Across The Moors by W. F. Harvey
An illustration for the story Across The Moors by the author W. F. Harvey
It really was most unfortunate.
Peggy had a temperature of nearly a hundred, and a pain in her side, and Mrs. Workington Bancroft knew that it was appendicitis. But there was no one whom she could send for the doctor.
James had gone with the jaunting-car to meet her husband who had at last managed to get away for a week’s shooting.
Adolph, she had sent to the Evershams, only half an hour before, with a note for Lady Eva.
The cook could not manage to walk, even if dinner could be served without her.
Kate, as usual, was not to be trusted.
There remained Miss Craig.
“Of course, you must see that Peggy is really ill,” said she, as the governess came into the room, in answer to her summons. “The difficulty is, that there is absolutely no one whom I can send for the doctor.” Mrs. Workington Bancroft paused; she was always willing that those beneath her should have the privilege of offering the services which it was her right to command.
“So, perhaps, Miss Craig,” she went on, “you would not mind walking over to Tebbits’ Farm. I hear there is a Liverpool doctor staying there. Of course I know nothing about him, but we must take the risk, and I expect he’ll be only too glad to be earning something during his holiday. It’s nearly four miles, I know, and I’d never dream of asking you if it was not that I dread appendicitis so.”
“Very well,” said Miss Craig, “I suppose I must go; but I don’t know the way.”
“Oh you can’t miss it,” said Mrs. Workington Bancroft, in her anxiety temporarily forgiving the obvious unwillingness of her governess’ consent.
“You follow the road across the moor for two miles, until you come to Redman’s Cross. You turn to the left there, and follow a rough path that leads through a larch plantation. And Tebbits’ farm lies just below you in the valley.”
“And take Pontiff with you,” she added, as the girl left the room. “There’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of, but I expect you’ll feel happier with the dog.”
“Well, miss,” said the cook, when Miss Craig went into the kitchen to get her boots, which had been drying by the fire; “of course she knows best, but I don’t think it’s right after all that’s happened for the mistress to send you across the moors on a night like this. It’s not as if the doctor could do anything for Miss Margaret if you do bring him. Every child is like that once in a while. He’ll only say put her to bed, and she’s there already.”
“I don’t see what there is to be afraid of, cook,” said Miss Craig as she laced her boots, “unless you believe in ghosts.”
“I’m not so sure about that. Anyhow I don’t like sleeping in a bed where the sheets are too short for you to pull them over your head. But don’t you be frightened, miss. It’s my belief that their bark is worse than their bite.”
But though Miss Craig amused herself for some minutes by trying to imagine the bark of a ghost (a thing altogether different from the classical ghostly bark), she did not feel entirely at her ease.
She was naturally nervous, and living as she did in the hinterland of the servants’ hall, she had heard vague details of true stories that were only myths in the drawing-room.
The very name of Redman’s Cross sent a shiver through her; it must have been the place where that horrid murder was committed. She had forgotten the tale, though she remembered the name.
Her first disaster came soon enough.
Pontiff, who was naturally slow-witted, took more than five minutes to find out that it was only the governess he was escorting, but once the discovery had been made, he promptly turned tail, paying not the slightest heed to Miss Craig’s feeble whistle. And then, to add to her discomfort, the rain came, not in heavy drops, but driving in sheets of thin spray that blotted out what few landmarks there were upon the moor.
They were very kind at Tebbits’ farm. The doctor had gone back to Liverpool the day before, but Mrs. Tebbit gave her hot milk and turf cakes, and offered her reluctant son to show Miss Craig a shorter path on to the moor, that avoided the larch wood.
He was a monosyllabic youth, but his presence was cheering, and she felt the night doubly black when he left her at the last gate.
She trudged on wearily. Her thoughts had already gone back to the almost exhausted theme of the bark of ghosts, when she heard steps on the road behind her that were at least material. Next minute the figure of a man appeared: Miss Craig was relieved to see that the stranger was a clergyman. He raised his hat. “I believe we are both going in the same direction,” he said.
“Perhaps I may have the pleasure of escorting you.” She thanked him. “It is rather weird at night,” she went on, “and what with all the tales of ghosts and bogies that one hears from the country people, I’ve ended by being half afraid myself.”
“I can understand your nervousness,” he said, “especially on a night like this. I used at one time to feel the same, for my work often meant lonely walks across the moor to farms which were only reached by rough tracks difficult enough to find even in the daytime.”
“And you never saw anything to frighten you–nothing immaterial I mean?”
“I can’t really say that I did, but I had an experience eleven years ago which served as the turning point in my life, and since you seem to be now in much the same state of mind as I was then in, I will tell it you.
“The time of year was late September. I had been over to Westondale to see an old woman who was dying, and then, just as I was about to start on my way home, word came to me of another of my parishioners who had been suddenly taken ill only that morning. It was after seven when at last I started. A farmer saw me on my way, turning back when I reached the moor road.
“The sunset the previous evening had been one of the most lovely I ever remember seeing. The whole vault of heaven had been scattered with flakes of white cloud, tipped with rosy pink like the strewn petals of a full-blown rose.
“But that night all was changed. The sky was an absolutely dull slate colour, except in one corner of the west where a thin rift showed the last saffron tint of the sullen sunset. As I walked, stiff and footsore, my spirits sank. It must have been the marked contrast between the two evenings, the one so lovely, so full of promise (the corn was still out in the fields spoiling for fine weather), the other so gloomy, so sad with all the dead weight of autumn and winter days to come. And then added to this sense of heavy depression came another different feeling which I surprised myself by recognising as fear.
“I did not know why I was afraid.
“The moors lay on either side of me, unbroken except for a straggling line of turf shooting butts, that stood within a stone’s-throw of the road.
“The only sound I had heard for the last half hour was the cry of the startled grouse–Go back, go back, go back. But yet the feeling of fear was there, affecting a low centre of my brain through some little used physical channel.
“I buttoned my coat closer, and tried to divert my thoughts by thinking of next Sunday’s sermon.
“I had chosen to preach on Job. There is much in the old-fashioned notion of the book, apart from all the subtleties of the higher criticism, that appeals to country people; the loss of herds and crops, the break up of the family. I would not have dared to speak, had not I too been a farmer; my own glebe land had been flooded three weeks before, and I suppose I stood to lose as much as any man in the parish. As I walked along the road repeating to myself the first chapter of the book, I stopped at the twelfth verse.
“‘And the Lord said unto Satan: Behold all that he hath is in thy power’. . .
“The thought of the bad harvest (and that is an awful thought in these valleys) vanished. I seemed to gaze into an ocean of infinite darkness.
“I had often used, with the Sunday glibness of the tired priest, whose duty it is to preach three sermons in one day, the old simile of the chess board. God and the Devil were the players: and we were helping one side or the other. But until that night I had not thought of the possibility of my being only a pawn in the game, that God might throw away that the game might be won.
“I had reached the place where we are now, I remember it by that rough stone water-trough, when a man suddenly jumped up from the roadside. He had been seated on a heap of broken road metal.”
‘Which way are you going, guv’ner?’ he said.
“I knew from the way he spoke that the man was a stranger. There are many at this time of the year who come up from the south, tramping northwards with the ripening corn. I told him my destination.
“‘We’ll go along together,’ he replied.
“It was too dark to see much of the man’s face, but what little I made out was coarse and brutal.
“Then he began the half-menacing whine I knew so well–he had tramped miles that day, he had had no food since breakfast, and that was only a crust.”
‘Give us a copper’, he said, ‘it’s only for a night’s lodging.’
“He was whittling away with a big clasp knife at an ash stake he had taken from some hedge.”
The clergyman broke off.
“Are those the lights of your house?” he said. “We are nearer than I expected, but I shall have time to finish my story. I think I will, for you can run home in a couple of minutes, and I don’t want you to be frightened when you are out on the moors again.
“As the man talked he seemed to have stepped out of the very background of my thoughts, his sordid tale, with the sad lies that hid a far sadder truth.
“He asked me the time.
“It was five minutes to nine. As I replaced my watch I glanced at his face. His teeth were clenched, and there was something in the gleam of his eyes that told me at once his purpose.
“Have you ever known how long a second is? For a third of a second I stood there facing him, filled with an overwhelming pity for myself and him; and then without a word of warning he was upon me. I felt nothing. A flash of lightning ran down my spine, I heard the dull crash of the ash stake, and then a very gentle patter like the sound of a far-distant stream. For a minute I lay in perfect happiness watching the lights of the house as they increased in number until the whole heaven shone with twinkling lamps.
“I could not have had a more painless death.”
Miss Craig looked up. The man was gone; she was alone on the moor.
She ran to the house, her teeth chattering, ran to the solid shadow that crossed and recrossed the kitchen blind.
As she entered the hall, the clock on the stairs struck the hour. It was nine o’clock.