The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 3
I do not know what it was, but something prevented Mrs. Galloway from giving us the sort of talking to I had expected. She is a woman with as nasty a tongue as you would care to meet. I had never before known her lose a chance of using it. And there was a chance! But, instead, there she stood mumchance, and before she had even so much as said a word, Emily and I were off upstairs. I was on the second floor, and Emily was on the third. When I stopped to go into my room I called out to her, “Good night!” but she ran on, and never answered. She was in such a state of mind, what with the fright, and her crying, and the cold biting us through and through while we waited on the doorstep, that all she cared for was to get between the sheets.
In my room most of the girls were wide awake. It was not a large room, so there were only nine of us, and that was including Miss Ashton. She was the senior assistant, a regular frump, thirty if a day. She came to bed a quarter of an hour after we did, and after she had come to bed no one was supposed to talk. If any girl did talk Miss Ashton reported her, and the girl was fined, and half the fine, whatever it was, went into Miss Ashton’s pockets. So, of course—since, sometimes, her pockets were bulging out with our money—no love was lost between us.
When I went in, although I knew that most of the girls were awake, because of Miss Ashton no one spoke a syllable, until Lucy Carr, who had the next bed to mine, whispered as I stood by her:
“Whatever have you been up to?”
“I’ve been nearly robbed and murdered, that’s what I’ve been up to.”
“Miss Blyth, I shall report you for talking after midnight.”
This was Miss Ashton, cold, and hard, and short as usual. Trust her to go to sleep while there was a chance to snatch at somebody else’s penny!
“Very well, Miss Ashton, you can report me, and you can say, at the same time, that it’s a wonder that I was alive to talk at all, for what I’ve gone through this day, and this night, I alone can tell.”
I plumped down on my box, and I leaned my back against the wall, and I had to cry. Then all the girls set off together. Lucy Carr sat up in bed, and she put her arms about my neck; she was a nice girl, was Lucy Carr, we hardly ever quarrelled.
“Never mind her, my love; you know what she’s like; she can’t help it, it’s her nature. Don’t you cry, my dear.”
And then there were such remarks as “It’s a shame!” “Poor dear!” and “How can people be so cruel?” from the others. But Miss Ashton was not touched, not she; she simply said, in her cold, hard tones:
“Miss Carr, Miss Sheepshanks, Miss Flick, Miss James, I shall report you for talking after midnight.”
“That’s right,” said Lucy, “and much good may our money do you. I wish it would burn a hole in your pocket!”
Then the girls were still. Of course they did not want to lose all their money, and there was no knowing what the fine might be for talking at that time of night, and especially for keeping on. So I sat on my box, and I wiped my eyes; I never do believe much in crying, and somehow I felt too mad for a regular weep. I should like to have given Miss Ashton a real good shaking—everything would go wrong!
Just as I was beginning to undress—I actually had unhooked my bodice—I thought of what the object in the grey canvas cloth had slipped into my hand. What had become of it? In my agitation I had forgotten all about it. I was holding it when I came into the room—I remembered that. What had become of it since? I felt on my knee; it was not there. I had not put it in my pocket. It must have dropped on the floor. Intending to start a search I put out my foot and touched something with my toe. I reached out my hand; it was the scrap of paper.
As I picked it up I knew quite well that there could be nothing in it of the slightest consequence. People don’t give things worth having to perfect strangers, especially such people as that creature in the canvas cloth. Yet there had been a good deal of fuss. First the man in the long black coat had given me a scrap of paper; then the thin man had egged on the stout man to snatch it from me like a hungry lion; then, to regain it in his possession the black-coated man had attacked the two others like some mad wild beast; finally, to crown all, the canvas cloth creature had put into my hand what seemed to be the identical scrap of paper as I stood on the threshold of the door. There must be something of interest connected with the thing; or why had these persons, in spite of what Emily had said, all utter strangers to me, behaved in such an extraordinary manner?
I was both tired and sleepy, but I was more worried than either. Part of my worry had to do with that scrap of paper. What was in it? I was sure I should never sleep until I knew. It was about half an inch broad, and an inch and a half long. As I pressed it with my fingers, I could feel that something was inside, something queer-shaped and hard. The room was pretty dark. All the light there was came through the sides of the badly fitting blind from the lamp on the opposite side of the street. I could not get the paper open. It was fastened in some way I did not understand. As I held it up against the shaft of light which came through the side of the blind, to make out, if possible, what the trick of the fastening was, a queer thing took place.
Something moved inside, and tore the paper open. It was only a little thing, but it took me so completely by surprise that it affected me almost as much as if the ceiling had fallen in. What could there have been inside to move? I sat staring, in the darkness, with my mouth wide open. Suddenly there came Miss Ashton’s voice from the other end of the room.
“Miss Blyth, are you not going to get into bed at all to-night?”
At that moment I myself could not have told. I was holding in my hand something which gleamed at me. What it was I could not even guess. I only knew that two specks of light, which looked like eyes, were shining at me through the darkness; and that the thing had moved. There was Miss Ashton’s voice again.
“Do you hear me, Miss Blyth? Are you going to bed? or am I to summon Mrs. Galloway?”
Without answering her a word I dropped what I was holding on to the bed. I was convinced that it moved as I did so, as if to cling to my fingers. It was silly, but I was never so frightened in my life. I saw the two bright spots of light shining up at me from the counterpane as if they were watching me. I hardly dared to breathe. I slipped off my bodice, and the rest of my things, moving as little as I possibly could, and stood in my night-gown shivering by the bed. Had I not been afraid, I would have asked Lucy to let me get into bed with her. But I knew Miss Ashton would hear, and would rout me out again, and then there would be worse to follow. I should get Lucy into trouble as well as myself. And there was trouble enough in store for all of us already. Better face what there was to face alone, than drag anybody else into the ditch into which I seemed to be continually tumbling.
It was too ridiculous to be afraid to get into bed because that thing with the shining spots was lying on the counterpane. I was sensible enough to be aware of that. Yet I was afraid. Was it alive? If I could only have made sure that it was not, I should not have minded. But it was too dark to see; and I could not touch it.
“Miss Blyth, are you going to get into bed?”
“Well, Miss Ashton, there’s something on my bed, and I don’t know what it is.”
“Something on your bed? What do you mean? What nonsense are you talking?”
“Have you any matches? If you’ll lend me some, I shall be able to see what it is. I can’t get in until I know.”
“Is it a fresh trick you are playing me? I never heard anything so ridiculous. Here are some matches. Be quick; and don’t be sillier than you can help.”
I went and took the box of matches she held out to me. Returning, I lit one and held it over the counterpane. Some of the girls lifted their heads to watch me. Lucy Carr leaned right out of her bed towards mine.
“Whatever is it?” she whispered.
My hand shook so, with the cold, and the state I was in, that it was all I could do to keep it steady enough to prevent the match from going out. I held it lower.
“I believe it’s a frog.”
“A frog!” cried Lucy. She drew herself back with a little shriek.
“It’s—it’s something horrid.”
Two or three of the girls sat up, drawing the bed-clothes to their chins.
“Miss Blyth, what is the cause of this confusion? Are we never to have any sleep to-night?”
Miss Ashton, getting out of bed, came across the room to see what was the matter. The match went out. The red-hot end dropped on to the counterpane. I brushed it off with my fingers. As I did so I touched the thing. My nerves were so strung up that I gave a scream. There came an echo from the girls. Miss Ashton was at my side before I could strike another match. She was in a fine rage.
“Give me the box!” She snatched it from me. “Have you been misbehaving yourself? or are you mad? I’ll soon see what is the cause of all this nonsense, and then I’ll be sorry for whoever is at the bottom of it.”
The first match she tried would not light. The second burst into vivid flame. She stooped down.
“What is this thing upon your bed? It’s some painted toy. You impudent girl!”
Picking it up, she threw it on to the floor into the corner of the room. Her match went out. There was a sound like a little cry of pain.
“Whatever’s that?” asked Lucy.
“It’s nothing,” replied Miss Ashton. “It was only the thing striking against the floor.”
“I believe it’s alive,” I said. “It shrieked.”
“I believe you have been drinking.”
“I have heard of people who have been drinking seeing things—that appears to be your condition now. Are you going to get into bed? You will have something to shriek for when the morning comes.”
I got into bed, feeling so cowed, that I could not even resent, with a proper show of dignity, her monstrous accusation. That anyone could have been wicked enough to accuse me of such a thing! I was trembling all over. I believed that the thing had shrieked, and was haunted by a horrible doubt that it was alive. Never before was I in such a state of mind and body. My brain was all in a whirl. I could do nothing but lie there shivering; my joints and muscles seemed to be possessed by an attack of twitching spasms, as if I had been suddenly smitten with some hideous disease.
I heard Miss Ashton return to her own bed. Then a voice whispered in my ear, so gently that it could have been audible to no one but me—
“Never mind, dear. She’s a beast!”
It was Lucy. I put out my hand. She was leaning over me.
“Kiss me,” I muttered.
She kissed me. It did me good. I held her, for a moment, to me. It comforted me to feel her face against mine.
“Now go to sleep! and don’t you dream!”
It was easy enough to talk; it was harder to do. I did not often dream. Not nearly so much as some of the other girls, who were always telling us of the things they dreamed about. Rubbish it mostly was. I always said they made up three parts of it, not believing that such stuff could get into the heads of sensible people, even when they were asleep. That night I dreamt while I was wide awake. I was overcome by a sort of nightmare horror, which held me, with staring eyes and racking head, motionless between the sheets, as if I had been glued to them. It was as if the thing which Miss Ashton had thrown on the floor was in an agony of pain, and as if it had communicated its sufferings to me.
At last I suppose I must have gone to sleep. And then it was worse than ever. What I endured in my sleep that night no one could conceive. It was as if I were continually passing through endless chambers of nameless horrors. With it all were mixed up the events of the evening. I saw Isaac Rudd, and the creature in the canvas cloth, and the two short men, and the person in the long black coat. They kept popping in and out, always in full enjoyment of my tortures. There were Emily and I, standing at the top of an enormous flight of steps, in pitch-black darkness, in frightful weather, outside the door of some dreadful place, and there were those dreadful creatures jeering at us because no one would let us in. And Tom—I knew that somewhere near Tom was crying. And the thing which was in the scrap of paper was with me all the night. It was always on me somewhere; now on my throat, biting through the skin; now on my breast, drawing the life right out of me; now on my toes, hampering my feet, so that I could scarcely lift them up and down; now inside my mouth, filling me with a horrible choking sense of nausea.
But perhaps the strangest part of it all was that, when I awoke, there actually was something on my forehead. I felt it against my chin. Giving my head a sudden shake it slipped off on to the pillow at my side. I sat up. It was broad day. I saw it as plain as could be. A little painted thing, tricked out in ridiculously contrasting shades of green, and pink, and yellow. As Miss Ashton had said, it might have been a toy. I had seen things not unlike it in the shop, among the Japanese and Chinese curiosities. Or it might have been a tiny representation of some preposterous heathen god, with beads for eyes.