DOES everyone, I wonder, experience at some time in his career a golden moment, when the veil of everyday life is rent and he looks through into a lovely world, which is here and yet not quite here? And if all hearts were opened, and all secrets known, should we find in most of them records of such moments of illumination? There seems to be some reason for believing so, for apparently the virtuous conceal their lovely experiences as jealously as the unvirtuous attempt to hide their ugly ones. Whether the Light comes to most people or not I do not know; all that I know about is Erica Hume’s illumination, and this is the story of her golden moment.
When the walls of life opened for Erica, it seemed to her at first that they had done so entirely by chance, but afterward she realized that the whole astonishing experience had been directed, step by step, from the very beginning. It was directed, yet always she was a free agent and could at any moment have turned back, bringing the whole plan to naught. At first, too, it appeared to her to have been born out of her own family’s tragedy, but later she came to know that their affliction was only a small part of the grim obsession which gripped the whole of the East Valley neighborhood under cover of a seemingly beneficent world.
Certainly the state of affairs in the Hume household was very distressing. Bob, the heart and centre of the family affection, was off again. Or rather he was just back from being off, retrieved from a ditch, and brought home dead-drunk the night before by their neighbor, Hiram Withers. Erica’s father was in a black rage compounded of grief and hurt pride — chiefly the latter. Her mother was in far deeper. She had plunged straight down to the heart of the tragedy with Bob himself. So completely had she rushed forth to succor her son that it seemed to Erica almost as though her mother had slipped out of her frail body, leaving it a gray shell of desolation to go automatically about its duties, while all her real self was down in the quicksand engulfing Bob. As for Bob himself, Erica did not dare to think what he faced, as with returning sobriety he was forced to view all his brilliant young manhood devoured by an appetite stronger than himself.
’It is n’t Bob! Some awful power has got hold of him. Oh, what a dreadful world!’ Erica cried the words violently to herself as she began to dive into a trunk for the roll of material in search of which she had come up into the attic. The pieces were not there, and as she sat back on her heels and looked about her she caught sight of a pile of old books that, had belonged to her great-uncle Stephen. Uncle Stephen had been dead and gone many years, but he had been a delight of Erica’s childhood, and the sight of his books brought his kind and whimsical old face, with its young eyes, flashing back upon her. The remembrance of him was warm and comforting in the present bitterness of her world. So much so that she reached out toward the pile, anxious through contact to make the memory more vivid. The books had held their contents between reserved covers for years, for Uncle Stephen had a curious taste in reading unshared by any of his family. He had spent some years in India, and there it was whispered he had imbibed a hidden wisdom. Or had he? No one really knew for certain. Was he a white magician? Erica certainly did not know, and hardly cared. He had been dear and friendly, so that now she desired to touch his books. She took up one which was worn at the edges and had a yellow, musty smell.
‘This is Uncle Stephen’s book, which he often read,’ she thought. ‘ Perhaps there was one passage he liked especially — I will see.’ She separated her palms so that the book might fall open as it would. After a moment’s uncertain flutter it settled down at a point where a page had been doubled over to the words, ‘By perfectly concentrated meditation upon . . .’
I must not give the rest, or the name of the book. It is well known to all white magicians, and doubtless to the black ones also, but its wisdom is potent and dangerous, and should be approached only in a certain manner. It is not for everyone to plunge headlong into the heart of the adventure as Erica did. That the door swung open a crack for her was due, no doubt, to the pressure of the moment’s need, and also to the fact that she was suitable material on which to build, being young, and having that nature which thinketh no evil and is as devoid of ulterior motives as is a child’s or an artist’s.
At any rate, when Erica read that by a certain meditation a certain unusual insight might be attained, a flash of desire to try the experiment swept over her. She had no time for it then, but that night, just as she was ready for bed, the desire returned. ‘By perfectly concentrated meditation . . .’ Erica knew almost nothing about meditation; nevertheless she set herself to the endeavor, and after a long period of persistent concentration she began to sink deeper and deeper, from one layer of consciousness to another. Suddenly there came a startling experience. She felt herself in the midst of a tremendous pressure and rushing excitement. The walls of her being appeared to open slightly, and she seemed to be slipping out of herself into a world that was wide and fluid, far less dense than matter. So terrifyingly wide was it that with a shock of fright she caught herself away from the abyss and scuttled back into her usual consciousness as fast as the leap of her frightened thoughts would carry her.
‘Goodness, Uncle Stephen! You must n’t do that!' she cried. After which she fell upon her knees and wove a protective chain of prayer all about herself. She had suddenly discovered the world to be a much wider place than she had ever supposed, and its walls most terrifyingly thin — so thin that she was half afraid to commit herself to sleep, for fear that under its dark veil she might fall through the confines of space and time and never again be able to get back. She did go to sleep, however, and that almost immediately.
She was awakened next morning just at daybreak by a golden shout of joy, a proclamation of life, a salute, a celestial gayety. So vivid was it that it appeared to be light as well as sound, a flash of radiance jetting up into the air. What was it — what could it be? A herald angel trumpeting the dawn? Surely she had never heard it before, and yet surely she had.
Erica sprang out of bed. Something tremendous was about to happen: this was the prompt-call for which all her life had waited. Again the golden shout came, piercing the sky with ecstasy. She snatched the shade aside and looked.
On the garden fence, flapping his wings to crow, sat their big white rooster. And this was the herald angel! Erica stared and stared, her eyes incapable of getting enough of the revelation. What was before her was not a rooster, not flesh and blood and feathers, but a miracle of life, a vehicle for the ecstasy of God. Two tears leaped into her eyes and bubbled down her cheeks.
’I never knew — I never understood before! All my life I’ve seen roosters, but I never really saw one until now!’ she whispered in a broken joy.
She turned back into the room, and the same ecstasy, filling it with unseen life, was there. Even the round print on the pillow where her head had rested was possessed of personality. The dressing table, her books, the chair she sat in, all had this suddenly manifested value, and presented it to her as a poured-out and loving gift. Her glance, traveling slowly around the room, in a stricken wonder came upon the reflection of herself in the mirror, and here was the crowning miracle of all, the sharp focus of life. She saw the spring of her neck, the delicate rounds of her breasts beneath her gown, the shower of her dark hair, and again tears leaped into her eyes. ‘Am I that!’ she whispered. ‘O God, I did n’t know, I never understood before.’ For a moment she was overwhelmed by a conviction of sin, by the thought that she should ever have desecrated the shining wonder that was herself with anything short of perfection. But even contrition could not last. It vanished in a moment, like a vapor clearing from a mirror, and only left the ecstasy of life more poignant.
And this was what the ‘perfectly concentrated meditation’ had brought! She had shifted her perceptions just a hair’s breadth, and the amazing value of life was revealed to her astonished eyes.
She could not linger between walls when a new creation was all without. Besides, there was something she must do. What it was she did not know, but someone else knew. With the swiftness of guidance she dressed, and, going downstairs, pushed open the front door and came out into a magic world. It was early morning of a summer’s day. East Valley lay before her with the mists slowly dissolving from the mountains. She stood upon the threshold, and knew that she had been born again; this was a resurrection from the grave of her old blind perceptions. Wherever her eyes looked was a miracle; wherever her ears listened was ecstasy. The unfolded wonder before her and within herself was beyond laughter and beyond tears. There was no emotion of hers great enough to express it — only the words, ‘Lord, here am I,’ spoken in a complete surrender of self.
As she stood thus, she heard suddenly over her head in Bob’s room the sound of broken, sobbing words, and her mother’s tired gray voice trying to comfort. She was out in a golden world while her mother and brother, almost in touch of her, were in hell. Oh, she must bring release for them out of all her joy! But first there appeared to be something else she must do.
As she waited, not knowing for what, another sound saluted her ears. Like all the sounds that morning, it was imperious with hidden meaning. It was the whetting of a scythe. Hiram Withers was preparing to harvest the wheat in the Round Field. For some unknown reason she knew at once that this was the signal for which she waited, and on the instant she went down the steps, down the garden path, and out into the road. ’The play begins!’ she whispered with a little shiver of expectancy.
The daisies, the grass, and the wild carrots saluted her as she passed with this intensely poignant life. Even the dust trailing away from her feet was filled with wonder. Once she paused and looked back, and the faintly seen tracks of her feet drew her with a thrill of ecstasy. They were only footprints in a dusty road, but they were infinitely more. Seen as she saw all things now, they seemed a pathway of life running across the heart of God.
Hiram Withers was standing with his back to her, still whetting his scythe, when she came up to him. He was a neighbor of the Humes, a small farmer, whose hands were calloused from the plough handles and the axe helve. He had not been in the Valley long and Erica knew little about him, but she remembered with gratitude that it was he who had brought Bob home the last time. She stood behind him for a moment in silence. The early sun poured over him, seeming to draw an effulgence from the man himself. Beyond him swam the yellow wheat field golden for harvest, and the whetting of his scythe was an exclamation in eternity. He turned and smiled at Erica.
‘You have come?’ he said, surprise as well as greeting in his tone.
Erica knew he meant, not that she had come to the Round Field, but that she had come into this real world, where, apparently! he was at home.
‘I have only just come,’ she confessed. ‘I never dreamed of it before. It is all new, all different, yet all familiar.’ She made a wide gesture toward the sky, the mountains, and the dappled farms. ‘I’ve seen them all my life, yet never really seen them before. I heard a rooster crow for the first time this morning,’ she said, looking at him with a lovely astonishment on her young face.
He returned the look with a deep and smiling comprehension.
‘ You have been here some time,’ she said in awed tones.
He nodded. ‘Many years. The turning of a hair brings one — but that hair is hard to turn.’
Suddenly Erica knew — she seemed to catch the knowledge from him — that she was to be in this strange new world for only a short time. ‘I came by chance — I shall not be here long,’ she said a trifle breathlessly.
‘Then you have come for a purpose — they would not let you come by chance otherwise.’
‘Yes,’ she assented. ‘But I do not know what the purpose is. I only see step by step. When I heard your whetstone, at once I knew that was what I was waiting for.’
‘Then the purpose is with death, if it was the whetting of a scythe you listened for,’ the reaper told her. ‘And that to-day will be furninst Black Ridge.’ He looked at her young face, and for a moment he seemed doubtful. A thrill of fear shot through Erica. ‘It is a dark adventure,’ he said. ‘However, they know best, and if you win through ’t will be a great deliverance for all concerned. He dies to-day, but unless he be turned at the last his evil will still possess the countryside. Speak to the spinner at the foot of the hollow — she knows the thread. Wonder is the way.’ With a wide sweep of his arm be pointed up the draft toward the dark line of Black Ridge. Then he turned to Erica and made a strange gesture. a salute of reverence, as though he held her in deep respect. Again the stub of fear shot through the girl, but now it was tempered with courage born of his salutation.
The reaper turned back to the field, and with a sweep of his scythe took the first great bite out of the wheat, which fell across his blade with an expiring sigh, as though it fell into the arms of the beloved.
Erica went upon her way with the thrilling loveliness of life unfolding its heart to her in a beauty as poignant as pain. As she passed Mill Hill she saw an astonishing thing. At least on any other morning it would have been; to-day it seemed wholly natural. She saw that the old mill was still standing, although it had been burned to the ground three years before. Beside it, too, was a small gray cabin which she had never seen, although she was aware that there was a tradition that a cabin of pioneer days had once stood there. Now here it was, as complete and untouched by time as the mill by fire. She lingered a moment to stare, but her hidden purpose drove her on.
The spinner could only be old Aunt Rose Easter. She was the only one of the mountain women who still spun. She was a withered old woman who tied her head up in a colored handkerchief and smoked a corncob pipe. At least that was the way she had always appeared on all the days before — but what would she be to-day?
As Erica went up the beaten path to the cabin, she saw the old woman standing in the doorway by her great spinning wheel, with a roll of freshly carded bats on a chair near by. She appeared immensely tall — tall, and beautiful, and solemn. So beautiful that again Erica was dazzled by a flash of reverential tears.
’I have come,’the girl said simply, curiously sure that she was expected.
‘I knew they were sending someone, but I did not know it would be you, little Erica,’ the spinner answered, and she too made the same grave and deep salute that Hiram Withers had accorded Erica.
‘I have come with a purpose, but what it is I do not know. I see only step by step,’ Erica said, as she had said to Hiram Withers.
The other nodded. ‘Yes, that would be the only way they could use you.’
‘The reaper sent me to you. He said the purpose was with death, and that you knew the thread.’
‘The thread is the light.’ As the old woman made this statement she looked keenly at Erica, but the words conveyed nothing to the girl. ‘The plague spot of the Valley, and of all the country round about, passes to-day. He has made a dark centre of iniquity through which the forces of evil that wait upon the outer wall of life could enter. To-day he goes. Bull Snyder is dying.’
‘Bull Snyder!’ Erica’s heart leaped into her throat, and now she knew the reason for that thrill of terror which had assailed her. Yet why should she be afraid? How could Bull Snyder’s evil touch her? It was whispered that he lived an unspeakably wicked life back there at the foot of Black Ridge with his feeble-minded daughter, and that his dark cabin was the scene of orgies of drunkenness and debauch. Men said — they said many things about him; but when people spoke Bull Snyder’s name they lowered their voices and glanced behind them anxiously. People who spoke too openly about him were apt to lose their buildings by lightning, and to have their cattle die of unusual diseases. But nothing was ever proved against him. To suppose that he could direct the lightning was to suppose things that no one credited nowadays. Nevertheless men feared him on the surface, and feared him also for something just below the surface, which they dimly suspected but could not know.
‘He has wrought great mischief,’ the spinner said. ‘Most of it has been in our world; but, use what precaution we might, some of it broke through to your surface world as well. To-day he passes. They will try to turn him at the last, but that will be only if you can hold the light.’
‘Hold the light!’ Erica cried, and knew at once that these were the key words for which she waited. But what did they mean? Was the doctor going to give Bull Snyder some treatment and did he want her to hold the light for him?
The other shook her head as though answering the girl’s unspoken question. ‘The light is the thread,’ she said, as she had said before. ‘You are a clear taper, else they would not have had you come.’ She threw a look over the girl that was beautiful and tender, and appeared to wrap her about with courage as with a garment. Her eyes seemed to say, ‘God be with you.’ ‘And the reaper and the spinner will be with you as well,’ she added out loud. ‘We hold the thread also.’ Stooping, she took up one of the freshly carded bats of wool, attached it to the thread already upon the wheel, and began to draw it out in a long strand.
With the deep humming of the old woman’s wheel following after her, Erica turned her face up the hollow at the head of which Bull Snyder was dying. As she went the shadow of the mountains crept upon her, and terror came with it. She tried to reason it away. For some purpose which she did not understand she was being sent to see a man who had lived an unspeakably wicked life and who now was dying; but even so, how could his evil touch her? It was not reasonable to suppose that it could, but to-day reason, as she knew it, was not to be counted upon. It was not reasonable for the old mill still to be standing when it had burned to the ground years ago, and yet there it was. What danger she faced she did not know, but some deep instinct told her that she was jeopardized by something beyond the physical plane. It was not her life which she took in her hand, but her very soul.
For a time the hum of the spinning wheel followed her reassuringly, but soon a turn of the hill shut it from her. Erica stood still then, clutching her hands tight against her breast. It seemed to her that she could not go forward. For a moment she hung there, caught in indecision, submerged in a horrifying tide of fear and loneliness. She stared up the dusky hollow beneath the outer semblance of which lurked that dread something. For the first time that day the sense of guidance was gone. It was as though secret hands which directed her were suddenly withdrawn. All decision lay completely with herself. If she turned back or went forward now she did so entirely of her own volition. Behind were sunshine and security, in front a dark path and an unknown terror. For a moment she hesitated; then she went on. She did so simply because for a long time now she had made it her practice to choose the most difficult way, some determined hardihood of her make-up finding a stern satisfaction therein. That was her habit, and she obeyed it now. As she stepped forward the feeling of guidance, as definite as a hand on her shoulder, instantly returned. Nevertheless she knew she was a free agent, pressing forward to whatever awaited her of her own accord.
It was dark going. It had been sunny out in the Valley where Hiram Withers harvested, but here the mountains stooped breathlessly upon her, and the path was assailed by black shadows. The sun too had lost its brilliance, as though clouds were banking up for a storm. Were they real shadows? Were they real clouds? They seemed to Erica more an emanation of wickedness distilled from Bull Snyder’s evil life. There was a drawn expectancy and sense of something more, a vast nebulous and sinister personality, which drew its sustenance from human depravity, and which waited now, just beyond the familiar surface manifestation of trees and grass and wood perfumes, hideously expectant of some impending disaster. In a moment this vague, half-guessed evil began to take on a pulse, as though the unseen presence gathered to a point. At first it was hardly more than a disturbance of thought, something suspected but not defined; then as Erica went steadily on, around turn after turn of the hollow, the pulse became a vibration of the air, and at the next bend it was a sound, piercing, terrible, which in another moment resolved itself into a human voice raised in an anguish of screams and oaths. As these shrieks came through, every aspect of nature — the mountains, the gray stones, the ferns and grasses — appeared to fall into a stricken silence, standing aside, as it were, to give the right of way to this human disaster.
At the sound Erica began to run forward, and now if the guidance which had directed her all day had tried to force her back she would still have pressed on, so poignantly did that agony cry out to her. She made the last turn, she saw the dark log cabin facing her, she heard the voice within screaming; and with a last burst of speed she raced across the intervening space, indifferent to the frantic baying of two mangy hounds, and, springing up the rickety steps, rushed into the main room. Once inside the cabin, however, she fell back, suffocated and horrified. The place was a gray squalor. Swarms of flies buzzed everywhere, born of the reek and filth and stifling odors. On a broken chair lolled a half-grown youth, Bull Snyder’s grandson, sodden with drink or sleeplessness. By the bed stood Snyder’s feeble-minded daughter, dirty and unkempt, holding a tin can, to which the label of red tomatoes still adhered. On the bed, the centre of all the loathsomeness and horror, lay Bull Snyder himself, screaming and distorted in the rigors of a violent death.
The youth stared up astigmatically at Erica, his chin dropped, and his eyes squinting, ‘He’s got ’em ergin,’ he said, jerking his head toward the bed. The woman corroborated the statement with a foolish giggle.
Erica took a tremendous grip upon herself and looked toward the bed. The figure that had been cursing and thrashing there was still for an instant, inarticulate also save for dreadful gasps. As her eyes rested upon him, all that was in the girl recoiled in horror.
‘ It’s not a man — not human! It’s — it’s an appetite — a bloodsucker!’ she gasped to herself.
The great hulk was flung back among the dirty bedclothes, the eyes bloodshot and staring, the mouth a huge voracious gap, the lips grinning back from teeth that looked like discolored tusks; and all the body from the head went down under the bedclothes in a great bloated swelling, the distorted stomach of the man — a monstrosity, an obsession, a dreadful incubus.
‘It’s not human!’ Erica cried within herself again, her heart pounding in her throat. ‘There’s no soul—it’s just a desire!’
The swollen eyes stared at her a moment, then with a scream the horrors began again — sobs, shrieks, blasphemies, wild ravings, and thrashing of the arms and body in a desperate effort to escape some unseen terror. The woman stooped and offered the can of liquor to the beastlike mouth, but with a sweep of his arm the man dashed it away. The can clanked to the floor, rolling slowly over and over to Erica’s feet, its paper label flapping like a grotesque animal, and leaving behind it a spill of corn whiskey.
‘Is there nothing to do? Have you sent for the doctor?' Erica cried, turning breathlessly to the youth.
The boy nodded. ‘They’ve done went fer the doc. There ain’t nothin’ ter do twill he comes. It’s ther D. T.’s,’ he added succinctly.
Yes, certainly that was what it was on the surface of everyday life, but Erica was no longer entirely in the surface world. She knew that much more was here than an alcoholic in the ultimate throes of his appetite. A renewed ferocious struggle was taking place now in the heaving mass upon the bed. Erica felt also the pressure of an intense excitement in the room. It was outside herself, outside every visible manifestation, even outside the physical aspect of Bull Snyder; but on a plane just beyond the reach of her perceptions tremendous forces were at grips. The body of the man was rigid, the eyes staring and the face glazed with sweat. Silently, terribly, something within him was fighting desperately. All at once she knew what it was. There was still a spark of divinity there, and now it was battling to drag itself free of the monstrous appetite that had engulfed it. That was what the conflict was, that was where all that strange rushing excitement was centred. Would the man’s soul, what was left of it, win? His eyes stared at her and she stared back, awaiting, with all the unseen forces present, the outcome of the struggle. With an incredible effort Bull Snyder heaved up to a sitting posture, his fists clenched, and his dreadful gaze still upon the girl’s face. Slowly, slowly, the spark of life dragged itself up from the death trap of his desires, up into his face, into his eyes. Suddenly the eyes blazed open, and the mouth screamed at her, ‘Pray for me, woman! Lord God Almighty! Pray for me!’
For a flicker of time the soul hung there in the man’s eyes imploring Erica; then it was caught back into a torrent of oaths and ravings.
Erica fell upon her knees on the dirty floor and prayed as she had never prayed in all her life. The appeal of that screamed despair tore her heart with an agony of pity. She thought of nothing save to throw out the life line of her prayers to that soul in hell.
She prayed and prayed, a confused jumble of petition, baby prayers, church prayers, and snatches of Biblical phrases. She was still aware of that intense pressure of excitement in the room, just beyond the reach of her physical faculties, and knew now that it centred upon herself and the dying alcoholic. But she could not pause over that at present; her one concern now was to pour out her very being in a flood of prayer. Such was her utter, self-effacing compassion for the soul that had screamed to her that all at once, most strangely, the pressure of it appeared to break through the walls of her heart, and floods of golden light broke in upon her. Generated from within, wave after wave of it swept through her, submerging her in its effulgence. One long, passionate beam streamed out of her heart straight across the room and poured itself upon the loathsome mass upon the bed.
At the moment that the golden light broke within herself Erica felt a sigh go through the room. All the rushing excitement fell away; she was bathed in an ineffable, radiant peace, and knew that she was in harbor after a most perilous passage. A voice like a clear bell sounded within her head. ‘Hold the light,’ it said.
‘They want you to hold the light’ — that was what the spinner had said, and this was the light. It continued to pour through her in a golden joy, welling out of her heart across the room in shining strands of compassion. What the light was she did not know, but she knew she was the vehicle for some spiritual emanation.
Her eyes were closed, so that she did not know what took place, but she felt great forces in the room. Once the youth cried out, ‘Looky! Looky!’ in sharp excitement, and the feebleminded woman gasped, ‘God!’ Erica half opened her eyes. Instantly the long shaft of light wavered. The voice in her head commanded again, ‘Hold the light.’ Erica closed her eyes and plunged back into her deep self, from which her supreme compassion had generated the light. The voice had spoken only three words, but it went through her with a piercing ecstasy, understanding all she was, all she had ever been or ever suffered. For that voice all her life had waited, and in its service she would have knelt there upon the frontiers of good and evil holding the light forever.
How long it lasted she never knew, but at last she was conscious that the beam of light that had streamed from her had withdrawn itself once more into her own heart, because there was no longer anything for it to succor.
‘He’s dead!’ the boy cried out, and opening her eyes Erica saw the woman slowly drawing the sheet over the face of Bull Snyder.
‘He’s dead, Mammy! He’s dead! He’ll never tech you ner me no more!’ the boy screamed, and fell down across a chair weeping with joy.
The woman looked at Erica. ‘What — what was it happened?’ she gasped.
Erica shook her head. ‘I don’t know. I could n’t look — I was holding the light. Did you see the light?’ she demanded.
‘No, I did n’t see nothin’ — but some’n’s done set me free,’ the other said in awestruck tones. Gazing at her, Erica perceived that the idiotic expression had been swept away by one of depth and understanding. She straightened up, threw her head back, and began tidying her unkempt person, as though a new, strong spirit had taken possession of her forlorn body.
Erica gazed about the room. It seemed sanctified, as though some beautiful, consecrated event had taken place there. The flies had vanished, and in place of the sickening odors was a perfume she had never encountered before. She glanced toward the bed, but the sheet was drawn up over the body with a sense of finality, and it was no longer her concern. She knew that she must return now to the spinner, where enlightenment awaited her.
As she came down the hollow, she moved in ecstasy. The sinister oppression which had overhung it had vanished, and every tree and green blade saluted her with a message of wonder. The inner effulgence still poured through her, and she walked, as it were, in a Streak of her own sunlight. Once a gray squirrel in her path sat up abruptly on his hind legs, his little bright eyes adoring her, and all his body aquiver with joy.
As she came up to the spinner’s door the old woman rose to greet her. ‘You held the light!’ she cried, her voice deep and exultant.
‘Bull Snyder is dead,’ Erica announced. ‘But I think they turned him at the last.’
The spinner bowed her head. ‘He was turned with the light distilled out of your compassion. That was what we hoped for, but could not know. They knew that your habit of life was a brave one, so that you would go forward when it was easier to go back, but even they could not know whether you had the gift of compassion great enough to pierce through to the light.’
Then that was it! Erica knew now the reason for that rushing excitement in the cabin. Everything had hung upon her capacity for pity. Awestruck by the revelation, she looked humbly at the other, certain that there was more to come.
‘Bull Snyder has been the black evil for all the countryside. He was possessed of many devils, all with ravening appetites. One mouth was not enough to satisfy their cravings.’ She looked straight at Erica and spoke the next words slowly. ‘To serve his devils Bull Snyder has been drinking with the mouths of the young men, and his thirst has been in their throats.’
‘He has been drinking with the mouths of the young men!’ Erica cried out, the revelation bursting upon her like lightning from a dark cloud. ‘His thirst has been in their throats! Then it was he — it was Bull Snyder who has been drinking with Bob’s mouth!’
The other bent her head in solemn affirmation. ‘He has been the thirst in your Bob’s throat, and in the throat of many another young man for miles around. The young ones were his victims. The old and settled in habit could resist the sudden craving. But the young men, in their pride and selfconfidence, were an easy prey to his devils. You have wrought a great deliverance for many more than you will ever know. If his divine spark had not been rescued at the last, his evil at his death would have taken fresh grip upon the Valley.’
‘Bob is free!’ Erica cried in a burst of great joy. ‘I did not know — I never dreamed that was it!’
‘They could not have used you had you known. They could only work with a pure light born out of a disinterested compassion.’
‘ They ?’ Erica questioned. ‘Tell me who they are before I go.’ For she knew that the bright world into which she had come for a time was beginning to be replaced by what she had always known.
The other shook her head. ‘Do not seek to know further. Your time for that has not yet come. You are returning to your dim surface world. Soon roosters crowing for dawn will be only what they have always been. I shall be just an old woman with a spinning wheel, and the reaper just Hiram Withers harvesting the Round Field. But because your gift of compassion brought the light when it was greatly needed, the light will come again, and’ — she stooped and kissed the girl upon her bosom — ‘your children shall be born with a clear vision.’