Read CHAPTER VI - ’ENERY of The Golden Scarecrow, free online book, by Hugh Walpole, on ReadCentral.com.

I

Mrs. Slater was caretaker at N March.  Square.  Old Lady Cathcart lived with her middle-aged daughter at N, and, during half the year, they were down at their place in Essex; during half the year, then, Mrs. Slater lived in the basement of N with her son Henry, aged six.

Mrs. Slater was a widow; upon a certain afternoon, two and a half years ago, she had paused in her ironing and listened.  “Something,” she told her friends afterwards, “gave her a start she couldn’t say what nor how.”  Her ironing stayed, for that afternoon at least, where it was, because her husband, with his head in a pulp and his legs bent underneath him, was brought in on a stretcher, attended by two policemen.  He had fallen from a piece of scaffolding into Piccadilly Circus, and was unable to afford any further assistance to the improvements demanded by the Pavilion Music Hall.  Mrs. Slater, a stout, amiable woman, who had never been one to worry; Henry Slater, Senior, had been a bad husband, “what with women and the drink” she had no intention of lamenting him now that he was dead; she had done for ever with men, and devoted the whole of her time and energy to providing bread and butter for herself and her son.

She had been Lady Cathcart’s caretaker for a year and a half, and had given every satisfaction.  When the old lady came up to London Mrs. Slater went down to Essex and defended the country place from suffragettes and burglars.  “I shouldn’t care for it,” said a lady friend, “all alone in the country with no cheerful noises nor human beings.”

“Doesn’t frighten me, I give you my word, Mrs. East,” said Mrs. Slater; “not that I don’t prefer the town, mind you.”

It was, on the whole, a pleasant life, that carried with it a certain dignity.  Nobody who had seen old Lady Cathcart drive in her open carriage, with her black bonnet, her coachman, and her fine, straight back, could deny that she was one of Our Oldest and Best none of your mushroom families come from Lord knows where it was a position of trust, and as such Mrs. Slater considered it.  For the rest she loved her son Henry with more than a mother’s love; he was as unlike his poor father, bless him, as any child could be.  Henry, although you would never think it to look at him, was not quite like other children; he had been, from his birth, a “little queer, bless his heart,” and Mrs. Slater attributed this to the fact that three weeks before the boy’s birth, Horny Slater, Senior, had, in a fine frenzy of inebriation, hit her over the head with a chair.  “Dead drunk, ’e was, and never a thought to the child coming, ‘’Enery,’ I said to him, ’it’s the child you’re hitting as well as me’; but ’e was too far gone, poor soul, to take a thought.”

Henry was a fine, robust child, with rosy cheeks and a sturdy, thick-set body.  He had large blue eyes and a happy, pleasant smile, but, although he was six years of age, he could hardly talk at all, and liked to spend the days twirling pieces of string round and round or looking into the fire.  His eyes were unlike the eyes of other children, and in their blue depths there lurked strange apprehensions, strange anticipations, strange remembrances.  He had never, from the day of his birth, been known to cry.  When he was frightened or distressed the colour would pass slowly from his cheeks, and strange little gasping breaths would come from him; his body would stiffen and his hands clench.  If he was angry the colour in his face would darken and his eyes half close, and it was then that he did, indeed, seem in the possession of some disastrous thraldom but he was angry very seldom, and only with certain people; for the most part he was a happy child, “as quiet as a mouse.”  He was unusual, too, in that he was a very cleanly child, and loved to be washed, and took the greatest care of his clothes.  He was very affectionate, fond of almost every one, and passionately devoted to his mother.

Mrs. Slater was a woman with very little imagination.  She never speculated on “how different things would be if they were different,” nor did she sigh after riches, nor possessions, nor any of the goods Fate bestows upon her favourites.  She would, most certainly, have been less fond of Henry had he been more like other children, and his dependence upon her gave her something of the feeling that very rich ladies have for very small dogs.  She was too, in a way, proud.  “Never been able to talk, nor never will, they tell me, the lamb,” she would assure her friends, “but as gentle and as quiet!”

She would sit, sometimes, in the evening before the fire and think of the old noisy, tiresome days when Henry, Senior, would beat her black and blue, and would feel that her life had indeed fallen into pleasant places.

There was nothing whatever in the house, all silent about her and filled with shrouded furniture, that could alarm her.  “Ghosts!” she would cry.  “You show me one, that’s all.  I’ll give you ghosts!”

Her digestion was excellent, her sleep undisturbed by conscience or creditors.  She was a happy woman.

Henry loved March Square.  There was a window in an upstairs passage from behind whose glass he could gaze at the passing world.  The Passing World!... the shrouded house behind him.  One was as alive, as bustling, as demonstrative to him as the other, but between the two there was, for him, no communication.  His attitude to the Square and the people in it was that he knew more about them than anyone else did; his attitude to the House, that he knew nothing at all compared with what “They” knew.  In the Square he could see through the lot of them, so superficial were they all; in the House he could only wait, with fingers on lip, for the next revelation that they might vouchsafe to him.

Doors were, for the most part, locked, yet there were many days when fires were lit because the house was an old one, and damp Lady Cathcart had a horror of.

Always for young Henry the house wore its buried and abandoned air.  He was never to see it when the human beings in it would count more than its furniture, and the human life in it more than the house itself.  He had come, a year and a half ago, into the very place that his dreams had, from the beginning, built for him.  Those large, high rooms with the shining floors, the hooded furniture, the windows gaping without their curtains, the shadows and broad squares of light, the little whispers and rattles that doors and cupboards gave, the swirl of the wind as it sprang released from corners and crevices, the lisp of some whisper, “I’m coming!  I’m coming!  I’m coming!” that, nevertheless, again and again defeated expectation.  How could he but enjoy the fine field of affection that these provided for him?

His mother watched him with maternal pride.  “He’s that contented!” she would say.  “Any other child would plague your life away, but ’Enery ”

It was part of Henry’s unusual mind that he wondered at nothing.  He remained in constant expectation, but whatever was to come to him it would not bring surprise with it.  He was in a world where anything might happen.  In all the house his favourite room was the high, thin drawing-room with an old gold mirror at one end of it and a piano muffled in brown holland.  The mirror caught the piano with its peaked inquiring shape, that, in its inflection, looked so much more tremendous and ominous than it did in plain reality.  Through the mirror the piano looked as though it might do anything, and to Henry, who knew nothing about pianos, it was responsible for almost everything that occurred in the house.

The windows of the room gave a fine display of the gardens, the children, the carriages, and the distant houses, but it was when the Square was empty that Henry liked best to gaze down into it, because then the empty house and the empty square prepared themselves together for some tremendous occurrence.  Whenever such an interval of silence struck across the noise and traffic of the day, it seemed that all the world screwed itself up for the next event.  “One two three.”  But the crisis never came.  The noise returned again, people laughed and shouted, bells rang and motors screamed.  Nevertheless, one day something would surely happen.

The house was full of company, and the boy would, sometimes, have yielded to the Fear that was never far away, had it not been for some one whom he had known from the very beginning of everything, some one who was as real as his mother, some one who was more powerful than anything or any one in the house, and kinder, far, far kinder.

Often when Mrs. Slater would wonder of what her son was thinking as he sat twisting string round and round in front of the fire, he would be aware of his Friend in the shadow of the light, watching gravely, in the cheerful room, having beneath his hands all the powers, good and evil, of the house.  Just as Henry pictured quite clearly to himself other occupants of the house some one with taloned claws behind the piano, another with black-hooded eyes and a peaked cap in the shadows of an upstairs passage, another brown, shrivelled and naked, who dwelt in a cupboard in one of the empty bedrooms so, too, he could see his Friend, vast and shadowy, with a flowing beard and eyes that were kind and shining.

Often he had felt the pressure of his hand, had heard his reassuring whisper in his ears, had known the touch of his lips upon his forehead.  No harm could come to him whilst his Friend was in the house and his Friend was always there.

He went always with his mother into the streets when she did her shopping or simply took the air.  It was natural that on these occasions, he should be more frightened than during his hours in the house.  In the first place his Friend did not accompany him on these out-of-door excursions, and his mother was not nearly so strong a protector as his Friend.

Then he was disturbed by the people who pressed and pushed about him he had a sense that they were all like birds with flapping wings and strange cries, rushing down upon him the colours and confusion of the shops bewildered him.  There was too much here for him properly to understand; he had enough to do with the piano, the mirror, the shadowed passages, the staring windows.

But in the Square he was happy again.  Mrs. Slater never ventured into the gardens; they were for her superiors, and she complacently accepted a world in which things were so ordered as the only world possible.  But there was plenty of life outside the gardens.

There were, on the different days of the week, the various musicians, and Henry was friendly with them all.  He delighted in music; as he stood there, listening to the barrel-organ, the ideas, pictures, dreams, flew like flocks of beautiful birds through his brain, fleet, and always just beyond his reach, so that he could catch nothing, but would nod his head and would hope that the tune would be repeated, because next time he might, perhaps, be more fortunate.

The Major, who played the harp on Saturdays, was a friend of Mrs. Slater.  “Nice little feller, that of yours, mum,” he would say. “’Ad one meself once.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes, sure enough....  Nice day....  Would you believe it, this is the only London square left for us to play in?...  ’Tis, indeed.  Cruel shame, I call it; life’s ’ard....  You’re right, mum, it is.  Well, good-day.”

Mrs. Slater looked after him affectionately.  “Pore feller; and yet I dare say he makes a pretty hit of it if all was known.”

Henry sighed.  The birds were flown again.  He was left with the blue-flecked sky and the grey houses that stood around the gardens like beasts about a water-pool.  The sun (a red disc) peered over their shoulders.  He went, with his mother within doors.  Instantly on his entrance the house began to rustle and whisper.

II

Mrs. Slater, although an amiable and kind-hearted human being who believed with confident superstition in a God of other people’s making, did not, on the whole, welcome her lady friends with much cordiality.  It was not, as she often explained, as though she had her own house into which to ask them.  Her motto was, “Friendly with All, Familiar with None,” and to this she very faithfully held.  But in her heart there was reason enough for this caution; there had been days yes, and nights too when, during her lamented husband’s lifetime, she had “taken a drop,” taken it, obviously enough, as a comfort, and a solace when things were going very hard with her, and “‘Enery preferrin’ ’er to be jolly ’erself to keep ’im company.”  She had protested, but Fate and Henry had been too strong for her.  “She had fallen into the habit!” Then, when N had come under her care, she had put it all sternly behind her, but one did not know how weak one might be, and a kindly friend might with her persuasion

Therefore did Mrs. Slater avoid her kindly friends.  There was, however, one friend who was not so readily to be avoided; that was Mrs. Carter.  Mrs. Carter also was a widow, or rather, to speak the direct truth, had discovered one morning, twenty years ago, that Mr. Carter “was gone”; he had never returned.  Those who knew Mrs. Carter intimately said that, on the whole, “things bein’ as they was,” his departure was not entirely to be wondered at.  Mrs. Carter had a temper of her own, and nothing inflamed it so much as a drop of whisky, and there was nothing in the world she liked so much as “a drop.”

To meet her casually, you would judge her nothing less than the most amiable of womankind a large, stout, jolly woman, with a face like a rose, and a quantity of black hair.  At her best, in her fine Sunday clothes, she was a superb figure, and wore round her neck a rope of sham pearls that would have done credit to a sham countess.  During the week, however, she slipped, on occasion, into “déshabille,” and then she appeared not quite so attractive.  No one knew the exact nature of her profession.  She did a bit of “char”; she had at one time a little sweetshop, where she sold sweets, the Police Budget, and although this was revealed only to her best friends indecent photographs.  It may be that the police discovered some of the sources of her income; at any rate the sweetshop was suddenly, one morning, abandoned.  Her movements in everything were sudden; it was quite suddenly that she took a fancy to Mrs. Slater.  She met her at a friend’s, and at once, so she told Mrs. Slater, “I liked yer, just as though I’d met yer before.  But I’m like that.  Sudden or not at all is my way, and not a bad way either!”

Mrs. Slater could not be said to be everything that was affectionate in return.  She distrusted Mrs. Carter, disliked her brilliant colouring and her fluent experiences, felt shy before her rollicking suggestiveness, and timid at her innuendoes.  For a considerable time she held her defences against the insidious attack.  Then there came a day when Mrs. Carter burst into reluctant but passionate tears, asserting that Life and Mr. Carter had been, from the beginning, against her; that she had committed, indeed, acts of folly in the past, but only when driven desperately against a wall; that she bore no grudge against any one alive, but loved all humanity; that she was going to do her best to be a better woman, but couldn’t really hope to arrive at any satisfactory improvement without Mrs. Slater’s assistance; that Mrs. Slater, indeed, had shown her a New Way, a New Light, a New Path.

Mrs. Slater, humble woman, had no illusions as to her own importance in the scheme of things; nothing touched her so surely as an appeal to her strength of character.  She received Mrs. Carter with open arms, suggested that they should read the Bible together on Sunday mornings, and go, side by side, to St. Matthew’s on Sunday evenings.  There was nothing like a study of the “Holy Word” for “defeating the bottle,” and there was nothing like “defeating the bottle” for getting back one’s strength and firmness of character.

It was along these lines that Mrs. Slater proposed to conduct Mrs. Carter.

Now unfortunately Henry took an instant and truly savage dislike to his mother’s new friend.  He had been always, of course, “odd” in his feelings about people, but never was he “odder” than he was with Mrs. Carter.  “Little lamb,” she said, when she saw him for the first time.  “I envy you that child, Mrs. Slater, I do indeed.  Backwards ’e may be, but ’is being dependent, as you may say, touches the ’eart.  Little lamb!”

She tried to embrace him; she offered him sweets.  He shuddered at her approach, and his face was instantly grey, like a pool the moment after the sun’s setting.  Had he been himself able to put into words his sensations, he would have said that the sight of Mrs. Carter assured him, quite definitely, that something horrible would soon occur.

The house upon whose atmosphere he so depended instantly darkened; his Friend was gone, not because he was no longer able to see him (his consciousness of him did not depend at all upon any visual assurance), but because there was now, Henry was perfectly assured, no chance whatever of his suddenly appearing.  And, on the other hand, those Others the one with the taloned claws behind the piano, the one with the black-hooded eyes were stronger, more threatening, more dominating.  But, beyond her influence on the house, Mrs. Carter, in her own physical and actual presence, tortured Henry.  When she was in the room, Henry suffered agony.  He would creep away were he allowed, and, if that were not possible, then he would retreat into the most distant corner and watch.  If he were in the room his eyes never left Mrs. Carter for a moment, and it was this brooding gaze more than his disapproval that irritated her.  “You never can tell with poor little dears when they’re ‘queer’ what fancies they’ll take.  Why, he quite seems to dislike me, Mrs. Slater!”

Mrs. Slater could venture no denial; indeed, Henry’s attitude aroused once again in her mind her earlier suspicions.  She had all the reverence of her class for her son’s “oddness.”  He knew more than ordinary mortal folk, and could see farther; he saw beyond Mrs. Carter’s red cheeks and shining black hair, and the fact that he was, as a rule, tractable to cheerful kindness, made his rejection the more remarkable.  But it might, nevertheless, be that the black things in Mrs. Carter’s past were the marks impressed upon Henry’s sensitive intelligence; and that he had not, as yet, perceived the new Mrs. Carter growing in grace now day by day.

“’E’ll get over ’is fancy, bless ’is ’eart.”  Mrs. Slater pursued then her work of redemption.

III

On a certain evening in November, Mrs. Carter, coming in to see her friend, invited sympathy for a very bad cold.

“Drippin’ and runnin’ at the nose I’ve been all day, my dear.  Awake all night I was with it, and ’tain’t often that I’ve one, but when I do it’s somethin’ cruel.”  It seemed to be better this evening, Mrs. Slater thought, but when she congratulated her friend on this, Mrs. Carter, shaking her head, remarked that it had left the nose and travelled into the throat and ears.  “Once it’s earache, and I’m done,” she said.  Horrible pictures she drew of this earache, and it presently became clear that Mrs. Carter was in perfect terror of a night made sleepless with pain.  Once, it seemed, had Mrs. Carter tried to commit suicide by hanging herself to a nail in a door, so maddening had the torture been.  Luckily (Mrs. Carter thanked Heaven) the nail had been dragged from the door by her weight “not that I was anything very ’eavy, you understand.”  Finally, it appeared that only one thing in the world could be relied upon to stay the fiend.

Mrs. Carter produced from her pocket a bottle of whisky.

Upon that it followed that, since her reformation, Mrs. Carter had come to loathe the very smell of whisky, and as for the taste of it!  But rather than be driven by flaming agony down the long stony passages of a sleepless night anything.

It was here, of course, that Mrs. Slater should have protested, but, in her heart, she was afraid of her friend, and afraid of herself.  Mrs. Carter’s company had, of late, been pleasant to her.  She had been strengthened in her own resolves towards a fine life by the sight of Mrs. Carter’s struggle in that direction, and that good woman’s genial amiability (when it was so obvious from her appearance that she could be far otherwise) flattered Mrs. Slater’s sense of power.  No, she could not now bear to let Mrs. Carter go.

She said, therefore, nothing to her friend about the whisky, and on that evening Mrs. Carter did take the “veriest sip.”  But the cold continued it continued in a marvellous and terrible manner.  It seemed “to ’ave taken right ’old of ’er system.”

After a few evenings it was part of the ceremonies that the bottle should be produced; the kettle was boiling happily on the fire, there was lemon, there was a lump of sugar....  On a certain wet and depressing evening Mrs. Slater herself had a glass “just to see that she didn’t get a cold like Mrs. Carter’s.”

IV

Henry’s bed-time was somewhere between the hours of eight and nine, but his mother did not care to leave Mrs. Carter (dear friend, though she was) quite alone downstairs with the bottom half of the house unguarded (although, of course, the doors were locked), therefore, Mrs. Carter came upstairs with her friend to see the little fellow put to bed; “and a hangel he looks, if ever I see one,” declared the lady enthusiastically.

When the two were gone and the house was still, Henry would sit up in bed and listen; then, moving quietly, he would creep out and listen again.

There, in the passage, it seemed to him that he could hear the whole house talking first one sound and then another would come, the wheeze of some straining floor, the creak of some whispering board, the shudder of a door.  “Look out!  Look out!  Look out!” and then, above that murmur, some louder voice:  “Watch! there’s danger in the place!” Then, shivering with cold and his sense of evil, he would creep down into a lower passage and stand listening again; now the voices of the house were deafening, rising on every side of him, like the running of little streams suddenly heard on the turning of the corner of a hill.  The dim light shrouded with fantasy the walls; along the wide passage and cabinets, high china jars, the hollow scoop of the window at the far-distant end, were all alive and moving.  And, in strange contradiction to the moving voices within the house, came the blurred echo of the London life, whirring, buzzing, like a cloud of gnats at the window-pane.  “Look out!  Look out!  Look out!” the house cried, and Henry, with chattering teeth, was on guard.

There came an evening when standing thus, shivering in his little shirt, he was aware that the terror, so long anticipated, was upon him.  It seemed to him, on this evening, that the house was suddenly still; it was as though all the sounds, as of running water, that passed up and down the rooms and passages, were, in a flashing second, frozen.  The house was holding its breath.

He had to wait for a breathless, agonising interval before he heard the next sound, very faint and stifled breathing coming up to him out of the darkness in little uncertain gusts.  He heard the breathings pause, then recommence again in quicker and louder succession.  Henry, stirred simply, perhaps, by the terror of his anticipation, moved back into the darker shadows in the nook of the cabinet, and stayed there with his shirt pressed against his little trembling knees.

Then followed, after a long time, a half yellow circle of light that touched the top steps of the stairs and a square of the wall; behind the light was the stealthy figure of Mrs. Carter.  She stood there for a moment, one hand with a candle raised, the other pressed against her breast; from one finger of this hand a bunch of heavy keys dangled.  She stood there, with her wide, staring eyes, like glass in the candle-light, staring about her, her red cheeks rising and falling with her agitation, her body seeming enormous, her shadow on the wall huge in the flickering light.  At the sight of his enemy Henry’s terror was so frantic that his hands beat with little spasmodic movements against the wall.

He did not see Mrs. Carter at all, but he saw rather the movement through the air and darkness of the house of something that would bring down upon him the full naked force of the Terror that he had all his life anticipated.  He had always known that the awful hour would arrive when the Terror would grip him; again and again he had seen its eyes, felt its breath, heard its movements, and these movements had been forewarnings of some future day.  That day had arrived.

There was only one thing that he could do; his Friend alone in all the world could help him.  With his soul dizzy and faint from fear, he prayed for his Friend; had he been less frightened he would have screamed aloud for him to come and help him.

The boy’s breath came hot into his throat and stuck there, and his heart beat like a high, unresting hammer.

Mrs. Carter, with the candle raised to throw light in front of her, moved forward very cautiously and softly.  She passed down the passage, and then paused very near to the boy.  She looked at the keys, and stole like some heavy, stealthy animal to the door of the long drawing-room.  He watched her as she tried one key after another, making little dissatisfied noises as they refused to fit; then at last one turned the lock and she pushed back the door.

It was certainly impossible for him, in the dim world of his mind, to realise what it was that she intended to do, but he knew, through some strange channel of knowledge, that his mother was concerned in this, and that something more than the immediate peril of himself was involved.  He had also, lost in the dim mazes of his mind, a consciousness that there were treasures in the house, and that his mother was placed there to guard them, and even that he himself shared her duty.

It did not come to him that Mrs. Carter was in pursuit of these treasures, but he did realise that her presence there amongst them brought peril to his mother.  Moved then by some desperate urgency which had at its heart his sense that to be left alone in the black passage was worse than the actual lighted vision of his Terror, he crept with trembling knees across the passage and through the door.

Inside the room he saw that she had laid the candle upon the piano, and was bending over a drawer, trying again to fit a key.  He stood in the doorway, a tiny figure, very, very cold, all his soul in his silent appeal for some help.  His Friend must come.  He was somewhere there in the house.  “Come!  Help me!” The candle suddenly flared into a finger of light that flung the room into vision.  Mrs. Carter, startled, raised herself, and at that same moment Henry gave a cry, a weak little trembling sound.

She turned and saw the boy; as their eyes met he felt the Terror rushing upon him.  He flung a last desperate appeal for help, staring at her as though his eyes would never let her go, and she, finding him so unexpectedly, could only gape.  In their silent gaze at one another, in the glassy stare of Mrs. Carter and the trembling, flickering one of Henry there was more than any ordinary challenge could have conveyed.  Mrs. Carter must have felt at the first immediate confrontation of the strange little figure that her feet were on the very edge of some most desperate precipice.  The long room and the passages beyond must have quivered.  At that very first moment, with some stir, some hinted approach, Henry called, with the desperate summoning of all his ghostly world, upon his gods.  They came....

In her eyes he saw suddenly something else than vague terror.  He saw recognition.  He felt himself a rushing, heartening comfort; he knew that his Friend had somehow come, that he was no longer alone.

But Mrs. Carter’s eyes were staring beyond him, over him, into the black passage.  Her eyes seemed to grow as though the terror in them was pushing them out beyond their lids; her breath, came in sharp, tearing gasps.  The keys with a clang dropped from her hand.

“Oh, God!  Oh, God!” she whispered.  He did not turn his head to grasp what it was that she saw in the passage.  The terror had been transferred from himself to her.

The colour in her cheeks went out, leaving her as though her face were suddenly shadowed by some overhanging shape.

Her eyes never moved nor faltered from the dark into whose heart she gazed.  Then, there was a strangled, gasping cry, and she sank down, first onto her knees, then in a white faint, her eyes still staring, lay huddled on the floor.

Henry felt his Friend’s hand on his shoulder.

Meanwhile, down in the kitchen, the fire had sunk into grey ashes, and Mrs. Slater was lying back in her chair, her head back, snoring thickly; an empty glass had tumbled across the table, and a few drops from it had dribbled over on to the tablecloth.