The walker of cliffe royal
So much for Champion Harrison! Now, I wish to say something more about Boy Jim, not only because he was the comrade of my youth, but because you will find as you go on that this book is his story rather than mine, and that there came a time when his name and his fame were in the mouths of all England. You will bear with me, therefore, while I tell you of his character as it was in those days, and especially of one very singular adventure which neither of us are likely to forget. It was strange to see Jim with his uncle and his aunt, for he seemed to be of another race and breed to them. Often I have watched them come up the aisle upon a Sunday, first the square, thick-set man, and then the little, worn, anxious-eyed woman, and last this glorious lad with his clear-cut face, his black curls, and his step so springy and light that it seemed as if he were bound to earth by some lesser tie than the heavy-footed villagers round him. He had not yet attained his full six foot of stature, but no judge of a man (and every woman, at least, is one) could look at his perfect shoulders, his narrow loins, and his proud head that sat upon his neck like an eagle upon its perch, without feeling that sober joy which all that is beautiful in Nature gives to us - a vague self-content, as though in some way we also had a hand in the making of it. But we are used to associate beauty with softness in a man. I do not know why they should be so coupled, and they never were with Jim. Of all men that I have known, he was the most iron-hard in body and in mind. Who was there among us who could walk with him, or run with him, or swim with him? Who on all the country side, save only Boy Jim, would have swung himself over Wolstonbury Cliff, and clambered down a hundred feet with the mother hawk flapping at his ears in the vain struggle to hold him from her nest? He was but sixteen, with his gristle not yet all set into bone, when he fought and beat Gipsy Lee, of Burgess Hill, who called himself the “Cock of the South Downs.” It was after this that Champion Harrison took his training as a boxer in hand. “I’d rather you left millin’ alone, Boy Jim,” said he, “and so had the missus; but if mill you must, it will not be my fault if you cannot hold up your hands to anything in the south country.” And it was not long before he made good his promise. I have said already that Boy Jim had no love for his books, but by that I meant school-books, for when it came to the reading of romances or of anything which had a touch of gallantry or adventure, there was no tearing him away from it until it was finished. When such a book came into his hands, Friar’s Oak and the smithy became a dream to him, and his life was spent out upon the ocean or wandering over the broad continents with his heroes. And he would draw me into his enthusiasms also, so that I was glad to play Friday to his Crusoe when he proclaimed that the Clump at Clayton was a desert island, and that we were cast upon it for a week. But when I found that we were actually to sleep out there without covering every night, and that he proposed that our food should be the sheep of the Downs (wild goats he called them) cooked upon a fire, which was to be made by the rubbing together of two sticks, my heart failed me, and on the very first night I crept away to my mother. But Jim stayed out there for the whole weary week - a wet week it was, too! - and came back at the end of it looking a deal wilder and dirtier than his hero does in the picture-books. It is well that he had only promised to stay a week, for, if it had been a month, he would have died of cold and hunger before his pride would have let him come home. His pride! - that was the deepest thing in all Jim’s nature. It is a mixed quality to my mind, half a virtue and half a vice: a virtue in holding a man out of the dirt; a vice in making it hard for him to rise when once he has fallen. Jim was proud down to the very marrow of his bones. You remember the guinea that the young lord had thrown him from the box of the coach? Two days later somebody picked it from the roadside mud. Jim only had seen where it had fallen, and he would not deign even to point it out to a beggar. Nor would he stoop to give a reason in such a case, but would answer all remonstrances with a curl of his lip and a flash of his dark eyes. Even at school he was the same, with such a sense of his own dignity, that other folk had to think of it too. He might say, as he did say, that a right angle was a proper sort of angle, or put Panama in Sicily, but old Joshua Allen would as soon have thought of raising his cane against him as he would of letting me off if I had said as much. And so it was that, although Jim was the son of nobody, and I of a King’s officer, it always seemed to me to have been a condescension on his part that he should have chosen me as his friend. It was this pride of Boy Jim’s which led to an adventure which makes me shiver now when I think of it. It happened in the August of ‘99, or it may have been in the early days of September; but I remember that we heard the cuckoo in Patcham Wood, and that Jim said that perhaps it was the last of him. I was still at school, but Jim had left, he being nigh sixteen and I thirteen. It was my Saturday half-holiday, and we spent it, as we often did, out upon the Downs. Our favourite place was beyond Wolstonbury, where we could stretch ourselves upon the soft, springy, chalk grass among the plump little Southdown sheep, chatting with the shepherds, as they leaned upon their queer old Pyecombe crooks, made in the days when Sussex turned out more iron than all the counties of England. It was there that we lay upon that glorious afternoon. If we chose to roll upon our right sides, the whole weald lay in front of us, with the North Downs curving away in olive-green folds, with here and there the snow-white rift of a chalk-pit; if we turned upon our left, we overlooked the huge blue stretch of the Channel. A convoy, as I can well remember, was coming up it that day, the timid flock of merchantmen in front; the frigates, like well-trained dogs, upon the skirts; and two burly drover line-of-battle ships rolling along behind them. My fancy was soaring out to my father upon the waters, when a word from Jim brought it back on to the grass like a broken-winged gull. “Roddy,” said he, “have you heard that Cliffe Royal is haunted?” Had I heard it? Of course I had heard it. Who was there in all the Down country who had not heard of the Walker of Cliffe Royal? “Do you know the story of it, Roddy?” “Why,” said I, with some pride, “I ought to know it, seeing that my mother’s brother, Sir Charles Tregellis, was the nearest friend of Lord Avon, and was at this card-party when the thing happened. I heard the vicar and my mother talking about it last week, and it was all so clear to me that I might have been there when the murder was done.” “It is a strange story,” said Jim, thoughtfully; “but when I asked my aunt about it, she would give me no answer; and as to my uncle, he cut me short at the very mention of it.” “There is a good reason for that,” said I, “for Lord Avon was, as I have heard, your uncle’s best friend; and it is but natural that he would not wish to speak of his disgrace.” “Tell me the story, Roddy.” “It is an old one now - fourteen years old - and yet they have not got to the end of it. There were four of them who had come down from London to spend a few days in Lord Avon’s old house. One was his own young brother, Captain Barrington; another was his cousin, Sir Lothian Hume; Sir Charles Tregellis, my uncle, was the third; and Lord Avon the fourth. They are fond of playing cards for money, these great people, and they played and played for two days and a night. Lord Avon lost, and Sir Lothian lost, and my uncle lost, and Captain Barrington won until he could win no more. He won their money, but above all he won papers from his elder brother which meant a great deal to him. It was late on a Monday night that they stopped playing. On the Tuesday morning Captain Barrington was found dead beside his bed with his throat cut. “And Lord Avon did it?” “His papers were found burned in the grate, his wristband was clutched in the dead man’s hand, and his knife lay beside the body.” “Did they hang him, then?” “They were too slow in laying hands upon him. He waited until he saw that they had brought it home to him, and then he fled. He has never been seen since, but it is said that he reached America.” “And the ghost walks?” “There are many who have seen it.” “Why is the house still empty?” “Because it is in the keeping of the law. Lord Avon had no children, and Sir Lothian Hume - the same who was at the card-party - is his nephew and heir. But he can touch nothing until he can prove Lord Avon to be dead.” Jim lay silent for a bit, plucking at the short grass with his fingers. “Roddy,” said he at last, “will you come with me to-night and look for the ghost?” It turned me cold, the very thought of it. “My mother would not let me.” “Slip out when she’s abed. I’ll wait for you at the smithy.” “Cliffe Royal is locked.” “I’ll open a window easy enough.” “I’m afraid, Jim.” “But you are not afraid if you are with me, Roddy. I’ll promise you that no ghost shall hurt you.” So I gave him my word that I would come, and then all the rest of the day I went about the most sad-faced lad in Sussex. It was all very well for Boy Jim! It was that pride of his which was taking him there. He would go because there was no one else on the country side that would dare. But I had no pride of that sort. I was quite of the same way of thinking as the others, and would as soon have thought of passing my night at Jacob’s gibbet on Ditchling Common as in the haunted house of Cliffe Royal. Still, I could not bring myself to desert Jim; and so, as I say, I slunk about the house with so pale and peaky a face that my dear mother would have it that I had been at the green apples, and sent me to bed early with a dish of camomile tea for my supper. England went to rest betimes in those days, for there were few who could afford the price of candles. When I looked out of my window just after the clock had gone ten, there was not a light in the village save only at the inn. It was but a few feet from the ground, so I slipped out, and there was Jim waiting for me at the smithy corner. We crossed John’s Common together, and so past Ridden’s Farm, meeting only one or two riding officers upon the way. There was a brisk wind blowing, and the moon kept peeping through the rifts of the scud, so that our road was sometimes silver-clear, and sometimes so black that we found ourselves among the brambles and gorse-bushes which lined it. We came at last to the wooden gate with the high stone pillars by the roadside, and, looking through between the rails, we saw the long avenue of oaks, and at the end of this ill-boding tunnel, the pale face of the house glimmered in the moonshine. That would have been enough for me, that one glimpse of it, and the sound of the night wind sighing and groaning among the branches. But Jim swung the gate open, and up we went, the gravel squeaking beneath our tread. It towered high, the old house, with many little windows in which the moon glinted, and with a strip of water running round three sides of it. The arched door stood right in the face of us, and on one side a lattice hung open upon its hinges. “We’re in luck, Roddy,” whispered Jim. “Here’s one of the windows open.” “Don’t you think we’ve gone far enough, Jim?” said I, with my teeth chattering. “I’ll lift you in first.” “No, no, I’ll not go first.” “Then I will.” He gripped the sill, and had his knee on it in an instant. “Now, Roddy, give me your hands.” With a pull he had me up beside him, and a moment later we were both in the haunted house. How hollow it sounded when we jumped down on to the wooden floor! There was such a sudden boom and reverberation that we both stood silent for a moment. Then Jim burst out laughing. “What an old drum of a place it is!” he cried; “we’ll strike a light, Roddy, and see where we are.” He had brought a candle and a tinder-box in his pocket. When the flame burned up, we saw an arched stone roof above our heads, and broad deal shelves all round us covered with dusty dishes. It was the pantry. “I’ll show you round,” said Jim, merrily; and, pushing the door open, he led the way into the hall. I remember the high, oak-panelled walls, with the heads of deer jutting out, and a single white bust, which sent my heart into my mouth, in the corner. Many rooms opened out of this, and we wandered from one to the other - the kitchens, the still-room, the morning-room, the dining-room, all filled with the same choking smell of dust and of mildew. “This is where they played the cards, Jim,” said I, in a hushed voice. “It was on that very table.” “Why, here are the cards themselves!” cried he; and he pulled a brown towel from something in the centre of the sideboard. Sure enough it was a pile of playing-cards - forty packs, I should think, at the least - which had lain there ever since that tragic game which was played before I was born. “I wonder whence that stair leads?” said Jim. “Don’t go up there, Jim!” I cried, clutching at his arm. “That must lead to the room of the murder.” “How do you know that?” “The vicar said that they saw on the ceiling - Oh, Jim, you can see it even now!” He held up his candle, and there was a great, dark smudge upon the white plaster above us. “I believe you’re right,” said he; “but anyhow I’m going to have a look at it.” “Don’t, Jim, don’t!” I cried. “Tut, Roddy! you can stay here if you are afraid. I won’t be more than a minute. There’s no use going on a ghost hunt unless - Great Lord, there’s something coming down the stairs!” I heard it too - a shuffling footstep in the room above, and then a creak from the steps, and then another creak, and another. I saw Jim’s face as if it had been carved out of ivory, with his parted lips and his staring eyes fixed upon the black square of the stair opening. He still held the light, but his fingers twitched, and with every twitch the shadows sprang from the walls to the ceiling. As to myself, my knees gave way under me, and I found myself on the floor crouching down behind Jim, with a scream frozen in my throat. And still the step came slowly from stair to stair. Then, hardly daring to look and yet unable to turn away my eyes, I saw a figure dimly outlined in the corner upon which the stair opened. There was a silence in which I could hear my poor heart thumping, and then when I looked again the figure was gone, and the low creak, creak was heard once more upon the stairs. Jim sprang after it, and I was left half-fainting in the moonlight. But it was not for long. He was down again in a minute, and, passing his hand under my arm, he half led and half carried me out of the house. It was not until we were in the fresh night air again that he opened his mouth. “Can you stand, Roddy?” “Yes, but I’m shaking.” “So am I,” said he, passing his hand over his forehead. “I ask your pardon, Roddy. I was a fool to bring you on such an errand. But I never believed in such things. I know better now.” “Could it have been a man, Jim?” I asked, plucking up my courage now that I could hear the dogs barking on the farms. “It was a spirit, Rodney.” “How do you know?” “Because I followed it and saw it vanish into a wall, as easily as an eel into sand. Why, Roddy, what’s amiss now?” My fears were all back upon me, and every nerve creeping with horror. “Take me away, Jim! Take me away!” I cried. I was glaring down the avenue, and his eyes followed mine. Amid the gloom of the oak trees something was coming towards us. “Quiet, Roddy!” whispered Jim. “By heavens, come what may, my arms are going round it this time.” We crouched as motionless as the trunks behind us. Heavy steps ploughed their way through the soft gravel, and a broad figure loomed upon us in the darkness. Jim sprang upon it like a tiger. “You’re not a spirit, anyway!” he cried. The man gave a shout of surprise, and then a growl of rage. “What the deuce!” he roared, and then, “I’ll break your neck if you don’t let go.” The threat might not have loosened Jim’s grip, but the voice did. “Why, uncle!” he cried. “Well, I’m blessed if it isn’t Boy Jim! And what’s this? Why, it’s young Master Rodney Stone, as I’m a living sinner! What in the world are you two doing up at Cliffe Royal at this time of night?” We had all moved out into the moonlight, and there was Champion Harrison with a big bundle on his arm, - and such a look of amazement upon his face as would have brought a smile back on to mine had my heart not still been cramped with fear. “We’re exploring,” said Jim. “Exploring, are you? Well, I don’t think you were meant to be Captain Cooks, either of you, for I never saw such a pair of peeled-turnip faces. Why, Jim, what are you afraid of?” “I’m not afraid, uncle. I never was afraid; but spirits are new to me, and - ” “Spirits?” “I’ve been in Cliffe Royal, and we’ve seen the ghost.” The Champion gave a whistle. “That’s the game, is it?” said he. “Did you have speech with it?” “It vanished first.” The Champion whistled once more. “I’ve heard there is something of the sort up yonder,” said he; “but it’s not a thing as I would advise you to meddle with. There’s enough trouble with the folk of this world, Boy Jim, without going out of your way to mix up with those of another. As to young Master Rodney Stone, if his good mother saw that white face of his, she’d never let him come to the smithy more. Walk slowly on, and I’ll see you back to Friar’s Oak.” We had gone half a mile, perhaps, when the Champion overtook us, and I could not but observe that the bundle was no longer under his arm. We were nearly at the smithy before Jim asked the question which was already in my mind. “What took you up to Cliffe Royal, uncle?” “Well, as a man gets on in years,” said the Champion, “there’s many a duty turns up that the likes of you have no idea of. When you’re near forty yourself, you’ll maybe know the truth of what I say.” So that was all we could draw from him; but, young as I was, I had heard of coast smuggling and of packages carried to lonely places at night, so that from that time on, if I had heard that the preventives had made a capture, I was never easy until I saw the jolly face of Champion Harrison looking out of his smithy door.