The Whisper in the Wood by Anonymous

Eighteen Hundred and Forty-Five

Ronald Morris and his young wife are sitting in the snug parlour of an inn at the little town of Oakhampton on the confines of Dartmoor. The season is autumn, and the time, evening. Lamp and firelight combine with the homely surroundings of the remote hostelry in giving a sense of cheery comfort. He—young, broad-shouldered, strong of limb and firm of countenance, blue-eyed and brown-haired—is poring over a map. She, rather younger, pale-faced but pretty, dark-haired and with eyes to match, and with a delicate yet well-rounded figure—she is idly glancing through the pages of a book. Presently he speaks, half to himself:

“Yes, I must have a look at that place: it promises well as a background for a story. I have often heard of it.”

She, somewhat apathetically, enquires: “Some expedition you are contemplating?”

“Yes, across the moor: I cannot quite make out how far it is, but I trace the way, and it must be within an easy walk, six or seven miles; yes, I thought of going tomorrow, if you will not be very much bored, dear little woman, by being left alone for a few hours.”

“Oh, no, I shall manage to amuse myself besides, it is necessary you should see what you want. It was to get some local colour, as you call it, that we came down to these wilds, and there is no reason because we are out on our honeymoon that you should not do some work.”

“You are the most sensible little wife, I believe, Sophy, that man was ever blessed with,” he says, looking up at her with admiring affection, “and I was never so happy in my life!”

A knock at the room-door precedes the entrance of the landlord with two or three letters. “The Lunnon post, zur, just in,” he says in his strong Devonshire dialect.

“Ah! of course; you do not get your London letters here until very late,” responds Ronald, taking the missives. “I suppose when the railway is open to Plymouth it will make some difference to this part of the world.”

“I should zay t’ud be likely tu. Not as I zee it’ll be o’ much use tu we in this place: we han’t much doin’ with Lunnon, though I make no doubt it’ll be a rare chance for gentlemen like you that go jumping the country;” and after a few more words the man civilly retires.

Suddenly Ronald utters an exclamation of surprise, startling his wife from the placidity with which she is regarding him whilst he is looking over his letters. “My word!” he goes on; “the poor old gentleman died suddenly the day before yesterday! Bless my heart! I am very grieved. How strange that it should have happened just now, so soon after all his kindness to me—to us.”

“What—not your uncle?” exclaims the wife.
“Yes, indeed it is; here is the letter announcing the fact from Baston his lawyer. I shall have to go to town. This is what he says, Sophy: “
‘It is with the deepest regret I have to inform you of the sudden death of your uncle, Mr. Matthew Morris. He was found dead in his bed, and it will therefore be necessary for you, as his sole executor and legatee, to come to town and produce his will, that we may take out letters of administration; prove the will at Doctors’ Commons, you understand, and so establish your right, &c. This would have been requisite in any case, but it is the more imperative since, through Mr. Morris’s eccentric views, he insisted on entrusting his will to your keeping.’

“Ah! I never told you, Sophy, I think, all about that,” says the reader, breaking off. “Strange old boy! You know how good and kind he has been to me, and how, but for him, we could not have married for years; and you remember I told you that the day before our wedding he made his will in my favour, leaving me nearly everything. But I did not tell you of his funny fancy about the document. He drew it himself on a sheet of note-paper, and brought it with him the day on which he met me at Baston’s office (the day before we were married). Well, then, when the lawyer pronounced the will to be thoroughly legal, and said that it only required signing and witnessing, he signed it then and there in the presence of Baston and one of his clerks; and when they had duly signed it, each being in the presence of the other, &c., as the legal formula goes, he took the paper, and handing it to me, said: ‘There, Ronny, my boy; as this concerns you, and nobody but you, I desire that you should keep possession of it.’ Then, with some good-humoured joke at the lawyer’s expense, he insisted that I should put the will in my pocket. ‘Baston may keep a copy of it,’ added my uncle, ‘if it is of any interest to him, but you must keep the original, and mind you do not lose it, that’s all.’

“Well, Sophy, I did put it in my pocket, and having no bankers or strong box in which to deposit it, I brought it away with me, and here it is still at this moment, in a little flat tin case, with a copy of our marriage certificate, and one or two more valuables, here, in my breast-pocket,” and Ronald Morris strikes the breast of his rough shooting-coat as he speaks—“the safest place in the world, if one has not a banker. But, upon my word, it is really very sad,” he proceeds after a pause; “I never thought I should be called on to produce it so soon. Why, it is not a fortnight ago since he gave it to me, poor old fellow!” and, as the excitement of the explanation he has given subsides, his blue eyes moisten. His quiet little wife rises, and putting her arms round his neck, kisses and pats his cheek with a sweet and tender, if silent consolation.

Soon he is talking volubly again, discussing family affairs, and laying plans for the future. “This puts us beyond the reach of sixpenny anxieties,” he says, “but I shall not give up my pen. I could not bear to live an idle life, and what’s more, I shall not give up my expedition tomorrow. I must have a look at that queer place before I leave these parts. If we start for town the first thing the day after tomorrow, it will be quite soon enough, and we can get to Exeter in time to catch the night mail the same evening. You will not mind travelling by night, Sophy, I am sure, since it will give me tomorrow out on this wild and strangely fascinating moorland.”

Tomorrow came, and Ronald Morris started on the expedition he had in his mind. His little wife, not from lack of interest in his purpose or his doings, but from a characteristic inexactitude as to details, failed already to understand (even if she ever asked the question) the precise spot he was bound for.

So Ronald started, and, as he strolled away up and on to the bleak and solitary moor, she stood for a minute or two at the gate on the road, off which he turned, watching him. In a little while, he looked back, held up his stick as a salute, and she in reply waved her little hand after her easy, gentle fashion. Thrice this action was repeated on both sides; then she saw his figure small and clear against the sky line on the steep hill ridge, and then he disappeared—disappeared from her eyes for ever.

Lost on the moor! The days and weeks of helpless, desperate, and, at last, hopeless search by the whole country-side which followed, threw no light upon the mystery. Lost on the moor! that was the verdict—that was all that could be said, and it was no uncommon phrase in that wild and treacherous region. Scores of men had so vanished, and been never heard of since. Natives even, accustomed to the dangers of bog, crag, and fell, of overwhelming blinding mist, of overtaking nightfall, of the sudden, deep, obscuring snow, and of the lost track; natives alive to all these perils have been lost on the moor, nor any trace of them even found. What wonder then that a Londoner entirely unused to, and unknowing of, the treachery lurking in such a wild, should now and again share the same fate! The thing, indeed, was too common to create much more than the nine days’ astonishment. And, since no clue could be obtained as to the direction the unfortunate man had taken, the searching parties that volunteered soon lost heart: their explorings were too vague at best to give much encouragement: and, finally, the kindly impulse which stirred the seekers died out, and the affair was given up as hopeless.

Eighteen-Hundred and Fifty-Five

Sophy Morris, still young and pretty, and as placid as ever, bears traces nevertheless of her life-sorrow, as how should it be otherwise? The marvel is that she survived the blow. In all probability she would have sunk under it, but that the flood of new-born wifely love, which in its outpouring had seemed to carry the very essence of her soul before it, had found its channel changed, although not checked. As a mother, the devotion bestowed upon the stalwart lad of nine now standing at her side gave almost vent and verge enough for the deep love that was in her. In young Ronald she seemed to see, perhaps concentrated, a double claim upon her affection; first, for the father, whom he so much resembled, and then, for his own sweet sake.

Thus time and circumstance lent their healing influence to her great heart-wound, and though the cicatrix was vividly evident at times, the healing had been healthy, and with the birth of her boy had come about, as surgeons say, at the first intention. But for this there was enough outside her loss, and consequent upon it, to crush all hope and joy from her future. Widowed as she had been, she had been obliged to return to her parents’ roof, and found, as the eldest of a large family, that the poor pittance of the merchant’s clerk, her father, made home far from a bed of roses. For, be it remembered, with the husband had disappeared the provision for the widow, which the uncle’s will had ensured. Carried in Ronald’s pocket as the document had been, no claim upon the old man’s estate could be established; and the money, a round ten thousand pounds in Consols, had passed to the next of kin, a younger brother, John, a very different man. This John Morris refused to acknowledge any intentions that his elder brother might have had. He knew of none of them, he said, and he stood upon his rights. Would he do nothing for the nephew’s widow and her child? Well, why should he? He knew little or nothing about this nephew Ronald. What had he meant by marrying a penniless girl solely upon the strength of some vamped-up promise, made or not made, John Morris said, by “that old fool, my bachelor-brother Matthew?” The mere copy of the will produced by the lawyer might, or might not, be genuine; at any rate, John Morris declared it was a worthless piece of paper as it stood. Besides, had he not claims of his own to meet? However, he would educate the boy, that much he would do, until he was fifteen, and then he should wash his hands of the whole affair.

This was the utmost which all the urgent appeals that were made to him would produce, and there the matter stood.

Eighteen Hundred and Sixty-Five

And now there is indeed a second Ronald Morris to the front, the very pith and marrow of his father’s self; and all who remember the cordial, happy, and promising young author foresee that in a few more years, when time has filled out the son’s muscles, broadened his shoulders, and deepened his chest, he will grow to be the very counterpart of the lost man.

Young Ronald was just nineteen, and since he left school had been placed on a drudge’s stool in a City warehouse, from which there had been no release in the way of holiday until it was promised in that year of grace 1865. A dreamy imaginative lad, the tradition of his father’s fate had come down to him with an impressiveness which increased with his years. But of course it had only been tradition, after all; of the tangible, actual sorrow of that fatal time and its results he had known nothing, realised nothing. Youth, strong health, and commensurate good spirits made him, notwithstanding his reflective nature, a happy, cheery fellow, who was bent on making the most of his holiday now that it had come. Two youngsters in similar circumstances to his own were off with excursion tickets to the Land’s End, and he arranged to join them.

Very soon the sight of mighty cliffs, of foaming, thunderous seas, of vast stretches of bleak Cornish moor, and the stories of the wild places and all the legendary lore clinging to that ancient western land, began to take possession of our young Ronald, and to stir what there was of the poetic and dreamily imaginative in his nature. He drank in eagerly all descriptions and accounts which he could get of the lonely districts and inaccessible solitudes by which he was surrounded. Rod and line mainly occupied the attention of his companions, and though he was no fisherman himself, he would accompany them for miles along the moorland streams where they sought their sport. They met with so little success, however, in their efforts to catch the wily trout, that, like most novices, the young men attributed their failure to the fish, or rather to their absence. The Devonshire rivers, it was declared, would afford them a fairer opening for their skill, so they harked back eastward, and found themselves after awhile whipping the pools and rocky channels of the West Dart. They took up their quarters at the small inn in an out-of-the-way hamlet, known as Two Bridges, some eight miles from the town of Tavistock, and found the solitude of this unfrequented and almost mountainous region compensated for by the better luck which attended their fishing. Indeed, to Ronald’s dreamy nature the romantic and desolate character of the scenery had an especial charm, and whilst his friends were occupied with their favourite pastime, he would often wander far afield exploring the remotest fastnesses of stream and fell.

The account which he sent home to his mother of the last of these solitary expeditions, graphically brings his story to a climax.

“The day,” he wrote, “was still and cloudy: grey mist hung heavily on all the highest tors, and crept far down their sides in graceful, fantastic, ever-changing folds. Such slight movement as there was occasionally in the air—it could not be called wind—carried the lightest sound to and fro with a wailing sort of echo. The never-ceasing rush of the river over its rocky bed was audible long after I had wandered away from it, and at intervals the voices of my two fishermen-friends fell faintly on the ear. Presently, however, a curve in the way across the hill-side over which I was walking shut off all sound even of voices or running water, and I experienced a keener sense of loneliness, perhaps, than I had ever known. Very rarely, I take it, could Nature have appeared so utterly motionless: not a blade of grass stirred. There was a hush on everything, which was almost terrifying—fit prelude it would seem, as I look back upon it, to the storm of emotion which was so soon to overwhelm me. Another turn in the track plunged me, if possible, into a yet deeper silence and solitude. I was on the verge of a dreary, rugged, boulder-strewn valley, in the depths of which appeared what at first looked like three large patches of scrubby underwood, but which, on approaching them, proved to be composed of stunted diminutive oak and mountain-ash trees, their dead bare tops, all spread and flattened out as evenly as though they had been cut by some gigantic scythe—which I guessed to be the mighty, seldom-lulling blast of an all-prevailing wind sweeping up the hollow. The trees grew amidst massive blocks of granite, covered, as were the stems, with a dense and overwhelming growth of lichen and parasitical plants. A yet closer acquaintance with it showed the spot to be one of the strangest I had ever seen or dreamt of. The gaunt, bleached, outspreading arms of the trees had something skeleton-like and ghostly in their aspect; weird demons of the forest they might be, stunted gnomes struggling with outstretched misshapen limbs to free themselves from the superincumbent weight of the split and tortuous rocks which held them fast, earth-bound as it were, between their clefts and fissures. A ghastly, ghostly, uncanny, awful spot indeed, and seen under the grey gloom of the waning autumn day, and in the silence and the mystic solitude surrounding it, most impressive. I cannot describe the sensations with which I approached the outskirts of this wood, for, despite its forbidding character, I felt myself irresistibly drawn towards it. It seemed to exercise on me a fascination, a spell, which cowed my will, and, whilst almost curdling my blood, yet impelled me forward I knew not how or why! It was a spot to flee from rather than penetrate; it might be likened to a witches’ trysting-place, the haunt of evil spirits, of demons, elves, and goblins, who all had found embodiment in the shrunken and misshapen trees.

“I had strolled off on this wandering and desultory excursion without any definite purpose, hence I came upon this place purely by accident; but, once there, and realising its strange appearance, I was, notwithstanding the feeling of awe which it inspired, filled with a sense of gladness.

“Moving forward half unconsciously, I had entered but a yard or two within the confines of this unhallowed-looking region, when I was startled by a large black snake writhing away before my tread from under the rank grass and dense parasitical growth. The next moment I caught sight of a huge fox as he rushed across a narrow opening amidst the trees straight in front of me. Although I plainly saw the noisome creatures, it was as one sees and shrinks from such objects in a nightmare, and I felt as incapable of drawing back as if I had been really dreaming. The uneven nature of the ground soon, however, made farther progress so difficult that I hardly know how I got along at all. Yet I did manage to push on farther and farther into the wilderness, and was only arrested by suddenly sinking up to my waist between a gap in the rocks as I stepped on to what looked like a piece of smooth greensward. This, in fact, was nothing but soft mossy undergrowth, which yielding the moment I trod on it, let me in and left me with one foot jammed tightly in a cleft of the granite. Some minutes elapsed ere I could extricate myself, and I had great trouble and difficulty in scrambling up on to my former level.

“Standing still then for a while, I gazed dreamily into the depths of the impenetrable thicket, my head only a little below the level tops of the trees, whose bare and twisted branches spread out net-like above and around me. Now that I was, in a measure, in their midst, more than ever did they resemble misshapen and petrified skeletons. Like a very sepulchre seemed the place, with its ominous calm, and damp, deadly chill. The density of the thorny underwood, and the rank luxuriance of the ferns, ivy, and creeping plants growing thickly over the blocks of granite, and on the lower part of the tree-stems, and here and there entangling some of the lower boughs with fantastic festoons of pale and yellowish green, lent, by contrast, an additional look of ghastliness to the barer portions of the old dead goblins of the forest. “A shudder more than once ran through my veins as I remained automatically surveying this mysterious spectacle. It seemed that I was rooted to the ground, as firmly as the trees! The half-terrifying, half-fascinating sensations which at first lured me on now became intensified, and kept me motionless, for a frightful thought entered my head.

What would have been my fate, had I been unable to extricate myself from that cleft in the rocks, or supposing I had fallen into a deeper place and been jammed by shoulders or hips between a similar fissure; should I ever have got out unaided? No help could have reached me in such a wilderness, and I must have been held there a prisoner until I starved to death—never perhaps to be discovered, or not until my rotting and bleached bones had begun to look like the other bare skeleton forms surrounding them. Treachery now seemed added to the other perils of the place, and when at last I began slowly retracing my steps, I struck my stick on each piece of ground ere I ventured my foot upon it.

“As I turned back by the way I had come, the first breath of air that had been felt for an hour or more blew across my face; it was but a slight puff, but it was sufficient to create a little stir among the boughs, and to send a dismal wailing sough through the wood. Faint as it was, it nevertheless gave an additional melancholy to the place, and increased the fascination with which it had beset me. I again stood still, now to listen. The wind by degrees increased, rising and falling, and creating with every breath more and more sound. It seemed now as if the weird forms of the trees were endowed with voices, and were moaning and whispering sadly to each other. One particular wail especially caught my ear, and the longer I listened the more definite it became. It might easily have been mistaken for the voice of a human being in direst misery. Presently, wrought up as my imagination was, I began to fancy I could almost hear the very words it uttered. ‘W-a-i-t f-o-r me-e! W-a-i-t f-o-r me-e!’ it seemed to say, now faintly, now quite audibly; and at length so actual, so real did the utterance become, that I turned back towards the spot whence it appeared to proceed. This was not far from where I had been brought to a standstill, but as I advanced the voice grew fainter, and when I had got a few more yards, the wind died away, and it ceased altogether.

“Evening was coming on apace by this time, and I again began retracing my steps. No sooner did I do so, however, than the wailing whisper recommenced, ‘W-a-i-t f-o-r me-e! W-a-i-t f-o-r me-e!’ a long drawn-out wailing whisper. Once more I turned back, drawn on by a sort of supernatural power, which, against my reason, moved me to the belief that I was being entreated to return. Such an imploring, heartbreaking appeal, so inexpressibly pitiful and touching, I had never heard before. But it stopped again as I neared the particular spot whence it seemed to arise. After listening over and over again, and going to and fro nearly a dozen times, always with the same result, a conviction stole over me that the effect was merely due to an echo, and that the reverberation was only audible in one especial spot. It was but my morbid fancy, I said, which made me attribute it to any other cause, and I was recovering something like a healthy tone of mind, when, as I was taking a last long look into a deep recess of the wood, I beheld a sight which half paralysed me, and instantly brought back with renewed force that sense of the weird and supernatural which I was just shaking off. Yonder, there, within a narrow cleft in the rocks, moss-grown, and covered with the eternal undergrowth, there was a spectacle about which there could be no doubt; no tree could assume such a shape as that. Evidently, positively, it was a human skeleton, jammed tightly like one of the trees, in a treacherous fissure, such as that into which I had just lately slipped.

“Very indistinct are my recollections of what I did, or of what my feelings were, during the next few minutes. I have a hazy memory of remaining irresolute for a time, and then of hurrying away, dazed, and then of returning, and plunging into the thicket, regardless of the thorny brambles and the uneven, slippery, crevice-beset boulders, for I remember I was standing presently close to these human remains, only a little above them, at the mouth, as it were, of the cleft. I was examining them intently, peering at them between the ferns and grass, which, hanging in thick clusters and pendent wreaths, grew from either side of the deep fissure in which the skeleton was immured, upright, and with an arm upstretched, and caught by the elbow tight between a smaller interstice of the rock. I shuddered as I looked into the eyeless sockets with their grim yet pitiful expression, at the two rows of glistening teeth, at the bleached bones with here and there shreds of rotten clothing still adhering to them. Tall dank weeds and brushwood hid the form nearly up to the waist, but, as the herbage was, down by its roots, somewhat thinner, I, with a tremor running through my whole body, dragged this a little aside with my stick, which struck on a substance that resounded like metal.

“I know not with what object, it was not curiosity, certainly not cupidity, but I knelt down, and thrusting my arm elbow-deep into the wet and mossy grass, followed the stick’s point with my hands, and after a little groping got hold of a watch and chain—hardly recognisable as such, truly, but still obviously nothing else.

“Then I pursued my search still further, for I foresaw that it now might lead to the identification of this unhappy human being who had been buried alive, Heaven knows how long ago! by a fate which I, myself, had only an hour before so narrowly escaped. Thenceforth, although my feelings were greatly perturbed, and a host of emotions surged through my breast, my wits quickened: these were stern facts that I was dealing with, and I acted accordingly. The second time I thrust my arm in among the herbage just beneath the skeleton, which I was reverently careful not to disturb, I drew forth one or two more hard, and, at first, less distinguishable articles than the watch—less distinguishable because twilight had set in, and, added to the density of the wood, rendered it impossible for me to see anything very plainly. I felt that I must instantly hasten back to the inn and give information of my discovery.

“In the obscurity of the fast fading light, the weird gloom of the wood was greatly increased. A large owl suddenly flapped away from a near bough with a doleful hoot, whilst the wind, growing stronger every minute, turned what had formerly sounded like moans and sighs into shrieks and groans. I dared not, however, give way to any more fanciful imaginings, beset me as they might, and as they were even already doing. I wanted all my senses to get clear of this charnel-house of a place. Yet, having done so, and once back again on the road to the inn, which I knew, these same imaginings, these indefinable sensations which had overridden my common sense during the whole afternoon, returned, and, will you believe it?” ran on this letter of Ronald’s to his mother, which he wrote the next morning, “so persistently have they stayed by me, that I have not yet had the courage to examine closely the articles I found. No! though more than twelve hours have passed since then, somehow I cannot touch them. They seem as if they might influence my whole future, might change the very current of my life: it is ridiculous, but inexplicable.”

Was it inexplicable to Sophy Morris? Hardly, for did not her mind instantly fly back over those twenty years to that ever memorable time, and could she not see in those indefinable imaginings in her son’s mind a possible solution of the mystery surrounding her husband’s fate? Might it not be that the marvellous and unseen working of human destiny had guided the son at last to the father’s unknown grave? That the strange sensations, the awe, the gladness, the irresistible automatic impulse to linger in the wood, which he described; the readiness with which he interpreted the wailing of the wind into a direct, articulate, and whispered appeal “to wait”—to wait till the discovery was made, were traceable to the link existing between that vigorous young life and those mouldering remains, and without which, when they too were endowed with life and vigour, her young Ronald would never have had his being. Her hope was strong that all this might prove so, and it was realised. In the end no doubt remained, for among the relics her boy had recovered was the small, flat, metal tobacco-box, containing the will of Matthew Morris, soiled, sodden, besmirched in places, well-nigh illegible, yet still preserved intact, and susceptible of being sworn to as the genuine document by the two witnesses, the lawyer and his clerk, who signed it, and who yet lived to see right and justice done.

It was to Wistman’s Wood, then, that fate had directed the son’s steps, and, as he thought, by merest accident—to Wistman’s Wood, that uncanny “whist old place,” the “wonder of the wonders of the Dartmoor wilds,” and whither the father had gone across the moor, never to return, on that fatal day twenty years before.