The Hill of Chastisement.



THE cave-mouth wherein I dwelt, doing night-long penance for my sin, was midway of the steep slope of the hill. The hill, naked and rocky, rose into a darkness of gray mist. Below, it fell steeply into the abyss, which was full of the blackness of a rolling smoke. Rolling silently, the smoke sometimes came up full-bosomed and as it were in haste, brimming the gulf to within a little of my feet. Again it shrank away into the depth, leaving bare the terrific ribs of the hill, upon which I feared greatly to turn my eyes; and ever through the upward roll of the [Page 197] smoke flamed grinning faces, as the white faces of the drowned gleam up through a black water. Sometimes the grinning faces in the smoke laughed thinly, in a whisper; but I heard it in the stillness. They waited, expecting my rejection. Then I lashed myself the more fiercely with the knotted leather scourge that hung from my girdle, and threw myself down, with prayers and cries, at the low stone barrier which cut me off from the sanctuary of the inner cave.
    In the heart of the sanctuary, far withdrawn, sat an old man, a saint, in a glory of clear and pure light, so penetrating that it revealed the secrets of my breast, yet so strictly reserved that no least beam of its whiteness escaped to pierce the dread of the outer gloom. He sat with grave head bowed continually over a book that shone like crystal, and his beard fell to his feet [Page 198].
    In all these days that I had dwelt in the outer cave, he never once had lifted his eyes to my prayers, but I believed that the hour would come when he should look up, and I should know that my atonement was accepted. To hasten that hour I scourged myself the more furiously till the dull blood was reluctant to flow. Then I wept and prayed, and beat my forehead on the stone barrier.
    On the last night, it seemed that the gray mist came further down the mountainside as I scourged myself. The smoke and the faces rolled higher from the abyss as I petitioned; and in my fear I clutched at the barrier, craving leave to enter and be safe. My eyes clung to the calm form within, in its sanctuary of light.
    Then suddenly I grew aware that I must go out upon the hill, and tread a rough path which ran from the [Page 199] cave mouth, skirting the gulf of faces. I knew that the path led all about the hill, coming again to the cave from the other side. I knew that if, treading that path and escaping the smoke and the faces, I could come again to the cave from the other side, the holy eyes would lift and look upon me from the sanctuary of light.
    I drew the hooded gown about my shoulders, girt up the skirt, knotted the scourge about my middle, and set forth, trembling. And as I set forth the gloom deepened, the thin laughter from the faces in the smoke grew more shrill.
    At the first I ran with speed, though the path was difficult, being confused with a jumble of squarish stones. But my hope was quickly blotted out under a sense of nameless desolation. Far across the rolling of the smoke and faces I saw a peaceful evening country-side and secure cottages, their windows warm [Page 200] with the hearth-fire lights. Through the walls of the cottages, as if they had been glass and close at hand, my eyes pierced longingly; and I saw therein safety and love. My forsakenness overwhelmed me. Then a shadow arose out of the gulf and hid the vision; and I pushed on, nigh hopeless. My knees were weakened, and I dragged my feet with labor, often falling among the stones. Each time that I fell it seemed to me that the rolling smoke swelled higher, like a tide; the faces grew more numerous and near; the thin voices rang shriller at my heels.
    Again and again I fell, to rise bleeding and stumble on, till suddenly I seemed to know my atonement was refused. A voice cried aloud in my heart that I was rejected.
    The last of my strength went out, and my knees were like water. Yet [Page 201] I would not lie yielding where I fell. By the rough edges of the rocks I dragged myself forward. I wound myself yet further along the way. By this it was dark, or else my eyes had failed me, and all the air was full of the thin laughter of the faces. But a certain grayness, a little aside from the path, revealed to me a tumbled heap of stones, with some two feet of the base of a wooden pillar rising out of it. The rest was hidden. But I knew, I knew it was a wayside calvary. I knew it was set up on the hillside for the last refuge of such lost ones as I. My heart almost broke with joy. I cried out hoarsely, threw myself upon the heap, and clung with both arms to the base of the wooden upright.
    As I grasped my sanctuary, the air rang with loud laughter; the faces, coming out of the smoke, sprang wide-eyed and flaming close about me; a red flare shattered the [Page 202] darkness. Clutching importunately, I lifted up my eyes. My refuge was not a calvary. I saw it clear. It was a reeking gibbet [Page 203].