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Les Captifs de Lonjumeau (Prisoners of Lonjumeau)
[Ed. note: this story's English translation, which appears in Black Water,
(Alberto Manguel, ed.; Lester & Orpen Dennys, Canada, 1983), is under copyright. Therefore we present
instead the French original from
Oeuvres de Léon Bloy: Histoires Désobligeantes, Mercure de France, 1967.
According to Borges
it "relates the case of some people who possess all manner of globes, atlases, railroad guides
and trunks, but who die without ever having managed to leave their home town." The story
was originally published in 1894.]
Le Postillon de Longjumeau annonçait hier la fin déplorable
des deux Fourmi. Cette feuille, recommandée à juste titre
pour l'abondance et la qualité de ses informations, se
perdait en conjectures sur les causes mystérieuses du
désespoir qui vient de précipiter au suicide ces époux qu'on
Mariés très jeunes et toujours au lendemain de leurs noces
depuis vingt ans, ils n'avaient pas quitté la ville un seul
Allégés par la prévoyance de leurs auteurs de tous les
soucis d'argent qui peuvent empoisonner la vie conjugale,
amplement pourvus, au contraire, de ce qui est nécessaire
pour agrémenter un genre d'union légitime sans doute, mais
si peu conforme à ce besoin de vicissitudes amoureuses qui
travaille ordinairement les versatiles humains, ils
réalisaient, aux yeux du monde, le miracle de la tendresse à
Un beau soir de mai, le lendemain de la chute de M. Thiers,
le train de grande ceinture les avait amenés avec leurs
parents venus pour les installer dans la délicieuse
propriété qui devait abriter leur joie.
Les Longjumelliens au coeur pur avaient vu passer aved
attendrissement ce joli couple que le vétérinaire compara
sans hésiter à Paul et à Virginie.
Ils étaient, en effet, ce jour-là, véritablement très bien
et ressemblaient à des enfants pâles de grand seigneur.
Maître Piécu, le notaire le plus important du canton, leur
avait acquis, à l'entrée de la ville, un nid de verdure que
leur eussent envié les morts. Car il faut en convenir, le
jardin faisait penser à un cimetière abandonné. Cet aspect
ne leur déplut pas, sans doute, puisqu'ils ne firent, par la
suite, aucun changement et laissèrent croître les végétaux
Pour me servir d'une expression profondément originale de
maître Piécu, ils vécurent dans les nuages, ne voyant à peu
près personne, non par malice ou dédain, mais tout
simplement parce qu'ils n'y pensèrent jamais.
Puis, il aurait fallu se désenlacer quelques heures ou
quelques minutes, interrompre les extases, et, ma
foi! considérant la briéveté de la vie, ces époux
extraordinaires n'en avaient pas le courage.
Un des plus grands hommes du Moyen Age, maître Jean Tauler*,
raconte l'histoire d'un solitaire à qui un visiteur importun
vint demander un objet qui se trouvait dans la cellule. Le
solitaire se mit en devoir d'entrer chez lui pour y prendre
l'objet. Mais, en entrant, il oublia de quoi il s'agissait,
car l'image des choses extérieures ne pouvait demeurer dans
son esprit. Il sortit donc et pria le visiteur de lui dire
ce qu'il voulait. Celui-ci renouvela sa demande. Le
solitaire rentra, mais avant de saisir ledit objet, il en
aviat perdu las mémoire. Après plusieurs expériences, il
fut obligé de dire à l'importun: -- Entrez et cherchez
vous-même ce qu'il vous faut, car je ne puis garder votre
image en moi assez longtemps pour faire ce que vous me
M. et Mme Fourmi m'ont souvent rappelé ce solitaire. Ils
eussent donné volontiers tout ce qu'on leur aurait demandé,
s'ils avaient pu s'en souvenir un seul instant.
Leurs distractions étaient fameuses, on en parlait jusqu'à
Corbeil. Cependant, ils n'avaient pas l'air d'en souffrir
et la «funeste» résolution qui a terminé leur existence
généralement enviée doit paraître inexplicable.
Une lettre ancienne déjà de ce malheureux Fourmi, que je
connus avant son mariage, m'a permis de reconstituer, par
voie d'induction, toute sa lamentable histoire.
Voici donc la lettre. On verra, peut-être, que mon ami
n'était ni un four, ni un imbécile.
«...Pour la dixième ou vingtième fois, cher ami, nous te
manquons de parole, outrageusement. Quelle que soit ta
patience, je suppose que tu dois être las de nous inviter.
La vérité, c'est que cette dernière fois, aussi bien que les
précédentes, nous avons été sans excuses, ma femme et moi.
Nous t'avions écrit de compter sur nous et nous n'avions
absolument rien à faire. Cependant nous avons manqué le
train, comme toujours.
«Voilà quinze ans que nous manquons tous les trains et
toutes les voitures publiques, quoi que nous fassions.
C'est infiniment idiot, c'est d'un ridicule atroce, mais je
commence à croire que le mal est sans remède. C'est une
espèce de fatalité cocasse dont nous sommes les victimes.
Rien n'y fait. Il nous est arrivé de nous lever à trois
heures du matin ou même de passer la nuit sans sommeil pour
ne pas manquer le train de huit heures, par exemple.
Eh! bien, mon cher, le feu prenait dans la cheminée au
dernier moment, j'attrapais une entorse à moitié chemin, la
robe de Juliette était accrochée par quelque broussaille,
nous nous endormions sur le canapé de la salle d'attente,
sans que ni l'arrivée du train ni les clameurs de l'employé
nous réveillassent à temps, etc., etc. La dernière fois,
j'avais oublié mon porte-monnaie.
«Enfin, je le répète, voilà quinze années que cela dure et
je sens que c'est là notre principe de mort. A cause de
cela, tu ne l'ignores pas, j'ai tout raté, je me suis
brouillé avec tout le monde, je passe pour un monstre
d'égoïsme, et ma pauvre Juliette est naturellement
enveloppée dans la même réprobation. Depuis notre arrivée
dans ce lieu maudit, j'ai manqué soixante-quatorze
enterrements, douze mariages, trente baptêmes, un millier de
visites ou démarches indispensables. J'ai laissé crever ma
belle-mère sans la revoir une seule fois, bien qu'elle ait
été malade près d'un an, ce qui nous a valu d'être privés
des trois quarts de sa succession qu'elle nous a rageusement
dérobés la veille de sa mort, par un codicille.
«Je ne finirais pas si j'entreprenais l'éenumération des
gaffes et mésaventures occasionnées par cette incroyable
circonstance que nous n'avons jamais pu nous éloigner de
Longjumeau. Pour tout dire en un mot, nous sommes des
captifs, désormais privés d'espérance et nous voyons venir
le moment où cette condition de galériens cessera pour nous
Je supprime le reste où mon triste ami me confiait des
choses trop intimes pour que je puisse les publier. Mais je
donne ma parole d'honneur que ce n'était pas un homme
vulgaire, qu'il fut digne de l'adoration de sa femme et que
ces deux êtres méritaient mieux que de finir bêtement et
malproprement comme ils ont fini.
Certaines particularités que je demande la permission de
garder pour moi, me donnent à penser que l'infortuné couple
était réellement victime d'une machination ténébreuse de
l'Ennemi des hommes qui les conduisit, par la main d'un
notaire évidemment infernal, dans ce coin maléfique de
Longjumeau d'où rien n'eût la puissance de les arracher.
Je crois vraiment qu'ils ne pouvainet pas s'enfuir, qu'il y
avait, autour de leur demeure, un cordon de troupes
invisibles triées avec soin pour les investir et contre
lesquelles aucune énergie n'eût été capable de prévaloir.
Le signe pour moi d'une influence diabolique, c'est que les
Fourmi étaient dévorés de la passion des voyages. Ces
captifs étaient, par nature, essentiellement migrateurs.
Avant de s'unir, ils avaient eu soif de courir le monde.
Lorsqu'ils a'étaient encore que fiancés, on les avait vus à
Enghien, à Choisy-le-Roi, à Meudon, à Clamart, à
Montretout. Un jour même ils avaient poussé jusqu'à
A Longjumeau qui leur paraissait une île de l'Océanie, cette
rage d'explorations audacieuses, d'aventures sur terre et
sur mer n'avait fait que s'exaspérer.
Leur maison était encombrée de globes et de planisphères,
ils avaient des atlas anglais et des atlas germaniques. Ils
possédaient même une carte de la Lune publiée à Gotha sous
la direction d'un cuistre nommé Justus Perthes*.
Quand ils ne faisaient pas l'amour, ils lisaient ensemble
les histoires des navigateurs fameux dont leur bibliothèque
était exclusivement remplie et il n'y avait pas un journal
de voyages, un Tour du Monde ou un Bulletin de société
géographique auquel ils ne fussent abonnés. Indicateurs de
chemins de fer et prospectus d'agences maritimes pleuvaient
chez eux sans intermittence.
Chose qu'on ne croira pas, leurs malles étaient toujours
prêtes. Ils furent toujours sur le point de partir,
d'entreprendre un interminable voyage aux pays les plus
lointains, le plus dangereux ou les plus inexplorés.
J'ai bien reçu quarante dépêches m'annonçant leur départ
imminent pour Bornéo, la Terre de feu, la Nouvelle-Zélande
ou le Groënland.
Plusieurs fois même il s'en est à peine fallu d'un cheveu
qu'ils ne partissent, en effet. Mais enfin ils ne partaient
pas, ils ne partirent jamais, parce qu'ils ne pouvaient pas
et ne devaient pas partir. Les atomes et les molécules se
coalisaient pour les tirer en arrière.
Un jour, cependant, il y a une dizaine d'années, ils
crurent décidément s'évader. Ils avaient réussi contre
toute espérance, à s'élancer dans un wagon de première
classe qui devait les emporter à Versailles.
Délivrance! Là, sans doute, le cercle magique serait rompu.
Le train se mit en marche, mais ils ne bougèrent pas. Ils
s'étaient fourrés naturellement dans une voiture désignée
pour rester en gare. Tout était à recommencer.
L'unique voyage qu'ils ne dussent pas manquer était
évidemment celui qu'ils viennent d'entreprendre, hélas! et
leur caractère bien connu me porte à croire qu'ils ne s'y
préparèrent qu'en tremblant.
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When Camorak reigned at Arn, and the world was fairer, he gave a festival to all the Weald to commemorate the splendour of his youth.
They say that his house at Arn was huge and high, and its ceiling painted blue; and when evening fell men would climb up by ladders and light the scores of candles hanging from slender chains. And they say, too, that sometimes a cloud would come, and pour in through the top of one of the oriel windows, and it would come over the edge of the stonework as the seamist comes over a sheer cliff's shaven lip where an old wind has blown for ever and ever (he has swept away thousands of leaves and thousands of centuries, they are all one to him, he owes no allegiance to Time.) And the cloud
would re-shape itself in the hall's lofty vault and drift on through it slowly, and out to the sky again through another window. And from its shape the knights in Camorak's hall would prohesy the battles and sieges of the next season of war. They say of the hall of Camorak at Arn that there hath been none like it in any land, and foretell that there will be never.
Hither had come in the folk of the Weald from sheepfold and from forest, revolving slow thoughts of food, and shelter, and lover, and they sat down wondering in that famous hall; and therein also were seated the men of Arn, the town that clustered round the King's high house, and was all roofed with the red, maternal earth.
If old songs may be trusted, it was a marvellous hall.
Many who sat there could only have seen it distantly before, a clear shape in the landscape, but smaller than a hill. Now they beheld along the wall the weapons of Camorak's men, of which already the lute-players made songs, and tales were told at evening in the byres. There they descried the shield of Camorak that had gone to and fro across so many battles, and the sharp but dinted edges of his sword; there were the weapons of Gadriol the Leal, and Norn, and Athoric of the Sleety Sword, Heriel the Wild, Yarold, and Thanga of Esk, their arms hung evenly all round the hall, low
where a man could reach them; and in the place of honour in the midst, between the arms of Camorak and of Gadriol the Leal, hung the harp of Arleon. For to a man that goes up against a strong place on foot, pleasant indeed is the twang and jolt of some fearful engine of war that his fellow-warriors are working behind him, from which huge rocks go sighing over his head and plunge among his foes; and pleasant to a warrior in the wavering fight are the swift commands of his King, and a joy to him are his comrades' distant cheers exulting suddenly at a turn of the war. All this and
more was the harp to Camorak's men; for not only would it cheer his warriors on, but many a time would Arleon of the Harp strike wild amazement into opposing hosts by some rapturous prophecy suddenly shouted out while his hand swept over the roaring strings. Moreover, no war was ever declared till Camorak and his men had listened long to the harp, and were elate with the music and mad against peace. Once Arleon, for the sake of a rhyme, had made war upon Estabonn; and an evil king was overthrown, and honour and glory won; from such queer motives does good
Above the shields and the harps all round the hall were the painted figures of heroes of fabulous famous songs. Too trivial, because too easily surpassed by Camorak's men, seemed all the victories that the earth had known; neither was any trophy displayed of Camorak's seventy battles, for these were as nothing to his warriors or him compared with those things that their youth had dreamed and which they mightily purposed yet to do.
Above the painted pictures there was darkness, for evening was closing in, and the candles swinging on their slender chain were not yet lit in the roof; it was as though a piece of the night had been builded in to the edifice like a huge natural rock that juts into a house. And there sat all the warriors of Arn and the Weald-folk wondering at them; and none were more than thirty, and all were skilled in war. And Camorak sat at the head of all, exulting in his youth.
Now there was present at this feast a diviner, one who knew the schemes of Fate, and he sat among the people of the Weald and had no place of honour, for Camorak and his men had no fear of Fate. And when the meat was eaten and the bones cast aside, the king rose up from his chair, and having drunken wine, and being in the glory of his youth and with all his knights about him, called to the diviner, saying, "Prophesy."
And the diviner rose up, stroking his grey beard, and spake guardedly -- "There are certain events," he said, "upon the ways of Fate that are veiled even from a diviner's eyes, and many more are clear to us that were better veiled from all; much I know that is better unforetold, and some things that I may not foretell on pain of centuries of punishment. But this I know and foretell -- that you will never come to Carcassonne."
Instantly there was a buzz of talk telling of Carcassonne -- some had heard of it in speech or song, some had read of it, and some had dreamed of it. And the king sent Arleon of the Harp down from his right hand to mingle with the Weald-folk to hear aught that any told of Carcassonne. but the warriors told of the places they had won to -- many a hard-held fortress, man a far-off land, and swore that they would come to Carcassonne.
And in a while came Arleon back to the king's right hand, and raised his harp and chanted and told of Carcassonne. Far away it was, and far and far away, a city of gleaming ramparts rising one over other, and marble terraces behind the ramparts, and fountains shimmering on the terraces. To Carcassonne the elf-kings with their fairies had first retreated from men, and had built it on an evening late in May by blowing their elfin horns. Carcassonne! Carcassonne!
Travelers had seen it sometimes like a clear dream, with the sun glittering on its citadel upon a far-off hill-top, and then the clouds had come or a sudden mist; no one had seen it long or come quite close to it; though once there were some men that came very near, and the smoke from the houses blew into their faces, a sudden gust -- no more, and these declared that some one was burning cedarwood there. Men had dreamed that there is a witch there, walking alone through the cold courts and corridors of marmorean palaces, fearfully beautiful still for all her fourscore centuries, singing
the second oldest song, which was taught her by the sea, shedding tears for loneliness from eyes that would madden armies, yet will she not call her dragons home -- Carcassonne is terribly guarded. Sometimes she swims in a marble bath through whose deeps a river tumbles, or lies all morning on the edge of it to dry slowly in the sun, and watches the heaving river trouble the deeps of the bath. It flows through the caverns of earth for further than she knows, and coming to light in the witch's bath goes down through the earth again to its own peculiar sea.
In autumn sometimes it comes down black with snow that spring has molten in unimagined mountains, or withered blooms of mountain shrubs go beautifully by.
When there is blood in the bath she knows there is war in the mountains; and yet she knows not where those mountains are.
When she sings the fountains dance up from the dark earth, when she combs her hair they say there are storms at sea, when she is angry the wolves grow brave and all come down to the byres, when she is sad the sea is sad, and both are sad for ever. Carcassonne! Carcassonne!
This city is the fairest of the wonders of Morning; the sun shouts when he beholdeth it; for Carcassonne Evening weepeth when Evening passeth away.
And Arleon told how many goodly perils were round about the city, and how the way was unknown, and it was a knightly venture. Then all the warriors stood up and sang of the splendour of the venture. And Camorak swore by the gods that had builded Arn, and by the honour of his warriors that, alive or dead, he would come to Carcassonne.
But the diviner rose and passed out of the hall, brushing the crumbs from him with his hands and smoothing his robe as he went.
Then Camorak said, "there are many things to be planned, and counsels to be taken, and provender to be gathered. Upon what day shall we start?" And all the warriors answering shouted, "Now." And Camorak smiled thereat, for he had but tried them. Down then from the walls they took their weapons, Sikorix, Kelleron, Aslof, Wole of the Axe; Huhenoth, Peacebreaker; Wolwuf, Father of War; Tarion, Lurth of the War-cry and many another. Little then dreamed the spiders that sat in that ringing hall of the unmolested leisure they were soon to enjoy.
When they were armed they all formed up and marched out of the hall, and Arleon strode before them singing of Carcassonne.
But the folk of the Weald arose and went back well-fed to their byres. They had no need of wars or of rare perils. They were ever at war with hunger. A long drought or hard winter were to them pitched battles; if the wolves entered a sheep-fold it was like the loss of a fortress, a thunder-storm on the harves was like an ambuscade. Well-fed, they went back slowly to their byres, being at truce with hunger: and the night filled with stars.
And black against the starry sky appeared the round helms of the warriors as they passed the tops of the ridges, but in the valleys they sparkled now and then as the starlight flashed on steel.
They followed behind Arleon going south, whence rumours had always come of Carcassonne: so they marched in the starlight, and he before them singing.
When they had marched so far that they heard no sound from Arn, and even inaudible were her swinging bells, when candles burning late far up in towers no longer sent them their disconsolate welcome: in the midst of the pleasant night that lulls the rural spaces, weariness came upon Arleon and his inspiration failed. It failed slowly. Gradually he grew less sure of the way to Carcassonne. Awhile he stopped to think, and remembered the way again; but his clear certainty was gone, and in its place were efforts in his mind to recall old prophecies and shepherd's songs that told of the marvellous city. Then as he said over carefully to himself a song that a wanderer had learnt from a goatherd's boy far up the lower slope of ultimate southern mountains, fatigue came down upon his toiling mind like snow on the winding ways of a city noisy by night, stilling all.
He stood, and the warriors closed up to him. For long they had passed by great oaks standing solitary here and there, like giants taking huge breaths of the night air before doing some furious deed; now they had come to the verge of a black forest; the tree-trunks stood like those great columns in an Egyptian hall whence God in an older mood received the praise of men; the top of it sloped the way of an ancient wind. Here they all halted and lighted a fire of branches, striking sparks from flint into a heap of bracken. They eased them of their armour, and sat round the fire, and Camorak stood up there and addressed them, and Camorak said: "We go to war with Fate, who has doomed that I shall not come to Carcassonne. And if we turn aside but one of the dooms of Fate, then the whole future of the world is ours, and the future that Fate has ordered is like the dry course of an averted river. But if such men as we, such resolute conquerors, cannot prevent one doom that Fate has planned, then is the race of man enslaved for ever to do its petty and allotted task."
Then they all drew their swords, and waved them high in the firelight, and declared war on Fate.
Nothing in the sombre forest stirred or made any sound.
Tired men do not dream of war. When morning came over the gleaming fields a company that had set out from Arn discovered the camping-place of the warriors, and brought pavilions and provender. And the warriors feasted, and the birds in the forest sang, and the inspiration of Arleon awoke.
Then they arose, and following Arleon, entered the forest, and marched away to the South. And many a woman of Arn sent her thoughts with them as they played alone some old monotonous tune, but their own thoughts were far before them, skimming over the bath through whose deeps the river tumbles in marble Carcassonne.
When butterflies were dancing on the air, and the sun neared the zenith, pavilions were pitched, and all the warriors rested; and then they feasted again, and then played knightly games, and late in the afternoon marched on once more, singing of Carcassonne.
And night came down with its mystery on the forest, and gave their demoniac look again to the trees, and rolled up out of misty hollows a huge and yellow moon.
And the men of Arn lit fires, and sudden shadows arose and leaped fantastically away. And the night-wind blew, arising like a ghost, and passed between the tree-trunks, and slipped down shimmering glades, and waked the prowling beasts still dreaming of day, and drifted nocturnal birds afield to menace timorous things, and beat the roses against cottagers' panes, and whispered news of the befriending night, and wafted to the ears of wandering men the sound of a maiden's song, and gave a glamour to the lutanist's tune played in his loneliness on distant hills; and the deep eyes of moths glowed like a galleon's lamps, and they spread their wings and sailed their familiar sea. Upon this night-wind also the dreams of Camorak's men floated to Carcassonne.
All the next morning they marched, and all the evening, and knew they were nearing now the deeps of the forest. And the citizens of Arn kept close together and close behind the warriors. For the deeps of the forest were all unknown to travellers, but not unknown to those tales of fear that men tell at evening to their friends, in the comfort and the safety of their hearths. Then night appeared, and an enormous moon. And the men of Camorak slept. Sometimes they woke, and went to sleep again; and those that stayed awake for long and listened heard heavy two-footed creatures pad through the night on paws.
As soon as it was light the unarmed men of Arn began to slip away, and went back by bands through the forest. When darkness came they did not stop to sleep, but continued their flight straight on until they came to Arn, and added there by the tales they told to the terror of the forest.
But the warriors feasted, and afterwards Arleon rose, and played his harp, and led them on again; and a few faithful servants stayed with them still. And they marched all day through a gloom that was as old as night, but Arleon's inspiration burned in his mind like a star. And he led them till the birds began to drop into the tree-tops, and it was evening and they all encamped. They had only one pavilion left to them now, and near it they lit a fire, and Camorak posted a sentry with drawn sword just beyond the glow of the firelight. Some of the warriors slept in the pavilion and others round about it.
When dawn came something terrible had killed and eaten the sentry. But the splendour of the rumours of Carcassonne and Fate's decree that they should never come there, and the inspiration of Arleon and his harp, all urged the warriors on; and they marched deeper and deeper all day into the forest.
Once they saw a dragon that had caught a bear and was playing with it, letting it run a little way and overtaking it with a paw.
They came at last to a clear space in the forest just before nightfall. An odour of flowers arose from it like a mist, and every drop of dew interpreted heaven unto itself.
It was the hour when twilight kisses Earth.
It was the hour when a meaning comes into senseless things, and trees out-majesty the pomp of monarchs, and the timid creatures steal abroad to feed, and as yet the beasts of prey harmlessly dream, and Earth utters a sigh, and it is night.
In the midst of the wide clearing Camorak's warriors camped, and rejoiced to see the stars again appearing one by one.
That night they ate the last of their provisions, and slept unmolested by the prowling things that haunt the gloom of the forest.
On the next day some of the warriors hunted stags, and others lay in rushes by a neighboring lake and shot arrows at water-fowl. One stag was killed, and some geese, and several teal.
Here the adventurers stayed, breathing the pure wild air that cities know not; by day they hunted, and lit fires by night, and sang and feasted, and forgot Carcassonne. The terrible denizens of the gloom never molested them, venison was plentiful, and all manner of water-fowl: they loved the chase by day, and by night their favourite songs. Thus day after day went by, thus week after week. Time flung over this encampment a handful of moons, the gold and silver moons that waste the year away; Autumn and Winter passed, and Spring appeared; and still the warriors hunted and feasted there.
One night of the springtide they were feasting about a fire and telling tales of the chase, and the soft moths came out of the dark and flaunted their colours in the firelight, and went out grey into the dark again; and the night wind was cool upon the warriors' necks, and the camp-fire was warm in their faces, and a silence had settled among them after some song, and Arleon all at once rose suddenly up, remembering Carcassonne. And his hand swept over the strings of his harp, awaking the deeper chords, like the sound of a nimble people dancing their steps on bronze, and the music rolled away into the night's own silence, and the voice of Arleon rose:
"When there is blood in the bath she knows there is war in the mountains, and longs for the battle-shout of kingly men."
And suddenly all shouted, "Carcassonne!" And at that word their idleness was gone as a dream is gone from a dreamer waked with a shout. And soon the great march began that faltered no more nor wavered. Unchecked by battles, undaunted in lonesome spaces, ever unwearied by the vulturous years, the warriors of Camorak held on; and Arleon's inspiration led them still. They cleft with the music of Arleon's harp the gloom of ancient silences; they went singing into battles with terrible wild men, and came out singing, but with fewer voices; they came to villages in valleys full of the music of bells, or saw the lights at dusk of cottages sheltering others.
They became a proverb for wandering, and a legend arose of strange, disconsolate men. Folks spoke of them at nightfall when the fire was warm and rain slipped down the eaves; and when the wind was high small children feared the Men Who Would Not Rest were going clattering past. Strange tales were told of men in old grey armour moving at twilight along the tops of the hills and never asking shelter; and mothers told their boys who grew impatient of home that the grey wanderers were once so impatient and were now hopeless of rest, and were driven along with the rain whenever the wind was angry.
But the wanderers were cheered in their wandering by the hope of coming to Carcassonne, and later on by anger against Fate, and at last they marched on still because it seemed better to march on than to think.
For many years they had wandered and had fought with many tribes; often they gathered legends in villages and listened to idle singers singing songs; and all the rumours of Carcassonne still came from the South.
And then one day they came to a hilly land with a legend in it that only three valleys away a man might see, on clear days, Carcassonne. Tired though they were and few, and worn with the years which had all brought them wars, they pushed on instantly, led still by Arleon's inspiration which dwindled in his age, though he made music with his old harp still.
All day they climbed down into the first valley and for two days ascended, and came to the Town that May Not Be Taken In War below the top of the mountain, and its gates were shut against them, and there was no way round. To left and right steep precipices stood for as far as eye could see or legend tell of, and the pass lay through the city. Therefore Camorak drew up his remaining warriors in line of battle to wage their last war, and they stepped forward over the crisp bones of old, unburied armies.
No sentinel defied them in the gate, no arrow flew from any tower of war. One citizen climbed alone to the mountain's top, and the rest hid themselves in sheltered places.
Now, in the top of the mountain was a deep bowl-like cavern in the rock, in which fires bubbled softly. But if any cast a boulder into the fires, as it was the custom for one of those citizens to do when enemies approached them, the mountain hurled up intermittent rocks for three days, and the rocks fell flaming all over the town and all round about it. And just as Camorak's men began to batter the gate they heard a crash on the mountain, and a great rock fell beyond them and rolled into the valley. The next two fell in front of them on the iron roofs of the town. Just as they entered the town a rock found them crowded in a narrow street, and shattered two of them. The mountain smoked and panted; with every pant a rock plunged into the streets or bounced along the heavy iron roof, and the smoke went slowly up, and up, and up.
When they had come through the long town's empty streets to the locked gate at the end, only fifteen were left. When they had broken down the gate there were only ten alive. Three more were killed as they went up the slope, and two as they passed near the terrible cavern. Fate let the rest go some way down the mountain upon the other side, and then took three of them. Camorak and Arleon alone were left alive. And night came down on the valley to which they had come, and was lit by flashes from the fatal mountain; and the two mourned for their comrades all night long.
But when the morning came they remembered their war with Fate, and their old resolve to come to Carcassonne, and the voice of Arleon rose in a quavering song, and snatches of music from his old harp, and he stood up and marched with his face southwards as he had done for years, and behind him Camorak went. And when at last they climbed from the third valley, and stood on the hill's summit in the golden sunlight of evening, their aged eyes saw only miles of forest and the birds going to roost.
Their beards were white, and they had travelled very far and hard; it was the time with them when a man rests from labours and dreams in light sleep of the years that were and not of the years to come.
Long they looked southwards; and the sun set over remoter forests, and glow-worms lit their lamps, and the inspiration of Arleon rose and flew away for ever, to gladden, perhaps, the dreams of younger men.
And Arleon said: "My King, I know no longer the way to Carcassonne."
And Camorak smiled, as the aged smile, with little cause for mirth, and said: "The years are going by us like huge birds, whom Doom and Destiny and the schemes of God have frightened up out of some old grey marsh. And it may well be that against these no warrior may avail, and that Fate has conquerored us, and that our quest has failed."
And after this they were silent.
Then they drew their swords, and side by side went down into the forest, still seeking for Carcassonne.
I think they got not far; for there were deadly marshes in that forest, and gloom that outlasted the nights, and fearful beasts accustomed to its way. Neither is there any legend, either in verse or among the songs of the people of the fields, of any having come to Carcassonne. (A Dreamer's Tales, Lord Dunsany, Freeport, NY, 1969 -- reprint of 1910 edition)
[The essay, "Kafka and his precursors," can be found in Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: selected stories and other writings, New York, 1962, translated by James E. Irby]
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