Death is the third, and final chapter of Robert Louis Stevenson's Will O' the Mill. This mid 19th century treatment of
the aged Will is hauntingly like Edgar Allan Poe, and intriguingly like some later existentialist writer -- a forerunner
to Rod Serling.
Year after year went away into nothing, with great explosions and outcries in the cities on the plain; red revolt
springing up and being suppressed in blood, battle swaying hither and thither, patient astronomers in observatory
towers picking out and christening new stars, plays being performed in lighted theaters, people being carried into
hospital on stretchers, and all the usual turmoil and agitation of men's lives in crowded centers. Up in Will's valley
only the winds and seasons made an epoch; the fish hung in the swift stream, the birds circled overhead, the
pinetops rustled underneath the stars, the tall hills stood over all; and Will went to and fro, minding his wayside
inn, until the snow began to thicken on his head. His heart was young and vigorous; and if his pulse kept a
sober time, they still beat strong and steady in his wrists. He carried a ruddy stain on either cheek, like a ripe
apple; he stooped a little, but his step was still firm; and his sinewy hands were reached out to all men with a
friendly pressure. His face was covered with those wrinkles which are got in open air, and which, rightly looked
at, are no more than a sort of permanent sunburning; such wrinkles brighten the stupidity of stupid faces; but to
a person like Will, with his clear eyes and smiling mouth, only give another charm by testifying to a simple and easy
life. His talk was full of wise sayings. He had a taste for other people; and other people had a taste for him.
When the valley was full of tourists in the season; there were merry nights in Will's arbor; and his views,
which seemed whimsical to his neighbors, were often enough admired by learned people out of towns and colleges.
Indeed, he had a very noble old age, and grew daily beter known; so that his fame was heard of in the cities of
the plain; and young men who had who had been summer travelers spoke together in cafes of Will o' the Mill
and his rough philosophy. Many and many an invitation, you may be sure, he had; but nothing could tempt
him from his upland valley. He would shake his head and smile over his tobacco-pipe with a deal of meaning.
"You come to take," he would answer. "I am a dead man now; I have lived and died already. Fifty years ago you
would have brought my heart into my mouth; and now you do not even tempt me. But that is the object of
long living, that man should cease to care about life." And again: "There is one difference between a long life
and a good dinner: that, in the dinner, the sweets come last." Or once more; "When I was a boy, I was a bit
puzzled, and hardly knew whether it was myself or the world that was curious and worth looking into. Now, I
know it is myself, and stick to that."
He never showed any symptom of frailty, but kept stalwart and firm to the last; but they say he grew less
talkative toward the end, and would listen to other people by the hour in an amused and sympathetic silence.
Only, when he did speak, it was more to the point and more charged with old experience. He drank a bottle of
wine gladly; above all, at sunset on the hilltop or quite late at night under the stars in the arbor. The sight of
something attractive and unattainable seasoned his enjoyment, he would say; and he professed he had lived
long enough to admire a candle all the more when he could compare it with a planet.
One night, in his seventy to be repeated; and as he listened he became
conscious of another noise besides the brawling of the river and the ringing in his feverish ears. It was like the
stir of horses and the creaking of harness, as though a carriage with an impatient team had been brought up
upon the road before the courtyard gate. At such an hour, upon this rough and dangerous pass, the supposition
was no better than absurd; and Will dismissed it from his mind, and resumed his seat upon the arbor chair;
and sleep closed over him again like running water. He was once again awakened by the dead miller's call,
thinner and more spectral than before; and once again he heard the noise of an equipage upon the road. And
so thrice and four times, the same dream, or the same fancy, presented itself to his senses: until at length,
smiling to himself as when one humors a nervous child, he proceeded toward the gate to set his uncertaintly
From the arbor to the gate was no great distance, and yet it took Will some time; it seemed as if the dead
thickened around him in the court, and crossed his path at every step. For, first, he was suddenly surprised
by an overpowering sweetness of heliotropes; it was as if his garden had been planted with this flower
from end to end, and the hot, damp night had drawn forth all their perfumes in a breath. Now the heliotrope
had been Marjory's favorite flower, and since her death not one of them had ever been planted in Will's
"I must be going crazy," he thought. "Poor Marjory and her heliotropes!"
And with that he raised his eyes toward the window that had once been hers. If he had been bewildered
before, he was now almost terrified; for there was a light in the room; the window was an orange oblong as
of yore; and the corner of the blind was lifted and let fall as on the night when he stood and shouted to the
stars in his perplexity. The illusion only endured an instant; but it left him somewhat unmanned, rubbing his
eyes and staring at the outline of the house and the black night behind it. While he thus stood, and it seemed
as if he must have stood there quite a long time, there came a renewal of the noises on the road: and he
turned in time to meet a stranger, who was advancing to meet him across the court. There was something like
the outline of a great carriage discernible on the road behind the stranger, and, above that, a few black pinetops,
like so many plumes.
"Master Will?" asked the new-comer, in brief military fashion.
"That same, sir," answered Will. "Can I do anything to serve you?"
"I have heard you much spoken of, Master Will," returned the other; "much spoken of, and well. And
though I have both hands full of business, I wish to drink a bottle of wine with you in your arbor. Before I
go, I shall introduce myself."
Will led the way to the trellis, and got a lamp lighted and a bottle uncorked. he was not altogether unused to
such complimentary interviews, and hoped little enough from this one, being schooled by many disappointments.
A sort of cloud had settled on his wits and prevented him from remembering the strangeness of the hour.
He moved like a person in his sleep; and it seemed as if the lamp caught fire and the bottle came uncorked
with the facility of thought. Still, he had some curiosity about the appearance of his visitor, and tired in
vain to turn the light into his face; either he handled the lamp clumsily, or there was a dimness over his
eyes; but he could make little more than a shadow a table with him. He stared and stared at this shadow,
as he wiped out the glasses, and began to feel cold and strange about the heart. The silence weighed
upon him, for he could hear nothing now, not even the river, but the drumming of this own arteries in his ears.
"Here's to you," said the stranger, roughly.
"Here is my service, sir," replied Will, sipping his wine, which somehow tasted oddly.
"I understand you are a very positive fellow," pursued the stranger.
Will made answer with a smile of some satisfaction and a little nod.
"So am I," continued the other; "and it is the delight of my heart to tramp on people's corns. I will
have nobody positive but myself; not one. I have crossed the whims, in my time of kings and generals'
and great artists. And what would you say," he went on, "if I had come up here on purpose to cross yours?"
Will had it on his tongue to make a sharp rejoinder; but the politeness of an old innkeeper prevailed; and
he held his peace and made answer with a civil gesture of the hand.
"I have," said the stranger. "And if I did not hold you in a particular esteem, I should make no words about
the matter. It appears you pride yourself on staying where you are. You mean to stick by your inn. Now I mean
you shall come for a turn with me in my barouche; and before this bottle's empty, so you shall."
"That would be an odd thing, to be sure," replied Will, with a chuckle. "Why, sir, I have grown here like
an old oak-tree; the Devil himself could hardly root me up: and for all I perceive you are a very entertaining
old gentleman, I would wager you another bottle you lose your pains with me."
The dimness of Will's eyesight had been increasing all this while; but he was somehow conscious of a sharp
and chilling scrutiny which irritated and yet overmastered him.
"You need not think," he broke out suddenly, in an explosive, febrile manner that startled and alarmed
himself, "that I am a stay-at-home, because I fear anything under God. God knows I am tired enough of it all;
and when the time comes for a longer journey than ever you dream of, I reckon I shall find myself prepared."
The stranger emptied his glass and pushed it away from him. He looked down for a little, and then, leaning
over the table, tapped Will three times upon the forearm with a single finger. "The time has come!" he said
An ugly thrill spread from the spot he touched. The tones of his voice were dull and startling, and echoed strangely
in Will's heart.
"I beg your pardon," he said, with some discomposure. "What do you mean?"
"Look at me, and you will find your eyesight swim. Raise your hand; it is dead-heavy. This is your last
bottle of wine, Master Will, and your last night upon the earth."
"You are a doctor?" quavered Will.
"The best that ever was," replied the other; "for I cure both mind and body with the same prescription. I take
away all pain and I forgive all sins; and where my patients have gone wrong in life, I smooth out all complications
and set them free again upon their feet."
"I have no need of you," said Will.
"A time comes for all men, Master Will," replied the doctor, "when the helm is taken out of their hands. For
you, because you were prudent and quiet, it has been long of coming, and you have had long to discipline yourself
for its reception. You have seen what is to be seen about your mill; you have sat close all your days like a hare in
its form; but now that is at an end; and," added the doctor, getting on his feet, "you must arise and come with me."
"You are a strange physician," said Will, looking steadfastly upon his guest.
"I am a natural law," he replied, "and people call me Death."
"Why did you not tell me so at first?" cried Will. "I have been waiting for you these many years. Give me your
hand, and welcome."
"Lean upon my arm," said the stranger, "for already your strength abates. Lean on me as heavily as you
need; for though I am old, I am very strong. It is but three steps to my carriage, and there all your trouble ends.
Why, Will," he added, " I have been yearning for you as if you were my own son; and of all the men that ever I
cam for in my long days, I have come for you most gladly. I am caustic, and sometimes offend people at first
sight; but I am a good friend at heart to such as you."
"Since Marjory was taken," returned Will, "I declare before God you were the only friend I had to look for."
So the pair went arm-in-arm across the courtyard.
One of the servants awoke about this time and heard the noise of horses pawing before he dropped aslelep again;
all down the valley that night there was a rushing as of a smooth and steady wind descending toward the plain;
and when the world rose next morning, sure enough Will o' the Mill had gone at last upon his travels.
Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Volume Three; Peter Penelon Collier, pub.; New York (c.1900)
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