Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Algernon Blackwood: Ancient lights

Algernon Blackwood

From Southwater, where he left the train, theroad led due west. That he knew; for the rest hetrusted to luck, being one of those born walkers who dislike asking the way. He had that instinct,and as a rule it served him well. “A mile or so due west along the sandy road till you come to a stile onthe right; then across the fields. You’ll see the redhouse straight before you.” He glanced at the post-card’s instructions once again, and once again hetried to decipher the scratched-out sentence— without success. It had been so elaborately inkedover that no word was legible. Inked-out sentencesin a letter were always enticing. He wondered whatit was that had to be so very carefully obliterated.
The afternoon was boisterous, with a tearing,shouting wind that blew from the sea, across theSussex weald. Massive clouds with rounded, piled-up edges, cannoned across gaping spaces of bluesky. Far away the line of Downs swept the horizon,like an arriving wave. Chanctonbury Ring rode theircrest—a scudding ship, hull down before the wind.He took his hat off and walked rapidly, breathinggreat draughts of air with delight and exhilaration.The road was deserted; no horsemen, bicycles, ormotors; not even a tradesman’s cart; no single walker. But anyhow he would never have asked the way. Keeping a sharp eye for the stile, he poundedalong, while the wind tossed the cloak against hisface, and made waves across the blue puddles in the yellow road. The trees showed their under leaves of white. The bracken and the high new grass bent allone way. Great life was in the day, high spirits anddancing everywhere. And for a Croydon surveyor’sclerk just out of an office this was like a holiday atthe sea.
It was a day for high adventure, and his heartrose up to meet the mood of Nature. His umbrella with the silver ring ought to have been a sword, andhis brown shoes should have been top-boots withspurs upon the heels. Where hid the enchantedCastle and the princess with the hair of sunny gold?His horse...
The stile came suddenly into view and nippedadventure in the bud. Everyday clothes took himprisoner again. He was a surveyor’s clerk, middle-aged, earning three pounds a week, coming fromCroydon to see about a client’s proposed alterationsin a wood—something to ensure a better view fromthe dining-room window. Across the fields, perhapsa mile away, he saw the red house gleaming in thesunshine; and resting on the stile a moment to gethis breath he noticed a copse of oak and hornbeamon the right. “Aha,” he told himself “so that must bethe wood he wants to cut down to improve the view? I’ll ’ave a look at it.” There were boards up, of course, but there was an inviting little path as well.“I’m not a trespasser,” he said; “it’s part of my busi-ness, this is.” He scrambled awkwardly over thegate and entered the copse. A little round wouldbring him to the field again.
But the moment he passed among the trees the wind ceased shouting and a stillness dropped uponthe world. So dense was the growth that the sun-shine only came through in isolated patches. Theair was close. He mopped his forehead and put hisgreen felt hat on, but a low branch knocked it off again at once, and as he stooped an elastic twigswung back and stung his face. There were flowersalong both edges of the little path; glades openedon either side; ferns curved about in dampercorners, and the smell of earth and foliage was richand sweet. It was cooler here. What an enchantinglittle wood, he thought, turning down a small greenglade where the sunshine flickered like silver wings.How it danced and fluttered and moved about! Heput a dark blue flower in his buttonhole. Again hishat, caught by an oak branch as he rose, wasknocked from his head, falling across his eyes. Andthis time he did not put it on again. Swinging hisumbrella, he walked on with uncovered head, whistling rather loudly as he went. But the thick-ness of the trees hardly encouraged whistling, andsomething of his gaiety and high spirits seemed toleave him. He suddenly found himself treading cir-cumspectly and with caution. The stillness in the wood was so peculiar.

There was a rustle among the ferns and leavesand something shot across the path ten yardsahead, stopped abruptly an instant with headcocked sideways to stare, then dived again beneaththe underbrush with the speed of a shadow. Hestarted like a frightened child, laughing the nextsecond that a mere pheasant could have made him jump. In the distance he heard wheels upon theroad, and wondered why the sound was pleasant.“Good old butcher’s cart,” he said to himself—then realised that he was going in the wrong directionand had somehow got turned round. For the roadshould be behind him, not in front.
And he hurriedly took another narrow gladethat lost itself in greenness to the right. “That’s my direction, of course,” he said; “the trees has mixedme up a bit, it seems”—then found himself abruptly by the gate he had first climbed over. He hadmerely made a circle. Surprise became almost dis-comfiture then. And a man, dressed like a game-keeper in browny green, leaned against the gate,hitting his legs with a switch. “I’m making for Mr.Lumley’s farm,” explained the walker. “This is his wood, I believe—” then stopped dead, because it was no man at all, but merely an effect of light andshade and foliage. He stepped back to reconstructthe singular illusion, but the wind shook thebranches roughly here on the edge of the wood andthe foliage refused to reconstruct the figure. Theleaves all rustled strangely. And just then the sun went behind a cloud, making the whole wood look otherwise. Yet how the mind could be thus doubly deceived was indeed remarkable, for it almostseemed to him the man had answered, spoken—or was this the shuffling noise the branches made?—and had pointed with his switch to the notice-boardupon the nearest tree. The words rang on in hishead, but of course he had imagined them: “No, it’snot his wood. It’s ours.” And some village wit,moreover, had changed the lettering on the weather-beaten board, for it read quite plainly,“Trespassers will be persecuted.”
And while the astonished clerk read the wordsand chuckled, he said to himself, thinking what atale he’d have to tell his wife and children later—“The blooming wood has tried to chuck me out.But I’ll go in again. Why, it’s only a matter of asquare acre at most. I’m bound to reach the fieldson the other side if I keep straight on.” Heremembered his position in the office. He had acertain dignity to maintain.
The cloud passed from below the sun, and lightsplashed suddenly in all manner of unlikely places.The man went straight on. He felt a touch of puzz-ling confusion somewhere; this way the copse hadof shifting from sunshine into shadow doubtlesstroubled sight a little. To his relief at last, a new glade opened through the trees and disclosed thefields with a glimpse of the red house in the dis-tance at the far end. But a little wicket gate thatstood across the path had first to be climbed, and ashe scrambled heavily over—for it would not open—he got the astonishing feeling that it slid off side- ways beneath his weight, and towards the wood.Like the moving staircases at Harrod’s and Earl’sCourt, it began to glide off with him. It was quitehorrible. He made a violent effort to get downbefore it carried him into the trees, but his feetbecame entangled with the bars and umbrella, sothat he fell heavily upon the farther side, armsspread across the grass and nettles, boots clutchedbetween the first and second bars. He lay there amoment like a man crucified upside down, and while he struggled to get disentangled—feet, bars,and umbrella formed a regular net—he saw thelittle man in browny green go past him withextreme rapidity through the wood. The man waslaughing. He passed across the glade some fifty yards away, and he was not alone this time. A com-panion like himself went with him. The clerk, now upon his feet again, watched them disappear intothe gloom of green beyond. “They’re tramps, notgamekeepers,” he said to himself, half mortified,half angry. But his heart was thumping dreadfully,and he dared not utter all his thought.
He examined the wicket gate, convinced it wasa trick gate somehow—then went hurriedly onagain, disturbed beyond belief to see that the gladeno longer opened into fields, but curved away tothe right. What in the world had happened to him?His sight was so utterly at fault. Again the sunflamed out abruptly and lit the floor of the wood with pools of silver, and at the same moment a viol-ent gust of wind passed shouting overhead. Dropsfell clattering everywhere upon the leaves, making asharp pattering as of many footsteps. The wholecopse shuddered and went moving.
“Rain, by George,” thought the clerk, and feelingfor his umbrella, discovered he had lost it. Heturned back to the gate and found it lying on thefarther side. To his amazement he saw the fields atthe far end of the glade, the red house, too, ashinein the sunset. He laughed then, for, of course, in hisstruggle with the gate, he had somehow got turnedround—had fallen back instead of forwards. Climb-ing over, this time quite easily, he retraced hissteps. The silver band, he saw, had been torn fromthe umbrella. No doubt his foot, a nail, orsomething had caught in it and ripped it off. Theclerk began to run; he felt extraordinarily dismayed.
But, while he ran, the entire wood ran with him,round him, to and fro, trees shifting like living things, leaves folding and unfolding, trunks dartingbackwards and forwards, and branches disclosingenormous empty spaces, then closing up againbefore he could look into them. There were foot-steps everywhere, and laughing, crying voices, andcrowds of figures gathering just behind his back tillthe glade, he knew, was thick with moving life. The wind in his ears, of course, produced the voices andthe laughter, while sun and clouds, plunging thecopse alternately in shadow and bright dazzlinglight, created the figures. But he did not like it, and went as fast as ever his sturdy legs could take him.He was frightened now. This was no story for his wife and children. He ran like the wind. But his feetmade no sound upon the soft mossy turf.
Then, to his horror, he saw that the glade grew narrow, nettles and weeds stood thick across it, itdwindled down into a tiny path, and twenty yardsahead it stopped finally and melted off among thetrees. What the trick gate had failed to achieve, thistwisting glade accomplished easily—carried him inbodily among the dense and crowding trees.
There was only one thing to do—turn sharply and dash back again, run headlong into the life thatfollowed at his back, followed so closely too thatnow it almost touched him, pushing him in. And with reckless courage this was what he did. Itseemed a fearful thing to do. He turned with a sortof violent spring, head down and shoulders for- ward, hands stretched before his face. He made theplunge; like a hunted creature he charged full tiltthe other way, meeting the wind now in his face.
Good Lord! The glade behind him had closed upas well; there was no longer any path at all. Turninground and round, like an animal at bay, he searchedfor an opening, a way of escape, searched frantic-ally, breathlessly, terrified now in his bones. Butfoliage surrounded him, branches blocked the way;the trees stood close and still, unshaken by a breathof wind; and the sun dipped that moment behind agreat black cloud. The entire wood turned dark andsilent. It watched him.
Perhaps it was this final touch of sudden black-ness that made him act so foolishly, as though hehad really lost his head. At any rate, without paus-ing to think, he dashed headlong in among thetrees again. There was a sensation of being stiflingly surrounded and entangled, and that he must break out at all costs—out and away into the open of theblessed fields and air. He did this ill-consideredthing, and apparently charged straight into an oak that deliberately moved into his path to stop him.He saw it shift across a good full yard, and being ameasuring man, accustomed to theodolite andchain, he ought to know. He fell, saw stars, and felta thousand tiny fingers tugging and pulling at hishands and neck and ankles. The stinging nettles, nodoubt, were responsible for this. He thought of itlater. At the moment it felt diabolically calculated.
But another remarkable illusion was not so eas-ily explained. For all in a moment, it seemed, theentire wood went sliding past him with a thick deeprustling of leaves and laughter, myriad footsteps,and tiny little active, energetic shapes; two men inbrowny green gave him a mighty hoist—and heopened his eyes to find himself lying in the meadow beside the stile where first his incredible adventurehad begun. The wood stood in its usual place andstared down upon him in the sunlight. There wasthe red house in the distance as before. Above himgrinned the weather-beaten notice-board: “Tres-passers will be prosecuted.”
Dishevelled in mind and body, and a good dealshaken in his official soul, the clerk walked slowly across the fields. But on the way he glanced oncemore at the postcard of instructions, and saw withdull amazement that the inked-out sentence wasquite legible after all beneath the scratches madeacross it: “There is a short cut through the wood—the wood I want cut down—if you care to take it.”Only “care” was so badly written, it looked morelike another word; the “c” was uncommonly like “d.”
“That’s the copse that spoils my view of theDowns, you see,” his client explained to him later,pointing across the fields, and referring to the ord-nance map beside him. “I want it cut down and apath made so and so.” His finger indicated directionon the map. “The Fairy Wood—it’s still called, andit’s far older than this house. Come now, if you’reready, Mr. Thomas, we might go out and have alook at it. . .”

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