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    Bleak March in Epping Forest

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    Chapter 27
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    All along the selvage of Epping Forest there was excitement. Before the
    swallows, before the violets, long before the cuckoo, with only untimely
    honeysuckle bushes showing a trace of green, two trippers had been seen
    traversing the district, making their way towards High Beech, and
    settling awhile near the Forest Hotel. Whether they were belated
    survivals from last season or exceptionally early hatchings of the
    coming year, was a question of considerable moment to the natives, and
    has since engaged the attention of the local Natural History Society.
    But we know that, as a matter of fact, they were of little omen, being
    indeed but insignificant people from Hampstead and not true trippers at
    all, who were curious to see this forest in raw winter.

    For some have argued that there is no Epping Forest at all in the
    winter-time; that it is, in fact, taken up and put away, and that
    agriculture is pursued there. Others assert that the Forest is shrouded
    with wrappers, even as a literary man's study is shrouded by dusty women
    when they clean him out. Others, again, have supposed that it is a
    delightful place in winter, far more delightful than in summer, but that
    this is not published, because no writing man hath ever been there in
    the cold season. And much more of unreal speculation, but nothing which
    bore upon it the stamp of truth. So these two--and I am one of the
    two--went down to Epping Forest to see that it was still there, and how
    it fared in the dismal weather.

    The sky was a greasy grey that guttered down to the horizon, and the
    wind smote damp and chill. There was a white fringe of ice in the
    cart-wheel ruts, but withal the frost was not so crisp as to prevent a
    thin and slippery glaze of softened clay upon the road. The decaying
    triumphal arch outside the station sadly lacked a coat of paint, and was
    indistinctly regretful of remote royal visits and processions gone for
    ever. Then we passed shuddering by many vacant booths that had once
    resounded with the revelry of ninepenny teas and the gingerbeer cork's
    staccato, and their forms were piled together and their trestles
    overturned. And the wind ravened, and no human beings were to be seen.
    So up the hill to the left, and along the road leading by devious
    windings between the black hedges and through clay wallows to the hilly
    part round High Beech.

    But upon the shoulder of a hill we turned to a gate to scrape off the
    mud that made our boots unwieldy. At that moment came a threadbare place
    in the cloudy curtain that was sweeping across the sun, and our shadows
    showed themselves for an instant to comfort us. The amber patch of
    sunlight presently slipped from us and travelled down the meadows
    towards the distant blue of the hills by Waltham Abbey, touching with
    miraculous healing a landscape erst dead and shrouded in grey. This
    transitory gleam of light gladdened us mightily at the time, but it made
    the after-sky seem all the darker.

    So through the steep and tortuous village to High Beech, and then
    leaving the road we wandered in among big trees and down slopes ankle
    deep with rustling leaves towards Chingford again. Here was pleasanter
    walking than the thawing clay, but now and then one felt the threat of
    an infinite oozy softness beneath the stiff frozen leaves. Once again
    while we were here the drifting haze of the sky became thinner, and the
    smooth green-grey beech stems and rugged oak trunks were brightly
    illuminated. But only for a moment, and thereafter the sky became not
    simply unsympathetic but ominous. And the misery of the wind grew apace.

    Presently we wandered into that sinister corner of the Forest where the
    beech trees have grown so closely together that they have had perforce
    to lift their branches vertically. Divested of leaves, the bare grey
    limbs of these seem strangely restless. These trees, reaching so
    eagerly upward, have an odd resemblance to the weird figures of horror
    in which William Blake delighted--arms, hands, hair, all stretch
    intensely to the zenith. They seem to be straining away from the spot to
    which they are rooted. It is a Laocoon grouping, a wordless concentrated
    struggle for the sunlight, and disagreeably impressive. The trippers
    longed to talk and were tongue-tied; they looked now and then over their
    shoulders. They were glad when the eerie influence was passed, though
    they traversed a morass to get away from it.

    Then across an open place, dismal with the dun hulls of lost cows and
    the clatter of their bells, over a brook full of dead leaves and edged
    with rusty clay, through a briery thicket that would fain have detained
    us, and so to a pathway of succulent green, that oozed black under our
    feet. Here some poor lost wayfarer has blazed his way with rustic seats,
    now rheumatic and fungus-eaten. And here, too, the wind, which had
    sought us howling, found us at last, and stung us sharply with a shower
    of congealing raindrops. This grew to a steady downfall as the open
    towards Chingford station was approached at last, after devious winding
    in the Forest. Then, coming upon the edge of the wood and seeing the
    lone station against the grey sky, we broke into a shout and began
    running. But it is dismal running on imperfectly frozen clay, in rain
    and a gusty wind. We slipped and floundered, and one of us wept sore
    that she should never see her home again. And worse, the only train
    sleeping in the station was awakened by our cries, and, with an eldritch
    shriek at the unseasonable presence of trippers, fled incontinently
    Londonward.

    Smeared with clay and dead leaves almost beyond human likeness, we
    staggered into the derelict station, and found from an outcast porter
    that perhaps another train might after the lapse of two hours accumulate
    sufficiently to take us back to Gospel Oak and a warm world again. So we
    speered if there were amusements to be got in this place, and he told us
    "some very nice walks." To refrain from homicide we left the station,
    and sought a vast red hotel that loomed through the drift on a steep
    hill, and in the side of this a door that had not been locked. Happily
    one had been forgotten, and, entering at last, we roused a hibernating
    waiter, and he exhumed us some of his winter victual. In this way we
    were presently to some degree comforted, and could play chess until a
    train had been sent for our relief. And this did at last happen, and
    towards the hour of dinner we rejoined our anxious friends, and all the
    evening time we boasted of a pleasant day and urged them to go even as
    we had gone.
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