Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ancient Lights by Algernon Blackwood

From Southwater, where he left the train, the
road led due west. That he knew; for the rest he
trusted to luck, being one of those born walkers
who dislike asking the way. He had that instinct,
and as a rule it served him well. “A mile or so due
west along the sandy road till you come to a stile on
the right; then across the fields. You’ll see the red
house straight before you.” He glanced at the postcard’s
instructions once again, and once again he
tried to decipher the scratched-out sentence—
without success. It had been so elaborately inked
over that no word was legible. Inked-out sentences
in a letter were always enticing. He wondered what
it was that had to be so very carefully obliterated.

The afternoon was boisterous, with a tearing,
shouting wind that blew from the sea, across the
Sussex weald. Massive clouds with rounded, piledup
edges, cannoned across gaping spaces of blue
sky. Far away the line of Downs swept the horizon,
like an arriving wave. Chanctonbury Ring rode their
crest—a scudding ship, hull down before the wind.
He took his hat off and walked rapidly, breathing
great draughts of air with delight and exhilaration.

The road was deserted; no horsemen, bicycles, or
motors; not even a tradesman’s cart; no single
walker. But anyhow he would never have asked the
way. Keeping a sharp eye for the stile, he pounded
along, while the wind tossed the cloak against his
face, and made waves across the blue puddles in the
yellow road. The trees showed their under leaves of
white. The bracken and the high new grass bent all
one way. Great life was in the day, high spirits and
dancing everywhere. And for a Croydon surveyor’s
clerk just out of an office this was like a holiday at
the sea.

It was a day for high adventure, and his heart
rose up to meet the mood of Nature. His umbrella
with the silver ring ought to have been a sword, and
his brown shoes should have been top-boots with
spurs upon the heels. Where hid the enchanted
Castle and the princess with the hair of sunny gold?

His horse...

The stile came suddenly into view and nipped
adventure in the bud. Everyday clothes took him
prisoner again. He was a surveyor’s clerk, middleaged,
earning three pounds a week, coming from
Croydon to see about a client’s proposed alterations
in a wood—something to ensure a better view from
the dining-room window. Across the fields, perhaps
a mile away, he saw the red house gleaming in the
sunshine; and resting on the stile a moment to get
his breath he noticed a copse of oak and hornbeam
on the right. “Aha,” he told himself “so that must be
the wood he wants to cut down to improve the
view? I’ll ’ave a look at it.” There were boards up, of
course, but there was an inviting little path as well.
“I’m not a trespasser,” he said; “it’s part of my business,
this is.” He scrambled awkwardly over the
gate and entered the copse. A little round would
bring him to the field again.

But the moment he passed among the trees the
wind ceased shouting and a stillness dropped upon
the world. So dense was the growth that the sunshine
only came through in isolated patches. The
air was close. He mopped his forehead and put his
green felt hat on, but a low branch knocked it off
again at once, and as he stooped an elastic twig
swung back and stung his face. There were flowers
along both edges of the little path; glades opened
on either side; ferns curved about in damper
corners, and the smell of earth and foliage was rich
and sweet. It was cooler here. What an enchanting
little wood, he thought, turning down a small green
glade where the sunshine flickered like silver wings.
How it danced and fluttered and moved about! He
put a dark blue flower in his buttonhole. Again his
hat, caught by an oak branch as he rose, was
knocked from his head, falling across his eyes. And
this time he did not put it on again. Swinging his
umbrella, he walked on with uncovered head,
whistling rather loudly as he went. But the thickness
of the trees hardly encouraged whistling, and
something of his gaiety and high spirits seemed to
leave him. He suddenly found himself treading circumspectly
and with caution. The stillness in the
wood was so peculiar.

There was a rustle among the ferns and leaves
and something shot across the path ten yards
ahead, stopped abruptly an instant with head
cocked sideways to stare, then dived again beneath
the underbrush with the speed of a shadow. He
started like a frightened child, laughing the next
second that a mere pheasant could have made him
jump. In the distance he heard wheels upon the
road, and wondered why the sound was pleasant.
“Good old butcher’s cart,” he said to himself—then
realised that he was going in the wrong direction
and had somehow got turned round. For the road
should be behind him, not in front.

And he hurriedly took another narrow glade
that lost itself in greenness to the right. “That’s my
direction, of course,” he said; “the trees has mixed
me up a bit, it seems”—then found himself abruptly
by the gate he had first climbed over. He had
merely made a circle. Surprise became almost discomfiture
then. And a man, dressed like a gamekeeper
in browny green, leaned against the gate,
hitting his legs with a switch. “I’m making for Mr.
Lumley’s farm,” explained the walker. “This is his
wood, I believe—” then stopped dead, because it
was no man at all, but merely an effect of light and
shade and foliage. He stepped back to reconstruct
the singular illusion, but the wind shook the
branches roughly here on the edge of the wood and
the foliage refused to reconstruct the figure. The
leaves all rustled strangely. And just then the sun
went behind a cloud, making the whole wood look
otherwise. Yet how the mind could be thus doubly
deceived was indeed remarkable, for it almost
seemed to him the man had answered, spoken—or
was this the shuffling noise the branches made?—
and had pointed with his switch to the notice-board
upon the nearest tree. The words rang on in his
head, but of course he had imagined them: “No, it’s
not his wood. It’s ours.” And some village wit,
moreover, had changed the lettering on the
weather-beaten board, for it read quite plainly,
“Trespassers will be persecuted.”

And while the astonished clerk read the words
and chuckled, he said to himself, thinking what a
tale he’d have to tell his wife and children later
—“The blooming wood has tried to chuck me out.
But I’ll go in again. Why, it’s only a matter of a
square acre at most. I’m bound to reach the fields
on the other side if I keep straight on.” He
remembered his position in the office. He had a
certain dignity to maintain.

The cloud passed from below the sun, and light
splashed suddenly in all manner of unlikely places.
The man went straight on. He felt a touch of puzzling
confusion somewhere; this way the copse had
of shifting from sunshine into shadow doubtless
troubled sight a little. To his relief at last, a new
glade opened through the trees and disclosed the
fields with a glimpse of the red house in the distance
at the far end. But a little wicket gate that
stood across the path had first to be climbed, and as
he scrambled heavily over—for it would not open—
he got the astonishing feeling that it slid off sideways
beneath his weight, and towards the wood.

Like the moving staircases at Harrod’s and Earl’s
Court, it began to glide off with him. It was quite
horrible. He made a violent effort to get down
before it carried him into the trees, but his feet
became entangled with the bars and umbrella, so
that he fell heavily upon the farther side, arms
spread across the grass and nettles, boots clutched
between the first and second bars. He lay there a
moment like a man crucified upside down, and
while he struggled to get disentangled—feet, bars,
and umbrella formed a regular net—he saw the
little man in browny green go past him with
extreme rapidity through the wood. The man was
laughing. He passed across the glade some fifty
yards away, and he was not alone this time. A companion
like himself went with him. The clerk, now
upon his feet again, watched them disappear into
the gloom of green beyond. “They’re tramps, not
gamekeepers,” he said to himself, half mortified,
half angry. But his heart was thumping dreadfully,
and he dared not utter all his thought.

He examined the wicket gate, convinced it was
a trick gate somehow—then went hurriedly on
again, disturbed beyond belief to see that the glade
no longer opened into fields, but curved away to
the right. What in the world had happened to him?
His sight was so utterly at fault. Again the sun
flamed out abruptly and lit the floor of the wood
with pools of silver, and at the same moment a violent
gust of wind passed shouting overhead. Drops
fell clattering everywhere upon the leaves, making a
sharp pattering as of many footsteps. The whole
copse shuddered and went moving.

“Rain, by George,” thought the clerk, and feeling
for his umbrella, discovered he had lost it. He
turned back to the gate and found it lying on the
farther side. To his amazement he saw the fields at
the far end of the glade, the red house, too, ashine
in the sunset. He laughed then, for, of course, in his
struggle with the gate, he had somehow got turned
round—had fallen back instead of forwards. Climbing
over, this time quite easily, he retraced his
steps. The silver band, he saw, had been torn from
the umbrella. No doubt his foot, a nail, or
something had caught in it and ripped it off. The
clerk began to run; he felt extraordinarily dismayed.

But, while he ran, the entire wood ran with him,
round him, to and fro, trees shifting like living
things, leaves folding and unfolding, trunks darting
backwards and forwards, and branches disclosing
enormous empty spaces, then closing up again
before he could look into them. There were footsteps
everywhere, and laughing, crying voices, and
crowds of figures gathering just behind his back till
the glade, he knew, was thick with moving life. The
wind in his ears, of course, produced the voices and
the laughter, while sun and clouds, plunging the
copse alternately in shadow and bright dazzling
light, created the figures. But he did not like it, and
went as fast as ever his sturdy legs could take him.

He was frightened now. This was no story for his
wife and children. He ran like the wind. But his feet
made no sound upon the soft mossy turf.

Then, to his horror, he saw that the glade grew
narrow, nettles and weeds stood thick across it, it
dwindled down into a tiny path, and twenty yards
ahead it stopped finally and melted off among the
trees. What the trick gate had failed to achieve, this
twisting glade accomplished easily—carried him in
bodily among the dense and crowding trees.

There was only one thing to do—turn sharply
and dash back again, run headlong into the life that
followed at his back, followed so closely too that
now it almost touched him, pushing him in. And
with reckless courage this was what he did. It
seemed a fearful thing to do. He turned with a sort
of violent spring, head down and shoulders forward,
hands stretched before his face. He made the
plunge; like a hunted creature he charged full tilt
the other way, meeting the wind now in his face.

Good Lord! The glade behind him had closed up
as well; there was no longer any path at all. Turning
round and round, like an animal at bay, he searched
for an opening, a way of escape, searched frantically,
breathlessly, terrified now in his bones. But
foliage surrounded him, branches blocked the way;
the trees stood close and still, unshaken by a breath
of wind; and the sun dipped that moment behind a
great black cloud. The entire wood turned dark and
silent. It watched him.

Perhaps it was this final touch of sudden blackness
that made him act so foolishly, as though he
had really lost his head. At any rate, without pausing
to think, he dashed headlong in among the
trees again. There was a sensation of being stiflingly
surrounded and entangled, and that he must break
out at all costs—out and away into the open of the
blessed fields and air. He did this ill-considered
thing, and apparently charged straight into an oak
that deliberately moved into his path to stop him.

He saw it shift across a good full yard, and being a
measuring man, accustomed to theodolite and
chain, he ought to know. He fell, saw stars, and felt
a thousand tiny fingers tugging and pulling at his
hands and neck and ankles. The stinging nettles, no
doubt, were responsible for this. He thought of it
later. At the moment it felt diabolically calculated.

But another remarkable illusion was not so easily
explained. For all in a moment, it seemed, the
entire wood went sliding past him with a thick deep
rustling of leaves and laughter, myriad footsteps,
and tiny little active, energetic shapes; two men in
browny green gave him a mighty hoist—and he
opened his eyes to find himself lying in the meadow
beside the stile where first his incredible adventure
had begun. The wood stood in its usual place and
stared down upon him in the sunlight. There was
the red house in the distance as before. Above him
grinned the weather-beaten notice-board: “Trespassers
will be prosecuted.”

Dishevelled in mind and body, and a good deal
shaken in his official soul, the clerk walked slowly
across the fields. But on the way he glanced once
more at the postcard of instructions, and saw with
dull amazement that the inked-out sentence was
quite legible after all beneath the scratches made
across it: “There is a short cut through the wood—
the wood I want cut down—if you care to take it.”

Only “care” was so badly written, it looked more
like another word; the “c” was uncommonly like “d.”

“That’s the copse that spoils my view of the
Downs, you see,” his client explained to him later,
pointing across the fields, and referring to the ordnance
map beside him. “I want it cut down and a
path made so and so.” His finger indicated direction
on the map. “The Fairy Wood—it’s still called, and
it’s far older than this house. Come now, if you’re
ready, Mr. Thomas, we might go out and have a
look at it. . .”

ancient lights – In English law, windows which
have had an unobstructed view or passage of light,
and the right of the owner to continue to enjoy

This story was found on, where many of his other stories - short and long - can be found.


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