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Tommy, out in the moonlight, found himself in a waste yard, scattered over with bits of iron, mostly old and rusty. It was not an interesting place, for it was not likely to afford him anything to eat. Yet, with the instinct of the human animal, he went shifting and prying and nosing about everywhere. Presently he heard a curious sound, which he recognized as made by a hen. More stealthily yet he went creeping hither and thither, feeling here and feeling there, in the hope of laying his hand on the fowl asleep. Urged by his natural impulse to forage, he had forgotten Clare's warning. His hand did find her, and had it been his grandmother instead of Clare in the smithy, he would at once have broken the bird's neck before she could cry out; but with the touch of her feathers came the thought of Clare, and by this time he understood that what Clare said, Clare would do.
He had some knowledge of fowls; he had heard too much talk about them at his grandmother's not to know something of their habits; and finding she sat so still, he concluded that under her might be eggs. To his delight it was so. The hen belonged to a house at some distance, and had wandered from it, in obedience to the secretive instinct of animal maternity, strong in some hens, to seek a hidden shelter for her offspring. This she had found in the smith's yard, beneath the mould-board of a plough that had lain there for years. Slipping his hand under her, Tommy found five eggs. In greedy haste he took them, every one.
I must do him the justice to say that his first impulse was to dart with them to Clare. But before he had taken a step toward him, again he remembered his threat. With the eggs inside him, he could run the risk; he would not mind a few blows--not much; but if he took them to Clare, the unbearable thing was, that he would assuredly give every one of them back to the hen. He was an idiot, and Tommy was there to look after him; but, in looking after Clare, was Tommy to neglect himself? If Clare would not eat the eggs Tommy carried him, as most certainly he would not, the best thing was for Tommy to eat them himself! What a good thing that it was no use to steal for Clare! The steal would be all for himself! Not a step from the spot did Tommy move till he had sucked every one of the five eggs. But he made one mistake: he threw away the shells.
When he had sucked them, he found himself much lighter-hearted, but, alas, nearly as hungry as before! The spirit of research began again to move him: where were eggs, what might there not be beside?
The moon was nearly at the full; the smith's yard was radiantly illuminated. But even the moon could lend little enchantment to a scene where nothing was visible but rusty, broken, deserted, despairful pieces of old iron. Tommy lifted his eyes and looked further.
The enclosure was of small extent, bounded on one side by the garden wall of the house they had just passed, and at the bottom by a broken fence, dividing it from a piece of waste land that probably belonged to the house. As he roamed about, Tommy spied a great heap of old iron piled up against the wall, and made for it, in the hope of enlarging his horizon. He scrambled to the top, and looked over. His gaze fell right into a big but, full of dark water. Twice that evening he met the same horror! There was a legendary report, though he had not heard it, I fancy, that his mother drowned herself instead of him: she fell in, and he was fished out. Whether this was the origin of his fear or not, so far from getting down by means of the water-but, Tommy dared not cross at that point. With much trembling he got on the top of the wall, turned his back on the but, and ran along like a cat, in search of a place where he could descend into the garden. He went right to the end, round the corner, and half-way along the bottom before he found one. There he came to a doorway that had been solidly walled up on the outside, while the door was left in position on the inside--ready for use when the court of chancery should have decided to whom the house belonged. Its frame was flush with the wall, so that its bolts and lock afforded Tommy foothold enough to descend, and confidence of being able to get up again.
He landed in a moonlit wilderness--such a wilderness as a deserted garden speedily becomes, the wealth in the soil converting it the sooner to a savage chaos. Full of the impulse of discovery, and the hope of presenting himself with importance to Clare as the bringer of good tidings, Tommy forced his way through or crept under the overgrown bushes, until he reached a mossy rather than gravelly walk, where it was more easy to advance. It led him to the house.
Had he been a boy of any imagination, he would have shuddered at the thought of attempting an entrance. All the windows had outside shutters. Those of the ground floor were closed--except one that swung to and fro, and must have swung in many a wind since the house was abandoned. The moon shone with a dull whitish gleam on the dusty windows of the first and second stories, and on the great dormers that shot out from the slope of the roof, and cast strange shadows upon it. The door to the garden had had a porch of trellis-work, over which jasmine and other creeping plants were trained; but whether anything of the porch was left, no one could have told in that thicket of creepers, interlaced and matted by antagonist forces of wind and growth so that not a hint of door was visible. Clearly there was nobody within.
Tommy sought the window with the open shutter. Through the dirty glass, and the reflection of the moon, he could see nothing. He tried the sash, but could not stir it. He went round the corner to one end of the house, and saw another door. But an enemy stepped between: the moon shone suddenly up from the ground. In a hollow of the pavement had gathered a pool from the drip of the neglected gutters, and out of its hidden depth the staring round looked at him. It was the third time Tommy's nerves had been shaken that night, and he could stand no more. At the awful vision he turned and fled, fell, and rose and fled again. It was not imagination in Tommy; it was an undefined, inexplicable horror, that must have had a cause, but could have no reason. Young as he was he had already more than once looked on the face of death, and had felt no awe; he had listened to the gruesomest of tales, told not altogether without art, and had never moved a hair Only one material and two spiritual things had power with him; the one material thing was hunger, the two spiritual things were a feeble love for Clare, and a strong horror of water of any seeming depth. Now a new element was added to this terror by the meddling of the moon in the fiendish mystery--the secret of which must, I think, have been the bottomless depth she gave the water.
He rushed down the garden. With frightful hindrance from the overgrowth, he found the prisoned door by strange perversion become a ladder, gained by it the top of the wall, and sped along as if pursued by an incarnate dread. Horror of horrors! all at once the moon again looked up at him from below: he was within a yard or two of the big water-but! Right up to it he must go, for, close to it, on the other side of the wall, was the heap of iron by which alone he could get down. He tightened every nerve for the effort. He assured himself that the thing would be over in a moment; that the water was quiet, and could not follow him; that presently he would find himself in the smithy by the warm forge-fire. The scaring necessity was, that he must stoop and kneel right over the water-but, in order to send his legs in advance down the wall to the top of the mound. It was a moment of agony. That very moment, with an appalling unearthly cry, something dark, something hideous, something of inconceivable ghastliness, as it seemed to Tommy, sprang right out of the water into the air. He tumbled from the wall among the iron, and there lay.
The stolen eggs were avenged. The hen, feverish and unhappy from the loss of her hope of progeny, had gone to the but to sip a little water. Tommy, appearing on the wall above her, startled her. She, flying up with a screech, startled Tommy, and became her own unwitting avenger.
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