The Wood of the Dead by Algernon Blackwood
One summer, in my wanderings with a knapsack,
I was at luncheon in the room of a wayside inn
in the western country, when the door opened and
there entered an old rustic, who crossed close to
my end of the table and sat himself down very
quietly in the seat by the bow window. We
exchanged glances, or, properly speaking, nods, for
at the moment I did not actually raise my eyes to
his face, so concerned was I with the important
business of satisfying an appetite gained by tramping
twelve miles over a difficult country.
The fine warm rain of seven o'clock, which had
since risen in a kind of luminous mist about the
tree tops, now floated far overhead in a deep blue
sky, and the day was settling down into a blaze
of golden light. It was one of those days peculiar
to Somerset and North Devon, when the orchards
shine and the meadows seem to add a radiance of
their own, so brilliantly soft are the colourings of
grass and foliage.
The inn-keeper's daughter, a little maiden with a
simple country loveliness, presently entered with
a foaming pewter mug, enquired after my welfare,
and went out again. Apparently she had not
noticed the old man sitting in the settle by the
bow window, nor had he, for his part, so much as
once turned his head in our direction.
Under ordinary circumstances I should probably
have given no thought to this other occupant of the
room; but the fact that it was supposed to be
reserved for my private use, and the singular
thing that he sat looking aimlessly out of the
window, with no attempt to engage me in conversation,
drew my eyes more than once somewhat
curiously upon him, and I soon caught myself
wondering why he sat there so silently, and always
with averted head.
He was, I saw, a rather bent old man in rustic
dress, and the skin of his face was wrinkled like
that of an apple; corduroy trousers were caught
up with a string below the knee, and he wore a
sort of brown fustian jacket that was very much
faded. His thin hand rested upon a stoutish stick.
He wore no hat and carried none, and I noticed
that his head, covered with silvery hair, was finely
shaped and gave the impression of something noble.
Though rather piqued by his studied disregard
of my presence, I came to the conclusion that he
probably had something to do with the little
hostel and had a perfect right to use this room
with freedom, and I finished my luncheon without
breaking the silence and then took the settle
opposite to smoke a pipe before going on my way.
Through the open window came the scents of
the blossoming fruit trees; the orchard was
drenched in sunshine and the branches danced
lazily in the breeze; the grass below fairly shone
with white and yellow daisies, and the red roses
climbing in profusion over the casement mingled
their perfume with the sweetly penetrating odour
of the sea.
It was a place to dawdle in, to lie and dream
away a whole afternoon, watching the sleepy butterflies
and listening to the chorus of birds which
seemed to fill every corner of the sky. Indeed, I
was already debating in my mind whether to linger
and enjoy it all instead of taking the strenuous
pathway over the hills, when the old rustic in the
settle opposite suddenly turned his face towards
me for the first time and began to speak.
His voice had a quiet dreamy note in it that
was quite in harmony with the day and the scene,
but it sounded far away, I thought, almost as
though it came to me from outside where the
shadows were weaving their eternal tissue of
dreams upon the garden floor. Moreover, there
was no trace in it of the rough quality one might
naturally have expected, and, now that I saw the
full face of the speaker for the first time, I noted
with something like a start that the deep, gentle
eyes seemed far more in keeping with the timbre
of the voice than with the rough and very countrified
appearance of the clothes and manner. His
voice set pleasant waves of sound in motion towards
me, and the actual words, if I remember rightly,
"You are a stranger in these parts?" or "Is
not this part of the country strange to you?"
There was no "sir," nor any outward and visible
sign of the deference usually paid by real country
folk to the town-bred visitor, but in its place a
gentleness, almost a sweetness, of polite sympathy
that was far more of a compliment than either.
I answered that I was wandering on foot through
a part of the country that was wholly new to me,
and that I was surprised not to find a place of such
idyllic loveliness marked upon my map.
"I have lived here all my life," he said, with a
sigh, "and am never tired of coming back to it
"Then you no longer live in the immediate
"I have moved," he answered briefly, adding
after a pause in which his eyes seemed to wander
wistfully to the wealth of blossoms beyond the
window; "but I am almost sorry, for nowhere else
have I found the sunshine lie so warmly, the
flowers smell so sweetly, or the winds and streams
make such tender music. . . ."
His voice died away into a thin stream of sound
that lost itself in the rustle of the rose-leaves
climbing in at the window, for he turned his head
away from me as he spoke and looked out into
the garden. But it was impossible to conceal my
surprise, and I raised my eyes in frank astonishment
on hearing so poetic an utterance from such
a figure of a man, though at the same time realising
that it was not in the least inappropriate, and that,
in fact, no other sort of expression could have
properly been expected from him.
"I am sure you are right," I answered at length,
when it was clear he had ceased speaking; "or
there is something of enchantment here—of real
fairy-like enchantment—that makes me think of
the visions of childhood days, before one knew
I had been oddly drawn into his vein of speech,
some inner force compelling me. But here the
spell passed and I could not catch the thoughts
that had a moment before opened a long vista
before my inner vision.
"To tell you the truth," I concluded lamely, "the
place fascinates me and I am in two minds about
Even at this stage I remember thinking it odd
that I should be talking like this with a stranger
whom I met in a country inn, for it has always
been one of my failings that to strangers my
manner is brief to surliness. It was as though
we were figures meeting in a dream, speaking
without sound, obeying laws not operative in the
everyday working world, and about to play with
a new scale of space and time perhaps. But
my astonishment passed quickly into an entirely
different feeling when I became aware that the
old man opposite had turned his head from the
window again, and was regarding me with eyes
so bright they seemed almost to shine with an
inner flame. His gaze was fixed upon my face
with an intense ardour, and his whole manner had
suddenly become alert and concentrated. There
was something about him I now felt for the first
time that made little thrills of excitement run up
and down my back. I met his look squarely, but
with an inward tremor.
"Stay, then, a little while longer," he said in a
much lower and deeper voice than before; "stay,
and I will teach you something of the purpose of
He stopped abruptly. I was conscious of a
"You have a special purpose then—in coming
back?" I asked, hardly knowing what I was saying.
"To call away someone," he went on in the same
thrilling voice, "someone who is not quite ready
to come, but who is needed elsewhere for a worthier
purpose." There was a sadness in his manner that
mystified me more than ever.
"You mean—?" I began, with an unaccountable
access of trembling.
"I have come for someone who must soon move,
even as I have moved."
He looked me through and through with a dreadfully
piercing gaze, but I met his eyes with a full
straight stare, trembling though I was, and I was
aware that something stirred within me that had
never stirred before, though for the life of me I
could not have put a name to it, or have analysed
its nature. Something lifted and rolled away. For
one single second I understood clearly that the
past and the future exist actually side by side in
one immense Present; that it was I who moved
to and fro among shifting, protean appearances.
The old man dropped his eyes from my face,
and the momentary glimpse of a mightier universe
passed utterly away. Reason regained its sway
over a dull, limited kingdom.
"Come to-night," I heard the old man say,
"come to me to-night into the Wood of the Dead.
Come at midnight—"
Involuntarily I clutched the arm of the settle
for support, for I then felt that I was speaking
with someone who knew more of the real things
that are and will be, than I could ever know while
in the body, working through the ordinary channels
of sense—and this curious half-promise of a partial
lifting of the veil had its undeniable effect upon
The breeze from the sea had died away outside,
and the blossoms were still. A yellow butterfly
floated lazily past the window. The song of the
birds hushed—I smelt the sea—I smelt the perfume
of heated summer air rising from fields and flowers,
the ineffable scents of June and of the long days
of the year—and with it, from countless green
meadows beyond, came the hum of myriad summer
life, children's voices, sweet pipings, and the sound
of water falling.
I knew myself to be on the threshold of a new
order of experience—of an ecstasy. Something
drew me forth with a sense of inexpressible yearning
towards the being of this strange old man in
the window seat, and for a moment I knew what
it was to taste a mighty and wonderful sensation,
and to touch the highest pinnacle of joy I have
ever known. It lasted for less than a second, and
was gone; but in that brief instant of time the
same terrible lucidity came to me that had already
shown me how the past and future exist in the
present, and I realised and understood that pleasure
and pain are one and the same force, for the joy
I had just experienced included also all the pain
I ever had felt, or ever could feel. . . .
The sunshine grew to dazzling radiance, faded,
passed away. The shadows paused in their dance
upon the grass, deepened a moment, and then
melted into air. The flowers of the fruit trees
laughed with their little silvery laughter as the
wind sighed over their radiant eyes the old, old
tale of its personal love. Once or twice a
voice called my name. A wonderful sensation
of lightness and power began to steal over
Suddenly the door opened and the inn-keeper's
daughter came in. By all ordinary standards,
her's was a charming country loveliness, born of
the stars and wild-flowers, of moonlight shining
through autumn mists upon the river and the
fields; yet, by contrast with the higher order of
beauty I had just momentarily been in touch
with, she seemed almost ugly. How dull her eyes,
how thin her voice, how vapid her smile, and
insipid her whole presentment.
For a moment she stood between me and the
occupant of the window seat while I counted out
the small change for my meal and for her services;
but when, an instant later, she moved aside, I saw
that the settle was empty and that there was no
longer anyone in the room but our two selves.
This discovery was no shock to me; indeed, I
had almost expected it, and the man had gone just
as a figure goes out of a dream, causing no surprise
and leaving me as part and parcel of the same
dream without breaking of continuity. But, as
soon as I had paid my bill and thus resumed in
very practical fashion the thread of my normal
consciousness, I turned to the girl and asked her if
she knew the old man who had been sitting in the
window seat, and what he had meant by the
Wood of the Dead.
The maiden started visibly, glancing quickly
round the empty room, but answering simply that
she had seen no one. I described him in great
detail, and then, as the description grew clearer, she
turned a little pale under her pretty sunborn and
said very gravely that it must have been the ghost.
"Ghost! What ghost?"
"Oh, the village ghost," she said quietly, coming
closer to my chair with a little nervous movement
of genuine alarm, and adding in a lower voice,
"He comes before a death, they say!"
It was not difficult to induce the girl to talk,
and the story she told me, shorn of the superstition
that had obviously gathered with the years
round the memory of a strangely picturesque
figure, was an interesting and peculiar one.
The inn, she said, was originally a farmhouse,
occupied by a yeoman farmer, evidently of a
superior, if rather eccentric, character, who had
been very poor until he reached old age, when a
son died suddenly in the Colonies and left him
an unexpected amount of money, almost a fortune.
The old man thereupon altered no whit his
simple manner of living, but devoted his income
entirely to the improvement of the village and to
the assistance of its inhabitants; he did this quite
regardless of his personal likes and dislikes, as if
one and all were absolutely alike to him, objects of
a genuine and impersonal benevolence. People
had always been a little afraid of the man, not
understanding his eccentricities, but the simple
force of this love for humanity changed all that in
a very short space of time; and before he died he
came to be known as the Father of the Village
and was held in great love and veneration by all.
A short time before his end, however, he began
to act queerly. He spent his money just as usefully
and wisely, but the shock of sudden wealth after a
life of poverty, people said, had unsettled his mind.
He claimed to see things that others did not see, to
hear voices, and to have visions. Evidently, he
was not of the harmless, foolish, visionary order,
but a man of character and of great personal force,
for the people became divided in their opinions,
and the vicar, good man, regarded and treated him
as a "special case." For many, his name and
atmosphere became charged almost with a spiritual
influence that was not of the best. People quoted
texts about him; kept when possible out of his
way, and avoided his house after dark. None
understood him, but though the majority loved
him, an element of dread and mystery became
associated with his name, chiefly owing to the
ignorant gossip of the few.
A grove of pine trees behind the farm—the girl
pointed them out to me on the slope of the hill—he
said was the Wood of the Dead, because just
before anyone died in the village he saw them walk
into that wood, singing. None who went in ever
came out again. He often mentioned the names
to his wife, who usually published them to all the
inhabitants within an hour of her husband's confidence;
and it was found that the people he had
seen enter the wood—died. On warm summer
nights he would sometimes take an old stick and
wander out, hatless, under the pines, for he loved
this wood, and used to say he met all his old
friends there, and would one day walk in there
never to return. His wife tried to break him gently
off this habit, but he always had his own way;
and once, when she followed and found him standing
under a great pine in the thickest portion of the
grove, talking earnestly to someone she could not
see, he turned and rebuked her very gently, but
in such a way that she never repeated the experiment,
"You should never interrupt me, Mary, when I
am talking with the others; for they teach me,
remember, wonderful things, and I must learn all I
can before I go to join them."
This story went like wild-fire through the
village, increasing with every repetition, until at
length everyone was able to give an accurate
description of the great veiled figures the woman
declared she had seen moving among the trees
where her husband stood. The innocent pine-grove
now became positively haunted, and the title
of "Wood of the Dead" clung naturally as if it
had been applied to it in the ordinary course of
events by the compilers of the Ordnance Survey.
On the evening of his ninetieth birthday the old
man went up to his wife and kissed her. His
manner was loving, and very gentle, and there was
something about him besides, she declared afterwards,
that made her slightly in awe of him and
feel that he was almost more of a spirit than a
He kissed her tenderly on both cheeks, but his
eyes seemed to look right through her as he
"Dearest wife," he said, "I am saying good-bye
to you, for I am now going into the Wood of the
Dead, and I shall not return. Do not follow me, or
send to search, but be ready soon to come upon the
same journey yourself."
The good woman burst into tears and tried to
hold him, but he easily slipped from her hands, and
she was afraid to follow him. Slowly she saw him
cross the field in the sunshine, and then enter the
cool shadows of the grove, where he disappeared
from her sight.
That same night, much later, she woke to find
him lying peacefully by her side in bed, with one
arm stretched out towards her, dead. Her story
was half believed, half doubted at the time, but
in a very few years afterwards it evidently came
to be accepted by all the countryside. A funeral
service was held to which the people flocked in great
numbers, and everyone approved of the sentiment
which led the widow to add the words, "The
Father of the Village," after the usual texts which
appeared upon the stone over his grave.
This, then, was the story I pieced together of the
village ghost as the little inn-keeper's daughter
told it to me that afternoon in the parlour of the
"But you're not the first to say you've seen him,"
the girl concluded; "and your description is just
what we've always heard, and that window, they
say, was just where he used to sit and think, and
think, when he was alive, and sometimes, they say,
to cry for hours together."
"And would you feel afraid if you had seen him?"
I asked, for the girl seemed strangely moved and
interested in the whole story.
"I think so," she answered timidly. "Surely, if
he spoke to me. He did speak to you, didn't he,
sir?" she asked after a slight pause.
"He said he had come for someone."
"Come for someone," she repeated. "Did he
say—" she went on falteringly.
"No, he did not say for whom," I said quickly,
noticing the sudden shadow on her face and the
"Are you really sure, sir?"
"Oh, quite sure," I answered cheerfully. "I did
not even ask him." The girl looked at me steadily
for nearly a whole minute as though there were
many things she wished to tell me or to ask. But
she said nothing, and presently picked up her tray
from the table and walked slowly out of the
Instead of keeping to my original purpose and
pushing on to the next village over the hills, I
ordered a room to be prepared for me at the inn,
and that afternoon I spent wandering about the
fields and lying under the fruit trees, watching the
white clouds sailing out over the sea. The Wood of
the Dead I surveyed from a distance, but in the
village I visited the stone erected to the memory
of the "Father of the Village"—who was thus,
evidently, no mythical personage—and saw also
the monuments of his fine unselfish spirit: the
schoolhouse he built, the library, the home for the
aged poor, and the tiny hospital.
That night, as the clock in the church tower was
striking half-past eleven, I stealthily left the inn
and crept through the dark orchard and over the
hayfield in the direction of the hill whose southern
slope was clothed with the Wood of the Dead. A
genuine interest impelled me to the adventure, but
I also was obliged to confess to a certain sinking in
my heart as I stumbled along over the field in the
darkness, for I was approaching what might prove
to be the birth-place of a real country myth, and a
spot already lifted by the imaginative thoughts of
a considerable number of people into the region
of the haunted and ill-omened.
The inn lay below me, and all round it the
village clustered in a soft black shadow unrelieved
by a single light. The night was moonless, yet
distinctly luminous, for the stars crowded the sky.
The silence of deep slumber was everywhere; so
still, indeed, that every time my foot kicked against
a stone I thought the sound must be heard below
in the village and waken the sleepers.
I climbed the hill slowly, thinking chiefly of the
strange story of the noble old man who had seized
the opportunity to do good to his fellows the
moment it came his way, and wondering why the
causes that operate ceaselessly behind human life
did not always select such admirable instruments.
Once or twice a night-bird circled swiftly over my
head, but the bats had long since gone to rest, and
there was no other sign of life stirring.
Then, suddenly, with a singular thrill of emotion,
I saw the first trees of the Wood of the Dead rise
in front of me in a high black wall. Their crests
stood up like giant spears against the starry
sky; and though there was no perceptible
movement of the air on my cheek I heard
a faint, rushing sound among their branches
as the night breeze passed to and fro over their
countless little needles. A remote, hushed murmur
rose overhead and died away again almost immediately;
for in these trees the wind seems to be
never absolutely at rest, and on the calmest day
there is always a sort of whispering music among
For a moment I hesitated on the edge of this
dark wood, and listened intently. Delicate perfumes
of earth and bark stole out to meet me.
Impenetrable darkness faced me. Only the
consciousness that I was obeying an order, strangely
given, and including a mighty privilege, enabled
me to find the courage to go forward and step in
boldly under the trees.
Instantly the shadows closed in upon me and
"something" came forward to meet me from the
centre of the darkness. It would be easy enough to
meet my imagination half-way with fact, and say that
a cold hand grasped my own and led me by invisible
paths into the unknown depths of the grove; but
at any rate, without stumbling, and always with
the positive knowledge that I was going straight
towards the desired object, I pressed on confidently
and securely into the wood. So dark was it that,
at first, not a single star-beam pierced the roof of
branches overhead; and, as we moved forward side
by side, the trees shifted silently past us in long
lines, row upon row, squadron upon squadron, like
the units of a vast, soundless army.
And, at length, we came to a comparatively open
space where the trees halted upon us for a while,
and, looking up, I saw the white river of the sky
beginning to yield to the influence of a new light
that now seemed spreading swiftly across the
"It is the dawn coming," said the voice at my side
that I certainly recognised, but which seemed
almost like a whispering from the trees, "and we are
now in the heart of the Wood of the Dead."
We seated ourselves on a moss-covered boulder
and waited the coming of the sun. With marvellous
swiftness, it seemed to me, the light in the
east passed into the radiance of early morning, and
when the wind awoke and began to whisper in the
tree tops, the first rays of the risen sun fell between
the trunks and rested in a circle of gold at our
"Now, come with me," whispered my companion
in the same deep voice, "for time has no existence
here, and that which I would show you is already
We trod gently and silently over the soft pine
needles. Already the sun was high over our heads,
and the shadows of the trees coiled closely about
their feet. The wood became denser again, but
occasionally we passed through little open bits
where we could smell the hot sunshine and the dry,
baked pine needles. Then, presently, we came to
the edge of the grove, and I saw a hayfield lying
in the blaze of day, and two horses basking lazily
with switching tails in the shafts of a laden hay-waggon.
So complete and vivid was the sense of reality,
that I remember the grateful realisation of the cool
shade where we sat and looked out upon the hot
The last pitchfork had tossed up its fragrant
burden, and the great horses were already straining
in the shafts after the driver, as he walked
slowly in front with one hand upon their bridles.
He was a stalwart fellow, with sunburned neck
and hands. Then, for the first time, I noticed,
perched aloft upon the trembling throne of hay,
the figure of a slim young girl. I could not see
her face, but her brown hair escaped in disorder
from a white sun-bonnet, and her still browner
hands held a well-worn hay rake. She was
laughing and talking with the driver, and he,
from time to time, cast up at her ardent glances
of admiration—glances that won instant smiles
and soft blushes in response.
The cart presently turned into the roadway that
skirted the edge of the wood where we were
sitting. I watched the scene with intense interest
and became so much absorbed in it that I quite
forgot the manifold, strange steps by which I was
permitted to become a spectator.
"Come down and walk with me," cried the
young fellow, stopping a moment in front of the
horses and opening wide his arms. "Jump! and
I'll catch you!"
"Oh, oh," she laughed, and her voice sounded
to me as the happiest, merriest laughter I had
ever heard from a girl's throat. "Oh, oh! that's
all very well. But remember I'm Queen of the
Hay, and I must ride!"
"Then I must come and ride beside you," he
cried, and began at once to climb up by way
of the driver's seat. But, with a peal of silvery
laughter, she slipped down easily over the back
of the hay to escape him, and ran a little way
along the road. I could see her quite clearly, and
noticed the charming, natural grace of her movements,
and the loving expression in her eyes as
she looked over her shoulder to make sure he was
following. Evidently, she did not wish to escape
for long, certainly not for ever.
In two strides the big, brown swain was after
her, leaving the horses to do as they pleased.
Another second and his arms would have caught
the slender waist and pressed the little body to
his heart. But, just at that instant, the old man
beside me uttered a peculiar cry. It was low
and thrilling, and it went through me like a sharp
HE had called her by her own name—and
she had heard.
For a second she halted, glancing back with
frightened eyes. Then, with a brief cry of
despair, the girl swerved aside and dived in
swiftly among the shadows of the trees.
But the young man saw the sudden movement
and cried out to her passionately—
"Not that way, my love! Not that way! It's
the Wood of the Dead!"
She threw a laughing glance over her shoulder
at him, and the wind caught her hair and drew
it out in a brown cloud under the sun. But the
next minute she was close beside me, lying on
the breast of my companion, and I was certain I
heard the words repeatedly uttered with many
sighs: "Father, you called, and I have come. And
I come willingly, for I am very, very tired."
At any rate, so the words sounded to me, and
mingled with them I seemed to catch the answer
in that deep, thrilling whisper I already knew:
"And you shall sleep, my child, sleep for a long,
long time, until it is time for you to begin the
In that brief second of time I had recognised
the face and voice of the inn-keeper's daughter,
but the next minute a dreadful wail broke from
the lips of the young man, and the sky grew
suddenly as dark as night, the wind rose and
began to toss the branches about us, and the
whole scene was swallowed up in a wave of utter
Again the chill fingers seemed to seize my
hand, and I was guided by the way I had come
to the edge of the wood, and crossing the hayfield
still slumbering in the starlight, I crept back to
the inn and went to bed.
A year later I happened to be in the same part
of the country, and the memory of the strange
summer vision returned to me with the added
softness of distance. I went to the old village
and had tea under the same orchard trees at the
But the little maid of the inn did not show her
face, and I took occasion to enquire of her father
as to her welfare and her whereabouts.
"Married, no doubt," I laughed, but with a
strange feeling that clutched at my heart.
"No, sir," replied the inn-keeper sadly, "not
married—though she was just going to be—but
dead. She got a sunstroke in the hayfields,
just a few days after you were here, if I remember
rightly, and she was gone from us in less than