The Mountains by Stewart Edward White
XV. On the Wind at Night
The winds were indeed abroad that night. They rattled our cabin, they shrieked in our eaves, they puffed down our chimney, scattering the ashes and leaving in the room a balloon of smoke as though a shell had burst. When we opened the door and stepped out, after our good-nights had been said, it caught at our hats and garments as though it had been lying in wait for us.
To our eyes, fire-dazzled, the night seemed very dark. There would be a moon later, but at present even the stars seemed only so many pinpoints of dull metal, lustreless, without illumination. We felt our way to camp, conscious of the softness of grasses, the uncertainty of stones.
At camp the remains of the fire crouched beneath the rating of the storm. Its embers glowed sullen and red, alternately glaring with a half-formed resolution to rebel, and dying to a sulky resignation. Once a feeble flame sprang up for an instant, but was immediately pounced on and beaten flat as though by a vigilant antagonist.
We, stumbling, gathered again our tumbled blankets. Across the brow of the knoll lay a huge pine trunk. In its shelter we respread our bedding, and there, standing, dressed for the night. The power of the wind tugged at our loose garments, hoping for spoil. A towel, shaken by accident from the interior of a sweater, departed white-winged, like a bird, into the outer blackness. We found it next day caught in the bushes several hundred yards distant. Our voices as we shouted were snatched from our lips and hurled lavishly into space. The very breath of our bodies seemed driven back, so that as we faced the elements, we breathed in gasps, with difficulty.
Then we dropped down into our blankets.
At once the prostrate tree-trunk gave us its protection. We lay in a little back-wash of the racing winds, still as a night in June. Over us roared the battle. We felt like sharpshooters in the trenches; as though, were we to raise our heads, at that instant we should enter a zone of danger. So we lay quietly on our backs and stared at the heavens.
The first impression thence given was of stars sailing serene and unaffected, remote from the turbulence of what until this instant had seemed to fill the universe. They were as always, just as we should see them when the evening was warm and the tree-toads chirped clearly audible at half a mile. The importance of the tempest shrank. Then below them next we noticed the mountains; they too were serene and calm.
Immediately it was as though the storm were an hallucination; something not objective; something real, but within the soul of him who looked upon it. It claimed sudden kinship with those blackest days when nevertheless the sun, the mere external unimportant sun, shines with superlative brilliancy. Emotions of a power to shake the foundations of life seemed vaguely to stir in answer to these their hollow symbols. For after all, we were contented at heart and tranquil in mind, and this was but the outer gorgeous show of an intense emotional experience we did not at the moment prove. Our nerves responded to it automatically. We became excited, keyed to a high tension, and so lay rigid on our backs, as though fighting out the battles of our souls.
It was all so unreal and yet so plain to our senses that perforce automatically our experience had to conclude it psychical. We were in air absolutely still. Yet above us the trees writhed and twisted and turned and bent and struck back, evidently in the power of a mighty force. Across the calm heavens the murk of flying atmosphere--I have always maintained that if you looked closely enough you could SEE the wind--the dim, hardly-made-out, fine debris fleeing high in the air;--these faintly hinted at intense movement rushing down through space. A roar of sound filled the hollow of the sky. Occasionally it intermitted, falling abruptly in volume like the mysterious rare hushings of a rapid stream. Then the familiar noises of a summer night became audible for the briefest instant,--a horse sneezed, an owl hooted, the wild call of birds came down the wind. And with a howl the legions of good and evil took up their warring. It was too real, and yet it was not reconcilable with the calm of our resting-places.
For hours we lay thus in all the intensity of an inner storm and stress, which it seemed could not fail to develop us, to mould us, to age us, to leave on us its scars, to bequeath us its peace or remorse or despair, as would some great mysterious dark experience direct from the sources of life. And then abruptly we were exhausted, as we should have been by too great emotion. We fell asleep. The morning dawned still and clear, and garnished and set in order as though such things had never been. Only our white towel fluttered like a flag of truce in the direction the mighty elements had departed.