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The Maidens Wood

From ‘The Maiden’s Wood’, a short story in Rest and Unrest (1910). Though this piece is most accurately classified as a short story, its style is very similar to that typical of Edward Thomas’s nature essays and topographical writing: first-person narration with closely observed details of an encountered scene or character.

I had been there a score of times without making anything like a full survey and inventory of my kingdom. It was becoming part of me, a kingdom rather of the spirit than of the earth, and I was content to see what I had seen on my first visit. In the neighbouring woods I had sought for orchises but after finding half a dozen kinds here at that time I had not looked for more. The other flowers were the usual flowers of the woods, the minute green moschatel, the stars of stitchwort and later woodruff, the bluebell and a few more, such as I was glad to greet for the twentieth time with more familiarity than ceremony.

But one day I not only learnt that the wood was not my own, but that there was a further mystery. At the first moment the other visitor seemed to its possessor, so much at home was she and so strange did I suddenly feel. It was a woman, how much past middle age I could not guess. her hair was flaxen, her face as much weathered as it was possible to be without ceasing to be pink and fresh, her thin mouth at one childlike and shrewd, her eyes of a sparkling grey so that in each of them seemed always to be a drop of quick-silver sliding. She was short and plump and had a kind of briskness that I imagined to mean a nature of the utmost independence and unworldliness. She came towards me gathering flowers which she put into a basket on one arm. She looked at me with those intensely brilliant eyes that certainly saw me as I had never been seen before and saw in me something of which I was unaware; she curtsied and went on picking flowers. I was just about to step off the narrow path so as not to disturb her, when, still bending and without looking at me, she hopped aside and I passed by. Indeed I should not have spoken to this extraordinary human being, in spite of her rarity and fascination, if it had not been for the flowers which I caught sight of under her face. Though I am not a botanist I see most of the flowers in my path and I know the names of most; but I recognized none of these. They were bells and cups and stars clustered or single, in spires and bunches, that I had never seen growing wild before.

“There are many here in this wood,” she said in answer to my questions. “Yes, only here.”

“Can you tell me their names?” I asked.

“No. They have never been christened that I know of,” she replied.

Seeing some orchises among them I said:

“But you know these?”

“Yes, they are fly-hawkins and butterflies’ nests,” she said, perverting the names of the fly-orchis and bird’s nest and butterfly orchises. She smiled, I did not know why; but it was a smile as fitting to her childlike mouth and complexion, her quick-silver eye, her briskness, and her hop to one side. I asked her the name of the wood. “The Maiden’s Wood,” — she said, “It has always been called the Maiden’s Wood . . . I do not know the meaning of the name.” And she went on picking flowers. I now saw that these unfamiliar kinds were to be found everywhere in the little wood.

Twice again I saw her in the wood, and I liked to see her alone and undisturbed, at ease and at home there like a bird questing among the dead leaves when it has no fears of being observed.

Published inProse

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