."

"Yes," said Amroth, "I was only jesting, and I see that my jests were out of place. Of course what you saw was real--there are no pretences here. Men and women do indeed suffer a kind of death--the second death--in these places, and have to begin again; but that is only for a certain sort of self-confident and sin-soaked person, whose will needs to be roughly broken. There are certain perverse sins of the spirit which need a spiritual death, as the sins of the body need a bodily death. Only thus can one be born again."

"Well," I said, "I am amazed--but now what am I to do? I am fit for nothing, and I shall be fit for nothing hereafter."

"If you talk like this," said Amroth, "you will only drive me away. There are certain things that it is better not to confess to one's dearest friend, not even to God. One must just be silent about them, try to forget them, hope they can never happen again. I tell you, you will soon be all right; and if you are not you will have to see a physician. But you had better not do that unless you are obliged."

This made me feel ashamed of myself, and the shame took off my thoughts from what I had endured; but I could do nothing but lie aching and panting on the rocks for a long time, while Amroth sat beside me in silence.

"Are you vexed?" I said after a long pause.

"No, no, not vexed," said Amroth, "but I am not sure whether I have not made a mistake. It was I who urged that you might go forward, and I confess I am disappointed at the result. You are softer than I thought."

"Indeed I am not," I said. "I will go down the rocks and come up again, if that will satisfy you."

"Come, that is a little better," said Amroth, "and I will tell you now that you did well--better indeed at the time than I expected. You did the thing in very good time, as we used to say."

By this time I felt very drowsy, and suddenly dropped off into a sleep--such a deep and dreamless sleep, to descend into which was like flinging oneself into a river-pool by a bubbling weir on a hot and dusty day of summer.

I awoke suddenly with a pressure on my arm, and, waking up with a sense of renewed freshness, I saw Amroth looking at me anxiously. "Do not say anything," he said. "Can you manage to hobble a few steps? If you cannot, I will get some help, and we shall be all right--but there may be an unpleasant encounter, and it is best avoided." I scrambled to my feet, and Amroth helped me a little higher up the rocks, looking carefully into the mist as he did so. Close behind us was a steep rock with ledges. Amroth flung himself upon them, with an agile scramble or two. Then he held his hand down, lying on the top; I took it, and, stiffened as I was, I contrived to get up beside him. "That is right," he said in a whisper. "Now lie here quietly, don't speak a word, and just watch."

I lay, with a sense of something evil about. Presently I heard the sound of voices in the mist to the left of us; and in an instant there loomed out of the mist the form of a man, who was immediately followed by three others. They were different from all the other spirits I had yet seen--tall, lean, dark men, very spare and strong. They looked carefully about them, mostly glancing down the cliff, and sometimes conferred together. They were dressed in close-fitting dark clothes, which seemed as if made out of some kind of skin or untanned leather, and their whole air was sinister and terrifying. They passed quite close beneath us, so that I saw the bald head of one of them, who carried a sort of hook in his hands.

When they got to the place where my climb had ended, they stopped and examined the stones carefully: one of them clambered a few feet down the cliff. Then he came back and seemed to make a brief report, after which they appeared undecided what to do; they even looked up at the rock where we lay; but while they did this, another man, very similar, came hurriedly out of the mist, said something to the group, and they all disappeared very quickly into the darkness the same way they had come. Then there was a silence. I should have spoken, but Amroth put a finger on his lips. Presently there came a sound of falling stones, and after that there broke out among the rocks below a horrible crying, as of a man in sore straits and instant fear. Amroth jumped quickly to his feet. "This will not do," he said. "Stay here for me." And then leaping down the rock, he disappeared, shouting words of help--"Hold on--I am coming."

He came back some little time afterwards, and I saw that he was not alone. He had with him an old stumbling man, evidently in the last extremity of terror and pain, with beads of sweat on his brow and blood running down from his hands. He seemed dazed and bewildered. And Amroth too looked ruffled and almost weary, as I had never seen him look. I came down the rock to meet them. But Amroth said, "Wait here for me; it has been a troublesome business, and I must go and bestow this poor creature in a place of safety--I will return." He led the old man away among the rocks, and I waited a long time, wondering very heavily what it was that I had seen.

When Amroth came back to the rock he was fresh and smiling again: he swung himself up, and sat by me, with his hands clasped round his knees. Then he looked at me, and said, "I daresay you are surprised? You did not expect to see such terrors and dangers here? And it is a great mystery."

"You must be kind," I said, "and explain to me what has happened."

"Well," said Amroth, "there is a large gang of men who infest this place, who have got up here by their agility, and can go no further, who make it their business to prevent all they can from coming up. I confess that it is the hardest thing of all to understand why it is allowed; but if you expect all to be plain sailing up here, you are mistaken. One needs to be wary and strong. They do much harm here, and will continue to do it."

"What would have happened if they had found us here?" I said.

"Nothing very much," said Amroth; "a good deal of talk no doubt, and some blows perhaps. But it was well I was with you, because I could have summoned help. They are not as strong as they look either--it is mostly fear that aids them."

"Well, but _who are they?" I said.

"They are the most troublesome crew of all," said Amroth, "and come nearest to the old idea of fiends--they are indeed the origin of that notion. To speak plainly, they are men who have lived virtuous lives, and have done cruel things from good motives. There are some kings and statesmen among them, but they are mostly priests and schoolmasters, I imagine--people with high ideals, of course! But they are not replenished so fast as they used to be, I think. Their difficulty is that they can never see that they are wrong. Their notion is that this is a bad place to come to, and that people are better left in ignorance and bliss, obedient and submissive. A good many of them have given up the old rough methods, and hang about the base of the cliff, dissuading souls from climbing: they do the most harm of all, because if one does turn back here, it is long before one may make a new attempt. But enough of this," he added; "it makes me sick to think of them--the old fellow you saw with me had an awful fright--he was nearly done as it was! But I see you are feeling stronger, and I think we had better be going. One does not stay here by choice, though the place has a beauty of its own. And now you will have an easier time for awhile."

We descended from our rock, and Amroth led the way, through a long cleft, with rocks, very rough and black, on either side, and fallen fragments under foot. It was steep at first; but soon the rocks grew lower; and we came out presently on to a great desolate plain, with stones lying thickly about, among a coarse kind of grass. At each step I seemed to grow stronger, and walked more lightly, and in the thin fine air my horrors left me, though I still had a dumb sense of suffering which, strange to say, I found it almost pleasant to resist. And so we walked for a time in friendly silence, Amroth occasionally indicating the way. The hill began to slope downwards very slowly, and the wind to subside. The mist drew off little by little, till at last I saw ahead of us a great bare-looking fortress with high walls and little windows, and a great blank tower over all.

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CHAPTER XVI.The time moved on quietly enough in the land of delight. I made acquaintance with quite a number of the soft-voiced contented folk. Sometimes it interested me to see the change coming upon one or another, a wonder or a desire that made them sit withdrawn and abstracted, and breaking with a sort of effort out of the dreamful mood. Then they would leave us, sometimes quite suddenly, sometimes with courteous adieus. New-comers, too, kept arriving, to be made pleasantly at home. I found myself seeing more of Cynthia. She was much with Lucius, and they seemed as gay as