The Woodlanders HTML version

Chapter 1
The rambler who, for old association or other reasons, should trace the forsaken
coach-road running almost in a meridional line from Bristol to the south shore of
England, would find himself during the latter half of his journey in the vicinity of
some extensive woodlands, interspersed with apple-orchards. Here the trees,
timber or fruit-bearing, as the case may be, make the way- side hedges ragged
by their drip and shade, stretching over the road with easeful horizontality, as if
they found the unsubstantial air an adequate support for their limbs. At one
place, where a hill is crossed, the largest of the woods shows itself bisected by
the high-way, as the head of thick hair is bisected by the white line of its parting.
The spot is lonely.
The physiognomy of a deserted highway expresses solitude to a degree that is
not reached by mere dales or downs, and bespeaks a tomb-like stillness more
emphatic than that of glades and pools. The contrast of what is with what might
be probably accounts for this. To step, for instance, at the place under notice,
from the hedge of the plantation into the adjoining pale thoroughfare, and pause
amid its emptiness for a moment, was to exchange by the act of a single stride
the simple absence of human companionship for an incubus of the forlorn.
At this spot, on the lowering evening of a by-gone winter's day, there stood a
man who had entered upon the scene much in the aforesaid manner. Alighting
into the road from a stile hard by, he, though by no means a "chosen vessel" for
impressions, was temporarily influenced by some such feeling of being suddenly
more alone than before he had emerged upon the highway.
It could be seen by a glance at his rather finical style of dress that he did not
belong to the country proper; and from his air, after a while, that though there
might be a sombre beauty in the scenery, music in the breeze, and a wan
procession of coaching ghosts in the sentiment of this old turnpike-road, he was
mainly puzzled about the way. The dead men's work that had been expended in
climbing that hill, the blistered soles that had trodden it, and the tears that had
wetted it, were not his concern; for fate had given him no time for any but
practical things.
He looked north and south, and mechanically prodded the ground with his
walking-stick. A closer glance at his face corroborated the testimony of his
clothes. It was self-complacent, yet there was small apparent ground for such
complacence. Nothing irradiated it; to the eye of the magician in character, if not
to the ordinary observer, the expression enthroned there was absolute
submission to and belief in a little assortment of forms and habitudes.
At first not a soul appeared who could enlighten him as he desired, or seemed
likely to appear that night. But presently a slight noise of laboring wheels and the