MACMILLAN AND CO., Limited
LONDON . BOMBAY . CALCUTTA . MADRAS MELBOURNE
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
NEW YORK . BOSTON . CHICAGO DALLAS . ATLANTA . SAN FRANCISCO
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY OF CANADA, LIMITED
MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED ST. MARTIN'S STREET, LONDON
First Published 1909 The Caravan Library 1930
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN
I. "RABBITS" 7
II. MISS LAKE COMES—AND GOES 24
III. THE SHOCK 40
IV. ON THE EDGE OF UNCONSCIOUSNESS 49
V. INTO THE EMPTY HOUSE 54
VI. HIS COMPANION IN PRISON 69
VII. THE SPELL OF THE EMPTY HOUSE 87
VIII. THE GALLERY OF ANCIENT MEMORIES 102
IX. THE MEANS OF ESCAPE 111
X. THE PLUNGE 131
XI. THE FIRST FLIGHT 142
XII. THE FOUR WINDS 153
XIII. PLEASURES OF FLIGHT 165
XIV. AN ADVENTURE 177
XV. THE CALL OF THE BODY 193
XVI. PREPARATION 204
XVII. OFF! 219
XVIII. HOME 232
Jimbo's governess ought to have known better—but she didn't. If she had, Jimbo would never have met with the adventures that subsequently came to him. Thus, in a roundabout sort of way, the child ought to have been thankful to the governess; and perhaps, in a roundabout sort of way, he was. But that comes at the far end of the story, and is doubtful at best; and in the meanwhile the child had gone through his suffering, and the governess had in some measure expiated her fault; so that at this stage it is only necessary to note that the whole business began because the Empty House happened to be really an Empty House—not the one Jimbo's family lived in, but another of which more will be known in due course.
Jimbo's father was a retired Colonel, who had married late in life, and now lived all the year round in the country; and Jimbo was the youngest child but one. The Colonel, lean in body as he was sincere in mind, an excellent soldier but a poor diplomatist, loved dogs, horses, guns and riding-whips. He also really understood them. His neighbours, had they been asked, would have called him hard-headed, and so far as a soft-hearted man may deserve the title, he probably was. He rode two horses a day to hounds with the best of them, and the stiffer the country the better he liked it. Besides his guns, dogs and horses, he was also very fond of his children. It was his hobby that he understood them far better than his wife did, or than any one else did, for that matter. The proper evolution of their differing temperaments had no difficulties for him. The delicate problems of child-nature, which defy solution by nine parents out of ten, ceased to exist the moment he spread out his muscular hand in a favourite omnipotent gesture and uttered some extraordinarily foolish generality in that thunderous, good-natured voice of his. The difficulty for himself vanished when he ended up with the words, "Leave that to me, my dear; believe me, I know best!" But for all else concerned, and especially for the child under discussion, this was when the difficulty really began.
Since, however, the Colonel, after this chapter, mounts his best hunter and disappears over a high hedge into space so far as our story is concerned, any further delineation of his wholesome but very ordinary type is unnecessary.
One winter's evening, not very long after Christmas, the Colonel made a discovery. It alarmed him a little; for it suggested to his cocksure mind that he did not understand all his children as comprehensively as he imagined.
Between five o'clock tea and dinner—that magic hour when lessons were over and the big house was full of shadows and mystery—there came a timid knock at the study door.
"Come in," growled the soldier in his deepest voice, and a little girl's face, wreathed in tumbling brown hair, poked itself hesitatingly through the opening.
The Colonel did not like being disturbed at this hour, and everybody in the house knew it; but the spell of Christmas holidays was still somehow in the air, and the customary order was not yet fully re-established. Moreover, when he saw who the intruder was, his growl modified itself into a sort of common sternness that yet was not cleverly enough simulated to deceive the really intuitive little person who now stood inside the room.
"Well, Nixie, child, what do you want now?"
"Please, father, will you—we wondered if——"
A chorus of whispers issued from the other side of the door:
"Go on, silly!"
"Out with it!"
"You promised you would, Nixie."
"... if you would come and play Rabbits with us?" came the words in a desperate rush, with laughter not far behind.
The big man with the fierce white moustaches glared over the top of his glasses at the intruders as if amazed beyond belief at the audacity of the request.
"Rabbits!" he exclaimed, as though the mere word ought to have caused an instant explosion. "Rabbits!"
"Oh, please do."
"Rabbits at this time of night!" he repeated. "I never heard of such a thing. Why, all good rabbits are asleep in their holes by now. And you ought to be in yours too by rights, I'm sure."
"We don't sleep in holes, father," said the owner of the brown hair, who was acting as leader.
"And there's still a nour before bedtime, really," added a voice in the rear.
The big man slowly put his glasses down and looked at his watch. He looked very savage, but of course it was all pretence, and the children knew it. "If he was really cross he'd pretend to be nice," they whispered to each other, with merciless perception.
"Well—" he began. But he who hesitates, with children, is lost. The door flung open wide, and the troop poured into the room in a medley of long black legs, flying hair and outstretched hands. They surrounded the table, swarmed upon his big knees, shut his stupid old book, tried on his glasses, kissed him, and fell to discussing the game breathlessly all at once, as though it had already begun.
This, of course, ended the battle, and the big man had to play the part of the Monster Rabbit in a wonderful game of his own invention. But when, at length, it was all over, and they were gathered panting round the fire of blazing logs in the hall, the Monster Rabbit—the only one with any breath at his command—looked up and spoke.
"Where's Jimbo?" he asked.
"Why didn't he come and play too?"
"He didn't want to."
"Why? What's he doing?"
Several answers were forthcoming.
"Nothing in p'tickler."
"Talking to the furniture when I last saw him."
"Just thinking, as usual, or staring in the fire."
None of the answers seemed to satisfy the Monster Rabbit, for when he kissed them a little later and said good-night, he gave orders, with a graver face, for Jimbo to be sent down to the study before he went to bed. Moreover, he called him "James," which was a sure sign of parental displeasure.
"James, why didn't you come and play with your brothers and sisters just now?" asked the Colonel, as a dreamy-eyed boy of about eight, with a mop of dark hair and a wistful expression, came slowly forward into the room.
"I was in the middle of making pictures."
"In the fire."
"James," said the Colonel in a serious tone, "don't you know that you are getting too old now for that sort of thing? If you dream so much, you'll fall asleep altogether some fine day, and never wake up again. Just think what that means!"
The child smiled faintly and moved up confidingly between his father's knees, staring into his eyes without the least sign of fear. But he said nothing in reply. His thoughts were far away, and it seemed as if the effort to bring them back into the study and to a consideration of his father's words was almost beyond his power.
"You must run about more," pursued the soldier, rubbing his big hands together briskly, "and join your brothers and sisters in their games. Lie about in the summer and dream a bit if you like, but now it's winter, you must be more active, and make your blood circulate healthily,—er—and all that sort of thing."
The words were kindly spoken, but the voice and manner rather deliberate. Jimbo began to look a little troubled, as his father watched him.
"Come now, little man," he said more gently, "what's the matter, eh?" He drew the boy close to him. "Tell me all about it, and what it is you're always thinking about so much."
Jimbo brought back his mind with a tremendous effort, and said, "I don't like the winter. It's so dark and full of horrid things. It's all ice and shadows, so—so I go away and think of what I like, and other places——"
"Nonsense!" interrupted his father briskly; "winter's a capital time for boys. What in the world d'ye mean, I wonder?"
He lifted the child on to his knee and stroked his hair, as though he were patting the flank of a horse. Jimbo took no notice of the interruption or of the caress, but went on saying what he had to say, though with eyes a little more clouded.
"Winter's like going into a long black tunnel, you see. It's downhill to Christmas, of course, and then uphill all the way to the summer holidays. But the uphill part's so slow that——"
"Tut, tut!" laughed the Colonel in spite of himself; "you mustn't have such thoughts. Those are a baby's notions. They're silly, silly, silly."
"Do you really think so, father?" continued the boy, as if politeness demanded some recognition of his father's remarks, but otherwise anxious only to say what was in his mind. "You wouldn't think them silly if you really knew. But, of course, there's no one to tell you in the stable, so you can't know. You've never seen the funny big people rushing past you and laughing through their long hair when the wind blows so loud. I know several of them almost to speak to, but you hear only wind. And the other things with tiny legs that skate up and down the slippery moonbeams, without ever tumbling off—they aren't silly a bit, only they don't like dogs and noise. And I've seen the furniture"—he pronounced it furchinur—"dancing about in the day-nursery when it thought it was alone, and I've heard it talking at night. I know the big cupboard's voice quite well. It's just like a drum, only rougher...."
The Colonel shook his head and frowned severely, staring hard at his son. But though their eyes met, the boy hardly saw him. Far away at the other end of the dark Tunnel of the Months he saw the white summer sunshine lying over gardens full of nodding flowers. Butterflies were flitting across meadows yellow with buttercups, and he saw the fascinating rings upon the lawn where the Fairy People held their dances in the moonlight; he heard the wind call to him as it ran on along by the hedgerows, and saw the gentle pressure of its swift feet upon the standing hay; streams were murmuring under shady trees; birds were singing; and there were echoes of sweeter music still that he could not understand, but loved all the more perhaps on that account....
"Yes," announced the Colonel later that evening to his wife, spreading his hands out as he spoke. "Yes, my dear, I have made a discovery, and an alarming one. You know, I'm rarely at fault where the children are concerned—and I've noted all the symptoms with unusual care. James, my dear, is an imaginative boy."
He paused to note the effect of his words, but seeing none, continued:
"I regret to be obliged to say it, but it's a fact beyond dispute. His head is simply full of things, and he talked to me this evening about tunnels and slippery moonlight till I very nearly lost my temper altogether. Now, the boy will never make a man unless we take him in hand properly at once. We must get him a governess, or something, without delay. Just fancy, if he grew up into a poet or one of these—these——"
In his distress the soldier could only think of horse-terms, which did not seem quite the right language. He stuck altogether, and kept repeating the favourite gesture with his open hand, staring at his wife over his glasses as he did so.
But the mother never argued.
"He's very young still," she observed quietly, "and, as you have always said, he's not a bit like other boys, remember."
"Exactly what I say. Now that your eyes are opened to the actual state of affairs, I'm satisfied."
"We'll get a sensible nursery-governess at once," added the mother.
"A practical one?"
"And well educated?"
"And—er—firm with children. She'll do for the lot, then."
"And a young woman who doesn't go in for poetry, and dreaming, and all that kind of flummery."
"Of course, dear."
"Capital. I felt sure you would agree with me," he went on. "It'd be no end of a pity if Jimbo grew up an ass. At present he hardly knows the difference between a roadster and a racer. He's going into the army, too," he added by way of climax, "and you know, my dear, the army would never stand that!"
"Never," said the mother quietly, and the conversation came to an end.
Meanwhile, the subject of these remarks was lying wide awake upstairs in the bed with the yellow iron railing round it. His elder brother was asleep in the opposite corner of the room, snoring peacefully. He could just see the brass knobs of the bedstead as the dying firelight quivered and shone on them. The walls and ceiling were draped in shadows that altered their shapes from time to time as the coals dropped softly into the grate. Gradually the fire sank, and the room darkened. A feeling of delight and awe stole into his heart.
Jimbo loved these early hours of the night before sleep came. He felt no fear of the dark; its mystery thrilled his soul; but he liked the summer dark, with its soft, warm silences better than the chill winter shadows. Presently the firelight sprang up into a brief flame and then died away altogether with an odd little gulp. He knew the sound well; he often watched the fire out, and now, as he lay in bed waiting for he knew not what, the moonlight filtered in through the baize curtains and gradually gave to the room a wholly new character.
Jimbo sat up in bed and listened. The house was very still. He slipped into his red dressing-gown and crept noiselessly over to the window. For a moment he paused by his brother's bed to make sure that he really was asleep; then, evidently satisfied, he drew aside a corner of the curtain and peered out.
"Oh!" he said, drawing in his breath with delight, and again "oh!"
It was difficult to understand why the sea of white moonlight that covered the lawn should fill him with such joy, and at the same time bring a lump into his throat. It made him feel as if he were swelling out into something very much greater than the actual limits of his little person. And the sensation was one of mingled pain and delight, too intense for him to feel for very long. The unhappiness passed gradually away, he always noticed, and the happiness merged after a while into a sort of dreamy ecstasy in which he neither thought nor wished much, but was conscious only of one single unmanageable yearning.
The huge cedars on the lawn reared themselves up like giants in silver cloaks, and the horse-chestnut—the Umbrella Tree, as the children called it—loomed with motionless branches that were frosted and shining. Beyond it, in a blue mist of moonlight and distance, lay the kitchen-garden; he could just make out the line of the high wall where the fruit-trees grew. Immediately below him the gravel of the carriage drive sparkled with frost.
The bars of the windows were cold to his hands, yet he stood there for a long time with his nose flattened against the pane and his bare feet on the cane chair. He felt both happy and sad; his heart longed dreadfully for something he had not got, something that seemed out of his reach because he could not name it. No one seemed to believe all the things he knew in quite the same way as he did. His brothers and sisters played up to a certain point, and then put the things aside as if they had only been assumed for the time and were not real. To him they were always real. His father's words, too, that evening had sorely puzzled him when he came to think over them afterwards: "They're a baby's notions.... They're silly, silly, silly." Were these things real or were they not? And, as he pondered, yearning dumbly, as only these little souls can yearn, the wistfulness in his heart went out to meet the moonlight in the air. Together they wove a spell that seemed to summon before him a fairy of the night, who whispered an answer into his heart: "We are real so long as you believe in us. It is your imagination that makes us real and gives us life. Please, never, never stop believing."
Jimbo was not quite sure that he understood the message, but he liked it all the same, and felt comforted. So long as they believed in one another, the rest did not matter very much after all. And when at last, shivering with cold, he crept back to bed, it was only to find through the Gates of Sleep a more direct way to the things he had been thinking about, and to wander for the rest of the night, unwatched and free, through the wonders of an Enchanted Land.
Jimbo, as his father had said, was an imaginative child. Most children are—more or less; and he was "more," at least, "more" than his brothers and sisters. The Colonel thought he had made a penetrating discovery, but his wife had known it always. His head, indeed, was "full of things,"—things that, unless trained into a channel where they could be controlled and properly schooled, would certainly interfere with his success in a practical world, and be a source of mingled pain and joy to him all through life. To have trained these forces, ever bursting out towards creation, in his little soul,—to have explained, interpreted, and dealt fairly by them, would perhaps have been the best and wisest way; to have suppressed them altogether, cleaned them out by the process of substitution, this might have succeeded too in less measure; but to turn them into a veritable rout of horror by the common method of "frightening the nonsense out of the boy," this was surely the very worst way of dealing with such a case, and the most cruel. Yet, this was the method adopted by the Colonel in the robust good-nature of his heart, and the utter ignorance of his soul.
So it came about that three months later, when May was melting into June, Miss Ethel Lake arrived upon the scene as a result of the Colonel's blundering good intentions. She brought with her a kind disposition, a supreme ignorance of unordinary children, a large store of self-confidence—and a corded yellow tin box.
MISS LAKE COMES—AND GOES
The conversation took place suddenly one afternoon, and no one knew anything about it except the two who took part in it: the Colonel asked the governess to try and knock the nonsense out of Jimbo's head, and the governess promised eagerly to do her very best. It was her first "place"; and by "nonsense" they both understood imagination. True enough, Jimbo's mother had given her rather different instructions as to the treatment of the boy, but she mistook the soldier's bluster for authority, and deemed it best to obey him. This was her first mistake.
In reality she was not devoid of imaginative insight; it was simply that her anxiety to prove a success permitted her better judgment to be overborne by the Colonel's boisterous manner.
The wisdom of the mother was greater than that of her husband. For the safe development of that tender and imaginative little boy of hers, she had been at great pains to engage a girl—a clergyman's daughter—who possessed sufficient sympathy with the poetic and dreamy nature to be of real help to him; for true help, she knew, can only come from true understanding. And Miss Lake was a good girl. She was entirely well-meaning—which is the beginning of well-doing, and her principal weakness lay in her judgment, which led her to obey the Colonel too literally.
"She seems most sensible," he declared to his wife.
"I think so."
"And firm and—er—wise with children."
"I hope so."
"Just the sort for young Jimbo," added the Colonel with decision.
"I trust so; she's a little young, perhaps."
"Possibly, but one can't get everything," said her husband, in his horse-and-dog voice. "A year with her should clean out that fanciful brain of his, and prepare him for school with other boys. He'll be all right once he gets to school. My dear," he added, spreading out his right hand, fingers extended, "you've made a most wise selection. I congratulate you. I'm delighted."
"I'm so glad."
"Capital, I repeat, capital. You're a clever little woman. I knew you'd find the right party, once I showed you how the land lay."
* * * * *
The Empty House, that stood in its neglected garden not far from the Park gates, was built on a point of land that entered wedgewise into the Colonel's estate. Though something of an eyesore, therefore, he could do nothing with it.
To the children it had always been an object of peculiar, though not unwholesome, mystery. None of them cared to pass it on a stormy day—the wind made such odd noises in its empty corridors and rooms—and they refused point-blank to go within hailing distance of it after dark. But in Jimbo's imagination it was especially haunted, and if he had ceased to reveal to the others what he knew went on under its roof, it was only because they were unable to follow him, and were inclined to greet his extravagant recitals with "Now, Jimbo, you know perfectly well you're only making up."
The House had been empty for many years; but, to the children, it had been empty since the beginning of the world, since what they called the "very beginning." They believed—well, each child believed according to his own mind and powers, but there was at least one belief they all held in common: for it was generally accepted as an article of faith that the Indians, encamped among the shrubberies on the back lawn, secretly buried their dead behind the crumbling walls of its weedy garden—the "dead" provided by the children's battles, be it understood. Wakeful ears in the night-nursery had heard strange sounds coming from that direction when the windows were open on hot summer nights; and the gardener, supreme authority on all that happened in the night (since they believed that he sat up to watch the vegetables and fruit-trees ripen, and never went to bed at all), was evidently of the same persuasion.
When appealed to for an explanation of the mournful wind-voices, he knew what was expected of him, and rose manfully to the occasion.
"It's either them Redskins aburyin' wot you killed of 'em yesterday," he declared, pointing towards the Empty House with a bit of broken flower-pot, "or else it's the ones you killed last week, and who was always astealin' of my strorbriz." He looked very wise as he said this, and his wand of office—a dirty trowel—which he held in his hand, gave him tremendous dignity.
"That's just what we thought, and of course if you say so too, that settles it," said Nixie.
"It's more'n likely, missie, leastways from wot you describes, which it is a hempty house all the same, though I can't say as I've heard no sounds, not very distinct that is, myself."
The gardener may have been anxious to hedge a bit, for fear of a scolding from headquarters, but his cryptic remarks pleased the children greatly, because it showed, they thought, that they knew more than the gardener did.
Thus the Empty House remained an object of somewhat dreadful delight, lending a touch of wonderland to that part of the lane where it stood, and forming the background for many an enchanting story over the nursery fire in winter-time. It appealed vividly to their imaginations, especially to Jimbo's. Its dark windows, without blinds, were sometimes full of faces that retreated the moment they were looked at. That tangled ivy did not grow over the roof so thickly for nothing; and those high elms on the western side had not been planted years ago in a semicircle without a reason. Thus, at least, the children argued, not knowing exactly what they meant, nor caring much, so long as they proved to their own satisfaction that the place was properly haunted, and therefore worthy of their attention.
It was natural they should lead Miss Lake in that direction on one of their first walks together, and it was natural, too, that she should at once discover from their manner that the place was of some importance to them.
"What a queer-looking old house," she remarked, when they turned the corner of the lane and it came into view. "Almost a ruin, isn't it?"
The children exchanged glances. A "ruin" did not seem the right sort of word at all; and, besides, was a little disrespectful. Also, they were not sure whether the new governess ought to be told everything so soon. She had not really won their confidence yet. After a slight pause—and a children's pause is the most eloquent imaginable—Nixie, being the eldest, said in a stiff little voice: "It's the Empty House, Miss Lake. We know it very well indeed."
"It looks empty," observed Miss Lake briskly.
"But it's not a ruin, of course," added the child, with the cold dignity of chosen spokesman.
"Oh!" said the governess, quite missing the point. She was talking lightly on the surface of things, wholly ignorant of the depths beneath her feet, intuition with her having always been sternly repressed.
"It's a gamekeeper's cottage, or something like that, I suppose," she said.
"Oh, no; it isn't a bit."
"Doesn't it belong to your father, then?"
"No. It's somebody else's, you see."
"Then you can't have it pulled down?"
"Rather not! Of course not!" exclaimed several indignant voices at once.
Miss Lake perceived for the first time that it held more than ordinary importance in their mind.
"Tell me about it," she said. "What is its history, and who used to live in it?"
There came another pause. The children looked into each others' faces. They gazed at the blue sky overhead; then they stared at the dusty road at their feet. But no one volunteered an answer. Miss Lake, they felt, was approaching the subject in an offensive manner.
"Why are you all so mysterious about it?" she went on. "It's only a tumble-down old place, and must be very draughty to live in, even for a gamekeeper."
"Come, children, don't you hear me? I'm asking you a question."
A couple of startled birds flew out of the ivy with a great whirring of wings. This was followed by a faint sound of rumbling, that seemed to come from the interior of the house. Outside all was still, and the hot sunshine lay over everything. The sound was repeated. The children looked at each other with large, expectant eyes. Something in the house was moving—was coming nearer.
"Have you all lost your tongues?" asked the governess impatiently.
"But you see," Nixie said at length, "somebody does live in it now."
"And who is he?"
"I didn't say it was a man."
"Whoever it is—tell me about the person," persisted Miss Lake.
"There's really nothing to tell," replied the child, without looking up.
"Oh, but there must be something," declared the logical young governess, "or you wouldn't object so much to its being pulled down."
Nixie looked puzzled, but Jimbo came to the rescue at once.
"But you wouldn't understand if we did tell you," he said, in a slow, respectful voice. His tone held a touch of that indescribable scorn heard sometimes in a child's tone—the utter contempt for the stupid grown-up creature. Miss Lake noticed, and felt annoyed. She recognised that she was not getting on well with the children, and it piqued her. She remembered the Colonel's words about "knocking the nonsense out" of James' head, and she saw that her first opportunity, in fact her first real test, was at hand.
"And why, pray, should I not understand?" she asked, with some sharpness. "Is the mystery so very great?"
For some reason the duty of spokesman now devolved unmistakably upon Jimbo; and very seriously too, he accepted the task, standing with his feet firmly planted in the road and his hands in his trousers' pockets.
"You see, Miss Lake," he began gravely, "we know such a lot of Things in there, that they might not like us to tell you about them. They don't know you yet. If they did it might be different. But—but—you see, it isn't."
This was rather crushing to the aspiring educator, and the Colonel's instructions gained additional point in the light of the boy's explanation.
"Fiddlesticks!" she laughed, "there's probably nothing at all in there, except rats and cobwebs. 'Things,' indeed!"
"I knew you wouldn't understand," said Jimbo coolly, with no sign of being offended. "How could you?" He glanced at his sisters, gaining so much support from their enigmatical faces that he added, for their especial benefit, "How could she?"
"The gard'ner said so too," chimed in a younger sister, with a vague notion that their precious Empty House was being robbed of its glory.
"Yes; but, James, dear, I do understand perfectly," continued Miss Lake more gently, and wisely ignoring the reference to the authority of the kitchen-garden. "Only, you see, I cannot really encourage you in such nonsense——"
"It isn't nonsense," interrupted Jimbo, with heat.
"But, believe me, children, it is nonsense. How do you know that there's anything inside? You've never been there!"
"You can know perfectly well what's inside a thing without having gone there," replied Jimbo with scorn. "At least, we can."
Miss Lake changed her tack a little—fatally, as it appeared afterwards.
"I know at any rate," she said with decision, "that there's nothing good in there. Whatever there may be is bad, thoroughly bad, and not fit for you to play with."
The other children moved away, but Jimbo stood his ground. They were all angry, disappointed, sore hurt and offended. But Jimbo suddenly began to feel something else besides anger and vexation. It was a new point of view to him that the Empty House might contain bad things as well as good, or perhaps, only bad things. His imagination seized upon the point at once and set to work vigorously to develop it. This was his way with all such things, and he could not prevent it.
"Bad Things?" he repeated, looking up at the governess. "You mean Things that could hurt?"
"Yes, of course," she said, noting the effect of her words and thinking how pleased the Colonel would be later, when he heard it. "Things that might run out and catch you some day when you're passing here alone, and take you back a prisoner. Then you'd be a prisoner in the Empty House all your life. Think of that!"
Miss Lake mistook the boy's silence as proof that she was taking the right line. She enlarged upon this view of the matter, now she was so successfully launched, and described the Inmate of the House with such wealth of detail that she felt sure her listener would never have anything to do with the place again, and that she had "knocked out" this particular bit of "nonsense" for ever and a day.
But to Jimbo it was a new and horrible idea that the Empty House, haunted hitherto only by rather jolly and wonderful Red Indians, contained a Monster who might take him prisoner, and the thought made him feel afraid. The mischief had, of course, been done, and the terror in his eyes was unmistakable, when the foolish governess saw her mistake. Retreat was impossible: the boy was shaking with fear; and not all Miss Lake's genuine sympathy, or Nixie's explanations and soothings, were able to relieve his mind of its new burden.
Hitherto Jimbo's imagination had loved to dwell upon the pleasant side of things invisible; but now he had been severely frightened, and his imagination took a new turn. Not only the Empty House, but all his inner world, to which it was in some sense the key, underwent a distressing change. His sense of horror had been vividly aroused.
The governess would willingly have corrected her mistake, but was, of course, powerless to do so. Bitterly she regretted her tactlessness and folly. But she could do nothing, and to add to her distress, she saw that Jimbo shrank from her in a way that could not long escape the watchful eye of the mother. But, if the boy shed tears of fear that night in his bed, it must in justice be told that she, for her part, cried bitterly in her own room, not that she had endangered her "place," but that she had done a cruel injury to a child, and that she was helpless to undo it. For she loved children, though she was quite unsuited to take care of them. Her just reward, however, came swiftly upon her.
A few nights later, when Jimbo and Nixie were allowed to come down to dessert, the wind was heard to make a queer moaning sound in the ivy branches that hung over the dining-room windows. Jimbo heard it too. He held his breath for a minute; then he looked round the table in a frightened way, and the next minute gave a scream and burst into tears. He ran round and buried his face in his father's arms.
After the tears came the truth. It was a bad thing for Miss Ethel Lake, this little sighing of the wind and the ivy leaves, for the Djin of terror she had thoughtlessly evoked swept into the room and introduced himself to the parents without her leave.
"What new nonsense is this now?" growled the soldier, leaving his walnuts and lifting the boy on to his knee. "He shouldn't come down till he's a little older, and knows how to behave."
"What's the matter, darling child?" asked the mother, drying his eyes tenderly.
"I heard the bad Things crying in the Empty House."
"The Empty House is a mile away from here!" snorted the Colonel.
"Then it's come nearer," declared the frightened boy.
"Who told you there were bad things in the Empty House?" asked the mother.
"Yes, who told you, indeed, I should like to know!" demanded the Colonel.
And then it all came out. The Colonel's wife was very quiet, but very determined. Miss Lake went back to the clerical family whence she had come, and the children knew her no more.
"I'm glad," said Nixie, expressing the verdict of the nursery. "I thought she was awfully stupid."
"She wasn't a real lake at all," declared another, "she was only a sort of puddle."
Jimbo, however, said little, and the Colonel likewise held his peace.
But the governess, whether she was a lake or only a puddle, left her mark behind her. The Empty House was no longer harmless. It had a new lease of life. It was tenanted by some one who could never have friendly relations with children. The weeds in the old garden took on fantastic shapes; figures hid behind the doors and crept about the passages; the rooks in the high elms became birds of ill-omen; the ivy bristled upon the walls, and the trivial explanations of the gardener were no longer satisfactory.
Even in bright sunshine a Shadow lay crouching upon the broken roof. At any moment it might leap into life, and with immense striding legs chase the children down to the very Park gates.
There was no need to enforce the decree that the Empty House was a forbidden land. The children of their own accord declared it out of bounds, and avoided it as carefully as if all the wild animals from the Zoo were roaming its gardens, hungry and unchained.
One immediate result of Miss Lake's indiscretion was that the children preferred to play on the other side of the garden, the side farthest from the Empty House. A spiked railing here divided them from a field in which cows disported themselves, and as bulls also sometimes were admitted to the cows, the field was strictly out of bounds.
In this spiked railing, not far from the great shrubberies where the Indians increased and multiplied, there was a swinging gate. The children swung on it whenever they could. They called it Express Trains, and the fact that it was forbidden only added to their pleasure. When opened at its widest it would swing them with a rush through the air, past the pillars with a click, out into the field, and then back again into the garden. It was bad for the hinges, and it was also bad for the garden, because it was frequently left open after these carnivals, and the cows got in and trod the flowers down. The children were not afraid of the cows, but they held the bull in great horror. And these trivial things have been mentioned here because of the part they played in Jimbo's subsequent adventures.
It was only ten days or so after Miss Lake's sudden departure when Jimbo managed one evening to elude the vigilance of his lawful guardians, and wandered off unnoticed among the laburnums on the front lawn. From the laburnums he passed successfully to the first laurel shrubbery, and thence he executed a clever flank movement and entered the carriage drive in the rear. The rest was easy, and he soon found himself at the Lodge gate.
For some moments he peered through the iron grating, and pondered on the seductiveness of the dusty road and of the ditch beyond. To his surprise he found, presently, that the gate was moving outwards; it was yielding to his weight. One thing leads easily to another sometimes, and the open gate led easily on to the seductive road. The result was that a minute later Jimbo was chasing butterflies along the green lane, and throwing stones into the water of the ditch.
It was the evening of a hot summer's day, and the butterflies were still out in force. Jimbo's delight was intense. The joy of finding himself alone where he had no right to be put everything else out of his head, and for some time he wandered on, oblivious of all but the intoxicating sense of freedom and the difficulty of choosing between so many butterflies and such a magnificently dirty ditch.
At first he yielded to the seductions of the ditch. He caught a big, sleepy beetle and put it on a violet leaf, and sent it sailing out to sea; and when it landed on the farther shore he found a still bigger leaf, and sent it forth on a voyage in another direction, with a cargo of daisy petals, and a hairy caterpillar for a bo'sun's mate. But, just as the vessel was getting under way, a butterfly of amazing brilliance floated past insolently under his very nose. Leaving the beetle and the caterpillar to navigate the currents as best they could, he at once gave chase. Cap in hand, he flew after the butterfly down the lane, and a dozen times when his cap was just upon it, it sailed away sideways without the least effort and escaped him.
Then, suddenly, the lane took a familiar turning; the ditch stopped abruptly; the hedge on his right fell away altogether; the butterfly danced out of sight into a field, and Jimbo found himself face to face with the one thing in the whole world that could, at that time, fill him with abject terror—the Empty House.
He came to a full stop in the middle of the road and stared up at the windows. He realised for the first time that he was alone, and that it was possible for brilliant sunshine, even on a cloudless day, to become somehow lustreless and dull. The walls showed a deep red in the sunset light. The house was still as the grave. His feet were rooted to the ground, and it seemed as if he could not move a single muscle; and as he stood there, the blood ebbing quickly from his heart, the words of the governess a few days before rushed back into his mind, and turned his fear into a dreadful, all-possessing horror. In another minute the battered door would slowly open and the horrible Inmate come out to seize him. Already there was a sound of something moving within, and as he gazed, fascinated with terror, a shuddering movement ran over the ivy leaves hanging down from the roof. Then they parted in the middle, and something—he could not in his agony see what—flew out with a whirring sound into his face, and then vanished over his shoulder towards the fields.
Jimbo did not pause a single second to find out what it was, or to reflect that any ordinary thrush would have made just the same sound. The shock it gave to his heart immediately loosened the muscles of his little legs, and he ran for his very life. But before he actually began to run he gave one piercing scream for help, and the person he screamed to was the very person who was unwittingly the cause of his distress. It was as though he knew instinctively that the person who had created for him the terror of the Empty House, with its horrible Inmate, was also the person who could properly banish it, and undo the mischief before it was too late. He shrieked for help to the governess, Miss Ethel Lake.
Of course, there was no answer but the noise of the air whistling in his ears as his feet flew over the road in a cloud of dust; there was no friendly butcher's cart, no baker's boy, or farmer with his dog and gun; the road was deserted. There was not even the beetle or the caterpillar; he was beyond reach of help.
Jimbo ran for his life, but unfortunately he ran in the wrong direction. Instead of going the way he had come, where the Lodge gates were ready to receive him not a quarter of a mile away, he fled in the opposite direction.
It so happened that the lane flanked the field where the cows lived; but cows were nothing compared to a Creature from the Empty House, and even bulls seemed friendly. The boy was over the five-barred gate in a twinkling and half-way across the field before he heard a heavy, thunderous sound behind him. Either the Thing had followed him into the field, or it was the bull. As he raced, he managed to throw a glance over his shoulder and saw a huge, dark mass bearing down upon him at terrific speed. It must be the bull, he reflected—the bull grown to the size of an elephant. And it appeared to him to have two immense black wings that flapped at its sides and helped it forward, making a whirring noise like the arms of a great windmill.
This sight added to his speed, but he could not last very much longer. Already his body ached all over, and the frantic effort to get breath nearly choked him.
There, before him, not so very far away now, was the swinging gate. If only he could get there in time to scramble over into the garden, he would be safe. It seemed almost impossible, and behind him, meanwhile, the sound of the following creature came closer and closer; the ground seemed to tremble; he could almost feel the breath on his neck.
The swinging gate was only twenty yards off; now ten; now only five. Now he had reached it—at last. He stretched out his hands to seize the top bar, and in another moment he would have been safe in the garden and within easy reach of the house. But, before he actually touched the iron rail, a sharp, stinging pain shot across his back;—he drew one final breath as he felt himself being lifted, lifted up into the air. The horns had caught him just behind the shoulders!
There seemed to be no pain after the first shock. He rose high into the air, while the bushes and spiked railing he knew so well sank out of sight beneath him, dwindling curiously in size. At first he thought his head must bump against the sky, but suddenly he stopped rising, and the green earth rushed up as if it would strike him in the face. This meant he was sinking again. The gate and railing flew by underneath him, and the next second he fell with a crash upon the soft grass of the lawn—upon the other side. He had been tossed over the gate into the garden, and the bull could no longer reach him.
Before he became wholly unconscious, a composite picture, vivid in its detail, engraved itself deeply, with exceeding swiftness, line by line, upon the waxen tablets of his mind. In this picture the thrush that had flown out of the ivy, the Empty House itself, and its horrible, pursuing Inmate were all somehow curiously mingled together with the black wings of the bull, and with his own sensation of rushing—flying headlong—through space, as he rose and fell in a curve from the creature's horns.
And behind it he was conscious that the real author of it all was somewhere in the shadowy background, looking on as though to watch the result of her unfortunate mistake. Miss Lake, surely, was not very far away. He associated her with the horror of the Empty House as inevitably as taste and smell join together in the memory of a certain food; and the very last thought in his mind, as he sank away into the blackness of unconsciousness, was a sort of bitter surprise that the governess had not turned up to save him before it was actually too late.
Moreover, a certain sense of disappointment mingled with the terror of the shock; for he was dimly aware that Miss Lake had not acted as worthily as she might have done, and had not played the game as well as might have been expected of her. And, somehow, it didn't all seem quite fair.
ON THE EDGE OF UNCONSCIOUSNESS
Jimbo had fallen on his head. Inside that head lay the mass of highly sensitive matter called the brain, on which were recorded, of course, the impressions of everything that had yet come to him in life. A severe shock, such as he had just sustained, was bound to throw these impressions into confusion and disorder, jumbling them up into new and strange combinations, obliterating some, and exaggerating others. Jimbo himself was helpless in the matter; he could exercise no control over their antics until the doctors had once again reduced them to order; he would have to wander, lost and lonely, through the comparative chaos of disproportioned visions, generally known as the region of delirium, until the doctor, assisted by mother nature, restored him once more to normal consciousness.
For a time everything was a blank, but presently he stirred uneasily in the grass, and the pictures graven on the tablets of his mind began to come back to him line by line.
Yet, with certain changes: the bull, for instance, had so far vanished into the background of his thoughts that it had practically disappeared altogether, and he recalled nothing of it but the wings—the huge, flapping wings. Of the creature to whom the wings belonged he had no recollection beyond that it was very large, and that it was chasing him from the Empty House. The pain in his shoulders had also gone; but what remained with undiminished vividness were the sensations of flight without escape, the breathless race up into the sky, and the swift, tumbling drop again through the air on to the lawn.
This impression of rushing through space—short though the actual distance had been—was the dominating memory. All else was apparently oblivion. He forgot where he came from, and he forgot what he had been doing. The events leading up to the catastrophe, indeed everything connected with his existence previously as "Master James," had entirely vanished; and the slate of memory had been wiped so clean that he had forgotten even his own name!
Jimbo was lying, so to speak, on the edge of unconsciousness, and for a time it seemed uncertain whether he would cross the line into the region of delirium and dreams, or fall back again into his natural world. Terror, assisted by the horns of the black bull, had tossed him into the borderland.
His last scream, however, had reached the ears of the ubiquitous gardener, and help was near at hand. He heard voices that seemed to come from beyond the stars, and was aware that shadowy forms were standing over him and talking in whispers. But it was all very unreal; one minute the voices sounded up in the sky, and the next in his very ears, while the figures moved about, sometimes bending over him, sometimes retreating and melting away like shadows on a shifting screen.
Suddenly a blaze of light flashed upon him, and his eyes flew open; he tumbled back for a moment into his normal world. He wasn't on the grass at all, but was lying upon his own bed in the night nursery. His mother was bending over him with a very white face, and a tall man dressed in black stood beside her, holding some kind of shining instrument in his fingers. A little behind them he saw Nixie, shading a lamp with her hand. Then the white face came close over the pillow, and a voice full of tenderness whispered, "My darling boy, don't you know me? It's mother! No one will hurt you. Speak to me, if you can, dear."
She stretched out her hands, and Jimbo knew her and made an effort to answer. But it seemed to him as if his whole body had suddenly become a solid mass of iron, and he could control no part of it; his lips and his hands both refused to move. Before he could make a sign that he had understood and was trying to reply, a fierce flame rushed between them and blinded him, his eyes closed, and he dropped back again into utter darkness. The walls flew asunder and the ceiling melted into air, while the bed sank away beneath him, down, down, down into an abyss of shadows. The lamp in Nixie's hands dwindled into a star, and his mother's anxious face became a tiny patch of white in the distance, blurred out of all semblance of a human countenance. For a time the man in black seemed to hover over the bed as it sank, as though he were trying to follow it down; but it, too, presently joined the general enveloping blackness and lost its outline. The pain had blotted out everything, and the return to consciousness had been only momentary.
Not all the doctors in the world could have made things otherwise. Jimbo was off on his travels at last—travels in which the chief incidents were directly traceable to the causes and details of his accident: the terror of the Empty House, the pursuit of its Inmate, the pain of the bull's horns, and, above all, the flight through the air.
For everything in his subsequent adventures found its inspiration in the events described, and a singular parallel ran ever between the Jimbo upon the bed in the night-nursery and the other emancipated Jimbo wandering in the regions of unconsciousness and delirium.
INTO THE EMPTY HOUSE
The darkness lasted a long time without a break, and when it lifted all recollection of the bedroom scene had vanished.
Jimbo found himself back again on the grass. The swinging gate was just in front of him, but he did not recognise it; no suggestion of "Express Trains" came back to him as his eyes rested without remembrance upon the bars where he had so often swung, in defiance of orders, with his brothers and sisters. Recollection of his home, family, and previous life he had absolutely none; or at least, it was buried so deeply in his inner consciousness that it amounted to the same thing, and he looked out upon the garden, the gate, and the field beyond as upon an entirely new piece of the world.
The stars, he saw, were nearly all gone, and a very faint light was beginning to spread from the woods beyond the field. The eastern horizon was slowly brightening, and soon the night would be gone. Jimbo was glad of this. He began to be conscious of little thrills of expectation, for with the light surely help would also come. The light always brought relief, and he already felt that strange excitement that comes with the first signs of dawn. In the distance cocks were crowing, horses began to stamp in the barns not far away, and a hundred little stirrings of life ran over the surface of the earth as the light crept slowly up the sky and dropped down again upon the world with its message of coming day.
Of course, help would come by the time the sun was really up, and it was partly this certainty, and partly because he was a little too dazed to realise the seriousness of the situation, that prevented his giving way to a fit of fear and weeping. Yet a feeling of vague terror lay only a little way below the surface, and when, a few moments later, he saw that he was no longer alone, and that an odd-looking figure was creeping towards him from the shrubberies, he sprang to his feet, prepared to run unless it at once showed the most friendly intentions.
This figure seemed to have come from nowhere. Apparently it had risen out of the earth. It was too large to have been concealed by the low shrubberies; yet he had not been aware of its approach, and it had appeared without making any noise. Probably it was friendly, he felt, in spite of its curious shape and the stealthy way it had come. At least, he hoped so; and if he could only have told whether it was a man or an animal he would easily have made up his mind. But the uncertain light, and the way it crouched half-hidden behind the bushes, prevented this. So he stood, poised ready to run, and yet waiting, hoping, indeed expecting every minute a sign of friendliness and help.
In this way the two faced each other silently for some time, until the feeling of terror gradually stole deeper into the boy's heart and began to rob him of full power over his muscles. He wondered if he would be able to run when the time came, and whether he could run fast enough. This was how it first showed itself, this suggestion of insidious fear. Would he be able to keep up the start he had? Would it chase him? Would it run like a man or like an animal, on four legs or on two? He wished he could see more clearly what it was. He still stood his ground pluckily, facing it and waiting, but the fear, once admitted to his mind, was gaining strength, and he began to feel cold and shivery. Then suddenly the tension came to an end. In two strides the figure came up close to his side, and the same second Jimbo was lifted off his feet and borne swiftly away across the field.
He felt quite unable to offer the least resistance, and at the same time he felt a sense of relief that something had happened at last. He was still not sure that the figure was unkind; only its shape filled him with a feeling that was certainly the beginning of real horror. It was the shape of a man, he thought, but of a very large and ill-constructed man; for it certainly had moved on two legs and had caught him up in a pair of tremendously strong arms. But there was something else it had besides arms, for a kind of soft cloak hung all round it and wrapped the boy from head to foot, preventing him seeing his captor properly, and at the same time filling his body with a kind of warm drowsiness that mitigated his active fear and made him rather like the sensation of being carried along so easily and so fast.
But was he being carried? The pace they were going was amazing, and he moved as easily as a sailing boat, and with the same swinging motion. Could it be some animal like a horse after all? Jimbo tried to see more, but found it impossible to free himself from the folds of the enveloping substance, and meanwhile they were swinging forward at what seemed a tremendous pace over fields and ditches, through hedges, and down long lanes.
The odours of earth, and dew-drenched grass, and opening flowers came to him. He heard the birds singing, and felt the cool morning air sting his cheeks as they raced along. There was no jolting or jarring, and the figure seemed to cover the ground as lightly as though it hardly touched the earth. It was certainly not a dream, he was sure of that; but the longer they went on the drowsier he became, and the less he wondered whether the figure was going to help him or to do something dreadful to him. He was now thoroughly afraid, and yet, strange contradiction, he didn't care a bit. Let the figure do what it liked; it was only a sort of nightmare person after all, and might vanish as suddenly as it had arrived.
For a long time they raced forward at this great speed, and then with a bump and a crash they stopped suddenly short, and Jimbo felt himself let down upon the solid earth. He tried to free himself at once from the folds of the clinging substance that enveloped him, but, before he could do so and see what his captor was really like, he heard a door slam and felt himself pushed along what seemed to be the hallways of a house. His eyes were clear now and he could see, but the darkness had come down again so thickly that all he could discover was that the figure was urging him along the floor of a large empty hall, and that they were in a dark and empty building.
Jimbo tried hard to see his captor, but the figure, dim enough in the uncertain light, always managed to hide its face and keep itself bunched up in such a way that he could never see more than a great, dark mass of a body, from which long legs and arms shot out like telescopes, draped in a sort of clinging cloak. Now that the rapid motion through the air had ceased, the boy's drowsiness passed a little, and he began to shiver with fear and to feel that the tears could not be kept back much longer.
Probably in another minute he would have started to run for his life, when a new sound caught his ears and made him listen intently, while a feeling of wonder and delight caught his heart, and made him momentarily forget the figure pushing him forward from behind.
Was it the wind he heard? Or was it the voices of children all singing together very low? It was a gentle, sighing sound that rose and fell with mournful modulations and seemed to come from the very centre of the building; it held, too, a strange, far-away murmur, like the surge of a faint breeze moving in the tree-tops. It might be the wind playing round the walls of the building, or it might be children singing in hushed voices. One minute he thought it was outside the house, and the next he was certain it came from somewhere in the upper part of the building. He glanced up, and fancied for one moment that he saw in the darkness a crowd of little faces peering down at him over the banisters, and that as they disappeared he heard the sound of many little feet moving, and then a door hurriedly closing. But a push from the figure behind that nearly sent him sprawling at the foot of the stairs, prevented his hearing very clearly, and the light was far too dim to let him feel sure of what he had seen.
They passed quickly along deserted corridors and through winding passages. No one seemed about. The interior of the house was chilly, and the keen air nipped. After going up several flights of stairs they stopped at last in front of a door, and before Jimbo had a moment to turn and dash downstairs again past the figure, as he had meant to do, he was pushed violently forward into a room.
The door slammed after him, and he heard the heavy tread of the figure as it went down the staircase again into the bottom of the house. Then he saw that the room was full of light and of small moving beings.
Curiosity and astonishment now for a moment took the place of fear, and Jimbo, with a thumping heart and clenched fists, stood and stared at the scene before him. He stiffened his little legs and leaned against the wall for support, but he felt full of fight in case anything happened, and with wide-open eyes he tried to take in the whole scene at once and be ready for whatever might come.
But there seemed no immediate cause for alarm, and when he realised that the beings in the room were apparently children, and only children, his rather mixed sensations of astonishment and fear gave place to an emotion of overpowering shyness. He became exceedingly embarrassed, for he was surrounded by children of all ages and sizes, staring at him just as hard as he was staring at them.
The children, he began to take in, were all dressed in black; they looked frightened and unhappy; their bodies were thin and their faces very white. There was something else about them he could not quite name, but it inspired him with the same sense of horror that he had felt in the arms of the Figure who had trapped him. For he now realised definitely that he had been trapped; and he also began to realise for the first time that, though he still had the body of a little boy, his way of thinking and judging was sometimes more like that of a grown-up person. The two alternated, and the result was an odd confusion; for sometimes he felt like a child and thought like a man, while at others he felt like a man and thought like a child. Something had gone wrong, very much wrong; and, as he watched this group of silent children facing him, he knew suddenly that what was just beginning to happen to him had happened to them long, long ago.
For they looked as if they had been a long, long time in the world, yet their bodies had not kept pace with their minds. Something had happened to stop the growth of the body, while allowing the mind to go on developing. The bodies were not stunted or deformed; they were well-formed, nice little children's bodies, but the minds within them were grown-up, and the incongruity was distressing. All this he suddenly realised in a flash, intuitively, just as though it had been most elaborately explained to him; yet he could not have put the least part of it into words or have explained what he saw and felt to another.
He saw that they had the hands and figures of children, the heads of children, the unlined faces and smooth foreheads of children, but their gestures, and something in their movements, belonged to grown-up people, and the expression of their eyes in meaning and intelligence was the expression of old people and not of children. And the expression in the eyes of every one of them he saw was the expression of terror and of pain. The effect was so singular that he seemed face to face with an entirely new order of creatures: a child's features with a man's eyes; a child's figure with a woman's movements; full-grown souls cramped and cribbed in absurdly inadequate bodies and little, puny frames; the old trying uncouthly to express itself in the young.
The grown-up, old portion of him had been uppermost as he stared and received these impressions, but now suddenly it passed away, and he felt as a little boy again. He glanced quickly down at his own little body in the alpaca knickerbockers and sailor blouse, and then, with a sigh of relief, looked up again at the strange group facing him. So far, at any rate, he had not changed, and there was nothing yet to suggest that he was becoming like them in appearance at least.
With his back against the door he faced the roomful of children who stood there motionless and staring; and as he looked, wild feelings rushed over him and made him tremble. Who was he? Where had he come from? Where in the world had he spent the other years of his life, the forgotten years? There seemed to be no one to whom he could go for comfort, no one to answer questions; and there was such a lot he wanted to ask. He seemed to be so much older, and to know so much more than he ought to have known, and yet to have forgotten so much that he ought not to have forgotten.
His loss of memory, however, was of course only partial. He had forgotten his own identity, and all the people with whom he had so far in life had to do; yet at the same time he was dimly conscious that he had just left all these people, and that some day he would find them again. It was only the surface-layers of memory that had vanished, and these had not vanished for ever, but only sunk down a little below the horizon.
Then, presently, the children began to range themselves in rows between him and the opposite wall, without once taking their horrible, intelligent eyes off him as they moved. He watched them with growing dread, but at last his curiosity became so strong that it overcame everything else, and in a voice that he meant to be very brave, but that sounded hardly above a whisper, he said:
"Who are you? And what's been done to you?"
The answer came at once in a whisper as low as his own, though he could not distinguish who spoke:
"Listen and you shall know. You, too, are now one of us."
Immediately the children began a slow, impish sort of dance before him, moving almost with silent feet over the boards, yet with a sedateness and formality that had none of the unconscious grace of children. And, as they danced, they sang, but in voices so low, that it was more like the mournful sighing of wind among branches than human voices. It was the sound he had already heard outside the building.
"We are the children of the whispering night, Who live eternally in dreadful fright Of stories told us in the grey twilight By—nurserymaids!
We are the children of a winter's day; Under our breath we chant this mournful lay; We dance with phantoms and with shadows play, And have no rest.
We have no joy in any children's game, For happiness to us is but a name, Since Terror kissed us with his lips of flame In wicked jest.
We hear the little voices in the wind Singing of freedom we may never find, Victims of fate so cruelly unkind, We are unblest.
We hear the little footsteps in the rain Running to help us, though they run in vain, Tapping in hundreds on the window-pane In vain behest.
We are the children of the whispering night, Who dwell unrescued in eternal fright Of stories told us in the dim twilight By—nurserymaids!"
The plaintive song and the dance ceased together, and before Jimbo could find any words to clothe even one of the thoughts that crowded through his mind, he saw them moving towards a door he had not hitherto noticed on the other side of the room. A moment later they had opened it and passed out, sedate, mournful, unhurried; and the boy found that in some way he could not understand the light had gone with them, and he was standing with his back against the wall in almost total darkness.
Once out of the room, no sound followed them, and he crossed over and tried the handle of the door. It was locked. Then he went back and tried the other door; that, too, was locked. He was shut in. There was no longer any doubt as to the Figure's intentions; he was a prisoner, trapped like an animal in a cage.
The only thought in his mind just then was an intense desire for freedom. Whatever happened he must escape. He crossed the floor to the only window in the room; it was without blinds, and he looked out. But instantly he recoiled with a fresh and overpowering sense of helplessness, for it was three storeys from the ground, and down below in the shadows he saw a paved courtyard that rendered jumping utterly out of the question.
He stood for a long time, fighting down the tears, and staring as if his heart would break at the field and trees beyond. A high wall enclosed the yard, but beyond that was freedom and open space. Feelings of loneliness and helplessness, terror and dismay overwhelmed him. His eyes burned and smarted, yet, strange to say, the tears now refused to come and bring him relief. He could only stand there with his elbows on the window-sill, and watch the outline of the trees and hedges grow clearer and clearer as the light drew across the sky, and the moment of sunrise came close.
But when at last he turned back into the room, he saw that he was no longer alone. Crouching against the opposite wall there was a hooded figure steadily watching him.
HIS COMPANION IN PRISON
Shocks of terror, as they increase in number, apparently lessen in effect; the repeated calls made upon Jimbo's soul by the emotions of fear and astonishment had numbed it; otherwise the knowledge that he was locked in the room with this mysterious creature beyond all possibility of escape must have frightened him, as the saying is, out of his skin.
As it was, however, he kept his head in a wonderful manner, and simply stared at the silent intruder as hard as ever he could stare. How in the world it got in was the principal thought in his mind, and after that: what in the world was it?
The dawn must have come very swiftly, or else he had been staring longer than he knew, for just then the sun topped the edge of the world and the window-sill simultaneously, and sent a welcome ray of sunshine into the dingy room. It turned the grey light to silver, and fell full upon the huddled figure crouching against the opposite wall. Jimbo caught his breath, and stared harder than ever.
It was a human figure, the figure, apparently, of a man, sitting crumpled up in a very uncomfortable sort of position on his haunches. It sat perfectly still. A black cloak, with loose sleeves, and a cowl or hood that completely concealed the face, covered it from head to foot. The material of the cloak could not have been very thick, for inside the hood he caught the gleam of eyes as they roamed about the room and followed his movements. But for this glitter of the moving eyes it might have been a figure carved in wood. Was it going to sit there for ever watching him? At first he was afraid it was going to speak; then he was afraid it wasn't. It might rise suddenly and come towards him; yet the thought that it would not move at all was worse still.
In this way the two faced each other for several minutes until, just as the position was becoming simply unbearable, a low whisper ran round the room: "At last! Oh! I've found him at last!" Jimbo was not quite sure of the words, though it was certainly a human voice that had spoken; but, the suspense once broken, the boy could not stand it any longer, and with a rush of desperate courage he found his voice—a very husky one—and moved a step forward.
"Who are you, please, and how did you get in?" he ventured with a great effort.
Then he fell back against the wall, amazed at his own daring, and waited with tightly-clenched fists for an answer. But he had not to wait very long, for almost immediately the figure rose awkwardly to its feet, and came over to where he stood. Its manner of moving may best be described as shuffling; and it stretched in front of it a long cloaked arm, on which the sleeve hung, he thought, like clothes on a washing line.
He breathed hard, and waited. Like many other people with strong wills and sensitive nerves, Jimbo was both brave and a coward: he hoped nothing horrid was going to happen, but he was quite ready if it should. Yet, now that the actual moment had come, he had no particular fear, and when he felt the touch of the hand on his shoulder, the words sprang naturally to his lips with a little trembling laugh, more of wonder perhaps than anything else.
"You do look a horrid ... brute," he was going to say, but at the last moment he changed it to "thing," for, with the true intuition of a child, he recognised that the creature inside the cloak was a kind creature and well disposed towards him. "But how did you get in?" he added, looking up bravely into the black visage, "because the doors are both locked on the outside, and I couldn't get out?"
By way of reply the figure shuffled to one side, and, taking the hand from his shoulder, pointed silently to a trap-door in the floor behind him. As he looked, he saw it was being shut down stealthily by some one beneath.
"Hush!" whispered the figure, almost inaudibly. "He's watching!"
"Who's watching?" he cried, curiosity taking the place of every other emotion. "I want to see." He ran forward to the spot where the trap-door now lay flush with the floor, but, before he had gone two steps, the black arms shot out and caught him. He turned, struggling, and in the scuffle that followed the cloak shrouding the figure became disarranged; the hood dropped from the face, and he found himself looking straight into the eyes, not of a man, but of a woman!
"It's you!" he cried, "YOU—!"
A shock ran right through his body from his head to his feet, like a current of electricity, and he caught his breath as though he had been struck. For one brief instant the sinister face of some one who had terrified him in the past came back vividly to his mind, and he shrank away in terror. But it was only for an instant, the twentieth part of an instant. Immediately, before he could even remember the name, recognition passed into darkness and his memory shut down with a snap. He was staring into the face of an utter stranger, about whom he knew nothing and had no feelings particularly one way or another.
"I thought I knew you," he gasped, "but I've forgotten you again—and I thought you were going to be a man, too."
"Jimbo!" cried the other, and in her voice was such unmistakable tenderness and yearning that the boy knew at once beyond doubt that she was his friend, "Jimbo!"
She knelt down on the floor beside him, so that her face was on a level with his, and then opened both her arms to him. But though Jimbo was glad to have found a friend who was going to help him, he felt no particular desire to be embraced, and he stood obstinately where he was with his back to the window.
The morning sunshine fell upon her features and touched the thick coils of her hair with glory. It was not, strictly speaking, a pretty face, but the look of real human tenderness there was very welcome and comforting, and in the kind brown eyes there shone a strange light that was not merely the reflection of the sunlight. The boy felt his heart warm to her as he looked, but her expression puzzled him, and he would not accept the invitation of her arms.
"Won't you come to me?" she said, her arms still outstretched.
"I want to know who you are, and what I'm doing here," he said. "I feel so funny—so old and so young—and all mixed up. I can't make out who I am a bit. What's that funny name you call me?"
"Jimbo is your name," she said softly.
"Then what's your name?" he asked quickly.
"My name," she repeated slowly after a pause, "is not—as nice as yours. Besides, you need not know my name—you might dislike it."
"But I must have something to call you," he persisted.
"But if I told you, and you disliked the name, you might dislike me too," she said, still hesitating.
Jimbo saw the expression of sadness in her eyes, and it won his confidence though he hardly knew why. He came up closer to her and put his puzzled little face next to hers.
"I like you very much already," he whispered, "and if your name is a horrid one I'll change it for you at once. Please tell me what it is."
She drew the boy to her and gave him a little hug, and he did not resist. For a long time she did not answer. He felt vaguely that something of dreadful importance hung about this revelation of her name. He repeated his question, and at length she replied, speaking in a very low voice, and with her eyes fixed intently upon his face.
"My name," she said, "is Ethel Lake."
"Ethel Lake," he repeated after her. The words sounded somehow familiar to him; surely he had heard that name before. Were not the words associated with something in his past that had been unpleasant? A curious sinking sensation came over him as he heard them.
His companion watched him intently while he repeated the words over to himself several times, as if to make sure he had got them right. There was a moment's hesitation as he slowly went over them once again. Then he turned to her, laughing.
"I like your name, Ethel Lake," he said. "It's a nice name—Miss—Miss——" Again he hesitated, while a little warning tremor ran through his mind, and he wondered for an instant why he said "Miss." But it passed as suddenly as it had come, and he finished the sentence—"Miss Lake, I shall call you." He stared into her eyes as he said it.
"Then you don't remember me at all?" she cried, with a sigh of intense relief. "You've quite forgotten?"
"I never saw you before, did I? How can I remember you? I don't remember any of the things I've forgotten. Are you one of them?"
For reply she caught him to her breast and kissed him. "You precious little boy!" she said. "I'm so glad, oh, so glad!"
"But do you remember me?" he asked, sorely puzzled. "Who am I? Haven't I been born yet, or something funny like that?"
"If you don't remember me," said the other, her face happy with smiles that had evidently come only just in time to prevent tears, "there's not much good telling you who you are. But your name, if you really want to know, is——" She hesitated a moment.
"Be quick, Eth—Miss Lake, or you'll forget it again."
She laughed rather bitterly. "Oh, I never forget. I can't!" she said. "I wish I could. Your name is James Stone, and Jimbo is 'short' for James. Now you know."
She might just as well have said Bill Sykes for all the boy knew or remembered.
"What a silly name!" he laughed. "But it can't be my real name, or I should know it. I never heard it before." After a moment he added, "Am I an old man? I feel just like one. I suppose I'm grown up—grown up so fast that I've forgotten what came before——"
"You're not grown up, dear, at least, not exactly——" She glanced down at his alpaca knickerbockers and brown stockings; and as he followed her eyes and saw the dirty buttoned-boots there came into his mind some dim memory of where he had last put them on, and of some one who had helped him. But it all passed like a swift meteor across the dark night of his forgetfulness and was lost in mist.
"You mustn't judge by these silly clothes," he laughed. "I shall change them as soon as I get—as soon as I can find——" He stopped short. No words came. A feeling of utter loneliness and despair swept suddenly over him, drenching him from head to foot. He felt lost and friendless, naked, homeless, cold. He was ever on the brink of regaining a whole lot of knowledge and experience that he had known once long ago, ever so long ago, but it always kept just out of his reach. He glanced at Miss Lake, feeling that she was his only possible comfort in a terrible situation. She met his look and drew him tenderly towards her.
"Now, listen to me," she said gently, "I've something to tell you—about myself."
He was all attention in a minute.
"I am a discharged governess," she began, holding her breath when once the words were out.
"Discharged!" he repeated vaguely. "What's that? What for?"
"For frightening a child. I told a little boy awful stories that weren't true. They terrified him so much that I was sent away. That's why I'm here now. It's my punishment. I am a prisoner here until I can find him—and help him to escape——"
"Oh, I say!" he exclaimed quickly, as though remembering something. But it passed, and he looked up at her half-bored, half-politely. "Escape from what?" he asked.
"From here. This is the Empty House I told the stories about; and you are the little boy I frightened. Now, at last, I've found you, and am going to save you." She paused, watching him with eyes that never left his face for an instant.
Jimbo was delighted to hear he was going to be rescued, but he felt no interest at all in her story of having frightened a little boy, who was himself. He thought it was very nice of her to take so much trouble, and he told her so, and when he went up and kissed her and thanked her, he saw to his surprise that she was crying. For the life of him he could not understand why a discharged governess whom he met, apparently, for the first time in the Empty House, should weep over him and show him so much affection. But he could think of nothing to say, so he just waited till she had finished.
"You see, if I can save you," she said between her sobs, "it will be all right again, and I shall be forgiven, and shall be able to escape with you. I want you to escape, so that you can get back to life again."
"Oh, then I'm dead, am I?"
"Not exactly dead," she said, drying her eyes with the corner of her black hood. "You've had a funny accident, you know. If your body gets all right, so that you can go back and live in it again, then you're not dead. But if it's so badly injured that you can't work in it any more, then you are dead, and will have to stay dead. You're still joined to the body in a fashion, you see."
He stared and listened, not understanding much. It all bored him. She talked without explaining, he thought. An immense sponge had passed over the slate of the past and wiped it clean beyond recall. He was utterly perplexed.
"How funny you are!" he said vaguely, thinking more of her tears than her explanations.
"Water won't stay in a cracked bottle," she went on, "and you can't stay in a broken body. But they're trying to mend it now, and if we can escape in time you can be an ordinary, happy little boy in the world again."
"Then are you dead, too?" he asked, "or nearly dead?"
"I am out of my body, like you," she answered evasively, after a moment's pause.
He was still looking at her in a dazed sort of way, when she suddenly sprang to her feet and let the hood drop back over her face.
"Hush!" she whispered, "he's listening again."
At the same moment a sound came from beneath the floor on the other side of the room, and Jimbo saw the trap-door being slowly raised above the level of the floor.
"Your number is 102," said a voice that sounded like the rushing of a river.
Instantly the trap-door dropped again, and he heard heavy steps rumbling away into the interior of the house. He looked at his companion and saw her terrified face as she lifted her hood.
"He always blunders along like that," she whispered, bending her head on one side to listen. "He can't see properly in the daylight. He hates sunshine, and usually only goes out after dark." She was white and trembling.
"Is that the person who brought me in here this morning at such a frightful pace?" he asked, bewildered.
She nodded. "He wanted to get in before it was light, so that you couldn't see his face."
"Is he such a fright?" asked the boy, beginning to share her evident feeling of horror.
"He is Fright!" she said in an awed whisper. "But never talk about him again unless you can't help it; he always knows when he's being talked about, and he likes it, because it gives him more power."
Jimbo only stared at her without comprehending. Then his mind jumped to something else he wanted badly to have explained, and he asked her about his number, and why he was called No. 102.
"Oh, that's easier," she said, "102 is your number among the Frightened Children; there are 101 of them, and you are the last arrival. Haven't you seen them yet? It is also the temperature of your broken little body lying on the bed in the night nursery at home," she added, though he hardly caught her words, so low were they spoken.
Jimbo then described how the children had sung and danced to him, and went on to ask a hundred questions about them. But Miss Lake would give him very little information, and said he would not have very much to do with them. Most of them had been in the House for years and years—so long that they could probably never escape at all.
"They are all frightened children," she said. "Little ones scared out of their wits by silly people who meant to amuse them with stories, or to frighten them into being well behaved—nursery-maids, elder sisters, and even governesses!"
"And they can never escape?"
"Not unless the people who frightened them come to their rescue and run the risk of being caught themselves."
As she spoke there rose from the depths of the house the sound of muffled voices, children's voices singing faintly together; it rose and fell exactly like the wind, and with as little tune; it was weird and magical, but so utterly mournful that the boy felt the tears start to his eyes. It drifted away, too, just as the wind does over the tops of the trees, dying into the distance; and all became still again.
"It's just like the wind," he said, "and I do love the wind. It makes me feel so sad and so happy. Why is it?"
The governess did not answer.
"How old am I really?" he went on. "How can I be so old and so ignorant? I've forgotten such an awful lot of knowledge."
"The fact is—well, perhaps, you won't quite understand—but you're really two ages at once. Sometimes you feel as old as your body, and sometimes as old as your soul. You're still connected with your body; so you get the sensations of both mixed up."
"Then is the body younger than the soul?"
"The soul—that is yourself," she answered, "is, oh, so old, awfully old, as old as the stars, and older. But the body is no older than itself—of course, how could it be?"
"Of course," repeated the boy, who was not listening to a word she said. "How could it be?"
"But it doesn't matter how old you are or how young you feel, as long as you don't hate me for having frightened you," she said after a pause. "That's the chief thing."
He was very, very puzzled. He could not help feeling it had been rather unkind of her to frighten him so badly that he had literally been frightened out of his skin; but he couldn't remember anything about it, and she was taking so much trouble to save him now that he quite forgave her. He nestled up against her, and said of course he liked her, and she stroked his curly head and mumbled a lot of things to herself that he couldn't understand a bit.
But in spite of his new-found friend the feeling of over-mastering loneliness would suddenly rush over him. She might be a protector, but she was not a real companion; and he knew that somewhere or other he had left a lot of other real companions whom he now missed dreadfully. He longed more than he could say for freedom; he wanted to be able to come and go as he pleased; to play about in a garden somewhere as of old; to wander over soft green lawns among laburnums and sweet-smelling lilac trees, and to be up to all his old tricks and mischief—though he could not remember in detail what they were.
In a word, he wanted to escape; his whole being yearned to escape and be free again; yet here he was a wretched prisoner in a room like a prison-cell, with a sort of monster for a keeper, and a troop of horrible frightened children somewhere else in the house to keep him company. And outside there was only a hard, narrow, paved courtyard with a high wall round it. Oh, it was too terrible to think of, and his heart sank down within him till he felt as if he could do nothing else but cry.
"I shall save you in time," whispered the governess, as though she read his thoughts. "You must be patient, and do what I tell you, and I promise to get you out. Only be brave, and don't ask too many questions. We shall win in the end and escape."
Suddenly he looked up, with quite a new expression in his face. "But I say, Miss Cake, I'm frightfully hungry. I've had nothing to eat since—I can't remember when, but ever so long ago."
"You needn't call me Miss Cake, though," she laughed.
"I suppose it's because I'm so hungry."
"Then you'll call me Miss Lake when you're thirsty, perhaps," she said. "But, anyhow, I'll see what I can get you. Only, you must eat as little as possible. I want you to get very thin. What you feel is not really hunger—it's only a memory of hunger, and you'll soon get used to it."
He stared at her with a very distressful little face as she crossed the room making this new announcement; and just as she disappeared through the trap-door, only her head being visible, she added with great emphasis, "The thinner you get the better; because the thinner you are the lighter you are, and the lighter you are the easier it will be to escape. Remember, the thinner the better—the lighter the better—and don't ask a lot of questions about it."
With that the trap-door closed over her, and Jimbo was left alone with her last strange words ringing in his ears.
THE SPELL OF THE EMPTY HOUSE
It was not long before Jimbo realised that the House, and everything connected with it, spelt for him one message, and one only—a message of fear. From the first day of his imprisonment the forces of his whole being shaped themselves without further ado into one intense, single, concentrated desire to escape.
Freedom, escape into the world beyond that terrible high wall, was his only object, and Miss Lake, the governess, as its symbol, was his only hope. He asked a lot of questions and listened to a lot of answers, but all he really cared about was how he was going to escape, and when. All her other explanations were tedious, and he only half-listened to them. His faith in her was absolute, his patience unbounded; she had come to save him, and he knew that before long she would accomplish her end. He felt a blind and perfect confidence. But, meanwhile, his fear of the House, and his horror for the secret Being who meant to keep him prisoner till at length he became one of the troop of Frightened Children, increased by leaps and bounds.
Presently the trap-door creaked again, and the governess reappeared; in her hand was a small white jug and a soup plate.
"Thin gruel and skim milk," she explained, pouring out a substance like paste into the soup plate, and handing him a big wooden spoon.
But Jimbo's hunger had somehow vanished.
"It wasn't real hunger," she told him, "but only a sort of memory of being hungry. They're trying to feed your broken body now in the night-nursery, and so you feel a sort of ghostly hunger here even though you're out of the body."
"It's easily satisfied, at any rate," he said, looking at the paste in the soup plate.
"No one actually eats or drinks here——"
"But I'm solid," he said, "am I not?"
"People always think they're solid everywhere," she laughed. "It's only a question of degree; solidity here means a different thing to solidity there."
"I can get thinner though, can't I?" he asked, thinking of her remark about escape being easier the lighter he grew.
She assured him there would be no difficulty about that, and after replying evasively to a lot more questions, she gathered up the dishes and once more disappeared through the trap-door.
Jimbo watched her going down the ladder into the black gulf below, and wondered greatly where she went to and what she did down there; but on these points the governess had refused to satisfy his curiosity, and every time she appeared or disappeared the atmosphere of mystery came and went with her.
As he stared, wondering, a sound suddenly made itself heard behind him, and on turning quickly round he saw to his great surprise that the door into the passage was open. This was more than he could resist, and in another minute, with mingled feelings of dread and delight, he was out in the passage.
When he was first brought to the house, two hours before, it had been too dark to see properly, but now the sun was high in the heavens, and the light still increasing. He crept cautiously to the head of the stairs and peered over into the well of the house. It was still too dark to make things out clearly; but, as he looked, he thought something moved among the shadows below, and for a moment his heart stood still with fear. A large grey face seemed to be staring up at him out of the gloom. He clutched the banisters and felt as if he hardly had strength enough in his legs to get back to the room he had just left; but almost immediately the terror passed, for he saw that the face resolved itself into the mingling of light and shadow, and the features, after all, were of his own creation. He went on slowly and stealthily down the staircase.
It was certainly an empty house. There were no carpets; the passages were cold and draughty; the paper curled from the damp walls, leaving ugly discoloured patches about; cobwebs hung in many places from the ceiling, the windows were more or less broken, and all were coated so thickly with dirt that the rain had traced little furrows from top to bottom. Shadows hung about everywhere, and Jimbo thought every minute he saw moving figures; but the figures always resolved themselves into nothing when he looked closely.
He began to wonder how far it was safe to go, and why the governess had arranged for the door to be opened—for he felt sure it was she who had done this, and that it was all right for him to come out. Fright, she had said, was never about in the daylight. But, at the same time, something warned him to be ready at a moment's notice to turn and dash up the stairs again to the room where he was at least comparatively safe.
So he moved along very quietly and very cautiously. He passed many rooms with the doors open—all empty and silent; some of them had tables and chairs, but no sign of occupation; the grates were black and empty, the walls blank, the windows unshuttered. Everywhere was only silence and shadows; there was no sign of the frightened children, or of where they lived; no trace of another staircase leading to the region where the governess went when she disappeared down the ladder through the trap-door—only hushed, listening, cold silence, and shadows that seemed for ever shifting from place to place as he moved past them. This illusion of people peering at him from corners, and behind doors just ajar, was very strong; yet whenever he turned his head to face them, lo, they were gone, and the shadows rushed in to fill their places.
The spell of the Empty House was weaving itself slowly and surely about his heart.
Yet he went on pluckily, full of a dreadful curiosity, continuing his search, and at length, after passing through another gloomy passage, he was in the act of crossing the threshold of an open door leading out into the courtyard, when he stopped short and clutched the door-posts with both hands.
Some one had laughed!
He turned, trying to look in every direction at once, but there was no sign of any living being. Yet the sound was close beside him; he could still hear it ringing in his ears—a mocking sort of laugh, in a harsh, guttural voice. The blood froze in his veins, and he hardly knew which way to turn, when another voice sounded, and his terror disappeared as if by magic.
It was Miss Lake's voice calling to him over the banisters at the top of the house, and its tone was so cheerful that all his courage came back in a twinkling.