It was the following year, and we were again at Crabb Cot. Fever had broken out at Dr. Frost’s, and the school was dismissed. The leaves were falling late that year, for November was nearly half through, and they strewed the ground. But if the leaves were late, the frost was early. The weather had come in curiously cold. Three days before the morning I am about to speak of, the warm weather suddenly changed, and it was now as freezing as January. It is not often that you see ice mingling with the dead leaves of autumn. Both the ice and the leaves have to do with what happened: and I think you often find that if the weather is particularly unseasonable, we get something by which to remember it.
At the corner of a field between our house and North Crabb, stood a small solitary dwelling, called Willow Brook Cottage: but the brook from which it took its name was dry now. The house had a lonely look, and was lonely; and perhaps that kept it empty. It had been unoccupied for more than a year, when the Squire, tired of seeing it so, happened to say in the hearing of James Hill, that new bailiff of ours, that he would let it for an almost nominal rent. Hill caught at the words and said he would be glad to rent it: for some cause or other he did not like the house he was in, and had been wanting to leave it. At least, he said so: but he was of a frightfully stingy turn, and we all thought the low rent tempted him. Hill, this working bailiff, was a steady man, but severe upon every one.
It was during this early frost that he began to move in. One morning after breakfast, I was taking the broad pathway across the fields to North Crabb, which led close by Willow Cottage, and saw Hill wheeling a small truck up with some of his household goods. He was a tall, strong man, and the cold was tolerably sharp, but the load had warmed him.
“Good morning, Master Johnny.”
“Making ready for the flitting, Hill?”
Hill wheeled the truck up to the door, and sat down on one of the handles whilst he wiped his face. It was an honest, though cross face; habitually red. The house had a good large garden at its side, enclosed by wooden palings; with a shed and some pigstys at the back. Trees overshadowed the palings: and the fallen leaves, just now, inside the garden and out were ankle-deep.
“A fine labour I shall have, getting the place in order!” cried Hill, pointing to some broken palings and the overgrown branches. “Don’t think but what the Squire has the best of the bargain, after all!”
“You’d say that, Hill, if he gave you a house rent-free.”
Hill took the key from his pocket, unlocked the door, and we went in. This lower room was boarded; the kitchen was at the back; above were two fair-sized chambers. One of them looked towards Crabb Ravine; the other was only lighted by a skylight in the roof.
“You have had fires here, Hill!”
“I had ’em in every room all day yesterday, sir, and am going to light ’em again now. My wife said it must be done; and she warn’t far wrong; for a damp house plays the mischief with one’s bones. The fools that women be, to be sure! — and my wife’s the worst of ’em.”
“What has your wife done?”
“She had a bit of a accident yesterday, Master Johnny. A coming out with a few things for this place, she stepped upon some ice, and fell; it gave her ankle a twist, and she had to be helped home. I’m blest if she’s not a-saying now that it’s a bad omen! Because she can’t get about and help shift the things in here, she says we shan’t have nothing but ill-luck in the place.”
I had already heard of the accident. Hill’s wife was a little shrinking woman, mild and gentle, quite superior to him. She was a widow when he married her a short time ago, a Mrs. Garth, with one son, David. Miss Timmens, the schoolmistress at North Crab, was her sister. On the previous morning a letter had come from Worcester, saying their mother, Mrs. Timmens, was taken dangerously ill, and asking them to go over. Miss Timmens went; Hill refused for his wife. How could he get along at moving-time without her, he demanded. She cried and implored, but Hill was hard as flint. So she had to remain at home, and set about her preparations for removal; surly Hill was master and mistress too. In starting with the first lot of movables — a few things carried in her arms — the accident occurred. So that, in the helping to move, she was useless; and the neighbours, ever ready to take part in a matrimonial grievance, said it served Hill right. Any way, it did not improve his temper.
“When do you get in here, Hill?”
“To-morrow, Master Johnny, please the pigs. But for the wife’s awk’ardness we’d ha’ been in today. As to any help Davvy could give, it’s worth no more nor a rat’s; he haven’t got much more strength in him nor one neither. Drat the boy!”
Leaving Hill to his task, I went on; and in passing Mrs. Hill’s dwelling, I thought I’d give a look in to inquire after the ankle. The cottage stood alone, just as this other one did, but was less lonely, for the Crabb houses were round about. Davy’s voice called out, “Come in.”
He was the handiest little fellow possible for any kind of housework — or for sewing, either; but not half strong enough or rough enough for a boy. His soft brown eyes had a shrinking look in them, his face was delicate as a girl’s, and his hair hung in curls. But he was a little bit deformed in the back — some called it only a stoop in the shoulders — and, though fourteen, might have been taken for ten. The boy’s love for his mother was something wonderful. They had lived at Worcester; she had a small income, and he had been well brought up. When she married Hill — all her friends were against it, and it was in fact a frightful mistake — of course they had to come to North Crabb; but Davy was not happy. Always a timid lad, he could not overcome his first fear of Hill. Not that the man was unkind, only rough and resolute.
Davy was washing up the breakfast-things; his mother sat near, sorting the contents of a chest: a neat little woman in a green stuff gown, with the same sweet eyes as David and the same shrinking look in them. She left off when I went in, and said her ankle was no worse.
“It’s a pity it happened just now, Mrs. Hill.”
“I’d have given a great deal for it not to, sir. They call me foolish, I know; always have done; but it just seems to me like an omen. I had a few articles in my arms, the first trifles we’d begun to move, and down I fell on going out at this door. To me it seems nothing but a warning that we ought not to move into Willow Cottage.”
David had halted in his work at the tea-cups, his brown eyes fixed on his mother. That it was not the first time he had listened to the superstition, and that he was every whit as bad as she, might plainly be seen.
“I have never liked the thought of that new place from the first, Master Johnny. It is as if something held me back from it. Hill keeps saying that it’s a convenient dwelling, and dirt-cheap; and so it is; but I don’t like the notion of it. No more does David.”
“Oh, I dare say you will like it when you get in, Mrs. Hill, and David, too.”
“It is to be hoped so, sir.”
The day went on; and its after events I can only speak of from hearsay. Hill moved in a good many of his goods, David carrying some of the lighter things, Luke Macintosh was asked to go and sleep in the house that night as a safeguard against thieves, but he flatly refused, unless some one slept there with him. Hill ridiculed his cowardice; and finally agreed that David should bear him company.
He made the bargain without his wife. She had other views for David. Her intention was to send the lad over to Worcester by the seven-o’clock evening train; not so much because his bed and bedding had been carried off and there was nothing for him to sleep on, as that his dying grandmother had expressed a wish to see him. To hear then that David was not to go, did not please Mrs. Hill.
It was David himself who carried in the news. She had tea waiting on the table when they came in: David first, for his step-father had stopped to speak to some one in the road.
“But, David, dear — you must go to Worcester,” she said, when he told her.
“He will never let me, mother,” was David’s answer. “He says the things might be stolen if nobody takes care of them: and Macintosh is afraid to be there alone.”
She paused and looked at him, a thought striking her. The boy was leaning upon her in his fond manner, his hand in hers.
“Should you be afraid, David?”
“Not — I think — with Luke. We are to be in the same room, mother.”
But Mrs. Hill noticed that his voice was hesitating; his small weak hand trembled in hers. There was not a more morally brave heart than David Garth’s; he had had a religious training; but at being alone in the dark he was a very coward, afraid of ghosts and goblins.
“Hill,” said she to her husband when he stamped in, the lad having gone to wash his hands, “I cannot let David sleep in the other house to-night. He will be too timid.”
“Timid!” repeated Hill, staring at the words. “Why, Luke Macintosh will be with him.”
“David won’t like it. Macintosh is nothing but a coward himself.”
“Don’t thee be a fool, and show it,” returned Hill, roughly. “Thee’ll keep that boy a baby for his life. Davvy would as soon sleep in the house alone, as not, but for the folly put into his head by you. And why not? He’s fourteen.”
Hill — to give him his due — only spoke as he thought. That any one in the world, grown to fourteen and upwards, could be afraid of sleeping in a house alone, was to him literally incomprehensible.
“I said he must go over to Worcester to see mother, James,” she meekly resumed; “you know I did.”
“Well, he can’t go to-night; he shall go in the morning. There! He may stop with her for a week, an’ ye like, for all the good he is to me.”
“Mother’s looking for him to-night, and he ought to go. The dying ——”
“Now just you drop it, for he can’t be spared,” interrupted Hill. “The goods might be stole, with all the loose characters there is about, and that fool of a Macintosh won’t go in of himself. He’s a regular coward! Davvy must keep him company — it’s not so much he does for his keep — and he may start for Worcester by daylight.”
Whenever Hill came down upon her with this resolute decision, it struck her timid forthwith. The allusion to the boy’s keep was an additional thrust, for it was beginning to be rather a sore subject. An uncle at Worcester, who had no family and was well to do, had partly offered to adopt the lad; but it was not yet settled. Davy was a great favourite with all the relatives; Miss Timmens, the schoolmistress, doted on him. Mrs. Hill, not venturing on further remonstrance, made the best of the situation.
“Davy, you are to go to Worcester the first thing in the morning,” she said, when he came back from washing his hands. “So as soon as you’ve been home and had a bit o’ breakfast, you shall run off to the train.”
Tea over, Hill went out on some business, saying he should be in at eight, or thereabouts, to go with Davy to the cottage. As the hour drew near, David, sitting over the fire with his mother in pleasant talk, as they loved to do, asked if he should read before he went: for her habit was to read the Bible to him, or cause him to read to her, the last thing.
“Yes, dear,” she said. “Read the ninety-first Psalm.”
So David read it. Closing the book when it was over, he sat with it on his knee, thoughtfully.
“If we could only see the angels, mother! It is so difficult to remember always that they are close around, taking care of us.”
“So it is, Davy. Most of us forget it.”
“When life’s over it will be so pleasant for them to carry us away to heaven! I wish you and I could go together, mother.”
“We shall each go when God pleases, David.”
“Oh yes, I know that.”
Mrs. Hill, remembering this little bit of conversation, word for word, repeated it afterwards to me and others, with how they had sat, and David’s looks. I say this for fear people might think I had invented it.
Hill came in, and they prepared to go to the other house. David, his arms full — for, of course, with things to be carried, they did not go out empty-handed — came suddenly back from the door in going out, flung his load down, and clasped his mother. She bent to kiss him.
“Good night, my dear one! Don’t you and Luke get chattering all night. Go to sleep betimes.”
He burst into tears, clinging to her with sobs. It was as if his heart were breaking.
“Are you afraid to go?” she whispered.
“I must go,” was his sobbing answer.
“Now then, Davvy!” called back Hill’s rough tones. “What the plague are you lagging for?”
“Say good-bye to me, mother! Say good-bye!”
“Good-bye, and God bless you, David! Remember the angels are around you!”
“I know; I know!”
Taking up his bundles, he departed, keeping some paces behind Hill all the way; partly to hide his face, down which the tears were raining; partly in his usual awe of that formidable functionary who stood to him as a step-father.
Arrived at the house, Hill was fumbling for the key, when some one came darting out from the shadow of its eaves. It proved to be Luke Macintosh.
“I was a-looking round for you,” said crusty Hill. “I began to think you’d forgot the time o’ meeting.”
“No, I’d not forgot it; but I be come to say that I can’t oblige you by sleeping there,” was Luke’s reply. “The master have ordered me off with the waggon afore dawn, and so — I’m a-going to sleep at home.”
Had I been there, I could have said the master had not ordered Luke off before dawn; but after his breakfast. It was just a ruse of his, to avoid doing what he had never relished, sleeping in the house. Hill suspected as much, and went on at him, mockingly asking if he was afraid of hobgoblins. Luke dodged away in the midst of it, and Hill relieved his anger by a little hot language.
“Come along, Davvy,” said he at last; “we must put these here things inside.”
Unlocking the door, he went in; and, the first thing, fell against something or other in the dark. Hill swore a little at that, and struck a light, the fire having gone out. This lower room was full of articles, thrown down out of hand; the putting things straight had been left to the morrow.
“Carry the match afore me, Davvy. These blankets must go upstairs.”
By some oversight no candles had been taken to the house; only the box of matches. David lighted one match after the other, while Hill arranged the blankets on the mattress for sleeping. This room — the one with the skylight — was to be David’s.
“There,” said Hill, taking the box of matches from him, “you’ll be comfortable here till morning. If you find it cold, you might keep on your trousers.”
David Garth stood speechless, a look of horror struggling to his face. In that first moment he dared not remonstrate; his awe of Hill was too great.
“What’s the matter now?” asked Hill, striking another match. “What ails you?”
“You’ll not leave me here, all by myself?” whispered the unhappy boy, in desperate courage.
“Not leave you here by yourself! Why, what d’ye think is to harm you? Don’t you try on your nonsense and your games with me, Master Davvy. I’m not soft, like your mother. Say your prayers and get to sleep, and I’ll come and let you out in the morning.”
By a dexterous movement, Hill got outside, and closed the door softly, slipping the bolt. The match in his fingers was nearly burnt out; nevertheless, it had shown a last faint vision of a boy kneeling in supplication, his hands held up, his face one of piteous agony. As Hill struck another match to light the staircase, a wailing cry mingled with the sound: entreaties to be let out; prayers not to be left alone; low moans, telling of awful terror.
“Drat the boy! This comes of his mother’s coddling. Hold your row, Davvy,” he roared out, wrathfully: “you’d not like me to come back and give you a basting.”
And Mr. James Hill, picking his way over the bundles, locked the outer door, and betook himself home. That was our respectable bailiff. What do you think of him?
“Did you leave Davy comfortable?” asked Mrs. Hill, when he got back.
“He’ll be comfortable enough when he’s asleep,” shortly answered Hill. “Of all hardened, ungrateful boys, that of yourn’s the worst.”
“Had Luke come when you got there?” she resumed, passing over the aspersion on Davy.
“He was waiting: he came right out upon us like an apparition,” was Hill’s evasive answer. And he did not tell the rest.
But now, a singular thing happened that night. Mrs. Hill was in a sound sleep, when a loud, agonized cry of “Mother” aroused her from it. She started up, wide awake instantly, and in terror so great that the perspiration began to pour off her face. In that moment the call was repeated. The voice was David’s voice; it had appeared to be in the room, close to her, and she peered into every corner in vain. Then she supposed it must have come through the window; that David, from some cause or other, had come home from Willow Brook, and was waiting to be let in. A dread crossed her of Hill’s anger, and she felt inclined to order the boy to go back again.
Opening the casement window, she called to him by name; softly at first, then louder. There was no answer. Mrs. Hill stretched out her head as far as the narrow casement allowed, but neither David nor anyone else could she see; nothing but the shadows cast by the moonlight. Just then the old church clock struck out. She counted the strokes and found it twelve. Midnight. It was bitterly cold: she closed the window at last, concluding David had gone off from fear of being punished. All she could hope was that he would have the sense, that dangerously keen night, to run off to the brick kilns, and get warm there.
But the terror lay upon her yet; she was unable to tell why or wherefore; unless from the strangely appealing agony of the cry; still less could she shake it off. It seemed odd. Hill awoke with the commotion, and found her trembling.
“What have ye got to be affrighted on?” he asked roughly, when she had told her tale. And Mrs. Hill was puzzled to say what.
“You had been a-dreaming of him, that’s what it was. You’ve got nothing else in your mind, day nor night, but that there boy.”
“It was not a dream; I am quite positive it was himself; I could not mistake his voice,” persisted Mrs. Hill. “He has come away from the cottage, for sure. Perhaps that Luke Macintosh might have got teasing him.”
Knowing what Hill knew, that the boy was locked in, he might safely have stood out that he could not have come away from it; but he said no more. Rolling himself round, he prepared to go to sleep again, resentful at having been awakened.
Hill overslept himself in the morning, possibly through the interrupted rest. When he went out it was broad daylight. David Garth’s being locked up half-an-hour more or less went for nothing with Hill, and he stayed to load the truck with some of the remainder of his goods.
“Send Davy home at once, James,” called out the wife, as he began to wheel it away. “I’ll give him his breakfast, and let him start off to the train.”
For, with daylight, and the sight of the door-key, Mrs. Hill could only reverse her opinion, and conclude unwillingly that it might have been a dream. Hill showed her the key, telling her that he had locked the door “for safety.” Therefore it appeared to be impossible that David could have got out.
The first thing Hill saw when he and his truck approached the cottage, was young Jim Batley, mounted on the roof and hammering away at the skylight with his freezing hands. Jim, a regular sailor for climbing, had climbed a tree, and thence swung himself on to the tiles. Hill treated him to some hard words, and ordered him to come down and get a licking. Down came Jim, taking care to dodge out of Hill’s reach.
“I can’t make David hear,” said Jim. “I’ve got to go to Timberdale, and I want him to go along with me.”
“That’s no reason why you should get atop of my roof,” roared Hill. “You look out for a sweet hiding, young Jim. The first time I get hold on you, you shall have it kindly.”
“He sleeps uncommon hard,” said Jim. “One ‘ud think the cold had froze him. I’ve got to take a letter to my uncle’s at Timberdale: we shall find a jolly good hot breakfast when we get there.”
Hill condescended to abate his anger so far as to inform Jim Batley that David could not go to Timberdale; adding that he was going off by train to see his grandmother at Worcester. Ordering Jim to take himself away, he unlocked the door and entered the cottage.
Jim Batley chose to stay. He was a tall, thin, obstinate fellow, of eleven, and meant to wait and speak to David. Given to following his own way whenever he could, in spite of his father and mother, it occurred to him that perhaps David might be persuaded to take Timberdale first and the train after.
He amused himself with the dead leaves while he waited. But it seemed that David took a long time dressing. The truck stood at the door; Jim stamped and whistled, and shied a few stones at the topmost article, which was Mrs. Hill’s potato saucepan. Presently Hill came out and began to unload, beginning with the saucepan.
“Where’s Davy?” demanded Jim, from a safe distance. “Ain’t he ready yet?”
“Now if you don’t get off about your business I’ll make you go,” was Hill’s answer, keeping his back turned to the boy. “You haven’t got nothing to stop here for.”
“I’m stopping to speak to Davy.”
“Davy was away out o’ here afore daylight and took the first train to Worcester. He’s a’most there by now.”
Young boys are not clever reasoners; but certain contradictory odds and ends passed through Jim’s disappointed mind. For one thing, he had seen Hill unlock the door.
“I don’t think he’s gone out yet. I see his boots.”
“What boots?” asked Hill, putting a bandbox inside the door.
“Davy’s. I see ’em through the skylight; they stood near the mattress.”
“Them was a pair of my boots as I carried here last night. I tell ye Davvy’s gone: can’t ye believe? He won’t be home for some days neither, for his grandmother’s safe to keep him.”
Jim Batley went off slowly on his way to Timberdale: there was nothing to stay for, Davy being gone. Happening to turn round, he caught Hill looking after him, and saw his face for the first time. It had turned white as death. The contrast was very remarkable, for it was usually of a deep red.
“Well, I never!” cried Jim, halting in surprise. “Mayhap the cold have took him! Serve him right.”
When Hill had got all the things inside he locked himself in, probably not to be disturbed while he arranged them. Mrs. Hill had been waiting breakfast ever so long when she heard the truck coming back.
“Whatever’s become of David?” she began. “I expected him home at once.”
“David has started for Worcester,” said Hill.
“Started for Worcester? Without his breakfast?”
“Now don’t you worry yourself about petty things,” returned Hill, crustily. “You wanted him to go, and he’s gone. He won’t starve; let him alone for that.”
The notion assumed by Mrs. Hill was, that her husband had started the boy off from the cottage direct to the train. She felt thoroughly vexed.
“He had all his old clothes on, Hill. I would not have had him go to Worcester in that plight for any money. You might have let the child come home for a bit of breakfast — and to dress himself. There was not so much as a brush and comb at the place, to make his hair tidy.”
“There’s no pleasing you,” growled Hill. “Last night you were a’most crying, cause Davvy couldn’t be let go over to see your mother; and, now that he is gone, that don’t please ye! Women be the very deuce for grumbling.”
Mrs. Hill dropped the subject — there could be no remedy — and gave her husband his breakfast in silence. Hill seemed to eat nothing, and looked very pale; at moments ghastly.
“Don’t you feel well?” she asked.
“Well? — I’m well enough. What should ail me — barring the cold? It’s as sharp a frost as ever I was out in.”
“Drink this,” she said, pouring him out another cup of hot tea. “It is cold; and I’m sorry we’ve got it so for our moving. What time shall we get in today, Hill?”
“Not at all.”
“Not at all!” repeated the wife in surprise.
“No, not at all,” was Hill’s surly confirmation. “What with you disabled, and Davvy o’ no use, things is not as forrard as they ought to be. I’ve got to be off to my work too, pretty quick, or the Squire’ll be about me. We shan’t get in till tomorrow.”
“But nearly all our things are in,” she remonstrated. “There’s as good as nothing left here.”
“I tell ye we don’t go in afore tomorrow,” said Hill, giving the table a thump. “Can’t ye be satisfied with that?”
He went off to his work. Mrs. Hill, accepting the change as inevitable, resigned herself, and borrowed a saucepan to cook the potatoes for dinner. She might have spared herself the trouble; her husband did not come in for any. He bought a penny loaf and some cheese, and made his dinner of it inside our home barn, Molly giving him some beer. He had done it before when very busy: but the work he was about that day was in no such hurry, and he might have left it if he would.
“Who is to sleep in the house to-night?” his wife asked him when he got home to tea.
“I shall,” said Hill. “I won’t be beholden to nobody.”
Mrs. Hill, remembering the experience of the past night, quaked a little at finding she should have to sleep in the old place alone, devoutly praying there might be no recurrence of the dream that had thrown her into such mortal terror. She and Davy were just alike — frightened at their own shadows in the dark. When Hill was safe off, she hurried into bed, and kept her head under the clothes.
Hill came back betimes in the morning; and they moved in at once; old Coney’s groom, who happened to be out with the dog-cart, offering to drive Mrs. Hill. Though her ankle was better and the distance short, she could hardly have walked. Instead of finding the house in order, as she expected, it was all sixes and sevens; the things lying about all over it.
Towards evening, Hannah got me to call at Willow Brook and say she’d go there in the morning for an hour or two, to help put things in order — the mistress had said she might do so. The fact was, Hannah was burning for a gossip, she and Hill’s wife being choice friends. It was almost dark; the front room looked tolerably straight, and Mrs. Hill sat by the fire, resting her foot and looking out at the window, the shutters not yet closed.
“I’d be very thankful for her to come, Master Johnny,” she said eagerly, hardly letting me finish. “There’s a great deal to do; and, besides that, it is so lonesome here. I never had such a feeling in all my life; and I have gone into strange homes before this.”
“It does seem lonesome, somehow. The fancy may go off in a day or two.”
“I don’t know, sir: it’s to be hoped it will. Master Johnny, as true as that we are sitting here, when I got out of Mr. Coney’s dog-cart and put my foot over the threshold to enter, a fit of trembling took me all over. There was no cause for it: I mean I was not thinking of anything to give it me. Not a minute before, I was laughing; for the man had been telling me a joking story of something that happened yesterday at his master’s. A strange fear seemed to come upon me all at once as I stepped over the threshold, and I began to shake from head to foot. Hill stared at me, and at last asked if it was the cold; I told him truly that I did not know what it was; except that it seemed like some unaccountable attack, for I was well wrapped up. He had some brandy in a bottle, and made me drink a drop. The fit went off; but I have had a queer lonesome feeling on me ever since, as if the house was not one to be alone in.”
“And you have been alone, I suppose?”
“Every bit of the time, save when Hill came in to his dinner. I don’t remember ever to have had such a feeling before in broad daylight. It’s just as if the house was haunted.”
Not believing in haunted houses, I laughed. Mrs. Hill got up to stir the fire. It blazed, and cast her shadow upon the opposite wall.
“When dusk came on, I could hardly bear it. But for your coming in, Master Johnny, I should have stood at the door in the cold, and watched for Hill: things don’t feel so lonely to one out of doors as in.”
So it seemed that I was in for a stay — any way, till Hill arrived. After this, it would not have been very kind to leave her alone; she looked so weak and little.
“I’ve never liked the thought of moving here from the first,” she went on; “and then there came the accident to my foot. Some people think nothing at all of omens, Master Johnny, but I do think of them. They come oftener than is thought for too; only, so few take notice of them. I wish Davy was back! I can’t bear to be in this house alone.”
“David is at Worcester, I heard Hill say.”
“He went yesterday morning, sir. I expected a letter from him today; and it is very curious that none have come. Davy knew how anxious I was about mother; and he never fails to write when he’s away from me. Somehow, all things are going crooked and cross just now. I had a fright the night before last. Master Johnny, and I am hardly quit of it yet.”
“What was that?” I asked her.
She stared into the fire for a minute or two before she answered me. There was no other light in the room; I sat back against the wall beside the window — the shutters were still open.
“You might not care to hear it, sir.”
“I should if it’s worth telling.”
Turning from the fire, she looked straight at me while she told it from beginning to end, exactly as I have written it above. The tale would have been just the thing for Mrs. Todhetley: who went in for marvels.
“Hill stood to it that it was a dream, Master Johnny; but the more I think of it, the less I believe it could have been one. If I had only heard the call in my sleep, or in the moment of waking, why of course it might have been a dream; but when I heard it the second time it was after I awoke. I heard it as plain as I hear my own voice now; and plainer, too.”
“But what else, except a dream, do you fancy it could have been?”
“Well, sir, that’s what is puzzling me. But for Hill’s convincing me Davy could not have got out of here after he had locked him and Macintosh in for safety, I should have said it was the boy himself, calling me from outside. It sounded in the room, close to me: but the fright I was in might have deceived me. What’s that?”
A loud rapping at the window. I am not ashamed to say that coming so unexpectedly it startled me. Mrs. Hill, with a shrill scream, darted forward to catch hold of my arm.
“Let me go. Some one wants to be let in. I dare say it’s Hill.”
“Master Johnny, I beg your pardon,” she said, going back. “Hill ought to know better than to come frightening me at night like this.”
I opened the door, and Miss Timmens walked in: not Hill. The knocking had not been intended to frighten any one, but as a greeting to Mrs. Hill — Miss Timmens having seen her through the glass.
“You know you always were one of the quaking ones, Nanny,” she said, scoffing at the alarm. “I have just got back from Worcester, and thought you’d like to hear that mother’s better.”
“And it is well you are back, Miss Timmens,” I put in. “The school has been in rebellion. Strangers, going by, have taken it for a bear garden.”
“That Maria Lease is just good for nothing,” said Miss Timmens, wrathfully. “When she offered to take my place I knew she’d not be of much use. Yes, sir; it was the thought of the school that brought me back so soon.”
“And mother is really better!” cried Mrs. Hill. “I am so thankful. If she had died and I not able to get over to her, I should never have forgiven myself. How is David?”
“Are you getting straight, Nancy?” asked Miss Timmens, looking round the room, and not noticing the question about David.
“Straight! and only moved in this morning! and me with this ankle!”
Miss Timmens laughed. She was just as capable as her sister was the contrary.
“About David?” added Mrs. Hill, “I was so vexed that he went over in his old clothes! It was Hill’s fault. Have you brought me a letter from him?”
“How could I bring you a letter from him?” returned Miss Timmens. “A letter from where?”
It was a minute or two before elucidation was arrived at, for both were at cross-purposes. David Garth had not been at Worcester at all, so far as Miss Timmens knew; certainly not at his grandmother’s.
To see Mrs. Hill sink back into her chair at this information, and let her hands fall on her lap, and gaze helplessly from her frightened eyes, was only to be expected. Miss Timmens kept asking what it all meant, and where David was, but she could get no answer. So I told her what Mother Hill had just told me — about Hill’s sending him off to Worcester. She stared like anything.
“Why, where in the name of wonder can the boy have got to?”
“I see it all,” spoke the mother then, in a whisper. “Davy did find his way out of this house; and it was his voice I heard, and not a dream. I knew it. I knew it at the time.”
These words would have sounded mysterious to any one given to mystery. Miss Timmens was not. She was a long, thin female, with a chronic redness on her nose and one cheek, and she was as practical as could be. Demanding what Mrs. Hill meant by “not a dream,” she stood warming her boots at the fire while she was enlightened.
“The boy is keeping away for fear of Hill tanning him,” spoke Miss Timmens, summing up the question. “Don’t you think so, Master Ludlow?”
“I should, if I could see how he got out of the cottage, after Hill had locked him in it.”
“Luke Macintosh put him out at this window,” said Miss Timmens, decisively. “Hill couldn’t lock that up. They’d open the shutters, and Luke would pop him out: to get rid of the boy, no doubt. Mr. Luke ought to be punished for it.”
I did not contradict her. Of course it might have been so; but knowing Luke, I did not think he would care to be left in the house alone. Unless — the thought flashed over me — unless Luke sent away David that he might be off himself. Amidst a good deal of uncertainty, this view seemed the most probable.
“Where is David?” bemoaned Mrs. Hill; “where is he? And with these bitter cold nights ——”
“Now don’t you worry yourself, Nanny,” interrupted strong-minded Miss Timmens. “I’ll see to David; and bring him home, too.”
Hill’s cough was heard outside. Miss Timmens — who had been in a dead rage at the marriage, and consequently hated Hill like poison — hastened to depart. We went away together, passing Hill by the dried-up brook. He looked stealthily at us, and threw back a surly good night to me.
“I’m sure I don’t know where I am to look for the boy first,” began Miss Timmens, as we went along. “Poor fellow! he is keeping away out of fear. It would not surprise me if Macintosh is taking care of him. The man’s not ill-natured.”
“I don’t understand why Hill should have told his mother David was gone to Worcester, unless he did go.” Neither did I.
“David never went to Worcester; rely upon that, Master Ludlow,” was her answer. “He is well known at Shrub Hill Station, and I could not have failed to hear of it, for one of the porters lodges in mother’s house; besides, David would have come down to us at once. Good night, sir. I dare say he will turn up before tomorrow.”
She went on towards the school-house, I the other way to Crabb Cot. Mrs. Todhetley and the Squire were talking together by the blazing fire, waiting until old Thomas announced dinner.
“Where have you been lingering this cold evening, Johnny?” began the Squire. “Don’t you get trying the ponds, sir; the ice is not wafer thick yet.”
Kneeling on the rug between them, holding my hands to the warmth, I told where I had been, and what I had heard. Mrs. Todhetley, who seemed to have been born with a sympathy for children, went into lamentation over — it was what she said — that poor little gentle lamb, David.
“Macintosh is about somewhere,” spoke the Squire, ringing the bell. “We will soon hear whether he knows what has become of the boy.”
Thomas was ordered to find Macintosh and send him in. He came presently, shy and sheepish, as usual. Standing just inside the door, he blinked his eyes and rubbed his hands one over the other, like an idiot. It was only his way.
“Do you know where David Garth is?” began the Squire, who thought himself a regular Q.C. at cross-examining. Luke stared and said No. The fact was, he had not heard that David was missing.
“What time was it that you put him out of the window the night before last?”
Luke’s eyes and mouth opened. He had no more idea what the Squire meant than the man in the moon.
“Don’t stand there as if you were a born simpleton, but answer me,” commanded the Squire. “When you and David Garth were put into Hill’s new cottage to take care of the things for the night, how came you to let the boy out of it? Why did you do it? Upon what plea?”
“But I didn’t do it, sir,” said Luke.
“Now don’t you stand there and say that to my face, Macintosh. It won’t answer; for I know all about it. You put that poor shivering boy out at the window that you might be off yourself; that’s about the English of it. Where did he go to?”
“But I couldn’t do it, sir,” was Luke’s answer to this. “I was not in the place myself.”
“You were not there yourself?”
“No, sir, I warn’t. Knowing I should have to go off with the waggon pretty early, I went down and telled Hill that I should sleep at home.”
“Do you mean to say you did not go into Hill’s place at all?”
“No, sir, I didn’t. I conclude Hill slept there hisself. I know nothing about it, for I don’t happen to have come across Hill since. I’ve kept out of his way.”
This was a new turn to the affair. Luke quitted the room, and a silence ensued. Mrs. Todhetley touched me on the shoulder.
“Yes!” I said, wondering at the startled look in her eyes.
“I hope Hill did not put that poor child into the house alone! If so, no wonder that he made his escape from it.”
The matter could not rest. One talked, and another talked: and before noon next day it was known all over the place that David Garth had been put to sleep by himself in the empty cottage. Miss Timmens attacked Hill with her strong tongue, and told him it was enough to frighten the child to death. Hill was sullen. He would answer nothing; and all she could get out of him was, that it was no business of hers. In vain she demanded his reasons for saying the boy had gone to Worcester by the early train: whether he sent him — whether he saw him off. Hill said David did go; and then took refuge in dogged silence.
The schoolmistress was not one to be played with. Of a tenacious turn, she followed out things with a will. She called in the police; she harangued people outside her door; she set the parish in a ferment. But David could not be heard of, high or low. Since the midnight hour, when that call of his awoke his mother, and was again repeated, he seemed to have vanished.
There arose a rumour that Jim Batley could tell something. Miss Timmens pounced upon him as he was going by the school-house, conveyed him indoors, and ordered him to make a clean breast of it. It was not much that Jim had to tell: but that little seemed of importance to Miss Timmens, and he told it readily. One thing Jim persisted in-that the boots he saw through the skylight must have been David’s boots. Hill had called them his, he said, but they were not big enough — not men’s boots at all. Hill was looking “ghastly white,” as if he had had a fright, Jim added, when he told him David was gone off to Worcester.
Perhaps it was in that moment that a fear of something worse than had been yet suspected dawned upon Miss Timmens. Tying on her bonnet, she came up to Crabb Cot, and asked to see the Squire.
“It is getting more serious,” she said, after old Thomas had shown her in. “I think, sir, Hill should be forced to explain what he knows. I have come here to ask you to insist upon it.”
“The question is — what does he know?” rejoined the Squire.
“More than he has confessed,” said Miss Timmens, in her positive manner. “Jim Batley stands to it that those boots must, from the size, have been David’s boots. Now, Squire Todhetley, if David’s boots were there, where was David? That is what’s lying on my mind, sir.”
“What did Jim Batley see besides the boots?” asked the Squire.
“Nothing in particular,” she answered. “He said the cupboard door stood open, and hid the best part of the room. David would not be likely to run away and leave his boots behind him.”
“Unless he was in too great a fright to stop to put them on.”
“I don’t think that, sir.”
“What is it you wish to imply?” asked the Squire, not seeing the drift of the argument.
“I wish I knew myself,” replied Miss Timmens, candidly. “I am certain Hill has not told all he could tell: he has been deceitful over it from the first, and he must be made to explain. Look here, sir: when he got to Willow Cottage that morning, there’s no doubt he thought David was in it. Very well. He goes in to call him; stays a bit, and then comes out and tells young Jim that David has gone to Worcester. How was he to know David had gone to Worcester? — who told him? The boy says, too, that Hill looked ghastly, as if he had been frightened.”
“David must have gone somewhere, or he would have been in the room,” argued the Squire. “He would not be likely to go back after quitting it, and his mother heard him call to her in the middle of the night.”
“Just so, sir. But — if Hill did not find him, why should he come out and assert that David had started for Worcester? — Why not have said David had escaped?”
“I am sure I don’t know.”
“It’s the boots that come over me,” avowed Miss Timmens; “I can’t come to the bottom of them. I mean to come to the bottom of Hill, though, and make him disclose what he knows. You are his master, sir, and perhaps he will tell you without trouble, if you will please to be so good as question him. If he won’t, I’ll have him brought up before the Bench.”
Away went Miss Timmens, with a parting remark that the school must be rampant by that time. The Squire sat thinking a bit, and then put on his hat and great-coat, telling me I might come with him and hear what Hill had to say. We expected to find Hill in the ploughed field between his cottage and North Crabb. But Hill was in his own garden; we saw him as we went along. Without ceremony, the Squire opened the wooden gate, and stepped in. Hill was raking the leaves together by the shed at the end of the garden.
He threw down the rake when he saw us, as if startled, his red face turning white. Coming forward, he began a confused excuse for being at home at that hour of the day, saying there was so much to do when getting into a fresh place; and that he had not been well for two days, “had had a sickness upon him.” The Squire, never hard with the men, told him he was welcome to be there, and began talking about the garden.
“It is as rich a bit of land, Hill, as any in the parish, and you may turn it to good account if you are industrious. Does your wife intend to keep chickens?”
“Well, sir, I suppose she will. Town-bred women don’t understand far about ’em, though. It may be a’most as much loss as profit.”
“Nonsense,” said the Squire, in his quick way. “Loss! when you have every convenience about you! This used to be the fowl-house in Hopton’s time,” he added, rapping the side of the shed with his stick. “Why! you’ve been putting a padlock on it, Hill!”
For the door was fastened with a padlock; a new one, to judge by its look. Hill made no comment. He had taken up the rake again and was raking vigorously at the dead leaves. I wondered what he was shaking for.
“Have you any treasures here, that you should lock it up?”
“Only the watering-can, sir, and a few o’ my garden tools,” answered Hill. “There’s a heap of loose characters about, and nothing’s safe from ’em.”
Putting his back against the shed, the Squire suddenly called on Hill to face him, and entered on the business he had come upon. “Where was David Garth? Did he, Hill, know anything about him?”
Hill had looked pale before; I said so; but that was nothing to the frightful whiteness that took him now. Ears, lips, neck; all turned the hue of the dead. The rake shook in his grasp; his teeth chattered.
“Come, Hill,” said the Squire; “I see you have something to say.”
But Hill protested he had nothing to say: except that the boy’s absence puzzled him. The Squire put some home questions upon the points spoken of by Miss Timmens, showing Hill that we knew all. He then told him he might take his choice; answer, or go before the magistrates.
Apparently Hill saw the futility of holding out longer. His very aspect would have convicted him, as the Squire said: if he had committed murder, he could not have looked more guilty. Glancing shudderingly around on all sides, as though the air had phantoms in it, he whispered his version of the morning’s work.
It was true that he had gone to the house expecting to find David in it; and it was true that when he entered he found him flown. Not wishing to alarm the boy’s mother, he told Jim Batley that David had gone by early train to Worcester: he told the mother so. As to the boots, Hill declared they were his own, not David’s; and that Jim’s eyes must have been deceived in the size. And he vowed and declared he knew no more than this, or where David could have got to.
“What do you think you deserve for locking the child in the house by himself?” asked the Squire, sternly.
“Everything that’ll come upon me through it,” readily acknowledged Hill. “I could cut my hands off now for having done it; but I never thought he’d be really frightened. It’s just as if his ghost had been haunting me ever since; I see him a-following of me everywhere.”
“His ghost!” exclaimed the Squire. “Do you suppose he is dead?”
“I don’t know,” said the man, passing his shaking hand across his damp forehead. “I wish to Heaven I had let him go off to his grandmother’s that same blessed night!”
“Then you wish me to understand, Hill, that you absolutely know nothing of where the boy may be?”
“Nothing at all, sir.”
“Don’t you think it might have been as well if you had told the truth from the first?” asked the Squire, rather sarcastically.
“Well, sir, one’s mind gets confused at times, and I thought of his mother. I could not be off seeing that if anything had happened, it lay on my shoulders for having left him alone, in there.”
Whether the Squire believed Hill could tell more, I don’t know. I did. As we went on to the school-house, the Pater kept silence. Miss Timmens was frightfully disappointed at the result, and said Hill was a shifty scoundrel.
“I cannot tell what to think,” the Squire remarked to her. “His manner is the strangest I ever saw; it is just as though he had something on his conscience. He said the boy’s ghost seemed to haunt him. Did you notice that, Johnny?”
“Yes, sir. A queer idea.”
“He — he — never could have found David dead in the morning?” cried Miss Timmens, in a low tone, herself turning a little pale. “Dead of fright?”
“That could not be,” said the Squire. “You forget that David had made his escape before midnight, and was at his mother’s, calling to her.”
“True, true,” assented Miss Timmens. “Any way, I am certain Hill is somehow or other deceiving us, and he is a born villain for doing it.”
But Hill, deceiving us though he had been, could not hold out. In going back, we saw him leaning over the palings waiting for us. But that the man is living yet, I should have said he was going to die there and then, for he looked exactly like it.
It seemed that just after we left him, a policeman had made his appearance. Not as a policeman, but as a friend; for he and Hill were cronies. He told Hill confidentially that there was “going to be a row over that there lost boy; that folks were saying that he might have been murdered; that unless Hill could tell something satisfactory about him, he and others might be in custody before the day was over.” Whether Hill found himself brought to a point from which there was neither advance nor retreat, or that he inevitably saw that concealment could no longer be maintained, or that he was stricken to despair and felt helpless, I know not. There he stood, his head over the palings, saying he would tell all.
It was a sad tale to listen to. Miss Timmens’s last supposition was right — Hill, upon going up to release David Garth, had found him dead. And, so far as the man’s experience of death went, he must have been dead for six or seven hours.
“I’d like you to come and see him, sir,” panted Hill.
Gingerly stepped the Squire in Hill’s wake across the garden to the shed. Unlocking the door, Hill stepped back for us to enter. On a mattress on the ground was David, laid straight in his every-day clothes, and covered with a blanket; his pretty hair, which his mother had so loved, carefully smoothed. Hill — rough, burly, cross-grained Hill — burst into tears and sobbed like a child.
“I’d give my life to undo it, and bring him back again, Squire; I’d give my life twice over, Master Johnny; but I declare before Heaven, I never thought to harm the boy. When I see him the next morning, lying dead, I’d not have minded if the Lord had struck me dead too. I’ve been a’most mad ever since.”
“Johnny,” said the Squire, in low tones, “go you to South Crabb, and bring over Mr. Cole. Do not talk of this.”
The surgeon was at home, and came back with me. I did not quite understand why the Squire sent for him, seeing he could do no good.
And the boots were David’s, after all; the only things he had taken off. Hill had brought him to this shed the next night; with some vague idea of burying him in the ground under the leaves. “But I couldn’t do it,” he avowed amid his sobs; “I couldn’t do it.”
There was an examination, Cole and another making it; and they gave evidence at the inquest. One of them (it was Cole) thought the boy must have died from fright, the other from the cold; and a nice muff this last must have been.
“I did not from the first like that midnight call, or the apparently causeless terror the poor mother awoke in,” said Mrs. Todhetley, to me. “The child’s spirit must have cried out to her in his death-agony. I have known a case like this before.”
“Hold your tongue, Johnny, You have not lived long enough to gain experience of these things.”
And I held it.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55