Within the course of the next few days, a strange rumour spread through Dominey and the district,—from the farm labourer to the farmer, from the school children to their homes, from the village post-office to the neighbouring hamlets. A gang of woodmen from a neighbouring county, with an engine and all the machinery of their craft, had started to work razing to the ground everything in the shape of tree or shrub at the north end of the Black Wood. The matter of the war was promptly forgotten. Before the second day, every man, woman and child in the place had paid an awed visit to the outskirts of the wood, had listened to the whirr of machinery, had gazed upon the great bridge of planks leading into the wood, had peered, in the hope of some strange discovery into the tents of the men who were camping out. The men themselves were not communicative, and the first time the foreman had been known to open his mouth was when Dominey walked down to discuss progress, on the morning after his arrival.
“It’s a dirty bit of work, sir,” he confided. “I don’t know as I ever came across a bit of woodland as was so utterly, hopelessly rotten. Why, the wood crumbles when you touch it, and the men have to be within reach of one another the whole of the time, though we’ve a matter of five hundred planks down there.”
“Come across anything unusual yet?”
“We ain’t come across anything that isn’t unusual so far, sir. My men are all wearing extra leggings to keep them from being bitten by them adders—as long as my arm, some of ’em. And there’s fungus there which, when you touch it, sends out a smell enough to make a man faint. We killed a cat the first day, as big and as fierce as a young tigress. It’s a queer job, sir.”
“How long will it take?”
“Matter of three weeks, sir, and when we’ve got the timber out you’ll be well advised to burn it. It’s not worth a snap of the fingers.—Begging your pardon, sir,” the man went on, “the old lady in the distance there hangs about the whole of the time. Some of my men are half scared of her.”
Dominey swung around. On a mound a little distance away in the park, Rachael Unthank was standing. In her rusty black clothes, unrelieved by any trace of colour, her white cheeks and strange eyes, even in the morning light she was a repellent figure. Dominey strolled across to her.
“You see, Mrs. Unthank,” he began—
She interrupted him. Her skinny hand was stretched out towards the wood.
“What are those men doing, Sir Everard Dominey?” she demanded. “What is your will with the wood?”
“I am carrying out a determination I came to in the winter,” Dominey replied. “Those men are going to cut and hew their way from one end of the Black Wood to the other, until not a tree or a bush remains upright. As they cut, they burn. Afterwards, I shall have it drained. We may live to see a field of corn there, Mrs. Unthank.”