“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
“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
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
Ignoring the chaffing nature of the last remark Van Cheele
tried to draw the boy on the subject of possible poaching
“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
“I suppose you mean that you hunt with a dog?” hazarded
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
“I can’t have you staying in these woods,” he declared
“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
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
“But not to come here. Supposing my aunt should see
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
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
“What! vanished away into nothing?” asked Van Cheele
“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
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.