Page Created 6-13-2003
By BRON FANE
© R. Lionel Fanthorpe
"How did the child find its way about that unfamiliar labyrinth of a
HENRY PETERSON awoke in the darkness, aware that
he was not alone. He was aware that sharing the darkness with him was some
strange being, from beyond the known realm. Although he had never seen that
being before, like all the other thousands of men who had seen it,
Henry Peterson recognised it unmistakably. He was in the presence of the
Angel of Death.
Somehow he did not feel particularly
surprised, for Henry Peterson was an old, old man. He had exceeded his allotted
span of three score and ten by a score of years, and although his body was
crumbling around him, his mind had not succumbed to the inroads of senility.
He still had all his faculties, and they were quite considerable faculties.
Perhaps it was his intellgence as much as anything else that gave him the
courage to face the invisible presence of his unwelcome guest. There was
nothing he could see, nothing he could put a hand on, just the awareness
that the grim reaper had called . . . for him.
And yet, as he lay in the
darkness unable to move, old Henry Peterson knew that the call was not a
swift or sudden call. The manner of his life had been a reasonably quiet
and gentle one. The call, now that it had come, was a quiet and gentle call.
He felt weak but he had no pain. Something seemed to have gone wrong inside
his chest somewhere. He felt as if his heart was slowly running down. A kind
of nervous paralysis was eating its way slowly and painlessly along every
bone. He felt as if he was being slowly turned into stone, as though the
blood was freezing in his veins. Yet there was the absence of the usual unpleasant
feeling that comes to a man who is cold. There was something almost of an
anticlimax, and in a strange sense Peterson felt vaguely disappointed. For
a man who had avoided the Black Reaper for as long as old Henry had done,
it seemed almost a let-down to go out so quietly. Vaguely, at the back of
his mind, he had had some kind of thought that there would be retributive
speed, perhaps some kind of agony before the end engulfed him. But it did
not come, just this sinking feeling, this sensation of mortal tiredness.
He began to think about his
house. What would become of the house he wondered. Ranelegh Grange; he and
generations of Petersons had lived there since a Peterson built it--after
the Civil War, in the 17th century. What was going to happen to it now? He
whispered the words over and over again, for his house was one of the few
things in life that he really loved.
"Ranelegh Grange," he murmured
quietly. The words floated up to the ceiling like little bubbles of sound.
It was as though the Black Reaper politely deigned to let them pass.
"Ranelegh Grange," croaked
poor old Peterson again. He suddenly thought of his housekeeper, Mrs. Waldron.
He didn't want to die alone. There wouldn't be any time to get a doctor,
he just wanted Mrs. Waldron to be there. She'd been there so long now, she
wasn't much younger than he was. Henry's father had attained to a massive
old age, and Mrs. Waldron had been there in his declining years, before Henry
took over as Master of Ranelegh Grange.
The old man wished that he
had married, wished that he had a direct descendant to whom the house could
pass. But John was a good fellow, John and young Lucy. Yes, his nephew John
would make a fitting tenant. There was something sad about saying farewell
to the old house, thought Henry.
His personality seemed to
have soaked into the very walls during the years that he had lived there.
They had been long years, they had not been unhappy years. He had lived through
two world wars in that house, and he'd had soldiers billeted with him during
both of them. There were still some scruff marks on the paint where the beds
had chafed against it, for Henry Peterson was a man who did not spend his
money with any particular freedom. He did not decorate unless he considered
it absolutely necessary to decorate.
He did not want to leave
that house. He felt, somehow that he was part of that house, and the house
was part of him. He felt a strange, psychic link holding him fast. His mood
began to change. He now felt resentment towards young John, his nephew, and
Lucy, John's wife. He didn't want them to have his house. Damnation! Ranelegh
was his place. It belonged to him! John and Lucy had never
worked for it. John and Lucy had never lived there, and his younger brother,
John's father. He had never liked John's father. Claud had been such a wild
chap. It seemed wrong that Claud's children were going to have Henry's house.
He reached a hand to the bell-pull. It was all he could do. Paralysis had
almost entirely overwhelmed him, a kind of exhaustion-paralysis. He tugged
at the bell-pull, then his hand flopped back to the coverlets.
It seemed an eternity before
there was any response, then Mrs. Waldron came shuffling in. She wore an
old-fashioned mob cap over her thin, grey hair. Her face was wrinkled like
an old, brown, leather bag. Her eyes, deepset, twinkled behind thin, steel-framed
spectacles. Her nose was long and pointed, and without her dentures her mouth
was over closed, so she looked for all the world like a toothless witch.
He grimaced gently at the sight of her, but she did not appear to notice
the expression on his face.
"Oh, Mr. Peterson, aren't
you well, sir? I'll go and get you a nice hot cup of milk."
"It's too late, Mrs. Waldron,"
said old Henry. "I just want you to stay with me. Just stay with me a few
minutes. I'm lonely, and I'm frightened, Mrs. Waldron, I'm lonely and I'm
frightened, and I don't want to die."
"Oh, bless my soul, Mr. Peterson,
you're not going to die," said the old woman. "You'll be better in the morning.
See if you're not!"
"I shan't be here in the
morning," gasped Peterson. "I shan't see the blasted morning." A note of
anger crept into the croaking remains of his voice. "I know I shan't see
the morning--don't lie to me. You're an old woman and I'm an old man. We've
both had more than our allotted span. We have no cause for complaint. We
have no right to grumble. When I think of all the lads cut off in their prime
during those two dreadful wars, all those young soldiers--young enough to
be my grandsons, the last lot. So many of them gone long before me--I've
had more out of life than they ever had, poor little devils. Now; now my
turn has come. He's here, Mrs. Waldron, the Black Reaper is here."
"Oh, you make me feel strange,"
said the old woman.
"I feel strange myself,"
answered Peterson. "Very strange. I feel strange with the strangeness of
a ship that is putting out into unknown waters. I'm going out into unknown
waters. I'm going out into the Great Beyond, and I don't know if I shall
ever return. I don't know if I shall find a safe anchorage there, or whether
this old vessel will sink in the dark waters of infinity."
"Oh, how strangely you talk,"
said the old woman. The twinkling eyes behind the steel rimmed spectacles
reflected her fear.
"I don't want anybody else
to have the house."
"But you said you had left
it to your nephew, Master John," said the old lady.
"I don't want him to have
it. I don't want anybody to have it. I want you to look after it as long
as you live, and then I want it to stand empty. Empty, do you understand,
empty--I don't want anybody to have it after I've gone. It's my
house--mine--" the old voice trailed away. There was a last faint flutter
inside the chest, and then, as old Mrs. Waldron looked down at the staring
eyes of her late master she knew that she was alone in Ranelegh Grange.
She was too old to be overcome
by emotion. Mr. Peterson was dead. Somehow it did not matter very much whether
Mr. Peterson was dead, or whether her pet cat was dead, or whether a fly
hung dead in a spider's web. She had gone beyond emotion. She had outlived
the age of emotion. She had somehow become a strange old creature of habit,
just jogging along from one day to the next, working to the same routine,
carrying on in the same old rut. Part of the rut had been broken away, part
of the rut called Henry Peterson.
But the house, Ranelegh Grange,
that was the depth of the rut, and it was in Ranelegh that she lived and
moved and had her being. It didn't matter whether one side of the rut was
gone, the rest of the rut was here. The old wheel moving through the rut,
the old wheel of Mrs. Waldron, would continue as long as there was enough
of the rut left, and as long as the wheel could revolve around its aged axle.
There was a court case. Loyal
to her employer in her own strange way, Mrs. Waldron contested the will.
But the will was practically incontestable. She had only the flimsiest of
cases to bring forward. But it said much for the magnanimity of John and
Lucy that, despite the old woman's bringing of the case to prevent them taking
over occupation of Ranelegh Grange, they kept her on, after they moved in.
Johnny Peterson was one of
those men who are mixtures of idealist, philanthropist, visionary social
reformer, and pioneer. Johnny Peterson had his own ideas about what he would
do in Ranelegh Grange, and playing the country squire in the huge old 17th
century mansion certainly had no part in Johnny's mind. He was tall, slim,
a rather excitable looking individual; the kind of man who looked like a
live wire flapping about loose on the end of a discharging dynamo. His eyes
were almost fanatical in their intensity, and his voice when he spoke, was
tremendously deep and powerful for so small a frame. Although he was slim,
he had that wire-and-whipcord toughness which can be deceptive to some heavier
men. Very much like the legendary Jack Spratt and his spouse, Johnny Peterson
and Lucy were as unlike as it is possible for two members of the same race
Lucy was very short; it took
her all her time to reach the five foot mark--and she was, if anything, a
little heavier than her husband. This was not difficult for Johnny only just
tipped the ten stone point on the scale. Lucy was one of those round, bouncy
little women. Inclined, perhaps, to be fussy, but possessed of the heart
of an angel, and the industrious activity of a saint. Not the contemplative
type of saint, but the social reforming type of saint. To some degree, every
woman in this world is either a Mary or a Martha. Lucy Peterson was very
much a Martha, but without the worst characteristics of the type.
Johnny turned Ranelegh Grange
into a private orphanage. The revenue from the estate was not big, and Johnny
was more of a reformer than a financier. Like other dedicated men before
him, who can see only the vision and not the cold winds of financial necessity
which underline every vision, which must underline and ramify every vision
if it is to become a reality, he was in constant trouble with his bank balance.
It was not that Johnny considered that in the enlightened Welfare State of
the 20th century there was anything like the same need to throw up a bulwark
against absolute poverty, as there had been in the days when Dr. Barnado
had saved children from dying on the roof-tops of London. It was a different
need that Peterson could see. Every age brings up its own reformers, men
who see that their calling is to serve the present; men who see that "time
makes ancient good uncouth" and those who would keep abreast of the truth
must move onwards and upwards, as life moves onwards and upwards; men who
are prepared to pile reform upon reform, who are prepared to build improvement
upon improvement until the kingdom of God has been established on earth.
Such a man was Johnny Peterson.
The kind of orphanage into
which he turned Ranelegh Grange was a place that would scarcely have been
recognised by that name even thirty years before. The children whom the Petersons
took in were not merely regarded as being part of the family in name only.
They were. Johnny took in the kind of children whom it is normally
very difficult for child care authorities to place with foster parents--crippled
children, children with handicaps. He had some who had run away from Borstals
and approved schools so many times that the authorities had practically despaired
of them. He had coloured children, half-caste children, Asiatic children,
children from refugee camps; those that others regarded as impossible problems
Johnny and Lucy Peterson saw as a challenge, a test, to the enormous power
of love and sympathy.
Yet, as the years passed,
there was always a strange feeling at Ranelegh Grange, a feeling as if something
in the house was fighting against them. As if something resented their presence,
and once or twice Johnny had the feeling that old Uncle Henry lived and moved
and had his being among those strange, labyrinthine rooms. There was nothing
definite, there was nothing he could put his finger on, but there was something.
He was aware that some kind of dark, supernatural presence was working against
him all the time, and he had enough to work against as it was. Money was
a constant problem. He went to bed dreaming of it at night, and he woke up
sweating every morning. The place was in serious need of decorative repair.
The roof was beginning to leak, and it needed a major overhaul. The plumbing
was going to glory as fast as it could possibly go, and the drainage needed
overhauling. These were small considerations in their way, but they were
practical considerations. Idealist as he was, Johnny Peterson knew that it
was impossible to make children ideally happy in a house that is falling
down around their heads. He wanted to fix the roof. He wanted to fix the
plumbing. He wanted to fix the drains; he wanted, above all, to buy new equipment,
new furnishings new toys--and it was getting near Christmas.
In the course of his travels
he had met a man named Stearman. Stearman had that rather odd post with the
"Daily Globe" of psychic investigator and reporter on the supernatural and
the unexplained. They had met very occasionally at conferences and at annual
meetings of the Society for the Investigation of Psychic Phenomena, for interest
in the Other World was characteristic of Johnny Peterson.
It was quite by chance that
he met the big journalist again. He was walking down the Strand, looking
at the lights and decorations, wishing that there was more money in the kitty
to buy toys for the children of Ranelegh Grange. Val Stearman paused and
regarded Peterson with keen grey eyes.
"Johnny Peterson," he exclaimed,
"Johnny Peterson of Ranelegh Grange Orphanage. Am I right?"
"You're right," agreed Johnny.
"And how goes the world with
you, my friend?"
"Oh, moderately well, thanks,"
"Only moderately?" asked
Val. "Come and tell your Uncle Stearman all about it." And guiding Peterson
into the nearest pub, Stearman proceeded to ply him with strong liquor, while
he listened to the story of the progress of the orphanage. Stearman liked
Peterson's ideas very much. It wasn't so much that there was anything new
in Peterson's work, it was just that his personality and power enabled him
to give in more concentrated doses that love and affection which he felt
the unwanted children of the world needed more than anything else.
When Val Stearman finally
had the whole story he reached for his cheque book and made a short speech
that was nevertheless to the point.
"In this wicked world, my
friend Peterson," said Val, "you find that odd characters like me who waste
their money on booze and fast cars and generally living it up in expensive
restaurants, traveling all over the world to places that don't really need
their attention, have far more of the old folding green stuff than fellows
like you, who know what to do with it. The world being what it is, I can't
do as much to remedy this unhappy state as I would like to. But before my
nasty, mean, greedy streak takes over and prevents me from doing what I want
to do, will you kindly take and cash this, and get something that you need
for the kids over Christmas. Now I want it spent directly on the kids, I
don't want anything fancy in the way of repairs, because you wouldn't see
where it had gone. Get ‘em some toys, get ‘em something to eat, get ‘em something
to drink if they're old enough. See that they enjoy it," Before Peterson
knew what had happened, Stearman had left him standing at the counter, clutching
a cheque for a hundred guineas.
There were tears in Peterson's
eyes as he went out. It was lunch time, and the banks were still open. He
paid the cheque in and then phoned Lucy to see what she thought they ought
to do. They finally decided to divide it between Christmas fare and toys.
Then Lucy had another idea.
"Why not invite Val and his
wife over for Christmas," she said, "and let him play Santa Claus to the
"Of course," said John. "What
an idiot I was not to think of it!"
The toys were bought. It
was Christmas Day. Ranelegh Grange looked brighter and gayer than it had
looked for many months. The spectre of financial difficulty had receded a
trifle. Even weird old Mrs. Waldron looked reasonably festive, although she
was now well past her ninetieth year. She looked like a turkey that had miraculously
escaped the neck wringers and the pluckers, and was now jauntily strutting
its scrawny way among its less fortunate brethren, who had finished up on
the table. The Christmas Dinner was a great success. Val Stearman and his
wife La Noire watched the kid's faces, and Val knew that he couldn't have
spent that hundred guineas in a better way. He had not known that it was
possible to buy so much happiness before. He looked all around, then, as
Johnny Peterson tipped him the wink, he left the table unobtrusively--a difficult
feat for a man as big, and as commanding, as Val Stearman--and made his way
through to a little ante-room behind the dining hall, where La Noire helped
him to change into the Father Christmas outfit. Only a man as big and powerful
as Stearman would have been capable of carrying that enormous sack of presents.
But, at a signal from Johnny Peterson, he burst into the room with a hearty
cry of "Merry Christmas, children!"
There was a wild shriek of
delight from every throat, and Val felt like crying. He began taking the
presents out of the sack and calling out names. Up they came, some of them
dragging deformed legs, some of them reaching for their gifts with poor,
twisted arms, some looking at him with the vacant expression of the feeble
minded; others were watching his lips with the keen intentness of the deaf.
There were brown faces, and
yellow faces among the white, and yet their one common denominator was that
they were children. Johnny and Lucy Peterson loved every man Jack of them.
At last the presents were gone. Peterson looked down his list.
"Oh, blast," he said.
"What's the matter," asked
"A new lad came yesterday.
Like a complete and utter imbecile I forgot him, in the hurry of scrapping
"A boy came yesterday," asked
"Yes, that little fellow
over there." Johnny Peterson pointed to a strange, thin, pale-faced child.
"Very odd circumstances, actually," he went on. "In fact he's not here officially
"Oh," said Val.
"No, he just wandered in
off the moors. I've sent out the necessary letters to the authorities. I've
tried urgently to get him to tell me his name, but he doesn't seem to speak.
Whether he's a mute, or whether he's suffering from some kind of shock I
don't know. He might even have some kind of serious mental disability. I
hate to think it, but I'm wondering whether somebody turned him out because
"Poor little devil," said
Stearman. They looked at the boy.
"There's something strange
about him," said La Noire, "something very strange, Val. The eyes, they're
not like the eyes of a child at all. They are so grave, so serious, Val looked
at the boy till suddenly the boy looked back, and Val averted his own gaze
to avoid staring at the strange little youngster.
"We'll have to find him something,
of course," said Peterson, "Oh, what an idiot I am! I can't bear to think
of anybody being left out. After all that sets kids fighting more than anything
else, the feeling that they've been left out. The feeling that nobody wants
them. More than anything else I've got to make them feel wanted. That's
my crusade now."
"Yes, I pretty well guessed
as much," said Stearman, "that's got to be the underlying factor. Not just
tolerating them, but making them feel important, and making
them feel wanted." The big reporter looked at Peterson. "And, of course,
the great thing with you, Johnny," he said, "is that you really do want them.
To you they really are important." Peterson nodded.
"I guess you could put it
that way, Val," he said.
"What can we give that kid,"
said Val interrogatively.
"Oh, there's a box of chocolates
in the car," said La Noire.
"I know," said Val, "we'll
take him for a little drive. Tell him he can have a ride with Father Christmas.
The roads are pretty dry fortunately and I have yet to meet the kid who doesn't
like haring round the countryside at enormous speeds. We'll take him down
to the car, give him the box of chocolates, and take him for a drive."
"Don't you go too fast wearing
that Father Christmas outfit," said Peterson. "I can imagine what the Press
would say if you were caught dressed like that and speeding!"
"Don't malign the Press,"
said Stearman. "I am the Press!"
"Aha," said Peterson. "If
they were all like you I would have no occasion to complain, But you are
in the minority, my friend."
"Thank you for those few
kind words," replied Stearman. "What's that boy's name?"
"I don't know," answered
Johnny. "He won't talk."
"Well if he won't talk he
can't tell us his name," said Val. "You don't think he's deaf, do you? He
does hear does he? He won't think we're taking him away or anything?"
"No. He does hear what's
said to him," said Johnny Peterson.
"Good," said Val, and moved
over to the strange, thin pale little boy with the grave, serious adult eyes.
Father Christmas has got
a very special present for you, and I had to save it till last," he said,
"because I'm going to give you the present myself, in my car."
The boy looked at him questioningly,
as though to say "What about your sleigh and your reindeer?" Val sensed the
question in those grave little eyes.
"We don't have reindeer nowadays,"
he said. "We used to, but poor Rudolph got so tired that we use a car now."
The little boy nodded as though he understood. Val flashed a swift, sidelong
glance at La Noire. She was looking at the boy intently, interestedly. They
each took one of his hands and led him down to the car, where they tucked
him carefully between them on the front seat. The powerful sports saloon
took off like a bullet. The grave little eyes began to light up a bit. Something
that might have been the tinge of a smile played around the corners of the
boy's mouth. Stearman put his foot on the "loud" pedal, the car began to
move fast--very fast. The rush of air sang a a song of speed and power as
it whistled past the streamlined steel of the hard-top. Val drove three or
four miles in as many minutes, then turned around and raced back towards
The bleak moorland scenery
all around rolled like the waves of some great, grassy ocean. There was no
doubt about it now, the thin lips of the sad little boy were definitely parted
in a smile.
"Do you like it," asked La
Noire as the car pulled up. Still the child didn't speak. She looked at him.
His eyes seemed just a trifle warmer, just a little less cold. He nodded,
"Here's the other part of
your present," said La Noire, and undoing the dashboard locker she took out
a two-lb. box of chocolates that had not yet been opened. The boy clutched
them as though they were very precious indeed, and then, without a word,
faded back into his normal, expressionless look, and ran back into the porch
of Ranelegh Grange.
"Come and show me what you've
got," said Lucy Peterson as he came in.
He held out the chocolates
"Oh, that's a lovely present,"
said Lucy. "Are you going to show Uncle Johnny?" The boy nodded again and
took the chocolates to show Peterson.
"Splendid," said Johnny.
"Aren't you a lucky fella. My word, Father Christmas must think a lot of
you! Did you like the ride?"
Again that wordless nod,
and the quick flash of the half smile.
The boy trotted away by himself
in a corner, and unfastened the box of chocolates. Peterson went through
to the ante-room, where Stearman was removing the Father Christmas costume.
"Well, at least you got a
little bit of a smile out of him, that's more than I've been able to do,
"He still won't talk thought,"
"I wonder if it's won't,
or can't," mused Peterson.
"I don't think it's can't,"
said La Noire. "I think it's won't."
"That can be a psychological
disability as well as a physical one," said Johnny Peterson gently. "There
may be some kind of deep mental compulsion which prevents him from articulating.
I don't know; I'm not half the psychiatrist I'd like to be. I only wish I
was; it would be invaluable, when helping with these children. But when you've
read all the books, and attended all the lectures, there's still no substitute
for experience. Perhaps when I've been doing this job for another fifty years
I shall know a little something about the mind of the child. But even our
best knowledge is so superficial. Psychology and psychiatry ought to be exact
sciences, but for so many of us they are still shrouded in guesswork. We
can produce the same kind of results, but they are explicable equally logically
in about ten different ways, if you see what I mean. Given a certain fact
of behaviour there is no guarantee that it can be adequately explained in
one particular way."
"Christmas," said Val Stearman,
"is definitely not the time to involve ourselves in lengthy discussions on
psychology. After all, child psychology is good old common-sense dressed
up in long words. You've got the basic essence here, Johnny boy. You love
these kids, that's all the psychology you need--love and commonsense, and
you can dispense with the long words."
"I'm not entirely convinced
about that," said Peterson, "unless love knows how to apply itself wisely."
"By it's very nature," said
La Noire, "it is also wisdom."
"That's deep," agreed Johnny
"That's typical La Noire,"
said Val Stearman.
"She comes out with the most
profound remarks just when you want to give the poor old brain a rest. She
could sit with Plato on one side and Aristotle on the other, and keep them
both busy for a couple of thousand centuries!"
Lucy Peterson suddenly came
"John," she said.
"That new boy's gone."
"Gone," asked Peterson. "Where's
"I don't know," answered
Lucy, "he's just vanished. He was sitting there with his chocolates a moment
ago, and now he's gone."
"Is he outside," asked Johnny.
"I asked one of the girls
standing near the door and she said nobody had been through--not since Father
Christmas and Mrs. Stearman came back with the new boy."
"If that's so he isn't outside.
Where can he have gone? Unless he's wandering around the house on his own."
"He can't possibly know his
way around yet," said Lucy, "this place is like a rabbit warren. It's an
absolute labyrinth." She laughed, "I hardly know my way around and we've
been here several years!"
"That's odd," said La Noire
suddenly. "How old do you think that boy is?"
"Why do you ask," said Val.
"I don't see what it's got
to do with his disappearance," said Johnny Peterson.
"Never mind," said La Noire
and she closed her eyes as though deep in thought. It was only momentary,
but Val Stearman knew his wife well enough to know how her mind worked. He
knew that in these mysterious moments she was on the track of some very deep
and profound thought of her own,
"I suppose we'd better go
and look for him," said Lucy.
"Yes, the kiddies are playing
with their toys, they'll be quite happy, and the older ones can see they
don't get into mischief for a few minutes."
"What's the panic, then,"
"It's just that some parts
of the house are a bit--well--dilapidated. If he goes wandering off somewhere
he shouldn't, he could fall over a bannister, or drop down the cellar steps,
that kind of thing."
Stearman nodded. "Yes, I
know," he agreed, "All right, we'll see what we can do."
"We'd better split up hadn't
we," asked Lucy. "Johnny, if you go with Val, I'll show La Noire round."
"Okay," agreed Peterson.
He and Val went one way,
their wives went the other. Ranelegh Grange, apart from the fact that it
had rung with children's laughter since the Petersons had taken over, was
more like Bleak House, or the kind of Moated Grange of which Tennyson sang.
It was a very weird place. It was old and it was strange, and despite the
fact that Lucy Peterson was a very hard working woman there were cobwebs
and dust around the upper stories.
Val and Johnny had gone towards
the West wing. Lucy and La Noire moved to the right. There was nothing on
the ground floor except a succession of libraries, play rooms and communal
studies where the children could do their homework. There was a television
room, and another room that Peterson had rigged up as a miniature cinema,
where a battered old 8 m.m. projector and a supply of films in various states
of unwinding, showed that the children enjoyed making their own entertainment.
"This place must be a kids'
paradise," commented Val.
"It's not," said Peterson,
"I wish it was."
"I think you underestimate
yourself," said Stearman. "He's not here, is he?"
"No, definitely not. Let's
try upstairs." The thick oak stairs creaked as they trod on them.
"Curiouser and curiouser,"
said Stearman as he paused and sniffed.
"By the seven stars, what's
that?" asked Peterson, his face had gone deathly white.
"What's what," asked Val,
sniffing again. "The smell do you mean, Johnny?"
"Yes," said Peterson. "The
"What about the smell," asked
"It's tobacco," said Peterson.
"So," asked Val.
"Do you smoke," asked Johnny.
"You know I don't," answered
Stearman. "Ridiculous habit. Wastes money and destroys the lungs."
"Does your wife smoke?"
"Course not," averred Stearman.
"Lucy and I don't smoke either,"
commented Peterson. "Nobody in this house has smoked since old Uncle Henry
"Oh," replied Val, quietly.
"It's a long time since I
smelt that particular odour," said Johnny. "Do you know what I think it is?"
"It's definitely tobacco.
We've agreed on that," said Stearman.
"Yes, but there are as many
kinds of tobacco as there are wines. A connoisseur can tell one by the smell
just as easily as he can tell another."
"Do you fancy yourself as
a tobacco connoisseur," asked Stearman. "I thought you hadn't got much interest
"Well, I can certainly smell
it," said Peterson. "I can smell it well enough to set a little bell ringing
in my memory."
"Oh," replied Val. "What
kind of bell?"
"A rather disconcerting one,"
replied Johnny Peterson.
"Come on, out with it. Speak
straight," said Val.
"It was the kind of tobacco
my Uncle Henry used to smoke. It had a particularly nutty sort of smell about
it. Don't know how to describe it, but that's what it is; a sort of nutty
smell," he repeated rather lamely, lost for want of any other way of describing
Val sniffed again. "It's
pipe tobacco, isn't it? Not a cigarette?"
"Old Henry always smoked
a pipe," replied Johnny, "a big meerschaum."
Stearman opened a door.
"Look there," whispered Johnny
Peterson. This was a room that had obviously not been used for a very long
"What is this room?"
"Used to be the old man's
study," whispered Peterson. "I left it like this for the sake of poor old
Mrs. Waldron. She was very fond of Uncle Henry in her own odd way. She begged
that I wouldn't disturb his room, and we never did." He looked at Val suddenly.
"How did you open that door,"
"Turned the handle," replied
Stearman, "how else does a man open a door?"
"But you couldn't have,"
said Peterson. "This room is kept locked."
"It's not locked now," pointed
"But the key was always kept
in what used to be the old man's bedroom, that's at the far end. Let's go
"I want to see this more
closely first," said Stearman and he picked up a big old meerschaum pipe
that was lying on the dust covered desk.
"That's just how the old
man used to lay it down, at that rather careless angle." The pipe was smoking.
There were finger prints on the dusty bowl. Val looked at his own hands and
then at the tiny prints on the pipe. A child's prints. Johnny Peterson shuddered,
"Ugh," he said. "It seems
so ‘wrong' somehow, so frighteningly wrong!"
They went on to the old man's
bedroom. The coverlets had been turned back in a peculiar way. There was
the sound of sudden footsteps, slow, tired footsteps. Stearman spun on his
heel. It was old Mrs. Waldron who stood there.
"The master has returned,"
she said in a terrible old voice. "The master has returned, Mr. John. I know
it. I can feel it. He's here."
There was a small closet
at the side of the bedroom. Johnny Peterson jumped as the door clicked. The
closet opened and the tiny figure of the strange, silent boy stepped out.
His face had undergone an incredible transformation, it was not the face
of a child any more, it was the face of an old man.
Mrs. Waldron stared at the
strange little apparition as though unable to believe her eyes.
"It's the master," she said
softly, "the Master's come back, God bless him. Come back to see us all."
The child advanced towards the old housekeeper, who made no effort to move
aside. He put his hand on her shoulder.
"You are looking very well,
Mrs. Waldron," said a voice that had no right in the throat of a child. He
turned to Peterson. "And you, young John, you're looking very well. How's
Lucy and La Noire appeared
in the doorway. The former gave a startled gasp as she saw the peculiar features
of the child.
"Uncle Henry," she whispered.
"Yes, it's Uncle Henry, come
back to see you. You're looking very well, Lucy my dear, but you should diet
more, you know, you should definitely diet. You'll never live to be my age
if you keep on over eating."
"Uncle Henry you're dead,"
said Lucy. "You've been dead for years!"
"Have I," said the strange
half-child with the face of the old man. "Have I, my dear? I didn't know.
I wondered why everything was so dusty. How about a nice glass of brandy
and milk, Mrs. Waldron?"
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir,"
said the old housekeeper like a woman in a daze. She turned and began shuffling
"I feel very tired, so if
you will be good enough to leave me, I think I'll go to bed for a little
while." He climbed into bed and pulled the coverlets up, with hands that
shook like the hands of an old man. "Very tired," he said. "Very tired indeed."
La Noire came forward purposefully
as the strange man-child's eyelids closed.
"He's re-living the old man's
death," she said. "Unless we can dissociate the spirits quickly the child
will die, just as the old man died."
"What can we do," asked Val.
"We must pray," said La Noire,
"all of us. The power of prayer is very great."
They knelt around the bed.
The breathing of "Uncle Henry" grew strangely slower. Then, miraculously,
it quickened up again, and the eyes opened, as if the old man was rallying.
"There's something he wants
to do, something he wants to say," whispered La Noire.
"Have you noticed something,"
said Peterson to Lucy.
"What darling," asked Lucy.
"The house doesn't seem to
resent us any more. It's as though, somehow, Uncle Henry had changed his
The strange old child shuffled
out of bed and made its way to the closet from which it had emerged.
"John, my boy, come over
here a minute, will you," said that old voice from the young lips. Like a
man in a dream Johnny Peterson walked across the room.
"Fetch a candle, there's
a good fellow."
"I have a torch in my pocket,"
said Stearman. He handed it to Peterson.
"Oh, that's capital, capital,"
came the voice of the old man. "Shine the light here, will you? There's something
I want you to have. Just a little something." The features of the child seemed
to be melting back to normality again. He looked far more like a little boy
and far less like old Uncle Henry's spirit.
"In here," a panel slicked
back inside the closet.
"Saints preserve us," gasped
Johnny Peterson. "Jewellery!"
"A few little pieces I put
away for a rainy day. They're for you, John, for you and the children! Good-bye
The child suddenly collapsed.
Peterson swept the little figure up in his arms. Val groped for a pulse.
"Thank God," he said, "the
boy's all right. The spirit's gone."
La Noire was looking through
"The settings are very old,"
she said, "but the stones are magnificent. Several thousand pounds worth
"Wonderful," breathed Peterson,
"wonderful." The little boy opened his eyes, and began to cry.
"Where am I," he asked.
"You're safe, I'm your Uncle
John," said Peterson. "And here's Aunty Lucy. We're going to have a lovely
Christmas tea soon, jellies and cakes."
"I like jellies," murmured
the little boy.
"Course you do! What kind
do you like? Pink ones or green ones?"
"I like yellow ones," said
the little boy.
"You shall have some yellow
ones," said Peterson. Val Stearman was smiling.
A drop of water suddenly
landed on the floor.
"Blast that roof," said Peterson.
"I don't know about blasting
it," said Stearman, "but you'll be able to mend it pretty soon."
The jewels flashed back more
brightly than the falling water droplet had done.
"Perhaps there was more to
be said for Uncle Henry than I realised," commented Peterson.
Return to the Val Stearman & La Noire Archive