Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Wood of the Dead

by Algernon Blackwood

One summer, in my wanderings with a knapsack, I was at luncheon in theroom of a wayside inn in the western country, when the door opened andthere entered an old rustic, who crossed close to my end of the tableand sat himself down very quietly in the seat by the bow window. Weexchanged glances, or, properly speaking, nods, for at the moment I didnot actually raise my eyes to his face, so concerned was I with theimportant business of satisfying an appetite gained by tramping twelvemiles over a difficult country.
The fine warm rain of seven o'clock, which had since risen in a kind ofluminous mist about the tree tops, now floated far overhead in a deepblue sky, and the day was settling down into a blaze of golden light. Itwas one of those days peculiar to Somerset and North Devon, when theorchards shine and the meadows seem to add a radiance of their own, sobrilliantly soft are the colourings of grass and foliage.
The inn-keeper's daughter, a little maiden with a simple countryloveliness, presently entered with a foaming pewter mug, enquired aftermy welfare, and went out again. Apparently she had not noticed the oldman sitting in the settle by the bow window, nor had he, for his part,so much as once turned his head in our direction.
Under ordinary circumstances I should probably have given no thought tothis other occupant of the room; but the fact that it was supposed to bereserved for my private use, and the singular thing that he sat lookingaimlessly out of the window, with no attempt to engage me inconversation, drew my eyes more than once somewhat curiously upon him,and I soon caught myself wondering why he sat there so silently, andalways with averted head.
He was, I saw, a rather bent old man in rustic dress, and the skin ofhis face was wrinkled like that of an apple; corduroy trousers werecaught up with a string below the knee, and he wore a sort of brownfustian jacket that was very much faded. His thin hand rested upon astoutish stick. He wore no hat and carried none, and I noticed that hishead, covered with silvery hair, was finely shaped and gave theimpression of something noble.
Though rather piqued by his studied disregard of my presence, I came tothe conclusion that he probably had something to do with the littlehostel and had a perfect right to use this room with freedom, and Ifinished my luncheon without breaking the silence and then took thesettle opposite to smoke a pipe before going on my way.
Through the open window came the scents of the blossoming fruit trees;the orchard was drenched in sunshine and the branches danced lazily inthe breeze; the grass below fairly shone with white and yellow daisies,and the red roses climbing in profusion over the casement mingled theirperfume with the sweetly penetrating odour of the sea.
It was a place to dawdle in, to lie and dream away a whole afternoon,watching the sleepy butterflies and listening to the chorus of birdswhich seemed to fill every corner of the sky. Indeed, I was alreadydebating in my mind whether to linger and enjoy it all instead of takingthe strenuous pathway over the hills, when the old rustic in the settleopposite suddenly turned his face towards me for the first time andbegan to speak.
His voice had a quiet dreamy note in it that was quite in harmony withthe day and the scene, but it sounded far away, I thought, almost asthough it came to me from outside where the shadows were weaving theireternal tissue of dreams upon the garden floor. Moreover, there was notrace in it of the rough quality one might naturally have expected, and,now that I saw the full face of the speaker for the first time, I notedwith something like a start that the deep, gentle eyes seemed far morein keeping with the timbre of the voice than with the rough and verycountrified appearance of the clothes and manner. His voice set pleasantwaves of sound in motion towards me, and the actual words, if I rememberrightly, were--
"You are a stranger in these parts?" or "Is not this part of the countrystrange to you?"
There was no "sir," nor any outward and visible sign of the deferenceusually paid by real country folk to the town-bred visitor, but in itsplace a gentleness, almost a sweetness, of polite sympathy that was farmore of a compliment than either.
I answered that I was wandering on foot through a part of the countrythat was wholly new to me, and that I was surprised not to find a placeof such idyllic loveliness marked upon my map.
"I have lived here all my life," he said, with a sigh, "and am nevertired of coming back to it again."
"Then you no longer live in the immediate neighbourhood?"
"I have moved," he answered briefly, adding after a pause in which hiseyes seemed to wander wistfully to the wealth of blossoms beyond thewindow; "but I am almost sorry, for nowhere else have I found thesunshine lie so warmly, the flowers smell so sweetly, or the winds andstreams make such tender music. . . ."
His voice died away into a thin stream of sound that lost itself in therustle of the rose-leaves climbing in at the window, for he turned hishead away from me as he spoke and looked out into the garden. But it wasimpossible to conceal my surprise, and I raised my eyes in frankastonishment on hearing so poetic an utterance from such a figure of aman, though at the same time realising that it was not in the leastinappropriate, and that, in fact, no other sort of expression could haveproperly been expected from him.
"I am sure you are right," I answered at length, when it was clear hehad ceased speaking; "or there is something of enchantment here--of realfairy-like enchantment--that makes me think of the visions of childhooddays, before one knew anything of--of--"
I had been oddly drawn into his vein of speech, some inner forcecompelling me. But here the spell passed and I could not catch thethoughts that had a moment before opened a long vista before my innervision.
"To tell you the truth," I concluded lamely, "the place fascinates meand I am in two minds about going further--"
Even at this stage I remember thinking it odd that I should be talkinglike this with a stranger whom I met in a country inn, for it has alwaysbeen one of my failings that to strangers my manner is brief tosurliness. It was as though we were figures meeting in a dream, speakingwithout sound, obeying laws not operative in the everyday working world,and about to play with a new scale of space and time perhaps. But myastonishment passed quickly into an entirely different feeling when Ibecame aware that the old man opposite had turned his head from thewindow again, and was regarding me with eyes so bright they seemedalmost to shine with an inner flame. His gaze was fixed upon my facewith an intense ardour, and his whole manner had suddenly become alertand concentrated. There was something about him I now felt for the firsttime that made little thrills of excitement run up and down my back. Imet his look squarely, but with an inward tremor.
"Stay, then, a little while longer," he said in a much lower and deepervoice than before; "stay, and I will teach you something of the purposeof my coming."
He stopped abruptly. I was conscious of a decided shiver.
"You have a special purpose then--in coming back?" I asked, hardlyknowing what I was saying.
"To call away someone," he went on in the same thrilling voice, "someonewho is not quite ready to come, but who is needed elsewhere for aworthier purpose." There was a sadness in his manner that mystified memore than ever.
"You mean--?" I began, with an unaccountable access of trembling.
"I have come for someone who must soon move, even as I have moved."
He looked me through and through with a dreadfully piercing gaze, but Imet his eyes with a full straight stare, trembling though I was, and Iwas aware that something stirred within me that had never stirredbefore, though for the life of me I could not have put a name to it, orhave analysed its nature. Something lifted and rolled away. For onesingle second I understood clearly that the past and the future existactually side by side in one immense Present; that it was _I_ who movedto and fro among shifting, protean appearances.
The old man dropped his eyes from my face, and the momentary glimpse ofa mightier universe passed utterly away. Reason regained its sway over adull, limited kingdom.
"Come to-night," I heard the old man say, "come to me to-night into theWood of the Dead. Come at midnight--"
Involuntarily I clutched the arm of the settle for support, for I thenfelt that I was speaking with someone who knew more of the real thingsthat are and will be, than I could ever know while in the body, workingthrough the ordinary channels of sense--and this curious half-promise ofa partial lifting of the veil had its undeniable effect upon me.
The breeze from the sea had died away outside, and the blossoms werestill. A yellow butterfly floated lazily past the window. The song ofthe birds hushed--I smelt the sea--I smelt the perfume of heated summerair rising from fields and flowers, the ineffable scents of June and ofthe long days of the year--and with it, from countless green meadowsbeyond, came the hum of myriad summer life, children's voices, sweetpipings, and the sound of water falling.
I knew myself to be on the threshold of a new order of experience--of anecstasy. Something drew me forth with a sense of inexpressible yearningtowards the being of this strange old man in the window seat, and for amoment I knew what it was to taste a mighty and wonderful sensation, andto touch the highest pinnacle of joy I have ever known. It lasted forless than a second, and was gone; but in that brief instant of time thesame terrible lucidity came to me that had already shown me how the pastand future exist in the present, and I realised and understood thatpleasure and pain are one and the same force, for the joy I had justexperienced included also all the pain I ever had felt, or ever couldfeel. . . .
The sunshine grew to dazzling radiance, faded, passed away. The shadowspaused in their dance upon the grass, deepened a moment, and then meltedinto air. The flowers of the fruit trees laughed with their littlesilvery laughter as the wind sighed over their radiant eyes the old,old tale of its personal love. Once or twice a voice called my name. Awonderful sensation of lightness and power began to steal over me.
Suddenly the door opened and the inn-keeper's daughter came in. By allordinary standards, her's was a charming country loveliness, born of thestars and wild-flowers, of moonlight shining through autumn mists uponthe river and the fields; yet, by contrast with the higher order ofbeauty I had just momentarily been in touch with, she seemed almostugly. How dull her eyes, how thin her voice, how vapid her smile, andinsipid her whole presentment.
For a moment she stood between me and the occupant of the window seatwhile I counted out the small change for my meal and for her services;but when, an instant later, she moved aside, I saw that the settle wasempty and that there was no longer anyone in the room but our twoselves.
This discovery was no shock to me; indeed, I had almost expected it, andthe man had gone just as a figure goes out of a dream, causing nosurprise and leaving me as part and parcel of the same dream withoutbreaking of continuity. But, as soon as I had paid my bill and thusresumed in very practical fashion the thread of my normal consciousness,I turned to the girl and asked her if she knew the old man who had beensitting in the window seat, and what he had meant by the Wood of theDead.
The maiden started visibly, glancing quickly round the empty room, butanswering simply that she had seen no one. I described him in greatdetail, and then, as the description grew clearer, she turned a littlepale under her pretty sunborn and said very gravely that it must havebeen the ghost.
"Ghost! What ghost?"
"Oh, the village ghost," she said quietly, coming closer to my chairwith a little nervous movement of genuine alarm, and adding in a lowervoice, "He comes before a death, they say!"
It was not difficult to induce the girl to talk, and the story she toldme, shorn of the superstition that had obviously gathered with the yearsround the memory of a strangely picturesque figure, was an interestingand peculiar one.
The inn, she said, was originally a farmhouse, occupied by a yeomanfarmer, evidently of a superior, if rather eccentric, character, who hadbeen very poor until he reached old age, when a son died suddenly inthe Colonies and left him an unexpected amount of money, almost afortune.
The old man thereupon altered no whit his simple manner of living, butdevoted his income entirely to the improvement of the village and to theassistance of its inhabitants; he did this quite regardless of hispersonal likes and dislikes, as if one and all were absolutely alike tohim, objects of a genuine and impersonal benevolence. People had alwaysbeen a little afraid of the man, not understanding his eccentricities,but the simple force of this love for humanity changed all that in avery short space of time; and before he died he came to be known as theFather of the Village and was held in great love and veneration by all.
A short time before his end, however, he began to act queerly. He spenthis money just as usefully and wisely, but the shock of sudden wealthafter a life of poverty, people said, had unsettled his mind. He claimedto see things that others did not see, to hear voices, and to havevisions. Evidently, he was not of the harmless, foolish, visionaryorder, but a man of character and of great personal force, for thepeople became divided in their opinions, and the vicar, good man,regarded and treated him as a "special case." For many, his name andatmosphere became charged almost with a spiritual influence that wasnot of the best. People quoted texts about him; kept when possible outof his way, and avoided his house after dark. None understood him, butthough the majority loved him, an element of dread and mystery becameassociated with his name, chiefly owing to the ignorant gossip of thefew.
A grove of pine trees behind the farm--the girl pointed them out to meon the slope of the hill--he said was the Wood of the Dead, because justbefore anyone died in the village he saw them walk into that wood,singing. None who went in ever came out again. He often mentioned thenames to his wife, who usually published them to all the inhabitantswithin an hour of her husband's confidence; and it was found that thepeople he had seen enter the wood--died. On warm summer nights he wouldsometimes take an old stick and wander out, hatless, under the pines,for he loved this wood, and used to say he met all his old friendsthere, and would one day walk in there never to return. His wife triedto break him gently off this habit, but he always had his own way; andonce, when she followed and found him standing under a great pine in thethickest portion of the grove, talking earnestly to someone she couldnot see, he turned and rebuked her very gently, but in such a way thatshe never repeated the experiment, saying--
"You should never interrupt me, Mary, when I am talking with the others;for they teach me, remember, wonderful things, and I must learn all Ican before I go to join them."
This story went like wild-fire through the village, increasing withevery repetition, until at length everyone was able to give an accuratedescription of the great veiled figures the woman declared she had seenmoving among the trees where her husband stood. The innocent pine-grovenow became positively haunted, and the title of "Wood of the Dead" clungnaturally as if it had been applied to it in the ordinary course ofevents by the compilers of the Ordnance Survey.
On the evening of his ninetieth birthday the old man went up to his wifeand kissed her. His manner was loving, and very gentle, and there wassomething about him besides, she declared afterwards, that made herslightly in awe of him and feel that he was almost more of a spirit thana man.
He kissed her tenderly on both cheeks, but his eyes seemed to lookright through her as he spoke.
"Dearest wife," he said, "I am saying good-bye to you, for I am nowgoing into the Wood of the Dead, and I shall not return. Do not followme, or send to search, but be ready soon to come upon the same journeyyourself."
The good woman burst into tears and tried to hold him, but he easilyslipped from her hands, and she was afraid to follow him. Slowly she sawhim cross the field in the sunshine, and then enter the cool shadows ofthe grove, where he disappeared from her sight.
That same night, much later, she woke to find him lying peacefully byher side in bed, with one arm stretched out towards her, _dead_. Herstory was half believed, half doubted at the time, but in a very fewyears afterwards it evidently came to be accepted by all thecountryside. A funeral service was held to which the people flocked ingreat numbers, and everyone approved of the sentiment which led thewidow to add the words, "The Father of the Village," after the usualtexts which appeared upon the stone over his grave.
This, then, was the story I pieced together of the village ghost as thelittle inn-keeper's daughter told it to me that afternoon in theparlour of the inn.
"But you're not the first to say you've seen him," the girl concluded;"and your description is just what we've always heard, and that window,they say, was just where he used to sit and think, and think, when hewas alive, and sometimes, they say, to cry for hours together."
"And would you feel afraid if you had seen him?" I asked, for the girlseemed strangely moved and interested in the whole story.
"I think so," she answered timidly. "Surely, if he spoke to me. He didspeak to _you_, didn't he, sir?" she asked after a slight pause.
"He said he had come for someone."
"Come for someone," she repeated. "Did he say--" she went onfalteringly.
"No, he did not say for whom," I said quickly, noticing the suddenshadow on her face and the tremulous voice.
"Are you really sure, sir?"
"Oh, quite sure," I answered cheerfully. "I did not even ask him." Thegirl looked at me steadily for nearly a whole minute as though therewere many things she wished to tell me or to ask. But she said nothing,and presently picked up her tray from the table and walked slowly outof the room.
Instead of keeping to my original purpose and pushing on to the nextvillage over the hills, I ordered a room to be prepared for me at theinn, and that afternoon I spent wandering about the fields and lyingunder the fruit trees, watching the white clouds sailing out over thesea. The Wood of the Dead I surveyed from a distance, but in the villageI visited the stone erected to the memory of the "Father of theVillage"--who was thus, evidently, no mythical personage--and saw alsothe monuments of his fine unselfish spirit: the schoolhouse he built,the library, the home for the aged poor, and the tiny hospital.
That night, as the clock in the church tower was striking half-pasteleven, I stealthily left the inn and crept through the dark orchard andover the hayfield in the direction of the hill whose southern slope wasclothed with the Wood of the Dead. A genuine interest impelled me to theadventure, but I also was obliged to confess to a certain sinking in myheart as I stumbled along over the field in the darkness, for I wasapproaching what might prove to be the birth-place of a real countrymyth, and a spot already lifted by the imaginative thoughts of aconsiderable number of people into the region of the haunted andill-omened.
The inn lay below me, and all round it the village clustered in a softblack shadow unrelieved by a single light. The night was moonless, yetdistinctly luminous, for the stars crowded the sky. The silence of deepslumber was everywhere; so still, indeed, that every time my foot kickedagainst a stone I thought the sound must be heard below in the villageand waken the sleepers.
I climbed the hill slowly, thinking chiefly of the strange story of thenoble old man who had seized the opportunity to do good to his fellowsthe moment it came his way, and wondering why the causes that operateceaselessly behind human life did not always select such admirableinstruments. Once or twice a night-bird circled swiftly over my head,but the bats had long since gone to rest, and there was no other sign oflife stirring.
Then, suddenly, with a singular thrill of emotion, I saw the first treesof the Wood of the Dead rise in front of me in a high black wall. Theircrests stood up like giant spears against the starry sky; and thoughthere was no perceptible movement of the air on my cheek I heard afaint, rushing sound among their branches as the night breeze passed toand fro over their countless little needles. A remote, hushed murmurrose overhead and died away again almost immediately; for in these treesthe wind seems to be never absolutely at rest, and on the calmest daythere is always a sort of whispering music among their branches.
For a moment I hesitated on the edge of this dark wood, and listenedintently. Delicate perfumes of earth and bark stole out to meet me.Impenetrable darkness faced me. Only the consciousness that I wasobeying an order, strangely given, and including a mighty privilege,enabled me to find the courage to go forward and step in boldly underthe trees.
Instantly the shadows closed in upon me and "something" came forward tomeet me from the centre of the darkness. It would be easy enough to meetmy imagination half-way with fact, and say that a cold hand grasped myown and led me by invisible paths into the unknown depths of the grove;but at any rate, without stumbling, and always with the positiveknowledge that I was going straight towards the desired object, Ipressed on confidently and securely into the wood. So dark was it that,at first, not a single star-beam pierced the roof of branches overhead;and, as we moved forward side by side, the trees shifted silently pastus in long lines, row upon row, squadron upon squadron, like the unitsof a vast, soundless army.
And, at length, we came to a comparatively open space where the treeshalted upon us for a while, and, looking up, I saw the white river ofthe sky beginning to yield to the influence of a new light that nowseemed spreading swiftly across the heavens.
"It is the dawn coming," said the voice at my side that I certainlyrecognised, but which seemed almost like a whispering from the trees,"and we are now in the heart of the Wood of the Dead."
We seated ourselves on a moss-covered boulder and waited the coming ofthe sun. With marvellous swiftness, it seemed to me, the light in theeast passed into the radiance of early morning, and when the wind awokeand began to whisper in the tree tops, the first rays of the risen sunfell between the trunks and rested in a circle of gold at our feet.
"Now, come with me," whispered my companion in the same deep voice, "fortime has no existence here, and that which I would show you is already_there_!"
We trod gently and silently over the soft pine needles. Already the sunwas high over our heads, and the shadows of the trees coiled closelyabout their feet. The wood became denser again, but occasionally wepassed through little open bits where we could smell the hot sunshineand the dry, baked pine needles. Then, presently, we came to the edge ofthe grove, and I saw a hayfield lying in the blaze of day, and twohorses basking lazily with switching tails in the shafts of a ladenhay-waggon.
So complete and vivid was the sense of reality, that I remember thegrateful realisation of the cool shade where we sat and looked out uponthe hot world beyond.
The last pitchfork had tossed up its fragrant burden, and the greathorses were already straining in the shafts after the driver, as hewalked slowly in front with one hand upon their bridles. He was astalwart fellow, with sunburned neck and hands. Then, for the firsttime, I noticed, perched aloft upon the trembling throne of hay, thefigure of a slim young girl. I could not see her face, but her brownhair escaped in disorder from a white sun-bonnet, and her still brownerhands held a well-worn hay rake. She was laughing and talking with thedriver, and he, from time to time, cast up at her ardent glances ofadmiration--glances that won instant smiles and soft blushes inresponse.
The cart presently turned into the roadway that skirted the edge of thewood where we were sitting. I watched the scene with intense interestand became so much absorbed in it that I quite forgot the manifold,strange steps by which I was permitted to become a spectator.
"Come down and walk with me," cried the young fellow, stopping a momentin front of the horses and opening wide his arms. "Jump! and I'll catchyou!"
"Oh, oh," she laughed, and her voice sounded to me as the happiest,merriest laughter I had ever heard from a girl's throat. "Oh, oh! that'sall very well. But remember I'm Queen of the Hay, and I must ride!"
"Then I must come and ride beside you," he cried, and began at once toclimb up by way of the driver's seat. But, with a peal of silverylaughter, she slipped down easily over the back of the hay to escapehim, and ran a little way along the road. I could see her quite clearly,and noticed the charming, natural grace of her movements, and theloving expression in her eyes as she looked over her shoulder to makesure he was following. Evidently, she did not wish to escape for long,certainly not for ever.
In two strides the big, brown swain was after her, leaving the horses todo as they pleased. Another second and his arms would have caught theslender waist and pressed the little body to his heart. But, just atthat instant, the old man beside me uttered a peculiar cry. It was lowand thrilling, and it went through me like a sharp sword.
HE had called her by her own name--and she had heard.
For a second she halted, glancing back with frightened eyes. Then, witha brief cry of despair, the girl swerved aside and dived in swiftlyamong the shadows of the trees.
But the young man saw the sudden movement and cried out to herpassionately--
"Not that way, my love! Not that way! It's the Wood of the Dead!"
She threw a laughing glance over her shoulder at him, and the windcaught her hair and drew it out in a brown cloud under the sun. But thenext minute she was close beside me, lying on the breast of mycompanion, and I was certain I heard the words repeatedly uttered withmany sighs: "Father, you called, and I have come. And I come willingly,for I am very, very tired."
At any rate, so the words sounded to me, and mingled with them I seemedto catch the answer in that deep, thrilling whisper I already knew: "Andyou shall sleep, my child, sleep for a long, long time, until it is timefor you to begin the journey again."
In that brief second of time I had recognised the face and voice of theinn-keeper's daughter, but the next minute a dreadful wail broke fromthe lips of the young man, and the sky grew suddenly as dark as night,the wind rose and began to toss the branches about us, and the wholescene was swallowed up in a wave of utter blackness.
Again the chill fingers seemed to seize my hand, and I was guided by theway I had come to the edge of the wood, and crossing the hayfield stillslumbering in the starlight, I crept back to the inn and went to bed.
A year later I happened to be in the same part of the country, and thememory of the strange summer vision returned to me with the addedsoftness of distance. I went to the old village and had tea under thesame orchard trees at the same inn.
But the little maid of the inn did not show her face, and I tookoccasion to enquire of her father as to her welfare and her whereabouts.
"Married, no doubt," I laughed, but with a strange feeling that clutchedat my heart.
"No, sir," replied the inn-keeper sadly, "not married--though she wasjust going to be--but dead. She got a sunstroke in the hayfields, just afew days after you were here, if I remember rightly, and she was gonefrom us in less than a week."

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