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NIGHT IN THE FOREST
At first Felix rode quickly, but his horse stumbling, though accustomed to the woods, warned him to be more careful. The passage of so many horsemen in the last few days had cut up and destroyed the track, which was nothing but a green path, and the covered waggons had of course assisted in rendering it rough and broken. He therefore rode slowly, and giving his horse his head, he picked his way of his own accord at the side of the road, often brushing against the underwood.
Still, indeed, absorbed by the feelings which had almost mastered him in the arbour, and thinking of Aurora, he forgot where he was, till the dismal howling of wood-dogs deep in the forest woke him. It was almost pitch dark under the tall beeches, the highest of the trees preventing the beams of the moon from illuminating the path till later in the night. Like a curtain the thick foliage above shut out the sky, so that no star was visible. When the wood-dogs ceased there was no sound beyond the light fall of the horse's hoofs as he walked upon the grass. Darkness and silence prevailed; he could see nothing. He spoke to his horse and patted his neck; he stepped a little faster and lifted his head, which he had held low as if making his way by scent.
The gloom weighed upon him, unhappy as he was. Often as he had voluntarily sought the loneliness of the woods, now in this state of mind, it oppressed him; he remembered that beyond the beeches the ground was open and cleared by a forest fire, and began to be anxious to reach it. It seemed an hour, but it really was only a few minutes, when the beeches became thinner and wider apart, the foliage above ceased, and the stars shone. Before him was the open space he had desired, sloping to the right hand, the tall grass grey-green in the moonlight, and near at hand sparkling with dew.
Amongst it stood the crooked and charred stems of furze with which it had been covered before the fire passed. A white owl floated rather than flew by, following the edge of the forest; from far down the slope came the chattering notes of a brook-sparrow, showing that there was water in the hollow. Some large animal moved into the white mist that hung there and immediately concealed it, like a cloud upon the ground. He was not certain in the dim light, and with so momentary and distant a view, but supposed from its size that it must have been a white or dun wood-cow.
Ahead, across the open, rose the dark top of the fir trees through which the route ran. Instead of the relief which he had anticipated as he rode towards them, the space clear of trees around seemed to expose him to the full view of all that might be lurking in the forest. As he approached the firs and saw how dark it was beneath them, the shadowy depths suggested uncertain shapes hiding therein, and his memory immediately reverted to the book of magic he had read at the castle.
There could not be such things, and yet no one in his heart doubted their existence; deny it as they might with their tongues as they sat at the supper-table and handed round the ale, out of doors in the night, the haste to pass the haunted spot, the bated breath, and the fearful glances cast around, told another tale. He endeavoured to call philosophy to his aid; he remembered, too, how many nights he had spent in the deepest forest without seeing anything, and without even thinking of such matters. He reproved himself for his folly, and asked himself if ever he could hope to be a successful leader of men who started at a shadow. In vain: the tone of his mind had been weakened by the strain it had undergone.
Instead of strengthening him, the teachings of philosophy now seemed cold and feeble, and it occurred to him that possibly the belief of the common people (fully shared by their religious instructors) was just as much entitled to credence as these mere suppositions and theories. The details of the volume recurred to his mind; the accurate description of the demons of the forest and the hill, and especially the horrible vampires enfolding the victim with outstretched wings. In spite of himself, incredulous, yet excited, he pressed his horse to greater speed, though the track was narrow and very much broken under the firs. He obeyed, and trotted, but reluctantly, and needed continual urging.
The yellow spark of a glowworm shining by a bush made him set his teeth; trifling and well known as it was, the light suddenly seen thrilled him with the terror of the unexpected. Strange rushings sounded among the fern, as if the wings of a demon brushed it as he travelled. Felix knew that they were caused by rabbits hastening off, or a boar bounding away, yet they increased the feverish excitement with which he was burdened. Though dark beneath the firs, it was not like the darkness of the beeches; these trees did not form a perfect canopy overhead everywhere. In places he could see where a streak of moonlight came aslant through an opening and reached the ground. One such streak fell upon the track ahead; the trees there had decayed and fallen, and a broad band of light lit up the way.
As he approached it and had almost entered, suddenly something shot towards him in the air; a flash, as it were, as if some object had crossed the streak, and was rendered visible for the tenth of a second, like a mote in the sunbeams. At the same instant of time, the horse, which he had pressed to go faster, put his foot into a rut or hole, and stumbled, and Felix was flung so far forward that he only saved himself from being thrown by clinging to his neck. A slight whizzing sound passed over his head, followed immediately by a sharp tap against a tree in his rear.
The thing happened in the twinkling of an eye, but he recognised the sound; it was the whiz of a crossbow bolt, which had missed his head, and buried its point in a fir. The stumble saved him; the bolt would have struck his head or chest had not the horse gone nearly on his knee. The robber had so planned his ambush that his prey should be well seen, distinct in the moonlight, so that his aim might be sure. Recovering himself, the horse, without needing the spur, as if he recognised the danger to his rider, started forward at full speed, and raced, regardless of ruts, along the track. Felix, who had hardly got into his seat again, could for awhile but barely restrain it, so wildly he fled. He must have been carried within a few yards of the bandit, but saw nothing, neither did a second bolt follow him; the crossbow takes time to bend, and if the robber had companions they were differently armed.
He was a furlong or more from the spot before he quite realized the danger he had escaped. His bow was unstrung in his hand, his arrows were all in the quiver; thus, had the bolt struck him, even if the wound had not been mortal (as it most likely would have been) he could have made no resistance. How foolish to disregard the warnings of the grooms at the castle! It was now too late; all he could do was to ride. Dreading every moment to be thrown, he pushed on as fast as the horse would go. There was no pursuit, and after a mile or so, as he left the firs and entered the ash woods, he slackened somewhat. It was, indeed, necessary, for here the hoofs of preceding horsemen had poached the turf (always damp under ash) into mud. It was less dark, for the boughs of the ashes did not meet above.
As he passed, wood-pigeons rose with loud clatterings from their roosting-places, and once or twice he saw in the gloom the fiery phosphoric eye-balls of the grey wood-cats. How gladly he recognised presently the change from trees to bushes, when he rode out from the thick ashes among the low hawthorns, and knew that he was within a mile or so of the South Barrier at home! Already he heard the song of the nightingale, the long note which at night penetrates so far; the nightingale, which loves the hawthorn and the neighbourhood of man. Imperceptibly he increased the speed again; the horse, too, knew that he was nearing home, and responded willingly.
The track was much broader and fairly good, but he knew that at one spot where it was marshy it must be cut up. There he went at the side, almost brushing a projecting maple bush. Something struck the horse, he fancied the rebound of a bough; he jumped, literally jumped, like a buck, and tore along the road. With one foot out of the stirrup, it was with the utmost difficulty he stuck to his seat; he was not riding, but holding on for a moment or two. Presently recovering from the jolt, he endeavoured to check him, but the bit was of no avail; the animal was beside himself with terror, and raced headlong till they reached the barrier. It was, of course, closed, and the warder was asleep; so that, until he dismounted, and kicked and shouted, no one challenged him.
Then the warder, spear in hand, appeared with his lantern, but recognising the voice, ran to the gate. Within the gate a few yards there were the embers of a fire, and round it a bivouac of footmen who had been to the feast, and had returned thus far before nightfall. Hearing the noise, some of them arose, and came round him, when one immediately exclaimed and asked if he was wounded. Felix replied that he was not, but looking at his foot where the man pointed, saw that it was covered with blood. But, upon close examination, there was no cut or incision; he was not hurt. The warder now called to them, and showed a long deep scratch on the near flank of the horse, from which the blood was dripping.
It was such a scratch as might have been made with an iron nail, and, without hesitation, they all put it down to a Bushman's spud. Without doubt, the Bushman, hearing Felix approach, had hidden in the maple bush, and, as he passed, struck with his nail-like dagger; but, miscalculating the speed at which the horse was going, instead of piercing the thigh of the rider, the blow fell on the horse, and the sharp point was dragged along the side. The horse trembled as they touched him.
"Sir," said one of the retainers, their headman, "if you will pardon me, you had best string your bow and send a shaft through his heart, for he will die in misery before morning."
The Bushman's spud, the one he uses for assassination or to despatch his prey, is poisoned. It is a lingering poison, and takes several hours to produce its effect; but no remedy is known, and many who have escaped from the cowardly blow have crawled to the path only to expire in torture. There was no denying that what the retainer proposed was the only thing that could be done. The warder had meantime brought a bucket of water, of which the poor creature drank eagerly. Felix could not do it; he could not slay the creature which had carried him so long, and which twice that night had saved him, and was now to die, as it were, in his place. He could not consent to it; he led the horse towards home, but he was weak or weary, and could not be got beyond the Pen.
There the group assembled around him. Felix ordered the scratch to be cleansed, while he ran over in his mind every possible remedy. He gave strict orders that he should not be despatched, and then hastened to the house. He undid with trembling hands the thongs that bound his chest, and took out his manuscripts, hoping against hope that among the many notes he had made there might be something. But there was nothing, or in his excitement he overlooked it. Remembering that Oliver was a great authority upon horses, he went into his room and tried to wake him. Oliver, weary with his ride, and not as yet having slept off the effects of the feast, could not be roused.
Felix left him and hurried back to the Pen. Weary as he was, he watched by the horse till the larks began to sing and the dawn was at hand. As yet he had not shown any severe symptoms except twitching of the limbs, and a constant thirst, which water could not quench. But suddenly he fell, and the old retainer warned them all to stand away, for he would bite anything that was near. His words were instantly fulfilled; he rolled, and kicked, and bit at everything within reach. Seeing this agony, Felix could no longer delay. He strung his bow, but he could not fit the arrow to the string, he missed the notch, so much did his hands shake. He motioned to the retainers who had gathered around, and one of them thrust his spear into the horse behind his shoulder.
When Felix at last returned to his chamber he could not but reflect, as the sun rose and the beams entered, that every omen had been against him; the adder under foot, the bandit's bolt, the Bushman's poisoned point. He slept till noon, and, upon going out, unrefreshed and still weary, he found that they had already buried the horse, and ordered a mound to be raised above his grave. The day passed slowly; he wandered about the castle and the enclosed grounds, seeking comfort and finding none. His mind vacillated; he recalled all that Aurora had said, persuading him not to do anything in haste or despair. Yet he could not continue in his present condition. Another day went by, and still undecided and doubting, he remained at home.
Oliver began to jest at him; had he abandoned the expedition? Oliver could not understand indecision; perhaps he did not see so many sides to the question, his mind was always quickly made up. Action was his forte, not thought. The night came, and still Felix lingered, hesitating.