“Do you ever see the Miss Christies now?” he had inadvertently inquired.
“The Christies!” Evan exclaimed, emphatically, and not without a sidelong glance at Carpenter. “Oh, yes, the girls skated on our pond all last holidays. Phyllis can do the outside edge backwards.”
“She would,” said Jan. “I doubt you’re too big for Fanny now?”
Fanny had been Evan’s pony, on which he had ridden a great deal with his friends the Christies; hence the somewhat dangerous association of ideas. He said he now rode one of the horses, when he rode at all. His tone closed that side of the subject.
“Do you remember how you used to hoist a flag, the first day of the holidays, to let the young – to let the girls know you’d got back?”
Evan turned to Carpenter with a forced laugh. “All these early recollections must be pretty boring for you,” said he. “But this chap and I used to know each other at home.”
“I wish we did now,” said Jan. “There’s nobody to speak to down in Norfolk.”
“Except R. N. Ambrose,” put in Chips, dryly. “I suppose you know that’s his uncle?”
Devereux did not know it, and the information was opportune in every way. It reminded him that Mrs. Rutter had been a lady, and it reminded Jan himself that all his people had not sprung from the stables. It made him distinctly less liable to say “the Miss Christies” or “Master Evan.” Above all it introduced the general topic of cricket, in which Chips and his statistics got a chance at last, so that in argument alone a mile went like the wind. Chips could have gained full marks in any paper set on the row of green and red booklets in his shelves. He was a staunch upholder of Middlesex cricket, but Jan and Evan were Yorkshire to the marrow, and one of them at least was glad to be heart and soul with the other in the discussion that followed. It was not a little heated as between Carpenter and Devereux and it lasted the trio until they tramped almost into the straggling and deserted street of the village famous for its haunted house.
“I suppose it’s at the other end of the village. We shan’t see it yet a bit.”
Jan spoke with the bated breath and sparkling eye of the born adventurer; and Chips whispered volubly of ghosts in general; but Evan Devereux became silent for the first time. He was the smallest of the three boys, but much the most attractive, with his clean-cut features, his auburn hair, and that clear, radiant, tell-tale skin which even now was saying something that he found difficult to put into so many words.
“Aren’t haunted houses rather rot?”
Such was his first attempt.
“Rather not!” cried Chips, the Tiger concurring on appeal.
“Still, it strikes me we’re bound to be seen, and it seems rather a rotten sort of row to get into.”
Carpenter was amused at the ostensible superiority of this view. It was hardly consistent with a further access of colour for which Chips was waiting before it came. He knew Devereux of old at their private school, and that what he hated above all else was getting into a row of any description.
“What’s the other thing?” asked Evan, with a bit of a sneer, as became one who had been longer in the school and apparently learnt less.
“Yes, I have heard of that. Some fellows are fool enough to walk through it, aren’t they?”
“Some who happen to have the pluck,” said Chips, taking the answer on himself. “There aren’t too many.”
“Are you one?” inquired sarcastic Evan.
“No; but he is,” returned Chips, with a jerk of the head towards Jan. “I turned tail at the last.”
“Don’t you believe him,” says Jan, grinning. “I wouldn’t take him with me; he’s too blind, is Chips. Wait till he starts specs; then I’ll take you both if you like. There’s nothing in it. You can see one end or the other half your time; it’s only a short bit where you can’t see either, and then you can feel your way. But by gum it makes you mucky!”
“It’d make you muckier if you met a train,” Evan suggested, with a sly stress on Jan’s epithet.
“But I didn’t, you see.”
“You jolly nearly did,” Chips would have it. “The express came through the minute after he did, Devereux.”
“Not the minute, nor yet the five minutes,” protested Jan. “But here we are at the end of the village, and if that isn’t the haunted house I’ll eat my cap!”
It stood behind a row of tall iron palings, which stand there still, but the deadly little flat-faced villa was pulled down years ago, and no other habitation occupies its site. The garden was a little wilderness even as the three boys first saw it through the iron palings. But a million twigs with emerald tips quivered with joy in the breezy sunshine. It was no day for ghosts. The house, however, in less inspiriting circumstances, might well have lent itself to evil tradition. Its windows were foul and broken, and some of them still flaunted the draggled remnants of old futile announcements of a sale by auction. Its paint was bleached all over, and bloated in hideous spots; mould and discoloration held foul revel from roof-tree to doorstep; the whole fabric cried for destruction, as the dead for burial.
“I doubt they won’t have got much of a bid,” said Jan, pointing out the placards. “Yet it must have been a tidy little place in its day.”
He had forced the sunken gate through the weedy path, and was first within the disreputable precincts. Evan was peering up and down the empty road, and Chips was watching Evan with interest.
“I shouldn’t come in,” said Chips, “if I were you, Devereux.”
“Why not?” demanded Evan, with instantaneous heat.
“Well, it is really out of bounds, I suppose, and some master might be there before us, having a look round, and then we should be done!”
Before an adequate retort could be concocted, Jan told Chips to go to blazes, and Evan showed his indignation by being second through the garden gate, which Carpenter shoved ajar behind them. Jan was already leading the way to the back of the house. Instinctively the boys stole gently over the weeds, though there was but a dead wall on the other side of the main road, and only open fields beyond the matted ruin of a back garden.
The back windows had escaped the stones of the village urchins, but the glass half of a door into the garden was badly smashed. Jan put in his hand to turn the key, but the door was open all the time. Inside, the boys spoke as softly as they had trodden without, and when Carpenter gave an honest shudder, Devereux followed suit with a wry giggle. It was all as depressing as it could be: mouldy papers peeling off the walls, rotting boards that threatened to let a leg clean through, and a more than musty atmosphere that made the hardy leader pull faces in the hall.
“I should like to open a window or two,” said Jan, entering a room better lighted and still better aired by broken panes.
“I should start my pipe, if I were you,” suggested Chips, with the perfectly genuine motive implied. But it was a pity he did not think twice before making the suggestion then.
Not that it was the first time he had thought of Jan’s pipe that morning. He had been rather distressed when Jan showed it to him after the holidays, for Chips had been brought up to view juvenile smoking with some contempt; but he preferred to tolerate the smoker than to alienate the friend, and earlier in the term he had looked on at many a surreptitious rite. Jan certainly smoked as though he enjoyed it; but Sprawson had shown expert acumen when he threatened his young 'un with “hot bodkins if I catch you smoking while we’re training!” And Jan had played the sportsman on the point. But to-day he was to have indulged once more, and in the haunted house of all places. Carpenter had kept an eye on the pocket bulging with Jan’s pipe and pouch, wondering if Evan’s presence would retard or prevent their appearance, feeling altogether rather cynical in the matter. But he had never meant to let the cat out like this, and he turned shamefacedly from Jan’s angry look to Evan’s immediate air of superiority.
“You don’t mean to say you smoke, Rutter?”
“I always did, you know,” said Jan, with uncouth grin and scarlet ears.
“I know.” Evan glanced at Chips. “But I didn’t think you’d have done it here.”
“I don’t see any more harm in it here than at home.”
“Except that it’s a rotten kind of row to get into. I smoke at home myself,” said Evan, loftily.
“All rows are rotten, aren’t they?” remarked Carpenter, with apparent innocence. But Devereux was not deceived; these two were like steel and flint to-day; and more than sparks might have flown between them if Jan had not created a diversion by creeping back into the hall.
“I’m going upstairs before I do anything else,” he announced. “There’s something I don’t much like.”
“What is it?”
“I want to see.”
Jan’s brows were knit; the other two followed him with instant palpitations, but close together, for all their bickering. The stairs and landing were in better case than the lower floor next the earth; the stairs were sound enough to creak alarmingly as the boys ascended them in single file. And at that all three stood still, as though they expected an upper door to open and a terrible challenge to echo through the empty house. But Jan’s was the first voice heard, as he picked up a newspaper which had been left hanging on the landing banisters.
“Some sporting card’s been here before us,” said Jan. “Here’s the Sportsman of last Saturday week.”
A landing window with a border of red and blue glass, in peculiarly atrocious shades, splashed the boys with vivid colour as they stood abreast; but no light came from the upper rooms, all the doors being shut. Jan opened one of them, but soon left his followers behind in another room sweetened by a shattered pain. Their differences forgotten in the excitement of the adventure, these two were chatting confidentially enough when a dreadful cry brought them headlong to the door.
It was Jan’s voice again; they could see nothing of him, but a large mouse came scuttling through an open door at the end of the landing, and almost over their toes. Carpenter skipped to one side, but Devereux dashed his cap at the little creature with a shout of nervous mirth.
“Don’t laugh, you chaps!” said Jan, lurching into the doorway at the landing’s end. They could not see his face; the strongest light was in the room behind him, but they saw him swaying upon its threshold.
“I can’t help it,” said Evan, hysterically. “Frightened by a mouse – you of all people!”
Jan turned back into the room without a word, but they saw his fist close upon the handle of the door, and he seemed to be leaning on it for support as the other two came up. “Oh, I say, we must smash a window here!” Evan had cried, with the same strained merriment, when Chips, bringing up the rear, saw the other spring from Jan’s side back into the passage. Chips pushed past him, and hugged Jan’s arm.
It was not another empty room; there was a tall fixed cupboard between fireplace and window, its door standing as wide open as the one where the two boys clung together; and in the cupboard hung a suit of bursting corduroys, with a blackened face looking out of it, and hobnail boots just clear of the floor.
“Dead?” whispered Chips through chattering teeth.
“Dead for days,” Jan muttered back. “And he’s come in here and hung himself in the haunted house!”
Crashing noises came from the stairs; it was Evan in full flight, jumping many at a time. Chips was after him on the instant, and Jan after Chips when he had closed the chamber of death behind him.
The horrified boys did not go by the gate as they had come, but smashed the rotten fence at the end of the awful garden in the frenzy of their flight across country. It was as though they had done the hideous deed themselves; over the fields they fled pell-mell, up-hill and down-dale, through emerald-dusted hedge and brimming ditch, as in a panic of blood-guiltiness. Spring still smiled on them sunnily, breezily. Spring birds welcomed them back with uninterrupted song. The boys had neither eyes nor ears, but only bursting hearts and breaking limbs, until a well-known steeple pricked the sky, and they flung themselves down in a hollow between a ploughed field, rich as chocolate, and a meadow alive with ewes and lambs.
Chips was speechless, because he was not supposed to run; but Evan, a notoriously dapper little dandy, seldom to be seen dishevelled out of flannels, was the one who looked least like himself. He lay on his stomach in the fretted shadow of a stunted oak. But Jan sat himself on the timber rails between bleating lambs and chocolate furrows, and made the same remarks more than once.
“It’s a bad job,” said Jan at intervals.
“But are you sure about it?” Evan sat up to ask eventually. “Are you positive it was a man, and that the man was dead?”
“I can swear to it,” said Jan.
“So can I,” wheezed Chips, who was badly broken-winded. “And that’s what we shall have to do, worse luck!”
“Why?” from Evan.
“How can we help it?”
“Nobody saw us go in or come out.”
“Then do you mean to leave a dead man hanging till his head comes off?”
Chips had a graphic gift which was apt to lead him a bit too far. Devereux, looking worried, and speaking snappily, promptly told him not to be a beast.
“I didn’t mean to be, but I should think myself one if I slunk out of a thing like this without a word to anybody.”
“I don’t see what business it is of ours.”
“The man may have a wife and kids. They must be half-mad to know what’s become of him.”
“We can’t help that. Besides – ”
Evan stopped. Jan was not putting in his word at all, but stolidly listening from his perch.
“Besides what, Devereux?”
“Of course we shall get into a row,” Chips admitted, cruelly; “but I shouldn’t call it a very rotten one, myself. It would be far rottener to try to avoid one now, and it might get us into a far worse row.”
Evan snorted an incoherent disclaimer, to the general effect that the consequences were of course the very last consideration with him, at all events so far as his own skin went. He was quite ready to stand the racket, though he had been against the beastly haunted house from the first, and it was rather hard luck on him. But what he seemed to feel still more strongly was the hard luck on all their people, if the three of them had to give evidence at an inquest, and the whole thing got into the papers.
Chips felt that he would rather enjoy that part, but he did not say so, and Jan still preserved a Delphic silence.
“Besides,” added Devereux, returning rather suddenly to his original ground, “I’m blowed if I myself could swear I’d ever seen the body.”
“You wouldn’t,” remarked Jan, sympathetically. “You didn’t have a good enough look.”
“Yet you saw enough to make you bolt,” said that offensive Chips, and opened all the dampers of Evan’s natural heat.
“It wasn’t what I saw, my good fool!” he cried angrily. “You know as well as I do what it was like up there. That’s the only reason I cleared out.”
“Well, there you are!” said Jan, grinning aloft on his rail.
“Then you agree with Carpenter, do you, that it’s our duty to go in and report the whole thing, and get a licking for our pains?”
Carpenter laughed satirically at the “licking,” but refrained from speech. He knew of old that Evan’s horror of the rod was on a par with the ordinary citizen’s horror of gaol. And he could not help wanting Jan to know it – but Jan did.
Once, in the very oldest days, when the pretty boy and the stable brat were playing together for almost the first time, the boy had broken a window and begged the brat to father the crime. Jan would not have told Chips for worlds; indeed, he was very sorry to have recalled so dim an incident out of the dead past; but there it was, unbidden, and here was the same inveterate abhorrence, not so much of actual punishment, but of being put in an unfavourable light in the eyes of others. That was a distinctive trait of Evan’s, peculiar only in its intensity. Both his old companions were equally reminded of it now. But Jan’s was the hard position! To have got in touch with Evan at last, to admire him as he always had and would, and yet to have that admiration promptly tempered by this gratuitous exhibition of a radical fault! Though he put it to himself in simpler fashion, this was Jan’s chief trouble, and it would have been bad enough just then without the necessity that he foresaw of choosing between Chips and Evan.
“I don’t know about duty,” he temporised, “but I don’t believe we should be licked.”
“Of course we shouldn’t!” cried Chips. “But it wouldn’t kill us if we were.”
“You agree with him?” persisted Evan, in a threatening voice of which the meaning was not lost on Jan. It meant out-of-touch again in no time, and for good!
“I don’t know,” sighed Jan. “I suppose we ought to say what we’ve seen; and it’ll pay us, too, if it’s going to get out anyhow; but I do think it’s hard on you – Devereux. We dragged you into it. You never wanted to come in; you said so over and over.” Jan gloomed and glowered, then brightened in a flash. “Look here! I vote us two tell Heriot what we’ve seen, Chips! Most likely he won’t ask if we were by ourselves; he’s sure to think we were. If he does ask, we can say there was another chap, but we’d rather not mention his name, because he was dead against the whole thing, and never saw all we did!”
Jan had unfolded his bright idea directly to Carpenter, whose opinion he awaited with evident anxiety. He resented being placed like this between the old friend and the new, and having to side with one or the other, especially when he himself could not see that it mattered so very much which course they took. They could not bring the dead man back to life. On the whole he supposed that Chips was right; but Jan would have held his tongue with Evan against any other fellow in the school. It was the new friend, however, who had been the true friend these two terms, and it was not in Jan’s body to go against him now, though he would have given a bit of it to feel otherwise.
“If that’s good enough for Devereux,” said Chips, dryly, “it’s good enough for me. But I’m blowed if I could sleep till that poor chap’s cut down!”
Devereux now became far from sure that it was good enough for him; in fact he declared nearly all the way back that he would own up with the others, that they must stand or fall together, even if he himself was more sinned against than sinning. That was not indeed the expression he used, but the schoolboy paraphrase was pretty close, and his companions did not take it up. Chips, having gained his point, was content to look volumes of unspoken criticism, while Jan felt heartily sick of the whole discussion. He was prepared to do or to suffer what was necessary or inevitable, but for his part he had talked enough about it in advance.
Evan, however, would not drop the subject until they found the familiar street looking cynically sleepy and serene, the same and yet subtly altered to those young eyes seared with a horror to be fully realised only by degrees. It began to come home to them now, in the region of other black caps with red badges, and faces that met theirs curiously, as though they showed what they had seen. Their experience was indeed settling over them like a blight, and two of the trio had forgotten all about the consequences when the third blushed up and hesitated at Heriot’s corner.
“Of course,” he stammered, “if you found, after all, that you really were able to keep my name out of it, I should be awfully thankful to you both, because I never should have put my nose into the beastly place alone. But if it’s going to get you fellows into any hotter water I’ll come forward like a shot.”
“Noble fellow!” murmured Carpenter as the pair turned into their quad.
“You shut up!” Jan muttered back. “I’ve a jolly good mind not to open my own mouth either!”
But he did, and in the event there was no call upon Evan’s nobility. Heriot knew that the two boys who came to him after dinner were always about together, and he was too much disturbed by what they told him to ask if they had been alone as usual. He took that for granted, in the communications which he lost no time in making both to the police and to the Head Master, who took it for granted in his turn when the pair came to his study in the School House. He was very stern with them, but not unkind. They had broken bounds, and richly deserved the flogging he would have given them if their terrible experience were not a punishment in itself; it was indeed a very severe one to Carpenter, who was by this time utterly unstrung; but Rutter, who certainly looked unmoved, was reminded that this was the second time he had escaped his deserts for a serious offence, and he was grimly warned against a third. If they wished to signify their appreciation of his clemency, the old man added, they would both hold their tongues about the whole affair.