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The Sexton’s Old Horse
I stood and watched the last gleam of the white leopardess melt away, then turned to follow my guide—but reluctantly. What had I to do with sleep? Surely reason was the same in every world, and what reason could there be in going to sleep with the dead, when the hour was calling the live man? Besides, no one would wake me, and how could I be certain of waking early—of waking at all?—the sleepers in that house let morning glide into noon, and noon into night, nor ever stirred! I murmured, but followed, for I knew not what else to do.
The librarian walked on in silence, and I walked silent as he. Time and space glided past us. The sun set; it began to grow dark, and I felt in the air the spreading cold of the chamber of death. My heart sank lower and lower. I began to lose sight of the lean, long-coated figure, and at length could no more hear his swishing stride through the heather. But then I heard instead the slow-flapping wings of the raven; and, at intervals, now a firefly, now a gleaming butterfly rose into the rayless air.
By and by the moon appeared, slow crossing the far horizon.
“You are tired, are you not, Mr. Vane?” said the raven, alighting on a stone. “You must make acquaintance with the horse that will carry you in the morning!”
He gave a strange whistle through his long black beak. A spot appeared on the face of the half-risen moon. To my ears came presently the drumming of swift, soft-galloping hoofs, and in a minute or two, out of the very disc of the moon, low-thundered the terrible horse. His mane flowed away behind him like the crest of a wind-fighting wave, torn seaward in hoary spray, and the whisk of his tail kept blinding the eye of the moon. Nineteen hands he seemed, huge of bone, tight of skin, hard of muscle—a steed the holy Death himself might choose on which to ride abroad and slay! The moon seemed to regard him with awe; in her scary light he looked a very skeleton, loosely roped together. Terrifically large, he moved with the lightness of a winged insect. As he drew near, his speed slackened, and his mane and tail drifted about him settling.
Now I was not merely a lover of horses, but I loved every horse I saw. I had never spent money except upon horses, and had never sold a horse. The sight of this mighty one, terrible to look at, woke in me longing to possess him. It was pure greed, nay, rank covetousness, an evil thing in all the worlds. I do not mean that I could have stolen him, but that, regardless of his proper place, I would have bought him if I could. I laid my hands on him, and stroked the protuberant bones that humped a hide smooth and thin, and shiny as satin—so shiny that the very shape of the moon was reflected in it; I fondled his sharp-pointed ears, whispered words in them, and breathed into his red nostrils the breath of a man’s life. He in return breathed into mine the breath of a horse’s life, and we loved one another. What eyes he had! Blue-filmy like the eyes of the dead, behind each was a glowing coal! The raven, with wings half extended, looked on pleased at my love-making to his magnificent horse.
“That is well! be friends with him,” he said: “he will carry you all the better to-morrow!—Now we must hurry home!”
My desire to ride the horse had grown passionate.
“May I not mount him at once, Mr. Raven?” I cried.
“By all means!” he answered. “Mount, and ride him home.”
The horse bent his head over my shoulder lovingly. I twisted my hands in his mane and scrambled onto his back, not without aid from certain protuberant bones.
“He would outspeed any leopard in creation!” I cried.
“Not that way at night,” answered the raven; “the road is difficult.—But come; loss now will be gain then! To wait is harder than to run, and its meed is the fuller. Go on, my son—straight to the cottage. I shall be there as soon as you. It will rejoice my wife’s heart to see a son of hers on that horse!”
I sat silent. The horse stood like a block of marble.
“Why do you linger?” asked the raven.
“I long so much to ride after the leopardess,” I answered, “that I can scarce restrain myself!”
“You have promised!”
“My debt to the Little Ones appears, I confess, a greater thing than my bond to you.”
“Yield to the temptation and you will bring mischief upon them—and on yourself also.”
“What matters it for me? I love them; and love works no evil. I will go.”
But the truth was, I forgot the children, infatuate with the horse.
Eyes flashed through the darkness, and I knew that Adam stood in his own shape beside me. I knew also by his voice that he repressed an indignation almost too strong for him.
“Mr. Vane,” he said, “do you not know why you have not yet done anything worth doing?”
“Because I have been a fool,” I answered.
“Which do you count your most indiscreet action?”
“Bringing the princess to life: I ought to have left her to her just fate.”
“Nay, now you talk foolishly! You could not have done otherwise than you did, not knowing she was evil!—But you never brought any one to life! How could you, yourself dead?”
“I dead?” I cried.
“Yes,” he answered; “and you will be dead, so long as you refuse to die.”
“Back to the old riddling!” I returned scornfully.
“Be persuaded, and go home with me,” he continued gently. “The most—nearly the only foolish thing you ever did, was to run from our dead.”
I pressed the horse’s ribs, and he was off like a sudden wind. I gave him a pat on the side of the neck, and he went about in a sharp-driven curve, “close to the ground, like a cat when scratchingly she wheels about after a mouse,” leaning sideways till his mane swept the tops of the heather.
Through the dark I heard the wings of the raven. Five quick flaps I heard, and he perched on the horse’s head. The horse checked himself instantly, ploughing up the ground with his feet.
“Mr. Vane,” croaked the raven, “think what you are doing! Twice already has evil befallen you—once from fear, and once from heedlessness: breach of word is far worse; it is a crime.”
“The Little Ones are in frightful peril, and I brought it upon them!” I cried. “—But indeed I will not break my word to you. I will return, and spend in your house what nights—what days—what years you please.”
“I tell you once more you will do them other than good if you go to-night,” he insisted.
But a false sense of power, a sense which had no root and was merely vibrated into me from the strength of the horse, had, alas, rendered me too stupid to listen to anything he said!
“Would you take from me my last chance of reparation?” I cried. “This time there shall be no shirking! it is my duty, and I will go—if I perish for it!”
“Go, then, foolish boy!” he returned, with anger in his croak. “Take the horse, and ride to failure! May it be to humility!”
He spread his wings and flew. Again I pressed the lean ribs under me.
“After the spotted leopardess!” I whispered in his ear.
He turned his head this way and that, snuffing the air; then started, and went a few paces in a slow, undecided walk. Suddenly he quickened his walk; broke into a trot; began to gallop, and in a few moments his speed was tremendous. He seemed to see in the dark; never stumbled, not once faltered, not once hesitated. I sat as on the ridge of a wave. I felt under me the play of each individual muscle: his joints were so elastic, and his every movement glided so into the next, that not once did he jar me. His growing swiftness bore him along until he flew rather than ran. The wind met and passed us like a tornado.
Across the evil hollow we sped like a bolt from an arblast. No monster lifted its neck; all knew the hoofs that thundered over their heads! We rushed up the hills, we shot down their farther slopes; from the rocky chasms of the river-bed he did not swerve; he held on over them his fierce, terrible gallop. The moon, half-way up the heaven, gazed with a solemn trouble in her pale countenance. Rejoicing in the power of my steed and in the pride of my life, I sat like a king and rode.
We were near the middle of the many channels, my horse every other moment clearing one, sometimes two in his stride, and now and then gathering himself for a great bounding leap, when the moon reached the key-stone of her arch. Then came a wonder and a terror: she began to descend rolling like the nave of Fortune’s wheel bowled by the gods, and went faster and faster. Like our own moon, this one had a human face, and now the broad forehead now the chin was uppermost as she rolled. I gazed aghast.
Across the ravines came the howling of wolves. An ugly fear began to invade the hollow places of my heart; my confidence was on the wane! The horse maintained his headlong swiftness, with ears pricked forward, and thirsty nostrils exulting in the wind his career created. But there was the moon jolting like an old chariot-wheel down the hill of heaven, with awful boding! She rolled at last over the horizon-edge and disappeared, carrying all her light with her.
The mighty steed was in the act of clearing a wide shallow channel when we were caught in the net of the darkness. His head dropped; its impetus carried his helpless bulk across, but he fell in a heap on the margin, and where he fell he lay. I got up, kneeled beside him, and felt him all over. Not a bone could I find broken, but he was a horse no more. I sat down on the body, and buried my face in my hands.