The Spike or Victoria University College Review June 1926
The moon rose slowly over the last hill and threw patches of light between the motionless branches of the forest, catching the tops of the stiff branches from which the leaves hung heavily. In the pale light all life seemed to have fled. The grass was parched, the vines were limp and withered; the bushes seemed to have stopped suddenly in their growth. It was a living Forest of the Dead. An evil stillness wrapped every tree, holding it captive, yet this stillness was broken by low sobs and moans—the spirits of the trees crying to be free, for as the forest was Life in Death, so it held the Secret of Life and Death, and the chained souls of the trees struggled to reach the light that they might reveal the secret to Man.
On the edge of the trees the same moonlight threw into relief the dark outlines of a mighty castle. From the turret great crimson banner, embroidered in gold, hung heavy and motionless. Away to the horizon ran a road like a silver ribbon.
In a high turret room a child lay sleeping. She lay there on her white bed in the ghostly moonlight like a figure carved in marble, but for the masses of red-gold curls which clustered round her pale face. For an instant a bat hovered in the window, and its shadow fell across the face of the sleeping child. She stirred in her sleep and moaned, and from the forest her cry was answered by the moans of the chained trees. It was then, for the first time in her sixteen years, Isolde, princess of a mighty kingdom, sleeping, heard the cry of the haunted forest. She stirred, but did not wake, and in her sleep she saw a strange vision. First, a child, bound and blindfolded, passed before her, crying piteously and stretching out its tiny hands; but two figures relentlessly pushed it on. One, a woman, was clad in a robe of scarlet with diamonds in her hair and round her throat. A cruel, triumphant smile curved her lips as she lashed the child on with the whip she carried. The other was clad from head to foot in a loose black cloak, which so concealed the figure that it was impossible to tell whether it was that of a man or a woman. The only part of its body which could be seen was a bony, flesh-less hand, wielding a heavy scythe. The vision passed, and in her sleep the Princess shuddered. In its place an old woman appeared, her face brown and wrinkled, but beautiful still, and her grey eyes as clear and kind as sunshine after rain. She smiled on the sleeping girl and her smile was as light after darkness. Then she spoke and in her soft voice the song of birds, the murmuring of waters, the rustle of trees in the wind, the humming of bees, the patter of rain on leaves, the quiet of sunset, all the sounds of the outer world were mingled. "Fair Child! my name is Nature. I am here to show you the meaning of your dream. The child you saw so cruelly treated is the World. The two heartless pursuers are Life and Death. Always have these two tortured the world with uncertainty and doubt and stinging pain. Men and Women have died in the attempt to penetrate the mysteries of Life and Death. They have succeeded in lifting the veil a little, but not enough; and now, for page 50 long years, no heart has been brave enough, no soul pure enough, to attempt the task. You are young and are innocent, therefore the choice has fallen on you. Youth accepts defeat less easily than age. Hope dies hard in the hearts of the young. Children will succeed where grown men have failed. It is for you to lead Youth in the quest." Nature stopped, and the grey eyes were clouded a little; then her soft voice went on more firmly: "The Forest of Life in Death growing at your gates holds the secret. Go, and have courage! Though you lose your life, you will by your sacrifice loosen the power of Life and Death over the World. Go! and the talismans I give you are your youth and your young hope, your courage, and the faith of an innocent heart." With one more tender smile, Nature faded and Isolde awoke. The sun streamed in her windows, but she saw it not. Her gaze leapt to the window, nay, past it, and on to the forest beyond, dark and terrible even in the morning light. She saw the darkness and the terror, but heeded them not. The young blood sang in her veins, and her eyes, green as the afternoon sea, filled with the light of purpose.
Though the sun shone brightly outside, in the forest no light entered. The leaves, which had hung lifeless in the moonlight, thickened and formed a heavy roof. In the grey dimness between the trees shapes seemed to hover and float, but Isolde neither saw nor heard, for her heart was filled with pity for the World, and she only saw the face of the suffering child, which she had seen in her dream. Yet the shapes kept always with her, patiently waiting a chance to enter her heart and slowly break her courage, and dim her faith and quench her hope. For these shapes were Fear and Doubt and Despair, Shame and her brother Disgrace, the twin brothers Greed and Selfishness, with Hate and Envy and Jealousy.
Through the pathless ways of the Forest she went, and as she passed the thick vines put out their tendrils to trip her, and the brambles their thorns to catch her. But her faith and innocence clothed her in shining armour, which nothing could pierce. Always she sought the unknown, which she felt would be revealed.
So all day she wandered, and when night came sought a resting place 'neath a spreading tree. She had lain in the darkness, thinking, for some time when a strange glow lit up the Forest, and the same vision she bad seen the previous night passed before her—the Child, bound and helpless, the Woman, scarlet-clad, and the sombre figure of Death. She drew back into the Shadows and watched, and the three passed without noticing her. Swiftly she leapt to her feet and ran after the group. As she reached them the child turned, holding out its hands to her, as in her dream. She caught them fast in her own strong clasp and turned to face Life and Death. She spoke in a low, clear, scornful voice—
"You have me to deal with now, not this helpless Child. Throw down your Whip, Cruel Life."
Life laughted tauntingly.
"So you, a child, pit yourself against the powers of Life and Death! Beware!" Her voice became menacing. "Best leave me and my brother Death alone. We can harm you."page 51
"Do what you like," said the clear, scornful voice. "Throw down your Whip."
"Give me your beauty and I will. But think, 'tis a big sacrifice. Your beauty against my Whip." The hard blue eyes met the clear grey ones, and slowly they fell, while the merciless young voice went on—
"Take my beauty as you will. What care I? Take it, it is useless to you."
"Nevertheless I will take it. There is my Whip." She threw down the weapon, and as she did so a change passed over Isolde. 'The fresh young face became old and wrinkled; the wonderful hair turned to a few grey locks; the full red lips withered and shrank. But still the clear grey eyes burnt lovely as ever, with the unquenchable fires of youth and courage.
She spoke again, and her voice was unchanged:
"Ye have my beauty, now unbind the child."
"That means more still. If we unbind the child, you must give us your youth."
Isolde shrank back a minute, then proudly she said: "Take my youth and unbind the child."
So they took her youth and the child's bonds melted into the air.
Red Life pushed past the bent figure. "Now, get you gone, and leave the World to us."
"No! No! Stop!" Isolde spoke, and yet her voice was clear and young. "Unwind the cloth that binds the child."
"Oh, you would interfere With the bonds of death, then? That requires greater sacrifice than you are prepared to make. Only your life can solve the mystery of Life and Death. Nothing else can satisfy. Your life, and the Child goes free in the light of day." Craftily the cool voice bargained.
Isolde had touched the sacred threshold of Death, and she must pay. Yet she did not waver. Her grey eyes were unafraid.
"I am prepared," she said softly. "But first unbind the World." As she spoke a blinding flash lit up the forest. The bandages fell from the child's eyes, but with a sobbing cry it stretched out its hands towards Isolde.
The crafty voice whispered in her ear: "The price—you must pay." Isolde nodded and bent over the child, and she saw that the upturned eyes were sightless. Then she slipped to the ground, a still, silent form.
So Life and Death took toll of Youth.
In the twilight of a summer evening a boy in a suit of hunting green found her beneath a tree in the Forest.
All her loveliness had been restored to her in Death. The golden curls framed her face—ivory pale—and the heavy, fringed eyelids were closed as if in sleep.
The boy stooped over her and spoke:
"You showed the way to Youth, and, roused at last, Youth follows where your courage led. We shall not fail, for until the goal is won no one of us shall turn aside or lag behind. For ever and a day, for us and those who follow us, we swear our youth and hope unto the quest."