This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.
Last updated Wednesday, December 17, 2014 at 14:16.
To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
“I suppose you get stuff of that kind through your hands pretty often?” said Mr. Dillet, as he pointed with his stick to an object which shall be described when the time comes: and when he said it, he lied in his throat, and knew that he lied. Not once in twenty years – perhaps not once in a lifetime – could Mr. Chittenden, skilled as he was in ferreting out the forgotten treasures of half a dozen counties, expect to handle such a specimen. It was collectors’ palaver, and Mr. Chittenden recognized it as such.
“Stuff of that kind, Mr. Dillet! It’s a museum piece, that is.”
“Well, I suppose there are museums that’ll take anything.”
“I’ve seen one, not as good as that, years back,” said Mr. Chittenden thoughtfully. “But that’s not likely to come into the market: and I’m told they ’ave some fine ones of the period over the water. No: I’m only telling you the truth, Mr. Dillet, when I was to say that if you was to place an unlimited order with me for the very best that could be got – and you know I ’ave facilities for getting to know of such things, and a reputation to maintain – well, all I can say is, I should lead you straight up to that one and say, ‘I can’t do no better for you than that, sir.’”
“Hear, hear!” said Mr. Dillet, applauding ironically with the end of his stick on the floor of the shop. “How much are you sticking the innocent American buyer for it, eh?”
“Oh, I shan’t be over hard on the buyer, American or otherwise. You see, it stands this way, Mr. Dillet – if I knew just a bit more about the pedigree —”
“Or just a bit less,” Mr. Dillet put in.
“Ha, ha! you will have your joke, sir. No, but as I was saying, if I knew just a little more than what I do about the piece – though anyone can see for themselves it’s a genuine thing, every last corner of it, and there’s not been one of my men allowed to so much as touch it since it came into the shop – there’d be another figure in the price I’m asking.”
“And what’s that: five and twenty?”
“Multiply that by three and you’ve got it, sir. Seventy-five’s my price.”
“And fifty’s mine,” said Mr. Dillet. The point of agreement was, of course, somewhere between the two, it does not matter exactly where – I think sixty guineas. But half an hour later the object was being packed, and within an hour Mr. Dillet had called for it in his car and driven away. Mr. Chittenden, holding the cheque in his hand, saw him off from the door with smiles, and returned, still smiling, into the parlour where his wife was making the tea. He stopped at the door.
“It’s gone,” he said. “Thank God for that!” said Mrs. Chittenden, putting down the teapot. “Mr. Dillet, was it?”
“Yes, it was.”
“Well, I’d sooner it was him than another.” “Oh, I don’t know; he ain’t a bad feller, my dear.”
“Maybe not, but in my opinion he’d be none the worse for a bit of a shake up.”
“Well, if that’s your opinion, it’s my opinion he’s put himself into the way of getting one. Anyhow, we shan’t have no more of it, and that’s something to be thankful for.” And so Mr. and Mrs. Chittenden sat down to tea.
And what of Mr. Dillet and his new acquisition? What it was, the title of this story will have told you. What it was like, I shall have to indicate as well as I can.
There was only just enough room for it in the car, and Mr. Dillet had to sit with the driver: he had also to go slow, for though the rooms of the Dolls’ House had all been stuffed carefully with soft cottonwool, jolting was to be avoided, in view of the immense number of small objects which thronged them; and the ten-mile drive was an anxious time for him, in spite of all the precautions he insisted upon. At last his front door was reached, and Collins, the butler, came out.
“Look here, Collins, you must help me with this thing – it’s a delicate job. We must get it out upright, see? It’s full of little things that mustn’t be displaced more than we can help. Let’s see, where shall we have it? (After a pause for consideration.) Really, I think I shall have to put it in my own room, to begin with at any rate. On the big table – that’s it.”
It was conveyed – with much talking – to Mr. Dillet’s spacious room on the first floor, looking out on the drive. The sheeting was unwound from it, and the front thrown open, and for the next hour or two Mr.. Dillet was fully occupied in extracting the padding and setting in order the contents of the rooms.
When this thoroughly congenial task was finished, I must say that it would have been difficult to find a more perfect and attractive specimen of a Dolls’ House in Strawberry Hill Gothic than that which now stood on Mr. Dillet’s large kneehole table, lighted up by the evening sun which came slanting through three tall slash-windows.
It was quite six feet long, including the Chapel or Oratory which flanked the front on the left as you faced it, and the stable on the right. The main block of the house was, as I have said, in the Gothic manner: that is to say, the windows had pointed arches and were surmounted by what are called ogival hoods, with crockets and finials such as we see on the canopies of tombs built into church walls. At the angles were absurd turrets covered with arched panels. The Chapel had pinnacles and buttresses, and a bell in the turret and coloured glass in the windows. When the front of the house was open you saw four large rooms, bedroom, dining-room, drawing-room and kitchen, each with its appropriate furniture in a very complete state.
The stable on the right was in two storeys, with its proper complement of horses, coaches and grooms, and with its clock and Gothic cupola for the clock bell.
Pages, of course, might be written on the outfit of the mansion – how many frying-pans, how many gilt chairs, what pictures, carpets, chandeliers, four-posters, table linen, glass, crockery and plate it possessed; but all this must be left to the imagination. I will only say that the base or plinth on which the house stood (for it was fitted with one of some depth which allowed of a flight of steps to the front door and a terrace, partly balustraded) contained a shallow drawer or drawers in which were neatly stored sets of embroidered curtains, changes of raiment for the inmates, and, in short, all the materials for an infinite series of variations and refittings of the most absorbing and delightful kind.
“Quintessence of Horace Walpole, that’s what it is: he must have had something to do with the making of it.” Such was Mr. Dillet’s murmured reflection as he knelt before it in a reverent ecstasy. “Simply wonderful! this is my day and no mistake. Five hundred pounds coming in this morning for that cabinet which I never cared about, and now this tumbling into my hands for a tenth, at the very most, of what it would fetch in town. Well, well! It almost makes one afraid something’ll happen to counter it. Let’s have a look at the population, anyhow.”
Accordingly, he set them before him in a row. Again, here is an opportunity, which some would snatch at, of making an inventory of costume: I am incapable of it.
There were a gentleman and lady, in blue satin and brocade respectively. There were two children, a boy and a girl. There was a cook, a nurse, a footman, and there were the stable servants, two postilions, a coachman, two grooms.
“Anyone else? Yes, possibly.”
The curtains of the four-poster in the bedroom were closely drawn round all four sides of it, and he put his finger in between them and felt in the bed. He drew the finger back hastily, for it almost seemed to him as if something had – not stirred, perhaps, but yielded – in an odd live way as he pressed it. Then he put back the curtains, which ran on rods in the proper manner, and extracted from the bed a white-haired old gentleman in a long linen night-dress and cap, and laid him down by the rest. The tale was complete.
Dinner-time was now near, so Mr. Dillet spent but five minutes in putting the lady and children into the drawing-room, the gentleman into the dining-room, the servants into the kitchen and stables, and the old man back into his bed. He retired into his dressing-room next door, and we see and hear no more of him until something like eleven o’clock at night.
His whim was to sleep surrounded by some of the gems of his collection.. The big room in which we have seen him contained his bed: bath, wardrobe, and all the appliances of dressing were in a commodious room adjoining: but his four-poster, which itself was a valued treasure, stood in the large room where he sometimes wrote, and often sat, and even received visitors. To-night he repaired to it in a highly complacent frame of mind.
There was no striking clock within earshot – none on the staircase, none in the stable, none in the distant church tower. Yet it is indubitable that Mr. Dillet was started out of a very pleasant slumber by a bell tolling One.
He was so much startled that he did not merely lie breathless with wide-open eyes, but actually sat up in his bed.
He never asked himself, till the morning hours, how it was that, though there was no light at all in the room, the Dolls’ House on the kneehole table stood out with complete clearness. But it was so. The effect was that of a bright harvest moon shining full on the front of a big white stone mansion – a quarter of a mile away it might be, and yet every detail was photographically sharp. There were trees about it, too – trees rising behind the chapel and the house. He seemed to be conscious of the scent of a cool still September night. He thought he could hear an occasional stamp and clink from the stables, as of horses stirring. And with another shock he realized that, above the house, he was looking, not at the wall of his room with its pictures, but into the profound blue of a night sky.
There were lights, more than one, in the windows, and he quickly saw that this was no four-roomed house with a movable front, but one of many rooms and staircases – a real house, but seen as if through the wrong end of a telescope.
“You mean to show me something,” he muttered to himself, and he gazed earnestly on the lighted windows. They would in real life have been shuttered or curtained, no doubt, he thought; but, as it was, there was nothing to intercept his view of what was being transacted inside the rooms.
Two rooms were lighted – one on the ground floor to the right of the door, one upstairs, on the left – the first brightly enough, the other rather dimly. The lower room was the dining-room: a table was laid, but the meal was over, and only wine and glasses were left on the table. The man of the blue satin and the woman of the brocade were alone in the room, and they were talking very earnestly, seated close together at the table, their elbows on it: every now and again stopping to listen, as it seemed.. Once he rose, came to the window and opened it and put his head out and his hand to his ear. There was a lighted taper in a silver candlestick on a sideboard.. When the man left the window he seemed to leave the room also; and the lady, taper in hand, remained standing and listening. The expression on her face was that of one striving her utmost to keep down a fear that threatened to master her – and succeeding. It was a hateful face, too; broad, flat and sly. Now the man came back and she took some small thing from him and hurried out of the room. He, too, disappeared, but only for a moment or two. The front door slowly opened and he stepped out and stood on the top of the perron, looking this way and that; then turned towards the upper window that was lighted, and shook his fist.
It was time to look at that upper window. Through it was seen a four-post bed: a nurse or other servant in an arm-chair, evidently sound asleep; in the bed an old man lying: awake, and, one would say, anxious, from the way in which he shifted about and moved his fingers, beating tunes on the coverlet. Beyond the bed a door opened. Light was seen on the ceiling, and the lady came in: she set down her candle on a table, came to the fireside and roused the nurse. In her hand she had an old-fashioned wine bottle, ready uncorked. The nurse took it, poured some of the contents into a little silver saucepan, added some spice and sugar from casters on the table, and set it to warm on the fire. Meanwhile the old man in the bed beckoned feebly to the lady, who came to him, smiling, took his wrist as if to feel his pulse, and bit her lip as if in consternation. He looked at her anxiously, and then pointed to the window, and spoke. She nodded, and did as the man below had done; opened the casement and listened – perhaps rather ostentatiously: then drew in her head and shook it, looking at the old man, who seemed to sigh.
By this time the posset on the fire was steaming, and the nurse poured it into a small two-handled silver bowl and brought it to the bedside. The old man seemed disinclined for it and was waving it away, but the lady and the nurse together bent over him and evidently pressed it upon him. He must have yielded, for they supported him into a sitting position, and put it to his lips. He drank most of it, in several draughts, and they laid him down. The lady left the room, smiling good night to him, and took the bowl, the bottle and the silver saucepan with her. The nurse returned to the chair, and there was an interval of complete quiet.
Suddenly the old man started up in his bed – and he must have uttered some cry, for the nurse started out of her chair and made but one step of it to the bedside. He was a sad and terrible sight – flushed in the face, almost to blackness, the eyes glaring whitely, both hands clutching at his heart, foam at his lips. For a moment the nurse left him, ran to the door, flung it wide open, and, one supposes, screamed aloud for help, then darted back to the bed and seemed to try feverishly to soothe him – to lay him down – anything. But as the lady, her husband, and several servants, rushed into the room with horrified faces, the old man collapsed under the nurse’s hands and lay back, and his features, contorted with agony and rage, relaxed slowly into calm.
A few moments later, lights showed out to the left of the house, and a coach with flambeaux drove up to the door. A white-wigged man in black got nimbly out and ran up the steps, carrying a small leather trunk-shaped box. He was met in the doorway by the man and his wife, she with her handkerchief clutched between her hands, he with a tragic face, but retaining his self-control. They led the new-comer into the dining-room, where he set his box of papers on the table, and, turning to them, listened with a face of consternation at what they had to tell. He nodded his head again and again, threw out his hands slightly, declined, it seemed, offers of refreshment and lodging for the night, and within a few minutes came slowly down the steps, entering the coach and driving off the way he had come. As the man in blue watched him from the top of the steps, a smile not pleasant to see stole slowly over his fat white face. Darkness fell over the whole scene as the lights of the coach disappeared.
But Mr. Dillet remained sitting up in the bed: he had rightly guessed that there would be a sequel. The house front glimmered out again before long. But now there was a difference. The lights were in other windows, one at the top of the house, the other illuminating the range of coloured windows of the chapel. How he saw through these is not quite obvious, but he did. The interior was as carefully furnished as the rest of the establishment, with its minute red cushions on the desks, its Gothic stall-canopies, and its western gallery and pinnacled organ with gold pipes. On the centre of the black and white pavement was a bier: four tall candles burned at the corners. On the bier was a coffin covered with a pall of black velvet.
As he looked the folds of the pall stirred. It seemed to rise at one end: it slid downwards: it fell away, exposing the black coffin with its silver handles and name-plate. One of the tall candlesticks swayed and toppled over. Ask no more, but turn, as Mr. Dillet hastily did, and look in at the lighted window at the top of the house, where a boy and girl lay in two truckle-beds, and a four-poster for the nurse rose above them. The nurse was not visible for the moment; but the father and mother were there, dressed now in mourning, but with very little sign of mourning in their demeanour. Indeed, they were laughing and talking with a good deal of animation, sometimes to each other, and sometimes throwing a remark to one or other of the children, and again laughing at the answers. Then the father was seen to go on tiptoe out of the room, taking with him as he went a white garment that hung on a peg near the door. He shut the door after him. A minute or two later it was slowly opened again, and a muffled head poked round it. A bent form of sinister shape stepped across to the truckle-beds, and suddenly stopped, threw up its arms and revealed, of course, the father, laughing. The children were in agonies of terror, the boy with the bedclothes over his head, the girl throwing herself out of bed into her mother’s arms. Attempts at consolation followed – the parents took the children on their laps, patted them, picked up the white gown and showed there was no harm in it, and so forth; and at last putting the children back into bed, left the room with encouraging waves of the hand. As they left it, the nurse came in, and soon the light died down.
Still Mr. Dillet watched immovable.
A new sort of light – not of lamp or candle – a pale ugly light, began to dawn around the door-case at the back of the room. The door was opening again. The seer does not like to dwell upon what he saw entering the room: he says it might be described as a frog – the size of a man – but it had scanty white hair about its head. It was busy about the truckle-beds, but not for long. The sound of cries – faint, as if coming out of a vast distance – but, even so, infinitely appalling, reached the ear.
There were signs of a hideous commotion all over the house: lights moved along and up, and doors opened and shut, and running figures passed within the windows. The clock in the stable turret tolled one, and darkness fell again.
It was only dispelled once more, to show the house front. At the bottom of the steps dark figures were drawn up in two lines, holding flaming torches. More dark figures came down the steps, bearing, first one, then another small coffin. And the lines of torch-bearers with the coffins between them moved silently onward to the left.
The hours of night passed on – never so slowly, Mr. Dillet thought. Gradually he sank down from sitting to lying in his bed – but he did not close an eye: and early next morning he sent for the doctor.
The doctor found him in a disquieting state of nerves, and recommended sea-air. To a quiet place on the East Coast he accordingly repaired by easy stages in his car.
One of the first people he met on the sea front was Mr. Chittenden, who, it appeared, had likewise been advised to take his wife away for a bit of a change.
Mr. Chittenden looked somewhat askance upon him when they met: and not without cause.
“Well, I don’t wonder at you being a bit upset, Mr. Dillet. What? yes, well, I might say ’orrible upset, to be sure, seeing what me and my poor wife went through ourselves. But I put it to you, Mr. Dillet, one of two things: was I going to scrap a lovely piece like that on the one ’and, or was I going to tell customers: ‘I’m selling you a regular picture-palace-dramar in reel life of the olden time, billed to perform regular at one o’clock a..m.’? Why, what would you ‘ave said yourself? And next thing you know, two Justices of the Peace in the back parlour, and pore Mr. and Mrs. Chittenden off in a spring cart to the County Asylum and everyone in the street saying, ‘Ah, I thought it ’ud come to that. Look at the way the man drank!’ – and me next door, or next door but one, to a total abstainer, as you know. Well, there was my position. What? Me ’ave it back in the shop? Well, what do you think? No, but I’ll tell you what I will do. You shall have your money back, bar the ten pound I paid for it, and you make what you can.”
Later in the day, in what is offensively called the “smoke-room” of the hotel, a murmured conversation between the two went on for some time.
“How much do you really know about that thing, and where it came from?”
“Honest, Mr. Dillet, I don’t know the ’ouse. Of course, it came out of the lumber room of a country ’ouse – that anyone could guess. But I’ll go as far as say this, that I believe it’s not a hundred miles from this place. Which direction and how far I’ve no notion. I’m only judging by guess-work. The man as I actually paid the cheque to ain’t one of my regular men, and I’ve lost sight of him; but I ’ave the idea that this part of the country was his beat, and that’s every word I can tell you. But now, Mr. Dillet, there’s one thing that rather physicks me. That old chap, — I suppose you saw him drive up to the door – I thought so: now, would he have been the medical man, do you take it? My wife would have it so, but I stuck to it that was the lawyer, because he had papers with him, and one he took out was folded up.”
“I agree,” said Mr. Dillet. “Thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that was the old man’s will, ready to be signed.”
“Just what I thought,” said Mr. Chittenden, “and I took it that will would have cut out the young people, eh? Well, well! It’s been a lesson to me, I know that. I shan’t buy no more dolls’ houses, nor waste no more money on the pictures – and as to this business of poisonin’ grandpa, well, if I know myself, I never ’ad much of a turn for that. Live and let live: that’s bin my motto throughout life, and I ain’t found it a bad one.”
Filled with these elevated sentiments, Mr. Chittenden retired to his lodgings. Mr. Dillet next day repaired to the local Institute, where he hoped to find some clue to the riddle that absorbed him. He gazed in despair at a long file of the Canterbury and York Society’s publications of the Parish Registers of the District. No print resembling the house of his nightmare was among those that hung on the staircase and in the passages. Disconsolate, he found himself at last in a derelict room, staring at a dusty model of a church in a dusty glass case: Model of St. Stephen’s Church, Coxham. Presented by J. Merewether, Esq., of Ilbridge House, 1877. The work of his ancestor James Merewether, d.. 1786. There was something in the fashion of it that reminded him dimly of his horror. He retraced his steps to a wall map he had noticed, and made out that Ilbridge House was in Coxham Parish. Coxham was, as it happened, one of the parishes of which he had retained the name when he glanced over the file of printed registers, and it was not long before he found in them the record of the burial of Roger Milford, aged 76, on the 11th of September, 1757, and of Roger and Elizabeth Merewether, aged 9 and 7, on the 19th of the same month. It seemed worth while to follow up this clue, frail as it was; and in the afternoon he drove out to Coxham. The east end of the north aisle of the church is a Milford chapel, and on its north wall are tablets to the same persons; Roger, the elder, it seems, was distinguished by all the qualities which adorn “the Father, the Magistrate and the Man”: the memorial was erected by his attached daughter Elizabeth, “who did not long survive the loss of a parent ever solicitous for her welfare, and of two amiable children.” The last sentence was plainly an addition to the original inscription.
A yet later slab told of James Merewether, husband of Elizabeth, “who in the dawn of life practised, not without success, those arts which, had he continued their exercise, might in the opinion of the most competent judges have earned for him the name of the British Vitruvius: but who, overwhelmed by the visitation which deprived him of an affectionate partner and a blooming offspring, passed his Prime and Age in a secluded yet elegant Retirement: his grateful Nephew and Heir indulges a pious sorrow by this too brief recital of his excellences.”
The children were more simply commemorated. Both died on the night of the 12th of September.
Mr. Dillet felt sure that in Ilbridge House he had found the scene of his drama. In some old sketchbook, possibly in some old print, he may yet find convincing evidence that he is right. But the Ilbridge House of today is not that which he sought; it is an Elizabethan erection of the forties, in red brick with stone quoins and dressings. A quarter of a mile from it, in a low part of the park, backed by ancient, staghorned, ivy-strangled trees and thick undergrowth, are marks of a terraced platform overgrown with rough grass. A few stone balusters lie here and there, and a heap or two, covered with nettles and ivy, of wrought stones with badly-carved crockets. This, someone told Mr. Dillet, was the site of an older house.
As he drove out of the village, the hall clock struck four, and Mr. Dillet started up and clapped his hands to his ears. It was not the first time he had heard that bell.
Awaiting an offer from the other side of the Atlantic, the dolls’ house still reposes, carefully sheeted, in a loft over Mr. Dillet’s stables, whither Collins conveyed it on the day when Mr. Dillet started for the sea coast.
[It will be said, perhaps, and not unjustly, that this is no more than a variation on a former story of mine called The Mezzotint. I can only hope that there is enough of variation in the setting to make the repetition of the motif tolerable.]
Mr Davidson was spending the first week in January alone in a country town. A combination of circumstances had driven him to that drastic course: his nearest relations were enjoying winter sports abroad, and the friends who had been kindly anxious to replace them had an infectious complaint in the house. Doubtless he might have found someone else to take pity on him; ‘but,’ he reflected, ‘most of them have made up their parties, and after all it is only for three or four days at most that I have to fend for myself, and it will be just as well if I can get a move on with my introduction to the Leventhorp Papers. I might use the time by going down as near as I can to Gaulsford and making acquaintance with the neighbourhood. I ought to see the remains of the Leventhorp house, and the tombs in the church.’
The first day after his arrival at the Swan Hotel at Longbridge was so stormy that he got no farther than the tobacconist’s. The next, comparatively bright, he used for his visit to Gaulsford, which interested him more than a little, but had no ulterior consequences. The third, which was really a pearl of a day for early January, was too fine to be spent indoors. He gathered from the landlord that a favourite practice of visitors in the summer was to take a morning train to a couple of stations westward and walk back down the valley of the Tent, through Stanford St Thomas and Stanford Magdalene, both of which were accounted highly picturesque villages. He closed with this plan, and we now find him seated in a third-class carriage at 9.45 a.m., on his way to Kingsbourne Junction, and studying the map of the district.
One old man was his only fellow-traveller, a piping old man, who seemed inclined for conversation. So Mr Davidson, after going through the necessary versicles and responses about the weather, inquired whether he was going far.
‘No, sir, not far, not this morning, sir,’ said the old man. ‘I ain’t only goin’ so far as what they call Kingsbourne Junction. There isn’t but two stations betwixt here and there. Yes, they calls it Kingsbourne Junction.’
‘I’m going there, too,’ said Mr Davidson.
‘Oh indeed, sir! do you know that part?’
‘No, I’m only going for the sake of taking a walk back to Longbridge, and seeing a bit of the country.’
‘Oh indeed, sir! Well, ’tis a beautiful day for a gentleman as enjoys a bit of a walk.’
‘Yes, to be sure. Have you got far to go when you get to Kingsbourne?’
‘No, sir, I ain’t got far to go, once I get to Kingsbourne Junction. I’m agoin’ to see my daughter, sir. She live at Brockstone. That’s about two mile across the fields from what they call Kingsbourne Junction, that is. You’ve got that marked down on your map, I expect, sir.’
‘I expect I have. Let me see, Brockstone, did you say? Here’s Kingsbourne, yes; and which way is Brockstone toward the Stanfords? Ah, I see it: Brockstone Court, in a park. I don’t see the village, though.’
‘No, sir, you wouldn’t see no village of Brockstone. There ain’t only the Court and the chapel at Brockstone.’
‘Chapel? Oh yes, that’s marked here too. The chapel; close by the Court, it seems to be. Does it belong to the Court?’
‘Yes, sir, that’s close up to the Court, only a step. Yes, that belong to the Court. My daughter, you see, sir, she’s the keeper’s wife now, and she live at the Court and look after things now the family’s away.’
‘No one living there now, then?’
‘No, sir, not for a number of years. The old gentleman he lived there when I was a lad, and the lady she lived on after him to very near upon ninety years of age. And then she died, and them that have it now, they’ve got this other place, in Warwickshire I believe it is, and they don’t do nothin’ about lettin’ the Court out; but Colonel Wildman he have the shooting, and young Mr Clark, he’s the agent, he come over once in so many weeks to see to things, and my daughter’s husband he’s the keeper.’
‘And who uses the chapel? just the people round about, I suppose.’
‘Oh no, no one don’t use the chapel. Why, there ain’t no one to go. All the people about, they go to Stanford St Thomas Church; but my son-in-law he go to Kingsbourne Church now, because the gentleman at Stanford he have this Gregory singin’, and my son-in-law he don’t like that; he say he can hear the old donkey brayin’ any day of the week, and he like something a little cheerful on the Sunday.’ The old man drew his hand across his mouth and laughed. ‘That’s what my son-in-law say: he say he can hear the old donkey [etc., do copo].’
Mr Davidson also laughed as honestly as he could, thinking meanwhile that Brockstone Court and chapel would probably be worth including in his walk, for the map showed that from Brockstone he could strike the Tent Valley quite as easily as by following the main Kingsbourne — Longbridge road. So, when the mirth excited by the remembrance of the son-in-law’s bon mot had died down, he returned to the charge, and ascertained that both the Court and the chapel were of the class known as ‘old-fashioned places’, and that the old man would be very willing to take him thither, and his daughter would be happy to show him whatever she could.
‘But that ain’t a lot, sir, not as if the family was livin’ there; all the lookin’-glasses is covered up, and the paintin’s, and the curtains and carpets folded away: not but what I dare say she could show you a pair just to look at, because she go over them to see as the morth shouldn’t get into ’em.’
‘I shan’t mind about that, thank you: if she can show me the inside of the chapel, that’s what I’d like best to see.’
‘Oh, she can show you that right enough, sir. She have the key of the door, you see, and most weeks she go in and dust about. That’s a nice chapel, that is. My son-in-law he say he’ll be bound they didn’t have none of this Gregory singin’ there. Dear! I can’t help but smile when I think of him sayin’ that about th’ old donkey. “I can hear him bray,” he say, “any day of the week”; and so he can, sir, that’s true, anyway.’
The walk across the fields from Kingsbourne to Brockstone was very pleasant. It lay for the most part on the top of the country, and commanded wide views over a succession of ridges, plough and pasture, or covered with dark-blue woods — all ending, more or less abruptly, on the right, in headlands that overlooked the wide valley of a great western river. The last field they crossed was bounded by a close copse, and no sooner were they in it than the path turned downwards very sharply, and it became evident that Brockstone was neatly fitted into a sudden and very narrow valley. It was not long before they had glimpses of groups of smokeless stone chimneys, and stone-tiled roofs, close beneath their feet; and not many minutes after that, they were wiping their shoes at the back door of Brockstone Court, while the keeper’s dogs barked very loudly in unseen places, and Mrs Porter in quick succession screamed at them to be quiet, greeted her father, and begged both her visitors to step in.
It was not to be expected that Mr Davidson should escape being taken through the principal rooms of the Court, in spite of the fact that the house was entirely out of commission. Pictures, carpets, curtains, furniture, were all covered up or put away, as old Mr Avery had said, and the admiration which our friend was very ready to bestow had to be lavished on the proportions of the rooms, and on the one painted ceiling, upon which an artist who had fled from London in the Plague-year had depicted the Triumph of Loyalty and Defeat of Sedition. In this Mr Davidson could show an unfeigned interest. The portraits of Cromwell, Ireton, Bradshaw, Peters, and the rest, writhing in carefully-devised torments, were evidently the part of the design to which most pains had been devoted.
‘That were the old Lady Sadleir had that paintin’ done, same as the one what put up the chapel. They say she were the first that went up to London to dance on Oliver Cromwell’s grave.’ So said Mr Avery, and continued musingly: ‘Well, I suppose she got some satisfaction to ’er mind, but I don’t know as I should want to pay the fare to London and back just for that, and my son-in-law he say the same: he say he don’t know as he should have cared to pay all that money only for that. I was tellin’ the gentleman as we come along in the train, Mary, what your ‘Arry says about this Gregory singin’ down at Stanford here. We ’ad a bit of a laugh over that, sir, didn’t us?’
‘Yes, to be sure we did; ha! ha!’ Once again Mr Davidson strove to do justice to the pleasantry of the keeper. ‘But,’ he said, ‘if Mrs Porter can show me the chapel, I think it should be now, for the days aren’t long, and I want to get back to Longbridge before it falls quite dark.’
Even if Brockstone Court has not been illustrated in Rural Life (and I think it has not) I do not propose to point out its excellences here; but of the chapel a word must be said. It stands about a hundred yards from the house, and has its own little graveyard and trees about it. It is a stone building about seventy feet long, and in the gothic style, as that style was understood in the middle of the seventeenth century. On the whole it resembles some of the Oxford college chapels as much as anything, save that it has a distinct chancel, like a parish church, and a fanciful domed bell-turret at the south-west angle.
When the west door was thrown open, Mr Davidson could not repress an exclamation of pleased surprise at the completeness and richness of the interior. Screen-work, pulpit, seating, and glass — all were of the same period; and as he advanced into the nave and sighted the organ-case with its gold embossed pipes in the western gallery, his cup of satisfaction was filled. The glass in the nave windows was chiefly armorial; in the chancel were figure-subjects, of the kind that may be seen at Abbey Dore, of Lord Scudamore’s work. But this is not an archaeological Review.
While Mr Davidson was still busy examining the remains of the organ (attributed to one of the Dallams, I believe) old Mr Avery had stumped up into the chancel and was lifting the dust-cloths from the blue velvet cushions of the stalldesks — evidently it was here that the family sat. Mr Davidson heard him say in a rather hushed tone of surprise, ‘Why, Mary, here’s all the books open agin!’
The reply was in a voice that sounded peevish rather than surprised. ‘Tt-tt-tt, well, there, I never!’
Mrs Porter went over to where her father was standing, and they continued talking in a lower key. Mr Davidson saw plainly that something not quite in the common run was under discussion: so he came down the gallery stairs and joined them. There was no sign of disorder in the chancel any more than in the rest of the chapel, which was beautifully clean, but the eight folio Prayer–Books on the cushions of the stall-desks were indubitably open.
Mrs Porter was inclined to be fretful over it. ‘Whoever can it be as does it?’ she said, ‘for there’s no key but mine, nor yet door but the one we come in by, and the winders is barred, every one of ’em: I don’t like it, father, that I don’t.’
‘What is it, Mrs Porter? Anything wrong?’ said Mr Davidson.
‘No, sir, nothing reely wrong, only these books. Every time pretty near that I come in to do up the place, I shuts ’em and spreads the cloths over ’em to keep off the dust, ever since Mr Clark spoke about it when I first come; and yet there they are again, and always the same page — and as I says, whoever it can be as does it with the door and winders shut; and as I says, it makes anyone feel queer comin’ in here alone as I ’ave to do, not as I’m given that way myself, not to be frightened easy, I mean to say; and there’s not a rat in the place — not as no rat wouldn’t trouble to do a thing like that, do you think, sir?’
‘Hardly, I should say; but it sounds very queer. Are they always open at the same place, did you say?’
‘Always the same place, sir, one of the psalms it is, and I didn’t particular notice it the first time or two, till I see a little red line of printing, and it’s always caught my eye since.’
Mr Davidson walked along the stalls and looked at the open books. Sure enough, they all stood at the same page: Psalm cix, and at the head of it, just between the number and the Dens Iaudem, was a rubric, ‘For the 25th day of April’. Without pretending to minute knowledge of the history of the Book of Common Prayer, he knew enough to be sure that this was a very odd and wholly unauthorized addition to its text; and though he remembered that April is St Mark’s Day, he could not imagine what appropriateness this very savage psalm could have to that festival. With slight misgivings, he ventured to turn over the leaves to examine the title-page, and knowing the need for particular accuracy in these matters, he devoted some ten minutes to making a line-for-line transcript of it. The date was 1653; the printer called himself Anthony Cadman. He turned to the list of Proper Psalms for certain days: yes, added to it was that same inexplicable entry: For the 25th day of April: the moth Psalm. An expert would no doubt have thought of many other points to inquire into, but this antiquary, as I have said, was no expert. He took stock, however, of the binding, a handsome one of tooled blue leather, bearing the arms that figured in several of the nave windows in various combinations.
‘How often,’ he said at last to Mrs Porter, ‘have you found these books lying open like this?’
‘Reely I couldn’t say, sir, but it’s a great many times now. Do you recollect, father, me telling you about it the first time I noticed it?’
‘That I do, my dear: you was in a rare taking, and I don’t so much wonder at it; that was five year ago I was paying you a visit at Michaelmas time, and you come in at tea-time, and says you, “Father, there’s the books layin’ open under the cloths agin”; and I didn’t know what my daughter was speakin’ about, you see, sir, and I says, “Books?” just like that, I says; and then it all came out. But as Harry says — that’s my son-in-law, sir — “whoever it can be,” he says, “as does it, because there ain’t only the one door, and we keeps the key locked up,” he says, “and the winders is barred, every one on ’em. Well,” he says, “I lay once I could catch ’em at it they wouldn’t do it a second time,” he says. And no more they wouldn’t, I don’t believe, sir. Well that was five year ago, and it’s been happenin’ constant ever since by your account, my dear. Young Mr Clark he don’t seem to think much to it, but then he don’t live here, you see, and ‘tisn’t his business to come and clean up here of a dark afternoon, is it?’
‘I suppose you never notice anything else odd when you are at work here, Mrs Porter?’ said Mr Davidson.
‘No, sir, I do not,’ said Mrs Porter, ‘and it’s a funny thing to me I don’t, with the feeling I have as there’s someone settin’ here — no, it’s the other side, just within the screen — and lookin’ at me all the time I’m dustin’ in the gallery and pews. But I never yet see nothin’ worse than myself, as the sayin’ goes, and I kindly hope I never may.’
In the conversation that followed (there was not much of it) nothing was added to the statement of the case. Having parted on good terms with Mr Avery and his daughter, Mr Davidson addressed himself to his eight-mile walk. The little valley of Brockstone soon led him down into the broader one of the Tent, and on to Stanford St Thomas, where he found refreshment.
We need not accompany him all the way to Longbridge. But as he was changing his socks before dinner, he suddenly paused and said half-aloud, ‘By Jove, that is a rum thing!’ It had not occurred to him before how strange it was that any edition of the Prayer–Book should have been issued in 1653, seven years before the Restoration, five years before Cromwell’s death, and when the use of the book, let alone the printing of it, was penal. He must have been a bold man who put his name and a date on that title-page. Only, Mr Davidson reflected, it probably was not his name at all, for the ways of printers in difficult times were devious.
As he was in the front hall of the Swan that evening, making some investigations about trains, a small motor stopped in front of the door, and out of it came a small man in a fur coat, who stood on the steps and gave directions in a rather yapping foreign accent to his chauffeur. When he came into the hotel, he was seen to be black-haired and pale-faced, with a little pointed beard, and gold pince-nez; altogether, very neatly turned out.
He went to his room, and Mr Davidson saw no more of him till dinner-time. As they were the only two dining that night, it was not difficult for the newcomer to find an excuse for falling into talk; he was evidently wishing to make out what brought Mr Davidson into that neighbourhood at that season.
‘Can you tell me how far it is from here to Arlingworth?’ was one of his early questions, and it was one which threw some light on his own plans, for Mr Davidson recollected having seen at the station an advertisement of a sale at Arlingworth Hall, comprising old furniture, pictures, and books. This, then, was a London dealer.
‘No,’ he said, ‘I’ve never been there. I believe it lies out by Kingsbourne — it can’t be less than twelve miles. I see there’s a sale there shortly.’
The other looked at him inquisitively, and he laughed. ‘No,’ he said, as if answering a question, ‘you needn’t be afraid of my competing; I’m leaving this place tomorrow.’
This cleared the air, and the dealer, whose name was Homberger, admitted that he was interested in books, and thought there might be in these old country-house libraries something to repay a journey. ‘For,’ said he, ‘we English have always this marvellous talent for accumulating rarities in the most unexpected places, ain’t it?’
And in the course of the evening he was most interesting on the subject of finds made by himself and others. ‘I shall take the occasion after this sale to look round the district a bit: perhaps you could inform me of some likely spots, Mr Davidson?’ But Davidson, though he had seen some very tempting locked-up bookcases at Brockstone Court, kept his counsel. He did not really like Mr Homberger.
Next day, as he sat in the train, a little ray of light came to illuminate one of yesterday’s puzzles. He happened to take out an almanac-diary that he had bought for the new year, and it occurred to him to look at the remarkable events for April 25. There it was: ‘St Mark. Oliver Cromwell born, 1599.’
That, coupled with the painted ceiling, seemed to explain a good deal. The figure of old Lady Sadleir became more substantial to his imagination, as of one in whom love for Church and King had gradually given place to intense hate of the power that had silenced the one and slaughtered the other. What curious evil service was that which she and a few like her had been wont to celebrate year by year in that remote valley? and how in the world had she managed to elude authority? And again, did not this persistent opening of the books agree oddly with the other traits of her portrait known to him?
It would be interesting for anyone who chanced to be near Brockstone on the twenty-fifth of April to look in at the chapel and see if anything exceptional happened. When he came to think of it, there seemed to be no reason why he should not be that person himself: he, and if possible, some congenial friend. He resolved that so it should be.
Knowing that he knew really nothing about the printing of Prayer–Books, he realized that he must make it his business to get the best light on the matter without divulging his reasons. I may say at once that his search was entirely fruitless. One writer of the early part of the nineteenth century, a writer of rather windy and rhapsodical chat about books, professed to have heard of a special anti-Cromwellian issue of the Prayer–Book in the very midst of the Commonwealth period. But he did not claim to have seen a copy, and no one had believed him. Looking into this matter, Mr Davidson found that the statement was based on letters from a correspondent who had lived near Longbridge: so he was inclined to think that the Brockstone Prayer–Books were at the bottom of it, and had excited a momentary interest.
Months went on, and St Mark’s Day came near. Nothing interfered with Mr Davidson’s plans of visiting Brockstone, or with those of the friend whom he had persuaded to go with him, and to whom alone he had confided the puzzle. The same 9.45 train which had taken him in January took them now to Kingsbourne; the same field-path led them to Brock-stone. But today they stopped more than once to pick a cowslip; the distant woods and ploughed uplands were of another colour, and in the copse there was, as Mrs Porter said, ‘a regular charm of birds; why you couldn’t hardly collect your mind sometimes with it.’
She recognized Mr Davidson at once and was very ready to do the honours of the chapel. The new visitor, Mr Witham, was as much struck by the completeness of it as Mr Davidson had been. ‘There can’t be such another in England,’ he said.
‘Books open again, Mrs Porter?’ said Davidson, as they walked up to the chancel.
‘Dear, yes, I expect so, sir,’ said Mrs Porter, as she drew off the cloths. ‘Well, there!’ she exclaimed the next moment, ‘if they ain’t shut! That’s the first time ever I’ve found ’em so. But it’s not for want of care on my part, I do assure you, gentlemen, if they wasn’t, for I felt the cloths the last thing before I shut up last week, when the gentleman had done photografting the heast winder, and every one was shut, and where there was ribbons left I tied ’em. Now I think of it, I don’t remember ever to ’ave done that before, and per’aps, whoever it is it just made the difference to ’em. Well, it only shows, don’t it? If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.’
Meanwhile the two men had been examining the books, and now Davidson spoke.
‘I’m sorry to say I’m afraid there’s something wrong here, Mrs Porter. These are not the same books.’
It would make too long a business to detail all Mrs Porter’s outcries, and the questionings that followed. The upshot was this. Early in January the gentleman had come to see over the chapel and thought a great deal of it and said he must come back in the spring weather and take some photografts. And only a week ago he had drove up in his motoring car, and a very ‘eavy box with the slides in it, and she had locked him in because he said something about a long explosion, and she was afraid of some damage happening: and he says, no, not explosion, but it appeared the lantern what they take the slides with worked very slow, and so he was in there the best part of an hour and she come and let him out, and he drove off with his box and all and gave her his visiting-card, and oh, dear, dear, to think of such a thing! he must have changed the books and took the old ones away with him in his box.
‘What sort of man was he?’
‘Oh, dear, he was a small-made gentleman, if you can call him so after the way he’ve behaved, with black hair, that is if it was hair, and gold eye-glasses, if they was gold: reely, one don’t know what to believe. Sometimes I doubt he weren’t a reel Englishman at all, and yet he seemed to know the language, and had the name on his visiting-card like anybody else might.
‘Just so; might we see the card? Yes: T. W. Henderson, and an address somewhere near Bristol. Well, Mrs Porter, it’s quite plain this Mr Henderson, as he calls himself, has walked off with your eight Prayer–Books and put eight others about the same size in place of them. Now listen to me. I suppose you must tell your husband about this, but neither you nor he must say one word about it to anyone else. If you’ll give me the address of the agent — Mr Clark, isn’t it? — I will write to him and tell him exactly what has happened, and that it really is no fault of yours. But, you understand, we must keep it very quiet: and why? Because this man who has stolen the books will of course try to sell them one at a time — for I may tell you they are worth a good deal of money — and the only way we can bring it home to him is by keeping a sharp look out and saying nothing.’
By dint of repeating the same advice in various forms they succeeded in impressing Mrs Porter with the real need for silence, and were forced to make a concession only in the case of Mr Avery, who was expected on a visit shortly: ‘But you may be safe with father, sir,’ said Mrs Porter. ‘Father ain’t a talkin’ man.’
It was not quite Mr Davidson’s experience of him; still, there were no neighbours at Brockstone, and even Mr Avery must be aware that gossip with anybody on such a subject would be likely to end in the Porters having to look out for another situation.
A last question was whether Mr Henderson, so-called, had anyone with him.
‘No, sir, not when he come he hadn’t: he was working his own motoring car himself, and what luggage he had, let me see: there was his lantern and this box of slides inside the carriage, which I helped him into the chapel and out of it myself with it, if only I’d knowed! And as he drove away under the big yew tree by the monument I see the long white bundle laying on the top of the coach, what I didn’t notice when he drove up. But he set in front, sir, and only the boxes inside behind him. And do you reely think, sir, as his name weren’t Henderson at all? Oh dear me, what a dreadful thing! Why fancy what trouble it might bring to a innocent person that might never have set foot in the place but for that!’
They left Mrs Porter in tears. On the way home there was much discussion as to the best means of keeping watch upon possible sales. What Henderson–Homberger (for there could be no real doubt of the identity) had done was, obviously, to bring down the requisite number of folio Prayer–Books — disused copies from college chapels and the like, bought ostensibly for the sake of the bindings, which were superficially like enough to the old ones — and to substitute them at his leisure for the genuine articles. A week had now passed without any public notice being taken of the theft. He would take a little time himself to find out about the rarity of the books, and would ultimately, no doubt, ‘place’ them cautiously. Between them, Davidson and Witham were in a position to know a good deal of what was passing in the book-world, and they could map out the ground pretty completely. A weak point with them at the moment was that neither of them knew under what other name or names Henderson–Homberger carried on business. But there are ways of solving these problems.
And yet all this planning proved unnecessary.
* * * *
We are transported to a London office on this same 25th of April. We find there, within closed doors, late in the day, two police inspectors, a commissionaire, and a youthful clerk. The two latter, both rather pale and agitated in appearance, are sitting on chairs and being questioned.
‘How long do you say you’ve been in this Mr Poschwitz’s employment? Six months? And what was his business? Attended sales in various parts and brought home parcels of books. Did he keep a shop anywhere? No? Disposed of ’em here and there, and sometimes to private collectors. Right. Now then, when did he go out last? Rather better than a week ago. Tell you where he was going? No? Said he was going to start next day from his private residence, and shouldn’t be at the office — that’s here, eh? — before two days: you was to attend as usual. Where is his private residence? Oh, that’s the address, Norwood way; I see. Any family? Not in this country? Now, then, what account do you give of what’s happened since he came back? Came back on the Tuesday, did he? and this is the Saturday. Bring any books? One package: where is it? In the safe: you got the key? No, to be sure, it’s open, of course. How did he seem when he got back — cheerful? Well, but how do you mean curious? Thought he might be in for an illness: he said that, did he? Odd smell got in his nose, couldn’t get rid of it: told you to let him know who wanted to see him before you let ’em in? That wasn’t usual with him? Much the same all Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Out a good deal; said he was going to the British Museum. Often went there to make inquiries in the way of his business. Walked up and down a lot in the office when he was in? Anyone call in on those days? Mostly when he was out. Anyone find him in? Oh, Mr Collinson? Who’s Mr Collinson? An old customer: know his address? All right, give it us afterwards. Well, now, what about this morning? You left Mr Poschwitz’s here at twelve and went home. Anybody see you? Commissionaire, you did? Remained at home till summoned here. Very well.
‘Now commissionaire; we have your name — Watkins. eh? Very well, make your statement: don’t go too quick, so as we can get it down.’
‘I was on duty ’ere later than usual, Mr Potwitch ’axing asked me to remain on, and ordered his lunching to be sent in, which come as ordered. I was in the lobby from eleven-thirty on, and see Mr Bligh [the clerk] leave at about twelve. After that no one come in at all except Mr Potwitch’s lunching come at one o’clock and the man left in five minutes’ time. Towards the afternoon I became tired of waitin’ and I come upstairs to this first floor. The outer door what lead to the orfice stood open, and I come up to the plate-glass door here. Mr Potwitch he was standing behind the table smoking a cigar, and he laid it down on the mantelpiece and felt in his trouser pockets and took out a key and went across to the safe. And I knocked on the glass, thinkin’ to see if he wanted me to come and take away his tray, but he didn’t take no notice, bein’ engaged with the safe door. Then he got it open and stooped down and seemed to be lifting up a package off of the floor of the safe. And then, sir, I see what looked to be like a great roll of old shabby white flannel about four to five feet high fall for’ards out of the inside of the safe right against Mr Potwitch’s shoulder as he was stooping over: and Mr Porwitch he raised himself up as it were, resting his hands on the package, and give a exclamation. And I can’t hardly expect you should take what I says, bur as true as I stand here I see this roll had a kind of a face in the upper end of it, sir. You can’t be more surprised than what I was, I can assure you, and I’ve seen a lot in me time . . . Yes, I can describe it if you wish it, sir: it was very much the same as this wall here in colour [ the wall had an earth-coloured distemper] and it had a bit of a band tied round underneath, and the eyes, well they was dry-like, and much as if there was two big spiders’ bodies in the holes . . . Hair? no, I don’t know as there was much hair to be seen: the flannel-stuff was over the top of the ’ead . . . I’m very sure it warn’t what it should have been. No, I only see it in a flash, but I took it in like a photograft — wish I hadn’t . . . Yest, sir, it fell right over on to Mr Pot-witch’s shoulder, and this face hid in his neck — yes, sir, about where the injury was — more like a ferret goin’ for a rabbit than anythink else, and he rolled over, and of course I tried to get in at the door, but as you know, sir, it were locked on the inside, and all I could do, I rung up everyone, and the surgeon come, and the police and you gentlemen, and you know as much as what I do. If you won’t be requirin’ me any more today I’d be glad to be get tin’ off home: it’s shook me up more than I thought for.’
‘Well.’ said one of the inspectors, when they were left alone, and ‘Well?’ said the other inspector: and, after a pause, ‘What’s the surgeon’s report again? You’ve got it there. Yes. Effect on the blood like the worst kind of snake-bite: death almost instantaneous. I’m glad of that for his sake; he was a nasty sight. No case for detaining this man Watkins, anyway; we know all about him. And what about this safe, now? We’d better go over it again, and, by the way, we haven’t opened that package he was busy with when he died.’
‘Well, handle it careful,’ said the other. ‘There might be this snake in it, for what you know. Get a light into the corners of the place, too. Well: there’s room for a shortish person to stand up in; but what about ventilation?’
‘Perhaps,’ said the other slowly, as he explored the safe with an electric torch, ‘perhaps they didn’t require much of that. My word! it strikes warm coming out of that place! like a vault, it is. But here, what’s this bank-like of dust all spread out into the room? That must have come there since the door was opened; it would sweep it all away if you moved it — see? Now what do you make of that?’
‘Make of it? About as much as I make of anything else in this case. One of London’s mysteries this is going to be, by what I can see, and I don’t believe a photographer’s box full of large-size old fashioned Prayer–Books is going to take us much further. For that’s just what your package is.’
It was a natural but hasty utterance. The preceding narrative shows that there was in fact plenty of material for constructing a case; and when once Messrs, Davidson and Witham had brought their end to Scotland Yard, the join-up was soon made, and the circle completed.
To the relief of Mrs Porter, the owners of Brockstone decided not to replace the books in the chapel: they repose, I believe, in a safe-deposit in town. The police have their own methods of keeping certain matters out of the newspapers: otherwise it can hardly be supposed that Watkins’s evidence about Mr Poschwitz’s death could have failed to furnish a good many headlines of a startling character to the press.
Those who spend the greater part of their time in reading or writing books are, of course, apt to take rather particular notice of accumulations of books when they come across them. They will not pass a stall, a shop, or even a bedroom-shelf without reading some title, and if they find themselves in an unfamiliar library, no host need trouble himself further about their entertainment. The putting of dispersed sets of volumes together, or the turning right way up of those which the dusting housemaid has left in an apoplectic condition, appeals to them as one of the lesser Works of Mercy. Happy in these employments, and in occasionally opening an eighteenth-century octavo, to see ‘what it is all about’, and to conclude after five minutes that it deserves the seclusion it now enjoys, I had reached the middle of a wet August afternoon at Betton Court —
‘You begin in a deeply Victorian manner,’ I said; ‘is this to continue?’
‘Remember, if you please,’ said my friend, looking at me over his spectacles, ‘that I am a Victorian by birth and education, and that the Victorian tree may not unreasonably be expected to bear Victorian fruit. Further, remember that an immense quantity of clever and thoughtful Rubbish is now being written about the Victorian age. Now,’ he went on, laying his papers on his knee, ‘that article, “The Stricken Years”, in The Times Literary Supplement the other day,-able? of course it is able; but, oh! my soul and body, do just hand it over here, will you? it’s on the table by you.’
‘I thought you were to read me something you had written,’ I said, without moving, ‘but, of course —
‘Yes, I know,’ he said. ‘Very well, then, I’ll do that first. But I should like to show you afterwards what I mean. However —’ And he lifted the sheets of paper and adjusted his spectacles.
— at Betton Court, where, generations back, two country-house libraries had been fused together, and no descendant of either stock had ever faced the task of picking them over or getting rid of duplicates. Now I am not setting out to tell of rarities I may have discovered, of Shakespeare quartos bound up in volumes of political tracts, or anything of that kind, but of an experience which befell me in the course of my search — an experience which I cannot either explain away or fit into the scheme of my ordinary life.
It was, I said, a wet August afternoon, rather windy, rather warm. Outside the window great trees were stirring and weeping. Between them were stretches of green and yellow country (for the Court stands high on a hill-side), and blue hills far off, veiled with rain. Up above was a very restless and hopeless movement of low clouds travelling northwest. I had suspended my work — if you call it work — for some minutes to stand at the window and look at these things, and at the greenhouse roof on the right with the water sliding off it, and the Church tower that rose behind that. It was all in favour of my going steadily on; no likelihood of a clearing up for hours to come. I, therefore, returned to the shelves, lifted out a set of eight or nine volumes, lettered Tracts, and conveyed them to the table for closer examination.
They were for the most part of the reign of Anne. There was a good deal of The Late Peace, The Late War, The Conduct of the Allies: there were also Letters to a Convocation Man; Sermons preached at St Michael’s, Queen hithe; Enquiries in to a late Charge of the Rt. Rev. the Lord Bishop of Winchester (or more probably Winton) to his Clergy: things all very lively once, and indeed still keeping so much of their old sting that I was tempted to betake myself into an arm-chair in the window, and give them more time than I had intended. Besides, I was somewhat tired by the day. The Church clock struck four, and it really was four, for in 1889 there was no saving of daylight.
So I settled myself. And first I glanced over some of the War pamphlets, and pleased myself by trying to pick out Swift by his style from among the undistinguished. But the War pamphlets needed more knowledge of the geography of the Low Countries than I had. I turned to the Church, and read several pages of what the Dean of Canterbury said to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge on the occasion of their anniversary meeting in 1711. When I turned over to a Letter from a Beneficed Clergyman in the Country to the Bishop of C——r, I was becoming languid, and I gazed for some moments at the following sentence without surprise:
‘This Abuse (for I think myself justified in calling it by that name) is one which I am persuaded Your Lordship would (if ’twere known to you) exert your utmost efforts to do away. But I am also persuaded that you know no more of its existence than (in the words of the Country Song)
That which walks in Betton Wood
Knows why it walks or why it cries.’
Then indeed I did sit up in my chair, and run my finger along the lines to make sure that I had read them right. There was no mistake. Nothing more was to be gathered from the rest of the pamphlet. The next paragraph definitely changed the subject: ‘But I have said enough upon this Topick’ were its opening words. So discreet, too, was the namelessness of the Beneficed Clergyman that he refrained even from initials, and had his letter printed in London.
The riddle was of a kind that might faintly interest anyone: to me, who have dabbled a good deal in works of folk-lore, it was really exciting. I was set upon solving it — on finding out, I mean, what story lay behind it; and, at least, I felt myself lucky in one point, that, whereas I might have come on the paragraph in some College Library far away, here I was at Betton, on the very scene of action.
The Church clock struck five, and a single stroke on a gong followed. This, I knew, meant tea. I heaved myself out of the deep chair, and obeyed the summons.
My host and I were alone at the Court. He came in soon, wet from a round of landlord’s errands, and with pieces of local news which had to be passed on before I could make an opportunity of asking whether there was a particular place in the parish that was still known as Betton Wood.
‘Betton Wood,’ he said, ‘was a short mile away, just on the crest of Betton Hill, and my father stubbed up the last bit of it when it paid better to grow corn than scrub oaks. Why do you want to know about Betton Wood?’
‘Because,’ I said, ‘in an old pamphlet I was reading just now, there are two lines of a country song which mention it, and they sound as if there was a story belonging to them. Someone says that someone else knows no more of whatever it may be —
Than that which walks in Betton Wood
Knows why it walks or why it cries.’
‘Goodness,’ said Philipson, ‘I wonder whether that was why . . . I must ask old Mitchell.’ He muttered something else to himself, and took some more tea, thoughtfully.
‘Whether that was why —?’ I said.
‘Yes, I was going to say, whether that was why my father had the Wood stubbed up. I said just now it was to get more plough-land, but I don’t really know if it was. I don’t believe he ever broke it up: it’s rough pasture at this moment. But there’s one old chap at least who’d remember something of it — old Mitchell.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Blest if I don’t go down there and ask him. I don’t think I’ll take you,’ he went on; ‘he’s not so likely to tell anything he thinks is odd if there’s a stranger by.’
‘Well, mind you remember every single thing he does tell. As for me, if it clears up, I shall go out, and if it doesn’t, I shall go on with the books.’
It did clear up, sufficiently at least to make me think it worth while to walk up the nearest hill and look over the country. I did not know the lie of the land; it was the first visit I had paid to Philipson, and this was the first day of it. So I went down the garden and through the wet shrubberies with a very open mind, and offered no resistance to the indistinct impulse — was it, however, so very indistinct? — which kept urging me to bear to the left whenever there was a forking of the path. The result was that after ten minutes or more of dark going between dripping rows of box and laurel and privet, I was confronted by a stone arch in the Gothic style set in the stone wall which encircled the whole demesne. The door was fastened by a spring-lock, and I took the precaution of leaving this on the jar as I passed out into the road. That road I crossed, and entered a narrow lane between hedges which led upward; and that lane I pursued at a leisurely pace for as much as half a mile, and went on to the field to which it led. I was now on a good point of vantage for taking in the situation of the Court, the village, and the environment; and I leant upon a gate and gazed westward and downward.
I think we must all know the landscapes — are they by Birket Foster, or somewhat earlier? — which, in the form of wood-cuts, decorate the volumes of poetry that lay on the drawing-room tables of our fathers and grandfathers — volumes in ‘Art Cloth, embossed bindings’; that strikes me as being the right phrase. I confess myself an admirer of them, and especially of those which show the peasant leaning over a gate in a hedge and surveying, at the bottom of a downward slope, the village church spire — embosomed amid venerable trees, and a fertile plain intersected by hedgerows, and bounded by distant hills, behind which the orb of day is sinking (or it may be rising) amid level clouds illumined by his dying (or nascent) ray. The expressions employed here are those which seem appropriate to the pictures I have in mind; and were there opportunity, I would try to work in the Vale, the Grove, the Cot, and the Flood. Anyhow, they are beautiful to me, these landscapes, and it was just such a one that I was now surveying. It might have come straight out of Gems of Sacred Song, selected by a Lady and given as a birthday present to Eleanor Philipson in 1852 by her attached friend Millicent Graves. All at once I turned as if I had been stung. There thrilled into my right ear and pierced my head a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified — the kind of thing that makes one wonder if something has not given way in one’s brain. I held my breath, and covered my ear, and shivered. Something in the circulation: another minute or two, I thought, and I return home. But I must fix the view a little more firmly in my mind. Only, when I turned to it again, the taste was gone out of it. The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields, and when the clock bell in the Church tower struck seven, I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest, and scents of flowers and woods on evening air; and of how someone on a farm a mile or two off would be saying ‘How clear Betton bell sounds tonight after the rain!’; but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life. And just then into my left ear — close as if lips had been put within an inch of my head, the frightful scream came thrilling again.
There was no mistake possible now. It was from outside. ‘With no language but a cry’ was the thought that flashed into my mind. Hideous it was beyond anything I had heard or have heard since, but I could read no emotion in it, and doubted if I could read any intelligence. All its effect was to take away every vestige, every possibility, of enjoyment, and make this no place to stay in one moment more. Of course there was nothing to be seen: but I was convinced that, if I waited, the thing would pass me again on its aimless, endless beat, and I could not bear the notion of a third repetition. I hurried back to the lane and down the hill. But when I came to the arch in the wall I stopped. Could I be sure of my way among those dank alleys, which would be danker and darker now! No, I confessed to myself that I was afraid: so jarred were all my nerves with the cry on the hill that I really felt I could not afford to be startled even by a little bird in a bush, or a rabbit. I followed the road which followed the wall, and I was not sorry when I came to the gate and the lodge, and descried Philipson coming up towards it from the direction of the village.
‘And where have you been?’ said he.
‘I took that lane that goes up the hill opposite the stone arch in the wall.’
‘Oh! did you? Then you’ve been very near where Betton Wood used to be: at least, if you followed it up to the top, and out into the field.’
And if the reader will believe it, that was the first time that I put two and two together. Did I at once tell Philipson what had happened to me? I did not. I have not had other experiences of the kind which are called super-natural, or — normal, or — physical, but, though I knew very well I must speak of this one before long, I was not at all anxious to do so; and I think I have read that this is a common case.
So all I said was: ‘Did you see the old man you meant to?’
‘Old Mitchell? Yes, I did; and got something of a story out of him. I’ll keep it till after dinner. It really is rather odd.’
So when we were settled after dinner he began to report, faithfully, as he said, the dialogue that had taken place. Mitchell, not far off eighty years old, was in his elbow-chair. The married daughter with whom he lived was in and out preparing for tea.
After the usual salutations: ‘Mitchell, I want you to tell me something about the Wood.’
‘What Wood’s that, Master Reginald?’
‘Betton Wood. Do you remember it?’
Mitchell slowly raised his hand and pointed an accusing forefinger. ‘It were your father done away with Betton Wood, Master Reginald, I can tell you that much.’
‘Well, I know it was, Mitchell. You needn’t look at me as if it were my fault.’
‘Your fault? No, I says it were your father done it, before your time.’
‘Yes, and I dare say if the truth was known, it was your father that advised him to do it, and I want to know why.’ Mitchell seemed a little amused. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘my father were woodman to your father and your grandfather before him, and if he didn’t know what belonged to his business, he’d oughter done. And if he did give advice that way, I suppose he might have had his reasons, mightn’t he now?’
‘Of course he might, and I want you to tell me what they were.’
‘Well now, Master Reginald, whatever makes you think as I know what his reasons might ’a been I don’t know how many year ago?’
‘Well, to be sure, it is a long time, and you might easily have forgotten, if ever you knew. I suppose the only thing is for me to go and ask old Ellis what he can recollect about it.’
That had the effect I hoped for.
‘Old Ellis!’ he growled. ‘First time ever I hear anyone say old Ellis were any use for any purpose. I should ’a thought you know’d better than that yourself, Master Reginald. What do you suppose old Ellis can tell you better’n what I can about Betton Wood, and what call have he got to be put afore me, I should like to know. His father warn’t woodman on the place: he were ploughman — that’s what he was, and so anyone could tell you what knows; anyone could tell you that, I says.’
‘Just so, Mitchell, but if you know all about Betton Wood and won’t tell me, why, I must do the next best I can, and try and get it out of somebody else; and old Ellis has been on the place very nearly as long as you have.’
‘That he ain’t, not by eighteen months! Who says I wouldn’t tell you nothing about the Wood? I ain’t no objection; only it’s a funny kind of a tale, and ‘taint right to my thinkin’ it should be all about the parish. You, Lizzie, do you keep in your kitchen a bit. Me and Master Reginald wants to have a word or two private. But one thing I’d like to know, Master Reginald, what come to put you upon asking about it today?’
‘Oh! well, I happened to hear of an old saying about something that walks in Betton Wood. And I wondered if that had anything to do with its being cleared away: that’s all.’
‘Well, you was in the right, Master Reginald, however you come to hear of it, and I believe I can tell you the rights of it better than anyone in this parish, let alone old Ellis. You see it came about this way: that the shortest road to Allen’s Farm laid through the Wood, and when we was little my poor mother she used to go so many times in the week to the farm to fetch a quart of milk, because Mr Allen what had the farm then under your father, he was a good man, and anyone that had a young family to bring up, he was willing to allow ’em so much in the week. But never you mind about that now. And my poor mother she never liked to go through the Wood, because there was a lot of talk in the place, and sayings like what you spoke about just now. But every now and again, when she happened to be late with her work, she’d have to take the short road through the Wood, and as sure as ever she did, she’d come home in a rare state. I remember her and my father talking about it, and he’d say, “Well, but it can’t do you no harm, Emma,” and she’d say, “Oh! but you haven’t an idear of it, George. Why, it went right through my head,” she says, “and I came over all bewildered-like, and as if I didn’t know where I was. You see, George,” she says, “it ain’t as if you was about there in the dusk. You always goes there in the daytime, now don’t you?” and he says: “Why, to be sure I do; do you take me for a fool?” And so they’d go on. And time passed by, and I think it wore her out, because, you understand, it warn’t no use to go for the milk not till the afternoon, and she wouldn’t never send none of us children instead, for fear we should get a fright. Nor she wouldn’t tell us about it herself. “No,” she says, “it’s bad enough for me. I don’t want no one else to go through it, nor yet hear talk about it.” But one time I recollect she says, “Well, first it’s a rustling-like all along in the bushes, coming very quick, either towards me or after me according to the time, and then there comes this scream as appears to pierce right through from the one ear to the other, and the later I am coming through, the more like I am to hear it twice over; but thanks be, I never yet heard it the three times.” And then I asked her, and I says: “Why, that seems like someone walking to and fro all the time, don’t it?” and she says, “Yes, it do, and whatever it is she wants, I can’t think”: and I says, “Is it a woman, mother?” and she says, “Yes, I’ve heard it is a woman.”
‘Anyway, the end of it was my father he spoke to your father, and told him the Wood was a bad wood. “There’s never a bit of game in it, and there’s never a bird’s nest there,” he says, “and it ain’t no manner of use to you.” And after a lot of talk, your father he come and see my mother about it, and he see she warn’t one of these silly women as gets nervish about nothink at all, and he made up his mind there was somethink in it, and after that he asked about in the neighbourhood, and I believe he made out somethink, and wrote it down in a paper what very like you’ve got up at the Court, Master Reginald. And then he gave the order, and the Wood was stubbed up. They done all the work in the daytime, I recollect, and was never there after three o’clock.’ ‘Didn’t they find anything to explain it, Mitchell? No bones or anything of that kind?’
‘Nothink at all, Master Reginald, only the mark of a hedge and ditch along the middle, much about where the quickset hedge run now; and with all the work they done, if there had been anyone put away there, they was bound to find ’em. But I don’t know whether it done much good, after all. People here don’t seem to like the place no better than they did afore.’
‘That’s about what I got out of Mitchell,’ said Philipson, ‘and as far as any explanation goes, it leaves us very much where we were. I must see if I can’t find that paper.’
‘Why didn’t your father ever tell you about the business?’ I said.
‘He died before I went to school, you know, and I imagine he didn’t want to frighten us children by any such story. I can remember being shaken and slapped by my nurse for running up that lane towards the Wood when we were coming back rather late one winter afternoon: but in the daytime no one interfered with our going into the Wood if we wanted to — only we never did want.’
‘Hm!’ I said, and then, ‘Do you you think you’ll be able to find that paper that your father wrote?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I do. I expect it’s no farther away than that cupboard behind you. There’s a bundle or two of things specially put aside, most of which I’ve looked through at various times, and I know there’s one envelope labelled Betton Wood: but as there was no Betton Wood any more, I never thought it would be worth while to open it, and I never have. We’ll do it now, though.’
‘Before you do,’ I said (I was still reluctant, but I thought this was perhaps the moment for my disclosure), ‘I’d better tell you I think Mitchell was right when he doubted if clearing away the Wood had put things straight.’ And I gave the account you have heard already: I need not say Philipson was interested. ‘Still there?’ he said. ‘It’s amazing. Look here, will you come out there with me now, and see what happens?’
‘I will do no such thing,’ I said, ‘and if you knew the feeling, you’d be glad to walk ten miles in the opposite direction. Don’t talk of it. Open your envelope, and let’s hear what your father made out.’
He did so, and read me the three or four pages of jottings which it contained. At the top was written a motto from Scott’s Glenfinlas, which seemed to me well-chosen:
Where walks, they say, the shrieking ghost.
Then there were notes of his talk with Mitchell’s mother, from which I extract only this much. ‘I asked her if she never thought she saw anything to account for the sounds she heard. She told me, no more than once, on the darkest evening she ever came through the Wood; and then she seemed forced to look behind her as the rustling came in the bushes, and she thought she saw something all in tatters with the two arms held out in front of it coming on very fast, and at that she ran for the stile, and tore her gown all to finders getting over it.’
Then he had gone to two other people whom he found very shy of talking. They seemed to think, among other things, that it reflected discredit on the parish. However, one, Mrs Emma Frost, was prevailed upon to repeat what her mother had told her. ‘They say it was a lady of title that married twice over, and her first husband went by the name of Brown, or it might have been Bryan [‘Yes, there were Bryans at the Court before it came into our family,’ Philipson put in], and she removed her neighbour’s landmark: leastways she took in a fair piece of the best pasture in Betton parish what belonged by rights to two children as hadn’t no one to speak for them, and they say years after she went from bad to worse, and made out false papers to gain thousands of pounds up in London, and at last they was proved in law to be false, and she would have been tried and put to death very like, only she escaped away for the time. But no one can’t avoid the curse that’s laid on them that removes the landmark, and so we take it she can’t leave Betton before someone take and put it right again.’
At the end of the paper there was a note to this effect. ‘I regret that I cannot find any clue to previous owners of the fields adjoining the Wood. I do not hesitate to say that if I could discover their representatives, I should do my best to indemnify them for the wrong done to them in years now long past: for it is undeniable that the Wood is very curiously disturbed in the manner described by the people of the place. In my present ignorance alike of the extent of the land wrongly appropriated, and of the rightful owners, I am reduced to keeping a separate note of the profits derived from this part of the estate, and my custom has been to apply the sum that would represent the annual yield of about five acres to the common benefit of the parish and to charitable uses: and I hope that those who succeed me may see fit to continue this practice.’
So much for the elder Mr Philipson’s paper. To those who, like myself, are readers of the State Trials it will have gone far to illuminate the situation. They will remember how between the years 1678 and 1684 the Lady Ivy, formerly Theodosia Bryan, was alternately Plaintiff and Defendant in a series of trials in which she was trying to establish a claim against the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s for a considerable and very valuable tract of land in Shadwell: how in the last of those trials, presided over by L. C. J. Jeffreys, it was proved up to the hilt that the deeds upon which she based her claim were forgeries executed under her orders: and how, after an information for perjury and forgery was issued against her, she disappeared completely — so completely, indeed, that no expert has ever been able to tell me what became of her.
Does not the story I have told suggest that she may still be heard of on the scene of one of her earlier and more successful exploits?
* * * *
‘That,’ said my friend, as he folded up his papers, ‘is a very faithful record of my one extraordinary experience. And now —’
But I had so many questions to ask him, as for instance, whether his friend had found the proper owner of the land, whether he had done anything about the hedge, whether the sounds were ever heard now, what was the exact title and date of his pamphlet, etc., etc., that bed-time came and passed, without his having an opportunity to revert to the Literary Supplement of The Times.
[Thanks to the researches of Sir John Fox, in his book on The Lady Ivie’s Trial (Oxford, 1929), we now know that my heroine died in her bed in 1695, having — heaven knows how — been acquitted of the forgery, for which she had undoubtedly been responsible.]
How pleasant it can be, alone in a first-class railway carriage, on the first day of a holiday that is to be fairly long, to dawdle through a bit of English country that is unfamiliar, stopping at every station. You have a map open on your knee, and you pick out the villages that lie to right and left by their church towers. You marvel at the complete stillness that attends your stoppage at the stations, broken only by a footstep crunching the gravel. Yet perhaps that is best experienced after sundown, and the traveler I have in mind was making his leisurely progress on a sunny afternoon in the latter half of June.
He was in the depths of the country. I need not particularise further than to say that if you divided the map of England into four quarters, he would have been found in the south-western of them.
He was a man of academic pursuits, and his term was just over. He was on his way to meet a new friend, older than himself. The two of them had met first on an official inquiry in town, had found that they had many tastes and habits in common, liked each other, and the result was an invitation from Squire Richards to Mr. Fanshawe which was now taking effect.
The journey ended about five o’clock. Fanshawe was told by a cheerful country porter that the car from the Hall had been up to the station and left a message that something had to be fetched from half a mile farther on, and would the gentleman please to wait a few minutes till it came back? ‘But I see,’ continued the porter, ‘as you’ve got your bystile, and very like you’d find it pleasanter to ride up to the ‘all yourself. Straight up the road ‘ere, and then first turn to the left — it ain’t above two mile — and I’ll see as your things is put in the car for
You’ll excuse me mentioning it, only I though it were a nice evening for a ride. Yes, sir, very seasonable weather for the haymakers: met me see, I have your bike ticket. Thank you, sir; much obliged: you can’t miss your road, etc., etc.’
The two miles to the Hall were just what was needed, after the day in the train, to dispel somnolence and impart a wish for tea. The Hall, when sighted, also promised just what was needed in the way of a quiet resting-place after days of sitting on committees and college-meetings. It was neither excitingly old nor depressingly new. Plastered walls, sash-windows, old trees, smooth lawns, were the features which Fanshawe noticed as he came up the drive. Squire Richards, a burly man of sixty odd, was awaiting him in the porch with evident pleasure ‘Tea first,’ he said, ‘or would you like a longer drink? No? All right, tea’s ready in the garden. Come along, they’ll put your machine away. I always have tea under the lime-tree by the stream on a day like this.’ Nor could you ask for a better place. Midsummer afternoon, shade and scent of a vast lime-tree, cool, swirling water within five yards. It was long before either of them suggested a move. But about six, Mr. Richards sat up, knocked out his pipe, and said: ‘Look here, it’s cool enough now to think of a stroll, if you’re inclined? All right: then what I suggest is that we walk up the park and get on to the hill-side, where we can look over the country. We’ll have a map, and I’ll show you where things are; and you can go off on your machine, or we can take the car, according as you want exercise or not. If you’re ready, we can start now and be back well before eight, taking it very easy.’
‘I’m ready. I should like my stick, though, and have you got any field-glasses? I lent mine to a man a week ago, and he’s gone off Lord knows where and taken them with him.’
Mr. Richards pondered. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have, but they’re not things I use myself, and I don’t know whether the ones I have will suit you. They’re old-fashioned, and about twice as heavy as they make ‘em now. You’re welcome to have them, but I won’t carry them. By the way, what do you want to drink after dinner?’
Protestations that anything would do were overruled, and a satisfactory settlement was reached on the way to the front hall, where Mr. Fanshawe found his stick, and Mr. Richards, after thoughtful pinching of his lower lip, resorted to a drawer in the hall-table, extracted a key, crossed to a cupboard in the panelling, opened it, took a box from the shelf, and put it on the table. ‘The glasses are in there,’ he said, ‘and there’s some dodge of opening it, but I’ve forgotten what it is. You try.’ Mr. Fanshawe accordingly tried. There was no keyhole, and the box was solid, heavy and smooth: it seemed obvious that some part of it would have to be pressed before anything could happen. ‘The corners,’ said he to himself, ‘are the likely places; and infernally sharp corners they are too,’ he added, as he put his thumb in his mouth after exerting force on a lower corner.
‘What’s the matter?’ said the Squire.
‘Why, your disgusting Borgia box has scratched me, drat it,’ said Fanshawe. The Squire chuckled unfeelingly. ‘Well, you’ve got it open, anyway,’ he said.
‘So I have! Well, I don’t begrudge a drop of blood in a good cause, and here are the glasses. They are pretty heavy, as you said, but I think I’m equal to carrying them.’
‘Ready?’ said the Squire. ‘Come on then; we go out by the garden.’
So they did, and passed out into the park, which sloped decidedly upwards to the hill which, as Fanshawe had seen from the train, dominated the country. It was a spur of a larger range that lay behind. On the way, the Squire, who was great on earthworks, pointed out various spots where he detected or imagined traces of war-ditches and the like. ‘And here,’ he said, stopping on a more or less level plot with a ring of large trees, ‘is Baxter’s Roman villa.’ ‘Baxter?’ said Mr. Fanshawe.
‘I forgot; you don’t know about him. He was the old chap I got those glasses from. I believe he made them. He was an old watch-maker down in the village, a great antiquary. My father gave him leave to grub about where he liked; and when he made a find he used to lend him a man or two to help him with the digging. He got a surprising lot of things together, and when he died — I dare say it’s ten or fifteen years ago — I bought the whole lot and gave them to the town museum. We’ll run in one of these days, and look over them. The glasses came to me with the rest, but of course I kept them. If you look at them, you’ll see they’re more or less amateur work — the body of them; naturally the lenses weren’t his making.’
‘Yes, I see they are just the sort of thing that a clever workman in a different line of business might turn out. But I don’t see why he made them so heavy. And did Baxter actually find a Roman villa here?’
‘Yes, there’s a pavement turfed over, where we’re standing: it was too rough and plain to be worth taking up, but of course there are drawings of it: and the small things and pottery that turned up were quite good of their kind. An ingenious chap, old Baxter: he seemed to have a quite out-of-the-way instinct for these things. He was invaluable to our archæologists. He used to shut up his shop for days at a time, and wander off over the district, marking down places, where he scented anything, on the ordnance map; and he kept a book with fuller notes of the places. Since his death, a good many of them have been sampled, and there’s always been something to justify him.’
‘What a good man!’ said Mr. Fanshawe.
‘Good?’ said the Squire, pulling up brusquely.
‘I meant useful to have about the place,’ said Mr. Fanshawe. ‘But was he a villain?’
‘I don’t know about that either,’ said the Squire; ‘but all I can say is, if he was good, he wasn’t lucky. And he wasn’t liked: I didn’t like him,’ he added, after a moment.
‘Oh?’ said Fanshawe interrogatively.
‘No, I didn’t; but that’s enough about Baxter: besides, this is the stiffest bit, and I don’t want to talk and walk as well.’
Indeed it was hot, climbing a slippery grass slope that evening. ‘I told you I should take you the short way,’ panted the Squire, ‘and I wish I hadn’t. However, a bath won’t do us any harm when we get back. Here we are, and there’s the seat.’
A small clump of old Scotch firs crowned the top of the hill; and, at the edge of it, commanding the cream of the view, was a wide and solid seat, on which the two disposed themselves, and wiped their brows, and regained breath.
‘Now, then,’ said the Squire, as soon as he was in a condition to talk connectedly, ‘this is where your glasses come in. But you’d better take a general look round first. My word! I’ve never seen the view look better.’
Writing as I am now with a winter wind flapping against dark windows and a rushing, tumbling sea within a hundred yards, I find it hard to summon up the feelings and words which will put my reader in possession of the June evening and the lovely English landscape of which the Squire was speaking.
Across a broad level plain they looked upon ranges of great hills, whose uplands — some green, some furred with woods — caught the light of a sun, westering but not yet low. And all the plain was fertile, though the river which traversed it was nowhere seen. ‘There were copses, green wheat, hedges and pasture-land: the little compact white moving cloud marked the evening train. Then the eye picked out red farms and grey houses, and nearer home scattered cottages, and then the Hall, nestled under the hill. The smoke of chimneys was very blue and straight. There was a smell of hay in the air: there were wild roses on bushes hard by. It was the acme of summer.
After some minutes of silent contemplation, the Squire began to point out the leading features, the hills and valleys, and told where the towns and villages lay. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘with the glasses you’ll be able to pick out Fulnaker Abbey. Take a line across that big green field, then over the wood beyond it, then over the farm on the knoll.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Fanshawe. ‘I’ve got it. What a fine tower!’
‘You must have got the wrong direction,’ said the Squire; ‘there’s not much of a tower about there that I remember, unless it’s Oldbourne Church that you’ve got hold of. And if you call that a fine tower, you’re easily pleased.’
‘Well, I do call it a fine tower,’ said Fanshawe, the glasses still at his eyes, ‘whether it’s Oldbourne or any other. And it must belong to a largish church; it looks to me like a central tower — four big pinnacles a the corners, and four smaller ones between. I must certainly go over there. How far is it?’
‘Oldbourne’s about nine miles, or less,’ said the Squire. ‘It’s a long time since I’ve been there, but I don’t remember thinking much of it. Now I’ll show you another thing.’
Fanshawe had lowered the glasses, and was still gazing in the Oldbourne direction. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I can’t make out anything with the naked eye. What was it you were going to show me?’
‘A good deal more to the left — it oughtn’t to be difficult to find. Do you see a rather sudden knob of a hill with a thick wood on top of it? It’s in a dead line with that single tree on the top of the big ridge.’
‘I do,’ said Fanshawe, ‘and I believe I could tell you without much difficulty what it’s called.’
‘Could you now?’ said the Squire. ‘Say on.’
‘Why, Gallows Hill,’ was the answer.
‘How did you guess that?’
‘Well, if you don’t want it guessed, you shouldn’t put up a dummy gibbet and a man hanging on it.’
‘What’s that?’ said the Squire abruptly. ‘There’s nothing on that hill but wood.’
‘On the contrary,’ said Fanshawe, ‘there’s a largish expanse of grass on the top and your dummy gibbet in the middle; and I thought there was something on it when I looked first. But I see there’s nothing — or is there? I can’t be sure.’
‘Nonsense, nonsense, Fanshawe, there’s no such thing as a dummy gibbet, or any other sort, on that hill. And it’s thick wood — a fairly young plantation. I was in it myself not a year ago. Hand me the glasses, though I don’t suppose I can see anything.’ After a pause: ‘No, I thought not: they won’t show a thing.’
Meanwhile Fanshawe was scanning the hill — it might be only two or three miles away. ‘Well, it’s very odd,’ he said, ‘it does look exactly like a wood without the glass.’ He took it again. ‘That is one of the oddest effects. The gibbet is perfectly plain, and the grass field, and there even seem to be people on it, and carts, or a cart, with men in it. And yet when I take the glass away, there’s nothing. It must be something in the way this afternoon light falls: I shall come up earlier in the day when the sun’s full on it.’
‘Did you say you saw people and a cart on that hill?’ said the Squire incredulously. ‘What should they be doing there at this time of day, even if the trees have been felled? Do talk sense — look again.’
‘Well, I certainly thought I saw them. Yes, I should say there were a few, just clearing off. And now — by Jove, it does look like something hanging on the gibbet. But these glasses are so beastly heavy I can’t hold them steady for long. Anyhow, you can take it from me there’s no wood. And if you’ll show me the road on the map, I’ll go there tomorrow.’
The Squire remained brooding for some little time. At last he rose and said, ‘Well, I suppose that will be the best way to settle it. And now we’d better be getting back. Bath and dinner is my idea.’ And on the way back he was not very communicative.
They returned through the garden, and went into the front hall to leave sticks, etc., in their due place. And here they found the aged butler Patten evidently in a state of some anxiety. ‘Beg pardon, Master Henry,’ he began at once, ‘but someone’s been up to mischief here, I’m much afraid.’ He pointed to the open box which had contained the glasses.
‘Nothing worse than that, Patten?’ said the Squire. ‘Mayn’t I take out my own glasses and lend them to a friend? Bought with my own money, you recollect? At old Baxter’s sale, eh?’
Patten bowed, unconvinced. ‘Oh, very well, Master Henry, as long as you know who it was. Only I thought proper to name it, for I didn’t think that box’d been off its shelf since you first put it there; and, if you’ll excuse me, after what happened . . . ‘ The voice was lowered, and the rest was not audible to Fanshawe. The Squire replied with a few words and a gruff laugh, and called on Fanshawe to come and be shown his room. And I do not think that anything else happened that night which bears on my story.
Except, perhaps, the sensation which invaded Fanshawe in the small hours that something had been let out which ought not to have been let out. It came into his dreams. He was walking in a garden which he seemed half to know, and stopped in front of a rockery made of old wrought stones, pieces of window tracery from a church, and even bits of figures. One of these moved his curiosity: it seemed to be a sculptured capital with scenes carved on it. He felt he must pull it out, and worked away, and, with an ease that surprised him, moved the stones that obscured it aside, and pulled out the block. As he did so, a tin label fell down by his feet with a little clatter. He picked it up and read on it: ‘On no account move this stone. Yours sincerely, J. Patten.’ As often happens in dreams, he felt that this injunction was of extreme importance; and with an anxiety that amounted to anguish he looked to see if the stone had really been shifted. Indeed it had; in fact, he could not see it anywhere. The removal had disclosed the mouth of a burrow, and he bent down to look into it. Something stirred in the blackness, and then, to his intense horror, a hand emerged — a clean right hand in a neat cull and coat-sleeve, just in the attitude of a hand that means to shake yours. He wondered whether it would not be rude to let it alone. But, as he looked at it, it began to grow hairy and dirty and thin, and also to change its pose and stretch out as if to take hold of his leg. At that he dropped all thought of politeness, decided to run, screamed and woke himself up.
This was the dream he remembered; but it seemed to him (as, again, it often does) that there had been others of the same import before, but not so insistent. He lay awake for some little time, fixing the details of the last dream in his mind, and wondering in particular what the figures had been which he had seen or half seen on the carved capital. Something quite incongruous, he felt sure; but that was the most he could recall.
Whether because of the dream, or because it was the first day of his holiday, he did not get up very early; nor did he at once plunge into the exploration of the country. He spent a morning, half lazy, half instructive, in looking over the volumes of the County Archæological Society’s transactions, in which were many contributions from Mr. Baxter on finds of flint implements, Roman sites, ruins of monastic establishments — in fact, most departments of archæology. They were written in an odd, pompous, only half-educated style. If the man had had more early schooling, thought Fanshawe, he would have been a very distinguished antiquary; or he might have been (he thus qualified his opinion a little later), but for a certain love of opposition and controversy, and, yes, a patronising tone as of one possessing superior knowledge, which left an unpleasant taste. He might have been a very respectable artist. There was an imaginary restoration and elevation of a priory church which was very well conceived. A fine pinnacled central tower was a conspicuous feature of this; it reminded Fanshawe of that which he had seen from the hill, and which the Squire had told him must be Oldbourne. But it was not Oldbourne; it was Fulnaker Priory. ‘Oh, well,’ he said to himself, ‘I suppose Oldbourne Church may have been built by Fulnaker monks, and Baxter has copied Oldbourne tower. Anything about it in the letterpress? Ah, I see it was published after his death — found among his papers.’
After lunch the Squire asked Fanshawe what he meant to do.
‘Well,’ said Fanshawe, ‘I think 1 shall go out on my bike about four as far as Oldbourne and back by Gallows Hill. That ought to be a round of about fifteen miles, oughtn’t it?’
‘About that,’ said the Squire, ‘and you’ll pass Lambsfield and Wanstone, both of which are worth looking at. There’s a little glass at Lambsfield and the stone at Wanstone.’
‘Good,’ said Fanshawe, ‘I’ll get tea somewhere, and may I take the glasses? I’ll strap them on my bike, on the carrier.’
‘Of course, if you like,’ said the Squire. ‘I really ought to have some better ones. If I go into the town today, I’ll see if 1 can pick up some.’ ‘Why should you trouble to do that if you can’t use them yourself?’ said Fanshawe.
‘Oh, I don’t know; one ought to have a decent pair; and — well, old Patten doesn’t think those are fit to use.’
‘Is he a judge?’
‘He’s got some tale: I don’t know: something about old Baxter. I’ve promised to let him tell me about it. It seems very much on his mind since last night.’
‘Why that? Did he have a nightmare like me?’
‘He had something: he was looking an old man this morning, and he said he hadn’t closed an eye.’
‘Well, let him save up his tale till I come back.’
‘Very well, I will if I can. Look here, are you going to be late? If you get a puncture eight miles off and have to walk home, what then? I don’t trust these bicycles: I shall tell them to give us cold things to eat.’
‘I shan’t mind that, whether I’m late or early. But I’ve got things to mend punctures with. And now I’m off.’
It was just as well that the Squire had made that arrangement about a cold supper, Fanshawe thought, and not for the first time, as he wheeled his bicycle up the drive about nine o’clock. So also the Squire thought and said, several times, as he met him in the hall, rather pleased at the confirmation of his want of faith in bicycles than sympathetic with his hot, weary, thirsty, and indeed haggard, friend. In fact, the kindest thing he found to say was: ‘You’ll want a long drink tonight? Cider-cup do? All right. Hear that, Patten? Cider-cup, iced, lots of it.’ Then to Fanshawe, ‘Don’t be all night over your bath.’
By half-past nine they were at dinner, and Fanshawe was reporting progress, if progress it might be called.
‘I got to Lambsfield very smoothly, and saw the glass. It is very interesting stuff, but there’s a lot of lettering I couldn’t read.’ ‘Not with glasses?’ said the Squire.
‘Those glasses of yours are no manner of use inside a church — or inside anywhere, I suppose, for that matter. But the only places I took ‘em into were churches.’
‘H’m! Well, go on,’ said the Squire.
‘However, I took some sort of a photograph of the window, and I dare say an enlargement would show what I want. Then Wanstone; I should think that stone was a very out-of-the-way thing, only I don’t know about that class of antiquities. Has anybody opened the mound it stands on?’
‘Baxter wanted to, but the farmer wouldn’t let him.’
‘Oh, well, I should think it would be worth doing. Anyhow, the next thing was Fulnaker and Oldbourne. You know, it’s very odd about that tower I saw from the hill. Oldbourne Church is nothing like it, and of course there’s nothing over thirty feet high at Fulnaker, though you can see it had a central tower. I didn’t tell you, did I? that Baxter’s fancy drawing of Fulnaker shows a tower exactly like the one I saw.’
‘So you thought, I dare say,’ put in the Squire.
‘No, it wasn’t a case of thinking. The picture actually reminded me of what I’d seen, and I made sure it was Oldbourne, well before I looked at the title.’
‘Well, Baxter had a very fair idea of architecture. I dare say what’s left made it easy for him to draw the right sort of tower.’
‘That may be it, of course, but I’m doubtful if even a professional could have got it so exactly right. There’s absolutely nothing left at Fulnaker but the bases of the piers which supported it. However, that isn’t the oddest thing.’
‘What about Gallows Hill?’ said the Squire. ‘Here, Patten, listen to this. I told you what Mr. Fanshawe said he saw from the hill.’
‘Yes, Master Henry, you did; and I can’t say I was so much surprised, considering.’
‘All right, all right. You keep that till afterwards. We want to hear what Mr. Fanshawe saw today. Go on, Fanshawe. You turned to come back by Ackford and Thorfield, I suppose?’
‘Yes, and I looked into both the churches. Then I got to the turning which goes to the top of Gallows Hill; I saw that if I wheeled my machine over the field at the top of the hill I could join the home road on this side. It was about half-past six when I got to the top of the hill, and there was a gate on my right, where it ought to be, leading into the belt of plantation.’
‘You hear that, Patten? A belt, he says.’
‘So I thought it was — a belt. But it wasn’t. You were quite right, and I was hopelessly wrong. I cannot understand it. The whole top is planted quite thick. Well, I went on into this wood, wheeling and dragging my bike, expecting every minute to come to a clearing, and then my misfortunes began. Thorns, I suppose; first I realised that the front tyre was slack, then the back. I couldn’t stop to do more than try to find the punctures and mark them; but even that was hopeless. So I ploughed on, and the farther I went, the less I liked the place.’
‘Not much poaching in that cover, eh, Patten?’ said the Squire. ‘No, indeed, Master Henry: there’s very few cares to go —’ ‘No, I know: never mind that now. Go on, Fanshawe.’ ‘I don’t blame anybody for not caring to go there. I know I had all the fancies one least likes: steps crackling over twigs behind me, indistinct people stepping behind trees in front of me, yes, and even a hand laid on my shoulder. I pulled up very sharp at that and looked round, but there really was no branch or bush that could have done it. Then, when I was just about at the middle of the plot, I was convinced that there was someone looking down on me from above — and not with any pleasant intent. I stopped again, or at least slackened my pace, to look up. And as I did, down I came, and barked my shins abominably on, what do you think? a block of stone with a big square hole in the top of it. And within a few paces there were two others just like it. The three were set in a triangle. Now, do you make out what they were put there for?’
‘I think I can,’ said the Squire, who was now very grave and absorbed in the story. ‘Sit down, Patten.’
It was time, for the old man was supporting himself by one hand, and leaning heavily on it. He dropped into a chair, and said in a very tremulous voice, ‘You didn’t go between them stones, did you, sir?’
‘I did not,’ said Fanshawe, emphatically. ‘I dare say I was an ass, but as soon as it dawned on me where I was, I just shouldered my machine and did my best to run. It seemed to me as if I was in an unholy evil sort of graveyard, and I was most profoundly thankful that it was one of the longest days and still sunlight. Well, 1 had a horrid run, even if it was only a few hundred yards. Everything caught on everything: handles and spokes and carrier and pedals — caught in them viciously, or I fancied so. I fell over at least five times. At last I saw the hedge, and I couldn’t trouble to hunt for the gate.’
‘There is no gate on my side,’ the Squire interpolated.
‘Just as well I didn’t waste time, then. I dropped the machine over somehow and went into the road pretty near head-first; some branch or something got my ankle at the last moment. Anyhow, there I was out of the wood, and seldom more thankful or more generally sore. Then came the job of mending my punctures. I had a good outfit and I’m not at all bad at the business; but this was an absolutely hopeless case. It was seven when I got out of the wood, and I spent fifty minutes over one tyre. As fast as I found a hole and put on a patch, and blew it up, it went flat again. So I made up my mind to walk. That hill isn’t three miles away, is it?’
Not more across country, but nearer six by road.’
‘I thought it must be. I thought I couldn’t have taken well over the hour over less than five miles, even leading a bike. Well, there’s my story: where’s yours and Patten’s?’
‘Mine? I’ve no story,’ said the Squire. ‘But you weren’t very far out when you thought you were in a graveyard. There must be a good few of them up there, Patten, don’t you think? They left ‘em there when they fell to bits, I fancy.’
Patten nodded, too much interested to speak. ‘Don’t,’ said Fanshawe. ‘Now then, Patten,’ said the Squire, ‘you’ve heard what sort of a time
Mr. Fanshawe’s been having. What do you make of it? Anything to do with Mr. Baxter? Fill yourself a glass of port, and tell us.’
‘Ah, that done me good, Master Henry,’ said Patten, after absorbing what was before him. ‘If you really wish to know what were in my thoughts, my answer would be clear in the affirmative. Yes,’ he went on, warming to his work, ‘I should say as Mr. Fanshawe’s experience of today were very largely doo to the person you named. And I think, Master Henry, as I have some title to speak, in view of me ‘axing been many years on speaking terms with him, and swore in to be jury on the Coroner’s inquest near this time ten years ago, you being then, if you carry your mind back, Master Henry, travelling abroad, and no one ‘ere to represent the family.’
‘Inquest?’ said Fanshawe. ‘An inquest on Mr. Baxter, was there?’
‘Yes, sir, on — on that very person. The facts as led up to that occurrence was these. The deceased was, as you may have gathered, a very peculiar individual in ‘is ‘abits — in my idear, at least, but all must speak as they find. He lived very much to himself, without neither chick nor child, as the saying is. And how he passed away his time was what very few could orfer a guess at.’
‘He lived unknown, and few could know when Baxter ceased to be,’ said the Squire to his pipe.
‘I beg pardon, Master Henry, I was just coming to that. But when I say how he passed away his time — to be sure we know ‘ow intent he was in rummaging and ransacking out all the ‘istry of the neighbourhood and the number of things he’d managed to collect together — well, it was spoke of for miles round as Baxter’s Museum, and many a time when he might be in the mood, and I might have an hour to spare, have he showed me his pieces of pots and what not, going back by his account to the times of the ancient Romans. However, you know more about that than what I do, Master Henry: only what I was a-going to say was this, as know what he might and interesting as he might be in his talk, there was something about the man — well, for one thing, no one ever remember to see him in church nor yet chapel at service-time. And that made talk. Our rector he never come in the house but once. “Never ask me what the man said”; that was all anybody could ever get out of him. Then how did he spend his nights, particularly about this season of the year? Time and again the labouring men’d meet him coming back as they went out to their work, and he’d pass ‘em by without a word, looking, they says, like someone straight out of the asylum. They see the whites of his eyes all round. He’d have a fish-basket with him, that they noticed, and he always come the same road. And the talk got to be that he’d made himself some business, and that not the best kind — well, not so far from where you was at seven o’clock this evening, sir.
‘Well, now, after such a night as that, Mr. Baxter he’d shut up the shop, and the old lady that did for him had orders not to come in; and knowing what she did about his language, she took care to obey them orders. But one day it so happened, about three o’clock in the afternoon, the house being shut up as I said, there come a most fearful to-do inside, and smoke out of the windows, and Baxter crying out seemingly in an agony. So the man as lived next door he run round to the back premises and burst the door in, and several others come too. Well, he tell me he never in all his life smelt such a fearfu — well, odour, as what there was in that kitchen-place. It seem as if Baxter had been boiling something in a pot and overset it on his leg. There he laid on the floor, trying to keep back the cries, but it was more than he could manage, and when he seen the people come in — oh, he was in a nice condition: if his tongue warn’t blistered worse than his leg it warn’t his fault. Well, they picked him up, and got him into a chair, and run for the medical man, and one of ‘em was going to pick up the pot, and Baxter, he screams out to let it alone. So he did, but he couldn’t see as there was anything in the pot but a few old brown bones. Then they says “Dr. Lawrence’ll be here in a minute, Mr. Baxter; he’ll soon put you to rights.” And then he was off again. He must be got up to his room, he couldn’t have the doctor come in there and see all that mess — they must throw a cloth over it — anything — the tablecloth out of the parlour; well, so they did. But that must have been poisonous stuff in that pot, for it was pretty near on two months afore Baxter were about agin. Beg pardon, Master Henry, was you going to say something?’
‘Yes, I was,’ said the Squire. ‘I wonder you haven’t told me all this before. However, I was going to say I remember old Lawrence telling me he’d attended Baxter. He was a queer card, he said. Lawrence was up in the bedroom one day, and picked up a little mask covered with black velvet, and put it on in fun and went to look at himself in the glass. He hadn’t time for a proper look, for old Baxter shouted out to him from the bed: “Put it down, you fool! Do you want to look through a dead man’s eyes?” and it startled him so that he did put it down, and then he asked Baxter what he meant. And Baxter insisted on him handing it over, and said the man he bought it from was dead, or some such nonsense. But Lawrence felt it as he handed it over, and he declared he was sure it was made out of the front of a skull. He bought a distilling apparatus at Baxter’s sale, he told me, but he could never use it: it seemed to taint everything, however much he cleaned it. But go on, Patten.’
‘Yes, Master Henry, I’m nearly done now, and time, too, for I don’t know what they’ll think about me in the servants’ ‘all. Well, this business of the scalding was some few years before Mr. Baxter was took, and he got about again, and went on just as he’d used. And one of the last jobs he done was finishing up them actual glasses what you took out last night. You see he’d made the body of them some long time, and got the pieces of glass for them, but there was somethink wanted to finish ‘em, whatever it was, I don’t know, but I picked up the frame one day, and I says: “Mr. Baxter, why don’t you make a job of this?” And he says, “Ah, when I’ve done that, you’ll hear news, you will: there’s going to be no such pair of glasses as mine when they’re filled and sealed,” and there he stopped, and I says: “Why, Mr. Baxter, you talk as if they was wine bottles: filled and sealed — why, where’s the necessity for that?” “Did I say filled and sealed?” he says. “O, well, I was suiting my conversation to my company.” Well, then come round this time of year, and one fine evening, I was passing his shop on my way home, and he was standing on the step, very pleased with hisself, and he says: “All right and tight now: my best bit of work’s finished, and I’ll be out with ‘em tomorrow.” “What, finished them glasses?” I says, “might I have a look at them?” “No, no,” he says, “I’ve put ‘em to bed for tonight, and when I do show ‘em you, you’ll have to pay for peepin’, so I tell you.” And that, gentlemen, were the last words I heard that man say.
‘That were the 17th of June, and just a week after, there was a funny thing happened, and it was doo to that as we brought in “unsound mind” at the inquest, for barring that, no one as knew Baxter in business could anyways have laid that against him. But George Williams, as lived in the next house, and do now, he was woke up that same night with a stumbling and tumbling about in Mr. Baxter’s premises, and he got out o’ bed, and went to the front window on the street to see if there was any rough customers about. And ft being a very light night, he could make sure as there was not. Then he stood and listened, and he hear Mr. Baxter coming down his front stair one step after another very slow, and he got the idear as it was like someone bein’ pushed or pulled down and holdin’ on to everythin’ he could. Next thing he hear the street door come open, and out come Mr. Baxter into the street in his day-clothes, ‘at and all, with his arms straight down by his sides, and talking to hisself, and shakin’ his head from one side to the other, and walking in that peculiar way that he appeared to be going as it were against his own will. George Williams put up the window, and hear him say: “O mercy, gentlemen!” and then he shut up sudden as if, he said, someone clapped his hand over his mouth, and Mr. Baxter threw his head back, and his hat fell off. And Williams see his face looking something pitiful, so as he couldn’t keep from calling out to him: “Why, Mr. Baxter, ain’t you well?” and he was goin’ to offer to fetch Dr. Lawrence to him, only he heard the answer: “ ‘Tis best you mind your own business. Put in your head.” But whether it were Mr. Baxter said it so hoarse-like and faint, he never could be sure. Still there weren’t no one but him in the street, and yet Williams was that upset by the way he spoke that he shrank back from the window and went and sat on the bed. And he heard Mr. Baxter’s step go on and up the road, and after a minute or more he couldn’t help but look out once more and he see him going along the same curious way as before. And one thing he recollected was that Mr. Baxter never stopped to pick up his ‘at when it fell off, and yet there it was on his head. Well, Master Henry, that was the last anybody see of Mr. Baxter, leastways for a week or more. There was a lot of people said he was called off on business, or made off because he’d got into some scrape, but he was well known for miles round, and none of the railway people nor the public-house people hadn’t seen him; and then ponds was looked into and nothink found; and at last one evening Fakes the keeper come down from over the hill to the village, and he says he seen the Gallows Hill planting black with birds, and that were a funny thing, because he never see no sign of a creature there in his time. So they looked at each other a bit, and first one says: “I’m game to go up,” and another says: “So am I, if you are,” and half a dozen of ‘em set out in the evening time, and took Dr. Lawrence with them, and you know, Master Henry, there he was between them three stones with his neck broke.’
Useless to imagine the talk which this story set going. It is not remembered. But before Patten left them, he said to Fanshawe: ‘Excuse me, sir, but did I understand as you took out them glasses with you today? I thought you did; and might I ask, did you make use of them at all?’
‘Yes. Only to look at something in a church.’
‘Oh, indeed, you took ‘em into the church, did you, sir?’
‘Yes, I did; it was Lambsfield church. By the way, I left them strapped on to my bicycle, I’m afraid, in the stable-yard.’
‘No matter for that, sir. I can bring them in the first thing tomorrow, and perhaps you’ll be so good as to look at ‘em then.’
Accordingly, before breakfast, after a tranquil and well-earned sleep, Fanshawe took the glasses into the garden and directed them to a distant hill. He lowered them instantly, and looked at top and bottom, worked the screws, tried them again and yet again, shrugged his shoulders and replaced them on the hall-table.
‘Patten,’ he said, ‘they’re absolutely useless. I can’t see a thing: it’s as if someone had stuck a black wafer over the lens.’
‘Spoilt my glasses, have you?’ said the Squire. ‘Thank you: the only ones I’ve got.’
‘You try them yourself,’ said Fanshawe, ‘I’ve done nothing to them.’
So after breakfast the Squire took them out to the terrace and stood on the steps. After a few ineffectual attempts, ‘Lord, how heavy they are!’ he said impatiently, and in the same instant dropped them on to the stones, and the lens splintered and the barrel cracked: a little pool of liquid formed on the stone slab. It was inky black, and the odour that rose from it is not to be described.
‘Filled and sealed, eh?’ said the Squire. ‘If I could bring myself to touch it, I dare say we should find the seal. So that’s what came of his boiling and distilling, is it? Old Ghoul!’
‘What in the world do you mean?’
‘Don’t you see, my good man? Remember what he said to the doctor about looking through dead men’s eyes? Well, this was another way of it. But they didn’t like having their bones boiled, I take it, and the end of it was they carried him off whither he would not. Well, I’ll get a spade, and we’ll bury this thing decently.’
As they smoothed the turf over it, the Squire, handing the spade to Patten, who had been a reverential spectator, remarked to Fanshawe: ‘It’s almost a pity you took that thing into the church: you might have seen more than you did. Baxter had them for a week, I make out, but I don’t see that he did much in the time.’
‘I’m not sure,’ said Fanshawe, ‘there is that picture of Fulnaker Priory Church.’
The place on the east coast which the reader is asked to consider is Seaburgh. It is not very different now from what I remember it to have been when I was a child. Marshes intersected by dykes to the south, recalling the early chapters of Great Expectations; flat fields to the north, merging into heath; heath, fir woods, and, above all, gorse, inland. A long sea-front and a street: behind that a spacious church of flint, with a broad, solid western tower and a peal of six bells. How well I remember their sound on a hot Sunday in August, as our party went slowly up the white, dusty slope of road towards them, for the church stands at the top of a short, steep incline. They rang with a flat clacking sort of sound on those hot days, but when the air was softer they were mellower too. The railway ran down to its little terminus farther along the same road. There was a gay white windmill just before you came to the station, and another down near the shingle at the south end the town, and yet others on higher ground to the north. There were cottages of bright red brick with slate roofs . . . but why do I encumber you with these commonplace details? The fact is that they come crowding to the point of the pencil when it begins to write of Seaburgh. I should like to be sure that I had allowed the right ones to get on to the paper. But I forgot. I have not quite done with the word-painting business yet.
Walk away from the sea and the town, pass the station, and turn up the road on the right. It is a sandy road, parallel with the railway, and if you follow it, it climbs to somewhat higher ground. On your left (you are now going northward) is heath, on your right (the side towards the sea) is a belt of old firs, wind-beaten, thick at the top, with the slope that old seaside trees have; seen on the skyline from the train they would tell you in an instant, if you did not know it, that you were approaching a windy coast. Well, at the top of my little hill, a line of these firs strikes out and runs towards the sea, for there is a ridge that goes that way; and the ridge ends in a rather well-defined mound commanding the level fields of rough grass, and a little knot of fir trees crowns it. And here you may sit on a hot spring day, very well content to look at blue sea, white windmills, red cottages, bright green grass, church tower, and distant martello tower on the south.
As I have said, I began to know Seaburgh as a child; but a gap of a good many years separates my early knowledge from that which is more recent. Still it keeps its place in my affections, and any tales of it that I pick up have an interest for me. One such tale is this: it came to me in a place very remote from Seaburgh, and quite accidentally, from a man whom I had been able to oblige — enough in his opinion to justify his making me his confidant to this extent.
I know all that country more or less (he said). I used to go to Scaburgh pretty regularly for golf in the spring. I generally put up at the ‘Bear’, with a friend — Henry Long it was, you knew him perhaps —(‘Slightly,’ I said) and we used to take a sitting-room and be very happy there. Since he died I haven’t cared to go there. And I don’t know that I should anyhow after the particular thing that happened on our last visit.
It was in April, 19 — we were there, and by some chance we were almost the only people in the hotel. So the ordinary public rooms were practically empty, and we were the more surprised when, after dinner, our sitting-room door opened, and a young man put his head in. We were aware of this young man. He was rather a rabbity anaemic subject — light hair and light eyes — but not unpleasing. So when he said: ‘I beg your pardon, is this a private room?’ we did not growl and say: ‘Yes, it is,’ but Long said, or I did — no matter which: ‘Please come in.’ ‘Oh, may I?’ he said, and seemed relieved. Of course it was obvious that he wanted company; and as he was a reasonable kind of person — not the sort to bestow his whole family history on you — we urged him to make himself at home. ‘I dare say you find the other rooms rather bleak,’ I said. Yes, he did: but it was really too good of us, and so on. That being got over, he made some pretence of reading a book. Long was playing Patience, I was writing. It became plain to me after a few minutes that this visitor of ours was in rather a state of fidgets or nerves, which communicated itself to me, and so I put away my writing and turned to at engaging him in talk.
After some remarks, which I forget, he became rather confidential. ‘You’ll think it very odd of me’ (this was the sort of way he began), ‘but the fact is I’ve had something of a shock.’ Well, I recommended a drink of some cheering kind, and we had it. The waiter coming in made an interruption (and I thought our young man seemed very jumpy when the door opened), but after a while he got back to his woes again. There was nobody he knew in the place, and he did happen to know who we both were (it turned out there was some common acquaintance in town), and really he did want a word of advice, if we didn’t mind. Of course we both said: ‘By all means,’ or ‘Not at all,’ and Long put away his cards. And we settled down to hear what his difficulty was.
‘It began,’ he said, ‘more than a week ago, when I bicycled over to Froston, only about five or six miles, to see the church; I’m very much interested in architecture, and it’s got one of those pretty porches with niches and shields. I took a photograph of it, and then an old man who was tidying up in the churchyard came and asked if I’d care to look into the church. I said yes, and he produced a key and let me in. There wasn’t much inside, but I told him it was a nice little church, and he kept it very clean, “But,” I said, “the porch is the best part of it.” We were just outside the porch then, and he said, “Ah, yes, that is a nice porch; and do you know, sir, what’s the meanin’ of that coat of arms there?”
‘It was the one with the three crowns, and though. I’m not much of a herald, I was able to say yes, I thought it was the old arms of the kingdom of East Anglia.
“‘That’s right, sir,” he said, “and do you know the meanin’ of them three crowns that’s on it?”
‘I said I’d no doubt it was known, but I couldn’t recollect to have heard it myself.
‘“Well, then,” he said, “for all you’re a scholard, I can tell you something you don’t know. Them’s the three ‘oly crowns what was buried in the ground near by the coast to keep the Germans from landing — ah, I can see you don’t believe that. But I tell you, if it hadn’t have been for one of them ‘oly crowns bein’ there still, them Germans would a landed here time and again, they would. Landed with their ships, and killed man, woman and child in their beds. Now then, that’s the truth what I’m telling you, that is; and if you don’t believe me, you ast the rector. There he comes: you ast him, I says.”
‘I looked round, and there was the rector, a nice-looking old man, coming up the path; and before I could begin assuring my old man, who was getting quite excited, that I didn’t disbelieve him, the rector struck in, and said:
“‘What’s all this about, John? Good day to you, sir. Have you been looking at our little church?”’
‘So then there was a little talk which allowed the old man to calm down, and then the rector asked him again what was the matter.
“‘Oh,” he said, “it warn’t nothink, only I was telling this gentleman he’d ought to ast you about them ‘oly crowns.”
‘“Ah, yes, to be sure,” said the rector, “that’s a very curious matter, isn’t it? But I don’t know whether the gentleman is interested in our old stories, eh?”
‘“Oh, he’ll be interested fast enough,” says the old man, “he’ll put his confidence in what you tells him, sir; why, you known William Ager yoursell, father and son too.”
‘Then I put in a word to say how much I should like to hear all about it, and before many minutes I was walking up the village street with the rector, who had one or two words to say to parishioners, and then to the rectory, where he took me into his study. He had made out, on the way, that I really was capable of taking an intelligent interest in a piece of folklore, and not quite the ordinary tripper. So he was very willing to talk, and it is rather surprising to me that the particular legend he told me has not made its way into print before. His account of it was this: “There has always been a belief in these parts in the three holy crowns. The old people say they were buried in different places near the coast to keep off the Danes or the French or the Germans. And they say that one of the three was dug up a long time ago, and another has disappeared by the encroaching of the sea, and one’s still left doing its work, keeping off invaders. Well, now, if you have read the ordinary guides and histories of this county, you will remember perhaps that in 1687 a crown, which was said to be the crown of Redwald, King of the East Angles, was dug up at Rendlesham, and alas! alas! melted down before it was even properly described or drawn. Well, Rendlesham isn’t on the coast, but it isn’t so very far inland, and it’s on a very important line of access. And I believe that is the crown which the people mean when they say that one has been dug up. Then on the south you don’t want me to tell you where there was a Saxon royal palace which is now under the sea, eh? Well, there was the second crown, I take it. And up beyond these two, they say, lies the third.”
‘“Do they say where it is?” of course I asked.
‘He said, “Yes, indeed, they do, but they don’t tell,” and his manner did not encourage me to put the obvious question. Instead of that I waited a moment, and said: “What did the old man mean when he said you knew William Ager, as if that had something to do with the crowns?”
‘“To be sure,” he said, “now that’s another curious story. These Agers it’s a very old name in these parts, but I can’t find that they were ever people of quality or big owners these Agers say, or said, that their branch of the family were the guardians of the last crown. A certain old Nathaniel Ager was the first one I knew — I was born and brought up quite near here — and he, I believe, camped out at the place during the whole of the war of 1870. William, his son, did the same, I know, during the South African War. And young William, his son, who has only died fairly recently, took lodgings at the cottage nearest the spot; and I’ve no doubt hastened his end, for he was a consumptive, by exposure and night watching. And he was the last of that branch. It was a dreadful grief to him to think that he was the last, but he could do nothing, the only relations at all near to him were in the colonies. I wrote letters for him to them imploring them to come over on business very important to the family, but there has been no answer. So the last of the holy crowns, if it’s there, has no guardian now.”
‘That was what the rector told me, and you can fancy how interesting I found it. The only thing I could think of when I left him was how to hit upon the spot where the crown was supposed to be. I wish I’d left it alone.
‘But there was a sort of fate in it, for as I bicycled back past the churchyard wall my eye caught a fairly new gravestone, and on it was the name of William Ager. Of course I got off and read it. It said “of this parish, died at Seaburgh, 19 — aged 28.”‘There it was, you see. A little judicious questioning in the right place, and I should at least find the cottage nearest the spot. Only I didn’t quite know what was the right place to begin my questioning at. Again there was fate: it took me to the curiosity-shop down that way — you know — and I turned over some old books, and, if you please, one was a prayer-book of 1740 odd, in a rather handsome binding — I’ll just go and get it, it’s in my room.’
He left us in a state of some surprise, but we had hardly time to exchange any remarks when he was back, panting, and handed us the book opened at the fly-leaf, on which was, in a straggly hand:
‘Nathaniel Ager is my name and England is my nation,
Seaburgh is my dwelling-place and Christ is my Salvation,
When I am dead and in my Grave, and all my bones are rotton,
I hope the Lord will think on me when I am quite forgotton.’
This poem was dated 1754, and there were many more entries of Agers, Nathaniel, Frederick, William, and so on, ending with William, 19 —.
‘You see,’ he said, ‘anybody would call it the greatest bit of luck. I did, but I don’t now. Of course I asked the shopman about William Ager, and of course he happened to remember that he lodged in a cottage in the North Field and died there. This was just chalking the road for me. I knew which the cottage must be: there is only one sizable one about there. The next thing was to scrape some sort of acquaintance with the people, and I took a walk that way at once. A dog did the business for me: he made at me so fiercely that they had to run out and beat him off, and then naturally begged my pardon, and we got into talk. I had only to bring up Ager’s name, and pretend I knew, or thought I knew something of him, and then the woman said how sad it was him dying so young, and she was sure it came of him spending the night out of doors in the cold weather. Then I had to say: “Did he go out on the sea at night?” and she said: “Oh, no, it was on the hillock yonder with the trees on it.” And there I was.
‘I know something about digging in these barrows: I’ve opened many of them in the down country. But that was with owner’s leave, and in broad daylight and with men to help. I had to prospect very carefully here before I put a spade in: I couldn’t trench across the mound, and with those old firs growing there I knew there would be awkward tree roots. Still the soil was very light and sandy and easy, and there was a rabbit hole or so that might be developed into a sort of tunnel. The going out and coming back at odd hours to the hotel was going to be the awkward part. When I made up my mind about the way to excavate I told the people that I was called away for a night, and I spent it out there. I made my tunnel: I won’t bore you with the details of how I supported it and filled it in when I’d done, but the main thing is that I got the crown.’
Naturally we both broke out into exclamations of surprise and interest. I for one had long known about the finding of the crown at Rendlesham and had often lamented its fate. No one has ever seen an Anglo–Saxon crown — at least no one had. But our man gazed at us with a rueful eye. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and the worst of it is I don’t know how to put it back.’
‘Put it back?’ we cried out. ‘Why, my dear sir, you’ve made one of the most exciting finds ever heard of in this country. Of course it ought to go to the Jewel Houise at the Tower. What’s your difficulty? If you’re thinking about the owner of the land, and treasure-trove, and all that, we can certainly help you through. Nobody’s going to make a fuss about technicalities in a case of this kind.’
Probably more was said, but all he did was to put his face in his hands, and mutter: ‘I don’t know how to put it back.’
At last Long said: ‘You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I seem impertinent, but are you quite sure you’ve got it?’ I was wanting to ask much the same question myself, for of course the story did seem a lunatic’s dream when one thought over it. But I hadn’t quite dared to say what might hurt the poor young man’s feelings. However, he took it quite calmly — really, with the calm of despair, you might say. He sat up and said: ‘Oh, yes, there’s no doubt of that: I have it here, in my room, locked up in my bag. You can come and look at it if you like: I won’t offer to bring it here.’
We were not likely to let the chance slip. We went with him; his room was only a few doors off. The boots was just collecting shoes in the passage: or so we thought: afterwards we were not sure. Our visitor — his name was Parton — was in a worse state of shivers than before, and went hurriedly into the room, and beckoned us after him, turned on the light, and shut the door carefully. Then he unlocked his kit-bag, and produced a bundle of clean pocket-handkerchiefs in which something was wrapped, laid it on the bed, and undid it. I can now say I have seen an actual Anglo–Saxon crown. It was of silver — as the Rendlesham one is always said to have been — it was set with some gems, mostly antique intaglios and cameos, and was of rather plain, almost rough workmanship. In fact, it was like those you see on the coins and in the manuscripts. I found no reason to think it was later than the ninth century. I was intensely interested, of course, and I wanted to turn it over in my hands, but Paxton prevented me. ‘Don’t you touch it,’ he said, ‘I’ll do that.’ And with a sigh that was, I declare to you, dreadful to hear, he took it up and turned it about so that we could see every part of it. ‘Seen enough?’ he said at last, and we nodded. He wrapped it up and locked it in his bag, and stood looking at us dumbly. ‘Come back to our room,’ Long said, ‘and tell us what the trouble is.’ He thanked us, and said: ‘Will you go first and see if — if the coast is clear?’ That wasn’t very intelligible, for our proceedings hadn’t been, after all, very suspicious, and the hotel, as I said, was practically empty. However, we were beginning to have inklings of — we didn’t know what, and anyhow nerves are infectious. So we did go, first peering out as we opened the door, and fancying (I found we both had the fancy) that a shadow, or more than a shadow — but it made no sound — passed from before us to one side as we came out into the passage. ‘It’s all right,’ we whispered to Paxton — whispering seemed the proper tone — and we went, with him between us, back to our sitting-room. I was preparing, when we got there, to be ecstatic about the unique interest of what we had seen, but when I looked at Paxton I saw that would be terribly out of place, and I left it to him to begin.
‘What is to be done?’ was his opening. Long thought it right (as he explained to me afterwards) to be obtuse, and said: ‘Why not find out who the owner of the land is, and inform —’ Oh, no, no!’ Paxton broke in impatiently, ‘I beg your pardon: you’ve been very kind, but don’t you see it’s got to go back, and I daren’t be there at night, and daytime’s impossible. Perhaps, though, you don’t see: well, then, the truth is that I’ve never been alone since I touched it.’ I was beginning some fairly stupid comment, but Long caught my eye, and I stopped. Long said: ‘I think I do see, perhaps: but wouldn’t it be a relief — to tell us a little more clearly what the situation is?’
Then it all came out: Paxton looked over his shoulder and beckoned to us to come nearer to him, and began speaking in a low voice: we listened most intently, of course, and compared notes afterwards, and I wrote down our version, so I am confident I have what he told us almost word for word. He said: ‘It began when I was first prospecting, and put me off again and again. There was always somebody — a man — standing by one of the firs. This was in daylight, you know. He was never in front of me. I always saw him with the tail of my eye on the left or the right, and he was never there when I looked straight for him. I would lie down for quite a long time and take careful observations, and make sure there was no one, and then when I got up and began prospecting again, there he was. And he began to give me hints, besides; for wherever I put that prayer-book — short of locking it up, which I did at last — when I came back to my loom it was always out on my table open at the fly-leaf where the names are, and one of my razors across it to keep it open. I’m sure he just can’t open my bag, or something more would have happened. You see, he’s light and weak, but all the same I daren’t face him. Well, then, when I was making the tunnel, of course it was worse, and if I hadn’t been so keen I should have dropped the whole thing and run. It was like someone scraping at my back all the time: I thought for a long time it was only soil dropping on me, but as I got nearer the — the crown, it was unmistakable. And when I actually laid it bare and got my fingers into the ring of it and pulled it out, there came a sort of cry behind me — oh, I can’t tell you how desolate it was! And horribly threatening too. It spoilt all my pleasure in my find — cut it off that moment. And if I hadn’t been the wretched fool I am, I should have put the thing back and left it. But I didn’t. The rest of the time was just awful. I had hours to get through before I could decently come back to the hotel. First I spent time filling up my tunnel and covering my tracks, and all the while he was there trying to thwart me. Sometimes, you know, you see him, and sometimes you don’t, just as he pleases, I think: he’s there, but he has some power over your eyes. Well, I wasn’t off the spot very long before sunrise, and then I had to get to the junction for Seaburgh, and take a train back. And though it was daylight fairly soon, I don’t know if that made it much better. There were always hedges, or gorse-bushes, or park fences along the road — some sort of cover, I mean — and I was never easy for a second. And then when I began to meet people going to work, they always looked behind me very strangely: it might have been that they were surprised at seeing anyone so early; but I didn’t think it was only that, and I don’t now: they didn’t look exactly at me. And the porter at the train was like that too. And the guard held open the door after I’d got into the carriage — just as he would if there was somebody else coming, you know. Oh, you may be very sure it isn’t my fancy,’ he said with a dull sort of laugh. Then he went on: ‘And even if I do get it put back, he won’t forgive me: I can tell that. And I was so happy a fortnight ago.’ He dropped into a chair, and I believe he began to cry.
We didn’t know what to say, but we felt we must come to the rescue somehow, and so — it really seemed the only thing — we said if he was so set on putting the crown back in its place, we would help him. And I must say that after what we had heard it did seem the right thing. If these horrid consequences had come on this poor man, might there not really be something in the original idea of the crown having some curious power bound up with it, to guard the coast? At least, that was my feeling, and I think it was Long’s too. Our offer was very welcome to Paxton, anyhow. When could we do it? It was nearing half-past ten. Could we contrive to make a late walk plausible to the hotel people that very night? We looked out of the window: there was a brilliant full moon — the Paschal moon. Long undertook to tackle the boots and propitiate him. He was to say that we should not be much over the hour, and if we did find it so pleasant that we stopped out a bit longer we would see that he didn’t lose by sitting up. Well, we were pretty regular customers of the hotel, and did not give much trouble, and were considered by the servants to be not under the mark in the way of tips; and so the boots was propitiated, and let us out on to the sea-front, and remained, as we heard later, looking after us. Paxton had a large coat over his arm, under which was the wrapped-up crown.
So we were off on this strange errand before we had time to think how very much out of the way it was. I have told this part quite shortly on purpose, for it really does represent the haste with which we settled our plan and took action. ‘The shortest way is up the hill and through the churchyard,’ Paxton said, as we stood a moment before, the hotel looking up and down the front. There was nobody about — nobody at all. Seaburgh out of the season is an early, quiet place. ‘We can’t go along the dyke by the cottage, because of the dog,’ Paxton also said, when I pointed to what I thought a shorter way along the front and across two fields. The reason he gave was good enough. We went up the road to the church, and turned in at the churchyard gate. I confess to having thought that there might be some one lying there who might be conscious of our business: but if it was so, they were also conscious that one who was on their side, so to say, had us under surveillance, and we saw no sign of them. But under observation we felt we were, as I have never felt it at another time. Specially was it so when we passed out of the churchyard into a narrow path with close high hedges, through which we hurried as Christian did through that Valley; and so got out into open fields. Then along hedges, though I world sooner have been in the open, where I could see if anyone was visible behind me; over a gate or two, and then a swerve to the left, taking us up on to the ridge which ended in that mound.
As we neared it, Henry Long felt, and I felt too, that there were what I can only call dim presences waiting for us, as well as a far more actual one attending us. Of Paxton’s agitation all this time I can give you no adequate picture: he breathed like a hunted beast, and we could not either of us look at his face. How he would manage when we got to the very place we had not troubled to think: he had seemed so sure that that would not be difficult. Nor was it. I never saw anything like the dash with which he flung himself at a particular spot in the side of the mound, and tore at it, so that in a very few minutes the greater part of his body was out of sight. We stood holding the coat and that bundle of handkerchiefs, and looking, very fearfully, I must admit, about us. There was nothing to be seen: a line of dark firs behind us made one skyline, more trees and the church tower half a mile off on the right, cottages and a windmill on the horizon on the left, calm sea dead in front, faint barking of a dog at a cottage on a gleaming dyke between us and it: full moon making that path we know across the sea: the eternal whisper of the Scotch firs just above us, and of the sea in front. Yet, in all this quiet, an acute, an acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility very near us, like a dog on a leash that might be let go at any moment.
Paxton pulled himself out of the hole, and stretched a hand back to us. ‘Give it to me,’ he whispered, ‘unwrapped.’ We pulled off the handkerchiefs, and he took the crown. The moonlight just fell on it as he snatched it. We had not ourselves touched that bit of metal, and I have thought since that it was just as well. In another moment Paxton was out of the hole again and busy shovelling back the soil with hands that were already bleeding He would have none of our help though It was much the longest part of the job to get the place to look undisturbed yet — I don’t know how — he made a wonderful success of it. At last he was satisfied and we turned back.
We were a couple of hundred yards from the hill when Long suddenly said to him: ‘I say you’ve left your coat there. That won’t do. See?’ And I certainly did see it — the long dark overcoat lying where the tunnel had been. Paxton had not stopped, however: he only shook his head, and held up the coat on his arm. And when we joined him, he said, without any excitement, but as if nothing mattered any more: ‘That wasn’t my coat.’ And, indeed, when we looked back again, that dark thing was not to be seen.
Well, we got out on to the road, and came rapidly back that way. It was well before twelve when we got in, trying to put a good face on it, and saying — Long and I— what a lovely night it was for a walk. The boots was on the look-out for us, and we made remarks like that for his edification as we entered the hotel. He gave another look up and down the sea-front before he locked the front door, and said: ‘You didn’t meet many people about, I s’pose, sir?’ ‘No, indeed, not a soul,’ I said; at which I remember Paxton looked oddly at me. ‘Only I thought I see someone turn up the station road after you gentlemen,’ said the boots. ‘Still, you was three together, and I don’t suppose he meant mischief.’ I didn’t know what to say; Long merely said ‘Good night,’ and we went off upstairs, promising to turn out all lights, and to go to bed in a few minutes.
Back in our room, we did our very best to make Paxton take a cheerful view. There’s the crown safe back,’ we said; ‘very likely you’d have done better not to touch it’ (and he heavily assented to that), ‘but no real harm has been done, and we shall never give this away to anyone who would be so mad as to go near it. Besides, don’t you feel better yourself? I don’t mind confessing,’ I said, ‘that on the way there I was very much inclined to take your view about — well, about being followed; but going back, it wasn’t at all the same thing, was it?’ No, it wouldn’t do: ‘You’ve nothing to trouble yourselves about,’ he said, ‘but I’m not forgiven. I’ve got to pay for that miserable sacrilege still. I know what you are going to say. The Church might help. Yes, but it’s the body that has to suffer. It’s true I’m not feeling that he’s waiting outside for me just now. But —’ Then he stopped. Then he turned to thanking us, and we put him off as soon as we could. And naturally we pressed him to use our sitting-room next day, and said we should be glad to go out with him. Or did he play golf, perhaps? Yes, he did, but he didn’t think he should care about that tomorrow. Well, we recommended him to get up late and sit in our room in the morning while we were playing, and we would have a walk later in the day. He was very submissive and piano about it all: ready to do just what we thought best, but clearly quite certain in his own mind that what was coming could not be averted or palliated. You’ll wonder why we didn’t insist on accompanying him to his home and seeing him safe into the care of brothers or someone. The fact was he had nobody. He had had a flat in town, but lately he had made up his mind to settle for a time in Sweden, and he had dismantled his flat and shipped off his belongings, and was whiling away a fortnight or three weeks before he made a start. Anyhow, we didn’t see what we could do better than sleep on it — or not sleep very much, as was my case and see what we felt like tomorrow morning.
We felt very different, Long and I, on as beautiful an April morning as you could desire; and Paxton also looked very different when we saw him at breakfast. ‘The first approach to a decent night I seem ever to have had,’ was what he said. But he was going to do as we had settled: stay in probably all the morning, and come out with us later. We went to the links; we met some other men and played with them in the morning, and had lunch there rather early, so as not to be late back. All the same, the snares of death overtook him.
Whether it could have been prevented, I don’t know. I think he would have been got at somehow, do what we might. Anyhow, this is what happened.
We went straight up to our room. Paxton was there, reading quite peaceably. ‘Ready to come out shortly?’ said Long, ‘say in half an hour’s time?’ ‘Certainly,’ he said: and I said we would change first, and perhaps have baths, and call for him in half an hour. I had my bath first, and went and lay down on my bed, and slept for about ten minutes. We came out of our rooms at the same time, and went together to the sitting-room. Paxton wasn’t there — only his book. Nor was he in his room, nor in the downstair rooms. We shouted for him. A servant came out and said: ‘Why, I thought you gentlemen was gone out already, and so did the other gentleman. He heard you a-calling from the path there, and run out in a hurry, and I looked out of the coffee-room window, but I didn’t see you. ‘Owever, he run off down the beach that way.’
Without a word we ran that way too — it was the opposite direction to that of last night’s expedition. It wasn’t quite four o’clock, and the day was fair, though not so fair as it had been, so that was really no reason, you’d say, for anxiety: with people about, surely a man couldn’t come to much harm.
But something in our look as we ran out must have struck the servant, for she came out on the steps, and pointed, and said, ‘Yes, that’s the way he went.’ We ran on as far as the top of the shingle bank, and there pulled up. There was a choice of ways: past the houses on the sea-front, or along the sand at the bottom of the beach, which, the tide being now out, was fairly broad. Or of course we might keep along the shingle between these two tracks and have some view of both of them; only that was heavy going. We chose the sand, for that was the loneliest, and someone might come to harm there without being seen from the public path.
Long said he saw Paxton some distance ahead, running and waving his stick, as if he wanted to signal to people who were on ahead of him. I couldn’t be sure: one of these sea-mists was coming up very quickly from the south. There was someone, that’s all I could say. And there were tracks on the sand as of someone running who wore shoes; and there were other tracks made before those — for the shoes sometimes trod in them and interfered with them — of someone not in shoes. Oh, of course, it’s only my word you’ve got to take for all this: Long’s dead, we’d no time or means to make sketches or take casts, and the next tide washed everything away. All we could do was to notice these marks as we hurried on. But there they were over and over again, and we had no doubt whatever that what we saw was the track of a bare foot, and one that showed more bones than flesh.
The notion of Paxton running after — after anything like this, and supposing it to be the friends he was looking for, was very dreadful to us. You can guess what we fancied: how the thing he was following might stop suddenly and turn round on him, and what sort of face it would show, half-seen at first in the mist — which all the while was getting thicker and thicker. And as I ran on wondering how the poor wretch could have been lured into mistaking that other thing for us, I remembered his saying, ‘He has some power over your eyes.’ And then I wondered what the end would be, for I had no hope now that the end could be averted, and — well, there is no need to tell all the dismal and horrid thoughts that flitted through my head as we ran on into the mist. It was uncanny, too, that the sun should still be bright in the sky and we could see nothing. We could only tell that we were now past the houses and had reached that gap there is between them and the old martello tower. When you are past the tower, you know, there is nothing but shingle for a long way — not a house, not a human creature; just that spit of land, or rather shingle, with the river on your right and the sea on your left.
But just before that, just by the martello tower, you remember there is the old battery, close to the sea. I believe there are only a few blocks of concrete left now: the rest has all been washed away, but at this time there was a lot more, though the place was a ruin. Well, when we got there, we clambered to the top as quick as we could to take breath and look over the shingle in front if by chance the mist would let us see anything. But a moment’s rest we must have. We had run a mile at least. Nothing whatever was visible ahead of us, and we were just turning by common consent to get down and run hopelessly on, when we heard what I can only call a laugh: and if you can understand what I mean by a breathless, a lungless laugh, you have it: but I don’t suppose you can. It came from below, and swerved away into the mist. That was enough. We bent over the wall. Paxton was there at the bottom.
You don’t need to be told that he was dead. His tracks showed that he had run along the side of the battery, had turned sharp round the corner of it, and, small doubt of it, must have dashed straight irito the open arms of someone who was waiting there. His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws were broken to bits. I only glanced once at his face.
At the same moment, just as we were scrambling down from the battery to get to the body, we heard a shout, and saw a man running down the bank of the martello tower. He was the caretaker stationed there, and his keen old eyes had managed to descry through the mist that something was wrong. He had seen Paxton fall, and had seen us a moment after, running up — fortunate this, for otherwise we could hardly have escaped suspicion of being concerned in the dreadful business. Had he, we asked, caught sight of anybody attacking our friend? He could not be sure.
We sent him off for help, and stayed by the dead man till they came with the stretcher. It was then that we traced out how he had come, on the narrow fringe of sand under the battery wall. The rest was shingle, and it was hopelessly impossible to tell whither the other had gone.
What were we to say at the inquest? It was a duty, we felt, not to give up, there and then, the secret of the crown, to be published in every paper. I don’t know how much you would have told; but what we did agree upon was this: to say that we had only made acquaintance with Paxton the day before, and that he had told us he was under some apprehension of danger at the hands of a man called William Ager. Also that we had seen some other tracks besides Paxton’s when we followed him along the beach. But of course by that time everything was gone from the sands.
No one had any knowledge, fortunately, of any William Ager living in the district. The evidence of the man at the martello tower freed us from all suspicion. All that could be done was to return a verdict of wilful murder by some person or persons unknowtn.
Paxton was so totally without connections that all the inquiries that were subsequently made ended in a No Thoroughfare. And I have never been at Seaburgh, or even near it, since.
Nothing is more common form in old-fashioned books than the description of the winter fireside, where the aged grandam narrates to the circle of children that hangs on her lips story after story of ghosts and fairies, and inspires her audience with a pleasing terror. But we are never allowed to know what the stories were. We hear, indeed, of sheeted spectres with saucer eyes, and — still more intriguing — of ‘Rawhead and Bloody Bones’ (an expression which the Oxford Dictionary traces back to 1550), but the context of these striking images eludes us.
Here, then, is a problem which has long obsessed me; but I see no means of solving it finally. The aged grandams are gone, and the collectors of folk-lore began their work in England too late to save most of the actual stories which the grandams told. Yet such things do not easily die quite out, and imagination, working on scattered hints, may be able to devise a picture of an evening’s entertainment, such an one as Mrs. Marcet’s Evening Conversations, Mr. Joyce’s Dialogues on Chemistry and somebody else’s Philosophy in Sport made Science in Earnest aimed at extinguishing by substituting for Error and Superstition the light of Utility and Truth; in some such terms as these:
Charles: I think, papa, that 1 now understand the properties of the lever, which you so kindly explained to me on Saturday; but I have been very much puzzled since then in thinking about the pendulum, and have wondered why it is that, when you stop it, the clock does not go on any more.
Papa: (You young sinner, have you been meddling with the clock in the hall? Come here to me! No, this must be a gloss that has somehow crept into the text.) Well, my boy, though I do not wholly approve of your conducting without my supervision experiments which may possibly impair the usefulness of a valuable scientific instrument, I will do my best to explain the principles of the pendulum to you. Fetch me a piece of stout whipcord from the drawer in my study, and ask cook to be so good as to lend you one of the weights which she uses in her kitchen.
And so we are off.
How different the scene in a household to which the beams of Science have not yet penetrated! The Squire, exhausted by a long day after the partridges, and replete with food and drink, is snoring on one side of the fireplace. His old mother sits opposite to him knitting, and the children (Charles and Fanny, not Harry and Lucy: they would never have stood it) are gathered about her knee.
Grandmother: Now, my dears, you must be very good and quiet, or you’ll wake your father, and you know what’ll happen then.
Charles: Yes, I know: he’ll be woundy cross-tempered and send us off to bed.
Grandmother (stops knitting and speaks with severity): What’s that? Fie upon you, Charles! that’s not a way to speak. Now I was going to have told you a story, but if you use such-like words, I shan’t. (Suppressed outcry: ‘Oh, granny!’) Hush! hush! Now I believe you have woke your father!
Squire (thickly): Look here, mother, if you can’t keep them brats quiet
Grandmother: Yes, John, yes! it’s too bad. I’ve been telling them if it happens again, off to bed they shall go.
Grandmother: There, now, you see, children, what did I tell you? you must be good and sit still. And I’ll tell you what: tomorrow you shall go a-blackberrying, and if you bring home a nice basketful, I’ll make you some jam.
Charles: Oh yes, granny, do! and I know where the best blackberries are: I saw ’em today.
Grandmother: And where’s that, Charles?
Charles: Why, in the little lane that goes up past Collins’s cottage. Grandmother (laying down her knitting): Charles! whatever you do, don’t you dare to pick one single blackberry in that lane. Don’t you know — but there, how should you — what was I thinking of? Well, anyway, you mind what I say
Charles and Fanny: But why, granny? Why shouldn’t we pick ’em there?
Grandmother: Hush! hush! Very well then, I’ll tell you all about it, only you mustn’t interrupt. Now let me see. When I was quite a little girl that lane had a bad name, though it seems people don’t remember about it now. And one day — dear me, just as it might be tonight — I told my poor mother when I came home to my supper — a summer evening it was — I told her where I’d been for my walk, and how I’d come back down that lane, and I asked her how it was that there were currant and gooseberry bushes growing in a little patch at the top of the lane. And oh, dear me, such a taking as she was in! She shook me and she slapped me, and says she, ‘You naughty, naughty child, haven’t I forbid you twenty times over to set foot in that lane? and here you go dawdling down it at night-time,’ and so forth, and when she’d finished I was almost too much taken aback to say anything: but I did make her believe that was the first I’d ever heard of it; and that was no more than the truth. And then, to be sure, she was sorry she’d been so short with me, and to make up she told me the whole story after my supper. And since then I’ve often heard the same from the old people in the place, and had my own reasons besides for thinking there was something in it.
Now, up at the far end of that lane — let me see, is it on the right or the left-hand side as you go up? — the left-hand side — you’ll find a little patch of bushes and rough ground in the field, and something like a broken old hedge round about, and you’ll notice there’s some old gooseberry and currant bushes growing among it — or there used to be, for it’s years now since I’ve been up that way. Well, that means there was a cottage stood there, of course; and in that cottage, before I was born or thought of, there lived a man named Davis. I’ve heard that he wasn’t born in the parish, and it’s true there’s nobody of that name been living about here since I’ve known the place. But however that may be, this Mr. Davis lived very much to himself and very seldom went to the public-house, and he didn’t work for any of the farmers, having as it seemed enough money of his own to get along. But he’d go to the town on market-days and take up his letters at the post-house where the mails called. And one day he came back from market, and brought a young man with him; and this young man and he lived together for some long time, and went about together, and whether he just did the work of the house for Mr. Davis, or whether Mr. Davis was his teacher in some way, nobody seemed to know. I’ve heard he was a pale, ugly young fellow and hadn’t much to say for himself. Well, now, what did those two men do with themselves? Of course I can’t tell you half the foolish things that the people got into their heads, and we know, don’t we, that you mustn’t speak evil when you aren’t sure it’s true, even when people are dead and gone. But as I said, those two were always about together, late and early, up on the downland and below in the woods: and there was one walk in particular that they’d take regularly once a month, to the place where you’ve seen that old figure cut out in the hill-side; and it was noticed that in the summer time when they took that walk, they’d camp out all night, either there or somewhere near by. I remember once my father — that’s your great-grandfather — told me he had spoken to Mr. Davis about it (for it’s his land he lived on) and asked him why he was so fond of going there, but he only said: ‘Oh, it’s a wonderful old place, sir, and I’ve always been fond of the old-fashioned things, and when him (that was his man he meant) and me are together there, it seems to bring back the old times so plain.’ And my father said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it may suit you, but I shouldn’t like a lonely place like that in the middle of the night.’ And Mr. Davis smiled, and the young man, who’d been listening, said, ‘Oh, we don’t want for company at such times,’ and my father said he couldn’t help thinking Mr. Davis made some kind of sign, and the young man went on quick, as if to mend his words, and said, ‘That’s to say, Mr. Davis and me’s company enough for each other, ain’t we, master? and then there’s a beautiful air there of a summer night, and you can see all the country round under the moon, and it looks so different, seemingly, to what it do in the daytime. Why, all them harrows on the down —’
And then Mr. Davis cut in, seeming to be out of temper with the lad, and said, ‘Ah yes, they’re old-fashioned places, ain’t they, sir? Now, what would you think was the purpose of them?’ And my father said (now, dear me, it seems funny, doesn’t it, that I should recollect all this: but it took my fancy at the time, and though it’s dull perhaps for you, I can’t help finishing it out now), well, he said, ‘Why, I’ve heard, Mr. Davis, that they’re all graves, and I know, when I’ve had occasion to plough up one, there’s always been some old bones and pots turned up. But whose graves they are, I don’t know: people say the ancient Romans were all about this country at one time, but whether they buried their people like that I can’t tell.’ And Mr. Davis shook his head, thinking, and said, ‘Ah, to be sure: well they look to me to be older-like than the ancient Romans, and dressed different — that’s to say, according to the pictures the Romans was in armour, and you didn’t never find no armour, did you, sir, by what you said?’ And my father was rather surprised and said, ‘I don’t know that I mentioned anything about armour, but it’s true I don’t remember to have found any. But you talk as if you’d seen ’em, Mr. Davis,’ and they both of them laughed, Mr. Davis and the young man, and Mr. Davis said, ‘Seen ’em, sir? that would be a difficult matter after all these years. Not but what I should like well enough to know more about them old times and people, and what they worshipped and all.’ And my father said, ‘Worshipped? Well, I dare say they worshipped the old man on the hill.’ ‘Ah, indeed!’ Mr. Davis said, ‘well, I shouldn’t wonder,’ and my father went on and told them what he’d heard and read about the heathens and their sacrifices: what you’ll learn some day for yourself, Charles, when you go to school and begin your Latin. And they seemed to be very much interested, both of them; but my father said he couldn’t help thinking the most of what he was saying was no news to them. That was the only time he ever had much talk with Mr. Davis, and it stuck in his mind, particularly, he said, the young man’s word about not wanting for company: because in those days there was a lot of talk in the villages round about — why, but for my father interfering, the people here would have ducked an old lady for a witch.
Charles: What does that mean, granny, ducked an old lady for a witch? Are there witches here now?
Grandmother: No, no, dear! why, what ever made me stray off like that? No, no, that’s quite another affair. What I was going to say was that the people in other places round about believed that some sort of meetings went on at night-time on that hill where the man is, and that those who went there were up to no good. But don’t you interrupt me now, for it’s getting late. Well, I suppose it was a matter of three years that Mr. Davis and this young man went on living together: and then all of a sudden, a dreadful thing happened. I don’t know if I ought to tell you. (Outcries of ‘Oh yes! yes, granny, you must,’ etc.). Well, then, you must promise not to get frightened and go screaming out in the middle of the night. (No, no, we won’t, of course not!’) One morning very early towards the turn of the year, I think it was in September, one of the woodmen had to go up to his work at the top of the long covert just as it was getting light; and just where there were some few big oaks in a sort of clearing deep in the wood he saw at a distance a white thing that looked like a man through the mist, and he was in two minds about going on, but go on he did, and made out as he came near that it was a man, and more than that, it was Mr. Davis’s young man: dressed in a sort of white gown he was, and hanging by his neck to the limb of the biggest oak, quite, quite dead: and near his feet there lay on the ground a hatchet all in a gore of blood. Well, what a terrible sight that was for anyone to come upon in that lonely place! This poor man was nearly out of his wits: he dropped everything he was carrying and ran as hard as ever he could straight down to the Parsonage, and woke them up and told what he’d seen. And old Mr. White, who was the parson then, sent him off to get two or three of the best men, the blacksmith and the churchwardens and what not, while he dressed himself, and all of them went up to this dreadful place with a horse to lay the poor body on and take it to the house. When they got there, everything was just as the woodman had said: but it was a terrible shock to them all to see how the corpse was dressed, specially to old Mr. White, for it seemed to him to be like a mockery of the church surplice that was on it, only, he told my father, not the same in the fashion of it. And when they came to take down the body from the oak tree they found there was a chain of some metal round the neck and a little ornament like a wheel hanging to it on the front, and it was very old looking, they said. Now in the meantime they had sent off a boy to run to Mr. Davis’s house and see whether he was at home; for of course they couldn’t but have their suspicions. And Mr. White said they must send too to the constable of the next parish, and get a message to another magistrate (he was a magistrate himself), and so there was running hither and thither. But my father as it happened was away from home that night, otherwise they would have fetched him first. So then they laid the body across the horse, and they say it was all they could manage to keep the beast from bolting away from the time they were in sight of the tree, for it seemed to be mad with fright. However, they managed to bind the eyes and lead it down through the wood and back into the village street; and there, just by the big tree where the stocks are, they found a lot of the women gathered together, and this boy whom they’d sent to Mr. Davis’s house lying in the middle, as white as paper, and not a word could they get out of him, good or bad. So they saw there was something worse yet to come, and they made the best of their way up the lane to Mr. Davis’s house. And when they got near that, the horse they were leading seemed to go mad again with fear, and reared up and screamed, and struck out with its fore-feet and the man that was leading it was as near as possible being killed, and the dead body fell off its back. So Mr. White bid them get the horse away as quick as might be, and they carried the body straight into the living-room, for the door stood open. And then they saw what it was that had given the poor boy such a fright, and they guessed why the horse went mad, for you know horses can’t bear the smell of dead blood.
There was a long table in the room, more than the length of a man, and on it there lay the body of Mr. Davis. The eyes were bound over with a linen band and the arms were tied across the back, and the feet were bound together with another band. But the fearful thing was that the breast being quite bare, the bone of it was split through from the top downwards with an axe! Oh, it was a terrible sight; not one there but turned faint and ill with it, and had to go out into the fresh air. Even Mr. White, who was what you might call a hard nature of a man, was quite overcome and said a prayer for strength in the garden.
At last they laid out the other body as best they could in the room, and searched about to see if they could find out how such a frightful thing had come to pass. And in the cupboards they found a quantity of herbs and jars with liquors, and it came out, when people that understood such matters had looked into it, that some of these liquors were drinks to put a person asleep. And they had little doubt that that wicked young man had put some of this into Mr. Davis’s drink, and then used him as he did, and, after that, the sense of his sin had come upon him and he had cast himself away.
Well now, you couldn’t understand all the law business that had to be done by the coroner and the magistrates; but there was a great coming and going of people over it for the next day or two, and then the people of the parish got together and agreed that they couldn’t bear the thought of those two being buried in the churchyard alongside of Christian people; for I must tell you there were papers and writings found in the drawers and cupboards that Mr. White and some other clergymen looked into; and they put their names to a paper that said these men were guilty, by their own allowing, of the dreadful sin of idolatry; and they feared there were some in the neighbouring places that were not free from that wickedness, and called upon them to repent, lest the same fearful thing that was come to these men should befall them also; and then they burnt those writings. So then, Mr. White was of the same mind as the parishioners, and late one evening twelve men that were chosen went with him to that evil house, and with them they took two biers made very roughly for the purpose and two pieces of black cloth, and down at the cross-road, where you take the turn for Bascombe and Wilcombe, there were other men waiting with torches, and a pit dug, and a great crowd of people gathered together from all round about. And the men that went to the cottage went in with their hats on their heads, and four of them took the two bodies and laid them on the biers and covered them over with the black cloths, and no one said a word, but they bore them down the lane, and they were cast into the pit and covered over with stones and earth, and then Mr. White spoke to the people that were gathered together. My father was there, for he had come back when he heard the news, and he said he never should forget the strangeness of the sight, with the torches burning and those two black things huddled together in the pit, and not a sound from any of the people, except it might be a child or a woman whimpering with the fright. And so, when Mr. White had finished speaking, they all turned away and left them lying there.
They say horses don’t like the spot even now, and I’ve heard there was something of a mist or a light hung about for a long time after, but I don’t know the truth of that. But this I do know, that next day my father’s business took him past the opening of the lane, and he saw three or four little knots of people standing at different places along it, seemingly in a state of mind about something; and he rode up to them, and asked what was the matter. And they ran up to him and said, ‘Oh, Squire, it’s the blood! Look at the blood!’ and kept on like that. So he got off his horse and they showed him, and there, in four places, I think it was, he saw great patches in the road, of blood: but he could hardly see it was blood, for almost every spot of it was covered with great black flies, that never changed their place or moved. And that blood was what had fallen out of Mr. Davis’s body as they bore it down the lane. Well, my father couldn’t bear to do more than just take in the nasty sight so as to be sure of it, and then he said to one of those men that was there, ‘Do you make haste and fetch a basket or a barrow full of clean earth out of the churchyard and spread it over these places, and I’ll wait here till you come back.’ And very soon he came back, and the old man that was sexton with him, with a shovel and the earth in a hand-barrow: and they set it down at the first of the places and made ready to cast the earth upon it; and as as ever they did that, what do you think? the flies that were on it rose up in the air in a kind of a solid cloud and moved off up the lane towards the house, and the sexton (he was parish clerk as well) stopped and looked at them and said to my father, ‘Lord of flies, sir,’ and no more would he say. And just the same it was at the other places, every one of them.
Charles: But what did he mean, granny?
Grandmother: Well, dear, you remember to ask Mr. Lucas when you go to him for your lesson tomorrow. I can’t stop now to talk about it: it’s long past bed-time for you already. The next thing was, my father made up his mind no one was going to live in that cottage again, or yet use any of the things that were in it: so, though it was one of the best in the place, he sent round word to the people that it was to be done away with, and anyone that wished could bring a faggot to the burning of it; and that’s what was done. They built a pile of wood in the living-room and loosened the thatch so as the fire could take good hold, and then set it alight; and as there was no brick, only the chimney-stack and the oven, it wasn’t long before it was all gone. I seem to remember seeing the chimney when I was a little girl, but that fell down of itself at last.
Now this that I’ve got to is the last bit of all. You may be sure that for a long time the people said Mr. Davis and that young man were seen about, the one of them in the wood and both of them where the house had been, or passing together down the lane, particularly in the spring of the year and at autumn-time. I can’t speak to that, though if we were sure there are such things as ghosts, it would seem likely that people like that wouldn’t rest quiet. But I can tell you this, that one evening in the month of March, just before your grandfather and I were married, we’d been taking a long walk in the woods together and picking flowers and talking as young people will that are courting; and so much taken up with each other that we never took any particular notice where we were going. And on a sudden I cried out, and your grandfather asked what was the matter. The matter was that I’d felt a sharp prick on the back of my hand, and I snatched it to me and saw a black thing on it, and struck it with the other hand and killed it. And I showed it him, and he was a man who took notice of all such things, and he said, ‘Well, I’ve never seen ought like that fly before,’ and though to my own eye it didn’t seem very much out of the common, I’ve no doubt he was right.
And then we looked about us, and lo and behold if we weren’t in the very lane, just in front of the place where that house had stood, and, as they told me after, just where the men set down the biers a minute when they bore them out of the garden gate. You may be sure we made haste away from there; at least, I made your grandfather come away quick, for I was wholly upset at finding myself there; but he would have lingered about out of curiosity if I’d have let him. Whether there was anything about there more than we could see I shall never be sure: perhaps it was partly the venom of that horrid fly’s bite that was working in me that made me feel so strange; for, dear me, how that poor arm and hand of mine did swell up, to be sure! I’m afraid to tell you how large it was round! and the pain of it, too! Nothing my mother could put on it had any power over it at all, and it wasn’t till she was persuaded by our old nurse to get the wise man over at Bascombe to come and look at it, that I got any peace at all. But he seemed to know all about it, and said I wasn’t the first that had been taken that way. ‘When the sun’s gathering his strength,’ he said, ‘and when he’s in the height of it, and when he’s beginning to lose his hold, and when he’s in his weakness, them that haunts about that lane had best to sake heed to themselves.’ But what it was he bound on my arm and what he said over it, he wouldn’t tell us. After that I soon got well again, but since then I’ve heard often enough of people suffering much the same as I did; only of late years it doesn’t seem to happen but very seldom: and maybe things like that do die out in the course of time.
But that’s the reason, Charles, why I say to you that I won’t have you gathering me blackberries, no, nor eating them either, in that lane; and now you know all about it, I don’t fancy you’ll want to yourself. There! Off to bed you go this minute. What’s that, Fanny? A light in your room? The idea of such a thing! You get yourself undressed at once and say your prayers, and perhaps if your father doesn’t want me when he wakes up, I’ll come and say good-night to you. And you, Charles, if I hear anything of you frightening your little sister on the way up to your bed, I shall tell your father that very moment, and you know what happened to you the last time.
The door closes, and granny, after listening intently for a minute or two, resumes her knitting. The Squire still slumbers.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005