A wind-swept sky,
the waste of moorland stretching to
the sea, low moaning in a strange unrest--
A seagull's cry.
Washed by the tide,
The rocks lie sullen in the waning
The foam breaks in long stripes of
In the days when the keepers
of the house shall tremble.
When I first saw the sexton he
was standing motionless behind a stone. Presently he moved on again, pausing
at times, and turning right and left with that nervous, jerky motion that
always chills me.
His path lay across the blighted
moss and withered leaves scattered in moist layers along the bank of the
little brown stream, and I, wondering what his errand might be, followed,
passing silently over the rotted forest mould. Once or twice he heard me,
for I saw him stop short, a blot of black and orange in the sombre woods;
but he always stated on again, hurrying at times as though the dead might
For the sexton that I followed
through the November forest was one of those small creatures that God has
sent to bury little things that die alone in the world. Undertaker, sexton,
mute, and gravedigger in one, this thing, robed in black and orange, buries
all things that die unheeded by the world. And so they call it--this little
beetle in black and orange--the "sexton."
How he hurried! I looked up into
the gray sky where ashen branches, interlaced, swayed in unfelt winds,
and I head the dry leaves rattle in the tree tops, and the thud of acorns
on the mould. A sombre bird peered at me from a heap of brush, then ran
pattering over the leaves.
The sexton had reached a bit
of broken ground, and was scuffling over sticks and gulleys toward a brown
tuft of withered grass above. I dared not help him; besides, I could not
bring myself to touch him, he was so horribly absorbed in his errand.
I halted for a moment. The eagerness
of this live creature to find his dead and handle it; the odour of death
and decay in this little forest world, where I had waited for spring when
Lys moved among the flowering gorse, singing like a throstle in the wind--all
this troubled me, and I lagged behind.
The sexton scrambled over the
dead grass, raising his seared eyes at every wave of wind. The wind brought
sadness with it, the scent of lifeless trees, the vague rustle of gorse
buds, yellow and dry as paper flowers,
Along the stream, rotting water
plants, scorched and frost-blighted, lay massed above the mud. I saw their
pallid stems swaying like worms in the listless current.
The sexton had reached a mouldering
stump, and now he seemed undecided. I sat down on a fallen tree, most and
bleached, that crumbled under my touch, leaving a stale odour in the air.
Overhead a crow rose heavily and flapped out into the moorland; the wind
rattled the stark blackthorns; a single drop of rain touched my cheek.
I looked into the stream for some sign of life; there was nothing, except
a shapeless creature that might have been a blindworm, lying belly upward
on the mud bottom. I touched it with a stick. It was stiff and dead.
The wind among the sham paperlike
gorse buds filled the woods with a silken rustle. I put out my hand and
touched a yellow blossom; it felt like a immortelle on a funeral pillow.
The sexton had moved on again;
something, perhaps a musty spider's web, had stuck to one leg, and he dragged
it as he laboured on through the wood. Some little field mouse torn by
weasel or kestrel, some crushed mole, some tiny dead pile of fur or feather,
lay not far off, stricken by God or man or brother creature. And the sexton
knew it--how, God knows! But he knew it, and hurried on to his tryst with
His path now lay along the edge
of a tidal inlet from the Groix River. I looked down at the gray water
through the leafless branches, and saw a small snake, head raised, swim
from a submerged clot of weeds into the shadow of a rock. There was a curlew,
too, somewhere in the black swamp, whose deary, persistent call cursed
I wondered when the sexton would
fly; for he could fly if he chose; it is only when the dear are near, very
near, that he creeps. The soiled mess of cobweb still stuck to him, and
his progress was impeded by it. Once I saw a small brown and white spider,
striped like a zebra, running swiftly in his tracks, but the sexton turned
and raised his two clubbed forelegs in a horrid imploring attitude that
still had something of menace under it. The spider backed away and sidled
under a stone.
When anything that is dying--sick
and close to death--falls upon the face of the earth, something moves in
the blue above, floating like a moat; then another, then others. These
specks that grow out of the fathomless azure vault are jewelled flies.
They come to wait for death.
The sexton also arranges rendezvous
with Death, but never waits; Death must arrive the first.
When the heavy clover is ablaze
with painted wings, when bees hum and blunder among the white-thorn, or
pass by like swift singing bullets, the sexton snaps open his black and
orange wings and hums across the clover with the bees. Death in a scented
garden, the tokens of the plague on a fair young breast, the gray flag
of fear in the face of one who reels into the arms of Destruction, the
sexton scrambling into the lap of spring, folding his sleek wings, unfolding
them to ape the buzz of bees, passing over sweet clover tops to the putrid
flesh that summons him--these things must be and will be to the end.
The sexton was running now--running
fast, trailing the cobweb over twigs and mud. The edge of the wood was
near, for I could see the winter wheat, like green scenery in a theatre,
stretching for miles across the cliffs, crude as painted grass. And as
I crept through the brittle forest fringe, I saw a figure lying face downward
in the wheat--a girl's slender form, limp, motionless.
The sexton darted under her breast.
Then I threw myself down beside
her, crying, "Lys! Lys!" And as I cried, the icy rain burst out across
the moors, and the trees dashed their stark limbs together till the whole
spectral forest tossed and danced, and the wind roared among the cliffs.
And through the Dance of Death
Lys trembled in my arms, and sobbed and clung to me, murmuring that the
Purple Emperor was dead; but the wind tore the words from her white lips,
and flung them out across the sea, where the white lightning lashed the
stark heights of Groix.
Then the fear of death was tilled
in my soul, and I raised her from the ground, holding her close.
And I saw the sexton, just beyond
us, hurry across the ground and seek shelter under a little dead skylark,
stiff-winged, muddy, lying alone in the rain.
In the storm, above us, a bird
hovered singing through the rain. It passed us twice, still singing, and
as it passed again we saw the shadow it cast upon the world was whiter