Gabriel Ernest by
“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
“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 Cunningham.
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
“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
“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
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 child-flesh.”
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 boy’s toilet the simile was hardly an apt
one.) “Our hillside hares aren’t easily
“At night I hunt on four feet,” was the somewhat
“I suppose you mean that you hunt with a dog?”
hazarded Van Cheele.
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 youngster.
“I can’t have you staying in these woods,”
he declared authoritatively.
“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 Cheele.
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
involuntarily 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. They 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
“What an extraordinary wild animal!” said Van
Cheele as he picked himself up. And then he recalled
Cunningham’s remark “There is a wild beast in your
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 dogs? 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 his 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 child-flesh 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
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
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
“You told me I was not to stay in the woods,” said
the boy calmly.
“But not to come here. Supposing my aunt should
And with a view to minimising 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
Miss Van Cheele was enormously interested.
“Perhaps his underlinen is marked,” she
“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
“We must call him something till we know who he really
is,” she said. “Gabriel-Ernest, I think; those
are nice suitable names.”
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
“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 hedge-growth 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 too!”
“What! vanished away into nothing?” asked Van
“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.