To celebrate the birthday of A. M. Burrage (1889-1956), I want to share one of my favorite Burrage stories.
Before the war, Stanley Forbes and Raymond Telford used to play Rugby football together for a small and unimportant club, now defunct, which rented a playing-pitch near Wimbledon. They had nothing very much in common, save that they formed the left wing of the three-quarter line, and shared common triumphs and failures every Saturday afternoon during the season.
The club consisted mainly of young men who had ‘jobs’ in London offices and had more money to spend at the weekends than at any other time. After matches it was customary for the team to pay a protracted call at the nearest house of entertainment, and afterwards go up to the West End, there to dine inexpensively and go on to a music-hall. They saw little of one another save on the field, and at these subsequent mild debauches.
However, Forbes and Telford discovered that only the length of a short street separated their respective business premises, and this led to their lunching together two or three times a week, talking of past and forthcoming matches, and working out schemes for attack and defence. Forbes worked in the office of a firm of chartered accountants, and Telford was articled clerk to a long established firm of solicitors. They were of much the same age,
their prospects in life were about equal, and, in a quiet, unostentatious way, each was more than a little impressed with his own importance. It is more than likely that the tacit rivalry between them was at the root of this casual friendship. They never boasted openly to each other of what they had done or were going to do; there was a slight strain of subtlety in both of them; but each was firmly convinced that he was the better man and would wrest more out of the world than the other.
It is more than likely that the memory of this old rivalry, after a decade had passed, was the cause of Telford suddenly writing to Forbes and inviting him to come down and stay with him for a week or two. Telford had come into money, and had bought a partnership in a firm practising at Horlington, in the New Forest. He was proud of the big house he had recently bought and the pretty young wife he had recently married.
The war, which had killed the football club—and, incidentally, most of its members—had separated Forbes and Telford. They were gazetted to different regiments, and came out with honours easy, each having won the MC and attained the temporary rank of captain. Neither played football again after the war. They were getting ‘thirty-ish’, when most men prefer to become spectators; and Telford had in his leg that which put an end to all serious athletics. Having settled in the Moat House, which stood actually in the Forest, whence he drove himself to the High Street office every morning and afternoon, he fell to wondering how 'old Forbes’ was getting on, and at last, obeyed an impulse to write and ask him and invite him down. That was in the spring of 1924.
Forbes was not at all averse to meeting Telford and comparing notes. He was unmarried, but unlikely to remain so indefinitely, and he, too, could boast of some success. He also was now a partner, and his firm, which specialised in making war on the income-tax commissioners, was prospering exceedingly. He was overdue to take a holiday, and he accepted the invitation very much in the spirit in which it was made. He drove himself
down in a brand-new car on the Tuesday of the week preceding Easter.
If there had once been a moat around Telford’s house, there was no sign of it now. Instead, there was an old red wall, ten feet high or more, up which closely trimmed ivy climbed in places, which completely hid house and gardens from the road and lent the place not so much an air of privacy as one of secrecy. The wide gates were of solid timber set in an arch; and a little door further down the wall—which, when open, showed nothing more satisfying than a path which lost itself immediately in a dense shrubbery—gave access to servants and tradesmen.
'Pretentious, but dark and damp, I should think,' thought Forbes, as he got out of the car and pushed open the heavy gates.
On the inside was a small lodge, and a woman came out to close the gates behind him as he drove through. The house, just visible through the fledgling trees, was scarcely fifty yards distant. He followed the windings of the short drive, and came to a halt on fresh gravel before the front door. The house was long, three-storied, creeper-clad, and of a slightly depressing aspect. Forbes recognised Jacobean architecture, and at the same time wondered what a lawyer in a country practice could want with a house of such a size. For one idle moment he speculated on its past and on the intentions of those who had designed and built it. While nobody but an estate agent could have described it as a country mansion, it was too large to be called a hunting-box. Then the door opened and Raymond Telford, looking scarcely a day older after ten years, came out with a grin of welcome and a cheery hail.
An hour later, over tea in the drawing-room—dispensed by the frail, dainty wisp of a girl who had been Mrs Telford for the past two years—he learned how his host had come to acquire the house.
‘Of course,’ said Gladys Telford, 'we and the furniture are simply lost here. We don’t use the top floor at all, and keep it empty except for one attic which we use as a box-room. The servants sleep on the same floor as ourselves, in order to save work. It’s a lot too big for us, but we shan't be here for ever. We shall be selling it.'
‘I’m hoping to make a clear couple of thousand on the deal before I’ve done,’ remarked Telford, with quite his old air of suppressed but conscious cleverness.
‘I hope you'll prosper to such an extent that you’ll soon find it too small for you,' Forbes said.
‘I’m afraid not. We’re a very modest couple. At least, I’m trying to teach Ray to be modest. But, of course, when he decided to go into business in Horlington we had to find somewhere to live, and it wasn’t so easy as it seems. As a residential district this part of the world is enjoying something of a boom. We found that there were practically no moderate-sized houses to be had, and those on the market were an appalling price. And this place was as cheap for its size as the smaller houses were dear.’
‘Most people,’ explained Telford, ‘are poor nowadays, and they’ve got to think about upkeep and servants. They find it saves ’em money in the long run to pay a bit extra for a small place and save on the cost of running it. Houses of this size, which are too big for the New Poor and not big enough for the New Rich, are a bit of a drug on the market.'
‘And Ray thought,’ continued Gladys, obviously proud of her husband’s acumen, ‘that if we bought this place cheap and lived in it for a while, values would begin to readjust themselves. We could then sell the Moat House at a profit and buy a small house for very much less than we should have to pay now. Without using the top floor, it’s not a difficult house to run. I manage quite well with two maids.’
Telford gave Forbes that quiet, knowing smile which, in the old days, had always reminded him of a wink, and Forbes laughed and said:
‘You were always steeped in low cunning. But when the time comes you won’t be able to persuade Mrs Telford to go. It’s too charming.’
He had already been over the house, and he spoke sincerely. It was melancholy, but still charming. It was rich in beams and panels, and these things Forbes reverenced. For a permanent residence he preferred a modern house, but it was only right and proper that he should have friends who were able to provide him with a complete change.
‘You don’t feel that it’s like a prison, then?’ Mrs Telford asked.
‘Like a - Oh, you mean the wall? Well, on the outside I did rather wonder. But one doesn’t seem to notice the wall here. Does it go completely all round?’
‘Oh, yes. At the back there’s just a little wicket gate which leads into the orchard and pitiable-looking broken bottles cemented to the top. I wonder who built it, and why?’
'Some old guy who got fed up with the sight of his fellow men, I suppose,’ Telford laughed. ‘I wonder how young Derek will like it. That reminds me. Tomorrow, my dear!’
Mrs Telford smiled.
'I hadn’t forgotten. The three-eighteen train, isn’t it? You’ve a fellow guest, Mr Forbes, and I hope you won’t let him bore you. My young brother is coming home from school. Fie hasn’t had a home of his own since mother died, so he goes around spending his holidays with different relatives. This is his first visit here.'
‘Good,’ said Forbes. 'I like boys. How old is he?’
‘Fifteen,’ Telford said. ‘He’s at Hurlborough, and he's going to cost me a fiver if he gets Seconds at cricket this year, which I think he very likely may.
He's a bright lad. If you know anything about wireless or electricity, for heaven’s sake don’t let on to him, or he’ll plague the life out of you.’
‘I'll retaliate,’ said Forbes, ‘by telling him all about accountancy.’
After tea, Telford took out his two-seater and bore the guest away to the little Country Club in Horlington, where the elite, consisting mostly of retired warriors, assembled to play bridge in the early evenings.
On the way home for dinner, Forbes said, ‘It’s suddenly struck me. If you ever do sell that house I know exactly who you’ll sell it to.’
‘Somebody who’s going to start a school.'
Telford laughed over the steering-wheel.
‘That’s rather bright of you,’ he said. ‘I’d thought of that already. Matter of fact, it has been a school. Years and years ago, though, and not within living memory. Not much chance of the kids breaking out, eh?’
Dinner was a little more elaborate than Forbes had expected. He knew instinctively that his hosts lived more simply when they were alone, and the succession of courses secretly annoyed him, not merely because they hinted at vulgar display, but because he realised that they must have cost his hostess a great deal of trouble. Gladys Telford was very jolly and simple, and he wanted her somehow to be made aware that all this fuss on his behalf was
quite unnecessary. But Telford was a good host, and after Gladys had crossed the hall to the drawing-room he crowned the evening by producing an old vintage port and a very old brandy.
It was when they were on their way to rejoin Gladys that Forbes halted in the middle of the hall and stood listening.
High up, and coming seemingly from the very roof of the house, he heard the shaken, rending sound of a child sobbing. The sounds varied. Sobs became a low wail, ending in a paroxysm like a muffled scream, changing again to hard, tearing sobs. Infinitely distressing, with their suggestion of the direst bodily or mental anguish, the sounds came straight to him down the well of the staircase.
‘Good Lord!' he exclaimed. ‘What’s that?’
‘That,’ said Telford with a chuckle, ‘is our ghost.’
He pinched Forbes’s elbow and gave him a gentle push towards the drawing-room.
‘Stanley’s just been hearing our ghost,’ he remarked to Gladys, who had risen to ring for the coffee.
‘Yes,’ she said indifferently, 'I noticed it as I came through.’
Forbes looked from one to the other and laughed weakly.
'But what on earth is it?’ he asked, it sounds exactly like a child’
'I know! I know! It frightened us to death when we first heard it.’
‘It’s a ghost,’ said Gladys, turning away from the bell, ‘that comes to warn us. But that’s quite usual among ghosts, isn’t it?’
Forbes smiled, and continued to look puzzled. They were plainly teasing him.
‘But what is it?’ he asked. ‘And what does it warn you against?’
‘Rain,’ said Telford, it means that the wind’s gone round to the south or west. Our ghost is actually a chimney-cowl which needs something done to it. When it spins one way it doesn’t make a noise, but when it spins the other way we get that.'
‘Well, it sounds most uncanny,’ Forbes remarked, sitting down opposite his hostess, i could have sworn you'd got some frightened child shut up in one of the attics.’
‘Quite ghostly, isn’t it?’ Gladys laughed. ‘We never believed in ghosts, but we thought at first we’d got one. We soon found out that it was the chimney-cowl, but it scared us at first.’
‘You must have thought it was the ghost of one of the kids who were here when the house was a school?’ Forbes suggested.
Husband and wife exchanged smiling glances.
‘We never thought of that,’ Telford said. ‘What I call a nice, cheerful suggestion! Pity you weren’t here to remind us the first time we heard it. It would have made going up to bed seem still more adventurous.’
For the moment Forbes was disinclined to let the subject drop.
‘You hear it in the day, then?’ he asked.
‘Not to notice,’ Telford returned indifferently. ‘Plenty of other noises then. Besides, during the day one takes no notice of sounds which seem pretty ominous at night.’
When Forbes went up to bed the house was silent.
‘Wind’s dropped or changed again,’ he remarked to Telford. But he was hardly in bed when the sobbing and crying, which now seemed to come from close overhead, broke out again. He lay listening, conscious of a vague uneasiness and a quicker beating of the heart, ‘If that’s a cowl,’ he thought, ‘I’ll eat it.’
Presently he jumped out of bed, wetted his index-finger, and held his hand out in the night air. 'H’m!’ he muttered, withdrawing his hand over the sash. ‘Wind seems to be nor’-east. Ray was wrong.’
He stood irresolute a moment, cold and strangely uncomfortable.
‘Still,’ he thought, ‘if it’s a chimney-cowl it’s a chimney-cowl, and that finishes it. And if they’re satisfied, why shouldn’t I be?’
He went back to bed, but he did not fall asleep until the sobbing noise had ceased and the house was quiet.
The following afternoon brought upon the scene Master Derek Wilson in the black coat and dark trousers which were the uniform of school servitude, and the customary ‘going-away’ bowler hat. He was a tall, dark, fresh-faced boy with a friendly grin and a very happy laugh. He brought with him two periodicals, one devoted to wireless and the other to motorcycling, and, after having been introduced to Forbes, followed his luggage upstairs to array himself in gorgeous tweeds. He came down again whistling, full of high spirits, and demanded to be allowed to explore. Telford was not yet home from the office, so Forbes accompanied him.
‘Thank everything the bally spring term’s over,’ he remarked to Forbes.
'Hockey and Lent is a ghastly combination. Gladys looks fit. How’s old Ray? Had an invite to go and stay with a chap in my house whose people live in Earl’s Court, but I wanted to have a look at this stately home of England which Gladys and Ray have got hold of. Besides, there’s nothing to do in London now, and you want such bags of money.’
'Which nobody seems to have nowadays,’ Forbes remarked.
'Especially when you’ve got trustees,' Derek added cryptically.
On the whole, he struck Forbes as being quite a nice boy, who could be enthusiastic without gushing and seemed easy to please and entertain. He liked the house, and was glad that it contained no wireless set. He would put one up while he was there. He had never been in the New Forest before, and was glad of the opportunity to explore it. Forbes earned his gratitude by promising to take him around in his car while Telford was away at the office.
Indeed, the boy seemed perfectly happy in his surroundings and in the prospects held forth to him for the holidays.
Before going to bed that night he was warned about the chimney-cowl, but the peace of the house was not disturbed. Forbes, coming down early on the morning following, found Derek out on the drive talking to Robinson the old gardener. Derek greeted him with a grin and a wave of the hand.
'Robinson says this place used to be a school,’ he said. ‘Did you know?’
‘I’d heard so. Must be pleasant for you to feel that you’re still living in the odour of learning?’
‘Oh, that must be near a 'undred years ago, sir,’ said the literal Robinson.
‘My gran’father used to tell me about it when I were a nipper. All sorts of stories ’e used to tell me. The man as kept the school used to starve the boys and beat ’em something ’orrible.’
‘Good old Squeers!’ laughed Derek, safe in his generation. ‘That’s the stuff to give ’em.’
‘Well,’ said Robinson seriously, ‘as a matter of fact ’e were rather like that man Squeers as you reads about in Dickens, and this were just the same sort of school. There was no ’olidays, and people used to send boys ’ere just to get rid of ’em. Something bad ’appened at last—I never ’eard rightly what it was—and Ticks, the man ’oo kept the school, run away.’
‘More than the boys could—with this wall around them,’ commented Forbes. ‘Derek, my lad, be thankful that you’re twentieth-century vintage.’
The boy laughed.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t have stayed here with old Squeers,’ he said, ‘I’d have got away somehow, although it ’ud take a cat burglar to get out. And, talking of cat burglars, I believe old Robinson’s one.’
‘Me!’ chuckled Robinson, who was sixty and rheumatic.
‘Yes, you! What were you burying under the wall last night at the back of the house, at the kitchen garden end? Midnight, too! It looked suspicious.’
Robinson looked blank and Forbes chuckled.
‘Robinson,’ Forbes said, ‘doesn’t believe in working overtime.’
‘Well, somebody was digging away like blazes. It wasn’t you, and it wasn’t Ray, because you’d just come up to bed. I was standing looking out of the window’
‘Smoking, I s’pose?’ interpolated Forbes.
‘Ssh! Not a word to Ray! Anyhow, I was looking straight across the garden. You know what a fine bright night it was. There was hardly a breath of wind and everything was quite still, so that the sight of something moving caught my attention at once. It was a man digging away like steam at the foot of the wall close to the biggest pear-tree. I couldn’t see him very clearly, but quite clearly enough to know what he was up to, and he was either burying something or digging something up. I thought it was a bit funny, and nearly went and told Ray. And then I thought it might be only somebody burying rubbish out of the kitchen, in which case I would look rather an ass, and you and Gladys and Ray would pull my leg about it all the hols. After a bit a cloud came up, and I couldn’t see him anymore, so I waffled off to bed.’
Robinson was slightly up in arms. It was his garden, and he could not listen unmoved to this tale of unauthorised digging.
‘Where did you say this was goin’ on, sir?’ he asked.
‘Come along,’ said Derek, ‘and I’ll show you. Dash! There goes the gong. Never mind. We’ve got time.’
He led the way around the side of the house, across the dewy lawn at the back, and on through the kitchen garden to the boundary wall.
‘There you are,’ he said, pointing, in that corner.’
Forbes and Robinson followed him and looked down. The crust of the earth was solid, hard, smooth, and stiffly knit. Robinson laughed.
‘You been dreaming, young sir,’ he said. 'That earth ain’t been turned since I been ’ere, and you can see for yourself it weren’t turned last night.'
The boy looked blank.
‘But I swear’ he began, and then broke off. ‘Yes, it was here, too. It’s the only part of the wall you can see from my window because of the trees. And I marked the place by this old pear-tree.’
Forbes laughed and punched him lightly on the shoulder.
‘Come on to breakfast,’ he said. ‘You were dreaming.’
‘I wasn’t! I ought to know.’
‘Well, if you weren’t, you saw the shadows of the trees moving about. You and your cat burglars and people burying things at midnight! You’ll be seeing ghosts next!’
During the day the incident was forgotten by all except Derek.
The next morning ushered in a torrent of rain which went thrashing through the leaves in the garden and beat upon the windows of the breakfast-room.
‘I expected this,’ said Telford, rubbing his hands. ‘Heard our ghost again last night. That old chimney-cowl nearly always lets us know. Where’s Derek?’
The maid who came in with the coffee-pot at that moment remarked that she thought Master Derek had gone out. She had been to his room with a cup of tea and found it empty and his clothes gone.
‘He’s gone for a walk in the Forest,’ Telford remarked, 'and he’s probably taking shelter somewhere out of the rain. Better keep something hot for him. It won’t be much; only a heavy shower.’
But the clouds passed over and still no Derek appeared. Telford drove off to the office and, as time passed, Gladys Telford began to grow anxious.
Midday at last brought the second post, and, most surprisingly, a letter from Derek bearing the local postmark. Gladys opened it, frowned, and stared. Then she read the contents aloud to Forbes.
You’ll think it horribly low-down of me for bunking off like this, but I can’t help it. I don’t want to tell you why I’m going—at least not yet. I’m catching the first train to London, and scribbling this note to you on the platform. I can’t stay in your house another minute, so I’m off to stay with Lindley’s people at Earl’s Court. They asked me, so it will be quite all right. Don’t think I’m a beast. I can’t help doing this.
‘Well, what on earth do you think of that?’ Gladys exclaimed.
Forbes uttered a baffled laugh. ‘It beats me. Why, only last night he was talking about going down to Hurst Castle, and I promised to run him down to Keyhaven in the car.’
‘It’s not a bit like Derek.’
'People,’ said Forbes reflectively, when they leave a house in a hurry generally write a note there and then. Funny idea to write one on the station and post it. What time does the first train go?’
‘Five o’clock. And the station’s two and a half miles away. Why, the boy must have got up in the middle of the night. Look at the handwriting—how shaky it is.’
‘The boy’s been scared stiff by something,' Forbes almost said, but he looked at Gladys and checked himself in time.
‘I wonder,’ he said, rather unsteadily, ‘if that chimney-cowl upset him.'
Gladys shook her head.
‘We warned him what to expect. Besides, Derek wouldn’t be such a baby.’
At that moment a maid appeared with a buff envelope on a salver, and inquired if there was an answer. The telegram was brief and to the point.
Derek arrived safely. Bringing him back to you tomorrow. LINDLEY.
‘Well, that’s that!’ said Gladys. ‘Poor Derek! I wonder what Ray will say about it?’
Telford said very little about it to his wife, but he was plainly very much annoyed. To have his hospitality slighted pricked him in his most vulnerable spot. Privately to Forbes he held forth long and sulphurously.
‘Damned bad-mannered little beast! After all we’ve done for him! To go sneaking off like that. I’ll never have him in the house again. When this Lindley brings him back I’ll send him off somewhere for the rest of his holidays. I'm finished with him!’
Forbes had his own opinion about Derek’s conduct, or, rather, vague and uncomfortable theories had begun to form in his mind. He, too, had heard those noises, so terribly like a child in an extremity of woe, on the preceding night.
The chimney-cowl? Was it? Could a chimney-cowl really produce sounds so completely and utterly human? Because the chimney-cowl certainly made noises at times, the Telfords and their servants, all hard-headed and practical folk, were completely satisfied that all sounds, otherwise unaccountable, proceeded from it.
He did not believe in manifestations of the supernatural, but his scepticism was not bigoted. The Telfords said in effect: ‘There is no child in the house, there are no such things as ghosts, and therefore it must be the chimney-cowl.’ Forbes did not go all the way with them. Apparently nobody had gone up to the attics in the dark to make sure, unless - Here came a thought which set his nerves tingling unpleasantly and strangely chilled him. Nobody had gone to investigate, unless Derek had.
Forbes could not help remembering that the house had once been used as a school by a scoundrel who starved and ill-treated unwanted and friendless children. In his walled-in house in the New Forest he had been as immune from observation as the Yorkshire schoolmasters whom Dickens pilloried. At last there had been a scandal and the man had run away. What scandal? It was buried now in the limbo of lost things, whence, in all human probability, it would never be dug up again. But certain it was that the walls of this sad old house had once heard the cries and sobs of maltreated children which now the chimney-cowl—was it the chimney-cowl?—so strangely imitated.
But he said nothing to the Telfords. They would have laughed at him or heard him not too patiently. The following day, Good Friday, would bring Derek back, doubtless with a tale which would confirm or disprove the unpleasant suspicions which were taking doubtful shape in his imagination. That night Forbes slept soundly for an hour or two, and then woke for no reason that he could guess. The sounds which he heard faintly and seemed to be proceeding from the floor above—sounds like the moaning and crying of a child—were not loud enough to have wakened him. But now that he was awake he lay listening, while awe and fear struggled with a rising sense of shame.
He wanted to investigate, and wanted not to. Courage urged him on, fear held him back, and shame looked on and sneered.
Derek had dared to go up to those attics. He was almost sure now that Derek had gone. Derek was a boy, he a man, and he was holding back.
Shame stung him to activity at last. He cursed himself, got out of bed, felt for dressing-gown and slippers, and shuffled out on to the landing.
The staircase leading to the attics was a narrow, straight, steep flight. There was no window on the top landing, and the stairhead was lost in darkness. Somewhere quite close a child sobbed and moaned, and, while his heart gave a warning of the tighter hold of fear, he could have sworn that it was a human voice.
It was not until he faced the wall of darkness above him that he realised that he had neglected to bring candle or matches. He shook the pocket of his dressing-gown in vain. He hesitated, realising that if he went back to his room to procure a light his resolution would waver and desert him. Slowly he mounted the stairs—one, two, three, four of them. Then the sobbing became a muffled wail which died into silence, and he looked up.
Something moved in the darkness at the top of the stairs. It seemed suddenly to be pierced by a faint light, as the moon is sometimes seen looking through murky clouds not dense enough to hide it. While every nerve cried out upon the outrage thus done to his senses he beheld the figure of a man about to descend.
He did not notice what clothes the Thing appeared to wear, although he will carry to his grave the memory of the thin, attenuated hands. But it was the face which visited all his subsequent bad dreams—a face almost grotesquely evil, long and livid, and splashed across the right cheek with a hideous red discoloration of the skin. The eyes were small, closely set, and smouldered as if with some evil fire. The knowledge—the certain knowledge—that he was faced with something not of this world was sufficient to drive Forbes to an extremity of terror, but it was the indescribable vileness of the Thing which momentarily bereft him of his wits and atrophied all his nerves of motion.
Agony drew out time, spending it like a miser. Whole minutes while the descending feet passed from stair to stair. Somewhere, deep down in Forbes's tortured brain, the machinery still worked. The Thing was descending and would pass him—would pass him on stairs so narrow that one human being could scarcely crowd past another. The prospect of close proximity, of actual touch, gave him another push along the road leading to madness. He
struggled to move as one in a nightmare struggles to wake. Mercifully, something seemed to snap, leaving him free to spring backwards, to sprawl and plunge at the foot of the stairs, and thence to rush for his bedroom, where he turned on the friendly electric light before pressing his face into his pillow.
It is not necessary to this account to describe how he spent what remained of that long night. He came down in the morning looking the sick man that he felt himself to be. The Telfords asked him what was the matter, and, strangely, he felt that he could not tell them. Drearily he felt that he did not know how to begin to tell them. He could now only wait for Derek.
Derek arrived at three in the afternoon, white-faced, after a drive of a hundred miles through crisp, spring weather in an open car. He came accompanied by a grey, dapper, middle-aged man, who gave his name as Colonel Lindley.
‘I expect you’ve heard of me?’ he said to Telford with a faint smile.
‘My boy and Derek are friends at school. I invited Derek to spend the Easter holidays with us, but found that you had forestalled me. I should be very glad to have him, but I did not like the way he had left you without any explanation, so I have brought him back to tell you his story like a man.’
Telford was looking at the boy in no friendly way; and Derek, white and fidgeting, kept his gaze bent downwards.
‘If,’ continued Colonel Lindley, with a tactful glance at Gladys, ‘Derek and I could have a word with you alone ’
‘I don’t think that’s at all necessary, Colonel Lindley. My wife is his sister. Derek can have nothing to complain of in the way he has been treated here.’
‘Certainly not. But I was thinking that if Mrs Telford were nervous - To put it bluntly, the fact is that Derek thinks he’s seen a ghost.’
Derek looked up at the faint sound of derision which came from his brother-in-law’s lips. The boy’s eyes suddenly flashed.
‘Yes, you dare to laugh!' he cried. ‘You go through what I went through and then see if you laugh!’
‘There, old chap!’ said the colonel, and touched his arm. ‘Mr Telford,' he continued, ‘whatever you and I may believe on the subject of apparitions, and whatever the explanation may be, it is quite evident that poor old Derek has had a bad shock. His nerves are all to pieces. Aren’t they, old man? I know you would not wish to keep with you a boy who is badly scared of the house, and I trust I was not officious in promising that he should return with me.
Meanwhile, he owes you an explanation. Apart from that, I think you will agree that there are reasons why you should hear his story.’
The pinched, white face of the boy touched Telford in spite of himself.
‘Well, what did you see, Derek?’ he asked, not unkindly.
For the moment it looked as if Derek were about to cry.
‘I can’t,' he muttered, with a queer, half-hysterical petulance. 'I can’t talk about it! ’
Forbes drew nearer to the boy.
‘Never mind, old man,’ he said unsteadily. ‘They'll believe you. I saw him, too.’
For the moment every pair of eyes were on Forbes. Telford uttered an exclamation and a faint cry came from Derek.
‘You!’ he gasped. ‘You’ve seen him? What—the little boy?’
‘No; the man.’
The boy struggled and choked.
‘Oh, he was worse! It was him that finished me. Did you see that red mark on his face? A port wine mark they call it, don't they? Tell them you saw that, and then they’ll believe'
‘I saw it,’ said Forbes unsteadily, ‘and I’m not likely to forget it.'
‘Good Lord!’ said Telford, just above his breath.
Derek drew a deep breath and seemed to gain courage,
‘I’ll try to tell you what happened,’ he said. ‘You'll remember I didn’t go to bed until you did the night before last. And when I got to my room there was a book I wanted to finish, so I sat up reading for about an hour. I’d only just got into bed when I heard that dreadful crying noise which you said was the chimney-cowl.’ He paused and swallowed. ‘Well, it wasn’t!’ he added laconically. ‘Where was I? Oh, yes, I know! I lay and listened, and the more I listened the more I felt sure that it wasn’t the chimney-cowl. I somehow felt that there was a kid in one of those attics, and I had to go and see. A real kid, I thought it was. I swear I never thought about ghosts.
‘Well, I got to the top of the attic stairs, and the sound seemed to come from the room at the end. It was pitch dark, and I had to feel my way along. In the dark I tumbled against a door and pushed it open, and then—I don’t know why I didn’t faint, but I just stood still and felt as if I were dead.
‘The room was just light—a faint greenish light it was, and I don’t know where it came from. It was quite bare except for a table and a chair. On the chair before the table there was a boy, sitting. He looked about twelve or thirteen, and he was dressed like a kid in those old pictures of Dickens’s stories—only he was dirty and ragged and his hair was rather long. He was crying terribly and his eyes were all swollen. He looked up at me once, and I shall never forget the look in his eyes. Then he went on writing.
‘I forgot to tell you he was writing something. I can’t tell you everything at once, just as I saw it. There were one or two mouldy old books on the table and some bits of paper, and the boy was writing with one of those old quill pens—an ordinary white feather.
‘I knew he wasn’t real—I mean real like ourselves—but I tried to talk to him and found I couldn’t say a word. Presently, when he’d finished writing, he looked at me again as if he wanted something. Then he got up, still crying and moaning, and went over to the window and slipped the piece of paper he’d been writing on through a crack in the window-seat. It must have been a very narrow crack, for the paper kept on bending and he had to tease it
through. And all the time he kept on looking round at me as if to make sure that I was watching him.
‘When he’d done, he came away from the window-seat, still looking at me, and suddenly his face changed. Before I could wonder why, something brushed past me. It was a tall, thin man in black—oh, a horrible beast—with a great red mark on his cheek. He was carrying a thick stick, and he made a rush straight at the boy. I heard the boy scream. Then, I suppose, I must have fainted, for I woke up presently on the bare floor, and the room was all dark.
‘I don’t remember getting back to my bedroom. I think I must have jumped or fallen downstairs, for I found myself bruised all over. The only thing I could think of was getting out of the house. I didn’t even want you, Ray, or Gladys. You couldn’t have helped, and you’d have kept me talking, and you mightn’t have let me go, and then I should have gone mad. I had to get straight out of the house or go mad. I gathered my clothes up in a bundle and put them on in the front drive. I'd forgotten my tie, and I found I’d left a sock behind, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t going back for them. I bought a tie and a pair of socks in London before going on to Colonel Lindley’s. I walked to the station and found it all shut up, but I climbed the railings and sat on the platform until the first train came in. The booking-clerk, when he came, gave me a bit of paper and an envelope and sold me a stamp, so I wrote to
Gladys, but it was no use trying to say what had happened. You must have thought me an awful beast, but I couldn’t help it. And I’m going back with Colonel Lindley, if you don’t mind. I’d rather die than sleep another night here.’
Derek came abruptly to the end of his story, and looked up gratefully into Forbes’s face, as Forbes laid a steadying hand on his shoulder. Nobody spoke at first. In the face of that story, which seemed so incredible and yet rang so true, nothing could have been said which would not have sounded ridiculously inadequate. Telford was the first to speak
‘I think we'll take a look at that attic," he said gruffly.
‘I'm not coming with you!' Derek cried out
‘All right, old chap,’ his brother-in-law said soothingly. ‘The attic at the end, you said?’
‘At the end on the left,’ muttered the boy.
‘Right! Colonel Lindley’
‘I should like to come with you, if I may,' the Colonel replied simply.
Gladys put her arm around her brother. The hand which patted his shoulder shook a little. ‘You stay down here with me, old thing,’ she said.
Telford led the way upstairs, and it was he who pushed open the attic door.
‘This must be the one,’ he said. ‘H’m! No table or chair here, you see. I knew there wasn't.'
‘I didn’t expect to see any,' Forbes remarked dryly.
The room was bare save for the dust which rose up chokingly from the boards under their feet. In the empty shell of the room their voices sounded strange and hollow.
Colonel Lindley walked over to the window.
‘There’s certainly a window-seat,’ he remarked, ‘and there are plenty of cracks in it.'
Telford followed, and laid his hand on the surface of the seat.
‘I suppose we’d better have this off,’ he said, ‘I’ll go down and get some tools from the kitchen.’
‘You'll have to smash it,’ said Forbes. ‘Get an axe.'
Telford left them and went downstairs. He returned presently with tools, including an axe, and it was the axe which eventually did the work of destruction.
The box-like space underneath was full of the dust and debris of ages.
Splinters and scraps of mortar had found their way there. Forbes pulled the rubbish out in handfuls, and exclaimed suddenly on seeing a dirty and discoloured scrap of paper. He held it to the light, gently stroking the dirt away with his thumbs.
The removal of the dirt showed faint, pink, ruled lines which served to show that the paper had once been tom from an account-book or exercise-book. On it something was written in faded black ink. The writing was round and childish, but so faint that it was not easy to decipher. The three men bent over it, picking out words and slowly stringing them together.
The writing was in the form of a statement. Punctuated and with the spelling amended, it was as follows:
I have been locked in this room for a punishment five days and five nights. Mr Hicks comes and beats me something cruel. I think he means to kill me. I think my uncle wants me to be dead. If I die here nobody will ever know, because Mr Cawland, the usher, is as bad as Mr Hicks, and they will tell the boys that I have been sent away. So I have written this down and I am going to put it through a crack in the window-ledge, so as perhaps it will be found some day, and then people will know all about it.
(Signed) JOHN THIRKHILL.
The three men looked at one another. For a little while there was only the sound of breathing.
Telford still struggled not to believe. ‘Is this a hoax, or what is it?’ he said presently, as if to himself, I mean—a boy might easily write such a statement, without any real cause. And when he was let out at the end of the punishment he wouldn’t be able to recover this scrap of paper from the place where we found it.’
Forbes made an impatient gesture.
‘In the face of what Derek has told us,’ he began, ‘there seems to be only’
‘I know. It’s incredible, but it seems almost conclusive. What do you think, Colonel Lindley?’
‘I think it’s murder most foul. We must inform the police’
‘Murder most foul in the eighteen-thirties or thereabouts,’ Forbes interrupted gently. ‘Too late now, Hicks’—he shuddered—‘Hicks has gone to his own place long since. No man can avenge little John Thirkhill now.’
Telford passed a hand over his damp brow.
‘I feel queer and sick,’ he said. ‘I didn’t believe . . . There’s nothing we can do now, then? Except get out of this accursed house. Nothing else we can do?’
‘Yes,’ said Forbes gently, ‘there’s just one thing. Perhaps when we've done that we shan’t hear—your chimney-cowl—anymore.’
‘Ah!’ exclaimed Telford, and flinched.
‘Your gardener isn’t about, is he?’
‘No, he gets a day off. He may be down at the lodge or he may not.
‘It doesn’t matter. I want some garden tools—just a spade and a pick. Don’t you remember Derek looked out of his window one night and said he saw somebody digging. I know the spot because he took me there.’
Derek heard the three men leave the house.
‘Where are they going?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know.’ Gladys’s arm was still about his shoulders. ‘I don’t expect they'll be long. Don’t worry, old thing.’
She felt a tremor go through him.
‘I know,’ he said, with a sudden intuition. ‘They’re going out to dig.
They’re going to dig in the garden.’
They were not very long gone. The earth was soft, and they found what they sought four feet below the surface. They came back silent and white and grave, and none looked straight into Derek’s face.
‘Have you—have you found anything?' the boy asked jerkily.
‘We’ll tell you—all about it—someday, old man,’ Telford stammered.
‘Yes, don’t tell me—yet.’
The boy crossed over to Colonel Lindley, touched his arm, and looked up piteously into his face.
‘Are you ready to go now, Colonel Lindley?’ he asked.
From:Warning Whispers & Other Short Stories by AM Burrage