From Ridgedown, where he left the bus, Lybury Lane led due north. That he knew; for the rest he trusted to luck, being one of those lucky enough to be a born compass, who disliked asking the way. He had that instinct, and as a rule, it served him well.
“A mile or so due north along the lane, under the bridge, till you come to a small wooded area, and there to a stile on the right; then across the fields. You’ll see the farmhouse straight before you.”
He glanced at the letter of instruction once again, and once again he tried to decipher the blacked out paragraph, without success. It had been blacked out so successfully that no word was legible. He wondered what it was that had to be so very carefully obliterated.
The afternoon was intermittently sunny and cloudy, with a tear forming chilly wind that blew from the north/west. Massive clouds with rounded, piled-up edges, rolled across the blue sky. The wind brought the sounds from far away that swept past and headed for the horizon. He took his hat off and walked rapidly, breathing great gulps of air that exhilarated him. The lane was deserted; no farm vehicles, kids on bikes, or cars; not even a single walker. But anyhow he would never have asked the way. Keeping a sharp eye for the stile, he pounded along, the wind forced his coat lapels against his face and made waves across the murky puddles on the road. Great life was in the day. And for a Hemel Hempstead surveyor’s clerk out of an office, this was like a day’s holiday…
It was a day for cleaning the spirit, and his mood rose up to meet Mother Nature at her best. His umbrella with the silver tip ought to have been a sword, and he swung it in mock battle, where hid the enchanted Castle and the sleeping princess to be his bride? His horse…
The stile came suddenly into view and nipped his daydream as his heavy coat took him, prisoner, again. He was a boring surveyor’s clerk, going nowhere fast, earning just enough, coming from Hemel Hempstead to see about a client’s proposed alterations to a wood, something to ensure a better view of the fields from a bedroom window. Across the fields, perhaps a mile away, he saw the farm house gleaming in the sunshine; and resting on the stile a moment to get his breath he noticed a dark ominous wood on the right.
“Ah ha,” he told himself “so that must be the wood he wants to cut down to improve the view?” Looking at his watch, “still got, fifteen minutes, I’ll have a quick recce first.”
There, of course, was in large red weather-beaten letters the obligatory ‘TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED’ sign, but there was an overgrown little path, beyond an old gate.
“I’m not a trespasser,” he said out loud; “I’m on official business.” He climbed over the gate and entered the wood. Just a quick walk around and back out across the field to the house.
But the moment he passed among the trees the wind ceased and a stillness dropped upon his world. So dense was the growth that the sunshine only sprinkled through in isolated patches. The air was thick and close. He put his hat back on, but a low branch knocked it off again at once, and as he stooped a twig swung back and stung his face. There were small flowers along both edges of the little path; small glades opened on either side; moss curved about trees in damp dark 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 danced across the damp grasses and bushes. How it danced and fluttered and moved about! He pulled a dark blue flower and popped it in his buttonhole. Again his hat, caught by a 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, whistling a nondescript tune loudly as he went. But the thickness of the trees hardly encouraged whistling, and something of his high spirits seemed to fade away. He suddenly found himself treading carefully and with caution. The stillness in the wood had a peculiar edge.
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 malevolently back at him with red eyes, then dived again beneath the underbrush with the speed of a shadow. His heart raced like a frightened child, laughing at the thought of the piercing eyes of evil and the next second that a mere pheasant could have made him jump.
In the distance, he heard cars and lorries from the M1 motorway and wondered why the sound seemed pleasant. “The good ol’ hum of a motorway,” he said to himself… then realised that he was going in the wrong direction and had somehow got turned around. For the sound should be coming from behind him, not in front. And he hurriedly took another narrow path that lost itself in greenness to the right.
“That’s my direction, of course,” he said; “the trees have mixed me up a bit, it seems.”
He found himself abruptly by the gate he had first climbed over. He had merely made a circle. Surprise became almost uneasiness. As a man, dressed like an ancient sorcerer in a browny green flowing robes, leant against the gate, tapping the side of his leg with a staff of solid oak.
“I-I-I’m making for Mr Chumley’s farm,” Said the Clerk. “T-T-This is his wood, I b-believe…”
Shaking his head and rubbing his eyes, because it was no man at all, but merely a trick of light playing with shadows and foliage. He stumbled back to try a recreate the illusion, but the wind shook the branches roughly and the shadows refused to reconstruct the figure. The leaves all rustled as if talking strangely. And just then the sun went behind a cloud, making the whole wood look peculiar, almost otherworldly.
He wondered how the mind could be deceived so easily was remarkable, for it almost seemed to him the shadow sorcerer had spoken, maybe not, it just was this the wind whistling through the branches? But he was certain the shadow had pointed with his stick to the 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 the Clerk smiled as he re-read the sign, where some kid from a surrounding village had wittily 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 finally chuckled, he said to himself, thinking what a tale he’d have to tell his wife and kids later.
“So Mr Sorcerer of the Wood, you tried to chuck me out.” He said aloud, “But I’ll go in again. 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 he was a man, not a fearful child worried by shadows and things that moved in the undergrowth, plus he had a certain dignity to maintain.
The clouds again passed the sun, and light splashed suddenly in all manner of unlikely places. The clerk went straight on. He felt puzzled, just a hint of confusion from somewhere deep; this wood had a way of shifting from sunshine into shadow, playing some wonderful yet troubling tricks on his imagination. To his relief, at last, a new opening in the trees unveiled the fields beyond. He smiled to himself as he thought of the wild and imaginative story he could weaver for his children that night. But, like the gate at the entrance a little wooden fence that stood across the path had first to be climbed, and as he scrambled heavily over he got the weird feeling that it slid off to the side under his weight, and towards the wood. Like an escalator, it began to glide off with him. He was becoming terrified. He made a violent effort to get down before it carried him into the trees, but his feet became entangled with the knots and roughhewn wood so that he fell heavily upon the farther side, arms spread across the grass and nettles, boots clutched between the planks of wood. He lay there a moment like a man hanged upside down, and while he struggled to get free, feet, wood, and umbrella seemed to form a tight knot, and shivers ran coldly up his spine as he heard faint giggles and laughter, and from the corner of his eye again he glimpsed the man in browny green robes float past and through the wood. The man was laughing. He passed through the thickets and trees with ease, and he was not alone this time. A dark swirling shadow followed behind. The clerk, now upon his feet again, watched them fade into the gloom beyond.
“He’s a tramp, not a sorcerer,” he said to himself, half mortified, half angry. He kicked out at the wooden fence, but his heart was thumping dreadfully, as again the ghostly giggles filtered from the trees.
He examined the wooden fence, convinced it was a trick of some sort and finally hurriedly on again, disturbed beyond belief to see that the opening no longer opened into fields, but curved away to the right. What in the world had happened to him? His mind was so having a devil of a time. 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 howling overhead. Drops fell clattering everywhere upon the leaves, making a sharp pattering sounds like footsteps. The whole wood seemed too shuddered.
“Rain, by Christ, is all I need,” thought the clerk, and feeling for his umbrella, discovered he had lost it. He turned back to the fence and found it lying on the farther side. To his amazement he saw the fields at the far end of the glade, the farmhouse, too, shimmering in a late afternoon rainbow. He laughed then, of course, in his fight with the fence, he had somehow disorientated himself and had fallen back instead of forwards. This time the climb over was easy, he retraced his steps. His umbrella, the silver tip, he saw, had been torn from the end. No doubt something had caught in it and ripped it off. The clerk began to run; he felt fearful as he tried to excuse his imagination for taking a childish turn. Until the laughter started again.
But, while he ran, the entire wood ran with him, round him, to and fro, trees shifting like living beings, leaves folding and unfolding, trunks darting backwards and forwards, and branches opening the way, then closing up again before he could turn back. There were footsteps everywhere, and hideous laughter mingled with crying childlike voices, and an evil force was gathering just behind his back, he knew not to look back, for he sensed it was thick with wraithlike forms. He tried to reason, the wind in his ears, of course, produced the voices and the laughter, while sun and clouds, plunging the woods alternately in shadow and bright dazzling light, created the figures. But he did not like it and went as fast as 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 moss.
Then, to his horror, he saw the path narrowed, 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 fence had failed to achieve, this twisting glade accomplished easily and carried him bodily into the dense and crowding trees.
There was only one thing to do, turn sharply and run back again, run headlong into the ethereal force that followed closely at his back, so close, that now it almost touched him, pushing him in with icy tendrils. And with reckless courage, this was what he did. It seemed a fearful thing to do. He turned with venom, screaming in anger, shame and fear, like a hunted deer with nothing to lose he charged full tilt the other way, meeting the wind now in his face.
“Oh! Christ!” The path from which he came had closed up as well; there was no longer any path at all. Turning round and round, like a trapped animal, he searched for an opening, a way of escape, searched frantically, breathlessly, terror chilled 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 recklessly, as though he had really lost his mind. At any rate, without pausing to think, he threw himself headlong into the trees again. There was a sensation of being suffocated and entangled, and that he must break out at all costs… out and away, into the open of the fields and air. He charged straight into a tree that deliberately moved into his path to stop him. He saw it shift across a good full yard. He fell, saw stars, and felt a thousand frozen tiny fingers tugging and pulling at his clothes, hands and neck and ankles, dragging him down into the undergrowth and what lay beneath.
But. For all in a moment, it seemed, the entire wood went sliding past him with a thick deep rustling of leaves and laughter and tiny little energetic icy shapes; the sorcerer in the browny green robes gave him a mighty hoist and he opened his eyes to find himself lying in the meadow beside the gate 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 farm house in the distance as before. Above him grinned the weather-beaten notice-board!
“TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.”
Dishevelled in mind and body, almost in tears of shame the clerk walked slowly up to the house, on the way he glanced once more at the letter of instructions, and saw with dull acknowledgement that the blacked out paragraph was quite legible beneath after all
“There is a small copse to the rear of the house, that I want permission to cut down, but beware of the wood on the right it’s far older than this farmland and is not to be entered. ‘The Haunted Wood’ it’s still called and it doesn’t like strangers.”
Source : The Redbourn Scribbler