Friday, February 17, 2012

Work and Days

     Then I was lifted up and carried to a flat space beside the stream, where the trunk of a young pine had been set upright in the ground. A man, waving a knife, and singing a wild song, danced towards me. He seized me by the hair, and I actually rejoiced, for I knew that the pain of scalping would make me oblivious of all else. But he only drew the sharp point of the knife in a circle round my head, scarce breaking the skin. 

     I had grace given me to keep a stout face, mainly because I was relieved that this was to be my fate. He put the knife back in his girdle, and others laid hold on me.

     They smeared my lower limbs with some kind of grease which smelt of resin. One savage who had picked up a brand from one of the little fires dropped some of the stuff on it, and it crackled merrily. He grinned at me--a slow, diabolical grin.

     They lashed me to the stake with ropes of green vine. Then they piled dry hay a foot deep around me, and laid above it wood and green branches. To make the fuel still greener, they poured water on it. At the moment I did not see the object of these preparations, but now I can understand it. The dry hay would serve to burn my legs, which had already been anointed with the inflammable grease. So I should suffer a gradual torture, for it would be long ere the flames reached a vital part. I think they erred, for they assumed that I had the body of an Indian, which does not perish till a blow is struck at its heart; whereas I am confident that any white man would be dead of the anguish long ere the fire had passed beyond his knees.

     I think that was the most awful moment of my life. Indeed I could not have endured it had not my mind been drugged and my body stupid with fatigue. Men have often asked me what were my thoughts in that hour, while the faggots were laid about my feet. I cannot tell, for I have no very clear memory. The Power which does not break the bruised reed tempered the storm to my frailty. I could not envisage the future, and so was mercifully enabled to look only to the moment. I knew that pain was coming; but I was already in pain, and the sick man does not trouble himself about degrees of suffering. Death, too, was coming; but for that I had been long ready. The hardest thing that man can do is to endure, but this was to me no passive endurance; it was an active struggle to show a fortitude worthy of the gallant dead.

      -- From John Buchan, Salute To Adventurers (1915)


  1. You sent me back to the source, who writes about this time of year:

    "And when the season of frost comes on, stitch together skins of firstling kids with ox-sinew, to put over your back and to keep off the rain. On your head above wear a shaped cap of felt to keep your ears from getting wet, for the dawn is chill when Boreas has once made his onslaught, and at dawn a fruitful mist is spread over the earth from starry heaven upon the fields of blessed men: it is drawn from the ever flowing rivers and is raised high above the earth by windstorm, and sometimes it turns to rain towards evening, and sometimes to wind when Thracian Boreas huddles the thick clouds. Finish your work and return home ahead of him, and do not let the dark cloud from heaven wrap round you and make your body clammy and soak your clothes. Avoid it; for this is the hardest month, wintry, hard for sheep and hard for men."

    Good advice.

  2. Thanks for this. I only recently became aware of this novel, written in the same year as The 39 Steps. I think the way Buchan implicates man in nature and the landscape and nature and the landscape in man in his books is wonderful and one of the highlights of his work. When we visited the Scottish Highlands, I really did feel as if I'd visited them previously because of reading his work. If you ever have a chance to read Buchan's final novel, Sick Heart River, you should. It takes place in the Canadian wilderness. I'm currently (slowly) reading a book by James Buchan, John Buchan's grandson, called Frozen Desire. It's a study of money and its meaning and it's very, very fine. That Hepplewhite knife box is really something, I think. Curtis