In the Woods

Introduction

Beyond the vital statistics, little is known of Amyas Northcote (1864-1923), a British aristocrat and writer who died a year and half after the publication of his only book, In Ghostly Company (1922). Eclipsed by obscurity, Northcote, when he is rarely discussed, is noted as being influenced by M. R. James. While it is true that the work of James casts a large shadow over subsequent ghost stories, this acknowledgment often serves to inadvertently downplay the value of later writers. In the pages of his single volume, Northcote honors the traditions of the genre, while writing in a distinctive voice.

Essentially, with the following tale, Northcote does everything right, while not pursuing the Jamesian formula. Though brief, the story of a lonely, introspective girl unfolds slowly as the world subtly changes about her. The oncoming “Terror” is real, but never visualized, allowing the reader to participate imaginatively. Most importantly, Northcote lushly paints the landscape in two styles. While dreamily appreciating the beauty of nature, the story does not echo Blackwood’s “pagan fantasia,” but rather, forms a short Machenalian meditation on evil, reminiscent of The White People. The opening and closing paragraphs cleverly create a punctuated framing device, which along with the aforementioned techniques, hint towards possible brilliance, but alas, the writer’s career, having once begun late in life, was sadly cut short.


In the Woods
by
Amyas Northcote

The old woman raised herself from stooping among her vegetables, and looked upwards towards the wood topping the hill above her. Her glance was arrested by a pair of moving figures. Shading her eyes with her hand against the westering sun, the old woman gazed more attentively at them, and distinguished, outlined against the blackness of the fir-trees, the figures of a young girl and a large dog. Slowly they mounted the grassy slope, and as they drew near the wood its shadow seemed to her to stretch itself forward to meet them. They passed on, and vanished in its recesses. The old woman bent again to her task.

The girl was tired, tired and unhappy.

She was tired with that tiredness that at seventeen seems hopeless and unending. It is a tiredness of the mind, an ill far worse than any physical fatigue. She was unhappy with an unhappiness that, being in a sense causeless, is all the more unbearable. She felt herself to be neglected, to be misunderstood. Not, be it remarked, that she was neglected in the sense in which we apply it to those in poverty and distress. On the contrary, she was doubtless, and she herself knew it, an object of envy to many. She lacked for no bodily comfort, she owned to no neglect of the mind. Governesses had implanted that which we call knowledge in her, affectionate parents had lavished their love and care upon her. She had been watched, guided, advised, taught with all possible care. She knew all this; and she knew that if she expressed a reasonable wish for any concrete thing she would promptly possess it. But yet she felt herself neglected. A lonely child, without brother or sister, and lacking the power or the will to find close friends among the other girls of her neighbourhood, she had been compelled to rely on her parents and their friends. In childhood she had been happy, but now, with the passing of the years, she felt, dimly and indistinctly perhaps, that she was isolated and alone.

She moved onwards into the recesses of the wood, the great St. Bernard beside her, treading with familiar steps the well-known track, letting her eyes rest on the stately beauty of the trees and her tired thoughts draw repose from their profound calm. Her way led gradually upwards over the crest of a ridge covered with the dark grandeur of Scotch firs. In a few moments after entering the wood the trees, closing their ranks behind her, blotted out every glimpse of the valley whence she had come. In front and on each side of her they rose, towering, straight and tall, with clean stems, upwards to where their dark-green foliage branched out and almost hid the sky. Here and there rare gaps appeared, and in these open spaces the bracken leapt up to gaze upon the sun, and waved its green fronds in the gentle breeze. Her footsteps fell noiseless on the smooth dry pine-needles as she hurried on, drinking in the first feelings of rest, the rest and peace of the great woods.

Presently the trees began to thin in front of her, the gaps among them became more frequent and larger, and soon, passing out of the fir-wood, she gazed down on to a happy valley between two ridges. Beyond the valley the fir-trees recommenced, black and formidable-looking against the slowly setting sun, except away to her left, where the declining ridge opposite sank gently into more open country, and she could descry beyond the trees a fair prospect of unwooded fields. In front of her, as she emerged from among the pines, was a pool of still water, fed by a little brook, which meandered down a green and wooded valley, a valley of osiers and willow and hazel, carpeted at this season with buttercups and ragged-robin, and fringed by tall fox-gloves, by flowering elder and mountain ash. Among these lesser plants an occasional oak towered up, gnarled and misshapen, resembling, beside the stately firs, some uncouth giant of a bygone age.

The wood was very still, the afternoon hush lay upon it, there were no sounds save a gentle whispering of the wind among the fir-tops and the occasional harsh cry of a jay, startled by the rare sight of a human form, or the metallic note of a moor-hen swimming across the pool with its queer clock-work-like motion. With these sounds mingled the gentle tinkle of water escaping from the pool over a hoary flood-gate, and trickling away towards the cultivated lands below. All else was silent and moveless, and the girl, seating herself on the stump of a long-vanished tree, relapsed into absolute quiet, the dog lying equally still beside her.

The peacefulness of the scene calmed the vexed thoughts that had perplexed her; gradually the last gift of Pandora reasserted itself. She began to feel more confident in herself and in her future. True, the way was weary and long, lack of sympathy, lack of interest prevented her, but she felt that within herself lay the seeds of great deeds; the world would yet hear of her, success would yet be at her feet. Formless were the dreams, uncertain even in which direction they would be realized, but chief among them was her dream of music, her beloved music. The paths to many an ambition are closed to women, this she bitterly realized, but at any rate music lies open to them. The visions became more clearly defined, the tinkling water, the rustling pines resolved themselves into stirring rhythms and interlacing harmonies. In her excitement she moved slightly; the great dog, opening his eyes, glanced up, and licked the hand of his companion. This recalled her to herself; she looked up with a start, first at the evening sky and then at her watch, and with a little exclamation at the lateness of the hour hastened to retrace her footsteps through the trees. Presently she emerged again on the open hill-side, and hurried downwards; the trees, bending to the rising wind, seemed to reach out long arms after her.

The woods enthralled her.

Her days were spent more and more dreaming in their recesses. She was much alone. Her father, a busy man, breakfasted, and was gone till evening, before she came down of a morning, an early tradition of delicate health having made her a late riser. In the evening, on his return, he was usually tired, kind but tired. Her mother, long an invalid, was away from home on an interminable cure, and in her absence even the rare visits of dull, country neighbours ceased. And so she lived, surrounded by comforts, a forgotten girl!

She grew more and more abstracted and dreamy: she neglected her duties, even her personal appearance suffered. The servants, who had long regarded her as eccentric, began to grow anxious, even a little alarmed. She became irregular in all her habits; she would stray away into the woods for hours, careless of time. In her rambles she became familiar with every corner of the woods; she was a familiar figure to the watchful gamekeeper and to the old woodman at his work. With these she was on a friendly footing. Once convinced that the great St. Bernard harboured no evil intentions as regards his pheasants, the keeper was civil enough and, after a word or two of salutation, used to stand and watch the lithe, lonely, brown-clad figure slipping away from him among the brown tree trunks with a queer mixture of sympathy and bewilderment. But with the old woodman the young girl made closer friends. She loved to watch him at his solitary toil, and to note in his lined face the look of one who has lived his life in solitude among the beauties of the woods, and who has become cognizant of their glories and of part of their mysteries. She would speak to the old man but little, she spoke to few and rarely in those days, but her watch of him was sympathetic, and she seemed to be trying to draw from him something of that woodland mystery in which he was steeped.

And alone in the woods she grew ever closer to them; the trees began to be for her more than mere living trees: they began to become personalities. At first only certain of them were endowed with personality, but gradually she became aware that each tree was a living and a sentient being. She loved them all, even the distorted oak-trees were her friends. Lying prone in her favourite corner overhanging the pool, the forest become more and more alive, and the firs waving and rustling in the wind were souls lifting up their voices to God. She imagined them each with a living, separate soul, and mourned for a fallen giant as if it were a friend. Ever more and more rapt she became, more and more silent and unresponsive to her fellow-men. At times her father would gaze earnestly at the silent girl, clad in her simple white frock, seated opposite him, but he could discern nothing to disturb him. Her mother wrote, and the girl answered; letters of affection, but covering up within herself all the deep mysteries and yearnings of her heart.

The woods enthralled her.

In them, as she paced to and fro or rested on the stem of some fallen tree, listening to the rustling of the branches around, she became conscious that they were ringing with melody. She felt that here, and here alone among the trees, she could produce that divine music which her soul held expressionless within her. Vainly she would strive in her music room to reach even the lowest terrace of that musical palace whose grandest halls were freely opened to her among the solitudes of the woods.

Little by little did she become absorbed into them; she dared not as yet visit them at night, on account of the certain annoyance of her father, but by day she almost lived in them, and her belief in the souls of the trees grew stronger and ever stronger. She would sit for hours motionless, hoping, believing, that at any moment the revelation might come to her, and that she would see the Dryads dancing, and hear the pipes of Pan. But there was nothing. “Another day of disappointment,” she would cry.

The summer passed on, one of those rare summers which only too seldom visit our English land, but which, when they do appear, by their wonderful beauty and delight, serve to make us thankful to be alive if only to enjoy the joys of Nature.

On one of these glorious days the girl had wandered out, as usual, into the woods. It was afternoon, the sky was cloudless, the wind was almost still, but at times a gentle breath from the west made a soft rustling amongst the pine branches far overhead. As the girl moved on she gazed around her on the well-known trees. All was as usual; Nature spread her beauties before her, glorious, mysterious, veiled from the ken of the human soul. The girl stopped. “Is there nothing,” she cried, “nothing behind this? Is Nature all a painted show? Oh, I have so longed for Nature, to find the peace, and pierce the mystery of the woods, and nothing comes in answer to my soul’s call!” She moved on again, passionate, eager, yearning, with all the yearning of youth and growth for the new, the wonderful. Presently she reached her seat above the pool, and sitting down buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders heaved, her feet beat the ground in hasty emotion, her soul cried out in longing.

Suddenly she ceased to move, for a moment longer she sat in her old attitude, then, lifting her face, she gazed around her. Something had happened! Something, in those few moments! To her outward eye all was unchanged, the pool still lay silent in the sunlight, the breeze still murmured in the tree-tops, the golden-rod still nodded in the sun at the verge of the pool, and the heather still blazed on the lower slopes of the ridge opposite her. But there had come a change!—an unseen change!—and in a flash the girl understood. The woods were aware of her, the trees knew of her presence and were watching her, the very flowers and shrubs were cognizant of her! A feeling of pride, of joy, of a little fear, possessed her; she stretched out her arms, “Oh, my beloved playmates,” she cried, “you have come at last!”

She listened, and the gentle breeze among the pine-trees seemed to change, and she could hear its voices, nay, the very sentences of those voices, calling to each other in a language still strange to her ears, but which she felt she knew she would soon understand. She knew she was being watched, discussed, appraised, and a faint sense of disappointment stole over her. Where was the love and the beauty of Nature; these woods, were they friendly or hostile, surely such beauty could mean nothing but love? She began to grow fearful, what was going to happen next? She knew something great was coming, something awe-inspiring, something, perchance, terrible! Already she began to feel invisible, inaudible beings closing, in upon her, already she began to know that slowly her strength, her will, were being drawn out of her. And for what end? Terror began to possess itself of her, when suddenly on the farther side of the pool she saw the old woodman, slowly plodding on his homeward way. The sight of the familiar figure, clad in his rough fustian clothes, bending under a new-cut faggot to which was tied the bright red handkerchief containing the old man’s dinner-pail, a splash of bright colour outlined against the green verdure by the pool, was as a dash of cold water over a fainting man. She braced herself up, and watched the distant figure—as she did so, as silently, as suddenly as the mysterious door had opened, it closed again. The woods slept again, ignorant of and indifferent to the young girl.

But, that night, long after the household slept, the girl was at her window, gazing out across the valley to where the fir woods crowned the opposite hill. Long she watched them as they towered, irregular and mysterious, overhanging the grey moonlit fields and sleeping village below them. They seemed to her now to be a strong, thick wall defending the quiet valley below, and guarding it from ill, and now to be the advance guard of an enemy overhanging her peaceful village home and waiting but the word to swoop down and overwhelm it.

The woods enthralled her.

She felt herself on the point of penetrating their mystery, a glimpse had been given her, and now she hesitated and doubted, torn between many emotions. The fascination of fear possessed her, she dreaded and yet she loved the woods. For a day or two after her adventure she shunned them, but they lured her to them, and again and again she went, seeking, hoping for, dreading, what she knew must come. But her search was vain, silently and blindly the woods received her, though again and again she felt that after she had passed she was noted, she was discussed, and that her coming was watched for. The fascination and the fear grew; her food, her few duties, were all neglected, she felt, she knew, that her eyes would soon be opened.

The summer was over. September was upon the world of the woods: the bracken was turning into a thousand shades of yellows and browns, the heather was fading, the leaves of the early trees were browning, the bulrushes hung their dying heads, the flowers were nearly over; the golden-rod alone seemed to defy the changing year. The young rabbits, the fledgling birds, the young life, had all disappeared. At times one saw a lordly cock pheasant, or his more modest wife, strut across the woodland rides. Once in a while, with a loud clapping of wings, wild duck would rise from the pool; among the hazel bushes the squirrels were busy garnering their winter store, and from the distant fields the young girl, as she sat in her well-loved corner of the woods, could hear the far-off lowing of cattle. The afternoon was heavy and oppressive; a dull sensation of coming change hung over the woods, dreaming their last dreams of summer. The firs stood dark and motionless, with a faint aspect of menace in their clustering ranks; no birds were moving among them, no rabbit slipped from one patch of yellowing bracken to another. All was still as the young girl sat musing by her well-loved pool.

Suddenly she started up, listening. Far off, up the green valley, beyond where a cluster of osiers hid the bend, she seemed to hear a sound of piping. Very faint and far off it seemed; very sweet and enthralling; sweet, with a tang of bitter in the sweet, enthralling, with a touch of threatening. As she stood listening eagerly, and with the air of one who hears what he has hoped and longed and dreaded to hear, that same well-remembered sudden, subtle change passed over the woods. Once more she became aware that the trees were alive, were watching her, and this time she felt that they were closer, their presences were more akin to her than before. And it seemed to her as if everywhere, figures, light, slender, brownclad figures, were passing to and fro, coming from, fading into, the brown trunks of the trees. She could not discern these figures clearly; as she turned to watch they faded out, but sidelong they seemed to flock and whirl in a giddy dance. Ever the sound of the piping drew nearer, bringing with it strange thoughts, overpowering sensations, sensations of growth, of life, thoughts of the earth, vague desires, unholy thoughts, sweet but deadly. As the sounds of the piping drew nearer, the vague, elusive figures danced more nimbly, they seemed to rush towards the girl, to surround her from behind, from each side, never in front, never showing clearly, always shifting, always fading. The girl felt herself changing. Wild impulses to leap into the air, to cry aloud, to sing a new strange song, to join in the wild woodland dance, possessed her. Joy filled her heart, and yet, mingling with the joy, came fear; fear, at first low-lying, hidden, but gradually gaining; a fear, a natural fear, of the secret mysteries unfolding before her. And still the piping drew nearer; IT was coming, IT was coming! IT was coming down the quiet valley, through the oak-trees that seemed to spring to attention to greet IT, as soldiers salute the coming of their King. The piping rose louder and more clear. Beautiful it was, and entrancing, but evil and menacing; the girl knew, deep in her consciousness she knew, that when IT appeared, evil and beauty would come conjoined in it. Her terror and her sense of helplessness grew; IT was very near now; the dancing, elusive forms were drawing closer around her, the fir woods behind her were closing against her escape. She was like a bird charmed by a serpent, her feet refused to fly, her conscious will to act. And the Terror drew ever nearer. Despairingly she looked around her, despairingly uttered a cry of helpless agony.

The great St. Bernard lying at her feet, disturbed by her cry, raised himself to his haunches and looked up into her face. The movement of the dog recalled him to her thoughts; she looked down at him, into the wise old eyes that gazed up at her with love and with the calm look of the aged, the experienced, of one from whom all the illusions of Life had faded. In the peaceful, sane, loving look of the dog the girl saw safety, escape. “Oh, Bran, save me, save me,” she cried, and clung to the old dog’s neck. Slowly he arose, stretched himself, and, with the girl holding fast to his collar, turned towards the homeward path. As they moved forwards together the whirling forms seemed to fade and to recede, the menacing, clustered firs fell back, the piping changed and, harsh and discordant, resolved itself into the whistle of the rising wind, the very sky seemed to grow lighter, the air less heavy.

And so they passed through the woods together; and emerging from their still clutching shadows stood gazing across the valley darkening in the evening light, towards the gates of home, lit up by the cheerful rays of the setting sun.

The old woman, resting her aching back, Looked up and saw the girl descending from the woods with quick light steps. “I wish I were as young and care free as she be,” she muttered, and stooped again among her vegetables.


Introduction: copyright 2021 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

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