Read Black Heather Online

Authors: Virginia Coffman

Black Heather

BLACK HEATHER

Virginia Coffman

 

HAUNTED BY TERROR!

Beautiful, competent young Kathleen Bodmun came to the gloomy, heathered moors of Yorkshire to find a suitable site for an exclusive girls’ school.

But what started out to be a routine business venture turned rapidly into a rollercoaster ride of terror and intrigue ... and she knew she couldn’t leave until events reached their conclusion.

First, a lost kitten turned up in the abandoned Hag’s Head Inn, playing with a piece of a blood-encrusted shawl. The inn was supposed to be haunted. But ghosts don’t wear shawls—or bleed!...

Sir Nicholas Everett assured her that there was nothing to be alarmed about, that the shawl had probably belonged to the woman who was murdered in the inn—fifteen years before

Gloomy, menacing—yet charming—Sir Nicholas! Was he truly interested in Kathleen—or was his apparent interest a cover
-
up for some sinister secret?

Her heart had to know. And meanwhile, the ghostly presence of the murder victim seemed bent on wreaking vengeance upon whoever dared enter the ancient
inn!...

 

CHAPTER ONE

There are t
imes in the heathery flush of an autumn afternoon when it is more than usually dangerous for a stranger to be caught alone upon the moors of Yorkshire’s West Riding. Suddenly, out of a thunderous sky come torrents of rain, and even the lightning forks cannot illuminate the sheep tracks one followed with confidence scarcely a moment before.

Thus it was with me that October day some years gone by when, badly drenched and seeking shelter, I came upon the Hag’s Head Inn, a place haunted alike by a deed of horror and a legend grown up as prickly and grim as the now blackened heather that carpeted the heath in every direction around the desolate old Jacobean structure and its forsaken outbuildings.

I had ventured upon the moors an hour before the onrush of that storm, in pursuit of a truant tiger-striped kitten named Timothy. This little rogue belonged to the lady with whom I was lodged in the village while I looked for a building to purchase for a girls’ school. Being a well-grown woman of eighteen, with both Somersetshire and Cornish blood, I should have known the dangers
implanted as deeply in that rugged Yorkshire wilderness as ever were found in my native Cornwall. But a mere matter of hours previously, I had come to apple-cheeked little Mrs. Sedley with letters from my mother, her old school friend, assuring the Yorkshirewoman and perhaps the local squire that I, Kathleen Bodmun, was conformable, reasonably well educated, and equipped in every respect to run a school for young females. I should not have said I was entirely conformable, for I have been accused of going my own way in my thoughts and sometimes my deeds, but my mother is inclined to put the best face upon such matters. In any case, it was important that I have a sponsor of some social importance whose name I might place on my prospectus when I advertised, and Mama chose Mrs. Sedley.

So I came to Yorkshire, and even as I was hearing all the difficulties of my undertaking described with relish by Mrs. Sedley, a faded, silly, but undaunted little woman bound to her chair by a disease of the joints, her kitten escaped through the stillroom door, thanks to the cook who was “indulging in a wee dram” of spirits, and my competence was called into play by my prospective sponsor.

Since this was my first chance to show competent handling of a bad moment, I was a trifle panic-stricken that afternoon when I rushed out of the house after the wretched animal and began to scramble up the rolling hills behind the moorside village of Maidenmoor. I found myself following a reasonably legible sheep track, not too far behind young Timothy, and hoping, as you may suppose, that I should soon lay hold of that saucy little nemesis of mine.

A brisk climb put me up into the beginning of the heavier growth, the thick gorse and heather that covered the landscape in every direction under the enormous Yorkshire sky. Below me, the village was now gone from my sight in a fold of the hill. I paused there a few minutes, finding myself breathless and chilled, for I had had no time to snatch up either my bonnet or my cloak. Then I discovered I was still upon the right path. A half
-
grown shepherd’s boy with a sharp, lightly freckled nose and a crippled foot obligingly confided to me that he had seen the kitten, and what is worse, he said in his grinning way, “I’d have took up the wee cat for ye, pretty love, if I know’d it was you who’d be asearching.”

Very likely—now that it was too late! And since when were village pets the size of small Timothy allowed to roam freely over the moors where every pothole and every fast-running bum posed a danger to the poor creature? Let alone wild ponies or savage dogs that might be about; for Mama had warned me of the fierce tempers and desire for privacy common to these Yorkshire people who lived outside the villages. Savage dogs were the least of it, she said, if one crossed over the low stone fences that locked each man’s land
from that of his neighbor. I would be lucky to escape with my life and would have no legal recourse even if shot!

I said to the boy, “Was the kitten running fast, do you think? Can I catch him?”

“Arunnin’? Not him,” said the youth. “Asniffin’ out the gorse hereabouts and gettin’ all over prickles, like as not. It’ll mean ye have a bad brushin’ of his coat to do.”

I thanked him briefly, whereupon he added as I turned and started on, hoping my muslin shirts would not be too badly splashed in mire, “Beware the guytrash, love. It’ll tear the wee cat to shreds and eat on ’em.”

Guessing he merely meant to alarm me, I felt like boxing the impudent lad’s ears, but I could not dislike him as he grinned again and limped easily, almost gracefully, down the path after his vagrant flock.

And what under heaven was a guytrash?

I was not much moved by being addressed as the boy’s “pretty love,” since it seemed the custom of the North Country. The coachman of the rackety old York Mail, which had borne me to this part of the world had addressed any and all female passengers as “love.” But I was still out of reason cross with Timothy, the kitten, and I hurried on, calling his name, trying to hold my skirts from flying in the rising wind. And so I found myself in the heart of the moor without being aware of it. Suddenly, the sky began to come over dark as
night. I looked up and around me, and I knew I was in for it!

I did not above half like the look of those amazingly horrid thunderclouds that reached down as though to touch the endless prickly heath, which rolled about me like an inland sea. Nor was my position rendered easier by the wind that beat around my bare arms and shivered my summery skirts—for it was beginning to carry raindrops as well. Foolishly, I had been put off my common sense this morning by the clearness of the heavens and the deceptively sweet air full of the scent of late heather. Otherwise, I should never have been caught so, in a green-sprigged muslin round gown and my best flat-soled morocco slippers, instead of the sturdy garments and stout iron pateens worn by the local residents.

I shielded my eyes with one hand while the other hugged my chilled forearm and looked around once more for the errant Timothy. If I found no trace of him now, I should be quit of this place upon the instant and, at the least, save myself from taking a cold as my souvenir of the Yorkshire moors. I had long since abandoned hope of saving my garments. This visit to Mrs. Sedley was like to cost me dear. Surely, there were young ladies nearer home who might need schooling.

Just as I was giving up the search for Timothy, my glance encompassing only the bleak beauty of the rolling heathered sea, a small animal darted over the heath, becoming visible only as he crossed the ambling little sheep track like a streak of tawny gold. He was so close I very nearly seized him, but then he was on his way again, barely seen now and again among the low-growing
plant life
hereabouts. Determined not to be outfoxed by that little wretch, I stalked him carefully, several times mistaking the sway of the heather under the westerly wind for the fleeing Timothy’s fur.

The downpour came with such suddenness that I fancied the heavens had ripped and emptied upon me. So powerful it was that I flung my hands over my head to shield myself and was blinded momentarily by its pelting fury. At the same time I felt an unaccustomed warmth against my ankle, rubbing and clinging. Horrified, I shook my foot, only to discover the kitten Timothy, clinging to me with sharp, tenacious claws. The poor little rogue was as unprepared as I for the deluge. I took him up to my bosom, and by fingering him in that furry white “cravat” under his chin, I tried to comfort and shield him as best I might. He was plainly terrified, and it was all I could do to keep him from ripping at me with his little claws in his panic. I understood his feelings very well, however, and could not blame him. Now that my mission was accomplished at considerable cost to my clothing, if nothing else, I turned and looked down at the earth, intending to follow the sheep track back to Maidenmoor.

Instead, I found the ground one shadowy mass of dying heather, clumps of gorse, and bits of rock
from the bygone assaults of nature. Through all this wild growth ran rivulets of water, so that what I saw was a hundred different paths, each as narrow as a sheep track. I looked up, my face and hair getting wetter by the minute, my cheeks beginning to bu
rn
with the force of the pelting, and tried to make out any high configurations on the horizon; for by this fashion I had often found my way back through the Devon and Cornish countryside. Such were the folds in the landscape and the great sweep of low, brooding heavens that I could make out only one object that might be a habitation. It was to the east, I thought, and Maidenmoor lay in the south, but no matter. Whoever lived in that dark clump of buildings—if buildings they were—must surely give me my bearings back to Maidenmoor. If no one lived there, at least I should find shelter for myself and my half
-
drowned charge until this storm blew over.

I began to run but soon gave over and walked more carefully, for I was in grave danger of being tripped by every bush and rock on the heath. Despite all my care, my shoes were soon filled with water, and the hem of my skirt dragged down with an accumulation of muddy twigs, thorns, and the debris of a rich autumn as the waters flowed among the moorland gorse. The ground itself was black as midnight, but on the nearing horizon there was still a curious mauve glow that formed a halo about the buildings toward which I hastened.

I saw that what I had taken for the typical moorland dwelling of a sheep farmer, perched upon a little rise, was actually a series of buildings. The largest was two-storied with attics and partially underground cellars, and there were several very small outbuildings clustered around it. As I mounted the hill to this center building of time
-
darkened York stone, my going was much easier. I had struck upon what had once been a road, though it was now overgrown with heather blooming beyond its season and turning black. My foot trod upon a large square of wood which sounded hollow as a drum under my weight. I paused an instant, seeing writing, or rather white lines, on wood, and despite the meowing protests of Timothy, I made out in the scant mauve light a repulsive human face drawn in white chalk or paint upon the wood. Whether the face was of man or woman I could not tell, but the hair that framed it was long, straight, and witch-like. The face itself had hideous staring eyes, an unnaturally long nose, and teeth like fangs. As I kicked the board aside I realized that it was a tavern sign; for just ahead on the rise of the hill was another splintered piece of the board bearing the name
Hag’s Head Inn.
I was attempting to find shelter at a public house. I had never been in a public house without my parents, but one must learn to cope with awkward moments, so I went on toward the swinging, creaking gate of the Hag’s Head.

There was one advantage to a public house—very likely an innkeeper or stableboy might be found to lead me back to Maidenmoor. In any case, drenched as I was, and bearing a kitten beside all else, I could hardly be likely to tempt any of the gentlemen present into what Mama called “liberties”; I should much more probably be relegated to the kitchens, together with my mud and my rivulets of water, which poured off me in every direction. I paused at the creaking gate, which, I now saw with some unease, hung by one hinge. Inside the low stone wall, the garden of the inn was overgrown like the rest of the moor, and there were plainly no farm animals in the outbuildings or stables.

The rain had slackened a little, it seemed to me, as I raised my face to the front of the inn and studied its silent, dark, shuttered windows. The lilac haze that had lighted the moor before the storm still hung over the far hills beyond the inn to the east, but as I stared at the inn and realized it was abandoned, the storm broke again in full fury, lashing at the gate, at the stone wall, and at my body, which yielded rather more than did the gate and wall. I ran across the overgrown garden, feeling an occasional flagstone under my shoes, and flung myself at the door of the inn.

It was locked, of course, and the force of my banging upon the door jarred Timothy, whose pink little mouth opened wide to let out a howl and was immediately filled with rain. He spat and whined and had the wisdom to sneeze.

I backed off from the stoop and moved along under the windows of the ground floor, my feet sinking into ground softer than the turf of the moor. I could see that flowers or vegetables had once been planted where I was now walking. With my free hand I finally felt a broken, dangling shutter. Moving my fingers further, I discovered that most of the panes of the mullioned window had been broken. As I stood back, trying to make out the size of the opening, I felt sure that, having done my share of climbing and scrambling around my native countryside, I could get into the building through that half-open window. I must take care not to scratch myself on the edges where the unbroken panes met the ruined ones, but it was not too difficult. I reached up and dropped Timothy into the dark room through the broken panes. He must have fallen inside as gracefully as his kind usually does, for he did not whimper but gave an angry meow at this treatment, and I heard him no more. I seized hold of the sill with both hands and, taking a breath, quickly lifted myself up, thrust my feet into the room within, and tried to leap down inside with Timothy’s ease. I landed upon my feet, stinging the sodden soles of them a bit, but I managed to receive a nasty scratch upon my left arm where it came into contact with a broken pane.

The interior of the room and, indeed, of the inn itself was so dark that at first I could make out nothing at all, not even the size of the room nor its contents, if there were any. And that tiresome
Timothy was gone out of sight again. I called to him, rather louder than is my habit, and in a voice that quavered entirely unlike itself. But there was no answer, only a kind of dusty echo as I imagined the sound of my voice penetrating those forsaken rooms all about me. Absurdly enough, I should have felt less lonely, less uneasy, if Timothy had remained in my charge. Where could he have got to so quickly? There were perhaps a dozen separate bedchambers somewhere in this ancient pile. And could I be absolutely sure I was the only person taking shelter here at this moment?

There was just enough of that soft mauve radiance of the heather left in the atmosphere outside so that after acquainting myself with the darkness within, I was able to make out objects such as a huge black open mouth at the south end of the room, which proved at closer quarters to be a large, very unclean old Jacobean fireplace. Vagabonds and gypsies had evidently made this their quarters at one time or another; the remnants of cooking fires and rotted objects, which I took to be food, lay scattered about in front of the fireplace. I could now make out the open doorway into a dark passage, and I crossed the room, my shoes and skirts gushing little pools of water, along with an occasional drop of blood from the scratch on my arm, which had begun to sting annoyingly now.

In the doorway, not liking the look of all that Stygian darkness, I called to Timothy again, this time in a cross tone that left no doubt of my mood.
I heard a scratching sound far down the passage, as though the kitten had understood my tone only too well and was making off for distant parts.

I listened, trying to gain some sense of his location, and by making a severe effort, I managed to eliminate first the rumble of thunder and then the sound of the pelting rain against the windows. By tucking that sound back into my mind and ignoring it, I began to sense the other sounds within the old house—the creak of timbers in a room not far from me and the faint swing of an open door somewhere upstairs. But even more oppressive was the smell of must and age and staleness. I wrinkled my nose at it; yet it was this very scent, coming to me in little gusts, sometimes elusive, sometimes excessively strong, which first made me aware of the sound over my head in some dark, forgotten room.

Hardly louder than the scramble of Timothy’s paws as he had turned in panic and reversed his speed a moment ago, there was now another noise, the faint tap-tap-tap, as if someone were knocking on the wall or the bare flagstone floor. So I was not alone in this deserted old inn!

I wondered what I should do. Good sense and good manners required me to go up to whatever I room this person occupied and make myself known, perhaps apologizing for the intrusion. But
I felt the most cowardly reluctance to do so.

Not the least addition to my discomfort was the sogginess of my clothing, which clung damply to my shivering flesh and made little gurgling sounds in my slippers with every step I took. I had only recently begun to wear my hair properly pinned and skewered with bodkins, and the loose wisp of curl I had so painstakingly put in at one side of my brow this morning with a crimping iron was now mere soaking straight feathers that slashed coldly across my cheeks.

Surely, I should present a repulsive picture to whoever was abovestairs. This, at least, was my excuse—for I confess I did not above half-like the notion of wandering along that dark, musty passage and then feeling about for the staircase, all the while under the eyes of whatever night creatures crept out of the walls to watch my going.

I heard Timothy scramble around at the end of the passage as though startled, and I sympathized with him heartily. But since he appeared to be so close, I knew I must follow and take him up or my whole wretched expedition would be useless.

“Timmy-boy,” I called, sternly squaring my shoulders for the task, which made chill little trickles of water snake their way down my neck and back. I took several tentative steps along the passage, noticing that the storm outside had subsided and dusty little shafts of lilac-colored light ventured into the room I had quitted.

This faintest of illuminations enabled me to
make out varying pools of darkness on the floors and walls and the far end of the passage with, I thought, a staircase behind it. Against the thicker black of the staircase I made out something shadowy, vague as yet, but—surely—approaching me. It seemed to be floating along the passage, so that I fancied pale garments and a dreadful pallor where the face should be, and two burning eyes and streaks of darkness like saber slashes across that oval face—if face it was.

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