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PAGE 2

Gabriel-Ernest
by [?]

The boy rolled slowly over on to his back, and laughed a weird low laugh, that was pleasantly like a chuckle and disagreeably like a snarl.

‘I don’t fancy any dog would be very anxious for my company, especially at night. ’

Van Cheele began to feel that there was something positively uncanny about the strange-eyed, strange- tongued youngster.

‘I can’t have you staying in these woods,’ he declared authoritatively.

‘I fancy you’d rather have me here than in your house,’ said the boy.

The prospect of this wild, nude animal in Van Cheele’s primly ordered house was certainly an alarming one.

‘If you don’t go I shall have to make you,’ said Van Cheele.

The boy turned like a flash, plunged into the pool, and in a moment had flung his wet and glistening body half-way up the bank where Van Cheele was standing. In an otter the movement would not have been remarkable; in a boy Van Cheele found it sufficiently startling. His foot slipped as he made an involuntary backward movement, and he found himself almost prostrate on the slippery weed-grown bank, with those tigerish yellow eyes not very far from his own. Almost instinctively he half raised his hand to his throat. The boy laughed again, a laugh in which the snarl had nearly driven out the chuckle, and then, with another of his astonishing lightning movements, plunged out of view into a yielding tangle of weed and fern.

‘What an extraordinary wild animal!’ said Van Cheele as he picked himself up. And then he recalled Cunningham’s remark, ‘There is a wild beast in your woods. ’

Walking slowly homeward, Van Cheele began to turn over in his mind various local occurrences which might be traceable to the existence of this astonishing young savage.

Something had been thinning the game in the woods lately, poultry had been missing from the farms, hares were growing unaccountably scarcer, and complaints had reached him of lambs being carried off bodily from the hills. Was it possible that this wild boy was really hunting the countryside in company with some clever poacher dog? He had spoken of hunting ‘four-footed’ by night, but then, again, he had hinted strangely at no dog caring to come near him, ‘especially at night. ’ It was certainly puzzling. And then, as Van Cheele ran his mind over the various depredations that had been committed during the last month or two, he came suddenly to a dead stop, alike in his walk and his speculations. The child missing from the mill two months ago—the accepted theory was that it had tumbled into the mill-race and been swept away; but the mother had always declared she had heard a shriek on the hill side of the house, in the opposite direction from the water. It was unthinkable, of course, but he wished that the boy had not made that uncanny remark about child-flesh eaten two months ago. Such dreadful things should not be said even in fun.

Van Cheele, contrary to his usual wont, did not feel disposed to be communicative about his discovery in the wood. His position as a parish councillor and justice of the peace seemed somehow compromised by the fact that he was harbouring a personality of such doubtful repute on his property; there was even a possibility that a heavy bill of damages for raided lambs and poultry might be laid at his door. At dinner that night he was quite unusually silent.

‘Where’s your voice gone to?’ said his aunt. ‘One would think you had seen a wolf. ’

Van Cheele, who was not familiar with the old saying, thought the remark rather foolish; if he hadseen a wolf on his property his tongue would have been extraordinarily busy with the subject.