by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
Judge between me and my guest, the stranger within my gates, the man
whom in his extremity I clothed and fed.
I remember well the time of his coming, for it happened at the end of
five days and nights during which the year passed from strength to
age; in the interval between the swallow's departure and the
redwing's coming; when the tortoise in my garden crept into his
winter quarters, and the equinox was on us, with an east wind that
parched the blood in the trees, so that their leaves for once knew no
gradations of red and yellow, but turned at a stroke to brown, and
crackled like tin-foil.
At five o'clock in the morning of the sixth day I looked out.
The wind still whistled across the sky, but now without the
obstruction of any cloud. Full in front of my window Sirius flashed
with a whiteness that pierced the eye. A little to the right, the
whole constellation of Orion was suspended clear over a wedge-like
gap in the coast, wherein the sea could be guessed rather than seen.
And, travelling yet further, the eye fell on two brilliant lights,
the one set high above the other—the one steady and a fiery red, the
other yellow and blazing intermittently—the one Aldebaran, the other
revolving on the lighthouse top, fifteen miles away.
Half-way up the east, the moon, now in her last quarter and decrepit,
climbed with the dawn close at her heels. And at this hour they
brought in the Stranger, asking if my pleasure were to give him
clothing and hospitality.
Nobody knew whence he came—except that it was from the wind and the
night—seeing that he spoke in a strange tongue, moaning and making a
sound like the twittering of birds in a chimney. But his journey
must have been long and painful; for his legs bent under him, and he
could not stand when they lifted him. So, finding it useless to
question him for the time, I learnt from the servants all they had to
tell—namely, that they had come upon him, but a few minutes before,
lying on his face within my grounds, without staff or scrip,
bareheaded, spent, and crying feebly for succour in his foreign
tongue; and that in pity they had carried him in and brought him to
Now for the look of this man, he seemed a century old, being bald,
extremely wrinkled, with wide hollows where the teeth should be, and
the flesh hanging loose and flaccid on his cheek-bones; and what
colour he had could have come only from exposure to that bitter
night. But his eyes chiefly spoke of his extreme age. They were
blue and deep, and filled with the wisdom of years; and when he
turned them in my direction they appeared to look through me, beyond
me, and back upon centuries of sorrow and the slow endurance of man,
as if his immediate misfortune were but an inconsiderable item in a
long list. They frightened me. Perhaps they conveyed a warning of
that which I was to endure at their owner's hands. From compassion,
I ordered the servants to take him to my wife, with word that I
wished her to set food before him, and see that it passed his lips.
So much I did for this Stranger. Now learn how he rewarded me.
He has taken my youth from me, and the most of my substance, and the
love of my wife.
From the hour when he tasted food in my house, he sat there without
hint of going. Whether from design, or because age and his
sufferings had really palsied him, he came back tediously to life and
warmth, nor for many days professed himself able to stand erect.
Meanwhile he lived on the best of our hospitality. My wife tended
him, and my servants ran at his bidding; for he managed early to make
them understand scraps of his language, though slow in acquiring
ours—I believe out of calculation, lest someone should inquire his
business (which was a mystery) or hint at his departure. I myself
often visited the room he had appropriated, and would sit for an hour
watching those fathomless eyes while I tried to make head or tail of
his discourse. When we were alone, my wife and I used to speculate
at times on his probable profession. Was he a merchant?—an aged
mariner?—a tinker, tailor, beggarman, thief? We could never decide,
and he never disclosed.
Then the awakening came. I sat one day in the chair beside his,
wondering as usual. I had felt heavy of late, with a soreness and
languor in my bones, as if a dead weight hung continually on my
shoulders, and another rested on my heart. A warmer colour in the
Stranger's cheek caught my attention; and I bent forward, peering
under the pendulous lids. His eyes were livelier and less profound.
The melancholy was passing from them as breath fades off a pane of
glass. He was growing younger. Starting up, I ran across the
room, to the mirror.
There were two white hairs in my fore-lock; and, at the corner of
either eye, half a dozen radiating lines. I was an old man.
Turning, I regarded the Stranger. He sat phlegmatic as an Indian
idol; and in my fancy I felt the young blood draining from my own
heart, and saw it mantling in his cheeks. Minute by minute I watched
the slow miracle—the old man beautified. As buds unfold, he put on
a lovely youthfulness; and, drop by drop, left me winter.
I hurried from the room, and seeking my wife, laid the case before
her. "This is a ghoul," I said, "that we harbour: he is sucking my
best blood, and the household is clean bewitched." She laid aside
the book in which she read, and laughed at me. Now my wife was
well-looking, and her eyes were the light of my soul. Consider,
then, how I felt as she laughed, taking the Stranger's part against
me. When I left her, it was with a new suspicion in my heart.
"How shall it be," I thought, "if after stealing my youth, he go on
to take the one thing that is better?"
In my room, day by day, I brooded upon this—hating my own
alteration, and fearing worse. With the Stranger there was no longer
any disguise. His head blossomed in curls; white teeth filled the
hollows of his mouth; the pits in his cheeks were heaped full with
roses, glowing under a transparent skin. It was Aeson renewed and
thankless; and he sat on, devouring my substance.
Now having probed my weakness, and being satisfied that I no longer
dared to turn him out, he, who had half-imposed his native tongue
upon us, constraining the household to a hideous jargon, the bastard
growth of two languages, condescended to jerk us back rudely into our
own speech once more, mastering it with a readiness that proved his
former dissimulation, and using it henceforward as the sole vehicle
of his wishes. On his past life he remained silent; but took
occasion to confide in me that he proposed embracing a military
career, as soon as he should tire of the shelter of my roof.
And I groaned in my chamber; for that which I feared had come to
pass. He was making open love to my wife. And the eyes with which
he looked at her, and the lips with which he coaxed her, had been
mine; and I was an old man. Judge now between me and this guest.
One morning I went to my wife; for the burden was past bearing, and I
must satisfy myself. I found her tending the plants on her
window-ledge; and when she turned, I saw that years had not taken
from her comeliness one jot. And I was old.
So I taxed her on the matter of this Stranger, saying this and that,
and how I had cause to believe he loved her.
"That is beyond doubt," she answered, and smiled.
"By my head, I believe his fancy is returned!" I blurted out.
And her smile grew radiant, as, looking me in the face, she answered,
"By my soul, husband, it is."
Then I went from her, down into my garden, where the day grew hot and
the flowers were beginning to droop. I stared upon them and could
find no solution to the problem that worked in my heart. And then I
glanced up, eastward, to the sun above the privet-hedge, and saw
him coming across the flower beds, treading them down in
wantonness. He came with a light step and a smile, and I waited for
him, leaning heavily on my stick.
"Give me your watch!" he called out, as he drew near.
"Why should I give you my watch?" I asked, while something worked in
"Because I wish it; because it is gold; because you are too old, and
won't want it much longer."
"Take it," I cried, pulling the watch out and thrusting it into his
hand. "Take it—you who have taken all that is better! Strip me,
A soft laugh sounded above, and I turned. My wife was looking down
on us from the window, and her eyes were both moist and glad.
"Pardon me," she said, "it is you who are spoiling the child."