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Night In The Forest






Part of: WILD ENGLAND
From: After London

At first Felix rode quickly, but his horse stumbling, though accustomed
to the woods, warned him to be more careful. The passage of so many
horsemen in the last few days had cut up and destroyed the track, which
was nothing but a green path, and the covered waggons had of course
assisted in rendering it rough and broken. He therefore rode slowly, and
giving his horse his head, he picked his way of his own accord at the
side of the road, often brushing against the underwood.

Still, indeed, absorbed by the feelings which had almost mastered him in
the arbour, and thinking of Aurora, he forgot where he was, till the
dismal howling of wood-dogs deep in the forest woke him. It was almost
pitch dark under the tall beeches, the highest of the trees preventing
the beams of the moon from illuminating the path till later in the
night. Like a curtain the thick foliage above shut out the sky, so that
no star was visible. When the wood-dogs ceased there was no sound beyond
the light fall of the horse's hoofs as he walked upon the grass.
Darkness and silence prevailed; he could see nothing. He spoke to his
horse and patted his neck; he stepped a little faster and lifted his
head, which he had held low as if making his way by scent.

The gloom weighed upon him, unhappy as he was. Often as he had
voluntarily sought the loneliness of the woods, now in this state of
mind, it oppressed him; he remembered that beyond the beeches the ground
was open and cleared by a forest fire, and began to be anxious to reach
it. It seemed an hour, but it really was only a few minutes, when the
beeches became thinner and wider apart, the foliage above ceased, and
the stars shone. Before him was the open space he had desired, sloping
to the right hand, the tall grass grey-green in the moonlight, and near
at hand sparkling with dew.

Amongst it stood the crooked and charred stems of furze with which it
had been covered before the fire passed. A white owl floated rather than
flew by, following the edge of the forest; from far down the slope came
the chattering notes of a brook-sparrow, showing that there was water in
the hollow. Some large animal moved into the white mist that hung there
and immediately concealed it, like a cloud upon the ground. He was not
certain in the dim light, and with so momentary and distant a view, but
supposed from its size that it must have been a white or dun wood-cow.

Ahead, across the open, rose the dark top of the fir trees through which
the route ran. Instead of the relief which he had anticipated as he rode
towards them, the space clear of trees around seemed to expose him to
the full view of all that might be lurking in the forest. As he
approached the firs and saw how dark it was beneath them, the shadowy
depths suggested uncertain shapes hiding therein, and his memory
immediately reverted to the book of magic he had read at the castle.

There could not be such things, and yet no one in his heart doubted
their existence; deny it as they might with their tongues as they sat at
the supper-table and handed round the ale, out of doors in the night,
the haste to pass the haunted spot, the bated breath, and the fearful
glances cast around, told another tale. He endeavoured to call
philosophy to his aid; he remembered, too, how many nights he had spent
in the deepest forest without seeing anything, and without even thinking
of such matters. He reproved himself for his folly, and asked himself if
ever he could hope to be a successful leader of men who started at a
shadow. In vain: the tone of his mind had been weakened by the strain it
had undergone.

Instead of strengthening him, the teachings of philosophy now seemed
cold and feeble, and it occurred to him that possibly the belief of the
common people (fully shared by their religious instructors) was just as
much entitled to credence as these mere suppositions and theories. The
details of the volume recurred to his mind; the accurate description of

the demons of the forest and the hill, and especially the horrible
vampires enfolding the victim with outstretched wings. In spite of
himself, incredulous, yet excited, he pressed his horse to greater
speed, though the track was narrow and very much broken under the firs.
He obeyed, and trotted, but reluctantly, and needed continual urging.

The yellow spark of a glowworm shining by a bush made him set his teeth;
trifling and well known as it was, the light suddenly seen thrilled him
with the terror of the unexpected. Strange rushings sounded among the
fern, as if the wings of a demon brushed it as he travelled. Felix knew
that they were caused by rabbits hastening off, or a boar bounding away,
yet they increased the feverish excitement with which he was burdened.
Though dark beneath the firs, it was not like the darkness of the
beeches; these trees did not form a perfect canopy overhead everywhere.
In places he could see where a streak of moonlight came aslant through
an opening and reached the ground. One such streak fell upon the track
ahead; the trees there had decayed and fallen, and a broad band of light
lit up the way.

As he approached it and had almost entered, suddenly something shot
towards him in the air; a flash, as it were, as if some object had
crossed the streak, and was rendered visible for the tenth of a second,
like a mote in the sunbeams. At the same instant of time, the horse,
which he had pressed to go faster, put his foot into a rut or hole, and
stumbled, and Felix was flung so far forward that he only saved himself
from being thrown by clinging to his neck. A slight whizzing sound
passed over his head, followed immediately by a sharp tap against a tree
in his rear.

The thing happened in the twinkling of an eye, but he recognised the
sound; it was the whiz of a crossbow bolt, which had missed his head,
and buried its point in a fir. The stumble saved him; the bolt would
have struck his head or chest had not the horse gone nearly on his knee.
The robber had so planned his ambush that his prey should be well seen,
distinct in the moonlight, so that his aim might be sure. Recovering
himself, the horse, without needing the spur, as if he recognised the
danger to his rider, started forward at full speed, and raced,
regardless of ruts, along the track. Felix, who had hardly got into his
seat again, could for awhile but barely restrain it, so wildly he fled.
He must have been carried within a few yards of the bandit, but saw
nothing, neither did a second bolt follow him; the crossbow takes time
to bend, and if the robber had companions they were differently armed.

He was a furlong or more from the spot before he quite realized the
danger he had escaped. His bow was unstrung in his hand, his arrows were
all in the quiver; thus, had the bolt struck him, even if the wound had
not been mortal (as it most likely would have been) he could have made
no resistance. How foolish to disregard the warnings of the grooms at
the castle! It was now too late; all he could do was to ride. Dreading
every moment to be thrown, he pushed on as fast as the horse would go.
There was no pursuit, and after a mile or so, as he left the firs and
entered the ash woods, he slackened somewhat. It was, indeed, necessary,
for here the hoofs of preceding horsemen had poached the turf (always
damp under ash) into mud. It was less dark, for the boughs of the ashes
did not meet above.

As he passed, wood-pigeons rose with loud clatterings from their
roosting-places, and once or twice he saw in the gloom the fiery
phosphoric eye-balls of the grey wood-cats. How gladly he recognised
presently the change from trees to bushes, when he rode out from the
thick ashes among the low hawthorns, and knew that he was within a mile
or so of the South Barrier at home! Already he heard the song of the
nightingale, the long note which at night penetrates so far; the
nightingale, which loves the hawthorn and the neighbourhood of man.
Imperceptibly he increased the speed again; the horse, too, knew that he
was nearing home, and responded willingly.

The track was much broader and fairly good, but he knew that at one spot
where it was marshy it must be cut up. There he went at the side, almost
brushing a projecting maple bush. Something struck the horse, he fancied
the rebound of a bough; he jumped, literally jumped, like a buck, and
tore along the road. With one foot out of the stirrup, it was with the
utmost difficulty he stuck to his seat; he was not riding, but holding
on for a moment or two. Presently recovering from the jolt, he
endeavoured to check him, but the bit was of no avail; the animal was
beside himself with terror, and raced headlong till they reached the
barrier. It was, of course, closed, and the warder was asleep; so that,
until he dismounted, and kicked and shouted, no one challenged him.

Then the warder, spear in hand, appeared with his lantern, but
recognising the voice, ran to the gate. Within the gate a few yards
there were the embers of a fire, and round it a bivouac of footmen who
had been to the feast, and had returned thus far before nightfall.
Hearing the noise, some of them arose, and came round him, when one
immediately exclaimed and asked if he was wounded. Felix replied that he
was not, but looking at his foot where the man pointed, saw that it was
covered with blood. But, upon close examination, there was no cut or
incision; he was not hurt. The warder now called to them, and showed a
long deep scratch on the near flank of the horse, from which the blood
was dripping.

It was such a scratch as might have been made with an iron nail, and,
without hesitation, they all put it down to a Bushman's spud. Without
doubt, the Bushman, hearing Felix approach, had hidden in the maple
bush, and, as he passed, struck with his nail-like dagger; but,
miscalculating the speed at which the horse was going, instead of
piercing the thigh of the rider, the blow fell on the horse, and the
sharp point was dragged along the side. The horse trembled as they
touched him.

"Sir," said one of the retainers, their headman, "if you will pardon me,
you had best string your bow and send a shaft through his heart, for he
will die in misery before morning."

The Bushman's spud, the one he uses for assassination or to despatch his
prey, is poisoned. It is a lingering poison, and takes several hours to
produce its effect; but no remedy is known, and many who have escaped
from the cowardly blow have crawled to the path only to expire in
torture. There was no denying that what the retainer proposed was the
only thing that could be done. The warder had meantime brought a bucket
of water, of which the poor creature drank eagerly. Felix could not do
it; he could not slay the creature which had carried him so long, and
which twice that night had saved him, and was now to die, as it were, in
his place. He could not consent to it; he led the horse towards home,
but he was weak or weary, and could not be got beyond the Pen.

There the group assembled around him. Felix ordered the scratch to be
cleansed, while he ran over in his mind every possible remedy. He gave
strict orders that he should not be despatched, and then hastened to the
house. He undid with trembling hands the thongs that bound his chest,
and took out his manuscripts, hoping against hope that among the many
notes he had made there might be something. But there was nothing, or in
his excitement he overlooked it. Remembering that Oliver was a great
authority upon horses, he went into his room and tried to wake him.
Oliver, weary with his ride, and not as yet having slept off the effects
of the feast, could not be roused.

Felix left him and hurried back to the Pen. Weary as he was, he watched
by the horse till the larks began to sing and the dawn was at hand. As
yet he had not shown any severe symptoms except twitching of the limbs,
and a constant thirst, which water could not quench. But suddenly he
fell, and the old retainer warned them all to stand away, for he would
bite anything that was near. His words were instantly fulfilled; he
rolled, and kicked, and bit at everything within reach. Seeing this
agony, Felix could no longer delay. He strung his bow, but he could not
fit the arrow to the string, he missed the notch, so much did his hands
shake. He motioned to the retainers who had gathered around, and one of
them thrust his spear into the horse behind his shoulder.

When Felix at last returned to his chamber he could not but reflect, as
the sun rose and the beams entered, that every omen had been against
him; the adder under foot, the bandit's bolt, the Bushman's poisoned
point. He slept till noon, and, upon going out, unrefreshed and still
weary, he found that they had already buried the horse, and ordered a
mound to be raised above his grave. The day passed slowly; he wandered
about the castle and the enclosed grounds, seeking comfort and finding
none. His mind vacillated; he recalled all that Aurora had said,
persuading him not to do anything in haste or despair. Yet he could not
continue in his present condition. Another day went by, and still
undecided and doubting, he remained at home.

Oliver began to jest at him; had he abandoned the expedition? Oliver
could not understand indecision; perhaps he did not see so many sides to
the question, his mind was always quickly made up. Action was his forte,
not thought. The night came, and still Felix lingered, hesitating.





Next: Sailing Away

Previous: Aurora



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