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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Elsie was always lonely, but her desolation seemed more poignant when the day was sunny.
Elsie lived with her grandmother in a large house at Hampstead. She thought that there could not be, anywhere, a house with more rooms, more stairs, more quiet and empty.
There were three servants. They lived in the day downstairs in a large basement, and nightly slept in attics at the top of the house. Both basement and attics were out of Elsie’s reach; she was not allowed to speak to the servants. There was not, to Elsie’s mind, a single thing in this great house that was cheerful or pleasant. A great many people must have lived there once, there were so many empty rooms. There was an empty schoolroom, the inky, tattered lesson-books still on the shelves round the walls, a globe in one corner, and a tattered map hanging between the windows, and worn cut desks and benches as if quite a number of children had once learnt their lessons there.
There was also an empty study, with a huge bookcase with a glass front, that was always locked; and there was a drawing-room in which no-one ever sat. The shutters were always closed in this room into which Elsie had only, just by chance, once peeped. It was full of mirrors with glass frames and little cabinets lined with quilted silk in which stood china figures.
Then there was the dining-room, so much too large for Elsie, who had her dinner and tea there alone on a little cloth laid at one end of the long, shining mahogany table.
But Grandmamma always had her meals in bed. She suffered from what Elsie had been told was a ‘stroke’. When Elsie asked what that was, her grandmother replied, ‘The hand of God’.
So Elsie thought of God’s hand reaching out of heaven into Grandmamma’s large bedroom and stroking her down one side and leaving that dead.
Elsie did not find Grandmamma’s bedroom a pleasant place, either. It was very large and had two windows which looked on to the garden at the back. Between the two windows was a dressing-table, covered in white spotted muslin over stiff pink stuff.
There were a great many engravings on the walls. They seemed to be all very much alike, with a smooth baby face, like a china doll, and each of these pictures had a little story.
One was of a young prince: the Prince Imperial, Grandmamma said, who had recently been killed by blackamoors. Another was of a girl, crying over a dead bird which she held in her hand, and there was a little hole at her feet where the bird was presently to be buried. And another was of a woman tying a scarf on to a man’s arm, and Grandmamma explained that if he went out without the scarf he would be murdered.
Grandmamma’s bed was very large. Grandpapa used to sleep there, too, before he had died. It had curtains at the back which looped on to the wall. Beside the curtain was Grandmamma’s slipper-case and watch-case, made of stiff, white, perforated cardboard, tied up with dark ribbon. There were a great many objects in the room, but Elsie was forbidden to touch any of them. Grandmamma sat up in bed in a little wool jacket and knitted and crocheted all day long. She had on a lace cap with thick, pale mauve, velvet ribbons on it. Sometimes she would be helped to a chair and drawn to the window. The doctor used to come to see her every day; sometimes another man, whom Elsie heard referred to as a lawyer; and whenever these people were there, Elsie was sent out of the way.
Her grandmother used to tell her to ‘efface herself’, and Elsie soon became aware that this word meant that she was to act as if she didn’t exist. She soon began to understand that she ought never to have existed. Her father, Grandpapa’s son, was dead and her mother was poor, therefore neither of them were of any use to Elsie.
She was six years old and could neither read nor write, but she soon understood quite plainly that she ought never to have been born. Indeed, Mrs Parfitt, the cook, had once said as much in her hearing: ‘Poor little thing, it was a pity she was ever born.’
Elsie thought so too. She had never enjoyed a moment of her short life, Father being dead and Mother being poor, and Elsie having to suffer for something very wrong which they had evidently both done.
Everything that Elsie did was wrong too. She knew that, and was resigned to the fact. Whenever her grandmother spoke to her it was nearly always to say something beginning with ‘don’t’.
The few people who ever came to the house and who ever took any notice of her nearly always also said something beginning with ‘don’t’, or else ‘run away’.
Elsie liked the servants, Grace and Sarah and Mrs Parfitt. Sometimes she opened the swing door at the top of the basement stairs and sat there listening to their talk and laughter; not that she could hear what they said, but the sound of voices was comforting in the large, empty house, with Grandmamma sleeping or dozing and no other company at all.
When Mrs Parfitt found Elsie one day at the top of the stairs, she too began to talk of ‘don’t’ and ‘mustn’t’. She said that Elsie was a ‘telltale’ and a ‘spy’ and a ‘nuisance’ and would lose them all their places. Though Elsie did not understand what any of this meant, she realised that she had again done something wrong.
But sometimes, even after that, the servants were kind. Mrs Parfitt once brought her up an apple after her lunch, and on another occasion, in the middle of a long afternoon, some sandwiches. Once, when there was a thunderstorm and Grandmamma had had her sent to bed, the servants allowed Elsie to come down and sit by the kitchen fire. There was a cat on the hearth and a kettle, and rows of shining pots and plates on the walls and red curtains at the windows, and for a little while Elsie felt almost happy, though she shuddered whenever the door was opened to think of the stone passage without, and all the vaults and cellars and closets and presses, which, like the rest of the house, were disused.
But the moment came when Elsie had to go upstairs to her little bed in the dressing-room which opened out of Grandmamma’s great room. Cook said it ‘was a shame’, but Elsie had to go just the same, and lie awake all night in the dark room, listening to the thunder and watching the lightning, her teeth chattering with terror, biting the pillow for fear she cried out.
She lay awake the most part of every night. She had only cried out once. That time she had disturbed Grandmamma and been punished, beaten very hard on the backs of her hands with a hairbrush, by Mary, who looked after Grandmamma, and made to stay in bed all the next day with nothing but bread and water to eat and drink. This diet was no such very great change for the little girl, for her fare was of the plainest and often such as she could not stomach. She was fastidious and preferred to go hungry rather than eat fat cold mutton, coarse boiled potatoes, stiff rice-puddings, and Normandy pippins boiled into a pulp. She did not know why she was living with Grandmamma, but she understood it was very kind of Grandmamma to have her there. Indeed, it was very kind of anybody to endure her at all; nobody wanted her, and of course she must be, she was sure, quite useless and a nuisance.
Once she had contrived to creep into the wide hall when Sarah, who was good-humoured, was washing the black and red tiles, and Sarah began to talk to her. She was evidently smarting under some reprimand from Grandmamma, and Elsie understood from what Sarah said in a low, careful voice, that all Grandmamma’s children had been useless and nuisances.
It seemed hard to believe that once that great house had been full of people. Grandmamma had had quite a lot of children, boys and girls. They were all dead or had gone away. None of them, so Elsie understood, was any good. Only Grandmamma remained, powerful and, of course, virtuous, always there and always right.
‘Your poor papa was the favourite,’ said Sarah. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if you was to get the money after all.’
‘But Grandmamma hasn’t got any money,’ said Elsie. ‘When she talks to me she always says: “Mind, I haven’t got a farthing!”’
At that Sarah laughed, and pushed back a lock of hair from her forehead with her wet hand that still held the scrubbing brush. She said that Grandmamma was very rich, but a miser; that no doubt there was gold hidden all over the house if one only knew where to look for it.
Elsie asked what was the good of it? Sarah said that it was all the good in the world. If you had gold you could do anything. She said that that was what Master Tom used to come about. That’s why the old lady had a stroke, quarrelling with him.
Elsie asked who was Master Tom? Sarah said: Why, your uncle of course, silly.’ And then Mrs Parfitt called out to Sarah and Elsie had to go away.
After that, she used to look for gold for something to do in the long afternoons — she even ventured into those empty rooms which she held most in horror. One had a large hole in the floor. She used to lean down and bring her little face close to the hole and peer into the darkness and think that she might see gold lying there among the dust. She knew what gold was like — there was a gold clock in the drawing-room and her grandmamma had a gold watch, and her wedding ring, which moved round on her thin, knobby finger, was gold too. And on Grandmamma’s kidney-shaped dressing-table were boxes that Grandmamma kept locked. Once, on a wet day, she had let Elsie bring them to the bed, and opened them, and there was this gold too, brooches and chains and earrings, and Elsie had played with them on the down coverlet.
Elsie never found any gold — gold which would do anything, even procure an escape from this house. She frightened herself very much wandering in and out of those empty rooms, some furnished, some unfurnished, but all silent, dusty, and desolate. The whole street, which was full of large houses with pillared porticoes like Grandmamma’s, seemed to Elsie to be always silent, desolate. Occasionally a carriage and pair passed, and sometimes, peering from the window in the midst of an afternoon that seemed endless, she would see some woman and child go by and her little heart would be pinched with an odd nostalgia for a happiness she had never known — no, not even the name of, and then for hours and hours the wide street would seem as silent, as empty as the house. Even the sunshine — and that summer there was a great deal of sunshine — could not lighten the tedium of that street and house to Elsie.
Even the flowering trees, lilac, laburnum, and may (for every house had before the basement a little square in which grew such trees and shrubs), could not give an air of cheerfulness and joy to those dreary sunny afternoons.
Every house had striped sunblinds out over the windows and striped curtains hanging in front of the door. The very sight of these awnings, mostly red and white, filled Elsie with an unutterable woe, born of complete loneliness. She had nothing to do, neither work nor play. Mrs Parfitt had said that she was getting a big girl and would soon be sent to school, and Elsie had hoped that as she was such a nuisance and ought to efface herself, she might indeed be sent away somewhere. She did not know what ‘school’ was; it could not be worse than the great house in Hampstead.
Once Mary turned her into the back garden, shut the door of the schoolroom that gave on to it, and told her to stay there all the afternoon. Elsie hated the garden almost as much as she hated the house. It had a dirty, high brick wall all round it and at the bottom a sloping bank on which were four tall poplar trees. The heart-shaped leaves fluttered continually to the ground; they were dirty and had a disagreeable smell and a harsh texture. The stems of the lilac bushes were thick with soot and the flowers were tarnished and brown almost as soon as they came out.
There were no other flowers in the garden. The square of grass in the middle was rusty and dirty. Everything in the garden was dirty; Elsie never played in it, but she often got a scolding when she came in for having spoiled her pinafore. And this afternoon she began to amuse herself by trying to make a mud pie. The first digging with her fingers brought up some worms, and she left off, sick with disgust, that attempt at diversion.
When at last she was allowed into the house Mary scolded her, as she had expected to be scolded, as a naughty, naughty girl for getting herself into a mess. The servants all seemed rather excited. She was given her tea in the schoolroom, bread-and-butter and milk and a piece of seed cake, and scolded again because she did not like the seeds and tried to pull them out with her unskilful fingers.
When she had finished she tried to creep into the kitchen, with a hope of a sight of the cat or the kettle. She heard the servants talking about Master Tom and how he had been there that afternoon. There had been ‘a scene’, and Elsie wondered what ‘a scene’ was. It all seemed even more wrong and unhappy than before. It seemed to Elsie not only a pity that she had ever been born, but that anyone else had.
‘He’s a regular scapegrace, and will come to a bad end, you mark my words,’ said Cook; and Elsie longed to ask what a bad end was, but she did not dare to be seen. She was discovered just the same, and smacked and turned out of the kitchen up into the lonely, empty passage, study, and dining-room, where she roamed at will all day, when she was not sitting by Grandmamma’s bed or in her own room, which was quite bare, save for a bed and a tin wash-hand stand. Everything had been taken out of it when Elsie came to live there for fear she should touch something. She quite accepted the justice of this, because everything she touched was either spoilt or broken or soiled, for her hands were never clean and she seemed incredibly clumsy.
Except on those rare trembling expeditions when she had been looking for secret gold in a desperate hope that it might somehow procure her release from her present predicament, Elsie had never ventured up above her grandmother’s bedroom, though there were three stories above that floor. The servants slept up there, but that did not seem to give an air of human habitation to those dreadful upper floors. One of them contained a large black oil painting the sight of which had made Elsie sick with terror. Some children, long ago, perhaps her own uncles and aunts, had used the picture for a target, and filled it full of small holes from toy arrows or darts.
It was the portrait of a dark man, and Elsie thought that he scowled in agony from his many wounds and that he would leap from the canvas to pursue her if she stared at him a second longer. Elsie had never looked into that room again, and besides that there were ghosts upstairs. Mrs Parfitt and Mary and Sarah had all said so.
Once, when she had lain awake listening to Grandmamma’s snoring in the other room, she had certainly heard footsteps overhead, and unable at length to bear her torture any longer she had run downstairs in her nightgown and screamed out at the top of the basement stairs that she had heard steps overhead.
Mrs Parfitt had said good-humouredly: ‘Nonsense! There’s nobody up there.’ Words which had filled Elsie with complete terror.
Sarah had laughed and said: ‘The ghosts, I dare say.’
Mary had added: ‘Of course — the ghosts!’
Mrs Parfitt, meaning to console, had assured Elsie that if she was a good girl and behaved herself and kept out of the way and didn’t annoy Grandmamma ghosts would leave her alone.
Elsie had not returned to her own bed that night. She had not enough courage to do so. She had crept, instead, into her grandmother’s room, and lain awake, curled, cold and sweating, on the outside of the coverlet, taking what comfort she could from the old lady’s heavy snoring. And in the morning, just before Mary came in to bring Grandmamma her tea and wash her and comb her hair and put on her thick lace cap with the heavy, pale-violet, velvet ribbons, Elsie had crept away into her own bed and pretended to sleep.
All the next day she tried to make herself very agreeable to Grandmamma because she wanted to ask her about the ghosts upstairs. She held her wool for her and fetched her scissors and tried to remember to close the door quietly and not to raise her voice nor to talk too loud nor too fast.
Presently, in the afternoon, holding on her tiny hands the skein of orange wool, she asked: ‘Have you ever seen the ghost upstairs, Grandmamma?’
Grandmamma was in a good humour that day. You would hardly have thought she was ill at all. She had been a very handsome woman and she still had an air of energy and vigour.
Propped up against her big pillows she laughed and said: ‘I should think there are a good many ghosts in this house, my dear. Think of all the people who have been born and died here, even in my time, and only you and I left, eh, little Elsie!’
‘How many people were there, Grandmamma?’
‘Eh, I couldn’t remember now. You see, this was your grandfather’s father’s house. He had it when it was first built and there were a lot of children then. They died or scattered. Mostly died, I think. I remember four of them went off in a week with typhus. Then there were my own. Plenty of them, little Elsie. You wouldn’t think now, would you, there used to be such a noise here that I often didn’t know what to do. Children all over the place, boys and girls — in the schoolroom, running up and down the stairs, playing in the garden —’
She stopped and dropped her knitting needles on to the sheets. ‘Plenty of noise then, little Elsie; quiet enough now, isn’t it?’
‘Are they all ghosts now?’ asked Elsie, and she dropped the skein of wool on to her lap.
‘Ghosts — or worse,’ said Grandmamma, with a sigh; ‘most of them seemed to go wrong somehow.’
‘Were they nuisances, like I am?’
Grandmamma looked at her sharply, as if she suspected her of an impertinence.
‘Never mind what’s become of them, Elsie, or whether they’re ghosts or not. Pick up that wool — it’ll get tangled; and put the pillow straight under my left arm. Mary knows I can’t knit like this.’
Though Grandmamma was partially paralysed down one side, she could, by a deft arrangement of pillows propping up one of her elbows, still knit and crochet, which she did for hours every day with a certain ferocity, making thick grey garments for the poor and the heathen and squares and squares of crochet in bright colours, which were going to be sewn together one day into a great quilt.
Elsie thought of the poor and the heathen with horror; she saw armies and armies of them in grey woollen petticoats advancing on her with hostile looks and menacing cries when she woke in the middle of the night.
Cunningly she tried to get more information about the ghosts. ‘Are there ghosts in the schoolroom, Grandmamma?’
‘Aye, indeed, I should think there are ghosts in there. That’s where they learnt their lessons, all of them. Learnt no good, no, not one of them. That’s a strange thought, Elsie — all of them down there, learning lessons year after year and not one of them learning anything good.’
‘And the ghosts upstairs in the bedroom?’ persisted Elsie.
‘There’d be ghosts there. That’s where a lot of them died. Your grandfather died in this room, but I don’t suppose you’ll see his ghost. Why are you so interested, little Elsie? It’s a funny thing for a child to talk about, isn’t it? Have you been gossiping with the servants?’
Elsie shook her head. She was accustomed to the quick lying of utter fear.
‘I thought I heard one last night, Grandmamma. Walking about.’ Her child’s vivid imagination forced her to add: ‘When I got out of bed and opened the door I thought I saw a ghost coming down the stairs and I wondered who it was.’
‘Who would you like it to be?’ grinned the old lady. ‘Who would you like it to be out of all your uncles and aunts and great-uncles and aunts? Well, they weren’t any of them any good, as I told you. Except your father, perhaps. Yes, that now, your father.’
‘I’d like to see him,’ said Elsie. ‘Is he a ghost, too?’
Grandmamma was silent for a while. She seemed to be dozing, and Elsie felt even more afraid than she usually did when the old lady went off into one of her half-trances, half-sleeps, sitting propped up against the pillows, with her sharp chin on the little jacket of white Iceland wool she wore across her shoulder and breast.
Elsie began to whimper through fear of the ghosts and of Grandmamma and of loneliness of the great empty house. But Grandmamma was not asleep nor ill. She had only been thinking of the past.
‘Your father would be a very pleasant sort of ghost. He was my youngest — the flower of the flock. Yes, if you saw him, Elsie, you would see a very handsome young man. Well, he wouldn’t be so young now, I suppose. He died soon after you were born. How old are you, Elsie?’
‘Nearly seven years old, Grandmamma.’
‘Yes, he wouldn’t be such a very young man, but he was handsome. Oh yes, my James was handsome. He had a mole on his left cheekbone.’
‘I hope I won’t see him,’ said Elsie, shuddering, as she sat rigid on her little stool. ‘I hope he’ll stay upstairs. I wonder where he lived. I expect in that room with the big black picture all full of holes.’
‘He used to amuse himself with that old canvas,’ said Grandmamma, smiling, as if at a pleasant recollection. ‘He used to have his games and sport there. He always was bold and spirited, and very loving to me, whatever they say about him.’
‘And Uncle Tom?’ asked Elsie. Was he loving too?’
At that name a convulsive spasm passed over Grandmamma’s face. She struck out angrily with her strongest hand, missing Elsie, Who shrank back from the bedside.
‘You have been gossiping with the servants! You haven’t got an Uncle Tom! There’s no such person! He doesn’t exist! Who told you there was an Uncle Tom?
‘Nobody,’ said Elsie, ‘only you yourself, Grandmamma, the other day when you seemed half asleep you said something about Uncle Tom coming.’
The old woman looked at her dubiously, but was not able to contradict this, for she knew that she had not always full control over her senses.
‘Well, perhaps I did, perhaps I did,’ she grumbled. ‘You shouldn’t have taken any notice. I didn’t know what I was saying. I dare say I’ve been dreaming about the ghosts upstairs, Elsie, just like you have — a lot of nonsense! There’s no Uncle Tom. If you ever meet one who says he’s your Uncle Tom or says he’s any son of mine, you tell him that he’s a scoundrel and a liar, Elsie. I’ve no son, do you hear? Do you hear? All my sons are dead — dead.’
Elsie said ‘Yes’ obediently and readily. Uncle Tom did not, after all, matter much to her. It was the ghost upstairs who concerned her and about whom she wanted to hear.
One afternoon in that odious June was more dreadful than any other afternoon to Elsie, for she was left quite alone in the house with her Grandmamma. Of course, this should never have happened and was not meant to happen. It occurred like this.
Mary and Sarah were, it seemed, both nieces of Mrs Parfitt, and when an uncle of theirs died all three wanted to go to the funeral. Grandmamma, of course, could not be left alone. Mrs Parfitt said she could easily arrange to send in a friend — a Mrs Skerrell — who would sit with Grandmamma and give Elsie her tea and do anything that was wanted until she, Mrs Parfitt, and the two girls came back about six o’clock, as they easily could, for the funeral was at Highgate.
So Mrs Parfitt told Elsie to be a good girl and Mary said, ‘Don’t get into mischief; Sarah said, ‘Don’t you go telling no tales to your grandmother about what you haven’t seen or heard’; and Elsie was left alone with Grandmamma and Mrs Skerrell, who was a dreary widow woman in a long black garment and a bonnet with jet flowers.
Elsie had taken advantage of this unusual confusion to get down into the kitchen. She was staring at Mrs Skerrell just untying the strings of the black bonnet when there was a sharp ring at the bell. Both the woman and the child started. Nothing was, as Mrs Parfitt had put it to Mrs Skerrell, ‘expected’. All the tradespeople had called and visitors were rare.
Mrs Skerrell said ‘Drat it’, retied the strings of her bonnet, and ran up the stairs from the basement into the hall. Elsie remained alone in the kitchen. She wished she had the strength to get down one of the jars full of sultanas or sugar or motley biscuits and spice and eat large handfuls. She was always hungry. She had neither the strength nor the courage, so she remained standing beside the large, scrubbed, white-deal table, and looking up through the kitchen window into the area, she could just see a foot or so of the railings which divided the stone area, with its doors into coal cellars, from the square of garden where grew the ragged laburnum tree and the sooty lilac bushes.
Mrs Skerrell seemed to have been gone a very long time and loneliness increased and crystallised on the small figure of Elsie. She was shut into the desolation like a fly into a lump of amber, not daring to move for fear of finding worse things than loneliness in the other parts of the house. She peered up at the railings. Presently she saw the bottom of Mrs Skerrell’s beaded mantle and black skirt going past. Then Elsie ran to the window and, pressing her face to the panes, looked up. Mrs Skerrell was certainly leaving the house. Elsie listened and heard the gate go ‘click’, the iron tongue of the lock into the iron socket. She knew that sound so well; indeed, she knew every sound in the large empty house in which she had spent her entire life.
She was, then, in the house alone with Grandmamma, who, about this time in the early afternoon, was always asleep. Elsie’s first sensation was not one of added fear, but rather of deliverance. She now, given so much time, might be able to climb up on to the dresser and get down some of those canisters of things good to eat. She might be able to make a slow and careful hunt right through the kitchen and find out where the biscuits and the candied peel were kept; she might be able to tiptoe to the pantry, discover if there was a slice of pie or a portion of cake or a dish of fruit there. All things which she was not allowed and that were not good for Grandmamma, and off which the servants freely feasted.
Then she thought of an even fiercer temptation — an even more resplendent opportunity — the long, darkly gleaming sideboard in the dining-room. There was no speculation about that — there would not need to be any search. Elsie knew exactly where, on the top shelf when the large folding doors underneath the drawers were open, was kept jam, marmalade, and sugar. She was never allowed any of these delicacies. The marmalade used to go on her Grandmamma’s breakfast tray, the jam on her afternoon tea tray. There were preserves, too, and cherry and quince, that were brought out for the rare visitors.
It was true that this cupboard, which was large enough to have contained a dozen Elsies, was usually locked, and Grandmamma had the keys. Elsie had seen her take them out of a little box on the table by her bedside and give them to Mary, and seen Mary give them back to her. And once Elsie had found the cupboard open. It was true she had been discovered before she had time to take anything, but perhaps, just perhaps, Mrs Parfitt, in the excitement of her day’s outing, had left it open again, then Elsie would be able to help herself.
She would be discovered without doubt. She had little hope of being able to conceal the crime, there would be horrid stickiness on her fingers. When her fingers were sticky, she could, somehow, never get it off, even though she held them under the tap or wiped them on the towels.
But to satisfy her hungry craving for something sweet and delicious and delicate it would be worth enduring the punishment of being smacked on the backs of both her hands with a hard hairbrush, sent to bed in the daylight, or something worse if Grandmamma and Mrs Parfitt could think of a more severe punishment.
So she crept quietly up the stairs into the large, empty house. It was the very worst part of the afternoon, sunny, silent, with a feeling that it would be hours and hours and hours before the dark fell, as if the world had stopped and all life was in suspension and only she, Elsie, was alive and miserable.
As cautious as if she were certain that she would be overheard, Elsie went down the wide, black and red tiled corridor and into the dining-room, which was shuttered against the sun and full of dusty shadows, which lay in little straight lines of gold from the slats of the Venetian blinds.
Elsie had no luck. She found the sideboard locked. She had become by now reckless and daring; she would go upstairs, she decided, and take the key from the little box beside Grandmamma’s bed. Grandmamma would be asleep, and she had heard Mrs Parfitt tell Mrs Skerrell the old lady ‘had had her medicine and wouldn’t give any trouble’.
The sunny, silent afternoon hung like a halter round Elsie’s soul. She thought that if she could get the keys and open the cupboard, a pot of jam, yes, a whole pot of jam, eaten slowly and with relish, would do something to mitigate the horrible loneliness of her imprisonment.
Grandmamma was, as she had thought she would be, asleep. The clothes were drawn up over her face as usual, and only the top of her cap with violet ribbons could be seen against the pillow. There were the slippers in the slipper-case, the watch neatly in the watchcase, there was the box standing beside the bottle of medicine with the glasses, the spectacles in their case, the Bible with the bronze clasp, and the different balls of wool, the various pieces of knitting.
The sunblinds were drawn over Grandmamma’s window; the poplars in the garden made a fluttering shadow on them. The little breeze lifted them now and then so that a spurt of golden sunlight would fall into the shadowed room. All the smooth-faced pictures on the wall seemed to be watching Elsie — the girl with the dead bird, the girl tying the bandage on the man’s arm, the baby-faced boy who was called the ‘Prince Imperial’; all these, in their pale, smooth, shining frames, seemed to turn and stare at Elsie, but she did not falter.
She lifted the lid of the key-box and was putting in her hand to take out the key when she heard, overhead, footsteps.
The ghost of course, undoubtedly the ghost, and she alone in the house and at its mercy. On a frantic impulse of terror she turned and tried to rouse her grandmother, even venturing, seldom as she dared to touch the invalid, to shake the gaunt shoulder that heaved up the clothes. Grandmamma was very soundly asleep and did not rouse. The steps came nearer, unmistakably descending the stairs from the upper room. Elsie thought only of hiding, of creeping under the bed or into the huge cupboard where Grandmamma kept hanks and hanks of brightly-coloured wool and skeins and skeins of grey wool. But before she had time to run farther than the length of the bed, the door, which she had left ajar, was pushed open and the ghost walked in.
It was a handsome man with red hair and a mole on the left cheekbone. Elsie remembered what Grandmamma had said about her father and stood still at the end of the bed, staring. The apparition gave her no special feeling of terror; it was, indeed, far less terrible than she had supposed it would be. She even thought that in the warm glint of the eyes, the half curl of the lips, she detected promise of an ally. He was, at least, younger and more attractive than any creature she had seen for a long time, nay, than she had ever seen before.
‘Hullo, little nipper,’ said the ghost. ‘What are you doing here?’ And as Elsie did not answer he advanced into the room and said in a low, steady voice, ‘Oh, you’re Elsie, I suppose, James’s child.’
‘And you’re James,’ said Elsie. ‘Grandmother told me about you.’
‘James,’ said the ghost, ‘your father do you mean? He’s dead.’
‘Yes, I meant that. I meant that you are my father and dead and a ghost. Isn’t that right, please?’
The apparition seemed to reflect and gave a frown that made Elsie feel as if she were dwindling away with terror, then he said shortly, in the same low, cautious tone: ‘Well, if you like. Come here and let me have a look at you.’
Elsie stood mute, shaking her head in terror. The ghost became at once angry.
‘Don’t be a little fool. I’m here for your good as well as my own. You don’t have much of a life, do you? They’ve always packed you out of the way when I’ve been before.’
‘Oh, you’ve been before?’ whispered Elsie in a thin tone of curiosity.
‘Yes, I don’t suppose you heard anything about that. Well, I shan’t come again. Come outside, anyway, I might help you. How old are you?’
‘Seven,’ replied Elsie, who felt that the extra six months gave her added importance. Not for anything would she have admitted to six and a half.
‘I see. Well, you’re old enough to have some sense. I’ve come here looking for something. Perhaps you could help me find it.’
‘Grandmamma would know where it is,’ said Elsie, pointing to the bed.
‘I don’t want to wake her,’ said the man, with a queer look. ‘She’s asleep. I think she’s going to sleep for a long time.’
‘Mrs Skerrell ought to be looking after her,’ whispered Elsie. ‘What happened to Mrs Skerrell?’
‘I sent her away with a cock-and-bull story. Never you mind that. I want a little time in this house to myself. I’ve been looking out for an opportunity for a long while. I had it today when the women went out. Now look here, if you’ll help me, I’ll do something for you. Is there anything you want?’
Elsie understood nothing of this except the last question. She did not know to what sort of creature she spoke; she was quite bewildered. She felt more confident than she had ever felt before, more happy than she had been since she had been brought, so long ago that she could not remember it, to this house.
‘I came up for Grandmamma’s keys.’
‘Her keys?’ asked the other sharply. ‘Where are they?’
‘In the little box by the bed.’
‘What did you want with her keys?’
‘I was going to take something out of the sideboard — jam.’
The man looked at her very shrewdly out of narrow eyes.
‘I suppose the old miser — God forgive me — keeps you half-starved. Well, you shall have some jam, Elsie, and something else too. What else would you like?’
‘Sixpence,’ said Elsie, in wild bravado.
The stranger smiled sourly.
‘I’ll give you a gold sovereign. You could do a lot with that, couldn’t you, a child of your age?’
Elsie’s senses reeled. On rare occasions Mary or Sarah had taken her for short walks, but she had seen, oh, a long way off, shops in which, the servants had told her, almost anything could be purchased for money. There would not be any limit to what one could get with a golden sovereign.
‘What do you want me to do?’ she asked. Then her small shrewd face clouded. ‘Have you come here looking for gold?’
He seemed startled.
‘Gold! What made you think of that? I promised you a sovereign. I didn’t say I’d come here looking for gold.’
‘I thought perhaps you had, because there isn’t any. Grandmamma’s only got farthings, she told me so herself. Mrs Parfitt said something about gold hidden in the house, but I looked, and there wasn’t any. Grandmamma,’ she repeated, ‘has only farthings. I think they’re hidden under her pillow.’
‘No, I haven’t come looking for gold. I want to know where your grandmother keeps her writing-desk, her papers. Has she got them here? Or does Furnival, that’s the lawyer, have them all?’
Elsie shook head, not understanding.
‘Don’t be a stupid,’ said the man keenly, and with a certain desperation she had thought was impatience. ‘How can I put it so that you’ll understand? I’m looking for a piece of paper, do you see? And it’s very important. It may not be here; but she used to, when I lived here, keep all her papers under her own eye and look at them secretly. Now, have you ever seen her sit up in bed and call for a little desk or a box and turn it over and look at the papers?’
‘Yes, she does that sometimes. And I have to fetch them.’
‘Good girl.’ The man seemed with difficulty to control an intense eagerness. ‘Now, if you can find those papers and let me see them, I suppose the key’s on the same bunch where the key for your jam cupboard is?’
Elsie nodded again. She began to feel herself important.
At least here was action, a chance to express oneself, to show one’s quickness and courage. She opened the box, put her hand in, and took out the bunch of keys. She knew them all, through quick observation and a keen memory.
‘This opens the cupboard downstairs, the jam and sugar cupboard. This is the key of the little box that Grandmamma keeps in her wool cupboard underneath her grey wool, and I bring it to her sometimes, and there are papers in it.’
‘Give it to me.’
He held the keys in his hand, while Elsie went to the cupboard and quickly found this box of inlaid wood.
‘Aren’t you afraid she’ll wake?’ she said, as she came back and laid this on the quilted coverlet.
‘No,’ he said, tucking up his lips in a peculiar smile. ‘I’m not afraid she’ll wake. I’m not afraid of her at all.’
He quickly found the right key. His deft, swift fingers turned over the papers in the small box. The child stared at him, her peaked face taut with interest.
‘I don’t believe you’re a ghost,’ she said at length. ‘I think you’re Uncle Tom.’
At that he turned on her with a low snarl. ‘Who told you there was an Uncle Tom?’
‘Mrs Parfitt talked about him.’
‘And she . . . ’ The man pointed to the huddled outline of the sleeping woman in the bed. Did she say anything about me?’
‘No,’ said Elsie; ‘she said there was no such person as Uncle Tom.’
‘Well, isn’t that right? Wouldn’t she know? There is no such person. I am James, the ghost of James, your father, as you said just now when you saw me. That’s right, isn’t it?’
‘I suppose so,’ said Elsie, ‘but I don’t seem to be afraid like I should have been if you were a ghost.’
‘You’ve forgotten your pot of jam, my dear,’ he said, taking envelope, after envelope out of the box and scanning them keenly. ‘Yes, and the golden sovereign I promised you. Ah, here we are. I knew she’d keep it. She was always in two minds about everything.’
He had taken two documents that looked very dull to Elsie and laid them on the bed.
‘You can’t read, I suppose, my little dear, can you?’
The child shook her head.
‘Will you give me the other key and I’ll run downstairs and get the jam,’ she said. ‘If they punish me afterwards you might come back and say you let me take it.’
‘They won’t punish you. They’ll have something else to think about.’ He tossed her the keys. ‘Bring them back here. You seem sharp and spry. You ought to know your way about.’
‘What are those two pieces of paper?’
‘Never you mind. I’ve found what I want. I’ll give you two sovereigns, but you’re not to tell anybody you saw me. You understand?’
‘Oh, why mayn’t I say I’ve seen a ghost? I said the other night I’d seen one and I hadn’t really and nobody minded.’
He laughed and the tension of his dark face relaxed.
‘Oh, well, you can say you’ve seen a ghost if you like. That will do very well. Why not?’
‘Didn’t Mrs Skerrell see you?’ asked the child cunningly.
‘No she didn’t. What’s that to you, anyway? Yet I ought to be grateful to you for reminding me. I suppose the hag’ll be back soon.’
He stood staring at the two papers in his hand, then put one paper carefully back into the box, locked it, and watched Elsie while she cunningly returned it underneath the piles of grey wool in the cupboard. Then he tore the second piece of paper into small pieces and put them carefully in the inner breast pocket of his coat and followed Elsie downstairs and stood over her in a listening attitude while she unlocked the cupboard and took out a pot of apricot jam.
Her eyes glistened and her mouth watered so at the sight of the jam that she almost forgot about the two sovereigns and her bewilderment as to whether or not the man was an apparition or flesh and blood. Whoever he was, he took two sovereigns out of his pocket and placed them on the end of the shining mahogany table.
‘There you are, my dear; you can’t say I haven’t kept my bargain. Now mind, I am a ghost. If you say anything about me I don’t like, I shall come in the middle of the night and give you a fright. Perhaps carry you away to where it’s all bogies and blue flames.’
‘Oh, please,’ said Elsie, nearly dropping the pot of jam in her terror, ‘I’ll do anything you like. What do you want me to say?’
‘Nothing at all. Only that you’ve just seen a ghost. Better not mention the jam or the keys or those papers I took. See — not a word.’
He frowned and thrust his head forward and made himself look so menacing and hideous that Elsie began to weep.
‘There, I know you’re a good girl and won’t say anything. Now take the jam somewhere you’re not likely to be found and remember you’ve simply seen a ghost this afternoon — the ghost of your father, James.’
‘Are you going away now? Where do you go? Through that stepladder up on to the roof?.I think that’s the way the ghosts come.’
‘No, I shall go out the back. Do you know who lives next door? Anybody likely to be about just now?’
‘One house is empty,’ said Elsie, ‘there’s only a caretaker there, and they don’t come until the evening. The other side the people are away. There’s never anyone there at all.’
‘Good! My lucky day. Now remember what I told you about the ghost.’
Then he was gone.
When Elsie had finished her pot of jam she looked round for the sovereigns, but they had gone too. This caused her to weep bitterly, for it was the vanishing of the brightest dream of her life. Yet in her soul she felt that it was logical. What could a ghost leave but fairy gold? But she cried all the same in pure disappointment at the loss of the golden visions that the two golden coins had conjured up.
Mrs Skerrell, coming back hurried and panting, and out of temper, found her crying in the dining-room.
‘Why aren’t you up with your grandmother, you naughty girl? You’re old enough — you might have been watching of her. What’ll happen to me if the old lady’s come to some harm while I was away?’
Mrs Skerrell, untying her bonnet and unfastening her cloak, began to mutter about a queer business — a boy had come with a message to say she was wanted at home, a matter of illness, serious and immediate. When she’d rushed back there had been nothing at all. The boy had said that it was a stranger whom he had never seen before had told him to give the message. He thought the gentleman was a doctor, he was very civil and had given him half a crown.
‘All a lot of rubbish,’ said Mrs Skerrell, going upstairs, considerably ruffled and discomposed, with Elsie behind her for the sake of company.
‘Grandmamma’s asleep,’ said Elsie, ‘Better leave her alone.’ Then, because she could not keep her great secret any longer to herself: ‘I’ve seen a ghost. He gave me two sovereigns, and as soon as he went the money went too.’
‘Don’t be a naughty wicked girl and tell a pack of lies,’ scolded Mrs Skerrell. The old lady seems asleep,’ she added with a sigh of relief. ‘Better leave her, she won’t want her tea before five, and by that time Mrs Parfitt will be home.’
Mrs Parfitt was punctual. At the usual appointed hour when she brought up Grandmamma’s tea Elsie was sitting on her little stool sobbing to herself at the loss of the fairy gold, trying to wind the yellow wool. When Mrs Parfitt and Mrs Skerrell endeavoured to rouse Grandmamma they found they could not do so.
The old lady was dead.
When the doctor came he said she had been dead for some hours. Of course, it was quite likely that she might have had a sudden stroke. ‘She passed away,’ as the phrase went on, in her sleep. It was really not worth while making any question or raising any fuss. What else could have happened?
Mrs Skerrell did not admit that she had been decoyed away from the house and Elsie did not even mention the ghost. The doctor had thought that there were queer marks round the old woman’s throat, as if her frail life had been impetuously shaken out of her, but of course, he assured himself, this must have been a delusion.
The lawyer said that Grandmamma had left a recent will leaving everything to Elsie, but as this could not be found he was quite prepared to believe that the old lady, in a capricious mood, had destroyed it. The earlier will, then, which was found quite readily in a box where the old lady kept her important papers hidden under the pile of grey wool which she knitted into petticoats for the poor, was proved.
Grandmamma’s only surviving son, Mr Thomas, came into all her money and into the big lonely house at Hampstead. Grandmamma was a much wealthier woman than anyone had thought she was, and Mr Thomas behaved generously towards Elsie.
He paid for her to go into an orphanage for the daughters of decayed gentlefolk.
He did not come near the house at Hampstead himself, so Elsie never saw him.
She left the house with a great feeling of relief. She did not, of course, expect to be happy in the orphanage nor anywhere. She knew that she was a nuisance and not wanted and must always efface herself, but she was glad to get away from the house which was haunted by the ghost of her father, James. Though she had loyally kept her word to him, and never said a word about what he had done when he visited her the day Grandmamma died, she was filled with fear that his angry apparition might return one night under some hideous form.
And another reason for her relief at leaving the great house in Hampstead was the fact that now there was hardly any possibility that anyone would discover that she had stolen the pot of apricot jam.
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University of Adelaide
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