GABRIEL-ERNEST

“There is a wild beast in your woods,” said the artist

Cunningham, as he was being driven to the station. It was

the only remark he had made during the drive, but as Van

Cheele had talked incessantly his companion’s silence had

not been noticeable.

“A stray fox or two and some resident weasels. Nothing

more formidable,” said Van Cheele. The artist said

nothing.

“What did you mean about a wild beast?” said Van Cheele

later, when they were on the platform.

“Nothing. My imagination. Here is the train,” said

Cunningham.

That afternoon Van Cheele went for one of his frequent

rambles through his woodland property. He had a stuffed

bittern in his study, and knew the names of quite a number

of wild flowers, so his aunt had possibly some justification

in describing him as a great naturalist. At any rate, he

was a great walker. It was his custom to take mental notes

of everything he saw during his walks, not so much for the

purpose of assisting contemporary science as to provide

topics for conversation afterwards. When the bluebells

began to show themselves in flower he made a point of

informing every one of the fact; the season of the year

might have warned his hearers of the likelihood of such an

occurrence, but at least they felt that he was being

absolutely frank with them.

What Van Cheele saw on this particular afternoon was,

however, something far removed from his ordinary range of

experience. On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep

pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen

lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the

sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to

his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was

an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van

Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness. It was an

unexpected apparition, and Van Cheele found himself engaged

in the novel process of thinking before he spoke. Where on

earth could this wild-looking boy hail from? The miller’s

wife had lost a child some two months ago, supposed to have

been swept away by the mill-race, but that had been a mere

baby, not a half-grown lad.

“What are you doing there?” he demanded.

“Obviously, sunning myself,” replied the boy.

“Where do you live?”

“Here, in these woods.”

“You can’t live in the woods,” said Van Cheele.

“They are very nice woods,” said the boy, with a touch

of patronage in his voice.

“But where do you sleep at night?”

“I don’t sleep at night; that’s my busiest time.”

Van Cheele began to have an irritated feeling that he was

grappling with a problem that was eluding him.

“What do you feed on?” he asked.

“Flesh,” said the boy, and he pronounced the word with

slow relish, as though he were tasting it.

“Flesh! What flesh?”

“Since it interests you, rabbits, wild-fowl, hares,

poultry, lambs in their season, children when I can get any;

they’re usually too well locked in at night, when I do most

of my hunting. It’s quite two months since I tasted

child-flesh.”

Ignoring the chaffing nature of the last remark Van Cheele

tried to draw the boy on the subject of possible poaching

operations.

“You’re talking rather through your hat when you speak of

feeding on hares.” (Considering the nature of the boys

toilet the simile was hardly an apt one.) “Our hillside

hares aren’t easily caught.”

“At night I hunt on four feet,” was the somewhat cryptic

response.

“I suppose you mean that you hunt with a dog?” hazarded

Van Cheele.

The boy rolled slowly over on to his back, and laughed a

weird low laugh, that was pleasantly like a chuckle and

disagreeably like a snarl.

“I don’t fancy any dog would be very anxious for my

company, especially at night.”

Van Cheele began to feel that there was something

positively uncanny about the strange-eyed, strange-tongued

youngster.

“I can’t have you staying in these woods,” he declared

authoritatively.

“I fancy you’d rather have me here than in your house,”

said the boy.

The prospect of this wild, nude animal in Van Cheele’s

primly ordered house was certainly an alarming one.

“If you don’t go I shall have to make you,” said Van

Cheele.

The boy turned like a flash, plunged into the pool, and in

a moment had flung his wet and glistening body half-way up

the bank where Van Cheele was standing. In an otter the

movement would not have been remarkable; in a boy Van Cheele

found it sufficiently startling. His foot slipped as he

made an involuntary backward movement, and he found himself

almost prostrate on the slippery weed-grown bank, with those

tigerish yellow eyes not very far from his own. Almost

instinctively he half raised his hand to his throat. The

boy laughed again, a laugh in which the snarl had nearly

driven out the chuckle, and then, with another of his

astonishing lightning movements, plunged out of view into a

yielding tangle of weed and fern.

“What an extraordinary wild animal!” said Van Cheele as

he picked himself up. And then be recalled Cunningham’s

remark, “There is a wild beast in your woods.”

Walking slowly homeward, Van Cheele began to turn over in

his mind various local occurrences which might be traceable

to the existence of this astonishing young savage.

Something had been thinning the game in the woods lately,

poultry had been missing from the farms, hares were growing

unaccountably scarcer, and complaints had reached him of

lambs being carried off bodily from the hills. Was it

possible that this wild boy was really hunting the

countryside in company with some clever poacher dog? He had

spoken of hunting “four-footed” by night, but then, again,

he had hinted strangely at no dog caring to come near him,

“especially at night.” It was certainly puzzling. And

then, as Van Cheele ran his mind over the various

depredations that had been committed during the last month

or two, he came suddenly to a dead stop, alike in hiss walk

and his speculations. The child missing from the mill two

months ago—the accepted theory was that it had tumbled

into the mill-race and been swept away; but the mother had

always declared she had heard a shriek on the hill side of

the house, in the opposite direction from the water. It was

unthinkable, of course, but he wished that the boy had not

made that uncanny remark about childflesh eaten two months

ago. Such dreadful things should not be said even in fun.

Van Cheele, contrary to his usual wont, did not feel

disposed to be communicative about his discovery in the

wood. His position as a parish councillor and justice of

the peace seemed somehow compromised by the fact that he was

harbouring a personality of such doubtful repute on his

property; there was even a possibility that a heavy bill of

damages for raided lambs and poultry might be laid at his

door. At dinner that night he was quite unusually silent.

“Where’s your voice gone to?” said his aunt. “One

would think you had seen a wolf.”

Van Cheele, who was not familiar with the old saying,

thought the remark rather foolish; if he had seen a wolf

on his property his tongue would have been extraordinarily

busy with the subject.

At breakfast next morning Van Cheele was conscious that

his feeling of uneasiness regarding yesterday’s episode had

not wholly disappeared, and he resolved to go by train to

the neighbouring cathedral town, hunt up Cunningham, and

learn from him what he had really seen that had prompted the

remark about a wild beast in the woods. With this

resolution taken, his usual cheerfulness partially returned,

and he hummed a bright little melody as he sauntered to the

morning-room for his customary cigarette. As he entered the

room the melody made way abruptly for a pious invocation.

Gracefully asprawl on the ottoman, in an attitude of almost

exaggerated repose, was the boy of the woods. He was drier

than when Van Cheele had last seen him, but no other

alteration was noticeable in his toilet.

“How dare you come here?” asked Van Cheele furiously.

“You told me I was not to stay in the woods,” said the

boy calmly.

“But not to come here. Supposing my aunt should see

you!”

And with a view to minimizing that catastrophe Van Cheele

hastily obscured as much of his unwelcome guest as possible

under the folds of a Morning Post. At that moment his

aunt entered the room.

“This is a poor boy who has lost his way—and lost his

memory. He doesn’t know who he is or where he comes from,”

explained Van Cheele desperately, glancing apprehensively at

the waif’s face to see whether he was going to add

inconvenient candour to his other savage propensities.

Miss Van Cheele was enormously interested.

“Perhaps his underlinen is marked,” she suggested.

“He seems to have lost most of that, too,” said Van

Cheele, making frantic little grabs at the Morning Post to

keep it in its place.

A naked homeless child appealed to Miss Van Cheele as

warmly as a stray kitten or derelict puppy would have done.

“We must do all we can for him,” she decided, and in a

very short time a messenger, dispatched to the rectory,

where a page-boy was kept, had returned with a suit of

pantry clothes, and the necessary accessories of shirt,

shoes, collar, etc. Clothed, clean, and groomed, the boy

lost none of his uncanniness in Van Cheele’s eyes, but his

aunt found him sweet.

“We must call him something till we know who he really

is,” she said. “Gabriel-Ernest, I think; those are nice

suitable names.’

Van Cheele agreed, but he privately doubted whether they

were being grafted on to a nice suitable child. His

misgivings were not diminished by the fact that his staid

and elderly spaniel had bolted out of the house at the first

incoming of the boy, and now obstinately remained shivering

and yapping at the farther end of the orchard, while the

canary, usually as vocally industrious as Van Cheele

himself, had put itself on an allowance of frightened

cheeps. More than ever he was resolved to consult

Cunningham without loss of time.

As he drove off to the station his aunt was arranging that

Gabriel-Ernest should help her to entertain the infant

members of her Sunday-school class at tea that afternoon.

Cunningham was not at first disposed to be communicative.

“My mother died of some brain trouble,” he explained,

“so you will understand why I am averse to dwelling on

anything of an impossibly fantastic nature that I may see or

think that I have seen.”

“But what did you see?” persisted Van Cheele.

“What I thought I saw was something so extraordinary that

no really sane man could dignify it with the credit of

having actually happened. I was standing, the last evening

I was with you, half-hidden in the hedgegrowth by the

orchard gate, watching the dying glow of the sunset.

Suddenly I became aware of a naked boy, a bather from some

neighbouring pool, I took him to be, who was standing out on

the bare hillside also watching the sunset. His pose was so

suggestive of some wild faun of Pagan myth that I instantly

wanted to engage him as a model, and in another moment I

think I should have hailed him. But just then the sun

dipped out of view, and all the orange and pink slid out of

the landscape, leaving it cold and grey. And at the same

moment an astounding thing happened—the boy vanished

too!”

“What! vanished away into nothing?” asked Van Cheele

excitedly.

“No; that is the dreadful part of it,” answered the

artist; “on the open hillside where the boy had been

standing a second ago, stood a large wolf, blackish in

colour, with gleaming fangs and cruel, yellow eyes. You may

think—”

But Van Cheele did not stop for anything as futile as

thought. Already he was tearing at top speed towards the

station. He dismissed the idea of a telegram.

“Gabriel-Ernest is a werewolf” was a hopelessly inadequate

effort at conveying the situation, and his aunt would think

it was a code message to which he had omitted to give her

the key. His one hope was that he might reach home before

sundown. The cab which he chartered at the other end of the

railway journey bore him with what seemed exasperating

slowness along the country roads, which were pink and mauve

with the flush of the sinking sun. His aunt was putting

away some unfinished jams and cake when he arrived.

“Where is Gabriel-Ernest?” he almost screamed.

“He is taking the little Toop child home,” said his

aunt. “It was getting so late, I thought it wasn’t safe to

let it go back alone. What a lovely sunset, isn’t it?”

But Van Cheele, although not oblivious of the glow in the

western sky, did not stay to discuss its beauties. At a

speed for which he was scarcely geared he raced along the

narrow lane that led to the home of the Toops. On one side

ran the swift current of the mill-stream, on the other rose

the stretch of bare hillside. A dwindling rim of red sun

showed still on the skyline, and the next turning must bring

him in view of the ill-assorted couple he was pursuing.

Then the colour went suddenly out of things, and a grey

light settled itself with a quick shiver over the landscape.

Van Cheele heard a shrill wail of fear, and stopped running.

Nothing was ever seen again of the Toop child or

Gabriel-Ernest, but the latter’s discarded garments were

found lying in the road, so it was assumed that the child

had fallen into the water, and that the boy had stripped and

jumped in, in a vain endeavour to save it. Van Cheele and

some workmen who were near by at the time testified to

having heard a child scream loudly just near the spot where

the clothes were found. Mrs. Toop, who had eleven other

children, was decently resigned to her bereavement, but Miss

Van Cheele sincerely mourned her lost foundling. It was on

her initiative that a memorial brass was put up in the

parish church to “Gabriel-Ernest, an unknown boy, who

bravely sacrificed his life for another.”

Van Cheele gave way to his aunt in most things, but he

flatly refused to subscribe to the Gabriel-Ernest memorial.