GABRIEL-ERNEST by Saki
"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 mill-race,
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
as though he were tasting it.
"Flesh! What Flesh?"
"Since it interests you, rabbits, wild-fowl, hares, poultry,
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
draw the boy on the subject of possible poaching operations.
"You're talking rather through your hat when you speak of feeding
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
The boy rolled slowly over on to his back, and laughed a weird
laugh, that was pleasantly like a chuckle and disagreeably like a
"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
about the strange-eyed, strange-tongued youngster.
"I can't have you staying in these woods," he declared
"I fancy you'd rather have me here than in your house," said
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
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 involuntarily 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. They 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
"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
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
dogs? 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
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
had seen a wolf."
Van Cheele, who was not familiar with the old saying, thought
remark rather foolish; if he HAD seen a wolf on his property his
tongue would have been extraordinarily busy with the subject.
At breakfast next morning Van Cheele was conscious that his
of uneasiness regarding yesterday's episode had not wholly
disappeared, and he resolved to go by train to the neighbouring
cathedral town, hunt up Cunningham, and learn from him what he had
really seen that had prompted the remark about a wild beast in the
woods. With this resolution taken, his usual cheerfulness partially
returned, and he hummed a bright little melody as he sauntered to
the morning-room for his customary cigarette. As he entered the
room the melody made way abruptly for a pious invocation.
Gracefully asprawl on the ottoman, in an attitude of almost
exaggerated repose, was the boy of the woods. He was drier than
when Van Cheele had last seen him, but no other alteration was
noticeable in his toilet.
"How dare you come here?" asked Van Cheele furiously.
"You told me I was not to stay in the woods," said the boy calmly.
"But not to come here. Supposing my aunt should see you!"
And with a view to minimising that catastrophe, Van Cheele hastily
obscured as much of his unwelcome guest as possible under the folds
of a Morning Post. At that moment his aunt entered the room.
"This is a poor boy who has lost his way--and lost his memory.
doesn't know who he is or where he comes from," explained Van Cheele
desperately, glancing apprehensively at the waif's face to see
whether he was going to add inconvenient candour to his other savage
Miss Van Cheele was enormously interested.
"Perhaps his underlinen is marked," she suggested.
"He seems to have lost most of that, too," said Van Cheele,
frantic little grabs at the Morning Post to keep it in its place.
A naked homeless child appealed to Miss Van Cheele as warmly
stray kitten or derelict puppy would have done.
"We must do all we can for him," she decided, and in a very
time a messenger, dispatched to the rectory, where a page-boy was
kept, had returned with a suit of pantry clothes, and the necessary
accessories of shirt, shoes, collar, etc. Clothed, clean, and
groomed, the boy lost none of his uncanniness in Van Cheele's eyes,
but his aunt found him sweet.
"We must call him something till we know who he really is," she
said. "Gabriel-Ernest, I think; those are nice suitable names."
Van Cheele agreed, but he privately doubted whether they were
grafted on to a nice suitable child. His misgivings were not
diminished by the fact that his staid and elderly spaniel had bolted
out of the house at the first incoming of the boy, and now
obstinately remained shivering and yapping at the farther end of the
orchard, while the canary, usually as vocally industrious as Van
Cheele himself, had put itself on an allowance of frightened cheeps.
More than ever he was resolved to consult Cunningham without loss of
As he drove off to the station his aunt was arranging that Gabriel-
Ernest should help her to entertain the infant members of her
Sunday-school class at tea that afternoon.
Cunningham was not at first disposed to be communicative.
"My mother died of some brain trouble," he explained, "so you
understand why I am averse to dwelling on anything of an impossibly
fantastic nature that I may see or think that I have seen."
"But what DID you see?" persisted Van Cheele.
"What I thought I saw was something so extraordinary that no
sane man could dignify it with the credit of having actually
happened. I was standing, the last evening I was with you, half-
hidden in the hedgegrowth by the orchard gate, watching the dying
glow of the sunset. Suddenly I became aware of a naked boy, a
bather from some neighbouring pool, I took him to be, who was
standing out on the bare hillside also watching the sunset. His
pose was so suggestive of some wild faun of Pagan myth that I
instantly wanted to engage him as a model, and in another moment I
think I should have hailed him. But just then the sun dipped out of
view, and all the orange and pink slid out of the landscape, leaving
it cold and grey. And at the same moment an astounding thing
happened--the boy vanished too!"
"What! vanished away into nothing?" asked Van Cheele excitedly.
"No; that is the dreadful part of it," answered the artist; "on
open hillside where the boy had been standing a second ago, stood a
large wolf, blackish in colour, with gleaming fangs and cruel,
yellow eyes. You may think--"
But Van Cheele did not stop for anything as futile as thought.
Already he was tearing at top speed towards the station. He
dismissed the idea of a telegram. "Gabriel-Ernest is a werewolf"
was a hopelessly inadequate effort at conveying the situation, and
his aunt would think it was a code message to which he had omitted
to give her the key. His one hope was that he might reach home
before sundown. The cab which he chartered at the other end of the
railway journey bore him with what seemed exasperating slowness
along the country roads, which were pink and mauve with the flush of
the sinking sun. His aunt was putting away some unfinished jams and
cake when he arrived.
"Where is Gabriel-Ernest?" he almost screamed.
"He is taking the little Toop child home," said his aunt. "It
getting so late, I thought it wasn't safe to let it go back alone.
What a lovely sunset, isn't it?"
But Van Cheele, although not oblivious of the glow in the western
sky, did not stay to discuss its beauties. At a speed for which he
was scarcely geared he raced along the narrow lane that led to the
home of the Toops. On one side ran the swift current of the mill-
stream, on the other rose the stretch of bare hillside. A dwindling
rim of red sun showed still on the skyline, and the next turning
must bring him in view of the ill-assorted couple he was pursuing.
Then the colour went suddenly out of things, and a grey light
settled itself with a quick shiver over the landscape. Van Cheele
heard a shrill wail of fear, and stopped running.
Nothing was ever seen again of the Toop child or Gabriel-Ernest,
the latter's discarded garments were found lying in the road so it
was assumed that the child had fallen into the water, and that the
boy had stripped and jumped in, in a vain endeavour to save it. Van
Cheele and some workmen who were near by at the time testified to
having heard a child scream loudly just near the spot where the
clothes were found. Mrs. Toop, who had eleven other children, was
decently resigned to her bereavement, but Miss Van Cheele sincerely
mourned her lost foundling. It was on her initiative that a
memorial brass was put up in the parish church to "Gabriel-Ernest,
an unknown boy, who bravely sacrificed his life for another."
Van Cheele gave way to his aunt in most things, but he flatly
refused to subscribe to the Gabriel-Ernest memorial.