The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 20.

The March by Night.

The next day the Sergeant was away in his gig to Wyvern, a long journey, to report to the Squire, and obtain leave of absence from his duties for a day or two. He was to spend that night at Hatherton, there to make arrangements about the funeral.

It was a relief to all at Noulton Farm, I need hardly say, when the master of the house was away.

A very sad day it was for the boy; a day whose gloom was every now and then crossed by the thrill and fear of a great excitement.

As evening darkened he went out again to the garden in the hope of seeing Tom Orange. He would have liked that cheer at the eve of his great venture. But Tom was not there.

Neither counsel nor encouragement to be heard; nothing but the song of the small birds among the leaves, and the late flowers, soon to close, peeping from among the garden plants, and the long quiet shadows of the poplars that stood so tall and still against the western sky.

The boy came in and had his lonely cup of tea in the “parlour,” and a little talk with the somewhat sour and sad old servant. He was longing for the night. Yearning to see Tom’s friendly face and to end his suspense.

At last the twilight was gone. The night had indeed come, and the moon shone serenely over the old gray roof and the solemn trees; over the dead and the living.

The boy lay down in his bed at the accustomed early hour. The old woman had taken away his candle and shut the door. He lay with his eyes wide open listening with a palpitating heart for every sound.

The inflexible regularity which the absent master had established in his household was in the boy’s favour. He heard the servant shut and bar the outer door at the — wonted hour. He saw the boy’s candle in his window for a while and then put out. Tony was in his bed, and for tired Tony to lie down was generally to be asleep.

Peeping stealthily from his lattice he saw the old servant’s candle glimmering redly through the window on the juniper that stood near the wall in the shadow; and soon that light also disappeared, and he knew that the old woman had gone into her room. It was half-past ten. She would be asleep in a quarter of an hour, and in another fifteen minutes his critical adventure would have commenced.

Stealthily, breathlessly, he dressed. His window looked toward the ozier trees, where Tom was to await him. It opened, lattice fashion, with a hinge.

Happily the night was still, and the process of preparing to descend perfectly noiseless. The piece of old rope that lay in the corner he had early fixed on as his instrument of escape. He made it fast to the bed-post, and began to let himself down the wall. The rope was too short, and he dangled in air from the end of it for a second or two, and then dropped to the ground. The distance of the fall, though not much, was enough to throw him from his feet, and the dog in the lock-up yard at the other side of the house began to bark angrily. For a minute the boy gave himself up.

He lay, however, perfectly still, and the barking subsided. There was no other alarm, and he stole very softly away under cover of the trees, and then faster down the slope toward the appointed oziers.

There indeed was Tom Orange in that faint light, more solemn than he ever remembered to have seen him before. Tom was thinking that the stealing away this boy might possibly turn out the most serious enterprise he had yet engaged in.

He had no notion, however, of receding, and merely telling the boy to follow him, he got into a swinging trot that tried the little fellow’s endurance rather severely. I think they ran full three miles before Tom came to a halt.

Then, more like himself, he inquired how he was, and whether he thought he could go on fifteen miles more that night.

“Oh, yes, he could do anything that night. Quite well.”

“Well, walk a bit that you may get breath, and then we’ll run again,” said Tom, and so they set forward once more.

They had now accomplished about four miles more. The little fellow was not so fresh as at starting. A drizzling rain, too, had commenced, with a cold change of wind, and altogether the mere adventure of running away was not quite so pleasant, nor even Tom’s society quite so agreeable on the occasion, as he had fancied.

“You have done four out of the fifteen; you have only eleven of the fifteen before you now. You have got over seven altogether up to this. Not so bad. You’re not tired, youngster?”

“Not the least.”

“That’s right. You’re a good soldier. Now come, we’ll stand close under this hedge and eat a bit.”

They supped very heartily on great slices of bread and corned beef, which bore ample traces of the greens in which it had been served when hot.

“And now, boy, you must get on to Hatherton by yourself, for I’m known about here, and there’s a fair there in the morning, and there will be people on the way before light. You must go a mile beyond the town, to the George public. Mrs. Gumford keeps it, and there I’ll meet you.” Then he detailed the route and the landmarks for the boy’s guidance. “ Take a drink of this,” said he, pulling a soda-water bottle full of milk out of his coat pocket.

And when he had done —

“Take a mouthful of this, my hero, it will keep you warm.”

And he placed a flask of brandy to the boy’s lips, and made him swallow a little.

“And here’s a bit more bread, if you should be hungry. Good night, and remember.”

After about an hour’s solitary walking, the boy began to grow alarmed. Tom’s landmarks failed him, and he began to fear that he had lost his way. In half an hour more he was sure that he was quite out of his reckoning, and as his spirits sank he began to feel the cold wind and drenching rain more and more.

And now he found himself entering a town not at all answering Tom’s description of Hatherton.

The little town was silent, its doors and windows shut, and all except a few old-fashioned oil-lamps dark.

After walking hstlessly about — afraid to knock and ask anywhere for shelter — worn out, he sat down on a door-step. He leaned back and soon fell fast asleep.

A shake by the shoulder roused him. A policeman was stooping over him.

“I say, get up out o’ that,” said the imperious voice of the policeman.

The boy was not half awake; he stared at him, his big face and leather-bound chimney-pot looked like a dream.

“I say,” he continued, shaking him, but not violently, “you must get up out o’ that. You’re not to be making yourself comfortable there all night. Come, be lively.”

Comfortable! Lively! — all comparative — all a question of degrees.

The boy got up as quickly as the cold and stiffness of his joints would let him.

Very dutifully he got up, and stood drenched, pale, and shivering in the moon-light.

The policeman looked down not unkindly now, at the little wayfarer. There was something piteous, I dare say. He looked a grave, thoughtful man, of more than fifty, and he put his hand on the child’s shoulder.

“Ye see, hoy, that was no place to sleep in.”

“No, sir, I’ll never do it again, sir, please.”

“You’re cold; you’d get pains in your bones.”

“I’ll not any more, sir, please.”

“Come with me, my boy, it’s only a step.”

He brought the boy into his house down the lane close by.

“There’s a fire. You warm yourself. There’s my little one in fever, so you can’t stop long. Sit down, child, and warm yourself”

He gave him a drink of hot milk and a piece of bread.

“You don’t get up, you know; there’s no need,” he added.

I think he was afraid of his pewter spoons. He kept the little fellow nearly half an hour, and he lent him an old bottomless sack to wrap about his shoulders, and charged him to bring it back in the morning. I tbink the man thought he might be a thief. He was a kind man — there was a balancing of great pity and suspicion.

The boy returned the sack with many thanks, in the first faint twilight of morning, and set forth again for Hatherton. It was, the fellow who directed him said, still five miles on.

At about a mile from Hatherton, cold and wet, and fearing to be too early at the George Inn, the rendezvous agreed on, the tired little fellow crept in, cold and wet, to a road-side pot-house.

At the fire of the ale-house three fellows were drinking beer. Says one who had now and then had his eye on the boy —

“That boy there has run away from school,”

I cannot describe the terror with which the little fellow heard those words. The other two looked at him. One was a fat fellow in breeches and top boots, and a red cloth waist-coat, and a ruddy good-humoured face; and after a look they returned to their talk; and in a little while the lean man, who seemed to find it hard to take his eyes off him, said, “That’s a runaway, that chap; we ought to tell the police and send him back to school.”

“Well, that’s no business of ours; can’t you let him be?” said the red waistcoat.

“Come here,” said the lean man, beckoning him over with his hard eye on him.

He rose and slowly approached under that dreadful command.

I can’t say that there was anything malevolent in that man’s face. Somewhat sharp and stern, with a lean inflexibility of duty. To the boy at this moment no face could have been imagined more terrific; his only hope was in his fat companion. He turned, I am sure, an imploring look upon him.

“Come, Irons, let the boy alone, unless ye mean to quarrel wi’ me; damn me ye shall let him alone! And get him his breakfast of something hot, and be lively,” he called to the people; “and score it up to me.”

So, thanks to that good Samaritan in top boots and red waistcoat, the dejected little man pursued his way comforted.

As he walked through Hatherton he was looking into a shop window listlessly, when he distinctly saw, reflected in the plate glass, that which appalled him so that he thought he should have fainted.

It was the marble, blue-chinned face of the Sergeant–Major looking over his shoulder, with his icy gray eyes, into the same window.

He was utterly powerless to move. His great eyes were fixed on that dreadful shadow. He was actually touching his shoulder as he leaned over. Happily the Sergeant did not examine the reflection, which he would have been sure to recognise. The bird fascinated by the cold eye of a snake, and expecting momentarily, with palpitating heart, the spring of the reptile, may feel, when, withdrawing the spell, it glides harmlessly away, as the boy did when he saw that dreaded man turn away and walk with measured tread up the street. For a moment his terror was renewed, for Bion, that yellow namesake of the philosopher, recognising him, stood against the boy’s leg, and scratched repeatedly, and gave him a shove with his nose, and whimpered. The boy turned quickly, and walking away the doo-left him, and ran after his master, and took his place at his side.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49