The Midnight Axe

The red day sank as the Sergeant rode
Through the woods grown dim and brown,
One farewell flush on his carbine glowed,
And the veil of the dusk drew down.

No sound of life save the hoof-beats broke
The hush of the lonely place,
Or the short, sharp words that the Sergeant spoke
When his good horse slackened pace,

Or hungrily caught at the ti-tree shoots,
Or in tangled brushwood tripped
Faltered amid disrupted roots,
Or on porphyry outcrop slipped.
The woods closed in; through the vaulted dark
No ray of starlight shone,
But still o'er the crashing litter of bark
Trooper and steed tore on.

Night in the bush, and the bearings lost;
But the Sergeant took no heed,
For Fate that morn his will had crossed,
And his wrath was hot indeed.

The captured prey that his hands had gripped
Ere the dawn in his lone bush lair
The bonds from his pinioned wrists had slipped,
And was gone he knew not where.

Therefore the wrath of Sergeant Hume
Burned fiercely as on he fared,
And whither he rode through the perilous gloom
He neither knew nor cared,

But still, as the dense brush checked the pace,
Would drive the sharp spurs in,
Though the pendent parasites smote his face,
Or caught him beneath the chin.

The woodland dipped, or upward bent,
But he recked not of hollow or hill,
Till right on the brink of a sheer descent
His trembling horse stood still.

And when, in despite of word and oath,
He swerved from the darksome edge,
The unconscious man, dismounting loth,
Set foot on a yielding ledge.

A sudden strain on a treacherous rein,
And a clutch at the empty air,
A cry in the dark, with no ear to mark
Its accent of despair—

And the slender stream in the gloom below,
That in mossy channel ran,
Was checked a space in its feeble flow,
By the limbs of a senseless man.

A change had passed o'er the face of night,
When, waking as from a dream,
The Sergeant gazed aghast at the sight
Of moonlit cliff and stream.

From the shallow wherein his limbs had lain
He crawled to higher ground,
And, numb of heart and dizzy of brain,
Dreamily gazed around.

From aisle to aisle of the solemn wood
A misty radiance spread,
And like pillars seen through incense stood
The gaunt boles, gray or red.

Slow vapours, touched with a mystic sheen,
Round the sombre branches curled,
Or floated the haggard trunks between,
Like ghosts in a spectral world.

No voice was heard of beast or bird,
Nor whirr of insect wing;
Nor crepitant bark the silence stirred,
Nor dead nor living thing.

So still that, but for his labouring breath,
And the blood on his head and hand,
He might have deemed his swoon was death,
And this the Silent Land.

Anon, close by, at the water's edge,
His helmet he espied,
Half-buried among the reedy sedge,

And drew it to his side.

And ev'n as he dipped it in the brook,
And drank as from a cup,
Suddenly, with affrighted look,
The Sergeant started up.

For the sound of an axe—a single stroke—
Through the ghostly woods rang clear;
And a cold sweat on his forehead broke,
And he shook in deadly fear.

Why should the sound that on lonely tracks
Had gladdened him many a day—
Why should the ring of the friendly axe
Bring boding and dismay?

And why should his steed down the slope hard by,
With fierce and frantic stride—
Why should his steed with unearthly cry
Rush trembling to his side?

Strange, too—and the Sergeant marked it well,
Nor doubted he marked aright—
When the thunder of hoofs on the silence fell,
And the cry rang through the night,

A thousand answering echoes woke,
Reverberant far and wide;
But to the unseen woodman's stroke
No echo had replied.

And while he questioned with his fear
And summoned his pride to aid,
A second stroke fell sharp and clear,
Nor echo answer made.

A third stroke, and aloud he cried,
As one who hails his kind;
But nought save his own voice multiplied
His straining sense divined.

He bound the ends of his broken rein,
He recked not his carbine gone,
He mounted his steed with a groan of pain,
And tow'rd the sound spurred on.

For now the blows fell thick and fast,
And he noted with added dread
That ever as woods on woods flew past
The sound moved on ahead.

But his courage rose with the quickening pace,
And mocked his boding gloom;
For fear had no abiding-place
In the soul of Sergeant Hume.

Where the woods thinned out and the sparser trees
Their separate shadows cast,
Waxing fainter by slow degrees
The sounds died out at last.

The Sergeant paused, and peered about
O'er all the stirless scene,
Half in amaze, and half in doubt
If such a thing had been.

Nor vainly in search of clue or guide
From trunk to trunk he gazed,
For, lo! the giant stem at his side
By the hand of man was blazed.

And again and again he found the sign,
Till, after a weary way,
Before him, asleep in the calm moonshine,
A little clearing lay;

And in it a red slab hut that glowed
As 'twere of jasper made.
The Sergeant into the clearing rode,
And passed through the rude stockade.

He bound his horse to the fence, and soon
He stood by the open door.
With pallid face upturned to the moon
A man slept on the floor.

Little he thought to have found him here,
By such strange portent led—
His sister's son, whom for many a year
His own had mourned as dead;

Who had chosen the sundering seas to roam,
After a youth misspent,
And to those who wept in his far-off home
Token nor word had sent.

The face looked grim, and haggard, and old,
Yet not from the touch of time;—
Too well the Sergeant knew the mould

And lineaments of crime.

And “Better,” he said, “she should mourn him dead
Than know him changed to this!”
Yet he kneeled, and touched the slumbering head,
For her, with a gentle kiss.

Whereat the eyelids parted wide,
But no light in the dull eye gleamed:
The man turned slowly on his side
And muttered as one who dreamed;

He stared at the Sergeant as in a trance,
And the listener's blood ran cold
As he pieced the broken utterance,
That a tale of horror told;

For he heard him rave of murder done,
Of an axe and a hollow tree,
And “Oh, God!” he cried, “must my sister's son
Be led to his death by me!”

He seized him roughly by the arm,
He called him by his name;
The man leaped up in mazed alarm,
And terror shook his frame.

Then a sudden knife flashed out from his hip,
And they closed in struggle wild;
But soon in the Sergeant's iron grip
The man was as a child.

A wind had arisen that shook the hut;
The moonbeams dimmed apace;
The lamp was lit; the door was shut;
And the twain sat face to face.

In question put and answer flung
A weary space had passed,
But the secret of the soul was wrung
From the stubborn lips at last.
As one who resistless doom obeyed
The younger told his sin,
Nor any prayer for mercy made,
Nor appeal to the bond of kin.
“ ‘The quarrel? Oh, 'twas an idle thing—

Too idle almost to name;
He turned up an ace and killed my king,
And I lost the cursèd game.

“And he triumphed and jeered, and his stinging chaff,
By heaven, how it maddened me then!
And he left me there with a scornful laugh—
But he never laughed again.

“We had long been mates, through good and ill;
Together we owned this land;
But his was ever the stronger will,
And his was the stronger hand.

“But I would be done with his lordly airs;
I was weary of them and him;
So I stole upon him unawares
In the forest lone and dim.

“The ring of his axe had drowned my tread;
But a rod from me he stood
When he paused to fix the iron head
That had loosened as he hewed.

“Then I too made a sudden halt,
And watched him as he turned
To a charred stump, in whose gaping vault
A fire of branches burned.

“He had left the axe by the half-hewn bole,
As whistling he turned away;
From my covert with wary foot I stole,
And caught it where it lay.

“He stooped; he stirred the fire to flame;
I could feel its scorching breath,
As behind him with the axe I came,
And struck the stroke of death.
‘Dead at a blow, without a groan,
The sapling still in his hands,
The man fell forward like a stone
Amid the burning brands.

“The stark limbs lay without, but those
I thrust in the fiery tomb——”
With shuddering groan the Sergeant rose,
And paced the narrow room,

And cried aloud, “Oh, task of hell,
That I should his captor be!

My God! if it be possible,
Let this cup pass from me!”

The spent light flickered and died; and, lo,
The dawn about them lay;
And each face a ghastlier shade of woe
Took on in the dismal gray.

Around the hut the changeful gale
Seemed now to sob and moan,
And mingled with the doleful tale
A dreary undertone.

“I piled dry wood in the hollow trunk,”
The unsparing shrift went on,
“And watched till the tedious corse had shrunk
To ashes, and was gone.

“That night I knew my soul was dead;
For neither joy nor grief
The numbness stirred of heart and head,
Nor tears came for relief.

“And when morning dawned, with no surprise
I awoke to my solitude,
Nor blood-clouds flared before mine eyes,
As men had writ they should;

“Nor fancy feigned dumb things would prate
Of what no man could prove!—
Only, a heavy, heavy weight,
That would not, would not move—

“Only a burden ever the same
Asleep or awake I bore,
A dead soul in a living frame
That would quicken nevermore.

“Three nights had passed since the deed was done,
And all was calm and still—
(You'll say 'tis a lie; I say 'tis none;
I'll swear to it, if you will)—

“Three nights—and, mark me, that very day
I had stood by the ashy cave,
And the toppling shell had snapped, and lay
Like a lid on my comrade's grave—

“And yet, I tell you, the man lived on!
Though the ashes o'er and o'er
I had sifted till every trace was gone

Of what he was, or wore:—

“Three nights had passed; in a quiet unstirred
By wind or living thing,
As I lay upon my bed I heard
His axe in the timber ring!

“He hewed; he paused; he hewed again.
Each stroke was like a knell!
And I heard the fibres wrench, and then
The crash of a tree as it fell.

“And I fled; a hundred leagues I fled—
In the crowded haunts of a town
I would hide me from the irksome dead,
And would crush remembrance down.

“But in all that life and ceaseless stir
Nor part nor lot I found;
For men to me as shadows were,
And their speech had a far-off sound.

“For I had lost the touch of souls;
Men's lives and mine betwixt,
Wide as the space that parts the poles
There was a great gulf fixed.

“Sorrow and joy to me but seemed;
As one from an alien sphere
I lived and saw, or as one who dreamed.—
I was lonelier there than here.

“To the sense of all life's daily round
I had lost the living key,
And I grew to long for the only sound
That had meaning on earth for me.

“Again o'er the weary forest-tracks
My burden hither I bore;
And I heard the measured ring of the axe
In the midnight as before.

“And as ever he hewed the long nights through,
Nor harmed me in my bed,
A feeble sense within me grew
Of friendship with the dead.

“And believe me, I could have lived, lived long,
With this poor stay of mine,
But the faithless dead has done me wrong:
Three nights and never a sign,

“Though I've thrice out-watched the stars!—Last night,
Seeing he came no more,
Despair anew was whispering flight,
When I sank as dead on the floor.

“Take me away from this curs'd abode!
Not a jot for life I care;
He has left me alone, and my weary load
Is greater than I can bear.

“But I say if my mate had walked about
I had never told you the tale!”
As he spoke the sound of an axe rang out,
In a lull of the fitful gale.

He sprang to his feet: a cunning smile
O'er all his visage spread;
“Why, man, I lied to you all the while!
It was all a lie!” he said.

“Leave go!”—for the trooper dragged him out
Under the angry sky.
“The man's alive!—you can hear him about!—
Would you hang me for a lie? . . .

“Not that way! No, not that!” he hissed,
And shook in all his frame;
But the Sergeant drew him by the wrist
To whence the sounds yet came,

Moaning ever, “What have I done
That I should his captor be?
Oh, God! to think that my sister's son
Should be led to his death by me!”

The tempest swelled; and, caught by the blast
In wanton revel of wrath,
Tumultuous boughs flew whirling past,
Or thundered across their path:

Yet ever above the roar of the storm,
Louder and louder yet
The axe-strokes rang, but no human form
Their wildered vision met.

When they reached a spot where a charred stump prone
On an ashy hollow lay,
The doomed man writhed with piteous moan,
And well-nigh swooned away.

When they came to a tree on whose gaping trunk

Some woodman's axe had plied,
The struggling captive backward shrunk,
And broke from the trooper's side.

“To left!—for your life! To left, I say!”
Was the Sergeant's warning call:
For he saw the tree in the tempest sway,
He marked the threatening fall.

But the vengeful wreck its victim found;
It seized him as he fled;
Between one giant limb and the ground
The man lay crushed and dead.

The Sergeant gazed on the corpse aghast,
Yet he cried, as he bent the knee,
“Father! I thank Thee that Thou hast
Let this cup pass from me!”