The Wood of Living Trees

by G. Ranger Wormser

And I do hereby swear and take unto myself right solemnly and in most sacred oath before the Lord God to prove myself innocent of this most awful and hideous crime, for the which, in the morning, I do swing by the neck. I, Cedric of Hampden, do swear to show with the righteous help of most high God, that it is not I who beareth the blood guilt of the murther of the Lady Beatrix.

There is in this world a certain devilish influence that worketh most evilly against the high Heavens and the good in man, and the which doeth foully with the flesh of man and bringeth the soul of him unto the stinking depths of hell. I, Cedric of Hampden, having scant knowledge of the meanings of witchcraft, or of magic, either black or white, have many times and oft felt the spell which lyeth so infernally o'er the Wood of Living Trees. I, who loveth the Lady Beatrix, who did meet her death the while she wandered within the confines of the Wood of Living Trees, searching therein for the Crucifix which she did lose from off her neck, do accuse no one of the killing of her whom I loved. Yet unto myself I do confess the knowledge of this evil thing, the which I have assured myself hath the power at all times to become incarnate.

This will I prove. At some unknown time will I show that in this world a certain devilish influence worketh most evilly against the high Heavens and the good in man. I do confess the knowing of this to be true, and many times and oft have I convinced myself that this Satanic thing hath the power to become incarnate.

In the morning I hang. God, the Father, Christ, the Son, come unto me in purgatory that I may fulfill my sacred oath and that the soul of her I love may find peace within the seven golden gates of Heaven.

At first there was not one of them who noticed it. Strange that people who are forever entertaining are so very apt to disregard the congeniality of their guests. Perhaps they become calloused; probably they grow tired of a ceaseless picking and choosing.

After a while they caught on to it. It was one of those things that could not be avoided. Gregory Manners never was the sort of chap to conceal his feelings, and very evidently he had most decided ones in regard to the Russian, Stephanof Andreyvitch.

He was much in vogue, was Andreyvitch. It was considered rather a stunt to get him to come to one of your dinners. He was tremendously in demand. Not that Andreyvitch had ever done anything to make himself famous. It was just the personality of the man. Women would tell you that he was fascinating, different. Of course there were some of them, the stupid, fastidious ones, who took offense at his looks. No one could ever say they were in any way prepossessing. He was fairly well built, extremely sinewy. His arms were noticeably long and he had an odd fashion of always walking on the balls of his feet. Add to that a rather narrow face, a heavy nose, deep-set eyes, a bit too close together, and a shock of reddish-brown hair, which grew over his head and face in great abundance. Most men would not pretend to understand him. He was at all times courteous. Perhaps even too suavely polite for the Anglo-Saxon temperament. He aired his views with a wonderful assurance; views that had to do chiefly with æstheticism and a violent disregard of all conventional thought. When Andreyvitch spoke, one had the feeling that he feared to express himself too well; that after all his wicked disbelief in the things in which most men placed their entire faith was something actually a part of him; something which might even cause the amazing heathenism of his talk to be somewhat subdued. And when Stephanof Andreyvitch spoke, one could not help but notice his teeth. Yellow, horridly decayed things they were, with the two eye-teeth on either side surprisingly pointed, like fangs.

Of course, in his way Gregory Manners was a bit of a lion. It was that which undoubtedly made them attribute his dislike of the Russian to jealousy. At least at first. Afterwards they found plenty of other reasons. Naturally one of them was Kathleen. But that came much later on.

He had traveled all over the world, had Manners, and he wrote charmingly vague bits that one read and then forgot. He took himself very seriously. He was one of those men who believe firmly and basically that they are sent into this world with a mission to perform. One could not actually tell whether Manners really thought his writing to be his life work. His best friends maintained that he had not as yet found himself. But no one bothered to ask him the question. His work was good; he was a distinctly decent sort of chap, utterly British, and he was above all else exceedingly interesting. For the most part, people were really fond of Manners, and he fond of them.

The first time Andreyvitch and Manners were introduced, Manners had the feeling that they had met at some time before. He even asked the Russian if it had not been in Moscow. When Andreyvitch told him that he had never in his whole life seen him, and that he positively regretted not having done so, Manners' attitude underwent a sudden and unexpected change. He became silent, almost morose. He kept away from Andreyvitch all evening, and yet he stayed near enough to him to watch his every move.

After that night Manners decided he hated Andreyvitch; that he knew the man was a liar, an impostor. Not at the time that he was in any way jealous of the Russian; still there was a strange familiar feeling there that he had felt at some other time, and in connection with the same man. He could have sworn he had known him before. It was the only way then in which he could explain the thing to himself with any degree of coherence.

It was never difficult to get Gregory Manners to speak of the first evening he met Andreyvitch. It was almost as if he were tremendously puzzled, as if he thought speaking of it, even to a casual acquaintance, might clear things up to himself. He never varied the thing. At first, at any rate. Later on he became strangely, uncannily secretive about it all. That must have been when he began to suspect there was a great deal more to it than had appeared upon the surface.

"D'you know?" His words always came slowly. "Deuce take it! I thought I was going to like the fellow. I'd heard so much about him, too. Why, old chap, I was anxious; positively keen, to know him. And then—Why, when I stood face to face with him, I couldn't think of anything but that I had known him, or did know him, or something. First glance and I saw he was one of those poseurs. One of those rummy fellows who affect poses because they're always consciously trying to imitate the people about them. That's it, you know. They can't be themselves because of some queer kink they funk expressing. So they fake other people and quite naturally they overdo it."

He would usually get worked up about this time; and then he would go on a lot more quickly:

"I've seen them the world over. There was one chap—but—well—I thought this—this fellow who calls himself Andreyvitch, was just going to be one of them—poseurs, you know. He looked harmless enough to be sure. Of course there were his eyes—and the way he walks—but then—I couldn't help feeling he wasn't quite—quite cricket. That came over me confoundedly strongly at the very first minute. And when he smiled—I say, man, d'you ever see such damnably wicked teeth?"

And the man to whom he spoke always had to admit that he had never seen such teeth.

Later on Manners never worked himself up as much.

"That fellow who calls himself Andreyvitch—I've met him before. Don't know where; and at that I've a pretty fair head for names and places. But I know him. He may have looked differently, and it probably was in some of those out-of-the-way holes; but I know him. I don't say he was the Russian Andreyvitch when I knew him—but—Well, old chap, we'll see."

They stopped asking Andreyvitch and Manners around together after a while. But that never kept Manners from speaking of the Russian.

"Was Andreyvitch there?"

"They don't ask us together, eh?"

"No fear, old chap, of my insulting him; I couldn't, you know!"

"Rather a filthy sort of beggar, that Russian; makes the gooseflesh come over me. Happened before. Deuce take the thing!—If I could only think when!"

And then after Manners had dropped out of sight for a fortnight or more, he suddenly made his appearance at the club.

They were all of them unspeakably shocked by his looks. He never carried much weight, but in those two weeks he had gotten down to little else than skin and bones. His color was ghastly. His cheekbones were appallingly prominent and his eyes looked as if they were sunken back into his skull.

To all their questions he gave the same answer:

"No, he wasn't ill. No, he hadn't been ill. There was nothing the matter with him. He'd felt a bit seedy and he'd run down to his place for a fortnight. It was good of them to bother. He was quite, quite all right."

They saw he wanted to be left alone and they let him go over to the window and sit there, his great, loose frame huddled together in the leather arm chair.

There could not have been more than three or four of them sitting near him. It was only those three or four who saw him stagger to his feet, swaying there dizzily for a second. Only those three or four who could distinguish the words spoken in that low, half strangled whisper.

"That's it—I've got it now—Something rotten; always living—Always waiting the chance to do its filthy harm! The power to incarnate—in any form. The greater its loathsomeness, the greater that incarnating stuff! Probably at most times more beast than human—but it could take on human guise—that's it—that's—"

And those three or four men saw him rush out of the reading-room, his head thrown well back, his eyes ablaze with a great light.

And then Mrs. Broughton-Hollins gave the famous house-party. The house-party of which every member, although not fully understanding, tried to forget. The house-party which drove Gregory Manners and Kathleen Bennet out of England.

Mrs. Broughton-Hollins was a charming little American widow, with untold wealth and a desire to do everything, everywhere, with every one. Of course she always managed to get a lot of nice people together, and of course she picked the very nicest ones for her house-party. Then because she had set her heart on having the Russian, Stephanof Andreyvitch, she naturally got him to come, and because she had Kathleen Bennet, she had to ask Gregory. Kathleen and Gregory were engaged to be married.

She was a dear, was Kathleen. As pretty as a picture and delightfully simple-minded. Her father belonged to the clergy, and her family consisted of innumerable brothers and sisters. Gregory Manners, who had traveled the world over, fell quite completely in love with her. And she—She worshiped the ground he walked on.

No one ever quite knew whether or not Manners heard that Andreyvitch was to be of the house-party. Perhaps he had; probably he had not. If Kathleen were to be there, that would have been all-sufficient, as far as Manners was concerned.

By that time Manners had worked himself out of his frenzy of hatred against the Russian. They had been able to explain it to themselves by saying that he had talked himself into it. As a matter of fact, the whole thing was totally subconscious. Whenever he had become conscious the man was anywhere near him, he had begun to realize his hatred of him. But now it had gone infinitely further than just that.

Manners had become uncannily quiet and uncannily knowing.

They were all together in the hall when Manners, as usual, came in late. Mrs. Broughton-Hollins and an anæmic looking youth, who always lounged about in her wake; a man named Galvin, an oldish chap, who had seen service in India, and his pretty, young wife. The Dowager of Endon and her middle-aged son, the Duke, and Stephanof Andreyvitch, holding the center of the floor with little Kathleen Bennet sitting close to where he stood, her eyes fixed in awed surprise upon his face; her white fingers toying nervously with a small silver crucifix which hung about her neck.

Whether or not Andreyvitch heard the man announce Gregory Manners, whether or not he saw him standing there in the doorway, whether or not he purposely went on with what he was then saying was a subject for debate the rest of the evening.

"Faith?" Andreyvitch's low, insidious voice carried well. "But there's no such thing. Can't you realize that all this sickly sentimentality is nothing but dogmatic idiocy on your parts? Must you all drivel your catechism at every turn of the road? Must you close your eyes to filth, to vice, to everything you think outside of your smug English minds? Don't you know you're a part of it? That each one of you is part of the lowest, rottenest—"

It was then that, unable to stand it a second longer, Gregory Manners came into the room.

"I—I most sincerely hope I'm not interrupting, Andreyvitch—but—are you speaking of those things—again?"

The quiet, polite tone was full of subtle significance. And although they could not have known what Manners actually meant, they all of them recognized an emphatic significance. And not one of those people present could overlook the peculiar stress which he had laid upon that slow-drawled "again."

Andreyvitch turned sharply; his face for a second drawn into a hideous, ghastly grimace.

"It is no interruption, Mr. Manners." He was trying hard to resume his habitual insouciance. "But what do you mean, eh? What is this?"

He stood where he was, did Manners. His face was almost expressionless.

"I think you know what I mean. But see here. I'll repeat it for you, if you like. Listen this time. Are—you—speaking—of—those—things—again?"

The Russian was livid.

And for an infinitesimal fraction of time it seemed to those watching him that he was cowed; terrifyingly cowed.

"Your humor," he shrugged his shoulders, endeavoring to pass the thing off as flippantly as possible; "your humor is bizarre, Mr. Manners. I spoke but of that which we all know exists. Surely there is no harm in speaking of what we all recognize!"

Manners' voice rang out clearly, in surprising sternness.

"We all know what exists in this world. We know that greater than all else is faith. As long as you speak before those who know what real goodness is, who believe in it, there is no harm done! I hardly think this is the first time you've tried to impress evil on people—The reason for that's easily understood. But, thank God." His tone vibrated with earnestness. "Thank God, you can do nothing here!"

The Russian turned on him. His usual suave manner had left him. His words were little else than an angry snarl.

"You know me well—very well, indeed, my English friend. You who have met me—is it not once—perhaps, eh, twice?"

Manners laughed. A laugh that had no sound of mirth in it.

"I've met you again and again. And you know it! And there's something else we have to settle for—And you know that, too—Mr.—Mr. Andreyvitch!"

And then Gregory Manners turned to Mrs. Broughton-Hollins.

"Good afternoon," he said, quietly.

A bit flustered, the hostess got hastily to her feet.

"So good of you to come—You know every one, don't you, Gregory? You'll have your tea here with us?" And below her breath, she added: "You mustn't be too hard on Andreyvitch, Gregory. These Russians—well, they're all a bit primitive."

He went from one to the other of the men. He kissed Kathleen's hand and told her how pretty she looked. He let Mrs. Broughton-Hollins pour his tea, and he ignored the Russian completely, the while he watched Kathleen with a strange foreboding, as her eyes flickered again and again over Andreyvitch's face.

Things did not go very smoothly during the next two days. Naturally they all did the usual. Golf and riding, bridge and dancing in the evenings, and shooting. Andreyvitch was passionately fond of shooting. Manners had never so much as killed a sparrow in all his life.

There was an undercurrent of uneasiness which permeated the entire household. It was not particularly because of Andreyvitch and Manners. It was something that not one of them could have explained if they had been put to it.

The first day Mrs. Galvin told her husband that she would be glad when it was all over. And although unexpressed that was the general sentiment.

Not that Andreyvitch or Manners made the others uncomfortable. After Gregory's first outburst, and now that they were under the same roof, it rather seemed that the Russian avoided Manners. And Manners—He watched carefully every movement, every little turn or twist of Andreyvitch's. At that time it was as if he were trying to substantiate some memory of his; to substantiate it deliberately and positively.

And then because of Andreyvitch's unceasing attentions to Kathleen Bennet, word went round among the various members of the house-party that Gregory and Kathleen had quarreled.

It was Sunday afternoon when Manners came upon Kathleen walking alone in the rose-garden.

"I'll be jolly well glad," he told her, "when we get back to town again."

"Aren't you having a good time, Greg?"

"How can I?"

"But you really needed the rest—You haven't been looking any too fit, you know. I thought this would be quite nice for you, Greg."

He let loose at that.

"If you must have it, Kathleen. I can't stand you and that bounder in the same house. That's the truth of it, old girl!"

She avoided answering him directly.

"It's such a ripping place here, Gregory. All—that is, all but those forests over there. The gardener told me his grandfather used to call them the Wood of Living Trees. He couldn't tell me why—only—Isn't it a strange name, Greg?"

She wound up lamely. Evidently she had not said what she started out to say.

"Not so awfully," he answered absent-mindedly. "It's probably an old, old name. They stick to places, you know."

"But the woods," she went on slowly, "they're so dark and mysterious and all that sort of thing. I've wanted to explore them ever since I've been here—that is—that's not altogether true, Gregory. They frighten me a good bit—especially at night. I get into quite a funk about it—at night. I say, you wouldn't call me a coward, would you, Gregory?"

"Of course not, Kathleen. What utter nonsense!"

"But if I weren't afraid," she continued half to herself. "If I weren't really terrified, I'd go into the woods and show myself there's nothing to be frightened of, wouldn't I?"

"You most certainly would not!" He said. "If you did, you'd be sure to lose your way, old girl."

For a second they walked in silence.

"D'you ever feel"—she turned to face him—"d'you ever feel you'd been in a place before—and yet you knew you'd never been there at all?"

"No," he told her a bit too abruptly.

"You needn't be so stuffy, Gregory," she murmured.

"Oh, my dear!" He caught her and held her in his arms. "Can't you see that it's all like a horrible nightmare? Can't you see that I'm not able to know positively until it's actually happened—and then—oh, my God!—If it should be too late!"

Her hands clenched rigidly on his shoulders.

"Gregory," she whispered, "tell me, dear—you've been so strange of late—so terribly unlike yourself. Tell me, dear, what is it?"

"Nothing, dearest girl—nothing."

"Oh, but there is something!" She exclaimed passionately. "I've known it right along. I haven't asked because I thought you'd tell me. Why—one must be blind not to see how you've changed! You're—you're just a skeleton of yourself, Gregory." She paused for breath. "Can't you bring yourself to tell me—can't you, dear?"

"If I only knew," he muttered, "if I only knew—for certain."

Her eyes were lifted to his. The brows met in a puckering frown above them.

"Gregory—that time you were away—for a whole fortnight—did anything happen, then—Gregory?"

"Did anything happen?" She had surprised him into it. "Good God, did anything happen? Why, you don't know what it was like—You couldn't know! If they'd told me such a thing were possible—I shouldn't have believed it! I wanted to think—I wanted to work the thing out for myself—so I went down there for a rest. Rest—"

He broke off then, but she stood very silently beside him and presently he went on again.

"Have you ever felt you were going mad, Kathleen? Raving, tearing—mad? That's how I felt for two weeks. I thought it would never end. And all the time—why, I couldn't think! I couldn't do anything but feel that something was driving me to do something—something tremendous, as if the very force of my own life were making me do this thing that I had been sent into life to do. And, Kathleen," his voice sank to a hoarse whisper, "I couldn't understand—what—it—was!"

She put her arm about his neck and drew his head down until her cheek rested on his.

"I couldn't think a thought," he muttered. "I'd laid myself open to the thing. It just swept over me and through me. It saturated me with the impulse to do the thing I had come into the world to do! The one thing that stood out—was—the feeling that it would have to be done—soon." He paused for a moment. "And then one afternoon at the club—when I'd been back a day or two—something came to me-a sudden knowledge of—well, of rottenness—that—that might have to be done away with—as if that had something to do with it. Only I don't know, Kathleen—not—as yet."

He looked at her then and he saw her eyes were filled with tears. He thought he had frightened her. He waited until he had himself well in hand before he spoke again.

"Kathleen, always believe in the good of things, dearest girl. And, Kathleen," the words that came to him were almost as great a surprise to him as they were to her. "Never leave that crucifix off your neck. Promise me, dear?"

"I promise."

A little later they went in to tea.

He got to bed that night with a great feeling of relief that in the morning they would all be back in town. He had thought something would happen. He had not known what, but the feeling had been there. He did not mind admitting it to himself now, and he did not mind acknowledging that he could not understand how the thing, whatever it was, had been avoided. Unformed, undefinable, it had been powerfully imminent. He fell asleep wondering what it was that he had expected.

The full moon was streaming into the room when he awoke.

He was on his feet in the middle of the floor in a flash.

He could have sworn a cry had awakened him. A woman's voice calling for help—A woman's voice that had been strangely like Kathleen's.

He went to the window and looked out. A cloud had drifted across the surface of the full moon. The whole garden lay blotched with shadows. And there beyond the garden was the forest. Black, sinister, mysterious. The dark depth of it sickened him. Kathleen had spoken only that afternoon of the forest. The Wood of Living Trees. She had told him it was called The Wood of Living Trees.

In Heaven's name, where did the horrible, appalling significance of the Wood of Living Trees come from? What was this ghastly knowledge that sought for recognition in his own mind? What did the Wood of Living Trees mean to him?

And then he heard the faint, far cry—

His shoes—his trousers—hatless and coatless he was out in the garden.

The cloud had passed from off the face of the moon. The garden lay in the bright moonlight; even the separate flowers were visible. Beyond was the sinister depth of that black forest.

He felt it then. Sensed the insidious evil of something that emanated from the wood. Something which lurked there beneath the trees—something which clung to the tall trunks of them—something which rose and expanded among the leaves and reached out to him in evil menace. And at some time he had felt it all before.

He ran quickly through the garden; over the rosebeds; crashing through the high boxwood hedge at the farther end; and then into the forest.

His feet sank into the moss-covered slime. The trees were gigantic. He felt as if they were closing in on him. Their branches stretched out like living arms, hindering his progress. Thorns caught at his clothing, at his hands, his face. He had a vague, half-formed thought that the forest was advancing to achieve his destruction. His only clear determination was to protect his eyes.

He knew then, he had always known, that the wood was some live, evil thing—the Wood of Living Trees; and that it hid the presence of something infinitely more foul.

A queer odor assailed his nostrils. An odor that was not only of the damp, dank underbrush; an odor that, in its putridness, almost suffocated him.

Breathless and half crazed with an unexplainable dread, he fought the forest, beating his way with his naked hands through the dense bushes.

And then he heard a sound. The first sound he had heard since entering the forest. It was quite distinct. Vibrating loudly through the deadly stillness of the wood, came the steady patter of a four-footed thing.

The next instant something leaped out of the darkness—something huge and strong that tried to catch at his neck. He fought for his life then. Fought this horrible thing that had been concealed by the forest. Fought with the darkness shutting down on him and that putrid odor smothering his breathing. Panting and blinded, he and the thing swayed to and fro, crashing against the tree-trunks, springing again and again at each other from the tangled underbrush. He never knew how long he struggled there in the blackness of the wood. It might have been hours; it might have been minutes. And then he had the beast by its great, hairy throat. The infuriated snarling grew weaker—

He felt the body become rigid.

Silence.

He threw the thing from him.

He staggered farther into the wood.

He had not gone far when he came upon Kathleen.

She was walking uncertainly toward him.

The moonlight trickled clear and yellow through the branches now.

He could see her lips moving—moving—He knew that she was praying. Her eyes looked out at him dazed and unseeing; and in her right hand that was reached before her he saw the little, silver crucifix.

He did not dare speak to her. He was afraid. He sank back against the bushes and let her pass. The moonlight flooded the place with its haunting golden light. A strange feeling of relief came over him and with it a vast calm. And very quietly he followed her.

She went a bit further. And she came to that spot where he had killed the thing. He heard her shriek. The wild cry that had awakened him.

"The wolf—Gregory—the wolf!"

He caught her in his arms as she fainted. Then he looked down.

There at his feet lay the body of the Russian, Stephanof Andreyvitch.

This will I prove. At some unknown time will I show that in this world a certain devilish influence worketh most evilly against the high Heavens and the good in man. I do confess the knowing of this to be true, and many times and oft have I convinced myself that this Satanic thing hath the power to become incarnate.

In the morning I hang. God, the Father, Christ, the Son, come unto me in purgatory that I may fulfill my sacred oath and that the soul of her I love may find peace within the seven golden gates of Heaven.