The Ghost of Downhill – Chapter 2
JEREMIAH OBADIAH JOWLETT
Is a small, gloomy office overlooking Whitehall, Mr. Jeremiah Jowlett collected together the dossiers he had been examining, tucked them under his arm and sprinted for the room of his chief. Lord Ilfran looked up as his subordinate came in.
“Hullo, Jerry, haven’t you gone?” he asked.
“No, sir,” said Jerry unnecessarily and put the envelopes before the elder man. “I think we can prosecute in the cases of Myer and Burton,” he said “but there does not seem to be a case against Townsend.”
Lord Ilfran nodded.
“Is there any fresh news?” he asked.
“None sir, of any importance. I see in the newspapers that an attempt has been made to rob the strong rooms of the mail steamer Carmuria but the thieves seem to have bungled it very badly, and the men are in custody at Southampton.”
“there are no good strong room robbers left,” said Lord Ilfran in a tone which suggested that he regretted the circumstances. “ever since the Flack gang were laid by the heels that branch of crime has become uninteresting. What is this I see,” he asked, “about the hold-up of a wood merchant in Camberwell?”
“Oh, yes,” Jerry was leaving but turned back. “That is extraordinary. There was a man held up in similar circumstances at Eastbourne two or three days ago and now this man Staines has been victimized.”
“Nothing was stolen?” asked Lord Ilfran.
“Nothing at all, apparently,” replied Jerry. “As in the previous case, the burglar merely asked to see the state of the passbooks and the private ledgers of Mr. Staines.”
“Extraordinary!” murmured Lord Ilfran looking out of the window. “Most extraordinary! Nothing was stolen you say?”
“Nothing at all,” said Jerry and threw a glance at the clock above the head of the Public Prosecutor.
“Well, get off,” said Ilfran with a smile.
“I suppose you are catching your 4.57. What on earth makes you live as Arthurton?”
“Come down and spend Christamas with me, sir” said Jerry with a smile, “and I think you’ll understand.”
The taxi-cab that took him to Victoria was a slow one and he had to race to the platform and even then only arrived as the train was on the move. The guard opened the door of a first-class carriage and he jumped in and would have fallen but a little hand thrust out in alarm saved him.
“I am so awfully sorry,” said Jerry, with that smile of his which had disarmed so many of his critics.
“I think the train jerked,” said Margot Panton primly.
“I’m almost sure it jerked,” said Jeremiah, and then he chuckled and the girl laughed too.
It was all very improper, of course, and very unusual. Margot had been warned since she could understand never to speak to strange men in railway carriages, and never under any circumstances to travel alone with one. And yet before the train had reached Clapham Junction, Jerry had told her that his favourite name for aunts was Maud and she had explained the inner workings of the perfect system at the school she had left.
“Arthurton!” he said in delight when she told him her destination. “Good lord, I’m going there, too. Where are you staying?”
“With my guardian, Mr. James Stuart.”
“Is that so?” he said, raising his eye brows. “Why, we’re neighbours! Mr. Stuart is the antiquarian or explorer, or something, isn’t he?” I know he lives abroad.”
“I know very little about him,” she replied, “and I don’t remember having seen him. He is the only relative I have in the world,” she said simply.
Jerry was more than ordinarily interested and plied her with question as to her length of stay until laughingly she changed the subject.
“If you live at Arthurton—“
“As I swear I do,” he said.
“Don’t interrupt. If you live in Arthurton you can tell me something I am dying to hear about.”
“I have a bronze medal for saving life,” he said modestly. “I must tell you this in case nobody else does. I am willing to earn another one.”
“Have you ever seen the Ghost of Downhill?” she asked.
He fell back in his seat and shrieked with laughter.
“I am the Ghost of Down Hill,” he said and she stared at him. “At least I’m the only ghost that’s ever haunted Down Hill. My house is built, if not upon the site, at least upon the land which the old monks owned and which the proprietor of Down Hill Farm, which was burnt a hundred years ago, included in his demesne.”
“And you’ve never seen the ghost?” she asked.
“I’ve never seen the ghost, and Minter – he is my valet, cook and general manager-hasn’t seen a ghost either.”
He hesitated and then:
“No, we’ve seen nothing.”
“You were going to say except,” she began.
“Except that two or three nights ago we saw a strange figure in the garden, but it was probably a poacher setting a snare. There are thousands of rabbits on that part of the Downs.”
“You’ll love the place,” he said as he helped her to alight at Treen Station, “and I hope your uncle is going to invite me to tea and tennis. You’ve got a wonderful court and I have no court at all. And there is your uncle. Shall I introduce you?” he asked whimsically.
The man who walked towards her was a little above middle height and strongly built. Apparently he was in the region of sixty but he was as straight as a ram-rod. The short clipped white beard, the shaggy eyebrows and the large nose gave her the impression of an old eagles; as impression which the bright deep-set eyes helped to strengthen. He gave her smile for smile as he met her and took her little hand in his big, hairy paw. Though it was bitterly cold and the snow lay thick on the roads, he wore no overcoat or gloves and the soft white shirt was opened at neck to expose the corded throat.
“You’re Margot,” he said, and brushed her cheek with his lips. “How do you do, Mr. Jowlett. This is a neighbor of ours, Margot.”
His manner was brusque, his voice gruffly but his attitude was genial. He had a little car waiting at the station yard. It was parked alongside Jerry’s one extravagance, a long-bonneted racing car, the possession of which he excused on account of its hill-climbing qualities.
“It is my elevator,” he said. “I live on the first floor of the world, Miss Panton, a position which gives me the happy feeling of being able to look down upon my fellow-citizens.”
They gave him a minute’s start and he disappeared silently across the snowy carpet.
James Stuart sat at the wheel and his little car followed at a respectable distance. He did not speak to the girl and she had time to take stock of this new relative who had come into her life. He had the glamour of relationship to her mother, but she felt that she could love this grim old man, upon whose face she thought she detected the lines of suffering.
Mr. Staines had not exaggerated the prettiness of her new home. It was an old house, creeper-grown, and stood in extensive grounds. Even under its white, fleey covering, which lay in thick pads on the spreading cedars, she saw the beautiful possibilities of the sleeping garden.
“I wonder you can ever leave this place,” she said as she stood looking through the French windows of the drawing room.
“It’s pretty,” he said shortly.
“Is there anything in Brazil as pretty?”
He shook his head.
“Nothing,” he answered shortly.
Her own apartment was a lovely large room overlooking the garden and had the appearance of having been recently furnished. She discovered later that this was the fact and that the furniture had only arrived that day from Eastbourne.
She found her uncle amiable enough at dinner. He had a fund of sardonie humour which kept her amused and he took, moreover, a surprisingly broad view of men and things.
“There isn’t much young company for you to Arthurton,” he said. “A girl like you should have plenty of dances and similar nonsense. I’ll invite young Jowlett over to dinner tomorrow night if you like.”
She did like very much.
“In the season there’s plenty of social life in Eastbourne, and it is only fourteen miles away, and I’m thinking of getting another ear,” he said. “But now…” he hesitated and rubbed his beard with his knuckles, a little gesture of irritation which did not escape her “I am very busy in the evenings with my specimens and I’m afraid you’ll be left alone-“
“Please don’t worry about me, Uncle James,” she said earnestly. “I can amuse myself with a book. And if I think I’m on your mind all the time, it will take half the fun out of life.”
He seemed relieved at this, and then awkwardly;
“Well, you can start right away,” he said. “I am going to my study now,”
At ten o’clock she tapped at his door to say good-night and went up to her room. He had promised her a maid, though she was ready enough to dispense with this luxury. She undressed and sat in her kimono by the open window looking over the garden. It was the third quarter of the moon and it was rising as she looked out upon that most wonderful of landscapes.
The snowy expense of the Downs lay in blue shadow and the moonlight flooded the broad white Weald with an uncanny radiance.
She sighed happily, switched off the light and snuggled into bed. The strangeness of the room and, perhaps, the queer smell which all new furniture has, prevented her sleeping as soundly as she expected. She turned from side to side, dozing fitfully, and then she heard a faint sound of a foot on the gravel path outside. From the position of the patch of moon light on the floor she knew it must be very late and wondered if her uncle was in the habit of taking midnight strolls on such a freezing night. Slipping out of bed she pulled on her dressing gown, walked to the window and looked out.
And then her blood froze, and her knees gave under her, for there in the middle of the garden path, standing out against the snowy background, was a figure in the somber habit of a monk!
The cowl was drawn over his head and the face of invisible.
It stood there motionless, its hands concealed in its wide sleeves, its head bent as in thought. Then slowly the head turned and the moonlight fell upon the bony face, the hollow sockets of its eyes, the white gleam of its fleshless teeth.
For a moment she stared, paralysed, incapable of sound or movement; and then she found her voice, and with a shrill scream collapsed on the floor in a dead faint.
END OF CHAPTER II