Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Paul and Abel
By Richard Henry Dana, Sr. (1787–1879)
From ‘Paul Felton’

HE took a path which led through the fields back of his house, and wound among the steep rocks part way up the range of high hills, till it reached a small locust grove, where it ended. He began climbing a ridge near him, and reaching the top of it, beheld all around him a scene desolate and broken as the ocean. It looked for miles as if one immense gray rock had been heaved up and shattered by an earthquake. Here and there might be seen shooting out of the clefts, old trees, like masts at sea. It was as if the sea in a storm had become suddenly fixed, with all its ships upon it. The sun shone glaring and hot on it, but there was neither life, nor motion, nor sound; the spirit of desolation had gone over it, and it had become the place of death. His heart sunk within him, and something like a superstitious dread entered him. He tried to rouse himself, and look about with a composed mind. It was in vain—he felt as if some dreadful unseen power stood near him. He would have spoken, but he dared not in such a place.  1
  To shake this off, he began clambering over one ridge after another, till, passing cautiously round a beetling rock, a sharp cry from out it shot through him. Every small jut and precipice sent it back with a Satanic taunt; and the crowd of hollows and points seemed for the instant alive with thousands of fiends. Paul’s blood ran cold, and he scarcely breathed as he waited for their cry again; but all was still. Though his mind was of a superstitious cast, he had courage and fortitude; and ashamed of his weakness, he reached forward, and stooping down looked into the cavity. He started as his eye fell on the object within it. “Who and what are you?” cried he. “Come out, and let me see whether you are man or devil.” And out crawled a miserable boy, looking as if shrunk up with fear and famine. “Speak, and tell me who you are, and what you do here,” said Paul. The poor fellow’s jaws moved and quivered, but he did not utter a sound. His spare frame shook, and his knees knocked against each other as in an ague fit. Paul looked at him for a moment. His loose shambly frame was nearly bare to the bones, his light sunburnt hair hung long and straight round his thin jaws and white eyes, that shone with a delirious glare, as if his mind had been terror-struck. There was a sickly, beseeching smile about his mouth. His skin, between the freckles, was as white as a leper’s, and his teeth long and yellow. He appeared like one who had witnessed the destruction about him, and was the only living thing spared, to make death seem more horrible.  2
  “Who put you here to starve?” said Paul to him.  3
  “Nobody, sir.”  4
  “Why did you come, then?”  5
  “Oh, I can’t help it; I must come.”  6
  “Must! And why must you?” The boy looked round timidly, and crouching near Paul, said in a tremulous, low voice, his eyes glancing fearfully through the chasm, “’Tis He, ’tis He that makes me!” Paul turned suddenly round, and saw before him for the first time the deserted tract of pine wood and sand which has been described. “Who and where is he?” asked Paul impatiently, expecting to see some one.  7
  “There, there, in the wood yonder,” answered the boy, crouching still lower, and pointing with his finger, whilst his hand shook as if palsied.  8
  “I see nothing,” said Paul, “but these pines. What possesses you? Why do you shudder so, and look so pale? Do you take the shadows of the trees for devils?”  9
  “Don’t speak of them. They’ll be on me, if you talk of them here,” whispered the boy eagerly. Drops of sweat stood on his brow from the agony of terror he was in. As Paul looked at the lad, he felt something like fear creeping over him. He turned his eyes involuntarily to the wood again. “If we must not talk here,” said he at last, “come along with me, and tell me what all this means.” The boy rose, and followed close to Paul.  10
  “Is it the Devil you have seen, that you shake so?”  11
  “You have named him; I never must,” said the boy. “I have seen strange sights, and heard sounds whispered close to my ears, so full of spite, and so dreadful, I dared not look round lest I should see some awful face at mine. I’ve thought I felt it touch me sometimes.”  12
  “And what wicked thing have you done, that they should haunt you so?”  13
  “Oh, sir, I was a foolhardy boy. Two years ago I was not afraid of anything. Nobody dared go into the wood, or even so much as over the rocks, to look at it, after what happened there.”—“I’ve heard a foolish story,” said Paul.—“So once, sir, the thought took me that I would go there a-bird’s-nesting, and bring home the eggs and show to the men. And it would never go out of my mind after, though I began to wish I hadn’t thought any such thing. Every night when I went to bed I would lie and say to myself, ‘To-morrow is the day for me to go’; and I did not like to be alone in the dark, and wanted some one with me to touch me when I had bad dreams. And when I waked in the morning, I felt as if something dreadful was coming upon me before night. Well, every day,—I don’t know how it was,—I found myself near this ridge; and every time I went farther and farther up it, though I grew more and more frightened. And when I had gone as far as I dared, I was afraid to wait, but would turn and make away so fast that many a time I fell down some of these places, and got lamed and bruised. The boys began to think something, and would whisper each other and look at me; and when they found I saw them, they would turn away. It grew hard for me to be one at their games, though once I used to be the first chosen in. I can’t tell how it was, but all this only made me go on; and as the boys kept out of the way, I began to feel as if I must do what I had thought of, and as if there was somebody, I couldn’t think who, that was to have me and make me do what he pleased. So it went on, sir, day after day,” continued the lad, in a weak, timid tone, but comforted at finding one to tell his story to; “till at last I reached as far as the hollow where you just now frighted me so, when I heard you near me. I didn’t run off as I used to from the other places, but sat down under the rock. Then I looked out and saw the trees. I tried to get up and run home, but I couldn’t; I dared not come out and go round the corner of the rock. I tried to look another way, but my eyes seemed fastened on the trees; I couldn’t take ’em off. At last I thought something told me it was time for me to go on. I got up.”  14
  Here poor Abel shook so that he seized hold of Paul’s arm to help him. Paul recoiled as if an unclean creature touched him. The boy shrunk back.  15
  “Go on,” said Paul recovering himself. The boy took comfort from the sound of another’s voice:—“I went a little way down the hollow, sir, as if drawn along. Then I came to a steep place; I put my legs over to let myself down; my knees grew so weak I dared not trust myself; I tried to draw them up, but the strength was all gone out of them, and then my feet were as heavy as if made of lead. I gave a screech, and there was a yell close to me and for miles round, that nigh stunned me. I can’t say how, but the last thing I knew was my leaping along the rocks, while there was nothing but flames of fire shooting all round me. It was scarce midday when I left home; and when I came to myself under the locusts it was growing dark.”  16
  “Rest here awhile,” said Paul, looking at the boy as at some mysterious being, “and tell out your story.”  17
  Glad at being in company, the boy sat down upon the grass, and went on with his tale:—“I crawled home as well as I could, and went to bed. When I was falling asleep I had the same feeling I had when sitting over the rock. I dared not lie in bed any longer, for I couldn’t keep awake while there. Glad was I when the day broke, and I saw a neighbor open his door and come out. I was not well all day, and I tried to think myself more ill than I was, because I somehow thought that then I needn’t go to the wood. But the next day He was not to be put off; and I went, though I cried and prayed all the way that I might not be made to go. But I could not stop till I had got over the hill, and reached the sand round the wood. When I put my foot on it, all the joints in me jerked as if they would not hold together, so that I cried out with the pain. When I came under the trees there was a deep sound, and great shadows were all round me. My hair stood on end, and my eyes kept glimmering; yet I couldn’t go back. I went on till I found a crow’s nest. I climbed the tree, and took out the eggs. The old crow kept flying round and round me. As soon as I felt the eggs in my hand and my work done, I dropped from the tree and ran for the hollow. I can’t tell how it was, but it seemed to me that I didn’t gain a foot of ground—it was just as if the whole wood went with me. Then I thought He had me his. The ground began to bend and the trees to move. At last I was nigh blind. I struck against one tree and another till I fell to the ground. How long I lay there I can’t tell; but when I came to I was on the sand, the sun blazing hot upon me and my skin scorched up. I was so stiff and ached so, I could hardly stand upright. I didn’t feel or think anything after this; and hardly knew where I was till somebody came and touched me, and asked me whether I was walking in my sleep; and I looked up and found myself close home.  18
  “The boys began to gather round me as if I were something strange; and when I looked at them they would move back from me. ‘What have you been doing, Abel?’ one of them asked me at last. ‘No good, I warrant you,’ answered another, who stood back of me. And when I turned around to speak to him he drew behind the others, as if afraid I should harm him;—and I was too weak and frightened to hurt a fly. ‘See his hands; they are stained all over.’—‘And there’s a crow’s egg, as I’m alive!’ said another.—‘And the crow is the Devil’s bird, Tom, isn’t it?’ asked a little boy. ‘O Abel, you’ve been to that wood and made yourself over to Him.’—They moved off one after another, every now and then turning round and looking at me as if I were cursed. After this they would not speak to me nor come nigh me. I heard people talking, and saw them going about, but not one of them all could I speak to, or get to come near me; it was dreadful, being so alone! I met a boy that used to be with me all day long; and I begged him not to go off from me so, and to stop, if it were only for a moment. ‘You played with me once,’ said I; ‘and won’t you do so much as look at me, or ask me how I am, when I am so weak and ill too?’ He began to hang back a little, and I thought from his face that he pitied me. I could have cried for joy, and was going up to him, but he turned away. I called out after him, telling him that I would not so much as touch him with my finger, or come any nearer to him, if he would only stop and speak one word to me; but he went away shaking his head, and muttering something, I hardly knew what,—how that I did not belong to them, but was the Evil One’s now. I sat down on a stone and cried, and wished that I was dead; for I couldn’t help it, though it was wicked in me to do so.”  19
  “And is there no one,” asked Paul, “who will notice you or speak to you? Do you live so alone now?” It made his heart ache to look down upon the pining, forlorn creature before him.  20
  “Not a soul,” whined out the boy. “My grandmother is dead now, and only the gentlefolks give me anything; for they don’t seem afraid of me, though they look as if they didn’t like me, and wanted me gone. All I can, I get to eat in the woods, and I beg out of the village. But I dare not go far, because I don’t know when He will want me. But I am not alone, He’s with me day and night. As I go along the street in the daytime, I feel Him near me, though I can’t see Him; and it is as if He were speaking to me; and yet I don’t hear any words. He makes me follow Him to that wood; and I have to sit the whole day where you found me, and I dare not complain nor move, till I feel He will let me go. I’ve looked at the pines, sometimes, till I have seen spirits moving all through them. Oh, ’tis an awful place; they breathe cold upon me when He makes me go there.”  21
  “Poor wretch!” said Paul.  22
  “I’m weak and hungry, and yet when I try to eat, something chokes me; I don’t love what I eat.”  23
  “Come along with me, and you shall have something to nourish and warm you; for you are pale and shiver, and look cold here in the very sun.”  24
  The boy looked up at Paul, and the tears rolled down his cheeks at hearing one speak so kindly to him. He got up and followed meekly after to the house.  25
  Paul, seeing a servant in the yard, ordered the boy something to eat. The man cast his eye upon Abel, and then looked at Paul as if he had not understood him. “I spoke distinctly enough,” said Paul; “and don’t you see that the boy is nigh starved?” The man gave a mysterious look at both of them, and with a shake of his head as he turned away, went to do as he was bid.  26
  “What means the fellow?” said Paul to himself as he entered the house. “Does he take me to be bound to Satan too? Yet there may be bonds upon the soul, though we know it not; and evil spirits at work within us, of which we little dream. And are there no beings but those seen of mortal eye or felt by mortal touch? Are there not passing in and around this piece of moving mold, in which the spirit is pent up, those whom it hears not? those whom it has no finer sense whereby to commune with? Are all the instant joys that come and go, we know not whence nor whither, but creations of the mind? Or are they not rather bright and heavenly messengers, whom when this spirit is set free it will see in all their beauty? whose sweet sounds it will then drink in? Yes, it is, it is so; and all around us is populous with beings, now invisible to us as this circling air.”…  27
  The moon was down and the sky overcast when they began to wind among the rocks. Though Paul’s walks had lain of late in this direction, he was not enough acquainted with the passage to find his way through it in the dark. Abel, who had traversed it often in the night, alone and in terror, now took heart at having some one with him at such an hour, and offered unhesitatingly to lead. “The boy winds round those crags with the speed and ease of a stream,” said Paul; “not so fast, Abel.”  28
  “Take hold of the root which shoots out over your head, sir, for ’tis ticklish work getting along just here. Do you feel it, sir?”  29
  “I have hold,” said Paul.  30
  “Let yourself gently down by it, sir. You needn’t be a bit afraid, for ’twill not give way; man couldn’t have fastened it stronger.”  31
  This was the first time Abel had felt his power, or had been of consequence to any one, since the boys had turned him out from their games; and it gave him a momentary activity, and an unsettled sort of spirit, which he had never known since then. He had been shunned and abhorred; and he believed himself the victim of some demoniac power. To have another in this fearful bondage with him, as Paul had intimated, was a relief from his dreadful solitariness in his terrors and sufferings. “And he said that it was I who was to work a curse on him,” muttered Abel. “It cannot be, surely, that such a thing as I am can harm a man like him!” And though Abel remembered Paul’s kindness, and that this was to seal his own doom too, yet it stirred the spirit of pride within him.  32
  “What are you muttering to yourself, there in the dark,” demanded Paul; “or whom talk you with, you withered wretch?” Abel shook in every joint at the sound of Paul’s harsh voice.  33
  “It is so dreadfully still here,” said Abel; “I hear nothing but your steps behind me, and they make me start.” This was true; for notwithstanding his touch of instant pride, his terrors and his fear of Paul were as great as ever.  34
  “Speak louder then,” said Paul, “or hold your peace. I like not your muttering; it bodes no good.”  35
  “It may bring a curse to you, worse than that on me, if a worse can be,” said Abel to himself; “but who can help it?”  36
  Day broke before they cleared the ridge; a drizzling rain came on; and the wind, beginning to rise, drove through the crevices in the rocks with sharp whistling sounds which seemed to come from malignant spirits of the air.  37
  They had scarcely entered the wood when the storm became furious; and the trees, swaying and beating with their branches against one another, seemed possessed of a supernatural madness, and engaged in wild conflict, as if there were life and passion in them; and their broken, decayed arms groaned like things in torment. The terror of these sights and sounds was too much for poor Abel; it nearly crazed him; and he set up a shriek that for a moment drowned the noise of the storm. It startled Paul; and when he looked at him, the boy’s face was of a ghostly whiteness. The rain had drenched him to the skin; his clothes clung to his lean body, that shook as if it would come apart; his eyes flew wildly, and his teeth chattered against each other. The fears and torture of his mind gave something unearthly to his look, that made Paul start back. “Abel—boy—fiend—speak! What has seized you?”  38
  “They told me so,” cried Abel—“I’ve done it—I led the way for you—they’re coming, they’re coming—we’re lost!”  39
  “Peace, fool,” said Paul, trying to shake off the power he felt Abel gaining over him, “and find us a shelter if you can.”  40
  “There’s only the hut,” said Abel, “and I wouldn’t go into that if it rained fire.”  41
  “And why not?”  42
  “I once felt that it was for me to go, and I went so near as to see in at the door. And I saw something in the hut—it was not a man, for it flitted by the opening just like a shadow; and I heard two muttering something to one another; it wasn’t like other sounds, for as soon as I heard it, it made me stop my ears. I couldn’t stay any longer, and I ran till I cleared the wood. Oh! ’tis His biding-place, when He comes to the wood.”  43
  “And is it of His own building?” asked Paul, sarcastically.  44
  “No,” answered Abel; “’twas built by the two wood-cutters; and one of them came to a bloody end, and they say the other died the same night, foaming at the mouth like one possessed. There it is,” said he, almost breathless, as he crouched down and pointed at the hut under the trees. “Do not go, sir,” he said, catching hold of the skirts of Paul’s coat,—“I’ve never dared go nigher since.”—“Let loose, boy,” cried Paul, striking Abel’s hand from his coat, “I’ll not be fooled with.” Abel, alarmed at being left alone, crawled after Paul as far as he dared go; then taking hold of him once more, made a supplicating motion to him to stop; he was afraid to speak. Paul pushed on without regarding him.  45
  The hut stood on the edge of a sand-bank that was kept up by a large pine, whose roots and fibres, lying partly bare, looked like some giant spider that had half buried himself in the sand. On the right of the hut was a patch of broken ground, in which were still standing a few straggling dried stalks of Indian corn; and from two dead trees hung knotted pieces of broken line, which had formerly served for a clothes-line. The hut was built of half-trimmed trunks of trees laid on each other, crossing at the four corners and running out at unequal lengths, the chinks partly filled in with sods and moss. The door, which lay on the floor, was of twisted boughs; and the roof, of the same, was caved in, and but partly kept out the sun and rain.  46
  As Paul drew near the entrance he stopped, though the wind just then came in a heavy gust, and the rain fell like a flood. It was not a dread of what he might see within; but it seemed to him that there was a spell round him, drawing him nearer and nearer to its centre; and he felt the hand of some invisible power upon him. As he stepped into the hut a chill ran over him, and his eyes shut involuntarily. Abel watched him eagerly; and as he saw him enter, tossed his arms wildly shouting, “Gone, gone! They’ll have me too—they’re coming, they’re coming!” and threw himself on his face to the ground.  47
  Driven from home by his maddening passions, a perverse delight in self-torture had taken possession of Paul; and his mind so hungered for more intense excitement, that it craved to prove true all which its jealousy and superstition had imaged. He had walked on, lost in this fearful riot, but with no particular object in view, and taking only a kind of crazed joy in his bewildered state. Esther’s love for him, which he at times thought past doubt feigned, the darkness of the night, and then the driving storm with its confused motions and sounds, made an uproar of the mind which drove out all settled purpose or thought.  48
  The stillness of the place into which he had now entered, where was heard nothing but the slow, regular dripping of the rain from the broken roof upon the hard-trod floor; the lowered and distant sound of the storm without; the sudden change from the whirl and swaying of the trees to the steady walls of the building, put a sudden stop to the violent working of his brain, and he gradually fell into a stupor.  49
  When Abel began to recover, he could scarcely raise himself from the ground. He looked round, but could see nothing of Paul. “They have bound us together,” said he; “and something is drawing me toward him. There is no help for me; I must go whither he goes.” As he was drawn nearer and nearer to the hut he seemed to struggle and hang back, as if pushed on against his will. At last he reached the doorway; and clinging to its side with a desperate hold, as if not to be forced in, put his head forward a little, casting a hasty glance into the building. “There he is, and alive!” breathed out Abel.  50
  Paul’s stupor was now beginning to leave him; his recollection was returning; and what had passed came back slowly and at intervals. There was something he had said to Esther before leaving home—he could not tell what; then his gazing after her as she drove from the house; then something of Abel,—and he sprang from the ground as if he felt the boy’s touch again about his knees; then the ball-room, and a multitude of voices, and all talking of his wife. Suddenly she appeared darting by him; and Frank was there. Then came his agony and tortures again; all returned upon him as in the confusion of some horrible trance. Then the hut seemed to enlarge and the walls to rock; and shadows of those he knew, and of terrible beings he had never seen before, were flitting round him and mocking at him. His own substantial form seemed to him undergoing a change, and taking the shape and substance of the accursed ones at which he looked. As he felt the change going on he tried to utter a cry, but he could not make a sound nor move a limb. The ground under him rocked and pitched; it grew darker and darker, till everything was visionary; and he thought himself surrounded by spirits, and in the mansions of the damned. Something like a deep black cloud began to gather gradually round him. The gigantic structure, with its tall terrific arches, turned slowly into darkness, and the spirits within disappeared one after another, till as the ends of the cloud met and closed, he saw the last of them looking at him with an infernal laugh in his undefined visage.  51
  Abel continued watching him in speechless agony. Paul’s consciousness was now leaving him; his head began to swim—he reeled; and as his hand swept down the side of the hut, while trying to save himself, it struck against a rusty knife that had been left sticking loosely between the logs. “Let go, let go!” shrieked Abel; “there’s blood on ’t—’tis cursed, ’tis cursed.” As Paul swung round with the knife in his hand, Abel sprang from the door with a shrill cry, and Paul sank on the floor, muttering to himself, “What said They?”  52
  When he began to come to himself a little, he was still sitting on the ground, his back against the wall. His senses were yet confused. He thought he saw his wife near him, and a bloody knife by his side. After sitting a little longer his mind gradually grew clearer, and at last he felt for the first time that his hand held something. As his eye fell on it and he saw distinctly what it was, he leaped upright with a savage yell and dashed the knife from him as if it had been an asp stinging him. He stood with his bloodshot eyes fastened on it, his hands spread, and his body shrunk up with horror. “Forged in hell! and for me, for me!” he screamed, as he sprang forward and seized it with a convulsive grasp. “Damned pledge of the league that binds us!” he cried, holding it up and glaring wildly on it. “And yet a voice did warn me—of what, I know not. Which of ye put it in this hand? Speak—let me look on you? D’ye hear me, and will not answer? Nay, nay, what needs it? This tells me, though it speaks not. I know your promptings now,” he said, folding his arms deliberately; “your work must be done; and I am doomed to it.”  53

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