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World War I soldiers in a trench near Craonne in 1917, with smoke from artillery on the horizon.

The Last Road Maker (Part 1)


Through the whole void of night I search,
So dumbly crying out to thee;
But thou are not; and night's vast throne
Becomes an all stupendous church
With star-bells knelling unto me
Who in all space am most alone!

—William Hope Hodgson, "Grief"

But there was presently, such a power and horror of Monsters and Evil Things in that Valley of Shadow, that the Road Makers were made to go Backwards into the Red Light which did fill the Westward Valley, and came from that low Sun.

—William Hope Hodgson, The Night Land

"They say it's haunted," Colleen said, pushing a strand of red hair from her eyes.

"My dad says there's no such thing as a haunted house," Will said.

"Your dad's a priest; he has to say it."

"Does not."

The two children were standing in a garden overgrown with weeds, gorse, and saplings. Apple and pear trees were scattered over what must once have been a grand estate, their limbs grown twisted from neglect, their ruined fruit strewn across the ground. With Will's hound, Pepper, by their side, the children had spent half the afternoon crossing rocky, bramble-filled terrain to the old mansion, drawn there by Will's curiosity and Colleen's determination.

At last, Kraighten House stood in view between the leaves of the ragged trees. It was nothing like Will had imagined, but a fantastic structure, built in a rough circle, with pinnacles suggesting leaping flames, and bricks orange-tinged with brown, reinforcing the suggestion of conflagration.

The children had seen flocks of birds on their journey: a host of sparrows, a murmuration of starlings, a murder of crows; and cardinals had trilled their sweet song along the way. Pepper had chased a fox, and deer had stared at them from among the vegetation. But here all was still, and not a single piping filled that hush, as if the the house had cast a cloak of silence over the wild, uncultivated gardens. It had been easy, in the comfort of Will's house, to talk of visiting the mansion. Now they stood overawed and not a little afraid.

"Well, this is why we came," Will finally said, stepping forward. His parents having moved to County Galway a month before, he dared not display a hint of cowardice before his new friend, who was not only a girl, but a year older than he.

Colleen came alongside, and the leaves rustled beneath their feet as they approached the manor. Will tried to walk softly, fearing to disturb the quiet. Even Pepper acted subdued, sniffing cautiously among the trees, his ears laid back.

They passed the drive, weeds sprouting between the cobblestones, and approached the massive front door.

"Why are all the windows barred?" Will asked.

"To keep out brigands, of course." She narrowed her eyes in a knowing way. "My mother says it's hundreds of years old. There were bandits everywhere back then."

Deep marks scored the door, like the claws of a bear. Will expected it to be locked, but the knob turned easily beneath Colleen's hand, and swung wide with a scraping rumble unnerving in the silence. The opening beckoned; the pair exchanged uneasy glances. Pepper whined and brushed against Will's leg.

"I'll go first," Will said.

They stepped into a gloomy hallway smelling of long disuse. Shafts of sunlight pressed through tall windows at the end of the passage, revealing showers of dust motes above floral carpets.

"It's in fine condition for its age," Colleen said, her voice scarcely above a whisper. "Nothing's been disturbed and none of the windows are broken."

They were standing in a Great-room with high ceilings, Morris chairs, and floral couches. Pictures were massed along one wall, including staring portraits whose eyes seem to follow the children. A wide stairway led to the upper floors.

"Are you sure no one lives here?" Will asked.

"Naw, look at all the dust on everything. Everybody knows it's been empty for years. We could make this our clubhouse. No one would ever bother us."

"You said it was haunted."

"Ghosts only come out at night. We'd be here during the day."

Pepper whined again and Will reached down to pat his head. "It's all right, boy. Nothing to be afraid of."

A soft sighing passed through the room, like a woman's exhalation.

"What was that?" Will asked, his voice less steady than he intended.

"Probably wind from upstairs. Let's go see."

Will eyed the stairs dubiously, but followed after.

The stairs creaked beneath their weight. They had gone only a few steps when Pepper's whine made Will turn. The dog sat whimpering at the bottom of the stair.

"It's all right," Will said, unwilling to go without the dog's companionship. "Come on, boy."

Reluctantly, the hound ascended the stairs, his tail low, his ears pressed against his head. Will had to coax him at every step.

Past the first landing, the air grew surprisingly chill. A long corridor awaited them at the top. It stretched away into darkness, making Will wish they had brought a light. An even deeper silence enfolded them, an uncanny stillness, as if they had stepped completely out of the world—no scraping boughs against the walls; no wind against the eaves; no creaking floorboards beneath their feet.

"Which way should we go, right or left?" Colleen asked, her voice uncertain for the first time.

Will glanced both directions. Neither seemed appealing, but there was more light to the left, and he chose that way.

They went slowly, unwilling to admit their reluctance. Pepper cowered against Will's leg, not daring to move a single pace from his master. Their feet left tracks in the dust. They passed glaring portraits and low tables adorned with vases and brass candlesticks. Will wondered why the house had never been vandalized, when there was so much worth stealing.

Pepper began to whimper, more insistent this time.

"Can't you shut him up?" Colleen demanded.

"He's frightened."

"Of what?" But her own voice trembled.

As if in answer, a whispering arose behind them. They whirled, but there were only the shadows and the empty hallway.

"What was that?" Colleen asked.

Will didn't answer, for out of the obscurity he saw a vague darkness rising. Pepper growled. Will gave an inarticulate cry.

The children stood transfixed as the black form rose, higher and higher, until it towered above them, taller than any adult they had seen. It was in the shape of a man, but shrouded in robes of night. Its face was hidden. It reached an enormous hand toward them.

With a shriek, they turned to flee, only to find another of the creatures blocking their way.

Forgetting everything but his fright, Will scrambled toward the nearest door, with Colleen right behind him. He seized the knob. It was locked. He looked frantically about, but there was no way of escape.

The children and the dog pressed together, their backs against the door. Now that his master was threatened, Pepper growled ferociously.

One of the creatures moved forward and touched the dog, not a blow but a single stroke, almost a caress. Pepper's knees gave way and he crumpled to the floor. Will shouted in anguish and terror. The creature reached toward him, its massive hand large enough to cover his entire head.

A light suddenly bloomed close to the ceiling, a soft, penetrating glow that cast back the shadows. The creatures of darkness raised their hands to their faces to ward its rays. The light became a circle of fire and time seemed to slow.

The circle slowly descended in front of the children, and two beams of light radiated from it, in appearance like solid beams, one aimed toward each of the creatures, as if to bar their passage. Gradually, the monsters backed away.

When they were lost once more in the shadows, the circle moved closer to the children, and Will saw dozens of multiple eyes in symmetric patterns upon it, staring with an unwinking, flaming gaze.

Colleen flung herself to the ground, but Will remained too astonished to move. A silver tendril emerged from the circle and brushed across the body of the dog; and Pepper rose to his feet, tail wagging.

Two tendrils reached for each of the children, but Colleen recoiled, flinging herself back against the door. "No!"

The tendril withdrew from her, but the other touched Will's forehead. The boy felt light pressure upon his brow and heat surged through him, a momentary wash of well-being.

Will took Colleen by the arm and helped her to her feet. "Let's get out of here."

Clutching one another, the dog crowding against Will's leg, they made their way back along the corridor, and the White Circle floated above them until they were back down the stair and at the front door. As Will grasped the knob, the glow vanished, and the children plunged into the daylight, running wildly through the garden, away from the dreadful house. But Will's skin still tingled where the White Circle had touched him.

The years passed. It was the spring of 1918 in Belgium, but the only signs were scattered weeds growing around the edges of the craters. Most of the trees were gone, turned to splinters in the months of fighting, and the ground was pocked as cheese. Not fifty yards away was a great shell-hole with thirty crosses sticking from it, some barely rising out of the pooled rainwater. Ragged clouds hung in the sky. The roar of gunfire rolled from the southwest.

The 11th Royal Field Artillery had held this position for two weeks, and despite the rain, had carved what little comfort they could among the dugouts and trenches. The enemy was hidden by distant hillocks. Two men, a lieutenant and a captain, sat with their backs to a trench wall, eating bully beef and hard biscuits from their kits. Their uniforms were muddy and worn.

"Word is they've taken Merville," the captain said.

The lieutenant glanced briefly in the direction of Merville, as if to penetrate the thirty-mile distance. "What are we doing?"

"We've sent in the 5th."

The lieutenant nodded.

"So, why did you re-enlist?" the captain asked, returning to a previous discussion. "You've never said. You had an out."

The lieutenant gazed across the battlefield before answering. "When they asked what I did in the war, I didn't want to tell them I fell off a horse and broke my jaw. But I swear, Carver, if I had known what that last push would be like, I would have foregone the honor."

"It wasn't the Maypole dance." Captain Carver lit a cigarette and extended another to the lieutenant, who waved it away.

"An editor once told me one of my stories was too horrific for his audience," the lieutenant continued. "I could give them horrors now. True horrors. And I will, when we finally get out of this."

"Did I tell you I read one of your books during my last leave? Had my wife send it to me. The one about the haunted mansion."

"The House on the Borderland? She must have found it in a remainder bin. You've probably doubled my readership. What did you think?"

"I've never read anything like it. You have an uncanny mind, Hodgson, and there's no doubt of it. Where did you get the idea?"

Will Hodgson's eyes grew dreamy with that far-away gaze Carver had sometimes seen steal over him. He was a short man, but quite muscular, with dark hair, an aquiline nose, and striking good looks. "My father was an Anglican priest. We moved numerous times throughout my childhood. There was a house at County Galway, close to where we happened to be living at the time. My schoolmate said it was haunted. She was right."

"What happened?"

"Something that changed my life forever." Hodgson looked up with a sheepish smile. "You'd think me daft if I told it."

That evening, Will dreamed he stood near the forecastle of a sailing ship. It was night in the dream, and a full moon hung overhead. The vessel creaked and the smell of the sea filled his nostrils.

The deck was deserted. Not a soul stood watch; not a sailor manned the wheel. He recognized the vessel at once as the Sangier, the last ship he had sailed on before leaving the life of a seaman. Those had been unhappy times, filled with endless toil, bad food, and a chance for neither learning nor advancement. The years of service had made him hate naval life with such vehemence that when the war came he had joined the army rather than serve on a vessel again; yet the sea itself had always lured him.

The wind, which had been still before, abruptly filled the sails, and Hodgson's old training took over, sending him to take charge of the wheel. He felt its smooth wood beneath his palms. The ship was sailing west, but where it was going, or why, he did not know.

He had experienced such visions many times before, and knew this one, which felt real to all his senses, was not an ordinary dream. They had begun after the White Circle touched him in the abandoned house, and had made his youth a terror. In the first year, they were about the Kraighten House. Those had ended, and he had thought himself rid of them forever, but eighteen months later they began again, this time shifting to the far future. So horrendous had those nightmares been, he had run away from boarding school at the age of 13, terrified of the ../images he had dreamt there.

They had driven him to the sea, where he spent eight long years, and the first six they troubled him not, until they drove him even from that rough sanctuary with scenes of a trading ship overtaken and overwhelmed by ghostly buccaneers. Other intermittent visions followed, mostly of the sea. They had been the basis for all his books and many of his short stories. Except for Colleen, he had never told anyone, not even his wife, Bessie. Even she would not have believed him. He scarcely believed it himself.

Now, after years of absence, the dreams had returned.

He strode to the port rail by the fore brace-lock, and peered across the sea. The moon shone down, illuminating the water several feet under; and he could see something moving, a shadow among the shadows. A little below the surface lay the black mass of a royal-yard; and deeper, the gear and standing rigging of a great mast. And below the mast, far down in the dimness, the immense, indistinct stretch of vast decks. It was not a reflection of his own vessel, but the shadow-ship which had haunted his visions during his time on the Sangier, visions which had made him cry out in his sleep, disturbing the other crewmen and giving Hodgson a reputation as a Jonah.

The old terror fell upon him. From out of that ship the ghost pirates would surely come, and there was no one to oppose them but he.

He made his way to the captain's cabin. It was unlocked, and a lantern, mysteriously lit in a room curiously unoccupied, stood on the table. He searched the drawers until he discovered a serviceable cutlass. His hope for a gun proved vain; but he wondered if any weapon could halt the phantom creatures, who were so much like the figures he and Colleen had faced in Kraighten House.

He picked up the lantern and stepped onto the deck. His years at sea made him uneasy at leaving the wheel unattended, and he hurried back to it, but the ship seemed to travel well enough without his guidance. He kept an anxious watch through the hours of the night, a solitary sailor on empty waters, while the ghost ship kept pace with the Sangier.

At last, when the moon lay a third of the way up in the west, he heard the sound of breakers beating on a shore. Alarmed, he strode to the wheel, but upon reaching it, found something wrong with his vision. He looked around and rubbed his eyes. The air seemed to twinkle like stars; it was breaking up, crumbling to pieces.

He looked at his hand and it was dissolving, and the ship and ocean and sky with it. It became a dazzling, blinding swirl of particles, against which he had to close his eyes.

When he opened them again he was sitting in a small study at a battered desk. He ran his hand along its surface, feeling its smoothness against his palm.

"Hello, Will." Gooseflesh rose on his neck, for it was Colleen's voice. He closed his eyes in momentary pain, and turned. She was wearing a green sweater that made her jade eyes brilliant in the candlelight. Her red hair was pinned back on one side, just the way he always liked.

A ragged sob escaped him, and he rose and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her fiercely, wanting to squeeze her into himself until they were compacted into one body, together forever. "I've missed you," he rasped, kissing her, feeling the sweetness of her mouth. "I've missed you terribly."

After a few precious moments, she gently extricated herself. They stood gazing into one another's eyes until she took his hand and led him to the picture window. Together, they stared out onto a garden at twilight, wild and overgrown, with tattered trees.

"Why in hell are we here?" he asked.

"Let's go out to the hall and have a look around." She tried to lead him, but he insisted on going first. They left the study and entered the corridor. It was exactly as he remembered, and he glanced fearfully at the shadows.

Recalling the touch of the White Circle, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice, he said, "I wish it had never happened."

She smiled the mischievous smile that was so much her. "It wasn't your fault. I goaded you to go with me. It was our destiny."

"It has been my curse."

"The monsters would've killed us, sure, if the Other hadn't come," she said. "When it touched you, it placed you under its protection."

"Protection! If that's what these dreadful visions are, it can keep its protection. But I could have stood it, if you were always in them."

She reached over and stroked his face. "But I refused its touch, don't you see?"

He fell silent, trying to understand, and they slipped down the stairs and stepped into the twilight. The crickets sang; the air was still and watery with humidity.

"It hasn't changed in all the years," Will said. "How could. . ."

His voice trailed away.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Out there. Don't you see?"

Figures moved at the edge of the grounds. Will gave a sharp inhalation. They walked upright, their shapes indistinct in the gathering twilight; but something in their outline suggested forms not wholly human. As they drew closer, passing among the scattered trees, Hodgson counted at least a dozen, all with strange, misshapen heads.

"Get back in the house," he urged, taking Colleen by the arm. Together they hurried inside, and Will bolted the heavy door behind them. All the windows on the lower stories were barred, but there were five outside doors, and he tore through the house, insuring each was secured. When he was done, he went to the gun room, collected and loaded a shot-gun and a rifle, and hurried to the Great-room. Colleen was there, staring out through the bars of the narrow front window. One of the creatures walked in front of the pane, holding its head in the air as if sniffing. Its face was an unwholesome shade of white, and it had a grotesquely human mouth and jaw, but almost no chin. The nose was prolonged into a snout; its forehead sloped back, and its small eyes, small tusks, and pointed ears gave the semblance of a wild boar. But the eyes, which glistened almost to the point of glowing, bespoke a shrewd intelligence. With a grunt, the Swine-Thing dropped to all fours, scented the ground, and gave a baying howl, which was answered all around by the others.

Hodgson touched Colleen gently on the arm, accidentally startling her, causing her to shriek.

"Sorry," he said.

She put her hand to her breast and exhaled sharply. Her face was pale; her voice trembled. "Your descriptions can't touch seeing one in the flesh. Months of dreaming of them, and you but a boy. Oh, Will, how did you stand it?"

"I don't much like going to sleep." In the year following their encounter with the White Circle, his almost nightly visions had been of the Swine-Things besieging the house, its sole occupants an elderly gentleman and his sister. In the end, the couple had been destroyed. "You must never look into their eyes."

"Can they get in?"

"The doors are solid oak. They should hold them awhile."

She took a seat in a floral chair, her eyes still fastened on the window.

"I started writing about it, after you. . .left," he said. "I thought that was the point, so I could get it all down. Do you know why they've returned? Is there anything you can tell me?"

"I know no more than you," she said, then laughed mirthlessly. "I probably know less. I don't even know why I'm here. In your journeys to the house, have you ever seen the Other?"

"The White Circle? Not a hint of it."

A knocking began on the front door, gradually rising in intensity to a pounding. It went on for several moments, until it became a steady thunder of blows. When it seemed about to shake the house to pieces, it abruptly ceased. More snuffling sounds rose from behind the window.

Hodgson sat down beside her and clasped her hand, staring intently into the green eyes he had thought never to see again. His own voice trembled as he asked, "Can you. . .can you tell me where you've been?"

She shook her head, rose, walked behind him, and stroked his head. He kissed her fingers. "It isn't allowed, Will. But I can tell you there is no such thing as death; there is only separation."

His voice caught; he struggled to control himself. "I have missed you so."

He woke with a start. He had been sleeping in a dugout, and the smell of earth and soldiers filled his nostrils. Half-light filtered through the rectangle of the opening. Carver was tapping him on the shoulder.

"Morning, Sleeping Beauty. The Huns are coming for a visit. HQ says we fall back to Ypres."

In his confusion he leapt to his feet, looking for Colleen. He had deserted her again, with no one to protect her. Momentary panic rose within him, quickly replaced by reason, which suggested she had not been real. Yet he had no certainty of that; he had often suspected his visions of being glimpses of other realities.

"You all right?" Carver asked.

"I—Yes. I was dreaming when you woke me. I'll be there in a moment."

Alone in the dugout once more, he buried his head in his arm and wept. Seeing Colleen again had reopened the old wound. He had kept in touch with her after his family moved from County Galway, and during his days at sea had written to her from ports around the world. He had visited her whenever he could; and their friendship had eventually turned to love.

After leaving the life of the sea, he had started a Physical Culture club in Blackburn, mostly training policemen. Colleen had gone to visit her family in County Galway, and he was expected to meet her there, to ask her father's permission to marry. But when he arrived, she was not there; she had gone for a twilight stroll the evening before, and they had found her mangled body in the early hours of the morning. The constable said she had been mauled by a wild dog, but the claw marks, which Hodgson had seen, had not been those of any earthly animal.

He had wondered then and a hundred times since where the White Circle had been when she needed it most. It had saved them both before; why had it deserted her to that dreadful, lonely death?

He stepped from the dugout, trying to escape the pain. He was in a deep trench. The bottom was muddy from the recent rains. He scrambled up the back side. Everywhere around him, men were making preparations, mere shadows in the half-darkness. Soldiers hooked the artillery to teams of horses that stamped and snorted in the morning chill.

Within an hour, they were on the move. Because of the rains, the battered ground was soft. The equipment soon bogged down, forcing the men to push and dig. By mid-morning, they had scarcely made two miles. As Hodgson urged the men on, he found himself growing increasingly agitated. Distant sounds of random rifle-fire rose to the north. The air was still and sultry, almost electric. He was jumpy and short-tempered, and he wondered if his nerves were going.

"Why the worried look, Will?" Carver asked.

"Something's coming," Hodgson said. "Something terrible."

"What's coming? How do you know?"

Hodgson hesitated, wondering why he had said it. He forced a smile. "Don't mind me. I'm just sick of mucking in the mud."

But the feeling remained and grew stronger, as if in naming it he had brought it to reality. Something was coming. Something worse than the Germans.

To The Last Roadmaker (Part 2)

© 2011 by James Stoddard.
The image is in the public domain and the photographer is unknown.