She opened the front door without knocking, and came straight into my sitting-room.
"'E's not 'ere," she said in a manner that left it doubtful whether she made an assertion or asked a question.
"Your son?" I said. I had risen when she came into the room, "No; I haven't seen him to-day."
Ellen Mary was staring at me, but it was clear that she neither saw nor heard me. She had a look of intense concentration. One could see that she was calculating, thinking, thinking....
I went over to her and took her by the arm. I gently shook her. "Now, tell me what's the matter? What has happened?" I asked.
She made an effort to collect herself, loosened her arm from my hold and with an instinctive movement pushed forward the old bonnet, which had slipped to the back of her head.
"'E 'asn't been in to 'is dinner," she said hurriedly. "I've been on the Common looking for 'im."
"He may have made a mistake in the time," I suggested.
She made a movement as though to push me on one side, and turned towards the door. She was calculating again. Her expression said quite plainly, "Could he be there, could he be there?"
"Come, come," I said, "there is surely no need to be anxious yet."
She turned on me. "'E never makes a mistake in the time," she said fiercely, "'e always knows the time to the minute without clock or watch. Why did you leave 'im alone?"
She broke off in her attack upon me and continued: "'E's never been late before, not a minute, and now it's a hour after 'is time."
"He may be at home by now," I said. She took the hint instantly and started back again with the same stumbling little run.
I picked up my hat and followed her.
The Wonder was not at the cottage.
"Now, my dear woman, you must keep calm," I said. "There is absolutely no reason to be disturbed. You had better go to Challis Court and see if he is in the library, I——"
"I'm a fool," broke in Ellen Mary with sudden decision, and she set off again without another word. I followed her back to the Common and watched her out of sight. I was more disturbed about her than about the non-appearance of the Wonder. He was well able to take care of himself, but she.... How strange that with all her calculations she had not thought of going to Challis Court, to the place where her son had spent so many days. I began to question whether the whole affair was not, in some way, a mysterious creation of her own disordered brain.
Nevertheless, I took upon myself to carry out that part of the programme which I had not been allowed to state in words to Mrs. Stott, and set out for Deane Hill. It was just possible that the Wonder might have slipped down that steep incline and injured himself. Possible, but very unlikely; the Wonder did not take the risks common to boys of his age, he did not disport himself on dangerous slopes.
As I walked I felt a sense of lightness, of relief from depression. I had not been this way by myself since the end of August. It was good to be alone and free.
The day was fine and not cold, though the sun was hidden. I noticed that the woods showed scarcely a mark of autumn decline.
There was not a soul to be seen by the monument. I scrambled down the slope and investigated the base of the hill and came back another way through the woods. I saw no one. I stopped continually and whistled loudly. If he is anywhere near at hand, I thought, and in trouble, he will hear that and answer me. I did not call him by name. I did not know what name to call. It would have seemed absurd to have called "Victor." No one ever addressed him by name.
My return route brought me back to the south edge of the Common, the point most remote from the farm. There I met a labourer whom I knew by sight, a man named Hawke. He was carrying a stick, and prodding with it foolishly among the furze and gorse bushes. The bracken was already dying down.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"It's this 'ere Master Stott, sir," he said, looking up. "'E's got loarst seemingly."
I felt a sudden stab of self-reproach. I had been taking things too easily. I looked at my watch. It was a quarter to four.
"Mr. Challis 'ave told me to look for 'un," added the man, and continued his aimless prodding of the gorse.
"Where is Mr. Challis?" I asked.
"'E's yonder, soomewheres." He made a vague gesture in the direction of Pym.
The sun had come out, and the Common was all aglow. I hastened towards the village.
On the way I met Farmer Bates and two or three labourers. They, too, were beating among the gorse and brown bracken. They told me that Mr. Challis was at the cottage and I hurried on. All the neighbourhood, it seems, was searching for the Wonder. In the village I saw three or four women standing with aprons over their heads, talking together.
I had never seen Pym so animated.
I met Challis in the lane. He was coming away from Mrs. Stott's cottage.
"Have you found him?" I asked stupidly. I knew quite well that the Wonder was not found, and yet I had a fond hope that I might, nevertheless, be mistaken.
Challis shook his head. "There will be a mad woman in that cottage if he doesn't come back by nightfall," he remarked with a jerk of his head. "I've done what I can for her."
I explained that I had been over to Deane Hill, searching and calling.
"You didn't see anything?" asked Challis, echoing my foolish query of a moment before. I shook my head.
We were both agitated without doubt.
We soon came up with Farmer Bates and his men. They stopped and touched their hats when they saw us, and we put the same silly question to them.
"You haven't found him?" We knew perfectly well that they would have announced the fact at once if they had found him.
"One of you go over to the Court and get any man you can find to come and help," said Challis. "Tell Heathcote to send every one."
One of the labourers touched his cap again, and started off at once with a lumbering trot.
Challis and I walked on in silence, looking keenly about us and stopping every now and then and calling. We called "Hallo! Hallo-o!" It was an improvement upon my whistle.
"He's such a little chap," muttered Challis once; "it would be so easy to miss him if he were unconscious."
It struck me that the reference to the Wonder was hardly sufficiently respectful. I had never thought of him as "a little chap." But Challis had not known him so intimately as I had.
The shadows were fast creeping over the Common. At the woodside it was already twilight. The whole of the western sky right up to the zenith was a finely shaded study in brilliant orange and yellow. "More rain," I thought instinctively, and paused for a moment to watch the sunset. The black distance stood clearly silhouetted against the sky. One could discern the sharp outline of tiny trees on the distant horizon.
We met Heathcote and several other men in the lane.
"Shan't be able to do much to-night, sir," said Heathcote. "It'll be dark in 'alf an hour, sir."
"Well, do what you can in half an hour," replied Challis, and to me he said, "You'd better come back with me. We've done what we can."
I had a picture of him then as the magnate; I had hardly thought of him in that light before. The arduous work of the search he could delegate to his inferiors. Still, he had come out himself, and I doubt not that he had been altogether charming to the bewildered, distraught mother.
I acquiesced in his suggestion. I was beginning to feel very tired.
Mrs. Heathcote was at the gate when we arrived at the Court. "'Ave they found 'im, sir?" she asked.
"Not yet," replied Challis.
I followed him into the house.
As I walked back at ten o'clock it was raining steadily. I had refused the offer of a trap. I went through the dark and sodden wood, and lingered and listened. The persistent tap, tap, tap of the rain on the leaves irritated me. How could one hear while that noise was going on? There was no other sound. There was not a breath of wind. Only that perpetual tap, tap, tap, patter, patter, drip, tap, tap. It seemed as if it might go on through eternity....
I went to the Stotts' cottage, though I knew there could be no news. Challis had given strict instructions that any news should be brought to him immediately. If it was bad news it was to be brought to him before the mother was told.
There was a light burning in the cottage, and the door was set wide open.
I went up to the door but I did not go in.
Ellen Mary was sitting in a high chair, her hands clasped together, and she rocked continually to and fro. She made no sound; she merely rocked herself with a steady, regular persistence.
She did not see me standing at the open door, and I moved quietly away.
As I walked over the Common—I avoided the wood deliberately—I wondered what was the human limit of endurance. I wondered whether Ellen Mary had not reached that limit.
Mrs. Berridge had not gone to bed, and there were some visitors in the kitchen. I heard them talking. Mrs. Berridge came out when I opened the front door.
"Any news, sir?" she asked.
"No; no news," I said. I had been about to ask her the same question.
I did not go to sleep for some time. I had a picture of Ellen Mary before my eyes, and I could still hear that steady pat, patter, drip, of the rain on the beech leaves.
In the night I awoke suddenly, and thought I heard a long, wailing cry out on the Common. I got up and looked out of the window, but I could see nothing. The rain was still falling, but there was a blur of light that showed where the moon was shining behind the clouds. The cry, if there had been a cry, was not repeated.
I went back to bed and soon fell asleep again.
I do not know whether I had been dreaming, but I woke suddenly with a presentation of the little pond on the Common very clear before me.
"We never looked in the pond," I thought, and then—"but he could not have fallen into the pond; besides, it's not two feet deep."
It was full daylight, and I got up and found that it was nearly seven o'clock.
The rain had stopped, but there was a scurry of low, threatening cloud that blew up from the south.
I dressed at once and went out. I made my way directly to the Stotts' cottage.
The lamp was still burning and the door open, but Ellen Mary had fallen forward on to the table; her head was pillowed on her arms.
"There is a limit to our endurance," I reflected, "and she has reached it."
I left her undisturbed.
Outside I met two of Farmer Bates's labourers going back to work.
"I want you to come up with me to the pond," I said.
The pond was very full.
On the side from which we approached, the ground sloped gradually, and the water was stretching out far beyond its accustomed limits.
On the farther side the gorse among the trunks of the three ash-trees came right to the edge of the bank. On that side the bank was three or four feet high.
We came to the edge of the pond, and one of the labourers waded in a little way—the water was very shallow on that side—but we could see nothing for the scum of weed, little spangles of dirty green, and a mass of some other plant that had borne a little white flower in the earlier part of the year—stuff like dwarf hemlock.
Under the farther bank, however, I saw one comparatively clear space of black water.
"Let's go round," I said, and led the way.
There was a tiny path which twisted between the gorse roots and came out at the edge of the farther bank by the stem of the tallest ash. I had seen tiny village boys pretending to fish from this point with a stick and a piece of string. There was a dead branch of ash some five or six feet long, with the twigs partly twisted off; it was lying among the bushes. I remembered that I had seen small boys using this branch to clear away the surface weed. I picked it up and took it with me.
I wound one arm round the trunk of the ash, and peered over into the water under the bank.
I caught sight of something white under the water. I could not see distinctly. I thought it was a piece of broken ware—the bottom of a basin. I had picked up the ash stick and was going to probe the deeper water with it. Then I saw that the dim white object was globular.
The end of my stick was actually in the water. I withdrew it quickly, and threw it behind me.
My heart began to throb painfully.
I turned my face away and leaned against the ash-tree.
"Can you see anythin'?" asked one of the labourers who had come up behind me.
"Oh! Christ!" I said. I turned quickly from the pond and pressed a way through the gorse.
I was overwhelmingly and disgustingly sick.
By degrees the solid earth ceased to wave and sway before me like a rolling heave of water, and I looked up, pressing my hands to my head—my hands were as cold as death.
My clothes were wet and muddy where I had lain on the sodden ground. I got to my feet and instinctively began to brush at the mud.
I was still a little giddy, and I swayed and sought for support.
I could see the back of one labourer. He was kneeling by the ash-tree bending right down over the water. The other man was standing in the pond, up to his waist in water and mud. I could just see his head and shoulders....
I staggered away in the direction of the village.
I found Ellen Mary still sitting in the same chair. The lamp was fluttering to extinction, the flame leaping spasmodically, dying down till it seemed that it had gone out, and then again suddenly flickering up with little clicking bursts of flame. The air reeked intolerably of paraffin.
I blew the lamp out and pushed it on one side.
There was no need to break the news to Ellen Mary. She had known last night, and now she was beyond the reach of information.
She sat upright in her chair and stared out into the immensity. Her hands alone moved, and they were not still for an instant. They lay in her lap, and her fingers writhed and picked at her dress.
I spoke to her once, but I knew that her mind was beyond the reach of my words.
"It is just as well," I thought; "but we must get her away."
I went out and called to the woman next door.
She was in her kitchen, but the door was open. She came out when I knocked.
"Poor thing," she said, when I told her. "It 'as been a shock, no doubt. She was so wrapped hup in the boy."
She could hardly have said less if her neighbour had lost half-a-crown.
"Get her into your cottage before they come," I said harshly, and left her.
I wanted to get out of the lane before the men came back, but I had hardly started before I saw them coming.
They had made a chair of their arms, and were carrying him between them. They had not the least fear of him, now. IX
The Harrison idiot suddenly jumped out of the hedge.
I put my hand to my throat. I wanted to cry out, to stop him, but I could not move. I felt sick again, and utterly weak and powerless, and I could not take my gaze from that little doll with the great drooping head that rolled as the men walked.
I was reminded, disgustingly, of children with a guy.
The idiot ran shambling down the lane. He knew the two men, who tolerated him and laughed at him. He was not afraid of them nor their burden.
He came right up to them. I heard one of the men say gruffly, "Now then, you cut along off!"
I believe the idiot must have touched the dead body.
I was gripping my throat in my hand; I was trying desperately to cry out.
Whether the idiot actually touched the body or not I cannot say, but he must have realised in his poor, bemused brain that the thing was dead.
He cried out with his horrible, inhuman cry, turned, and ran up the lane towards me. He fell on his face a few yards from me, scrambled wildly to his feet again and came on yelping and shrieking. He was wildly, horribly afraid. I caught sight of his face as he passed me, and his mouth was distorted into a square, his upper lip horribly drawn up over his ragged, yellow teeth. Suddenly he dashed at the hedge and clawed his way through. I heard him still yelping appallingly as he rushed away across the field....