Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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As published in The Temple Bar, London, December 1874

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2024
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I HAVE some doubts about tbe psychological bearings of fear. In old English, "perplexity" was often used as its equivalent, and it seems a pity that this usage has been dropped. We want a word for fear that would express a kind of mental syllabub. Dr. Johnson, following Locke, defines fear as "a painful apprehension of future danger." Now I confess that I do not like the word "apprehension," which means a laying hold, because I cannot help concluding that fear is altogether a letting go. If logicians would let me, I would define fear per metaphoram, and call it "resentment at being kicked out of one's rut." The most philosophical remark of Falstaff's was that he was a "coward upon instinct.

When all our instincts, which are but sublimated habits, are turned topsy-turvy, then we know what fear is. Though your particular rut must lead to the cannon's mouth, you are cheerful and impavid in it as a man just and firm of purpose should he; but when you are kicked into a neighbouring rut which may lead to the Hesperides, the blood freezes in your veins. Luckily a perfect terror, an utter annihilation of all ruts whatsoever, an overhead plunge into the unknown, comes but once or twice in any man's life. The occasion may be trivial. A belated jackass, the love-plaint of a feline Sappho, a brawl of rodents behind the wainscot, a pendent night-shirt whose fluttering tails are visited by playful moonbeams—any of these things is sufficient. Or the occasion may be great; a convulsion of nature, or the approach of death in a strange garb. It matters not. The supreme moment of terror, when the scalp lifts like the lining of a hat, when a man is clothed from head to foot in a raiment of "goose-skin," when the knees refuse to bend, and are yet too weak to keep straight, and when the heart feels like the kernel of a rotten nut—that moment is never to be forgotten. Then the man feels the natural and the supernatural, the real and the ideal, the subject and the object, the ego and the non ego, the present and the remote, all jumbled together in a mad dance through his bewildered consciousness. Then Pope's line is reversed and sense leans for aid on metaphysic. Then the man discerns how infinitely little he is when reduced within his own circumference; how dependent he has been on a tiny world, outside which he is "quenched in a boggy Syrtis." Then he discovers how necessary to his happiness are the ordinary conditions of thought, and that, if he only knew it, the most awful, the most intensely horrible thing the imagination can conceive of, is a syllogism with an alien conclusion. Then, for an instant, he learns what it is to be dead.

The qualifications of a perfect terror are three. It must be unexpected; it must be absolutely incomprehensible; and it must culminate like a nightmare. Once I had a terror which so perfectly fulfilled these requirements that no man may hope to have a better.

This thing happened to me in the city of Pieter-Maritzburg, in the colony of Natal; and in order that I may tell my tale intelligibly, I may be allowed to give some short description of the place. The city is named from one Pieter Maritz, whose sacred bard I have never met with, and the memory of whose deeds, therefore—of the pounds of Boer tobacco he smoked in a green-stone pipe, of the hollands he drank, of the wide trousers he wore, and of the Dutch oaths he swore—must for ever, as far as I am concerned, be 'whelmed in long night. Maritzburg (as the name is commonly abbreviated) is the seat of government and the headquarters of the garrison. All the other towns in Natal—Durban especially—which consider themselves not to be sneezed at, are sneezed at by Maritzburg. We are slightly aristocratic in Maritzburg; we have been known to wear gloves; we have caught a little of the hoity-toitiness that lingers round the purlieus of bureaucracy. In this respect Maritzburg is not remarkable; but in another respect, namely, brilliancy of colouring, Maritzburg is one of the most remarkable towns I ever saw. It lies on a shoulder of table-land, surrounded on three sides by an amphitheatre of hills, which to a European eye are singularly brown and barren of aspect. In the midst of this great ugly basin Maritzburg absolutely blossoms. All its roofs are of red tile, all its hedges are rose hedges, and nearly all its trees are peach trees; and thus, when peaches and roses are in bloom there is red and pink enough to make the town look like a gigantic nosegay.

Another peculiarity of the town is very pleasant; one, two, or even three streams of bright, clear, swiftly-flowing water run down each street. A large head of water comes downwards on the town from the top of the shoulder on which it is built, and this water supply is subdivided as it enters the town into a multitude of small rivulets—or sluyts, as the Dutch call them. Thus, a street in Maritzburg is formed in the following way: each house stands well back from the road in its erf or plot of ground, then comes a thick and lofty hedge of roses, then a sluyt, then a raised footpath or causeway, then another sluyt, then the roadway. Now these sluyts, however much they may add to the cleanliness of the place, are exceedingly awkward to the pedestrian. Every sluyt is about a yard below the footpath, and being bridged over by innumerable slabs of stone and logs of wood, forms in fact a series of traps and pitfalls.

If I have drawn my picture rightly, the reader will see that to walk along a footpath in Maritzburg on a dark night, without the assistance of a single street-lamp, requires some care, even if the mind is unoccupied and the senses under control; but to walk there on a dark night, hearing behind one the— But I must proceed in due order.

On the night when the terror came to me I was returning from the fort at the top of the town to the hotel where I was staying, which was at the lower end. I had a distance of about one mile to walk. It was midnight. The night was dark, but not with a thick, murky darkness. There was no moon, and the sky was clouded over; but the edges of the horizon could be just distinguished, and the roadway and hedges made out with little trouble. In short, the night was not one in which a man has to grope his way, though he could hardly walk quickly and boldly. Every one had gone to bed, and not a light was visible in the street, except an oil lamp hanging before the hotel, the glimmer of which, the street being quite straight, I could see in the distance almost as soon as I started on my walk. There was no wind. All was so still that the liquid warbling of the frogs in the vley below the town sounded near and loud. Besides this, and the multitudinous murmur of nature, which she never wholly intermits in her most silent watches, and which one hears and hears not, there was perfect quiet.

I had got but a little way on my journey, walking cautiously along the raised footpath, when I became aware that I was followed. Close behind me the sound—very soft and gentle, but unmistakable—of a footfall made itself heard. I stopped, and the footfall stopped also. I could see nothing whatever, and the sound—though so faint as to be almost like an echo of my own steps—had appeared to be close at hand; not more, in fact, than three or four yards distant. I thought I had been mistaken, and walked on again. Yes! again came the footfall, and—no—not an echo. Whenever an echo is heard, there is a certain interval of time between the sound and its reverberation. This interval may be momentary—a mere fraction of a second—but is always appreciable; or rather, to put it another way, if the echo is appreciable, there must be an interval.

Now, the rhythm—the "time" as rowing men would say—of this footfall was exact. As my foot touched the ground so did that other foot, in precise and unvarying coincidence. The character of the sound was very remarkable. The path was hard and firm, with many small stones scattered here and there, and with gravel sprinkled on it. My boots made a crunching noise as I walked. But this footfall was most evidently caused by feet that were neither shod, nor (being unshod) of a horny or hoofy kind. And yet, on the other hand, there was nothing of the dull thud that would be made by the naked foot of a man, or by any animal with a soft paw going pit-a-pat over the ground, as Bunyan describes it, "with a great padding pace." There was an undoubted impact on the gravel—of that I was sure—and beyond that I could liken the sound to nothing earthly.

Again, the supposition that my follower was a beast was negatived by the too evident mockery of the sound. No beast, surely, would go to the trouble of "keeping time" with a belated wayfarer, and the cessation and renewal of these footsteps concurrently with mine proved that mockery was deliberately intended. I say no beast; but, perhaps, I ought to have excepted the ape tribe. A monstrous ape, whose mind was just developing to a human enjoyment of mischief, might have pleased his genius with this hideous mimicry. But an ape always walks with a shuffling, shambling gait, and for him the tripping levity of these steps would have been impossible. An ape is not accustomed to walk on two legs, and the creature that pursued me was so accustomed; there was a regularity and firmness in what I may call the accentuation of the tread, however gentle, light, and aerial that tread might be, which left no room for doubt.

When I first became conscious that I was being pursued of set purpose by a footfall, I was startled, but scarcely terrified. A savage beast was out of the question, and Maritzburg was entirely free from crimes of violence: the white inhabitants were too well off to become highway robbers; while to attack one of the superior race was quite alien from the habits and ideas of the Coolie or Kafir population. I began, then, by being more curious than alarmed. But as the strangeness of the circumstance forced itself more and more on my attention my curiosity soon passed through fear to horror.

I tried in vain to convince myself that I was mistaken. I stopped short at least half-a-dozen times, and then walked on with a quick impulse. I walked as fast as I could; I took short strides—long strides; I sauntered slowly (this was very difficult); but all to no purpose. Exactly as I did so did the footfall; stopping when I stopped, and keeping perfect time with my varied paces. Only one thing I noticed, and that was a slight hesitation when I suddenly changed my steps from fast to slow, from long to short, or vice versa; as if the thing that followed me could not instantaneously accommodate itself to the change. But this hesitation was only momentary. Indeed, the versatile quickness, with which its gait was made to correspond with mine through every mode of puzzling alternation, was something marvellous. No drum-major ever had such command over the rhythm of motion.

In the surprise and terror now gradually stealing over me it will easily be imagined how difficult it was to keep a footing on the raised causeway. More than once I all but slipped into the sluyt , and whenever I did stumble a feeling of unsurmountable alarm came over me that, if I fell, something would be on me and at me. It was better to be upright on two shaky legs, which might be called on for instant flight, than prone in a ditch, helpless, and with I knew not what stalking jauntUy around. No; I was sure I could walk no longer on the causeway.

With sudden resolution, I jumped a floundering, stumbling, headlong jump from the path, over the sluyt that ran on the roadway side, and got on the broad road itself. Having gained the middle of the road, I stood still and listened. At first there was silence. Then I heard my own jump exactly repeated in faint, ethereal mimicry. I heard the same stumbling jump, the same long strides, the same little run of recovery on the road. I could bear it no longer. "Who's there?" I shouted.

The only certain theory respecting 'The Night-side of Nature' at which, after diligent study of Mrs. Crowe and other approved writers, I have been able to arrive, is, that it is bad, fatally bad, policy to speak to anything uncanny—a ghost, for instance. If ever you meet with a companion who seems likely to turn round the corner of bogeydom, remember that "Silence is golden," and that speech is exceedingly base metal. The probability of this theory is easily demonstrated. When you speak to an uncanniness you thereby—ipso facto—recognise it; you promote it to a raison d'être.

The popular superstition that a ghost cannot speak unless spoken to is founded on strictly logical reasoning. By addressing an uncanniness in words, however bold and masterful, you at once limit your range of available hypotheses to two: you confess, by implication, that the thing you address must be either a human being or a supernatural being. There is no escape from the alternative. You do not hold converse with a hallucination, an extraordinary shadow, an unexpected light, a mysterious sound, an inexplicable phenomenon. If you are strong-minded enough to infer that your visitant is the result of a heedless supper, you do not (in default of a medicine chest) exorcise by any form of words the bit of cucumber that is troubling you. By speaking you personify, where it is for the interest of your sanity that personality should be out of the question. Treat, then, a ghost with the insular pride of an Englishman. Consider him a foreigner, and therefore a suspicious character, of whose social status you cannot be sure. Domineer over him by not saying "How d'ye do?" If you so much as "pass the time of day" with him, your acquaintance ripens with awful rapidity into intimacy of the closest. It is far better, if the temptation to speak becomes too strong, to retire at once under the bed-clothes, when that friendly shelter is present, and abstract your thoughts altogether from what may be outside. It is not, I believe, within the memory of the chroniclers that any uncanny thing has ever attempted to lift the shrouding drapery. You may, indeed, feel somewhat ticklish about those lumpy and angular parts which mark out the human outline, however deeply smothered under blankets but you are—if there is truth in history—absolutely safe. And if there is no haven of blankets and counterpanes, and the thing must be faced, recollect—cleave, cling to the recollection—that supernatural etiquette does not permit a grisliness to introduce itself. The golden sceptre of speech must first be held out.

I had, I say, made a shocking blunder in speaking. And yet I almost think I should have been relieved by an answer. But not so much as a Hem! was vouchsafed in reply; there was not the faintest whisper of a voice; it was nil, et praeterea nil —absolute nothingness, made sensible by a footfall. There was nothing for it but to walk on. But now I had not the smallest remnant of reason left: that divinae particula aurae had quite deserted me. I now pursued my way, as Coleridge says:

"Like one, that on a lonesome road

Doth walk in fear and dread,

And having once turned round, walks on,

And turns no more his head.

Because he knows a frightful fiend

Doth close behind him tread."

Just so I walked, and the footfall pattered softly behind me.

The question, "What is it?" had by this time tenfold horrors. It may, perhaps, be suggested that I was no longer able to follow out any inquiry; but I was; only, by my insensate rashness of speech, I had shut myself out from any natural explanation. I was ex hypothesi confined to the supernatural. I could not even, as the satirist says, "hold the eel of science by the tail." The thing that dogged me was, I was compelled to think, either, first, a visitor from superior regions, or, secondly, a visitor from inferior (very inferior) regions, or, thirdly, no visitor at all, but a lingerer who ought to be elsewhere when the cock crew. Oh, for the welcome summons of an ear-splitting cock-a-doodle-do! Oh, for a steam fire-engine fed by a river of holy water! The sheer mischievousness of the trick narrowed my speculations by forbidding the notion of celestial ministry. I was driven, irresistibly propelled, to the alternative of "auld Hornie" (by self or agent) or some wandering ghost who had business with me. As to the first supposition, I was unable to adopt the reasoning of Robinson Crusoe under very similar circumstances. When that solitary was frightened out of his wits by the apparition of a footprint on the sands of his desert island, he comforted himself by the conclusion that it could not have been the arch enemy, because, says Robinson, "as I lived quite on the other side of the island, he would never have been so simple as to leave a mark in a place where it was ten thousand to one whether I should ever see it or not, and in the sand, too, which the first surge of the sea upon a high wind would have defaced entirely." And he continues: "All this seemed inconsistent with the thing itself, and with all notions we usually entertain of the subtlety of the devil."

With the deepest respect for Robinson Crusoe's metaphysical and theological powers, evidenced in his conversations with Friday—powers in which I confess myself far his inferior—I cannot in this one instance admit the cogency of his reasoning. If the alarming footprint had been made by the gentleman in question, non constat that it was not formed on the sands by a viewless foot a second or two before Robinson came up to the spot. Thus the reflection so comforting to the sagacious mariner vanishes at once. Robinson, thou reasonest not well.

But there was a very different reflection equally applicable to his case and to mine. I do not say that it is deducible from the principles of scientific theology—I leave that to the General Assembly—but I distinctly remember that it struck me very forcibly, even in my extremest fright. It was this: What end could be served by the terrifying to imbecility of a harmless night-walker? If divines have not instructed us to little purpose, we all believe that the "muckle-horned Clootie" has serious business in hand. He has no leisure for idle schoolboy tricks. Even if practical jokes were consonant with his imperial dignity, his sterner duties leave him no time for pranks which would better befit the idleness of a cavalry subaltern. This consideration would be weighty in Europe, much more in South Africa, which, from the mere fact of its being sparsely populated, must be looked on as comparatively out of his way. The whole mediaeval theory of witchcraft appears to me to have gone astray simply by missing this train of reasoning. Was I not, therefore, justified in rejecting the intervention of him whom, in the north of England, with a quaint recognition of his perennial youth conjoined with senile cunning, they call "th' ould lad?" Stay; he has underlings. Qui facit per alium facit per se. Cob, Mob, and Chittabob were doubtless at liberty. If their annals are writ true, it would just suit their tastes to "tickle the catastrophe" of a shuddering mortal. Yes, here was a flaw in my calculations; but, as a matter of fact, I did not think of Cob, Mob, and Chittabob. I was thus reduced to the last hypothesis, namely, that a ghost was dogging me. I do not mean, of course, to assert that in the rush of excited surmises which passed through my mind, I actually reasoned as consecutively as I am now setting down my thoughts. I only wish it to be understood that, after taking leave of my scientific senses by the unpardonable folly of speaking, I came finally to some such conclusion by some such method.

I was now walking with all my speed, but my utmost speed (though I have always been reputed a pretty good stepper) seemed that awful no speed of dreams, when one is agonised with an imaginary need for haste or flight, and is yet ridden by the inexorable nightmare at a snail's pace. I was very warm in front, but cold chills shivered down my spine. The distance still to be traversed seemed interminable and hopeless. What with the darkness, and what with the dire necessity of turning my head every moment to look backwards, I walked a dreadfully zigzag course. The footsteps I never ceased to hear; regular when mine were regular, irregular when mine were irregular. Again and again I called, but no response ever came. Once, in a fit of desperation, I stopped, flung my arms about, stamped violently, and shoo'd with all my might, like one attempting to frighten away intruding cats or birds. When I had made this silly demonstration, there was first a pause, and then the footsteps disdainfully and slowly danced round me in a half-circle, from right to left and back again. When I proceeded, they followed, as they had done, directly behind.

Walking in this way I came to a part of the road where it became a little wider, and also, there being fewer trees to overshadow it, a little lighter. Now for the first time I saw something. In one of my terrified backward glances I saw that the footsteps were accompanied by a globular apparition. It seemed about a foot in diameter, and of a dusky grey colour. This dim, undefined ball of misty hue moved with the footsteps, but not, as far as I could distinguish, having any other connection with them. On the contrary, it moved through the air at the distance of about a yard from the ground, as if self-supported. I say " moved," because I could just discern a sort of undulatory rise and fall, and because I could not but notice that the interval between me and it was never diminished by my greatest efforts. The airy phantom neither approached nor receded. Soon after I saw this apparition, I also heard something I had not heard before. It was a rustling noise, repeated once or twice, and most like a quick shudder passing through stiff drapery. If any doubt remained, if any accession of terror was possible, that doubt now fled, that accession of terror now came.

It occurs to me that some reader may ask why in the name of fortune or misfortune, there being houses on both sides of the street, I did not seek shelter and protection. Pride, my dear reader, pride, stronger than all terror, strongest of all human feelings. What would you, my reader, say if you were knocked up at midnight by a gentleman with a scared look and an incoherent story of a spectre? Would you not take the strongest horsewhip, unchain Pincher, and (while your spouse s eloquence flowed "sweeter than honey" from her chamber window, and all your children screamed in their cots,) go forth to drive the intruder from your curtilage? Of course you would. Would you not tell the distressed suppliant to go to him from whom and from whose emissaries and shadowy liegemen he was seeking deliverance? Of course you would. If you happened to know the disturber of your peace, would you not reproach him the next morning, hint at soda-water, and generally wonder at him? Of course you would. And if you believed his story—what then? Hospitality has its limits. Could you be expected to open your door to a friend who might be arm in arm with "the Black Man," as Matthew Hopkins would have called him? Human sympathy does not extend to helping one's fellow-creatures against the supernatural. I question if the most tender-hearted, stanch, and chivalrous man that ever lived would not have left St. Dunstan and his opponent to "have it out." And the house, at the portal of which you implored aid, might be tenanted by none but lonely women. When the female body is wrapt in night attire and the female head is coroneted with curl papers the female mind is apt to dwell on water-jugs and kitchen pokers. A Niobe in a night-cap, at any moment between midnight and sunrise, has a concentrated power of squealing which one durst not even think of. Nor could the most frightful apparition excuse an Englishman for seeking the protection of a woman. Forbid it, memories of Cressy and Poictiers! And yet I would confine my valour to proper limits. I would not for the world imply that memories of Cressy and Poictiers should rob any Englishman of his prerogative of being frightened at a ghost; especially in these modern days, when it has become most necessary to insist on that prerogative. Our "fathers of war-proof" were frightened, and they believed in ghosts; much more ought we, on every principle of common sense, to be frightened—we, who do not believe in them. I cherish (as a pleasant inward protest against the Positivism of the age) the conviction that, if a ghost of the commonest turnip-headed, saucer-eyed description could be turned loose in the meeting-room of the Royal Society, we should see the extremest extremity of terror which human countenances are capable of expressing. I ought, however, in honesty to add that memories of Cressy and Poictiers did not occur to me much on this occasion; but I did not seek shelter.

I had walked perhaps two-thirds of the distance when I became aware of the apparition, and how I got over the remaining ground I can hardly tell. I did not dare to run. I felt that, if I ran, all self-control, all resisting power of will, would be gone. I had a sort of suspicion that, if I even appeared to hurry, I should be overpowered by some force which could only be kept in check by the exercise of a defiant volition.

I was now within a very short distance of my hotel—not more than three or four hundred yards away. But I had a foreboding that I should never reach it before another phase of the horror was disclosed. The thing was growing on me. Some dénouement must come. It did come.

I had by this time arrived at a large building, used as a Kafir chapel by those natives who had been brought by various civiluing agencies to wear trousers and sing hymns. What other goal of learning was before them I cannot say; but I am in a position to state that, at this particular period, a respectable number of Zulus had renounced the error of bare legs, and had taken to sing hymns with much fervour and perseverance. I do not think they were particular about words—any words which were not downright swearing did for them—and I am sure they were not particular about tune. In his unenlightened state, the Kafir will sit for hours chanting a kind of plain-song, and accompanying himself with a barbarous tum-tiddy-tum produced from a stringed instrument like a bow. When his mind is enlarged by instruction, he puts on trousers, and sings his plain-song to a form of words in which references to the assegai , the knobkerry (or Kafir club), and the blood of his foes, are only introduced when the singer is carried away by the violence of his emotions. His "doxy" may be described as that of the Indians of South America, mentioned by Humboldt, who are said to be baxa la campana—as Paganism vibrating with the tinkle of a church bell.

Turning the corner of the chapel I came upon a party of devotees seated round a fire, and even at that late hour in full tide of song. How it was that I had not heard them before, nor seen the reflection of their fire, I cannot say; but when I did hear and see, I felt with a thrill of conviction that the Zulu is indeed "a man and a brother." They were a party of six or seven. One or two were Hottentot waggon-drivers, and the rest Kafirs. Every man was busy unburdening his soul without "remorse or mitigation of voice," and the joint effect was something like what might be produced by the butcher, the sweep, the milkman, and the watercress seller, all shouting the cries of their respective trades down one area in one breath. But I was in no humour for musical criticism. As soon as I saw the absorbed group I jumped across the sluyt and rushed towards those dusky brethren. As I got within the light of their fire I turned round.

Out of the darkness there stalked solemnly, with a grave and self-possessed air, a large crane; not one of the ordinary species, such as is seen in Europe, but the great gaunt "Kafir crane," as he is called in Africa—I know not his scientific name—which is at least twice as large. He did not seem in the smallest degree abashed, nor was he disconcerted. If anything was discernible in his bearing, it was, perhaps, a little conceit, as though he felt that he had done a clever thing in keeping pace with me so long; but I cannot say that he displayed much emotion of any kind. As I came to the fire he walked up to my side, holding his head absurdly far back, though he gave one or two drives or ducks forward with his long neck, as if saluting the company. He then stood still, rubbed his beak a few times against his legs, and regarded the Kafirs with great contempt, evidently not thinking much of their hymnology. Meanwhile the Kafirs looked at me and also at the crane, which they knew quite well. I tried to mutter that I wanted a light for my pipe, but something in the nervous haste of my manner gave them an inkling of the truth, for they all with one accord rolled over on their backs in agonies of laughter, and I was derided by sets of black toes in ecstasies; and therefore I withdrew with that dignity one of the higher Aryan race can always assume, and sought my hotel, still accompanied by the mimetic crane. When I reached the door of the hotel, I grieve to say that in sudden wrath I shied a stone at the crane, who went off again into the darkness with a hop and a skip of offended pertness and a flourish of his feathers, much as an ancient dame of quality might trot over a muddy street holding up and shaking out her flounces.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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