Every day, nine-year-old Susan walks a mile through the deserted Dark Wood between her home and school. Whether they are giants or dwarfs hidden behind the trees, or bears and Indians in the undergrowth, or even the trees themselves marching down upon her, these fears in the wood must never be mentioned, and, above all, they must never know she is afraid.
This 1931 book, written by Alison Uttley, from the empathetic perspective of a little girl, describes life in an English farm. The near photographic narrative is said to be a fictionalised account of the author’s own childhood experiences at her family farm home.
The text and illustrations are from the Folio Society’s 2008 edition:
Through the Dark Wood
They must never know she was afraid
THE DARK WOOD was green and gold, green where the oak trees stood crowded together with misshapen twisted trunks, red-gold where the great smooth beeches lifted their branching arms to the sky. In between jostled silver birches – olive-tinted fountains which never reached the light – black spruces with little pale candles on each tip, and nut trees smothered to the neck in dense bracken.
The bracken was a forest in itself, a curving verdant flood of branches, transparent as water by the path, but thick, heavy, secret, a foot or two away, where high ferny crests waved above the softly moving ferns, just as the beech tops flaunted above the rest of the wood. The rabbits which crept quietly in and out reared on their hind legs to see who was going by. They pricked their ears and stood erect, and then dropped silently on soft paws and disappeared into the close ranks of brown stems when they saw the child.
She walked along the rough path, casting fearful glances to right and left. She never ran, even in moments of greatest terror, when things seemed very near, for then They would know she was afraid and close round her. Gossamer stretched across the way from nut bush to bracken frond, and clung to her cold cheeks. Split acorns and beech mast lay thick on the ground, green and brown patterns in the upside-down red leaves which made a carpet. Heavy rains had swept the soil to the lower levels of the path, and laid bare the rock in many places. On a sandy patch she saw her own footprint, a little square toe and a horseshoe where the iron heel had sunk. That was in the morning when all was fresh and fair. It cheered her to see the homely mark, and she stayed a moment to look at it, and replace her foot in it, as Robinson Crusoe might have done. A squirrel, rippling along a leafy bough, peered at her, and then, finding her so still, ran down the tree trunk and along the ground.
Her step was strangely silent, and a close observer would have seen that she walked only on the soil between the stones of the footpath, stones of the earth itself, which had worn their way through the thin layer of grass. Her eyes and ears were as alert as those of a small wild animal as she slid through the shades in the depths of the wood. A mis-step made her iron heel catch a stone, and the sharp ring alarmed a blackbird dipping among the beech leaves, but it frightened the child still more. She gasped and held her breath, listening with all her senses, her heart beating in her throat. A little breeze rustled, lost among the trees, seeking its parent wind, fluttering the leaves as it tried to escape. Then it flew out through the treetops and was gone, and she was alone again.
Every day she had this ordeal, a walk of a mile or more through the dense old wood, along the deserted footpath. A hundred years ago, before the highway was made, it was a well-worn road between the villages of Raddle and distant Mellow. Now it only went to Windystone Hall, and everyone walked or drove along the turnpike by the river, deep in the valley, two hundred feet below.
No one ever knew Susan’s fears, she never even formulated them to herself, except as “things”. But whether they were giants which she half expected to see straddle out of the dark distance, or dwarfs, hidden behind the trees, or bears and Indians in the undergrowth, or even the trees themselves marching down upon her, she was not certain. They must never be mentioned, and, above all, They must never know she was afraid.
It was no use for her to tell herself there were no giants, or that bears had disappeared in England centuries ago, or that trees could not walk. She knew that quite well, but the terror remained, a subconscious fear which quickly rose to consciousness when she pressed back the catch of the gate at the entrance to the wood, and closed it soundlessly, as she entered the deep listening wood on her way home from school in the dusky evenings.
In the middle of Dark Wood the climbing path rose up a steep incline, too steep for Susan to hurry, with black shadows on either side. Then it skirted a field, a small, queer, haunted-looking field of ragwort and bracken, long given to the wild wood, which pressed in on every side. A high rudely-made wall surrounded it, through the chinks of which she was sure that eyes were watching. To pass this field was the culmination of agony, for she had to walk close to the wall in the semi-darkness of overhanging trees, and nothing could save her if a long arm and skinny hand shot out.
At the top of the field, which sloped up the wood, was a tumbledown building, which was the authentic House that Jack built, with rats and malt complete, but long ago it had been deserted and now Fear lived there. Once she saw a battered man creeping through the bracken towards the ruin, but he never saw the little shadow with a school bag on her back slip past the mossy gate of the field.
Beyond the ragwort field was a fair open stretch of wood, with cow-wheat and delicate fumitory growing by the path. The trees were not so close together, and a glimpse of the blue sky came through in summer, or a star in the winter.
The child’s heart ceased its heavy pounding and she took in deep breaths in readiness for the next ordeal, an immense rugged oak tree which waited at the crossroad, where her path cut across two others. One way led downhill to a cottage in the fields below the wood, a path no one used. The other went up the steep sides of the wood past great boulders which lay among the trees like primitive beasts crouching in the dark, until it faded away to nothing in the bracken.
But something was behind the oak tree, hidden, lurking, and the leaves all watched her approach. She threw back her head and stared boldly at it, but her feet were winged for flight as she slipped softly along. Once, two years ago, when she was seven, a pair of eyes had looked at her from behind the tree, and once a dead white cow had lain there, swollen and stiff, brought to be buried in the wood.
A nut tree stood in her path, low, human, but it was friendly, and always she touched its branches with fluttering trembling fingers, receiving solace from the warm twigs, as she passed on to meet the oak. She held her head sideways, pretending to lookup at the scrap of sky, but her eyes were peeping behind, like a scared rabbit’s, and the tree seemed to turn its branches and look after her, whilst the thing, whatever it was, skipped round the trunk to the other side. She never turned to look behind her, but trusted to her sense of hearing, which had become very acute with the strain imposed upon it. She whispered a little prayer, a cry to God for help, as she left the tree behind.
Then she walked down the tunnel of beech trees, for the oaks were left behind and the character of the wood had changed. The trees thinned and the beeches rose clear of undergrowth with massive smooth grey trunks from the carpet of golden leaves. Susan breathed naturally again, and walked rapidly forward, heeding neither rock nor tree, her eager eyes fixed on the light ahead. The evening sunshine streamed through the end of the path, a circle of radiance, where a stile and broken gate ended the wood.
Nothing could get through these, and she sang in a tiny quavering voice, for she still trembled a little, just to show the things she didn’t care, as she entered the fields beyond. From the gate it was not far to her home on the hilltop, and sometimes she could see her mother, standing on a bank, silhouetted against the sky, anxiously looking for the little speck of a girl, and waving a teacloth up and down like a white flag when she saw her come out of the dark doorway of the wood.
Little Susan Garland walked four miles every morning to the village school at Dangle. It was the only school, and to it went the minister’s children, the struggling doctor’s, the girls from the sawmill, boys from the watermill, children from remote farms and little manor houses, where they couldn’t afford a governess, children from tiny cottages and small shops, and rough little people from a long row of stone dwellings, whose parents lived how they could.
She ran gaily through the Dark Wood without a glance at the oak tree, or the ragwort field, or the dark patches of mystery, black even in the morning sunlight. Everything was asleep and nothing could harm her. The path was downhill, and she felt free and careless as a squirrel or one of the brown birds flitting across the fields, very different from the wary, watchful child who tried to slip unseen through the wood at night.
Fairy tales always brought her companions, and she walked homewards down the long road from Dangle to Raddle with four or five girls hanging round her in a bunch, arms encircling waists, heads close together, as she told them of the Princess and the Golden Bird, or the Palace of Ice. The girls lived at Raddle, a hamlet of pretty thatched cottages, a post office and a general shop, a mile and a half from the school and half a mile from the Dark Wood, so when they were at home Susan had two miles further to go alone.
When she saw the village approaching and the time for parting, and the lonely walk through the wood getting near, she brought her story to a climax and kept it there with the bribe:
“Walk part-way through the wood with me, and I’ll tell you the rest.”
On hot summer afternoons the children came with her over the bridge, past Lane End Farm, and up the steep fields which led to the wood. Young stirks and companies of hens scattered before their laughter and shouts as Susan told her story. She lured them on into the wood, but soon the silence and gloom depressed them and they hesitated. “We must go home now, it is teatime, I promised I wouldn’t be late,” they excused themselves uneasily, and back they ran as fast as their legs would go. In the autumn and winter they never put a foot in the wood, and travellers walked round by the road which was a mile longer when they went to Mellow.
As Susan climbed the last hill, on top of which her home was perched so that it looked like a watchtower against the sky, her mind became calm and her thoughts leapt forward to the house. She walked by the high wall of the orchard, which was covered with berried ivy and clustered with blackberry bushes, but no evil eye stared through its chinks, no face leered from the apple trees. She stopped for breath and looked over the valley laid out like a tapestry of green fields and black walls, dark firs with flat boughs still against the sky, the Dark Wood with its rounded treetops curving on the hillside out of sight, and the little green path disappearing into its solitude. She opened the big white gate, and shut it with a clang behind her, as a challenge, sending the sound down, down, across the fields to the wood to tell “Them” she was safe.
The yard dog, Roger, barked violently and then changed his frantic rush to a welcoming wag of his whole body as he saw the queer little familiar person skip round the corner, waving her hat and snapping her fingers at him. He stood wistfully looking after her as she walked up the garden through the little wicket gate to the side door. Then he returned to his kennel and lay there, fastened with a heavy chain to the rock at the door of his square stone house, listening, hoping, waiting.
Susan flung open the door of the farmhouse and threw down her bag on the oak dresser.
“Well, have you been a good girl today, Susan?” asked Mrs Garland, as she kissed the warm lips Susan held up to her. “Yes, Mother, quite good,” said Susan, hesitating.
“Have you had the cane?” continued her mother.
“Yes, for talking, but it didn’t hurt,” replied Susan calmly, and she hung her hat and coat behind the door, and washed her hands in the brass bowl standing on the sink.
Mrs Garland set a plate of hot meat and vegetables for her by the bright fire, and as she ate it she told the story of the day’s adventures, omitting any reference to her fears in the wood. Even when the girls at school said, “Aren’t you afraid to go through that wood alone, Susan Garland?” she denied it, for it would never do to say her fears aloud, or somehow They would know.
After her meal she played outside in the dusk, running races with herself, skipping up and down the cobbled farmyard, tossing a ball in the air to hit the sycamore tree, singing and talking to Roger, who ran up and down, nearly wild to get loose. Then she met the farm men walking slowly home with the cans of milk, steadying them with both hands as they swayed on the yokes across their shoulders. She collected the eggs from the window ledge in the barn where Becky had left them and carried them to the dairy in a large flat basket. The men put the milk-cans in the stone troughs at the back door to cool whilst they harnessed the horse.
“Susan, Susan, come and stir the milk,” called Tom Garland, and Susan ran out and seized a hazel wand which lay, clean and bright, across the troughs. She dipped it in the frothy foamy pails and swirled the milk round and round, sending little splashes of cream over into the water, watching them fall like funnels of opal deep down till they became one with the water. The stars came out and twinkled in the great clean-water trough, and she dipped her wand in to break them into fragments.
“Come on, that’s enough. You’re spilling the milk and messing the drinking water. Get away, you’re no use,” and her father pushed her aside to take the milk to be measured.
Dan took the lantern with him to light his way back from the station, and the cart rattled away down the hill. Tom Garland and Joshua went into the kitchen and Susan ran in too. Margaret lit the lamp and set it in the middle of the table, and they drew up their chairs for tea, but Susan curled up like a kitten in the corner of the settle under the row of shining measures and graters, sieves and colanders. She put her fingers in her ears and lost herself in Swiss Family Robinson.
Her library consisted of four books, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Nicholas Nickleby, and Hans Andersen. She read them in turns, over and over again. This was the sixth time of reading, but the stories were ever new.
The tea things were cleared away, the milk cart returned and Dan sat down to his meal at the end of the dresser by the hall door. Becky washed up the milk-cans and sieves, rattling them on the stone sink, laughing and talking, but Susan read on through all the clatter, even when black shadows fell across her book as people passed between her and the lamp.
At eight o’clock Mrs Garland gave her a little pink mug full of creamy milk and a slice of bread and dripping. She fetched a candle from the old candle-bark in the pantry, and went upstairs to her bed in the attic.
As she left the bright hot kitchen and walked up the stairs she thought of the fox on the landing, the stuffed fox, shot when Susan was a baby by Tom Garland, who found it coming from a hen-house. It stood between two windows and its glass eyes followed Susan wherever she went. Never did she lose the feeling that the fox’s soul was hidden in his furry body. She could stroke him and touch his eyes with her fingers, and carry him in her arms, but she dare not turn her back on him. So she walked sideways past him, up the stairs to her own bedroom under the roof The attic stair creaked and she loved the comforting sound, which talked to her. She knew it would cry out if the fox came up in the night.
So she shut the door of the whitewashed room and quickly undressed, whilst her long shadow dipped and mowed and cowered on the crooked ceiling.
It ran over the big mahogany chest of drawers, full of clothes belonging to past generations of Garlands, and hesitated, lingering on the little crib under the eaves where Susan used to sleep with it. It leapt off the carved oak chest, when she put the candlestick to rest there, whilst she washed in the tiny blue and white flowery bowl sunk in the green washstand behind the door. In that oak chest the bride of “The Mistletoe Bough” had hidden – old Joshua recited it every Christmas – and her skeleton was found twenty years afterwards by her sorrowing husband. Nothing could shake Susan’s belief this was the veritable chest, and she kept a Bible on the top, just in case the bride might lift the lid and pop out.
The window was a tall narrow slit with iron bars, for the attic hung over a cliff with a sheer drop at the back. A great elm tree, growing in the shallow soil which covered the rock, lifted up its boughs and threw in handfuls of yellowing leaves when the window was open. Its murmur always filled the room with whispers, for even on the hottest day its branches waved to and fro, catching every breath of air on that high slope to which it clung, and the little twigs trembled and tapped at the glass.
Down at the bottom of the rock, under the encircling beech wood, rabbits played and stoats crept stealthily from the walls. Often Susan lay with misery in her heart, listening to the piercing screams of the small wild things caught by their enemies, and she sprang out of bed to scare them away. Hawks hovered level with the window, so that she could see their fierce bright eyes before they dropped on a tiny mouse far below. She would creep upstairs when she ought to be peeling potatoes or practising her music, to stare out across the fields and little woods to the tall beech trees which waved their plumy crests against the sky.
But at night, when she had said her prayers and crept into the immense wooden bed with its four round balls like heads at the corners, she could see nothing but the boughs of trees and stars shining through. She lay thinking of the Swiss Family Robinson, imagining further adventures in which she was the resourceful heroine, forgetful of the terrors of the day, heedless of the morrow, and so she slept.
The Country Child, by Alison Uttley (1931), Chapter 1
Illustrated by CF Tunnicliffe