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by [?]

‘There is a wild beast in your woods,’ said the artist Cunningham, as he was being driven to the station. It was the only remark he had made during the drive, but as Van Cheele had talked incessantly his companion’s silence had not been noticeable.

‘A stray fox or two and some resident weasels. Nothing more formidable,’ said Van Cheele. The artist said nothing.

‘What did you mean about a wild beast?’ said Van Cheele later, when they were on the platform.

‘Nothing. My imagination Here is the train,’ said Cunningham.

That afternoon Van Cheele went for one of his frequent rambles through his woodland property. He had a stuffed bittern in his study, and knew the names of quite a number of wild flowers, so his aunt had possibly some justification in describing him as a great naturalist. At any rate, he was a great walker. It was his custom to take mental notes of everything he saw during his walks, not so much for the purpose of assisting contemporary science as to provide topics for conversation afterwards. When the bluebells began to show themselves in flower he made a point of informing every one of the fact; the season of the year might have warned his hearers of the likelihood of such an occurrence, but at least they felt that he was being absolutely frank with them.

What Van Cheele saw on this particular afternoon was, however, something far removed from his ordinary range of experience. On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness. It was an unexpected apparition, and Van Cheele found himself engaged in the novel process of thinking before he spoke. Where on earth could this wild-looking boy hail from? The miller’s wife had lost a child some two months ago, supposed to have been swept away by the millrace, but that had been a mere baby, not a half-grown lad.

‘What are you doing there?’ he demanded.

‘Obviously, sunning myself,’ replied the boy.

‘Where do you live?’

‘Here, in these woods. ’

‘You can’t live in the woods,’ said Van Cheele.

‘They are very nice woods,’ said the boy, with a touch of patronage in his voice.

‘But where do you sleep at night?’

‘I don’t sleep at night; that’s my busiest time. ’

Van Cheele began to have an irritated feeling that he was grappling with a problem that was eluding him.

‘What do you feed on?’ he asked.

‘Flesh,’ said the boy, and he pronounced the word with slow relish, as though he were tasting it.

‘Flesh! What flesh?’

‘Since it interests you, rabbits, wild-fowl, hares, poultry, lambs in their season, children when I can get any; they’re usually too well locked in at night, when I do most of my hunting. It’s quite two months since I tasted child-flesh. ’

Ignoring the chaffing nature of the last remark Van Cheele tried to draw the boy on the subject of possible poaching operations.

‘You’re talking rather through your hat when you speak of feeding on hares. ’ (Considering the nature of the boy’s toilet the simile was hardly an apt one. ) ‘Our hillside hares aren’t easily caught. ’

‘At night I hunt on four feet,’ was the somewhat cryptic response.

‘I suppose you mean that you hunt with a dog?’ hazarded Van Cheele.