Jorkens in Witch Wood

AN ATLANTIC STORY

by LORD DUNSANY

I THINK there are more witches in Ireland than in any other land that I know,” said Jorkens. Nobody was talking of witches that day at the Billiards Club. On the other hand our general conversation was at rather a low ebb, so far as interest was concerned, and not really sufficiently full of even reliable fact for me to pass it on to my readers; and Jorkens’s remark was little more than an attempt, which was fortunately successful, to turn our talk from speculations about technicalities of which we were not very fully informed to the story of some fragment of his own life.

Jorkens is no scientist, nor does he pretend to be, and yet I believe that when I shall have been able to fit together all the stories of his I have heard, until the end of one touches the beginning of another all the way through, his life will be found to be full of material that will be new to science, and which scientists must explain as they may. But now to his story, for his opening remark was, as my reader may have guessed, no more than a prelude to one he intended to tell. I think somebody said, “Ah, yes, I suppose there are.” But it is not important.

“I remember a man named Twohey,” said Jorkens. “I think he had once been some kind of a general, but he was a nice quiet fellow when I knew him. I was walking along a road in Ireland, when first I saw him, which ran through a nice estate, with little clumps of trees in it here and there, and looking over a hedge, I chanced to see him slipping a ferret into a rabbit hole; and he looked up rather sharply, as if he thought I might be someone that was going to interfere with him; and when he saw that I wasn’t, however he saw that, he gave me a charming smile, and said, ‘I thought you were one of those——. But never mind. I’m just getting a bit of a rabbit for my old mother. Sure, no one could object to a man doing that.’

“I agreed that nobody could. And from that we got talking of other things. And presently he told me about one of the clumps quite near us, which he said had been cursed by a witch. It was a hazel wood, about a hundred yards long, and in breadth a little less, and it was called Witch Wood, because a witch had once cursed it, he said, so that anybody out in it at night would lose his way and be lost.

“‘But it is only a clump,’ I said.

“‘And so it is, by day,’ said Twohey.

“‘And what is it by night?’ I asked.

“‘Sure, the curse works then,’ he said.

“‘What does it do?’ I asked.

“‘It’s as I said,’ replied Twohey. ‘You lose your way.’

“‘In a little wood like that?’ I asked.

“‘Aye,’said Twohey. ‘Sure, that’s what it looks. And so it does.’

“Well, it isn’t any use arguing about witchcraft. The only thing was to test it. And so I said to Twohey: —

“‘Look here,’ I said, ‘I’ll walk through that clump at any time of night. I’ll go in by the far side and come out by the road.’

“‘Any time after dark will do,’ said Twohey.

“‘Then I’ll do it,’ I said, ‘witch or no witch.’

“‘Very well,’ said Twohey. ‘There’s no one to stop you, unless Lord Monaghan’s keeper. And he doesn’t be sitting up late these days, the way he used to when he was younger. Time was he was a bit wicked, but he’d not bother you now.’

“’Well, then, I’ll try it,’I said, ‘if you think no one will mind.’

“‘Sorra a mind,’ said Twohey.

“‘I’ll try it tonight,’I said.

“‘Then you’ll be lost,’said Twohey.

“‘What did she curse it for?’ I asked when that was settled.

“‘Ah, there was a bad Lord Monaghan in the old days,’Twohey said, ‘and he turned her out of her cottage where this wood is, and he planted birch trees all over her garden, and hazels all the way round.’

“I saw the birches standing all white in the wood and a few Scotch firs beyond them. And all the rest was hazels.

“‘What did he do it for?' I asked.

‘“For no reason at all,’ said Twohey, ‘only that the poor old woman wouldn’t pay her rent. And, sure, I don’t blame her.’

“And then a rabbit bolted into a little net that Twohey had waiting for it over a hole.

“‘Excuse me a moment,’said Twohey.

“And it was really no more than a moment before he had snapped its neck. ‘It’s only for my old mother,’ he said. ‘Sure, no one in the world could grudge her a rabbit.’

“I entirely agreed with Twohey, and promised not to say a word about the rabbit to anybody, for fear it should come to ears that Twohey said had nothing better to do than to listen for that kind of talk, which was not properly their concern at all. And we arranged a meeting next morning in the little neighboring village, outside a door within which Twohey said one could get a drink of some sort, though it was nothing like the drink that it used to be in the old days. And I was to tell Twohey just how I got through Witch Wood. And I looked forward to doing so, for I didn’t think much of his witch and I felt pretty sure that I could walk through that wood in less time and with less exertion than it would take me to explain that a witch had not the powers with which Twohey appeared to credit her. For I could see that he was a decent fellow and would believe whatever I told him. Very unlike the more suspicious kind of devil who will never believe a straight account of anything, if he has not been there himself and seen the whole thing with his own eyes.”

2

I MADE some little interruption, such as I make from time to time to forestall any unmannerly discussion that might arise in the club. I think such interruptions are a good thing.

“Well,” said Jorkens, “we parted then, and I remember my words to Twohey: ‘I don’t think it will take me more than three or four minutes, even in the dark, to do the longest part of the wood.’

“‘Well,’ said Twohey, ’the last man I knew that tried it allowed himself three or four hours.’

“‘Three or four hours!’ I exclaimed.

“‘Aye, and it wasn’t long enough,’ said Twohey. ‘Dawn didn’t come up for another two hours after that. But maybe your honor will do it, being fresh from London and all, and with the help of your Oxford-and-Cambridge education.’

“He was a polite and pleasant fellow, though pigheaded about the witch.

“Well, I was staying at a little inn, where they made me very comfortable, and I spent a holiday of a week there and got a bit of fishing.”

“A holiday from what?” asked Terbut, who happened to be in the club.

“Oh, from one thing and another,” said Jorkens. “From one thing and another. Various little things, including a bit of work. You may have tried it once, only don’t let’s talk about it. No, I was on my holiday.

“Well, I told them I was going out for a short walk after supper. I wasn’t a quarter of an hour’s walk from the wood, so I told them I would be back in about half an hour; and they said they would let me in any time, up to eleven o’clock. It was in the early summer, after the May fly had gone down, and the corncrake had just arrived from the South: I heard its voice as I went in over the fields. There was a line of distant mountains low in the sky; I never knew the names of them; and I waited till they had wholly disappeared, and everything got dim, though some luminous trace of day was still overhead and a glimmer shone on the fields.

“As I left the road I heard the bark of one dog, and then an intense stillness, that was broken after a while by the voice of the corncrake. A dim white moth flew low above the tops of the grasses, bringing a gleam of light, that was noticeable and welcome in the huge area of darkness that was gaining upon the world, and somehow gained on one’s spirits, so that one felt all through one the unreasonable awe of the night, an awe that one tried to avoid by keeping away from trees, and out in the open spaces where the last of the daylight lingered. It is not a feeling that I can explain, because reason has no concern with it. Nor was there any sense in avoiding trees in the fields, when the purpose of my journey was to enter a wood.

“Soon I saw a huge shape standing behind an ash tree, watching me. It turned out to be a horse. It scarcely moved as I went by. Movement, it seemed to feel, was for the daytime, and everything was too hushed and still for it to move now. I went on from the silent figure and came to still cattle, some standing, some lying down, all equally still. The hush had deepened, and now held everything.

“Over a little hill not far away, I saw one light that was all alone in the dimness, glittering over the top of a little hill, a golden radiance that, seemed, small though it was, to be perhaps the first flash of the rising moon; but the moon was in another part of the sky, and I saw it later, a blurred mass of fine gold, nearly hidden in mist. This light, then, which did not increase, was the bright light of a window, the one light in all the valley when all else was curtained. I wondered for a while at the glare of it. Then it occurred to me that it must be the house of the priest, and that perhaps he kept that light shining so late as a kind of warning that he was there, to whomever might be wandering at such an hour. Again a moth passed by me, and then I came to the wood. At the edge of it somebody had lately cut an ash tree, and the stump of it shone white; that and the gleam of the moth and the far-off glow from the hill were the last lights I saw for some time.

“As I entered the little wood, I saw at once, what is obvious to anyone who has seen a wood after dark, that the little clump was different from what it had been in the day. It looked larger, for one thing; and besides that, it looked menacing. But then, for some reason or other, woods at night always do. I don’t quite know why. I suppose that it is just the way they are made. Well, I didn’t think much of that, and for a while I got on Very well. The only thing that was troubling me was the faint glow in the sky, which I was afraid might possibly make it an unfair test, as it could be argued that it was not entirely night while any light was there. But I thought I would go on and then run through the wood again later, so as to make quite sure.

“I was among large leaves of cow-parsnip at first, growing underneath hazels; then a faint glow came from the white trunks of birches; but very soon, as I got deeper into the wood, I was unable to tell them from the gray trunk of an occasional oak, except by feeling the bark, and that was not of much use to me, as, from what I had seen of the little grove in the distance, I did not know that there were any oak trees there, so that they did not help to show me where I was. The birches that stood in what was the witch’s garden were close to the point at which I had entered the wood, and I expected to go through them and then through the hazels, and so come to the road. But soon I saw no more the glow of the birches, and there were hazels all round me, as I could tell by their shapes. I was surprised at seeing no birches, but I knew the direction of the road and I aimed to come out exactly at a gate that I knew there was on the roadside, leading into the wood.

3

PURHAPS I may offer a suggestion to anyone who may be lost in a wood at night. Mistake North for East, and the other points of the compass will come out wrong too. So I went on through the wood, thinking I knew the way. Of course I would have been bound to have come out somewhere, if I had kept straight on in so small a wood, but I got diverted by water. Whether it was the same long strip appearing again and again I do not know, but it prevented my going straight; and not only that, but it was no guide to me whatever, for I knew nothing of any stream that entered the wood, and could not make out what water was doing there. Perhaps it was a deep marshy ditch that guarded one side of Witch Wood, or there may have been four of them and I may have come on them all: whatever it was, I was continually being turned by it. Not that it seemed at first to matter, as I still thought I knew where the road was, but it made my journey slower, because the water often turned me from clearer spaces, through which I intended to walk, into thicker parts of the wood, and some of these were so thick that I had to vary my direction again.

“I went on and on for a very long while through the wood, and the night grew darker, and any glimmer of light that still remained was where it was no use to me up overhead, except where it suddenly flashed in patches of water; and the cow-parsnip had ceased, as though I had changed my climate. There had been a kind of hush when I first entered Witch Wood, as though everything had suddenly held its breath; no dog barked, the corncrake had ceased, there was no sound from the cattle; and this silence continued the whole time that I was in the wood. If I could have heard any sounds I had heard before, they might have given me some direction, but the curse didn’t seem to allow that. That was what I wanted, direction; any direction at all. For I was beginning now to see that my idea of the direction of the road was all wrong. Birches by now had taken the place of hazels, and there was an occasional dark pine: I was in an entirely different country. My theory that I knew the way, my knowledge that I was in a little grove, my belief that I could cross it in three minutes, all had to go by the board, and I had to acknowledge the fact that I was lost in a forest. I knew that some forests went for a thousand miles, that some of them ran right into the Arctic.

“It was no use arguing with myself any longer that I knew where I was. The most important thing for me to do then was to start all over again, unhindered by any theory that I could get out of the wood, and, looking at things in an entirely new light, to try and find out where I was. The birches somehow seemed to suggest Russia. You may think that mistaken of me, but I had recognized by now that I knew nothing of my whereabouts whatever and that I might just as likely be in one place as any other. That is how I felt when my cocksureness was gone. I had thought I could stroll through that wood and that the witch’s curses were nothing, and now I was in her garden with dark forest all round me. And, if any vestige of my confidence remained, any reliance whatever on any preconceived thing, all that was swept away by finding those birches at the end of an hour’s walk, when I had expected to find them in the first few yards. Obviously they could not be the same birches, and might be any forest whatever.

“What I mean is that by clinging to the belief that I was in a small grove in Ireland I could not get any farther: my only chance was to give up the idea that, was doing me no good, and to get as far away from it as I could. That is why I examined the possibility of being lost in a birch forest somewhere in Russia. The wrong idea perhaps, but better than the one that I clung to so long and that had left me all that time completely lost in the wood.

4

WELL, I traveled on through the forest a very long way, through the faint gleam of the birches. And at last I said, ‘Wherever this forest is, I am obviously lost in it, and I’ve nothing to guide me. What’s the use of going on?’ A man who has traveled as much as I have is never helpless, especially if he has water somewhere near and has got a box of matches; and a man who’s traveled at all always has matches; so I decided to make myself comfortable for the night. Nothing burns better than birch bark, and I stripped off a good lot of it and soon I had a fire that would burn anything I threw down on it; and I piled on branches that I broke from the trees, and logs and sticks that I found in the dark of the weeds, for I fancied a big fire would be necessary to keep me warm in those latitudes, where those dense birch forests grew, as soon as the night should settle down to grow colder. I felt no cold as yet, on account of my long hard walk, but I was glad of the warmth of the fire and glad of the rest.

“The fire was soon burning well, brilliantly lighting up the birches around me, but it did not show me my way, for, bright though it made the ground that had been so dark to my footsteps, a circle of darkness seemed to draw in round it that was even blacker than it had been before. For a moment the clear bright ground for a few paces all round me tempted me to try to look for my way again, but I had the sense to look at the darkness that hung so close all round and to accept the obvious fact that I was lost, and to make it no worse by wandering. After that I was really quite comfortable, lying on a few handfuls of twigs that kept off most of the wet and getting all the warmth that I wanted from the fire, and warmth is one of the first of our necessities. The bright light of the flames added cheerfulness and I settled down to wait for the dawn, which is early at that time of year, when the curse, as I gathered from Twohey, usually lifted, apart from which I should be able to see my way. The great hush continued, and I heard no sound at all from outside the wood. I got another damp log or two and threw them onto the fire, which was doing too well to be harmed by their being damp, and then I settled down to try to sleep, with the fire on my face and a cool wind on my neck.

“But I could not get to sleep for a long time; and, just as I thought that I was going to do so, I heard my first sound from outside, the sound of a cock crowing from some cottage far over the fields, as early as that in the night, for, at any rate in the wood, there was yet no trace of dawn. I listened for a while, and it crowed again. And then I got the idea that, whatever Twohey had said, it was not so much the dawn that abated curses, as the cockcrow that usually accompanied it, and came often a little before. So I threw a bit more stuff down on the fire, for it had now sunk low, and as soon as ever I had it blazing well I started off again on my journey through Witch Wood. And this time, though I still had no point to make for, and had quite given up my futile belief that I knew the way to go, I had, as I had not had before, a point from which I was able to move away, and this at least was a help to prevent me moving in circles.

“So I set out, looking often over my shoulder, to see that the fire behind me was receding as it should. And in a surprisingly short time I saw another light, that was shining through the branches of the hazels before me, a pale golden light. It was the light of the priest’s window shining over the fields. What it was doing at such an hour I could have no idea, but that of course was no affair of mine. There it shone and I walked through Witch Wood towards it, and soon was out in the field where the cattle were, still lying or standing motionless. And I heard the corncrake again. And I went back past the same horse, that was standing still by his tree, and back through the hush of the night. I came to the inn before there was as yet any sign of the dawn. For a moment I wondered what excuse to give, and then the right idea came to me; I threw pebbles up at the window and, when it opened,

I gave them the bare truth: I said I was lost in Witch Wood. And they understood me at once. All people are suspicious of strangers, and any excuse that I gave for being so late would have been examined very thoroughly, and it might have been a long time before they opened the door, but the bare truth about Witch Wood went straight to their hearts and they let me in at once.

“Next day I saw Twohey and told him straight out that his witch had won.

“‘Ah, and so she would,’ said Twohey.

“‘Are there many other curses like that,’ I asked him, ’being laid down hereabouts now?'

“‘Ah,’ said Twohey, ‘there are not.’

‘“Why is that?’ I asked.

“‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I don’t know what’s come over the country. The witches are no good any longer. The wickedness has gone out of them. I don’t know what’s wrong at all. But it’s not like what it was in the old days.’ ”