The Ghost of Downhill – Chapter 3
When she came to herself she was lying on the bed under the eider down quilt and her uncle’s anxious face was looking down at hers. He was in his dressing-gown and his hair was rumpled untidily.
“I am such a fool,” she said, with an apologetic smile.
“I heard you scream. What was the matter – nightmare?” asked Mr. Stuart.
And then she told him what she had seen. Stuart walked to the window and looked out.
“A manifestation,” he said gravely. “You were very fortunate.”
“A manifestation?” she repeated in an amazement. “Do you believe –“
He shrugged his shoulders.
“I believe there is a great deal one doesn’t understand; a great many things and a great many phenomena,” he replied. “But honestly, I think in this case you have been suffering from nightmare.”
“Do you – do you think,” she replied, “that was the Ghost of Downhill?”
She heard him chuckle.
“So you’ve heard the yarn, have you?” he said. “Perhaps it was. Perhaps it was oyster patty followed by coffee-a combination which has produced more ghosts than any of us spiritualists have raised.”
Margot Panton was neither superstitious nor a sceptic. She had the mens sana in corpora sana of the well balanced public school girl, and she was heartily ashamed of the exhibition she had made of herself. It had been the surprise of it; the atmosphere of mystery; the moonlight; the strangeness of the place – all those circumstances had combined to surprise her into that ridiculous fainting fit.
Alone in her room, she sat up in bed clasping her knees, a picture of frowning puzzlement. Her common-sense told her that there was no such thing as ghosts and they did not wear boots that crunched the gravel beneath them. She got out of bed again and looked out into the garden. It was empty. Then switching off the light with a contemptuous “pooh!” she curled herself in bed and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Her uncle was out when she came down to breakfast but he returned before she had finished the meal.
“Well, have you got over your scare?” he asked as he dropped his hand on heer shoulder in passing her.
“I’m perfectly certain it wasn’t a ghost,” she said.
“Oh, you are, are you?” his eyes twinkled, “and how do you reach that conclusion?”
“Ghosts don’t wear boots,” she said decidedly.
“They may have shoes,” said the dry old man. “I take tea without sugar or milk, Margot. If it was not a ghost, then I ought to be careful,” he said. “I have brought some rather valuable things back from Brazil and Peru; some old statuettes of the Incas,” he explained, but did not offer to show them to her.
She had had a glimpse of his study that morning, a plainly furnished room on the ground floor with a book-case and a desk, a few skins of animals stretched on the walls and little else.
That morning she was still occupied in unpacking her trunk and disposing of her photographs about the room.
She lunched alone, her uncle having gone to Hastings in his car. When he had told her he was making this trip she had expected he would invite her and he must have guessed her thoughts.
“When I get a better car I will take you round the country, Margot, but you make my old flivver look shabby.”
She smiled at the implied compliment. She was beginning to like this old man with his mordant humour and his pretty turn of compliment.
His absence gave her an opportunity of exploring her own domain, and putting on a pair of heavy boots – for the snow lay thick upon the hillside, under a radiant sun – she went out on a tour of inspection. Beyond the garden was a wide paddock which ran up the hill and was divided from the next property by a wire fence. She followed this fence to the crest of the rise and saw that it passed close to a pretty little brick bungalow which stood on the top of the hill. This must be Down Hill she thought. It covered a larger area than she had imagined. She caught a glimpse of bachelor comfort through the wide open windows. A stout man, whom she rightly guessed was Jeremiah Jowlett’s factotum, gave her a stiff little bow as she came abreast of him. He was shoveling away the snow that had fallen in the night from the garden path. Apparently Jerry had gone to town.
“Good morning, madam,” he said respectfully.
“Is this Down Hill?” she asked.
“Yes, madam. This is Mr. J.O. Jowlett’s estate.”
The words sounded to her a little magnificent and she smiled internally. She remembered that her travelling companion of the evening before had said that this man disapproved of “Jeremiah.” She passed the house and walked along the Downs and sat down to rest on a garden seat which had evidently been placed there by Jeremiah, and was dry and free from snow.
The view was wonderful. In the golden sunlight the Weald was a glittering snow-field, and far away on her right she saw the silver fret of the sea running across the gap at Seaford, like the line of a lace bodiee across the V of a woman’s corsage. She sat entranced, dreaming idly, formless, pleasant fancies floating across her mental vision – lazy mists that alternately revealed and veiled the substances of life. Her reverie was rudely broken.
“Pretty view, ain’t it, miss?”
She turned with a start. Not more than two yards away a man was standing in the road. He looked like a tramp. His clothes were old and soiled, his boots were gaping, and his chin had not known a razor for a week. He was puffing at an empty pipe and his big coarse hands were thrust into the pockets of his tattered overcoat.
She rose quickly.
“Yes, it’s very beautiful,” she said.
“Do you live around here, miss?”
“Yes, I live here,” she said shortly and turned to walk back towards Down Hill, the red roof and chimney pots of which showed above the trees. She heard his feet crunching through the snow behind her and presently he drew abreast.
“Nice place to live, ain’t it, miss?” he asked and she made no reply.
“I haven’t had anything to live on since yesterday morning,” he said suggestively.
She opened her bag and took out a shilling and handed it to him without a word.
“Thank you kindly. Mind you, I’m a rich man by rights, if every man had his due.”
He volunteered the information and paused at the end as though he expected her to make some reply. She quickened her pace but recognized the futility, and even danger, of running from a danger which was probably non-existent, and when they came again in sight of the house and the placid servant leaning on his shovel, she recovered something of her lost self-possession.
“There’s a ghost around here, so they tell me,” said the tramp, and she looked at him more carefully.
He was a hollow-faced man with small eyes set close together and a long aggressive nose. She thought his age was something between forty and fifty.
“I shall be round here for a day or two,” he said. “My name is Sibby Carter. I’ll just be hanging around.”
In spite of herself she laughed.
“I don’t know why you should tell me that,” she said. “I am really not interested in your plans.”
“Sibby Cartner my name is,” he repeated, and smacked his lips, “and I shall be hanging around here for two or three days.”
She was walking away from him when he followed and caught her arms with a grip that made her wince.
“Here, I can tell you something,” he began but the stout servant had seen, and with a surprising agility had leapt the hedge and was coming towards them.
“Clear out of here. What do you mean by accosting this lady!”
Sibby Carter released his hold and his thin lips curled up in a sneer that showed his yellow teeth.
“Hello, fat and ugly!” he said rudely. “What are you coming interfering with me for?”
The girl, breathless and a little white, had instinctively drawn to the stout man’s side.
“You be off,” said Mr. Jowlett’s servant peremptorily.
“I’ve as much right here as you have,” said Sibby Carter.
“You’re on private property, you know that! Now be off, or I’ll take you down to the village and give you in charge.”
The tramp seemed impressed at this possibility and he looked from the girl to the stout man, and then:
“Fat and ugly!” he shouted. “Fat and ugly!” and went trudging back the way he had come, his shoulder hunched, his hands in his pockets.
END OF CHAPTER III