THE MUSIC ON THE HILL

Sylvia Seltoun ate her breakfast in the morning-room at

Yessney with a pleasant sense of ultimate victory, such as a

fervent Ironside might have permitted himself on the morrow

of Worcester fight. She was scarcely pugnacious by

temperament, but belonged to that more successful class of

fighters who are pugnacious by circumstance. Fate had

willed that her life should be occupied with a series of

small struggles, usually with the odds slightly against her,

and usually she had just managed to come through winning.

And now she felt that she had brought her hardest and

certainly her most important struggle to a successful issue.

To have married Mortimer Seltoun, “Dead Mortimer” as his

more intimate enemies called him, in the teeth of the cold

hostility of his family, and in spite of his unaffected

indifference to women, was indeed an achievement that had

needed some determination and adroitness to carry through;

yesterday she had brought her victory to its concluding

stage by wrenching her husband away from Town and its group

of satellite watering-places and “settling him down,” in

the vocabulary of her kind, in this remote wood-girt manor

farm which was his country house.

“You will never get Mortimer to go,” his mother had said

carpingly, “but if he once goes he’ll stay; Yessney throws

almost as much a spell over him as Town does. One can

understand what holds him to Town, but Yessney—” and the

dowager had shrugged her shoulders.

There was a sombre almost savage wildness about Yessney

that was certainly not likely to appeal to town-bred tastes,

and Sylvia, notwithstanding her name, was accustomed to

nothing much more sylvan than “leafy Kensington.” She

looked on the country as something excellent and wholesome

in its way, which was apt to become troublesome if you

encouraged it overmuch. Distrust of townlife had been a new

thing with her, born of her marriage with Mortimer, and she

had watched with satisfaction the gradual fading of what she

called “the Jermyn-Street-look” in his eyes as the woods

and heather of Yessney had closed in on them yesternight.

Her will-power and strategy had prevailed; Mortimer would

stay. Outside the morning-room windows was a triangular

slope of turf, which the indulgent might call a lawn, and

beyond its low hedge of neglected fuschia bushes a steeper

slope of heather and bracken dropped down into cavernous

combes overgrown with oak and yew. In its wild open

savagery there seemed a stealthy linking of the joy of life

with the terror of unseen things. Sylvia smiled

complacently as she gazed with a School-of-Art appreciation

at the landscape, and then of a sudden she almost shuddered.

“It is very wild,” she said to Mortimer, who had joined

her; “one could almost think that in such a place the

worship of Pan had never quite died out.”

“The worship of Pan never has died out,” said Mortimer.

“Other newer gods have drawn aside his votaries from time

to time, but he is the Nature-God to whom all must come back

at last. He has been called the Father of all the Gods, but

most of his children have been stillborn.”

Sylvia was religious in an honest, vaguely devotional kind

of way, and did not like to hear her beliefs spoken of as

mere aftergrowths, but it was at least something new and

hopeful to hear Dead Mortimer speak with such energy and

conviction on any subject.

“You don’t really believe in Pan?” she asked

incredulously.

“I’ve been a fool in most things,” said Mortimer

quietly, “but I’m not such a fool as not to believe in Pan

when I’m down here. And if you’re wise you won’t disbelieve

in him too boastfully while you’re in his country.”

It was not till a week later, when Sylvia had exhausted

the attractions of the woodland walks round Yessney, that

she ventured on a tour of inspection of the farm buildings.

A farmyard suggested in her mind a scene of cheerful bustle,

with churns and flails and smiling dairymaids, and teams of

horses drinking knee-deep in duck-crowded ponds. As she

wandered among the gaunt grey buildings of Yessney manor

farm her first impression was one of crushing stillness and

desolation, as though she had happened on some lone deserted

homestead long given over to owls and cobwebs; then came a

sense of furtive watchful hostility, the same shadow of

unseen things that seemed to lurk in the wooded combes and

coppices. From behind heavy doors and shuttered windows came

the restless stamp of hoof or rasp of chain halter, and at

times a muffled bellow from some stalled beast. From a

distant comer a shaggy dog watched her with intent

unfriendly eyes; as she drew near it slipped quietly into

its kennel, and slipped out again as noiselessly when she

had passed by. A few hens, questing for food under a rick,

stole away under a gate at her approach. Sylvia felt that

if she had come across any human beings in this wilderness

of barn and byre they would have fled wraith-like from her

gaze. At last, turning a corner quickly, she came upon a

living thing that did not fly from her. Astretch in a pool

of mud was an enormous sow, gigantic beyond the town-woman’s

wildest computation of swine-flesh, and speedily alert to

resent and if necessary repel the unwonted intrusion. It

was Sylvia’s turn to make an unobtrusive retreat. As she

threaded her way past rickyards and cowsheds and long blank

walls, she started suddenly at a strange sound—the echo of

a boy’s laughter, golden and equivocal. Jan, the only boy

employed on the farm, a tow-headed, wizen-faced yokel, was

visibly at work on a potato clearing half-way up the nearest

hill-side, and Mortimer, when questioned, knew of no other

probable or possible begetter of the hidden mockery that had

ambushed Sylvia’s retreat. The memory of that untraceable

echo was added to her other impressions of a furtive

sinister “something” that hung around Yessney.

Of Mortimer she saw very little; farm and woods and trout-

streams seemed to swallow him up from dawn till dusk. Once,

following the direction she had seen him take in the

morning, she came to an open space in a nut copse, further

shut in by huge yew trees, in the centre of which stood a

stone pedestal surmounted by a small bronze figure of a

youthful Pan. It was a beautiful piece of workmanship, but

her attention was chiefly held by the fact that a newly cut

bunch of grapes had been placed as an offering at its feet.

Grapes were none too plentiful at the manor house, and

Sylvia snatched the bunch angrily from the pedestal.

Contemptuous annoyance dominated her thoughts as she

strolled slowly homeward, and then gave way to a sharp

feeling of something that was very near fright; across a

thick tangle of undergrowth a boy’s face was scowling at

her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes. It

was a lonely pathway, all pathways round Yessney were lonely

for the matter of that, and she sped forward without waiting

to give a closer scrutiny to this sudden apparition. It was

not till she had reached the house that she discovered that

she had dropped the bunch of grapes in her flight.

“I saw a youth in the wood today,” she told Mortimer

that evening, “brown-faced and rather handsome, but a

scoundrel to look at. A gipsy lad, I suppose.”

“A reasonable theory,” said Mortimer, “only there

aren’t any gipsies in these parts at present.”

“Then who was he?” asked Sylvia, and as Mortimer appeared

to have no theory of his own she passed on to recount her

finding of the votive offering.

“I suppose it was your doing,” she observed; “it’s a

harmless piece of lunacy, but people would think you

dreadfully silly if they knew of it.”

“Did you meddle with it in any way?” asked Mortimer.

“I—I threw the grapes away. It seemed so silly,” said

Sylvia, watching Mortimer’s impassive face for a sign of

annoyance.

“I don’t think you were wise to do that,” he said

reflectively. “I’ve heard it said that the Wood Gods are

rather horrible to those who molest them.”

“Horrible perhaps to those that believe in them, but you

see I don’t,” retorted Sylvia.

“All the same,” said Mortimer in his even, dispassionate

tone, “I should avoid the woods and orchards if I were you,

and give a wide berth to the horned beasts on the farm.”

It was all nonsense, of course, but in that lonely

wood-girt spot nonsense seemed able to rear a bastard brood

of uneasiness.

“Mortimer,” said Sylvia suddenly, “I think we will go

back to Town some time soon.”

Her victory had not been so complete as she had supposed;

it had carried her on to ground that she was already anxious

to quit.

“I don’t think you will ever go back to Town,” said

Mortimer. He seemed to be paraphrasing his mother’s

prediction as to himself.

Sylvia noted with dissatisfaction and some self-contempt

that the course of her next afternoon’s ramble took her

instinctively clear of the network of woods. As to the

horned cattle, Mortimer’s warning was scarcely needed, for

she had always regarded them as of doubtful neutrality at

the best: her imagination unsexed the most matronly dairy

cows and turned them into bulls liable to “see red” at any

moment. The ram who fed in the narrow paddock below the

orchards she had adjudged, after ample and cautious

probation, to be of docile temper; today, however, she

decided to leave his docility untested, for the usually

tranquil beast was roaming with every sign of restlessness

from corner to corner of his meadow. A low, fitful piping,

as of some reedy flute, was coming from the depth of a

neighbouring copse, and there seemed to be some subtle

connection between the animal’s restless pacing and the wild

music from the wood. Sylvia turned her steps in an upward

direction and climbed the heather-clad slopes that stretched

in rolling shoulders high above Yessney. She had left the

piping notes behind her, but across the wooded combes at her

feet the wind brought her another kind of music, the

straining bay of hounds in full chase. Yessney was just on

the outskirts of the Devon-and-Somerset country, and the

hunted deer sometimes came that way. Sylvia could presently

see a dark body, breasting hill after hill, and sinking

again and again out of sight as he crossed the combes, while

behind him steadily swelled that relentless chorus, and she

grew tense with the excited sympathy that one feels for any

hunted thing in whose capture one is not directly

interested. And at last he broke through the outermost line

of oak scrub and fern and stood panting in the open, a fat

September stag carrying a well-furnished head. His obvious

course was to drop down to the brown pools of Undercombe,

and thence make his way towards the red deer’s favoured

sanctuary, the sea. To Sylvia’s surprise, however, he

turned his head to the upland slope and came lumbering

resolutely onward over the heather. “It will be

dreadful,” she thought, “the hounds will pull him down

under my very eyes.” But the music of the pack seemed to

have died away for a moment, and in its place she heard

again that wild piping, which rose now on this side, now on

that, as though urging the failing stag to a final effort.

Sylvia stood well aside from his path, half hidden in a

thick growth of whortle bushes, and watched him swing

stiffly upward, his flanks dark with sweat, the coarse hair

on his neck showing light by contrast. The pipe music

shrilled suddenly around her, seeming to come from the

bushes at her very feet, and at the same moment the great

beast slewed round and bore directly down upon her. In an

instant her pity for the hunted animal was changed to wild

terror at her own danger; the thick heather roots mocked her

scrambling efforts at flight, and she looked frantically

downward for a glimpse of oncoming hounds. The huge antler

spikes were within a few yards of her, and in a flash of

numbing fear she remembered Mortimer’s warning, to beware of

horned beasts on the farm. And then with a quick throb of

joy she saw that she was not alone; a human figure stood a

few paces aside, knee-deep in the whortle bushes.

“Drive it off!” she shrieked. But the figure made no

answering movement.

The antlers drove straight at her breast, the acrid smell

of the hunted animal was in her nostrils, but her eyes were

filled with the horror of something she saw other than her

oncoming death. And in her ears rang the echo of a boy’s

laughter, golden and equivocal.