The white hart was standing out there early this Christmas morning, as Lord Strumble knew that it would be. The red sun rising through the pines threw its shadow afore it, an impressively long and antlered cast pointing towards the mansion, the very window that Lord Strumble was standing in. Each day it knew what window it could find Lord Strumble in. And there it would be, as it was.
The freshly fallen snow climbed higher than the great beast’s ankles, the white coat close to camouflage against the covered ground. The frozen air clouded the breaths from its nostrils. Even from this distance of more than two hundred yards, Lord Strumble could see the whiteness reflected in those eyes so black. In the absence of any other souls coming to visit Strumble House this morning, the white hart had not disappointed him.
On Christmas mornings long since passed, a great number of guests would accept invitations to join Strumble’s shooting party. None came any longer. Not since the “accident”. There had been few who had borne witness to the shot from Strumble’s Winchester, fatally wounding the young trespasser on his land. Yet it had not taken long for those who did see to share the story that it was no accident; that Lord Strumble had deliberately sighted the young man and had fired no warning – as he had later protested to authorities.
The young man was named Jerry Porter, a recent father to the third of his brood before his untimely death. Those in the closer circles of Strumble’s party had heard the regular, bitter complaints about the poacher who came onto his land at all hours to thieve pheasants and grouse of Strumble’s stock, as well as rabbits and other wildfowl. There had been no one else present on the day that Strumble did indeed fire a warning shot over the head of Porter, and the carcass of the doe that he carried upon his back. The threat had not been heeded.
Lord Strumble had since spent long hours of each day and night regretting the death of Jerry Porter. Not that the young man had passed because of the spray of his buckshot, but that his companions should so judge his rightful vengeance. With a heavy pouring from his purse, the law had agreed that it was a “piteous accident”, as it had been so recorded upon Porter’s death certificate, at Strumble’s insistence. But no wealth had been able buy back the fellowship of his hunting party, even the promise of imported exotic game. The only reward of the matter was that no one braved to poached upon Strumble’s land any longer, except for the wildlife itself.
Since soon after that very day, there had always been a visit from this great white creature, previously unseen upon the vast scape of Strumble’s land. Such was the magnificence of the white stag that Strumble vowed to never lay aim upon it; that it should live and share from his grounds as his new friend. It was soon apparent that the imperious white hart did not want to share, and had taken to pursuing Strumble, when on his strolls, with such ferocity that he now felt as a prisoner, confined to his vehicle when he wished to escape the house, always with a wary eye behind him and with his Winchester by his side. It was curious that Guildford, the landsman employed by Strumble, could go about his work with the white hart grazing peacefully not fifty yards from him. Should Strumble feel so emboldened to go out and speak with Guildford at such times, it was always armed with his shotgun. Another curiosity was that the stag appeared to recognise the threat of the weapon, enough to beat an arrogant, if ambled, retreat.
Just as this Christmas morning, at the point of which Strumble would draw back his heavy drapes, each day there the beast would stand. Whichever window of whichever room Strumble happened to occupy, it would not be long before the beast would come into view.
Though there was to be no hunting party this Christmas, Lord Strumble was expecting guests later this morning. A nephew and his family had been invited to visit, one of the few human visitors who were not in his employ that he did receive. After what had become the feudal divvying of his parents’ estate, he had not spoken with his brother since the nephew was a boy. Now that same nephew had a family of his own, and for them to visit each year for a Christmas lunch had become a tradition. Lord Strumble was not unwise to the fact of why they visited: He had no one else to leave any of his wealth to and would sooner be damned than for it to go to the banks or to the government. There was a thin slice for the nephew and his family, greater portions for his most honourable staff, with the rest left to various trusts and political allies.
The favourite of his staff, head chef Miss Allison, had prepared Lord Strumble a breakfast of quail’s eggs on buttered toast, with a bacon side, even through the heavy task of preparing the Christmas lunch. The glorious smells that travelled through the grand hall, mingling with the heavy scent of pine, curling around the twelve foot Christmas tree, and upstairs towards the chambers as he dressed were almost making him feel hungry again. If only Miss Allison knew that it would be her who stood to inherit Strumble House upon his demise. Why, she might even decide to start slipping a few drops of arsenic or pellets of rat poison into his meals.
As when he had eaten his breakfast downstairs in the dining room, at his vast, empty table, with nary more than a glance through the window to confirm that the white hart had trotted around to this side of the building, Lord Strumble peered out of the bedroom window to see those shiny eyes – almost the empty sockets of them, save for the shiny slick within them – now looking up at him from the lawn beyond the drawing room. In the deepening snow, he could see the path of its steps. An idea, a feast to satisfy the loss of the erstwhile Christmas shoots, began to show itself to Strumble, a spectre beginning to take true form.
‘Miss Allison,’ he said from the kitchen doorway minutes later. ‘I am heading out briefly to enjoy some fresh air of this Christmas morning. I shan’t be gone long.’
As she acknowledged what Lord Strumble said, a slight movement from her eyes took in that he had dressed this morning in his hunting gear, and carried in his hands his Winchester.
‘Jus’ so’s you know,’ she replied, ‘the snow’s started up again. Looks like it’s getting’ ‘eavier, too.’
‘All the better for it,’ Lord Strumble replied, before heading out to his Land Rover.
He stood for a moment before the heavy door of the mansion, shotgun strapped across his chest, so that the stag could see for itself that Lord Strumble would not be irresolute in stepping forth onto his own land. On the way to the vehicle his step was doughty; his stomach warmed by the breakfast.
The wipers of the Land Rover were somewhat clumsy in clearing the thick snow from the windscreen, the straining whirr of the mechanism loud enough to be heard over the thunderous engine, after it had clattered into life. Nevertheless, such a vehicle had easy victory over the snow, especially of that so fresh. Lord Strumble navigated slowly towards the back lawn, guided by the garden ornaments as way markers, bumping over steps, flowerbeds and paths. Just as did the tracks of the tyres, the white hart had left a deep tread to mark its route, easily definable for the driver.
In his frustration of the animal – and, although not admitted aloud to another soul, his fear of it – Lord Strumble had set off in hunt of it before now, reneging upon his one-time vow. Heading deep out into his twenty-and-four-hundred acres, fear had always won over his determination, sometimes before he had even glimpsed sight of the mighty stag, king of its wilderness. This morning, with such an obvious path to track, he knew this was finally to be the white hart’s reckoning. As a very capable butcher, Miss Allison would be able to keep him in pie and stew for the first half of the new year.
The tracks led now towards and into the copse of pine. If the beast thinks that he could fool me with such a tactic, thought Strumble, he fools but himself. For the one place that the white coat would stand out for sure in this day’s weather would be against the dark tones of the thick trucks; the almost black, fertile floor.
Although he had never found certain evidence of it, Lord Strumble theorised that the stag might sleep within the copse of a night, ready for its silent vigil each morning. The Land Rover easily wheeled over the roots of the pines, finding a path through the sparse trunks, finding also that the white hart was not hiding from his hunter.
The land beyond sloped down across a broad pasture and away towards a thicker woodland, beneath an sheet iron sky of pastel-grey. Quickly finding the route that the stag had taken, Lord Strumble aimed the Land Rover in the direction of the forest, forded a small stream, and headed onwards.
The gruff noise of the idling engine and the numbing stench of diesel went unnoticed by Lord Strumble as he thought, the thickness of the forest in the front of his gaze. His quarry had not taken the forest road, wide enough for the Land Rover to follow, but had instead trotted on through a thicker part, it seemed. The choices available to Lord Strumble were to drive through in hope of chancing upon the trail once more, or to follow on foot into the frozen forest. Another option presented itself to Strumble, and it tempted him: To offer a sum to any local hunter who wished to take on the white hart. The trophy would still be his, but the satisfaction of the kill would not be. And in that it made up his mind. At some point he would have had to disembark the vehicle and get within range of the animal, nevertheless.
The track was defined clearly, and though the weather was heavy and getting heavier yet, it would not be able to fill the imprints before Strumble had tracked down the creature. It seemed that he was wrong in what he had told Miss Allison: He would not be taking so briefly of fresh air.
The snow boots crunched with each step. Out here, where the snow had drifted upon the landscape, the depth of it was now nearing a foot. Each step required purpose and effort. It felt like the hunts of Strumble’s younger years, in Russian forests or in Canadian mountains, rather than the shooting gallery feel of the latter years of his home hunts. This quarry was similar in size to the imperious moose that he had shot on one cold Canadian winter’s morning, if not bigger. Strumble had never carried through with the promise of importing exotic animals, once his party had forever deserted him, but he had shot big game in Africa. Whatever the similarities, there were two very defining differences: He was much older now, and, except for his prey, he was also alone.
Before he had heaved his two feet into the depth of the forest, he saw it there. Standing and facing him, as if in wait. Its endless eyes staring for nothing but Strumble. There was not thirty feet between them. Very slowly, and with a mouth so dry, Lord Strumble began to raise the weapon. And, with a cumbersome effort, the white hart turned around between the trees and plodded out of sight.
With autumn passed, there were no longer any leaves on the trees. The snow was not so deep in places, should it be beneath elm or fir, but, even in the light dustings, the path was always clear. Lord Strumble did not know for how long her followed the hoofprints, his surety of step belying his age, his weapon ever ready, pressed into his shoulder, ready to lift and fire. At times he would glimpse the hind of the beast, but never again did it stop to face him. He did not hurry onward, the prints remaining forever deep and true.
As the blanket of cloud began to blow away, the morning sun lifting higher into the sky, whiter did the landscape become, making wary the forward step of the man. The snow became but a sleety drizzle, wetting only the jacket and other outerwear, and Lord Strumble’s pink, cold nose. The trees stood by, thickening and parting, clumps of snow dropping from laden boughs.
Perhaps for the wintery scenery, Strumble found that he no longer recognised these parts of his land, foreign to his step and his gaze. There were no drifts against piles of cut wood; no further arboreous evidence of Guildford’s having tended to the area. But for the hoofprints, there was no impression of any living thing, all either covered by the snow, hibernating or migrated.
Careful of step, Lord Strumble descended to a lower land, a cleared area, and he looked around himself with his weapon raised. For the hoofprints had vanished. There was just one final impression at the end of the clearly defined track, right in front of his own foot, and then nothing. The snow could not have covered it, for it remained so light as to be almost nothing, and he could see the beast’s prints mingled with his own, looking back along the path that he had trod.
And then, with a leap of his heart, he did recognise his surroundings. This was it. Strumble knew with certainty that this was the place in which his shot had found Jerry Porter. There was the bank over which Porter had attempted to dash, falling forwards over it after his back had exploded with the impact of pellets. Strumble remembered now, the exact place, just next to the wide lake.
Without a sound, so deep into the woods, Lord Strumble fell into a watery depth, as deep and dark as the eyes of the white hart. Except through the crack in the ice through which he had fallen, the snow-covered lake hid all of the Christmas morning from above. The impact of the freezing cold water shocked his body so that he could not move a limb, drifting, carried deeper and deeper.
Bare twitches in his muscles.
His mouth open to scream.
For, through the opening above, Lord Strumble could see a face peering down at him, as pale as ice. As translucent as the sky. Light through a thick, heavy cloud. Looking down at him was the face of young Jerry Porter.