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Authors: Virginia Coffman

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“Aye! Cursed be the day!” Meg shaded her eyes and stared fixedly in the direction I had indicated. A part of the scramble of outbuildings was hidden by an intervening rise and fold in the moors, but I had been correct in my identification of the inn earlier this morning.

When Meg went inside, poor Timmy ventured to follow her, but upon being rebuffed by her indifference, and at the same time half-strangled by his collar and the lead that I still held, he scrambled back to me.

I saw Elspeth Sedley go into a narrow garden beyond the Owl of York and wondered if she intended to meet her uncle there.

It occurred to me that if Elspeth was wearing her aunt’s black shawl and these garments were normally left at the Hag’s Head, then it stood to reason that Elspeth was not so reluctant to visit the inn as was her grandmother. I wondered if this had something to do with Elspeth’s reluctance, or seeming reluctance, to encourage me to buy the inn. However, it might be that Elspeth simply had not yet encountered those odd lights and noises which bothered everyone else. Or it might even be that she and Patrick Kelleher made it their rendezvous.

I tugged on the lead to warn Timothy, and the two of stepped off the cobblestones and into one of those ubiquitous sheep tracks which had so confused me yesterday. Since we were both clothed for the crisp fall wind of Yorkshire, I suspect that Timmy enjoyed the invigorating walk as much as I did. Although he would have preferred to go his feline way, returning to me when he chose, something about the awesome expanse of the countryside, or perhaps his experience yesterday, made him stay rather close by me, even after he pulled the lead out of my hand at one point in our walk.

We climbed a bit before reaching the level of the
vast Heatherton Moor, and upon looking behind me I had a comprehensive view of the countryside in all its solemn, almost monotonous grandeur. The grandeur came, I think, from its sameness rather than from any single landmark of nature, just as the sea off my native Cornish coast derived its magnificence from its all-encompassing sameness, rather than from some occasional watersprout or other freak of nature. Heather still bloomed in places more sheltered from the wind, down nearer the bottomlands through which wandered the moorland becks, flowing now much faster and freer since yesterday’s storm. There were many dikes of York stone throughout these regions which, at first glance, looked so untouched by man. But as
Timmy
and I began to climb again, we left behind us more and more of the signs of humanity, rising to the blackened heather and to the bleak desolation of the heath itself, where nature had never yet bent to man.

Although Father insisted that I would never be at home on this inland section of Yorkshire after a youth spent almost within sight of the ocean, Mama had known very well that I would find myself sympathetic to these serpentine hills, which were so like the gray-green waves of the sea; and the longer I walked, the more determined I became that if I should be fortunate enough to discover a house suitable to a young ladies’ school, even if it were in need of repairs, I would consider its purchase.

Not that the Hag’s Head was one of the “possibles.” There would always be the problem of acclimatizing the giggly schoolgirls to the notion of sharing a house with ghosts of murdered ladies. Although I knew perfectly well that, whatever troubled the Hag’s Head, it was not the Other World, even I had found myself obsessed by an odd and heretofore unfamiliar fear during those first few minutes before the arrival of Sir Nicholas yesterday.

After some time of walking, as we rounded the brow of a hillock on a muddy trail that must be impassible in winter, Timothy leaped back against my feet, nearly tripping me. As I recovered my balance, preparing to scold him, I was silenced by the sight of the little cat’s hackles rising in a most significant way. I had not seen another human being on the sheep track since we left the village, and I had supposed until this moment that we were alone out in the very heart of the wilderness. But I was not one to deny the sinister evidence of Timmy’s highly developed senses.

There was a steep decline in the trail beyond this point, and I could not see ahead of us, before the path plunged down. I did not have to wait more than a few seconds before the other solitary walker came lurching toward us with such an unsteady gait that I guessed he must be suffering from the effects of strong spirits. I pressed back against the hillside, making as much room for him as possible but dreading an encounter that was inevitable.
Timothy crawled behind my ankles and sat there on his haunches, spitting at the queerly bundled fellow of about thirty-five or forty, who staggered past us as if blind to all but the necessity for getting on.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

The drunken man w
as not as repulsive or as dirty as he had looked at first. Wearing a sheepman’s warm dun-colored garments with a cap and a black jacket, he appeared to have fallen among faded heather, dead leaves, and mud—which was not surprising, in his condition. From the glimpse I had of his troubled eyes as he passed me, I began to think now that he was less drunk than dazed or feverish. I moved out from the damp furze I had been crushed against and watched him.

I was not surprised, though I winced, when he lurched hard to one side, his iron-shod boot slipped through a muddy patch in the trail, and he lost his precarious balance, weaved and swayed like a pathetic bundle of rags without flesh, and fell. He had dropped partially in the trail, with one arm and leg over the edge of the incline, and I was running to him before the dust settled on his coat. It is true there was a smell of spirits about him, and I suspected that it was the cheap Holland
genever,
or gin, which is called “blue ruin” where I come from. But yet I did not think it was the gin that had made him trip and fall. When I removed his
cap and felt carefully over his skull to see if he had hurt himself in this latest fall, he groaned and his body jerked spasmodically.

I spoke to him in low-pitched tones, hoping to reach whatever level of consciousness had responded to the pain.

“Tell me, sir, how were you hurt? How can I help you?”

His eyelids flickered at my second question, and he murmured something. I put my head close to his and heard the accents of a moorland dweller, rugged, not unattractive, and probably speaking weakly for the first time in his harsh struggle with a harsh world.

“I fell, love; fell.

Twas by way of a mistake
...
entirely. Saw it
...
and fell.”

He must be rambling in his mind.

“Never you mind that. Let me help you. Where are you hurt?”

“...
Saw the haunt.”

“Yes. Yes. Don’t think of it,” A little desperate,
I looked up and around at the sea of furze and small ridges that enclosed us on every side. I knew there must be a dozen coteens of local sheepmen scattered through Heatherton Moor, but I had not passed one on my walk, nor was there a building in sight now except the Hag’s Head, which was up another rise and separated from our present location by a little dell crowded with trees and overgrown bushes. Timothy, who had behaved toward this poor man with such feline dislike, now crept
toward us, hesitating, then leaping closer, then crouching again. It was perfectly obvious he knew the injured man, and even more obvious he did not like the man, though I could not guess why. It may have been the smell of liquor that offended the fastidious little cat.

As for the man himself, his square, strong face had a kind of likable roughness that made me think of the Devonshiremen who often came into Cornwall seeking work on the seacoast when times were hard on the moors of Devon.

The man came to consciousness, clenching his teeth, and I put my hand under his head, trying to pillow him in the hope that he would feel well enough to tell me where he lived and where I might go for help. He did try to be helpful, struggling to sit up, and even in his present condition he was surprisingly strong.

When I started to get up, he seized upon me as though his life depended upon his grasp. “Can ye get me back to
...
the inn?”

The only inn in sight was the Hag’s Head, and it was an odd destination for a man badly hurt, but it was certainly the closest thing to a shelter.

“I’ll take you to the inn. Perhaps there’ll be something for you to lie on while I go back for help.”

“Good lass.” He tried to nod but closed his eyes and looked alarmingly white behind what appeared to be a normal olive pallor. “Give a hand?”

Since he seemed so insistent, and now and then
had such curious flashes of something very like fear, I got up, and despite the pawing of Timmy, I managed to help the big man to his feet. He staggered and was dreadfully dazed. He kept his eyes squeezed shut, and it was all I could do to control his lumbering footsteps: but once we began the weary, dragging, pathetic march to the Hag’s Head, at least there was no stopping him. Whoever he was, he managed to stay on his feet and to walk without opening his eyes. His cap had long since blown off again, and within the mass of hair at the back of his skull was a smear of dried blood, where I supposed he must have fallen the first time.

“Jassy
...
” he murmured, leaning heavily upon my shoulder.

I saw my chance to find his people, his coteen, or even his village; for he might well belong to Heatherton town across the moor—I could not be sure.

“Where is Jassy? Tell me, please, so I may go and fetch her.”

I heard the name “Jassy” somewhere since I came to Maidenmoor. I wondered where.

He stumbled as we climbed the rise, and I paused with him at the broken gate that swung back and forth in the morning wind. He groped for the gate and missed it, and when I tried to hold him upright, we both nearly went down in the mud among the bits of charred wood and broken stone left here twelve years ago and weathered since to mere gray slabs.

“...
Not drunk, mum. No!
Not...”

“I know,” I said, breathing hard but getting him to the stoop where he might sit while I went around and opened the door from the inside.

“We be at inn, lass?” he asked as he settled down against the door. Then, as his head touched the door, he let out a ferocious groan that startled me into painful sympathy and sent Timothy scuttling away with his back arched. “Will ye fetch Jassy now? There’s a good love. She’ll be in taproom.”

I was anxious to get him inside to rest so that I might consider where the nearest sheepfarm might be. From one of the upstairs windows I thought I would have a better view of the little stone buildings tucked away in the moorland, and surely, in the nearest one there would be someone who knew the injured man or his Jassy.

I said, “You must stay here while I open the door. Can you hear me?”

“Aye.”

It began to trouble me that he should imagine his Jassy was in the taproom of this abandoned building. Could he possibly mean some other inn and some other taproom? Very probably. But it was too late now. As I turned and was about to hurry around the house to the entrance Sir Nicholas had used yesterday, the man reached out and caught my coat hem. His eyes looked very odd. The pupils seemed to be of different sizes, and his expression was vague. What worried me most was that there seemed to be drops of blood in his hair
beneath his ear, and this would be most serious if there was some injury within his skull, more deadly than the blow upon the back of his head.

“Tell
...
Jassy
...
wasn’t drunk.”

Poor man. Apparently he had often been under the influence of spirits, and now could think of nothing else but to fear Jassy’s disapproval.

“I understand, sir,” I said, trying to make him comfortably secure while I left him.

As I went around the strange old house, closely followed by Timothy, and passing the broken window where I had climbed in yesterday, I was amazed that I should have been so frightened on my first visit. Faced with the prospect of a genuinely frightening occurrence, the serious injury of this unknown man, I felt I could look upon any fancied horrors inside and laugh at them, for they would be mere figments of my imagination. The building was old, it is true, but there were many Cornish inns that were older, and under the bright open light of morning, even with the sun obscured behind puffed white clouds, the place looked like a solid, excellently constructed domicile for a young ladies’ academy. It lacked only the brisk cleaning, the dusting and refurbishing that any unused house would require before one moved in. So it appeared from the outside, at least.

I passed between the inn and what remained of the outbuildings, a series of now broken sheds through whose shattered roofs the snows of a dozen winters had sifted and lain for many months, causing the floors within to become moldy from the standing water. It always made me sad to see disused houses, even disused storage rooms, and I thought of all the wretched people crowded into the cities with which I was more or less familiar, like Cardiff in Wales, and Falmouth and Plymouth in my own country. There were many inequities in life that I had observed on my journey from Cornwall into England and up to the North Country!

At the back of the Hag’s Head, beyond the kitchen, was the scullery door through which Sir Nicholas and I had left the inn yesterday. I was surprised to find it swinging back and forth in the wind, not at all as my companion had left it; for I distinctly remembered his closing and latching the door. However, when I examined the flimsy lock, I saw that it was clearly possible that the door had swung open of its own accord, and I convinced myself that this was indeed what had happened. It was so desperately necessary to find some way of getting help to the stranger that I had to believe the old inn was deserted.

I hurried through the scullery and the kitchen, which, to my senses, still smelled of the thousands of roasts of mutton that had been spitted and turned here in the great fireplace. It smelled too of charcoal and crisp kid’s flesh. But once again, and more insistently now that I knew what had occurred here, there was the odor of burned wood and cloth, and of mold, that
ever-present
sign of disused and sad places.

BOOK: Black Heather
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