In the Forests of the Night
There's a deep river in the valley, and on either side of the valley the forests are deep and green and to a passing tourist in the summer they look delightful, and the vast, craggy mountains looming over them, topped with snow even in the summer, look very picturesque. You have to stay in that place a little while to really understand it. The villagers who fish for salmon in the river and hack at the edges of the forests to grow potatoes and graze their skinny cows, only for the forest to creep back by the next summer, they watch the strangers with shuttered faces, and even if they let the strangers into their homes and give them some food, their faces remain shuttered. The strangers never linger long. Some of them stay a day or two, long enough for them to say to their friends afterwards "you know, it got under my skin".
Looming over the villages, perched on the slopes of the highest mountain, of the same black rock so that it looks as if it grew out of the mountain rather than being built, is a castle. In the castle lived a duke. He was the last of a long and famous line of dukes, whose ancestors had owned land in the valley for as long as records—or legends—lasted and had fought in all the long-gone famous wars and generally distinguished themselves in the annals of history. Once they had been a large family, but their numbers had dwindled over the years, and now this duke was the last one living. Their wealth had not dwindled, and this duke still owned the valley and virtually everything in it, all the vast forests of deer and wild boar and wolves and even the occasional lumbering black bear come down from the heights. He was master here.
The duke was twenty-one, strong, healthy, a crack shot and the pride of his parents. He had inherited the dukedom on his father's death (his mother had died years ago), and when he had decently interred him, he turned his attention to his duties as duke, and this included having large numbers of children, so his family could spread over the whole country, buy up more and more land and carry out more great deeds. Perhaps one day his descendants would be kings.
All this needed a wife, so he set about trying to find one. High up in the wood, isolated even from the other dwellings in this isolated place, was a farmstead, and when the duke was riding by the farmstead one clear, crisp winter's morning, he looked over and saw a girl herding the sheep down from the high meadow down the little forest path to the winter meadow near the house. She was a poor, ragged girl and it was a poor, miserable log house, but she was the beautiful girl he had ever seen. And he knew as soon as he looked at her that he must marry that girl.
So he rode down to the little house and knocked on the door. An old woman in a ragged dress opened it.
"What do you want?" she said. Then she saw who it was. "Sir."
"I want to marry the young lady who lives here."
If this surprised the woman at all, she gave no sign of it. "That would be my granddaughter sir. And sir, while it's my duty to do your bidding, she's the only family I have, and without her there'll be nobody to keep the goats and run the farm."
"I'll give you a fair pension."
"You are kind and generous. I'll call her now, with pleasure."
She called the girl in, and she was very much surprised to find the duke in the doorway of her cottage.
"Now," said her grandmother, "you are to marry the duke".
The girl's mouth opened and shut. She backed against the wall, then laughed nervously. She looked at the duke, saw that he was quite in earnest and fell silent.
She saw she was expected to say something, and said, barely audibly "very well".
"When?" said the grandmother.
"Now," said the duke. For why not?
"But the priest-" pointed out the grandmother.
"Can manage a wedding by to-morrow. For me. In the meantime, why should she not come away with me and adjust herself to more comfortable circumstances?"
"Very well," said the grandmother.
At this the girl broke down and wept.
"What are you crying for, madam?" asked the duke.
"Sir," said the girl, "must I marry you?".
"Yes," said the duke, in the voice which his ancestors had used to drive the tired shepherds forward against the Viking hordes.
And, like the tired shepherds, the girl knew that that was the final answer, the decree inescapable. She said nothing else but continued to weep silently.
"For God's sake girl, stop crying," said her grandmother, not to be cruel, but because she could not understand why this poor, obscure farm girl could cry at the thought of being chosen to marry the rich young duke and living among plenty for the rest of her life.
The girl had no bags to pack, for as duchess she would get new clothes and linen and furs and everything. Jewels too, her grandmother told her to cheer her up. The duke swung her up onto his horse in front of him and they rode back to the duke's castle.
Nothing he could do could make the girl stop crying. He gave her a silk dress of his mother's and ordered the servants to treat her as the mistress of the house. Still she would do nothing but cry.
Exasperated, he sent two servants to the church in the valley to announce that the duke would be getting married there to-morrow. He sent them with guns and dogs for it would be late in the afternoon by the time they returned, snow had begun to fall and the hungry winter wolves would be prowling.
The servants returned that evening. The marriage was all in order, they said. The duke was now even more infuriated by his tearful bride. He realised that now the wedding was announced her refusal to marry him would be embarrassing. So he summoned her to meet him in the great hall of the castle to speak to him. The girl, a shaking wreck, only eighteen, away from home for the first time and still unable to believe what had happened to her, was crouched in the guest bedroom, receiving futile hot possets and words of comfort from the duke's old nurse. He tears were spent now and she got up with a face like death and went down alone to the great hall to meet the duke. He was sitting at the big wooden table in the great hall. He ordered her to sit down and she sat down opposite him.
"Are you all right now?" he asked her, with genuine kindness.
"What is wrong?"
"I want to go home sir."
"This is your home now."
"No, it is not, and never will be. Let me go home at once, for I will never marry you."
She sounded weak and exhausted from crying, but there was something in her voice as hard and implacable as the stone of the castle.
The duke was baffled. Never in his life had he come face to face with blank refusal before.
"You must," he said.
"You can't force me to."
"I have the right to."
He called his servants to bring the roll of the estates. Then he showed the stubborn girl unequivocally that the farm where she had lived, for all it was deep in the forest high on the mountain, had been part of the family estates since the time of the first duke, and what's more, that her family had lived on that farm since the time of the first duke.
"What do you say to that?"
"I say I shall not marry you."
At that moment, from far way on the mountain, came a high, clear note, over the noise of the wind, as beautiful as singing but with something diabolical in it. Another note answered, nearer. Night had fallen. The wolves were hunting.
The duke, baffled and enraged, nevertheless resolved to be patient.
"When you marry me, you will have beautiful dresses."
Silence. The girl turned her face away and stared at the wall.
"You will have jewels plundered from the hordes of the Empress Thermantia at the Sack of Rome."
"There are fine horses in the stable. You may have any of them you want. I will buy you a stable of fine thoroughbreds if you want."
Silence. Beyond the massive walls, the wolves bayed, more and more, nearer and nearer. Nobody would be stepping outside tonight.
"You will be able to go hunting every day."
"You will have strong, healthy children, who will grow up heirs to a dukedom."
The duke lost his temper.
"God damn it, woman. What do you want?"
"To be free of you." Still she did not look at him.
The duke did not know what to say to that. He had invoked his rights as the master. He had offered her proof of his love. He would not be disobeyed.
He tried one last time. As hard and cold now as she was. "Will you marry me?"
He summoned his servants. "Throw her to the wolves," he said.
Two servants seized the girl, one by each arm. They dragged her from her chair and she let herself be dragged limply, apparently numb with fear and shock. They flung open the great oak door to the castle hall. The wind blasted into the hall, hard and cruel as an icy knife. The snow blew in little eddies, sparkling white and the only thing visible in the dark.
The duke slammed the door after her and rammed the locks and bolts home. She was still wearing his mother's silk dress.
The wolves howled round the castle all right, high and clear and musical and utterly savage, and the duke shivered in his bed, until the dawn came and the wolves returned to their lairs.
That morning, the shepherds taking their thin flock out to scrabble for nourishment found a silk dress on the forest path, drenched in blood, scarlet against the snow.
The story was round the village soon enough. The duke had picked a little mountain girl to marry him, she had refused and he had put her out to die. Most of the villagers accepted this as part of the natural order of this harsh, bleak world. Only a few of the older men and women sighed and dabbed at their eyes.
The duke in outrage never paid a pension to the girl's grandmother, and within a year she was dead and within ten years the house was a forgotten ruin and the sheep lived feral on the mountain.
As the year turned it seemed to the villagers that the wolves lingered about the castle a great deal. They did not return to the high mountains, which ran with fat deer, as they usually did in the summer.
They seemed to have got on the duke's nerves. Something had, at least. Almost overnight, he became reclusive. He had been a lively young man, always out surveying his estates, flying his hawks, riding in the deep forest. Now he lurked in his castle. At night, when the wolves howled, he lit his lamp and shivered. Woe betide the servant who did not bar the doors at night. When they asked the duke why he did not ride out in the forest, he shook his head and muttered that he was afraid of wolves.
The servants muttered amongst themselves. The duke, whatever his qualities and failings, had never been called a coward by his worst enemies. As a boy of eleven he had slain, unaided, his first wolf, brought it back over the saddle of his half-wild stallion, nailed the head and paws over his bed, without the least trace of fear. Laughing, even. It was wrong, they felt, for him to lurk behind his walls, crouch by his fire cloaked in shadows. It was a disgrace to his bold ancestors. What would his father say?
Come the autumn the duke married again. This did not bring him out of his shell. Quite the contrary. The girl, a tough, sturdy village girl, was kept a virtual prisoner in her rooms, with the duke flapping over her like a crow. When she fell pregnant he guarded her still more jealously, and prowled round his fire all night. The child was born in the spring, serenaded into the world by the wolves. A small, but strong and bonny, boy. The duke named him after his father. The duke's own old nurse was trusted with looking after the child, but she died when he was barely a year old. By the time the boy was seven, the duchess died as well. The duke was in no hurry to marry again. He had his son. He had his dream.
He seemed determined to guard his son as jealously as he had guarded his wife. He kept him locked in the castle day and night. Especially night. "Don't go outside," said the duke, every night when the wolves were singing, "don't go out to the wolves".
The castle, dark and gloomy and haunted by the nervous wreck of the duke, was no fit place for the boy. Despite his careful upbringing, his ancestors' wolf-killing blood flowed in his veins, and one winter's night, when he was eighteen, when the wolves seemed to be trying to call the moon down from the sky, he took his father's old gun—no longer in working order, for no one had touched it for years—and crept down to the stables. He failed to saddle the old black mare which the servants used—the duke had no use for horses any more—and mounted her bareback, hauling himself up like a sack of potatoes. With great difficulty, he persuaded her to exit the stable. In the morning, the shepherds found the mare in the forest, perfectly calm and quite unharmed, rummaging through the snow in search of grass. Beside her were the boy's clothes, blood-drenched, scarlet on the snow, beside the rusted old gun.
The duke shed not one tear. But he became more fearful than ever. He took to sleeping in the daytime, so he could spend the night awake and watchful. In fact, he barely slept at all, and spent most of his time praying, but nobody knew what he prayed for.
He married again, another village girl. Again, the child, a boy, was born in the spring as the wolves were howling. Again the duke named him after his father. He raised him in the castle. He had to get him a new nurse, and they were hard enough to find. Nobody wanted to work at the big castle with the duke. They preferred to work in their own village, where they would not have to listen to him prowl. Many of the servants who had attended the duke in his childhood were dead now. The faithful bailiff of the estates was killed by a mad bull. The second duchess died when the boy was just an infant. Sometimes the castle seemed half dead.
This son was guarded even more jealously. Nevertheless, one winter's night, when he was eighteen and his father was searching for potential wives for him, one winter's night when the wolves were singing, the ancestral wolf-hunting memories of the mountain dukes stirred in his blood. He slipped down to the stable—no gun this time, it had fallen to bits years ago—and mounted the now whiskery and shambling blackish-grey mare, who hobbled out of the stable and into the snow. In the morning, the shepherds found the mare in the forest, perfectly calm and quite unharmed, rummaging through the snow in search of grass. Beside her were the boy's clothes, blood-drenched, scarlet on the snow.
Now the old duke became practically a recluse. He never left his castle but crouched by the fire with a butcher's knife on his knee when the wolves prowled beyond the walls. He offered land, money, jewels, anything, to any of the villagers who killed a wolf. Few claimed the prize. The villagers were more afraid of the crumbling castle and the restless, frightened man within than of bad harvests and starvation. The duke married for the third time, again a strong young village girl. Surely, now, he would have a son to succeed him. The girl was soon pregnant and the little boy was born as the wolves were howling. He cried and kicked so fiercely that the duke smiled for the first time in years. This one would live. The poor duchess wasted away in the dark, airless castle alone. She wore down to a shadow and was dead within a year.
But the boy lived. And from somewhere—not from the gloom of the duke's sunless, airless castle, for certain—came health and strength. The duke named him after his father and for eighteen years, he lived in hope.
One winter's night, the wolves were howling. That night, the boy slipped out of bed and stared through an arrow-slit at the forests and mountains of his ancient birth right and listened to the wolves whom, just as his forefathers had roamed among with their knives and bows and guns, so he would roam among. He had no gun, but he went to the stable where the little brown pony the servants used to run errands stood and champed the hay, the black mare having died seven years ago or more. He rode the smart little pony out of the stable to the forest. In the morning, the shepherds found the pony in the forest, perfectly calm and quite unharmed, rummaging through the snow in search of grass. Beside him were the boy's clothes, blood-drenched, scarlet on the snow.
The duke was old now, and desperate and fearful. No girl in the valley would marry him, and he was too old now to ride out and pick girls up from their houses as he had done once. His servants were dying, his wealth grew, but what good was it when he had no relatives to pass it on to? The villagers muttered that the duke had better find a distant relative soon, before he died, for they dreaded a land-war between the farmers. As time passed, they wondered if perhaps he had died already. Nobody ever saw him. His castle was falling down before their eyes. Perhaps he was dead, in some obscure room in his tower, perhaps the rats had eaten him, perhaps he had sold his soul to the devil so he could live a thousand years. For they have short lives in that valley and as time passed the villagers realised that nobody could remember the duke's birth and childhood at all, and fewer and fewer people could even remember that farm girl he had married—no he hadn't married her, she had died—no, there was no girl, it was all an old wives' tale.
But the duke had not died, and beyond the castle walls the wolves got hungrier.
One hundred years to the day after the duke had ridden home with the young, beautiful farm girl over his saddle he was sitting on a crumbling tower in his castle in the dusk, dreaming of his boyhood and happiness, when he looked out into the snow and saw, beyond the castle walls, plain as day, the beautiful mountain girl he had carried home that day—oh, for the distant, happy days of his youth—one hundred years ago. He had not seen her face since, but he had held the image in his mind as clear as if he saw her before his eyes. He hurried down from the tower, moving faster than he had moved in sixty years or more. He whirled a moth-eaten rug round his shoulders. Even the howling of the wolves which had been his waking and sleeping nightmare for a hundred years only made him pick up a small meat knife. She had come back to him! He knew she would! She had come back to him and he would be saved. He rushed out into the night.
All that night the starving winter wolves howled longer, higher and more terrifyingly than they had ever howled before—except, perhaps, for one night one hundred years ago which nobody could remember now—but it was not only the volume and persistence of the howling which made the villagers shake in their beds behind their bolted doors. There was something else in it too. Not that any of the villagers, then or ever, could have explained what the something else was.
Come the dawn, the shepherds on the mountain found a pile of bloodstained clothes on the mountain heights, and a little bloodstained meat knife. A few hours later, the priest found and old man crouched in the church porch, naked, and in the most horribly terrified state the priest had ever imagined a human man could be. He took him into his little house and wrapped him in rugs and fed him coffee, but it was many hours before he could speak coherently, or even realise that the priest was there. The priest asked him who he was, and the old man replied, between gasps, that he was the duke. The priest was astonished. He had never set eyes on the duke and neither had his father before him. The entire village was before long in the priest's kitchen, asking, reasonably enough, how the duke had come to be crouched naked and whimpering in the church porch. The duke had slipped back into oblivion. He would only shudder, and moan, and mumble a girl's name. Nobody recognised the name, or knew anybody with it, until they searched through the church record and found a baptismal record of a girl a hundred and eighteen years ago. But he could not possibly be talking about her.
The duke was allowed to stay in the priest's spare room while somebody took a post horse down the river to the city, the only place where they could get the doctor he so clearly needed. The snow fell thick and fast that evening. The messenger to town did not return. Cut off, probably, at the bend in the river. The duke had to stay all night in the priest's spare room.
That night, the wolves were at it again. The villagers drove their cattle into the house, bolted the door and lay awake all night. In the morning, the vicar went to the spare bedroom and the duke was not there. When the doctor arrived from the city with the post horses he was much annoyed about it and insisted on being payed anyway.
That spring, just as the thaw was setting in, the shepherds shot a huge silver wolf on the crumbling steps of the duke's increasingly ruined castle. They brought the body home triumphantly and burnt in down by the river.
There are no wolves in England any more. So if you go to that valley this winter and sit by the river and hear, high on the mountain, a long, beautiful, but horrible, keening, like a dog howling and yet utterly, savagely unlike it, like a cry of pain and loneliness and defiance but completely inhuman, then it's just the wind.