They were sure there was something green in the wood—green and very, very evil.
The Green Huntsman
By Dorothea Gibbins.
THE Manor house of Scarth, on an autumn morning of drifting leaves and mist, was an old house which seemed to shrug its shoulders against the biting wind blowing- up from the saltings and the sea and the scarlet creeper covering its walls was shedding fast and would soon leave the walls naked.
A man inside the house who had been looking out of a window, turned back from it towards the room.
"You've asked my advice, sir, and think you have no option but to let her Come."
Richard Ayreton, sitting over the fire, stirred a little.
"She shall come; I've already written;" he said, but his voice was uneasy; "but—you know the autumn's not the time."
The other had a wary look, as if something had come unbidden to his mind and that the thought of it didn't please him. He chose his words carefully before answering.
"No one's likely to 'believe this business or anyone here likely to tell her anything about it. People don't speak of it in these parts."
Ayreton banged his hands down onto his knees. "I find it extraordinary that I should believe in it myself," he said.
"My family have, of course, but I've always reckoned myself too hard-headed."
Shrilly beside him the telephone rang and he answered it. "A telegram? Yes, I've got it, thank you."
As he hung up -the receiver he looked across at Nick Borrodale. "It's sooner than we thought. Tomorrow she'll be coming and the child of course.
Nick spoke cheerfully, "It'll be good for you, sir," he said, "since you've been ill it's lonely here and I can't be with you much because of the increasing work on the farm. Besides I'm only your .agent, and you say you like this niece of yours." He lit a cigarette as he turned to go. "Try not to worry, sir," he said, "I'll do all I can to see—to take care of everything."
Francesca Newtownly, widowed some years after the war, had now found herself without a home, and had turned to the one relation she had, to give her houseroom until such time as she could find the kind of small place she could afford. Her son, now seven years .old, would go to boarding school after Christmas.
WHEN Nick met her at the station the next day, he found she was small and young and that her son was like her in face. "You'll both do your uncle good," said Nick, "he's not very fit now and can't get around for the time being."
Francesca said, "It's so kind of him to have us. I've known Scarth since I was a child and loved it, but I've always been to it in the spring."
And, for some reason Nick was silent as they drove through the darkening lanes. He seemed to have a sudden sharpening of the dull fear he had had with him ever since he knew Francesca and the boy were to come. The trees were thick round them when they reached the drive and he felt a wish to look to left and right.
No, you fool, he told himself; it's not here anyway; not here but in the wood; and. then, because he was not at ease, he spoke of the weather and the lately gathered harvest and realized he was being trite and very uninteresting, indeed.
When they reached the house, the woods crept away from it to the right and the south windows looked away towards the marshland. In the warm hall with the welcome of Richard Ayreton, the housekeeper and the dogs, Nick forgot his anxiety, and it was only on his drive home that he remembered, to the exclusion of Francesca's gray eyes and gentle voice.
To get to his house he had to drive along a part of road which cut through the woods.
Nick was a strong, young man who had been through the war at sea. He-was tall and powerful and would have tackled another in fair fight most joyfully, but there was something on his mind which was a far worse thing than flesh and blood. The trees bent towards the road, and though there was a moon it was hidden in cloud. It was where the road crossed through the wood, yes, that was where—God! said Nick, and believed he spoke aloud. He felt the sweat pricking on his forehead, and as the car went on his eyes were strained first on one .side of the road and then on the other: There was a menace in each shifting branch, each leaf that fell withered to the ground.
But beyond that, there was nothing, nothing at all.
THE next Morning Nick went to Scarth to get the check for the farm-hands' wages and in the drive before the house he found Francesca and young Paul throwing sticks for Sebastian, a half-bred spaniel who seemed to have attached himself to them. Francesca called to Nick, and her eyes were bright and she had tied up her head in a brightly colored scarf. "Paul's to start school in the village next week," she said, ”so till then we're just enjoying ourselves."
Paul ran up to Nick, followed by Sebastian, and Nick's hand fell gently on the rough head of the dog, while the boy caught hold of his arm.
Sebastian was a good judge of men. He had had a master once who was no good to dogs. But Nick he liked and trusted and Paul seemed to do the same.
"Sebastian can run very fast, he likes to jump as high as he can. He's a kind dog, he, isn't rough. I like him."
But Paul's chatter went unheeded, for Nick was looking at Francesca and he knew there was joy in seeing her but that the unease in his mind took the first place. Could he tell her not to go---where it was best she shouldn't go, she and the boy? Why, Sebastian never went there; he had had him with him one afternoon, and the dog had refused to come through that bit of the wood. That was before—well, before I knew, said Nick to himself. Yet how could he spoil the sunny autumn day with a tale which would frighten her, if she didn't think him mad? But she mustn't walk there, simply mustn't go. What could he tell her and, then—"We're felling trees," he said with some truth, but the felling was far from the place he meant, "it's as well not to walk in the woods here just now.”
Three pairs of eyes were looking at him, including those of Sebastian. The autumn day fell about them, clear and cold and there was the stillness in it of the turn of the year, a birdless silence when only the robin sings or a few starlings chatter on the housetops. There was a robin about today and he called shrilly as he flew from one tree to the other, but there were no other sounds.
"If the men are felling trees, they are very quiet," said Francesca. She looked puzzled and Nick saw with horror that some of his unspoken anxiety might be affecting her.
"They're having a break for a cup of tea, I expect," he said stoutly. "They've got a hut in the woods where they eat."
"Shall we hear the trees falling very often?" Francesca asked. "I never like it, trees are so much older than we are, they've seen so much."
"They're only felling small trees here," said Nick and almost felt his color rising as he lied to her trusting eyes.
I did it in a good cause, he told himself savagely, when he had Ieft Francesca and Paul and loathed himself for having lied. But they must never go near that part of the woods, never.
A WEEK went by and then came a tearing wind from the sea that ripped off the leaves like bits of paper, piling them in deep heaps. It stayed dull all day and when Nick came back to his house during the afternoon he found there a message from Francesca saying that Paul was missing and had been for some hours.
Nick got to Scarth to find Richard Ayreton and Francesca extremely anxious. The boy's mother put into his mind the fear he had already. "I think he's gone into the woods in spite of what you told us," she said breathlessly. "I've been there calling him but there's no sound. There are no men felling trees either, there never were any, I'm certain. I've only come back from looking for Paul to see if you'd come. "
“I'll go back with.you," Nick said swiftly and she caught at his hand.
"I'm so afraid, so dreadfully afraid!"
"Where's Sebastian?" he asked quickly. "That dog would find anyone anywhere and he loves that boy!"
"That's one of the worst things," Francesca answered, "Sebastian's missing, too."
"He'd never go to the wood," cried Nick, 'that is, unless—he was with Paul."
"If he is, let's pray he's looking after him," she said, and they started together to run.
"And what's all this terror, this mystery about the wood?" asked Francesca breathlessly.
"Oh, Nick, you must tell me! Three grown-up people in a panic because a small boy has gone for a walk with a dog; or so we think—"
"No harm will come to Paul," said Nick, "he's probably not here in the woods at all, and if so, well, what's a wood anyway? No worse than any other place."
But she gave a sob and shook her head. The wind was rising to still greater strength as if with the waning day it was renewing itself. In the woods there was such a noise and a rushing in the trees that they could hardly hear each other speak. And before long it would be dark which was in itself terrifying when a child was lost. Francesca was insistent that she had repeatedly told Paul he was not to go into the woods because of the tree felling and as a rule he was an obedient child and this made the whole thing more strange.
And now, above the noise of the trees and the wind Francesca said, "There are things you've been hiding, Nick, things about the woods.” For a moment the wind seemed to bend her down but as Nick pulled her on she spoke again. "Let's, call him;" she said, "all the time, then wait for a little and see whether he answers. And then we can call Sebastian. I don't believe that dog would leave Paul if he's with him, but if we call he may come.”
A useless business, as Nick very well knew. The noise in the woods was too great for any other sound to be heard. Could they hear a shrill boy's voice against this massive sound of wind and trees? Nick caught Francesca's hand in his and smiled at her though he felt his face would crack.
They walked on silently.
In the deepening darkness she met his eyes with a still desolation which turned his heart. "I know, I think, but I'll still call. Paul, answer me, if you hear me, answer."
Once again they were silent, though the trees and the wind were not, and as they hurried on the brambles and the dying bracken hampered them, hanging round their ankles viciously as if to stop their going.
SHE told him something then. "I went to the wood once alone," she said, "I wanted to see whether the men were really felling trees, because I didn't believe they were, and when I was close here somewhere, though it’s hard to tell exactly, I found a place where there was something green. I thought it might be a tree which hadn't turned its leaves, but it wasn't that—"
Nick felt a coldness inside him, but he answered her stoutly "Don't try and talk,” he said. "We've enough to do to get along."
"Don't put me off," Francesca answered him, "there's something in these woods, I tell you, green and watching."
"What else did you see?" Nick asked her.
"Nothing," she answered, catching her breath, "just nothing, it was just green and then it was just like the rest of the woods, gold and brown—"
They called Paul again and again but there was nothing. Francesca started to cry. "What shall we do, Nick, what shall we do?"
"Go back and get all the men off the place and search the place with torches," he said grimly. "I'll have my car in the road and turn on the headlights. We'll find him."
They were passing now near the place where they shouldn't be, the place from which he had wanted to keep Francesca and Paul and where Sebastian the dog wouldn't go. But it 'was empty, quite clear of anything but the trees bent forward like human shapes groaning in the wind, just russet and brown and dull with autumn and the oncoming darkness.
THEY were getting back to the house now and could see its shape glimmering with lights, and then as they ran they heard it, Paul's voice calling, "Mummy! I'm here--" and Sebastian’s short barks of welcome.
Paul met them near the steps with Richard Ayreton beside him who spoke to him sternly. "You've .worried your mother to death, you'd better apologize to her and to Mr. Borrodale, they've been ages hunting for you!"
Paul hung his head, and then looked up to his mother. "I did go to the woods," he said unwillingly. "I was tired of being told not to, and I made Sebastian come."
"Sebastian never goes into the woods," Said Nick quickly.
"I know,” said Paul shifting from one foot to another, and he rubbed his dirty hands across his face, "but he had to this time, I made him, he wouldn't leave me you see, but he tried to make me come back and he ran round and round me and pulled at my raincoat. But I went on and on and he came, too, but he lagged behind and he wouldn't run on ahead after rabbits like he usually does. We got lost pretty soon," he ended lamely.
Francesca had recovered-from her fright and in the light from the hall door she took her son's shoulders.
"You disobeyed me, Paul, you had no right to go; what happened in the woods after you got lost?"
"I'm sorry I worried you, Mum, said Paul and suddenly-started to cry which was unlike the boy.
"Come into the warm," said Richard and then Paul told them, while Sebastian watched him as ii he knew each word he was saying.
“It was down there," Pail said and pointed to the windows "in the woods beyond the road, that's where Sebastian hated it so; there was—something green in there and I wanted to see it closer. We were pretty lost then and I didn't know the road was so near." He stopped twisting his hands together.
"Go on," said his mother.
"I wanted to see it closer, this green thing, you know," said Paul whispering, "then I did see —well, what it was—" Sebastian pushed against him and with his hand on the dog's head, Paul went on. "It was a man on a horse," said Paul and his voice was uncertain, "but it was funny, he was all green and the horse too, and his face, and eyes were green as well and he was watching me. Sebastian had been whining a lot and then he started barking and he caught hold of my coat as if he wanted to drag, me away. But—I couldn't go. Then the man on the horse started to come towards me very slowly, he was sort of smiling, but Sebastian hated him, and he rushed at him and he—bit at the horse, but it didn't move. Sebastian got frantic and he just pulled me down on the ground and that stopped me looking at the man's eyes, they were horrid," Paul swallowed then went on. "When I looked up again all the green had gone and. there was nothing there but the trees and Sebastian, and—we came home."
THAT night Nick stayed late with Francesca and Richard Ayreton, and they talked of this odd thing, this man and the horse, the story of which had been known in the Ayreton family for generations. "To think we've all believed it, you, Nick, and I myself," said Ayreton, pulling at his pipe. "This fellow,” and he bent: his hand to the sleeping Sebastian, “this fellow undoubtedly saved Paul from ill. In the autumn you see, that's when it happens; we've all seen—this greenness and hated it. Maybe it took the boy and the dog to really see it properly, and to—get rid of it."
"You think it's gone?" asked Francesca and Nick's hand had slid' over hers. Richard Ayreton nodded and bent forward and put another log on the fire, but the wind puffed smoke back into his face.
"Chimney needs sweeping," he muttered,, then he looked up and smiled. "Yes," he said gently, "the thing's gone, I'm certain. Oh, the story? Well, Nick here knows it, but not you, Francesca. Many hundreds of years ago it's said that a man of very evil ways hunted these woods on a devil of a horse as evil as himself. There's an old wives tale in the family that when another beast on four legs shall oust him to save a man, then shall he go."
And at their feet Sebastian yelped in his sleep and slept again as if in his dreams he had seen the flicker of the Green Huntsman as he rode the woods for the last time.
"The Green Huntsman" was first published in Mysteries Of Unexplored Worlds 14, Aug 1959. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.