Page Created 6-13-2003

© R. Lionel Fanthorpe

"How did the child find its way about that unfamiliar labyrinth of a house?"
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 to be.
        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," answered Peterson.
        "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 children."
        "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 Val.
        "A new lad came yesterday. Like a complete and utter imbecile I forgot him, in the hurry of scrapping round."
        "A boy came yesterday," asked Val.
        "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 at all."
        "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 of it."
        "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 Ranelegh Grange.
        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, just once.
        "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 towards her.
        "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, Val."
        "He still won't talk thought," commented Stearman.
        "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 Peterson.
        "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 through.
        "John," she said.
        "Yes, dear?"
        "That new boy's gone."
        "Gone," asked Peterson. "Where's he gone?"
        "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," asked Val.
        "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 smell."
        "What about the smell," asked Stearman.
        "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 died."
        "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 in it?"
        "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 it.
        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 time,
        "What is this room?" asked Stearman.
        "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," he asked.
        "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 out Val.
        "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 and see."
        "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?"
        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 out.
        "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 mind."
        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 John!"
        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 jewellery.
        "The settings are very old," she said, "but the stones are magnificent. Several thousand pounds worth here, Johnny."
        "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.


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