The Hounds of Hell
|The Hounds of Hell
written by John Masefield
|Link to further information|
About the crowing of the cock,
When the shepherds feel the cold,
A horse's hoofs went clip-a-clock
Along the hangman's wold.
The horse-hoofs trotted on the stone,
The hoof-sparks glittered by.
And then a hunting horn was blown
And hounds broke into cry.
There was a strangeness in the horn,
A wildness in the cry,
A power of devilry forlorn
A power of night that ran a prey
Along the hangman's hill.
The shepherds heard the spent buck bray
And the horn blow for the kill.
They heard the worrying of the hounds
About the dead beast's bones;
Then came the horn, and then the sounds
Of horse-hoofs treading stones.
"What hounds are these that hunt the night?"
The shepherds asked in fear.
"Look, there are calkins clinking bright;
They must be coming here."
The calkins clinkered to a spark,
The hunter called the pack;
The sheep-dogs' fells all bristled stark
And all their lips went back.
"Lord God!" the shepherds said, "they come;
And see what hounds he has;
All dripping bluish fire, and dumb.
And nosing to the grass,
"And trotting scatheless through the gorse,
And bristling in the fell.
Lord, it is Death upon the horse.
And they're the hounds of hell!"
They shook to watch them as they sped.
All black against the sky;
A horseman with a hooded head
And great hounds padding by.
When daylight drove away the dark
And larks went up and thrilled,
The shepherds climbed the wold to mark
What beast the hounds had killed.
They came to where the hounds had fed,
And in that trampled place
They found a pedlar lying dead.
With horror in his face.
* * * * *
There was a farmer on the wold
Where all the brooks begin,
He had a thousand sheep from fold
Out grazing on the whin.
The next night, as he lay in bed,
He heard a canterer come
Trampling the wold-top with a tread
That sounded like a drum.
He thought it was a post that rode,
So turned him to his sleep;
But the canterer in his dreams abode
Like horse-hoofs running sheep.
And in his dreams a horn was blown
And feathering hounds replied.
And all his wethers stood like stone
In rank on the hillside.
Then, while he struggled still with dreams,
He saw his wethers run
Before a pack cheered on with screams,
The thousand sheep as one.
So, leaping from his bed in fear,
He flung the window back.
And he heard a death-horn blowing clear
And the crying of a pack.
And the thundering of a thousand sheep,
All mad and running wild
To the stone-pit seven fathoms deep,
Whence all the town is tiled.
After them came the hounds of hell,
With hell's own fury filled;
Into the pit the wethers fell,
And all but three were killed.
The hunter blew his horn a note
And laughed against the moon;
The farmer's breath caught in his throat.
He fell into a swoon.
* * * * *
The next night when the watch was set
A heavy rain came down.
The leaden gutters dripped with wet
Into the shuttered town.
So close the shutters were, the chink
Of lamplight scarcely showed;
The men at fireside heard no clink
Of horse-hoofs on the road.
They heard the creaking hinge complain,
And the mouse that gnawed the floor,
And the limping footsteps of the rain
On the stone outside the door.
And on the wold the rain came down
Till trickles streakt the grass:
A traveller riding to the town
Drew rein to let it pass.
The wind sighed in the fir-tree tops,
The trickles sobb'd in the grass.
The branches ran with showers of drops:
No other noise there was.
Till up the wold the traveller heard
A horn blow faint and thin;
He thought it was the curlew bird
Lamenting to the whin;
And when the far horn blew again,
He thought an owl hallooed,
Or a rabbit gave a shriek of pain
As the stoat leapt in the wood.
But when the horn blew next, it blew
A trump that split the air.
And hounds gave cry to an Halloo!—
The hunt of hell was there.
"Black" (said the traveller), "black and swift,
Those running devils came;
Scoring to cry with hackles stifft,
And grin-jowls dropping flame."
They settled to the sightless scent.
And up the hill a cry
Told where the frightened quarry went,
Well knowing it would die.
Then presently a cry rang out.
And a mort blew for the kill;
A shepherd with his throat torn out
Lay dead upon the hill.
* * * * *
When this was known, the shepherds drove
Their flocks into the town;
No man, for money or for love,
Would watch them on the down.
But night by night the terror ran,
The townsmen heard them still;
Nightly the hell-hounds hunted man
And the hunter whooped the kill.
The men who lived upon the moor
Would waken to the scratch
Of hounds' claws digging at the door
Or scraping at the latch.
And presently no man would go
Without doors after dark,
Lest hell's black hunting horn should blow,
And hell's black bloodhounds mark.
They shivered round the fire at home,
While out upon the bent
The hounds with black jowls dropping foam
Went nosing to the scent.
Men let the hay crop run to seed
And the corn crop sprout in ear,
And the root crop choke itself in weed,
That hell-hound hunting year.
Empty to heaven lay the wold,
Village and church grew green;
The courtyard flagstones spread with mould,
And weeds sprang up between.
And sometimes when the cock had crowed,
And the hillside stood out grey,
Men saw them slinking up the road
All sullen from their prey
A hooded horseman on a black,
With nine black hounds at heel,
After the hell-hunt going back
All bloody from their meal.
And in men's minds a fear began
That hell had over-hurled
The guardians of the soul of man,
And come to rule the world
With bitterness of heart by day,
And terror in the night,
And the blindness of a barren way
And withering of delight.
* * * * *
St. Withiel lived upon the moor.
Where the peat-men live in holes;
He worked among the peat-men poor,
Who only have their souls.
He brought them nothing but his love
And the will to do them good,
But power filled him from above,
His very touch was food.
Men told St. Withiel of the hounds,
And how they killed their prey.
He thought them far beyond his bounds,
So many miles away.
Then one whose son the hounds had killed
Told him the tale at length;
St. Withiel pondered why God willed
That hell should have such strength.
Then one, a passing traveller, told
How, since the hounds had come,
The church was empty on the wold,
And all the priests were dumb.
St. Withiel rose at this, and said:
"This priest will not be dumb;
My spirit will not be afraid
Though all hell's devils come."
He took his stick and out he went,
The long way to the wold,
Where the sheep-bells clink upon the bent
And every wind is cold.
He passed the rivers running red
And the mountains standing bare;
At last the wold-land lay ahead,
Un-yellowed by the share.
All in the brown October time
He clambered to the weald;
The plum lay purpled into slime,
The harvest lay in field.
Trampled by many-footed rain
The sunburnt corn lay dead;
The myriad finches in the grain
Rose bothering at his tread.
The myriad finches took a sheer
And settled back to food:
A man was not a thing to fear
In such a solitude.
The hurrying of their wings died out,
A silence took the hill;
There was no dog, no bell, no shout,
The windmill's sails were still.
The gate swung creaking on its hasp,
The pear splashed from the tree,
In the rotting apple's heart the wasp
Was drunken drowsily.
The grass upon the cart-wheel ruts
Had made the trackways dim;
The rabbits ate and hopped their scuts,
They had no fear of him.
The sunset reddened in the west;
The distant depth of blue
Stretched out and dimmed; to twiggy nest
The rooks in clamour drew.
The oakwood in his mail of brass
Bowed his great crest and stood;
The pine-tree saw St. Withiel pass,
His great bole blushed like blood.
Then tree and wood alike were dim,
Yet still St. Withiel strode;
The only noise to comfort him
Were his footsteps on the road.
The crimson in the west was smoked,
The west wind heaped the wrack,
Each tree seemed like a murderer cloaked
To stab him in the back.
Darkness and desolation came
To dog his footsteps there;
The dead leaves rustling called his name,
The death-moth brushed his hair.
The murmurings of the wind fell still;
He stood and stared around:
He was alone upon the hill,
On devil-haunted ground.
What was the whitish thing which stood
In front, with one arm raised,
Like death a-grinning in a hood?
The saint stood still and gazed.
"What are you?" said St. Withiel. "Speak!"
Not any answer came
But the night-wind making darkness bleak,
And the leaves that called his name.
A glow shone on the whitish thing,
It neither stirred nor spoke:
In spite of faith, a shuddering
Made the good saint to choke.
He struck the whiteness with his staff—
It was a withered tree;
An owl flew from it with a laugh,
The darkness shook with glee.
The darkness came all round him close
And cackled in his ear;
The midnight, full of life none knows,
Was very full of fear.
The darkness cackled in his heart
That things of hell were there,
That the startled rabbit played a part
And the stoat's leap did prepare—
Prepare the stage of night for blood,
And the mind of night for death,
For a spirit trembling in the mud
In an agony for breath.
A terror came upon the saint,
It stripped his spirit bare;
He was sick body standing faint.
Cold sweat and stiffened hair.
He took his terror by the throat
And stamped it underfoot;
Then, far away, the death-horn's note
Quailed like a screech-owl's hoot.
Still far away that devil's horn
Its quavering death-note blew,
But the saint could hear the crackling thorn
That the hounds trod as they drew.
"Lord, it is true," St. Withiel moaned,
"And the hunt is drawing near!
Devils that Paradise disowned,
They know that I am here.
"And there, O God, a hound gives tongue,
And great hounds quarter dim"—
The saint's hands to his body clung,
He knew they came for him.
Then close at hand the horn was loud,
Like Peter's cock of old
For joy that Peter's soul was cowed,
And Jesus' body sold.
Then terribly the hounds in cry
Gave answer to the horn;
The saint in terror turned to fly
Before his flesh was torn.
After his body came the hounds,
After the hounds the horse;
Their running crackled with the sounds
Of fire that runs in gorse.
The saint's breath failed, but still they came:
The hunter cheered them on,
Even as a wind that blows a flame
In the vigil of St. John.
And as St. Withiel's terror grew.
The crying of the pack
Bayed nearer, as though terror drew
Those grip teeth to his back.
No hope was in his soul, no stay,
Nothing but screaming will
To save his terror-stricken clay
Before the hounds could kill.
The laid corn tripped, the bramble caught,
He stumbled on the stones—
The thorn that scratched him, to his thought,
Was hell's teeth at his bones.
His legs seemed bound as in a dream,
The wet earth held his feet,
He screamed aloud as rabbits scream
Before the stoat's teeth meet.
A black thing struck him on the brow,
A blackness loomed and waved;
It was a tree—he caught a bough
And scrambled up it, saved.
Saved for the moment, as he thought.
He pressed against the bark:
The hell-hounds missed the thing they sought,
They quartered in the dark.
They panted underneath the tree,
They quartered to the call;
The hunter cried: "Yoi doit, go see!"
His death-horn blew a fall.
Now up, now down, the hell-hounds went
With soft feet padding wide;
They tried, but could not hit the scent,
However hard they tried.
Then presently the horn was blown,
The hounds were called away;
The hoof-beats glittered on the stone
And trotted on the brae.
* * * * *
The saint gat strength, but with it came
A horror of his fear,
Anguish at having failed, and shame,
And sense of judgment near:
Anguish at having left his charge
And having failed his trust.
At having flung his sword and targe
To save his body's dust.
He clambered down the saving tree.
"I am unclean!" he cried.
"Christ died upon a tree for me,
I used a tree to hide.
"The hell-hounds bayed about the cross,
And tore his clothes apart;
But Christ was gold, and I am dross.
And mud is in my heart."
He stood in anguish in the field;
A little wind blew by,
The dead leaves dropped, the great stars wheeled
Their squadrons in the sky.
* * * * *
"Lord, I will try again," he said,
"Though all hell's devils tear.
This time I will not be afraid,
And what is sent I'll dare."
He set his face against the slope
Until he topped the brae;
Courage had healed his fear, and hope
Had put his shame away.
And then, far-off, a quest-note ran,
A feathering hound replied:
The hounds still drew the night for man
Along that countryside.
Then one by one the hell-hounds spoke,
And still the horn made cheer;
Then the full devil-chorus woke
To fill the saint with fear.
He knew that they were after him
To hunt him till he fell;
He turned and fled into the dim.
And after him came hell.
Over the stony wold he went,
Through thorns and over quags;
The bloodhounds cried upon the scent,
They ran like rutting stags.
And when the saint looked round, he saw
Red eyes intently strained,
The bright teeth in the grinning jaw,
And running shapes that gained.
Uphill, downhill, with failing breath,
He ran to save his skin,
Like one who knocked the door of death,
Yet dared not enter in.
Then water gurgled in the night,
Dark water lay in front,
The saint saw bubbles running bright;
The huntsman cheered his hunt.
The saint leaped far into the stream
And struggled to the shore.
The hunt died like an evil dream,
A strange land lay before.
He waded to a glittering land,
With brighter light than ours;
The water ran on silver sand
By yellow water-flowers.
The fishes nosed the stream to rings
As petals floated by,
The apples were like orbs of kings
Against a glow of sky.
On cool and steady stalks of green
The outland flowers grew.
The ghost-flower, silver like a queen.
The queen-flower streakt with blue.
The king-flower, crimson on his stalk,
With frettings in his crown;
The peace-flower, purple, from the chalk.
The flower that loves the down.
Lilies like thoughts, roses like words,
In the sweet brain of June;
The bees there, like the stock-dove birds,
Breathed all the air with croon.
Purple and golden hung the plums;
Like slaves bowed down with gems
The peach-trees were; sweet-scented gums
Oozed clammy from their stems.
And birds of every land were there,
Like flowers that sang and flew;
All beauty that makes singing fair
That sunny garden knew.
For all together sang with throats
So tuned, that the intense
Colour and odour pearled the notes
And passed into the sense.
And as the saint drew near, he heard
The birds talk, each to each,
The fire-bird to the glory-bird.
He understood their speech.
One said: "The saint was terrified
Because the hunters came."
Another said: "The bloodhounds cried,
And all their eyes were flame."
Another said: "No shame to him,
For mortal men are blind:
They cannot see beyond the grim
Into the peace behind."
Another sang: "They cannot know,
Unless we give the clue,
The power that waits in them below
The things they are and do."
Another sang: "They never guess
That deep within them stand
Courage and peace and loveliness,
Wisdom and skill of hand."
Another sang: "Sing, brothers! Come,
Make beauty in the air!
The saint is shamed with martyrdom
Beyond his strength to bear.
"Sing, brothers! every bird that flies!"
They stretcht their throats to sing.
With the sweetness known in Paradise
When the bells of heaven ring.
"Open the doors, good saint!" they cried,
Pass deeper to your soul;
There is a spirit in your side
That hell cannot control.
"Open the doors to let him in,
That beauty with the sword;
The hounds are silly shapes of sin,
They shrivel at a word.
"Come, saint!" and as they sang, the air
Shone with the shapes of flame,
Bird after bright bird glittered there,
Crying aloud they came.
A rush of brightness and delight,
White as the snow in drift,
The fire-bird and the glory-bright,
Most beautiful, most swift.
Sweeping aloft to show the way,
And singing as they flew,
Many and glittering as the spray
When windy seas are blue.
So cheerily they rushed, so strong
Their sweep was through the flowers,
The saint was swept into their song
And gloried in their powers.
He sang, and leaped into the stream,
And struggled to the shore;
The garden faded like a dream.
A darkness lay before.
Darkness with glimmery light forlorn
And quavering hounds in quest,
A huntsman blowing on a horn,
And lost things not at rest.
He saw the huntsman's hood show black
Against the greying east;
He heard him hollo to the pack
And horn them to the feast.
He heard the bloodhounds come to cry
And settle to the scent;
The black horse made the hoof-casts fly.
The sparks flashed up the bent.
The saint stood still until they came
Baying to ring him round:
A horse whose flecking foam was flame,
And hound on yelling hound.
And jaws that dripped with bitter fire
Snarled at the saint to tear.
Pilled hell-hounds, balder than the geier.
Leaped round him everywhere.
St. Withiel let the hell-hounds rave.
He cried: "Now, in this place,
Climb down, you huntsman of the grave.
And let me see your face.
"Climb down, you huntsman out of hell
And show me what you are.
The judge has stricken on the bell,
Now answer at the bar."
The baying of the hounds fell still,
Their jaws' salt fire died.
The wind of morning struck in chill
Along that countryside.
The blackness of the horse was shrunk,
His sides seemed ribbed and old.
The rider, hooded like a monk,
Was trembling with the cold.
The rider bowed as though with pain;
Then clambered down and stood,
The thin thing that the frightened brain
Had fed with living blood.
"Show me. What are you?" said the saint.
A hollow murmur spoke.
"This, Lord," it said; a hand moved faint
And drew aside the cloak.
A Woman Death that palsy shook
Stood sick and dwindling there;
Her fingers were a bony crook,
And blood was on her hair.
"Stretch out your hands and sign the Cross,"
Was all St. Withiel said.
The bloodhounds moaned upon the moss,
The Woman Death obeyed.
Whimpering with pain, she made the sign.
"Go, devil-hag," said he,
"Beyond all help of bread and wine,
Beyond all land and sea,
Into the ice, into the snow.
Where Death himself is stark!
Out, with your hounds about you, go.
And perish in the dark!"
They dwindled as the mist that fades
At coming of the sun;
Like rags of stuff that fire abrades
They withered and were done.
The cock, that scares the ghost from earth,
Crowed as they dwindled down;
The red sun, happy in his girth,
Strode up above the town.
Sweetly above the sunny wold
The bells of churches rang;
The sheep-bells clinked within the fold,
And the larks went up and sang;
Sang for the setting free of men
From devils that destroyed;
The lark, the robin, and the wren,
They joyed and over-joyed.
The chats, that harbour in the whin,
Their little sweet throats swelled,
The blackbird and the thrush joined in,
The missel-thrush excelled.
Till round the saint the singing made
A beauty in the air,
An ecstasy that cannot fade
But is for ever there.
|Works by this author are in the public domain in countries where the copyright term is the author's life plus 51 years or less.|