Author of The Magical Mimics of Oz, Spectral Snow, etc.
Originally published in Dark Music and Other Spectral Tales, 1947.
The dictator sat alone in his study in a castle high in the mountains of a European nation. There was only one light in the room. But it was of sufficient strength to reveal that the Great Man was alone. Even the corners of the room were empty of shadows. The room itself was bare and plain to a painful degree. There were only a few books on the shelves that lined an alcove in a corner; one of these the work of the Dictator himself. In another corner stood an immense electric phonograph and an album of records in whose glossy grooves slumbered the terrible and other-worldly music of the "Gotterdammerung," the leaden-skied twilight of the Dusk of the Gods, the dragon-slaying Siegfried, the majestic Brunnhilde and the unearthly echoes of Valhalla.
The single light on the desk before which the Dictator sat glared down on a map and a soldier. The map was an elaborate map of Europe. The Dictator never tired of studying it and when he had stared at it long enough there seemed to ring in his ears the songs of the mighty Siegfried and the lines on the map that denoted the boundaries of the nation he loved so well swelled and quivered and burst - and lo! - all boundaries disappeared and all of Europe become only one united kingdom, under the rule of this race of super-men, whose leader the Dictator was.
The soldier that shared the desk with the map was fashioned of iron, a tiny figure, a mere six inches high, but artful and perfect in every detail, garbed in miniature iron replicas of the uniform and trappings the Dictator himself had designed for his army - and complete even to the out-thrust bayonet, whose needle sharp point glimmered and shone in the rays of the electric light.
The Dictator was very tired tonight. The world was moving through strenuous times. At moments like this he admitted to himself what would have brought shocked denials from his loyal subjects - that he was, after all, just a mortal man. He had won the devotion of millions, the hatred of more millions. He had lost the love of women, the friendship of men. These were mortal things no demi-God might own. He had climbed the peaks to an awful height and he found it dizzying and lonely to stand here alone with the clouds mantling his shoulders and the distant music of Valhalla sounding in his ears.
All this he had symbolized in his physical existence. Here in his mountain-top castle he literally dwelt among the clouds, he was utterly alone, no man was his friend or confidant, no woman his wife or mistress. There were only the guards about him and the vastness of space above as it wheeled away through and beyond the starry heavens and the vastness of space below as it dropped from this embattled peak.
It was an incredible dream-world the Dictator lived in. The awful beauty of the mountain surrounding him, the blind worship of his people, the tremendous power and might at his command - all these had molded his body into a legendary figure - touched him with Godship. And he was the first to realize the danger of allowing any man or woman to approach him save on a legendary plane. He was alone - utterly alone - with a map and an iron soldier. Wearily the Dictator paused in his musings and brushing his hand over his eyes, picked up the iron soldier. This was force - he the power that drove it. The combination was irresistible. But singly, either of them ceased to exist. The Dictator recalled the years he had served in the army during the World War, strange wonderful years. Even then men had pulled away from him. His comrades had sensed a difference even though he was a common soldier just as they were. They were fighting because they were forced in. They fought with a grim determination and hated it. He had fought through those years like a man in a dream with a glory light shining in his eyes and a great belief in the Cause of his nation. He had fought because he had to win. And the men who wanted only to be at home once more with their wives and children had mistrusted and shunned this dreamer.
The Dictator had been strangely happy in those days. He had even derived a joy from the agony and suffering of the three wounds he had received. He could recall at will the anguish of the battlefield, his blood mingling with mud and his mind wandering back and forth over the borderline of delirium.
The Dictator held the iron figure of the soldier in his hand. This was himself. He was that iron man in uniform. He was lifting up that bayonet with muscles taut, poised for action. For a long moment he stared at the soldier, then his eyes wandered to the map and fixed on a point of its markings. There was a crucial point in the war that might come, the forests of Brittainy. He knew them well. As a child he had spent a summer holiday there. He had wandered in their cool other-world shade, the same shade in which Joan of Arc had dreamed her divine visions and like him had become the saviour of her nation and a figure of mythology. The Dictator stared at the grey point on the map. That was Brittainy.
Outside the castle it was still, as enormously still as only the ether that clings to a mountain-top can be. In this rarefied air the remote stars failed to twinkle, they stared down with an unwinking light and the vaulted heavens was bounded by no horizon, but seemed to spread inimitably in all directions - to all sides and up and down immeasurably.
For several minutes now the Dictator had been staring at the point marked Brittainy on the map. Suddenly he started and his eyes opened wider. He gasped and stared still more closely at the map. There was something strange about it. He couldn't tear his eyes from it. He watched fascinated, powerless to move. It was that point on the map marked Brittainy - a mere pin point on the vast canvas of a continent. It was changing. Was this some trick of his eyes, some illusion of the light, or did he actually see it? The pin point was a button. It was growing, widening, spreading. Impatiently the Dictator closed his eyes. This was ridiculous. He simply had been staring too long at the point. He must rest his eyes. When he opened them again the illusion would have vanished. He remembered how, as a boy, he had dreamed, staring unblinkingly at an object until it lost all semblance of familiarity and seemed utterly strange and foreign. The Dictator passed his hands over his eyes and opened them. He gave a muffled cry. The map was gone. There was only Brittainy. In amazement he stared. He could distinguish the miniature trees - the earth - even the sun-light filtering through leaves. The Dictator's heart was beating wildly. What could it mean? Had he fallen asleep and was dreaming? But no - he was too intensely awake-too acutely alert for that. Every faculty in his body was at fever-pitch. He stared spellbound. He was unable to tear his eyes from what had been a map on his desk. He felt incredibly small - infinitesimal - no larger than the iron soldier he had a moment before held in his hand.
Or was that it - quite? Wasn't it rather a queer feeling that the world was growing up about him - monstrously large - impossibly gigantic? It seemed that he could hear it growing in the very air about him, an eerie rustling and whispering of strangely troubled currents of air. It was as if a mighty displacement were taking place, as if something vast and illimitable were being turned inside out. A vision flashed before his eyes of the world inside a mirror suddenly moving out through the tiny wedge of the frame. There was a crackling and spreading of growing things about him. He could hear mighty tendrils unfolding and lashing about. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them the illusion was complete. He was no longer in his study. He was in a forest. Above him was a melancholy sky, slate-hued, and there floated a scabrous sun - a sun that seemed older than any sun he had ever dreamed of. And what trees these were about him! Involuntarily the Dictator shuddered and shrank from them. On their misshapen trunks bled the most horrible, the most repulsive of cancers. They were obscene abominations of trees. Bleeding wounds, membranous sores, scab incrusted chancres - they grew in abundance in this sick forest of silently moaning trees.
The Dictator stumbled forward and brushed against a tree, his shoulder touching its trunk. The cloth of his smart military uniform was smeared with an ill smelling ichor - a putrescence like rotting blood, it seemed to the Dictator. It might have been blood from a wound that had lain open long unattended. A wave of repulsion and illness swept over the Dictator. What was this place? Where was he? And why did this frightful landscape seem so familiar to him? Where had he seen it before? The earth, pocked and marked by outcroppings of clammy cold rocks of dull grey, pitted with ponds of brackish water, rust hued, empurpled here and there with a sickly flower. Where had he seen all this before? He searched his memory for the elusive thread that would lead him through this maze of thoughts. And then suddenly it came to him. Many years ago - his childhood - the weeks he had spent in Brittainy! That was it. That cold, grey, terrifying land, so different from the mellow warmth and the bright sunshine of his homeland. It had pressed an indelible, nightmare vision on his child mind. He would never forget it. The afternoon and night he had been lost in the forest - this very forest! It all came back to him now with a rush of swift clear recollection. He still awakened at night, haunted by the fear he had felt then - a helpless, terrified child, struggling and sobbing through that forest. It had been horrible. The age-old oaks whose gnarled roots writhed from the ground like nests of frightful grey snakes.
That was it - the forest of Brittainy! That explained everything! Then he was dreaming - he must be dreaming! He had fallen asleep over the map - his mind had been busy with that pin point marked Brittainy and quite naturally enough his mind in sleep linked his waking thoughts with those childhood memories. It was all just a dream.
But what a dream! Surely no man had ever dreamed so vividly as this. And could one reason and remember in a dream? Could one be so acutely "awake" in a dream? A chill went over the Dictator as his mind moved on to the next possibility - madness. Long had his enemies accused him of madness. He had heard their charges with scorn. Could this be it? No - the Dictator pulled himself sharply together - no man in the world was saner than he. He was far from madness. Then what was this - how explain this? The Dictator didn't know. He hoped wearily that all this wretched landscape would dissolve about him as mysteriously as it had come and he would find himself again in his study. But it didn't dissolve. It towered mightily up and above and beyond and over him. It forced its putrid odors into his lungs and pierced his outraged eyeballs with its sickly, sun-ridden tortures.
The Dictator could remain motionless no longer. Perhaps in action he would find the way out of this mad obsession that claimed him so completely. He walked briskly between the trees, unconsciously adopting the military manner he wore when he appeared in public. But soon his pace slowed. There was a mottled red beech, sanguinary leaves fell from its enlaced branches. One of the leaves brushed the Dictator's chest. It felt moist. He wiped it with his fingers. A brownish red substance, smelling faintly rotten, clung to his fingers. Trembling with disgust and revulsion, the Dictator wiped the smear from his fingers. What Hellish place was this? A desperate, wild light came into the Dictator's eyes. He couldn't endure this nightmare much longer. It would have to end. He must escape. There must be some way out of this vegetable charnel house, where all the world was wounded, bleeding, rotten with sores and eaten through with tubercular tumors.
The Dictator stumbled on. His heavy, military boots sank into the porous soil and filled him with loathing. He hated even the ground - pock marked with abrasive stones and mottled with pools of rusty water. The trees outraged him. As he watched them it seemed that their dark and wrinkled envelopes turned into the shriveled, bursting skins of corpses that have laid neglected for days, exposed to the sunlight on a battlefield.
The Dictator felt that he must run. Faster and ever faster - but he couldn't bear the sight of what he saw as he ran. So he closed his eyes and dashed blindly. Madly he ran and with his tightly shut eyes closing out the abominations about him he derived some relief from the wild flight. But he hadn't run more than fifty paces until the bifurcated branch of an oak crossed his path and stopped him violently. The force of the impact sent the Dictator sprawling to the ground. His face lay in a little pool of browning water, colored with the taint of blood that seemed to seep through the soil from the roots of the trees.
The Dictator sobbed. He shivered and a miserable fear seized him. Tears welled into his eyes. He felt wretchedly helpless. He was alone - he was afraid - he was without hope. Sobs racked his body inside the smart military uniform. After a time the Dictator wearily opened his eyes. Above him towered a hideous tree. It raised its limbs from the earth in an unholy protest to the grey heavens. It was shriven down its trunk with a monstrous ulcer of innumerable wens and bleeding sores. The Dictator retched with loathing. He was looking into a foul cavity torn in a human abdomen and furred with grey lichen. There were the naked, obscene haunches, the flesh shot raggedly away, the rear bones protruding.
The Dictator could stand this no longer. He threw himself flat on the ground and buried his head in his arms and sobbed as he hadn't sobbed since he was a frightened child wandering helpless and lost in a forest. For some time his sobs continued and then he became more calm, exhausted by the tide of emotion.
And then, did he, or did he not hear something? The Dictator scarce dared move. He might be mistaken. He might not have heard what he thought he had heard. He must cling to the belief that he had heard it. It must be so. The shivering of his body stopped, he strained every nerve until he became an ear cast to the ground. He did hear it! A great joy swept over him. He was not mistaken. Someone was walking toward him! There was someone else here in this unholy place. He was not alone! He was sure of it now. The footsteps were quite plain. He listened. They were measured, calm, methodical, not wild and frantic as his had been. They sounded unhurried, deliberate, almost military. For what seemed an eternity the Dictator listened and waited. At last the footsteps sounded at his side and then they stopped.
The Dictator held his breath and tried to raise himself and force his eyes open. What would he see? He was afraid, but not as afraid as he had been. Nothing could be as horrible as this forest - nothing. And this was human, this had walked toward him, upright as a man walks. There was nothing to be afraid of. Something of his old reassurance returned to the Dictator. He sat up and opened his eyes. His heart leaped. He was staring at the familiar boots and trousers of one of his own soldiers? An immense gladness and thankfulness swept over the Dictator like a warming wave. He was rescued! He was safe! Self-confidence was flowing back into him like a tide. He was no longer cold and shivering, warmth returned to his blood.
A faint flush suffused the Dictator's cheeks as he realized how ridiculous he must look, sitting here on the ground. He would tell the fellow he had been resting, that was all. He must get him back to the castle and then he could be persuaded not to talk. No one must ever see the Dictator in other than a proud, military posture. Impatiently the Dictator leaped to his feet. But almost immediately he recoiled as if he had been struck a sudden blow. His knees buckled under him, he was trembling as with the ague.
This man - this man who stood before him in the uniform of one of his own men - he was no man! He was, the Dictator's teeth chattered as the mad reality ran through his flaming brain, he was - a man of iron! His uniform - his boots - the man himself - all dull grey iron! Somewhere in the back of the Dictator's troubled consciousness there flickered for an instant, the image of an iron soldier that rested on his desk - an iron soldier - six inches high! That was it! The man was part of the pattern of this wild dream. The map - the pin point marked Brittainy - the horrible forest - the iron soldier - the up-raised bayonet, poised for attack.
The Dictator knelt trembling before the motionless figure. What should he do? What could he do? What would happen next? The Dictator forced his eyes to the level of the face of the figure before him. He looked into immobile, expressionless cast-iron features. And - like a searing dye of white hot metal those iron features burned themselves into the Dictator's consciousness. They were his own - his own features cast in iron.
The Dictator trembled more violently at this new madness. Now he wanted to cry out - to scream, - to shout - to howl at this impassively glowering iron image of himself. But he couldn't. A deadly paralysis welled into his throat like an icy liquid. It spread over his body like a cold caress, numbing him, transfixing him to the spot. He made little gurgling sounds as he stared wildly at the thing before him.
And then it moved. Slowly the uplifted bayonet was lowered. Inch by inch it pointed its way downward. And all the incredibly long time the Dictator watched, fascinated as a bird is by a serpent. The point of the fine steel hypnotized him. It was coming closer - closer - the features of the iron man - of himself - stared expressionless into his own. Now the point of the bayonet was only a foot from his breast. Now a half foot. Now a mere few inches. Now a fraction of an inch. Slowly, ever slowly it came while the Dictator stared, incapable of motion, silently praying that it would increase its pace. Now it touched his uniform. Now it was ripping through the cloth. Now the Dictator felt the icy sharpness of it pressing against his flesh. Now like a knife of flame it had pierced his skin. Now it was moving ever so slowly into his flesh. The warmth that he felt was the blood trickling down his chest, soaking into his uniform. And still the iron man moved, mechanically, purposefully, at the same maddening slow pace. The point of the bayonet was probing deeper and deeper into the Dictator's chest. Now it had slipped between the bony cage of his ribs and was bur-rowing a highway to his heart. And then it touched that wildly beating organ. Touched it gently, pierced it with the same automatic slowness. Now his heart was impaled on a knife of steel and it throbbed and quivered and twitched into stillness while the Dictator's eyes glazed over, filled with the horror of the image of an iron face - that was his own.
In the morning when the door of the Dictator's study had been broken down, the lifeless body of the Dictator was found slumped forward on the desk.
His physician announced that he had died during the night of a heart attack. But those who attended the Great Man couldn't account for the mud they found on his boots. He had not been out of the study all evening - could not have passed out without his guards knowing of it - and there was no mud for miles about on this dry, arid mountain peak. And apparently no one had noticed the tiny iron figure of the soldier that lay on the Dictator's desk, tipped over forward so that the point of its bayonet lay buried in a pin point on the map marked Brittainy. Nor did they notice the fact that the point of the iron bayonet was stained a reddish brown with what might have been rust - or blood.
[The consistent misspelling of the name Brittany throughout this story has been retained to reflect the story's original publication.]
THE FORGETFUL POET
By Ruth Plumly Thompson
Originally published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, June 23, 1918.
The Forgetful Poet's Rhyming Riddles
He calls them this - I should think twisted riddle would be a better name for them.
I found in my body
Two caps and two bows,
Two lids without bones
Which somehow did close.
A crown and a roof, dears,
Two arches 0 two balls,
Two brows without hills,
Several steps and some walls.
Some nails and a chest, loves -
Two drums and two trees,
Two creatures - a bridge -
Will you guess them all, please?
(Pshaw! he must be an ostrich!)
Last week's answers were: 1. Crown; 2. Pesos; 3. Rubles.
[Answers next time.]
Copyright © 2007 Eric Shanower and David Maxine. All rights reserved.