Wet and hot, having her winter coat,
the mare exactly matched the drenched fox-coloured
beech-leaf drifts. As was her wont on such misty
days, she danced along with head held high, her neck
a little arched, her ears pricked, pretending that
things were not what they seemed, and now and then
vigorously trying to leave me planted on the air.
Stones which had rolled out of the lane banks were
her especial goblins, for one such had maltreated
her nerves before she came into this ball-room world,
and she had not forgotten.
There was no wind that day.
On the beech-trees were still just enough of coppery
leaves to look like fires lighted high-up to air the
eeriness; but most of the twigs, pearled with water,
were patterned very naked against universal grey.
Berries were few, except the pink spindle one, so
far the most beautiful, of which there were more than
Earth generally vouchsafes. There was no sound
in the deep lanes, none of that sweet, overhead sighing
of yesterday at the same hour, but there was a quality
of silence a dumb mist murmuration.
We passed a tree with a proud pigeon sitting on its
top spire, quite too heavy for the twig delicacy below;
undisturbed by the mare’s hoofs or the creaking
of saddle leather, he let us pass, absorbed in his
world of tranquil turtledoves. The mist had
thickened to a white, infinitesimal rain-dust, and
in it the trees began to look strange, as though they
had lost one another. The world seemed inhabited
only by quick, soundless wraiths as one trotted past.
Close to a farm-house the mare stood
still with that extreme suddenness peculiar to her
at times, and four black pigs scuttled by and at once
became white air. By now we were both hot and
inclined to cling closely together and take liberties
with each other; I telling her about her nature, name,
and appearance, together with comments on her manners;
and she giving forth that sterterous, sweet snuffle,
which begins under the star on her forehead.
On such days she did not sneeze, reserving those
expressions of her joy for sunny days and the crisp
winds. At a forking of the ways we came suddenly
on one grey and three brown ponies, who shied round
and flung away in front of us, a vision of pretty heads
and haunches tangled in the thin lane, till, conscious
that they were beyond their beat, they faced the bank
and, one by one, scrambled over to join the other
ghosts out on the dim common.
Dipping down now over the road, we
passed hounds going home. Pied, dumb-footed
shapes, padding along in that soft-eyed, remote world
of theirs, with a tall riding splash of red in front,
and a tall splash of riding red behind. Then
through a gate we came on to the moor, amongst whitened
furze. The mist thickened. A curlew was
whistling on its invisible way, far up; and that wistful,
wild calling seemed the very voice of the day.
Keeping in view the glint of the road, we galloped;
rejoicing, both of us, to be free of the jog jog of
And first the voice of the curlew
died; then the glint of the road vanished; and we
were quite alone. Even the furze was gone; no
shape of anything left, only the black, peaty ground,
and the thickening mist. We might as well have
been that lonely bird crossing up there in the blind
white nothingness, like a human spirit wandering on
the undiscovered moor of its own future.
The mare jumped a pile of stones,
which appeared, as it were, after we had passed over;
and it came into my mind that, if we happened to strike
one of the old quarry pits, we should infallibly be
killed. Somehow, there was pleasure in this thought,
that we might, or might not, strike that old quarry
pit. The blood in us being hot, we had pure joy
in charging its white, impalpable solidity, which
made way, and at once closed in behind us. There
was great fun in this yard-by-yard discovery that
we were not yet dead, this flying, shelterless challenge
to whatever might lie out there, five yards in front.
We felt supremely above the wish to know that our
necks were safe; we were happy, panting in the vapour
that beat against our faces from the sheer speed of
our galloping. Suddenly the ground grew lumpy
and made up-hill. The mare slackened pace; we
stopped. Before us, behind, to right and left,
white vapour. No sky, no distance, barely the
earth. No wind in our faces, no wind anywhere.
At first we just got our breath, thought nothing, talked
a little. Then came a chillness, a faint clutching
over the heart. The mare snuffled; we turned
and made down-hill. And still the mist thickened,
and seemed to darken ever so little; we went slowly,
suddenly doubtful of all that was in front.
There came into our minds visions, so distant in that
darkening vapour, of a warm stall and manger of oats;
of tea and a log fire. The mist seemed to have
fingers now, long, dark white, crawling fingers; it
seemed, too, to have in its sheer silence a sort of
muttered menace, a shuddery lurkingness, as if from
out of it that spirit of the unknown, which in hot
blood we had just now so gleefully mocked, were creeping
up at us, intent on its vengeance. Since the
ground no longer sloped, we could not go down-hill;
there were no means left of telling in what direction
we were moving, and we stopped to listen. There
was no sound, not one tiny noise of water, wind in
trees, or man; not even of birds or the moor ponies.
And the mist darkened. The mare reached her
head down and walked on, smelling at the heather; every
time she sniffed, one’s heart quivered, hoping
she had found the way. She threw up her head,
snorted, and stood still; and there passed just in
front of us a pony and her foal, shapes of scampering
dusk, whisked like blurred shadows across a sheet.
Hoof-silent in the long heather as ever
were visiting ghosts they were gone in a
flash. The mare plunged forward, following.
But, in the feel of her gallop, and the feel of my
heart, there was no more that ecstasy of facing the
unknown; there was only the cold, hasty dread of loneliness.
Far asunder as the poles were those two sensations,
evoked by this same motion. The mare swerved
violently and stopped. There, passing within
three yards, from the same direction as before, the
soundless shapes of the pony and her foal flew by
again, more intangible, less dusky now against the
darker screen. Were we, then, to be haunted by
those bewildering uncanny ones, flitting past ever
from the same direction? This time the mare did
not follow, but stood still; knowing as well as I
that direction was quite lost. Soon, with a
whimper, she picked her way on again, smelling at the
heather. And the mist darkened!
Then, out of the heart of that dusky
whiteness, came a tiny sound; we stood, not breathing,
turning our heads. I could see the mare’s
eye fixed and straining at the vapour. The tiny
sound grew till it became the muttering of wheels.
The mare dashed forward. The muttering ceased
untimely; but she did not stop; turning abruptly to
the left, she slid, scrambled, and dropped into a
trot. The mist seemed whiter below us; we were
on the road. And involuntarily there came from
me a sound, not quite a shout, not quite an oath.
I saw the mare’s eye turn back, faintly derisive,
as who should say: Alone I did it! Then
slowly, comfortably, a little ashamed, we jogged on,
in the mood of men and horses when danger is over.
So pleasant it seemed now, in one short half-hour,
to have passed through the circle-swing of the emotions,
from the ecstasy of hot recklessness to the clutching
of chill fear. But the meeting-point of those
two sensations we had left out there on the mysterious
moor! Why, at one moment, had we thought it finer
than anything on earth to risk the breaking of our
necks; and the next, shuddered at being lost in the
darkening mist with winter night fast coming on?
And very luxuriously we turned once
more into the lanes, enjoying the past, scenting the
future. Close to home, the first little eddy
of wind stirred, and the song of dripping twigs began;
an owl hooted, honey-soft, in the fog. We came
on two farm hands mending the lane at the turn of
the avenue, and, curled on the top of the bank, their
cosy red collie pup, waiting for them to finish work
for the day. He raised his sharp nose and looked
at us dewily. We turned down, padding softly
in the wet fox-red drifts under the beechtrees, whereon
the last leaves still flickered out in the darkening
whiteness, that now seemed so little eerie.
We passed the grey-green skeleton of the farm-yard
gate. A hen ran across us, clucking, into the
dusk. The maze drew her long, home-coming snuffle,
and stood stil.