The Little Angel and Other Stories/The Tocsin

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THE TOCSIN

I

During that hot and ill-omened summer everything was burning. Whole towns, villages and hamlets were consumed; forests and fields were no longer a protection to them, but even the forests themselves submissively burst into flame, and the fire spread like a red table-cloth over the parched meadows. During the day the dim red sun was hidden in acrid smoke, but at night-time in all quarters of the sky a quiet red-glow burst forth, which rocked in silent, fantastic dance; and strange confused shadows of men and trees crept over the ground like some unknown species of reptile. The dogs ceased their welcoming bark, which from afar calls to the traveller and promises him a roof and hospitality, and either uttered a prolonged melancholy howl, or crept into the cellar in sullen silence. And men, like dogs, looked at one another with evil, frightened eyes, and spoke aloud of arson, and secret incendiaries. Indeed, in one remote village they had killed an old man who could not give a satisfactory account of his movements, and then the women had wept over the murdered man, and pitied his grey beard all matted with dark blood.

During this hot and ill-omened summer I lived at the house of a country squire, where were many women, young and old. By day we worked and talked, and thought little of conflagrations, but when night came on we were seized with fear. The owner of the property was often absent in the town. Then for whole nights we slept not a wink, but in fear and trembling made our rounds of the homestead in search of an incendiary. We huddled close together and spoke in whispers; but the night was still, and the buildings stood out in dark, unfamiliar masses. They seemed to us as strange, as if we had never seen them before, and terribly unstable, as though they were expecting the fire and were already ripe for it. Once, through a crack in the wall, there gleamed before us something bright. It was the sky, but we thought it was a fire, and with screams the womenkind rushed to me, who was still almost a boy, and entreated my protection.

But I—held my breath for fear, and could not move a step.

Sometimes in the depth of night I would rise from my hot, tumbled bed and creep through the window into the garden. It was an ancient, formal and stately garden, so protected that it answered the very fiercest storm with nothing more than a suppressed drone. Below it was dark and deadly still as at the bottom of an abyss; but above there was a continual indistinct rustling and sound, like the far-off speech of the steppe. Concealing myself from some one, who seemed to be following at my heels, and looking over my shoulder, I would make my way to the end of the garden, where upon a high bank stood a wattle-fence, and beyond the fence far below extended fields and forests and hamlets hidden in the darkness. Lofty, gloomy, silent lime-trees opened out before me, and between their thick black stems, through the interstices of the fence, and through the space between the leaves I could see something terrible, extraordinary, which would fill my heart with an uneasy dread feeling, and make my legs twitch with a slight tremor. I could see the sky, not the dark, still sky of night, but rosy-red, such as is neither by day nor night. The mighty limes stood grave and silent, like men expecting something, but the sky was unnaturally rosy, and the ominous reflection of the burning earth beneath darted in fiery red spasms about the sky. And curling columns would go slowly up and disappear in the height; and it was a puzzle, as strangely unnatural as the pink colouring of the sky, how they could be so silent, when below all was gnashing of teeth; how they could be so unhurried and stately there above, when everything was tossing in restless confusion here below.

As though coming to themselves the lofty limes would all at once begin to talk together with their tops, and then suddenly relapse into silence, congealed, as it were, for a long time in sullen expectation. It would become still as at the bottom of an abyss, while far behind me I felt conscious of the house on the alert, full of frightened people; the limes crowded watchfully around me, and in front silently rocked a rose-red sky, such as is not nor by light nor day.

And because I saw it not as a whole, but only through the interstices between the trees, it was all the more terrible and incomprehensible.


II

It was night and I was dosing restlessly, when there reached my ear a dull staccato sound, rising as it seemed from below the ground; it penetrated my brain, and settled there like a round stone. After it another forced its way in, equally short and dolorous, and my head became heavy and sick, as though molten lead were falling upon it in thick drops. The drops kept boring and burning into my brain; they became ever more and more, and soon they were filling my head wath a dripping rain of impetuous staccato sounds.

"Boom! boom! boom!" Some one tall, strong and impatient kept jerking out from afar.

I opened my eyes, and at once understood that it was the alarm-bell, and that Slobodishtchy, the next village, was on fire. It was dark in the room and the window was closed, and yet at the terrible call the whole room, with its furniture, pictures and flowers, went out, as it were, into the street, and no longer was one conscious of wall or ceiling.

I do not remember how I got dressed, and know not why I ran alone and not with the others; whether it was that they forgot me, or I did not remember their existence. The tocsin called persistently and dully, as though its sounds were falling, not from the transparent air, but were cast forth from the immeasurable thickness of the earth. I ran on.

Amid the rosy sheen of the sky the stars twinkled above my head, and in the garden it was strangely light, such as is neither by day, nor by majestic, moon-lit night, but when I reached the hedge something bright-red, seething, tossing desperately, looked up at me through the fissures. The lofty limes, as though sprinkled with blood, trembled in their rounded leaves, and turned them back in fear, but their sound was inaudible on account of the short, loud strokes of the swinging bell. Now the sounds became clear and distinct, and flew with mad speed like a swarm of red-hot stones. They did not circle in the air like the doves of the peaceful angelus, neither did they expand in the caressing waves of the solemn call to prayer; they flew straight like grim harbingers of woe, who have no time to glance backward and whose eyes are wide with terror.

"Boom! boom! boom!" they flew with unrestrainable impetuosity, the strong overtaking the weak, and all of them together delving into the earth and piercing the sky.

And, as straight as they, I ran over the immense tilled plain, which faintly scintillated with blood-red gleams like the scales of a great black wild-beast. Above my head, at a wonderful height, bright isolated sparks floated by, and in front was one of those terrible village conflagrations, in which in one holocaust perish houses, cattle and human beings. There behind the irregular line of dark trees now round, now sharp as pikes, the dazzling flame soared aloft, arched its neck proudly, like a maddened horse, leaped, threw burning flocks from its midst into the black sky, and then greedily stooped for fresh prey. The blood surged in my ears with the swiftness of my running, and my heart beat loud and rapidly; but the irregular strokes of the tocsin overtook my heart-beats and struck me full on head and breast. And so full of despair was it that it seemed not the clanging of a metal bell, but as though the very heart of the much-suffering earth were beating wildly in the agony of death.

"Boom! boom! boom!" the red-hot conflagration ejaculated. And it was difficult to realize that the church belfry, so small and slight, so peaceful and still, like a maiden in a pink dress, could be giving forth those loud, despairing cries.

I kept falling down on my hands against clods of dry earth, which scattered beneath them, and again I would rise and run on, and the fire and the summoning sound of the bell ran to meet me. One could already hear the wood crackling as it caught fire, and the many-voiced cry of human beings with the dominating notes of despair and terror. And when the serpent-like hissing of the fire ceased for a moment, a prolonged groaning became clearly differentiated: it was the wailing of women, and the bellowing of cattle in a panic of terror.

A swamp intercepted my path. A wide, weed-grown swamp, which ran far to right and left. I went into the water up to my knees, then to the breast, but the swamp began to suck me down, and I returned to the bank. Opposite, quite close, raged the fire, throwing up into the sky golden sparks like the burning leaves of a gigantic tree: while the water of the swamp stood out like a mirror sparkling with fire in a black frame of reed and sedge. The tocsin called, despairingly in deadly agony:

"Come! do come!"


III

I flung along the strand, and my dark shadow flung after me, and when I stooped down to the water to find a bottom, the spectre of a fire-red form gazed at me from the black abyss, and in the distorted lineaments of its face, and in its dishevelled hair, which seemed as though it were lifted up upon the head by some terrific force, I failed to recognize myself.

"Ah! what is it? O Lord!" I prayed with outstretched hands.

But the tocsin kept calling. The bell no longer entreated, it shouted like a human being, and groaned and choked. The strokes had lost their regularity, and piled themselves one on the top of the other, rapidly and without echo; they died down, were reproduced and again died down. Once more I bent down to the water, and alongside of my own reflection I perceived another fiery spectre, tall and erect, and to my horror just like a human being.

"What's that?" I screamed, looking round. Close to my shoulder stood a man looking at the conflagration in silence. His face was pale, his cheeks were covered with still moist blood, which gleamed as it reflected the fire. He was dressed simply, like a peasant. Possibly he had been already here when I ran up, and had been stopped like myself by the swamp, or possibly he may have arrived after me; but at all events I had not heard his approach, nor did I know who he was.

"It burns," said he, without removing his eyes from the fire. The reflected fire leapt in them, and they seemed large and glassy.

"Who are you? Where do you come from?" I asked; "you are all bloody." With long, thin fingers he touched my cheeks, looked at them, and again fixed his gaze upon the fire.

"It burns," he repeated, without paying any attention to me. "Everything is burning."

"Do you know how to get there?" I asked, drawing back. I guessed that this was one of the many maniacs, which this ill-omened summer had produced.

"It burns!" he replied; "ho! ho! don't it burn!" he cried, laughing, and looked at me kindly, wagging his head. The hurried strokes of the tocsin suddenly stopped, and the flame crackled louder. It moved like a living thing, and with long arms, as though weary, dragged itself to the silent belfry, which now seemed near and tall, and clothed no longer in pink but in red. Above the dark loop-hole, where the bells were hung, there appeared a timid quiet tongue of fire, like the flame of a candle, and was reflected in pale rays on their metal surface. Once more the bell began to tremble, sending forth its last madly-despairing cries, and once more I flung myself along the shore, and my black shadow flung after me.

"I'm coming, I'm coming!" I cried, as though in reply to some one calling me. But the tall man was quietly seated behind me, embracing his knees, and kept singing a loud secondo to the bell: "Boom! boom! boom!"

"Are you mad?" I shouted to him. But he only sang the louder and the merrier, "Boom! boom! boom!"

"Be quiet!" I entreated. But he smiled and sang on, wagging his head, and the fire flared up in his glassy eyes. He was more terrible than the fire, this maniac, and I turned round and took to flight along the shore. But I had scarcely gone a few steps, when his lanky figure appeared silently alongside of me, his shirt fluttering in the wind. He ran in silence, even as I did, with long untiring strides, and in silence our black shadows ran along the upturned field.

The bell was suffocating in its last death-struggle and cried out like a human being who, despairing of assistance, has lost all hope. And we ran on in silence aimlessly into the darkness, and close to us our black shadows leapt mockingly.