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Authors: Janet Tanner

The Black Mountains (10 page)

BOOK: The Black Mountains
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Ted, however, was not concerned with the view. When he had left the houses behind, he crossed the road and climbed the gate that gave on to the first of the sloping fields, and beyond it ‘the wood,' as the children called it.

In reality it was more a thicket than a wood, several acres of trees and undergrowth that lay between the fields and the main road to Bath as it curved upwards from the valley. But it was a place they loved, with the bushes that provided a dozen different dens, the abandoned fox holes and badger setts, and the blackberries and nuts that could be gathered in autumn. The only nightingale in Hillsbridge lived here, and on clear nights, when her hauntingly sweet song pierced the silent dark, people looked towards the wood, and nodded their pleasure.

But it was of the rabbit holes that Ted was thinking as he crossed the field that night. It was a constant dread in his mind—that Nipper had chased a white bobtail too far and got himself stuck. He was small enough to get into a large rabbit hole, and there was enough of the terrier in him to do so. But supposing he could not get out again? The thought of Nipper wriggling and pulling until he was frantic was almost more than Ted could bear, even worse was the prospect of him starving to death in some dark warren beneath the ground.

He began whistling and calling Nipper's name even before he reached the wood, stopping every few moments to listen intently for any answering sound. But except for the wood-pigeons, everything was quiet. Once he heard a rustling in the undergrowth and ran in the direction of the sound, but there was nothing to be seen.

He stopped where he was, disappointment welling up and setting off a feeling of despair. He'd never find Nipper. How could he hope to? He'd been all along the river where he'd first found the dog, and the fields where he most often took him. But there were so many, many more places he could be—across the older, grass-covered batches, the woods, the inclines—and the whole of the down. If he had nothing to do all day it would still be a mammoth task. But all he had was a few short hours in the evenings. If Nipper was trapped, he would never find him before it was too late.

A sudden unfamiliar ache constricted his throat, and with a shock he realized he was going to cry. He couldn't remember the last time he had cried, so long ago was it, and now he battled against the tears that seemed to be choking him. But the thought of never seeing Nipper again—of never even knowing what had become of him—was more than he could bear.

The first hot tear slid down his cheek, and he leaned back against the trunk of an elm tree, pressing his knuckles into his face as the dam crumbled.

How long he stood there, sobbing as he relived the raised hopes and bitter disappointments of the last three days, he did not know, but it was an unexpected sound in the branches of the elm tree that brought him suddenly upright. He jerked around only to see a booted foot protruding from the foliage just above him.

Guilt and shame momentarily dispelled his grief, and as a black stocking and the hem of a petticoat came into view above the boot, Ted swallowed his tears and hastily drew his shirt sleeve across his face.

“I know you're up there, Rosa!” he accused. “ You've been following me again!”

She shinned down the tree without a thought for her clothes; there were twigs in her black hair and a tear in her pinafore. When she reached the ground she stood, looking at him with frank interest, and he realized, to his shame, that she would know he'd been crying.

“Your mother would kill you if she knew you were climbing trees,” he told her, deciding that the best form of defence must be attack.

Rosa's eyes, dark as sloes, held his with tantalizing directness.

“If you don't tell her, she won't know.”

“Why do you keep following me everywhere?” he asked furiously. She ignored his question, countering with one of her own.

“Are you looking for Nipper?”

He nodded, blinking at the tears that were threatening again. “I'm afraid he might be stuck somewhere,” he said roughly. “Mam thinks he's gone off after a bitch, but I'm not so sure.”

Unwavering, her black eyes held his.

“I could help you, Ted.”

“Oh yes, and how? You don't even like Nipper.”

“I like him better than I did. He's all right. And you want him back, don't you?”

He swallowed. Slowly he was regaining control of himself.

“Course I do. But what can you do that I haven't?”

“I can do anything. I told you, I'm a witch.”

He laughed, an explosion of humourless mirth. That was the second time she'd said that. It was a pretty strange thing to have in her head—but then, Rosa was a strange girl.

“A witch, eh? Oh, Rosa!” he jeered.

The smile left her eyes and her expression became intense.

“Don't you laugh at me, Ted, or I won't do it!”

“Do
what?”

“Get Nipper back for you.”

He almost said scornfully, “As if you could!” But for some reason he did not. He damped his teeth over the words, desperately groping for the straw she was offering him. A moment ago he had thought it was hopeless, and so it was. But supposing there was something in what Rosa said … She wasn't a witch, that was nonsense, but there was something about her that was different from other folk …

She smiled, looking suddenly older than her eleven years.

“Go on home,” she said. “Don't worry no more.”

He went, glad to get away from the scrutiny of her gaze, and ashamed still that she had seen him cry. When Charlotte asked if he'd had any luck, he simply shook his head, but said nothing about Rosa. He was already full of scorn for himself for even thinking there was anything she could do. But deep down, there was a spark of renewed hope that he could not explain.

Another day passed, and a night, and the hope began to fade. Nipper had gone, and there was nothing that anyone could do.

Then, on the morning of the fifth day, he was awakened by sounds coming from beneath the bedroom window. For a moment he lay thinking he was still dreaming, then he identified the sounds as scratching and a thin, intermittent whining.

He leapt out of bed and rushed to the window pushing up the sash far enough to lean out. And there, below him on the cobbles, was Nipper.

Joy exploded through his veins, and without stopping to close the window he dashed across the bedroom and clattered down the stairs. The latch was still on the back door; he thought it would never open. But it did, and the dog came bounding into the kitchen, leaping at Ted with the last of his strength. He looked poor and bedraggled, thinner than ever, and half the hair had gone from his back. But he was here.

“You're starving, boy!” Ted said, when he could bring himself to stop fondling him. “I'll get you something to eat.”

Each day since Nipper had gone he had saved him a plate of bones and scraps, throwing out the stale ones and replacing them with fresh. But even if he had not done so, he would willingly have parted with his own breakfast at that moment for the dog.

“Well, well, he's back then!” Charlotte said, coming into the scullery to get the breakfast pans. “Looks as if he's been fighting over a bitch, like I said.”

Ted nodded, and said nothing. She could be right, of course. There was dried blood on his face and on his back. But privately he could not help thinking that Nipper's injuries could have been caused as he tried to struggle out of a fox-hole or from the enmeshing roots of a tree. Of course it was nonsense to suppose that Rosa had had anything to do with the dog's return—and yet …

When he took Nipper over to the wash-house to bathe his sores, he glanced at the upper windows of the Clements's house and saw Rosa looking out. Triumphantly he held the dog up for her to see. But she only smiled, slowly, enigmatically, then turned away. And Ted, too happy to puzzle for long about things he did not understand, only shrugged and turned his attention to Nipper's sore back.

CHARLOTTE was as delighted over Nipper's return as Ted, although she hid her feelings behind a smoke-screen of impatience.

With all the everyday ups and downs of a family, it didn't do to attach too much importance to one particular incident, but she had missed Nipper, and missed him mostly for the things that usually made her consider him a nuisance, like having to keep the dinner plates out of his reach when she was dishing up.

She had been worried, too, about the effect of his disappearance on Ted. He was usually so happy-go-lucky he drove her crazy. But where the dog was concerned, it was a different story—as if all the love he had never bothered to show for anything else was centred on this one creature. The intensity of his despair had almost frightened Charlotte, making her see him in a new light, and now she said a prayer of thankfulness as she watched him fussing over the dog's sore patches, his face glowing as it had not been since Nipper's disappearance.

Yet later in the morning, as she went down the hill to the Rectory to do her daily cleaning stint, Charlotte was still aware of an indefinable knot of disquiet deep within her.

Perhaps it was that she couldn't believe the dog had returned. It certainly could not be anything else. James and the boys were at the pit, but there was nothing new in that. Amy and Jack had both broken up from school for the long summer holiday and were at home to keep an eye on Harry. So why did she feel that something dreadful was going to happen? Yet she did—and the feeling persisted as she went about her work: scrubbing the flagstoned passages in the Rectory, cleaning the mats with the newfangled carpet sweeper Caroline Archer had provided.

The only other possibility was that it had something to do with a remark Mrs Archer had made yesterday, a nasty, sly comment that Jack was doing exceptionally well at school considering the status of his parents. On the one hand, it had made her go hot with indignation, but as it had been cunningly phrased as a compliment rather than an insult, it was difficult to know how to take it. Perhaps Mrs Archer did know what she had said to the Rector in the study that day a year ago, and was no longer able to resist letting Charlotte know.

It had bothered her at the time, and it still did so, yet the foreboding she was feeling was different somehow, even more insistent and chilling.

She had to wait to clean the Rector's study that morning as she usually did. It was her least favourite job, for the desk was always lost under piles of papers, and the carpet around the fire grate was full of burn holes from the bits of coal that rolled on to it unheeded when the Rector lit a fire in winter.

Now, while she waited for the Rector to vacate the room, she took the pad of water she had used for the hall to the front door, sloshing it over the step and brushing it well down into the peony bushes. Then she took the polish, working away on the bootscrapers until her arm ached.

While she was doing this, a movement by the gates caught her eye. She looked up casually, then stiffened. It was Jack, coming up the drive! But what was he doing here?

At once, the sense of foreboding returned, thickened to a choking apprehension. She straightened up, still holding the polish and cloth. At the same moment, he saw her and began to run, and as he drew closer she saw that his face was the colour of putty.

“Jack, whatever's the matter?” she asked harshly.

For a moment he looked at her helplessly, without speaking, his breath ragged, tears glistening in his eyes.

“Jack!” she said again, a note of panic creeping into her voice as a dozen nightmarish fears flashed through her mind.

“Oh, Mam, can you come home?” he gasped at last. “Amy's fallen in the tub.”

“The tub?” Charlotte repeated. “What tub? What are you talking about?”

“The Clements's tub, the one they bathe the baby in. It was boiling water. Oh, Mam, it's awful … awful …”

Automatically she put a steadying hand on his arm though she had begun to shake from head to foot.

“You mean she's scalded?”

Jack bowed his head, nodding with his face screwed up against the tears. But he could not answer.

“All right, I'll come.” She was untying her pinafore as she spoke. “Now you go round to the back and get my bag and coat—you know where I put them. I'll tell the Rector I'm going.”

He ran off around the side of the house, glad to have Charlotte to tell him what to do. She went back into the hall and knocked on the door of the Rector's study, not waiting for an answer, but opening the door and looking in.

“I won't be long now, Mrs Hall,” he began, then, as he saw her face, his irritation changed to concern. “ What is it, my dear woman, is something wrong?”

She nodded, tight-lipped. “I won't be able to finish, Rector. I've got to go. Amy's had some sort of accident. Jack's come to fetch me.”

“Oh yes, yes, of course. It's not bad, I hope?”

She half-closed her eyes against the word, then recovered herself.

“I don't know, Rector. I think it might be. Look, I must go now.”

“Would you like me to come with you, Mrs Hall?” he asked.

“No, it's all right, Rector.” Jack appeared again, running around the corner past the study window, carrying her bag and coat. “I don't know when I'll be back.”

“Don't worry about that, Mrs Hall,” he said, following her out. “Don't worry about anything.”

“No,” she said. “Come on, Jack.” And then, as the thought struck her, “ Where's Harry while you're down here?”

“Mrs Brixey's got him,” he said.

She nodded, satisfied. Mrs Brixey was Redvers's mother, and Harry knew her well.

Together, mother and son half-ran down the drive and into the street.

“I knew something was going to happen!” Charlotte muttered. “Something told me it was. I should have stayed home today.”

“Oh, Mam!” Jack groaned, and she caught at his arm.

BOOK: The Black Mountains
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