The Music on the Hill, Part 2

By Saki

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(Two days later)

‘Stay clear of the woods,’ Mortimer told Sylvia.
Me
Mortimer, I see you very little lately. The farm and woods and trout streams seem to swallow you up  from dawn till dusk. 
Mortimer
Not intentionally. Sorry, Syl. Chores have kept me busy.

(Later that morning)

Me
I shall follow in the direction I saw him take to that open space in the nut copse. 
Me
It is shut in by these big yew trees. Whoa! 
Me
In the center of it now stands a stone pedestal surmounted by a small bronze figure of a youthful Pan. It is a beautiful piece of workmanship, But a newly cut bunch of grapes has been placed as an offering at its feet. Grapes are none too plentiful at the manor house, and yet we waste some good grapes out here! 

(Sylvia snatched the bunch angrily from the pedestal.

Contemptuous annoyance dominated her thoughts as she strolled slowly homeward, and then gave way to a sharp feeling of something that was very near fright; across a thick tangle of undergrowth a boy’s face was scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes. It was a lonely pathway, all pathways round Yessney were lonely for the matter of that, and she sped forward without waiting to give a closer scrutiny to this sudden apparition. It was not till she had reached the house that she discovered that she had dropped the bunch of grapes in her flight.)

Me
I saw a youth in the wood today, brown-faced and rather handsome, but a scoundrel to look at. A gipsy lad, I suppose.
Mortimer
A reasonable theory, only there aren’t any gipsies in these parts at present.
Me
Then who was he? I suppose it was your doing, it’s a harmless piece of lunacy, but people would think you dreadfully silly if they knew of it.
Mortimer
Did you meddle with it in any way? 
Me
I – I threw the grapes away. It seemed so silly. Stop looking so annoyed!
Mortimer
I don’t think you were wise to do that. I’ve heard it said that the Wood Gods are rather horrible to those who molest them.
Me
Horrible perhaps to those that believe in them, but you see I don’t.
Mortimer
All the same. I should avoid the woods and orchards if I were you, and give a wide berth to the horned beasts on the farm.”
Me
  It is all nonsense, of course, but in this lonely wood-girdled spot nonsense seems able to rear uneasiness. Mortimer, I think we will go back to Town some time soon.
Mortimer
I don’t think you will ever go back to Town. 
Me
Don’t be so dramatic. In the meantime I will take your advice in the course of tomorrow afternoon’s ramble to stay clear of the woods. As to the horned cattle, your warning is scarcely needed, for I have always regarded them as of doubtful neutrality at best.

**********

The next day a low piping, as of some reedy flute, rose from the depth of a neighboring copse, and there seemed some subtle connection between the animal’s restless pacing and the wild music. Sylvia turned her steps upland and climbed the slopes that stretched in rolling shoulders high above Yessney. Sylvia could presently see a dark body, breasting hill after hill, and sinking again and again out of sight as he crossed the combes.

Mortimer
Sylvia, no! Not in that direction; turn around, retrace your steps! Run towards the toolshed! Don’t go towards that rough beast!
Me
I have faith he will be run off by the hounds.
Mortimer
The hunted deer sometimes go the other way, and head down the hill.
Me
I am not going to fly in fear before you pagan worshippers god! Face reality,! It’s not the dawn of time!

She had left the piping behind, but across her feet the wind brought her another kind of music, the straining bay of hounds in full chase. Yessney was just on the outskirts of the Devon-and-Somerset country. 

Meanwhile behind the stag steadily swelled that relentless chorus, and she grew tense with the excited sympathy that one feels for any hunted thing in whose capture one is not directly interested. And at last he broke through the outermost line of oak scrub and fern and stood panting in the open, a fat September stag carrying a well-furnished head. 

His obvious course was to drop down to the brown pools of Undercombe, and thence make his way towards the red deer’s favoured sanctuary, the sea. To Sylvia’s surprise, however, he turned his head to the upland slope and came lumbering resolutely onward over the heather. “It will be dreadful,” she thought, “the hounds will pull him down under my very eyes.” 

But the music of the pack seemed to have died away for a moment, and in its place she heard again that wild piping, which rose now on this side, now on that, as though urging the failing stag to a final effort. 

Sylvia stood well aside from his path, half hidden in a thick growth of whortle bushes, and watched him swing stiffly upward, his flanks dark with sweat, the coarse hair on his neck showing light by contrast. The pipe music shrilled suddenly around her, seeming to come from the bushes at her very feet, and at the same moment the great beast slewed round and bore directly down upon her. In an instant her pity for the hunted animal was changed to wild terror at her own danger; the thick heather roots mocked her scrambling efforts at flight, and she looked frantically downward for a glimpse of oncoming hounds. 

The huge antler spikes were within a few yards of her, and in a flash of numbing fear she remembered Mortimer’s warning, to beware of horned beasts on the farm. And then with a quick throb of joy she saw that she was not alone; a human figure stood a few paces aside, knee-deep in the whortle bushes.

Me
Drive it off!

But the figure made no answering movement.

The antlers drove straight at her breast, the acrid smell of the hunted animal was in her nostrils, but her eyes were filled with the horror of something she saw other than her oncoming death. And in her ears rang the echo of a boy’s laughter, golden and equivocal.

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