The Whispering Stones

The Saxon family had squeezed themselves and certain of their possessions into the little home at Wynch-on-the-Wold, and while flowers still bloomed in the garden and apples hung ripe on the trees it seemed a kind of continuation of their summer holiday; but as the novelty wore off, and stormy weather came on, their altered circumstances began to be more evident. Most of us can make a plucky fight against fate at first⁠—there had been something rather romantic about retiring to the bungalow⁠—but the plain prose of the proceeding was yet to come, and there were certainly many disadvantages to be faced. Mr. Saxon was worried about business affairs; he was a proud, sensitive man, and felt it a great “come down” to be obliged to resign Rotherwood, and the social position it had stood for, and confess himself to the world as one of the “newly poor.” It was humiliating to have to walk or take a tram where he had formerly used his car in fulfilling his professional engagements, hard not to be able to entertain his friends, and perhaps hardest of all to be obliged to refuse subscriptions to the numerous charities in the town where his name had always stood conspicuously upon the liberal list. His temper, never his strongest point, suffered under the test, and he would come home from Grovebury in the evenings tired out, moody and fretful, and inclined to find fault with everything and everybody.

It took all his wife’s sunny sweetness of disposition to keep the home atmosphere cheerful and peaceful, for Egbert also had a temper, and was bitterly disappointed at not being sent to Cambridge, and at having to settle down in the family office instead. Father and son did not get on remarkably well together. Mr. Saxon, like many parents, pooh-poohed his boy’s business efforts, and would sometimes⁠—to Egbert’s huge indignation⁠—point out his mistakes before the clerks. He would declare, in a high and mighty way, that his own son should not receive special preference at the office, and so overdid his attitude of impartiality that he contrived to give him a worse time than any of his other articled pupils.

Athelstane, who had begun his medical course at the University of Birkshaw, also had his troubles. He had hoped to study at Guy’s Hospital in preparation for the London M.D., and to an ambitious young fellow it was hard to be satisfied with a provincial degree. The thirty-mile motor ride to and from Birkshaw soon lost its charm, and the difficulties of home study in the evenings were great in a bungalow with thin partition walls and a family not always disposed to quiet. As a rule, he kept his feelings to himself, but he went about with a depressed look, and got into a habit of lifting his eyebrows which was leaving permanent lines on a hitherto smooth and unwrinkled forehead.

Pretty Quenrede, who had just left school, was going through the awkward phase of discovering her individuality. At the College, with a full program of lessons and games, she had followed the general lead of the form. Now, cast upon her own resources, she was quite vague as to any special bent or taste. The wartime occupations which had tempted her imagination were no longer available, and “Careers for Women” did not attract her, even if family funds had run to the necessary training. So, for the present, she stayed at home, going once a week to the School of Art at Grovebury, and practicing singing in a rather desultory fashion. Though she pretended to be glad she was an emancipated young lady, as a matter of fact she missed school immensely, and was finding life decidedly slow and tame.

With their elders palpably dissatisfied, Ingred and Hereward would have been hardly human if they had not raised some personal grievances of their own to grumble at, and matters would often have been dismal enough at the bungalow but for Mrs. Saxon’s happy capacity for looking on the bright side of things. The whole household centered round “Mother.” She was a woman in a thousand. Naturally it had hurt her to relinquish Rotherwood, and it grieved her⁠—for the girls’ sake⁠—that most of her old acquaintances in Grovebury had not troubled to pay calls at Wynchcote. The small rooms, the one maid from the Orphanage, the necessity of doing much of the housework herself, the difficulties of shopping on a limited purse, and her husband’s fretfulness and faultfinding, might have soured a less unselfish disposition: she had married, however, “for better or for worse,” and took the altered circumstances with cheery optimism. She was a great lover of nature and of scenery, and the nearness of the moors, with their ever-changing effects of storm and sunshine, and the opportunities they gave for the study of birds and insects, proved compensation for some of the things which life otherwise lacked.

Every morning, after the fuss of getting off the family to their several avocations, she would run down the garden, and stand for a few minutes by the wall that overlooked the moor, watching great shafts of sunlight fall from a gray sky on to brown wastes of heather and bracken, listening to the call of the curlews or to the trilling autumn warble of the robin, perched on the red-berried hawthorn bush. Kind Mother Nature could always soothe her spirits, and send her back with fresh courage for the day’s work. And, in the evening, when husband and children came home to fire and lamplight, she had generally some nature notes to tell them, or some amusing little incident to make them laugh and forget their various woes and worries.

“I’m so glad, Muvvie dear, you’re not a melancholy lugubrious person!” said Ingred once. “It would be so trying if you sat at the tea-table and sighed.”

“Humor is the salt of life,” smiled Mrs. Saxon. “We may just as well get all the fun out of the little daily happenings. Even ‘the orphan’ has her bright side!”

As “the orphan” was a temporary member of the Wynchcote establishment she merits a word of description. She came from an institution in the neighborhood, and, being the only servant procurable at the time, was tolerated in spite of a terrible propensity for smashing plates, and for carolling at the very pitch of a nasal voice. She was a rough, good-tempered girl, devoted to Minx, the cat, and really kind if anybody had a headache or toothache, but quite without any sense of discrimination: she would show a traveling hawker into the drawing-room, and leave the clergyman standing on the doorstep, took the best serviettes to wipe the china, scoured the silver with Monkey Brand Soap, and systematically bespattered the kitchen tablecloth with ink. Her love of music was a terrible trial to the medical student of the family on Saturday morning, when he was endeavoring to read at home.

“Carlyle says somewhere: ‘Give, oh, give me a man who sings at his work!’ ” growled Athelstane one day, bursting forth from his den to complain of the nuisance, “but I bet the old buffer didn’t write that sentiment with a maidservant howling popular songs in the next room. According to all accounts he loathed noise and couldn’t even stand the crowing of a cock. I should call that bit of eloquence just bunkum. If the orphan doesn’t stop this voice-production business I shall have to go and slay her. How can a fellow study in the midst of such a racket? Where’s the Mater? Down in Grovebury? I suppose that accounts for it. While the cat’s away, etc.

“Hardly complimentary to compare your maternal relative to a cat!” chuckled Ingred. “Stop the orphan if you can, but you might as well try to stop the brook! She’s quiet for five minutes then bursts out into song again like a chirruping cricket or a croaking corncrake. I want to spiflicate her myself sometimes.”

“ ‘Late last night I slew my wife,
Stretched her on the parquet flooring;
I was loath to take her life,
But I had to stop her snoring!’ ”

quoted Hereward from Ruthless Rhymes.

“Look here!” said Quenrede, emerging from the kitchen with a half-packed lunch basket. “We three are taking sandwiches, and going for a good old tramp over the moors. Why not drop your work for once and come with us? You look as if you needed a holiday.”

“I’ve a beast of a headache,” admitted Athelstane.

“You want fresh air, not study,” decreed Quenrede with sisterly firmness, “and I shall just make some extra sandwiches and put another apple in the basket. With mother out, the orphan will carol all the morning, unless you gag her, so you may as well accept the inevitable.”

“Cut and run, in fact!” added Hereward.

“The voice of the siren tempts me to go⁠—to escape the voice of the siren who stays!” wavered Athelstane.

“Oh, come along, old sport!” urged Ingred. “What are a few old bones to Red Ridge Barrow? You can swat tonight to make up, if you want to.”

“It’s three to one!” said Athelstane, giving way gracefully; “and there mayn’t be any more fine Saturdays for walks.”

The four young people started forth with the delightful sense of having the day before them. It was fairly early, and a hazy November sun had not yet drawn the moisture from the heather. On the moor the few trees were bare, but the golden autumn leaves still clothed the woods in the sheltered valley that stretched below. Masses of gossamer covered with dewdrops lay among the bracken, like fairies’ washing hung out to dry. There was a hint of hoarfrost under the bushes. The air had that delicious invigorating quality when every breath sets the body dancing. It was too late in the year for flowers, though here and there a little gorse lingered, or a few buttercups and hawkweeds. After about an hour of red haziness the sun pierced the bank of mist and shone out gloriously, almost as in summer; the birds, ready to snatch a moment’s joy, were flitting about tweeting and calling, a water-wagtail took a bath in a shallow pool of a stream, and a great flock of bramblings, rare visitors in those parts, paused in their migration to hold a chattering conference round an old elder tree.

The Saxons were determined today to go farther afield than their walks had hitherto taken them. The local guidebook mentioned some prehistoric menhirs and a chambered barrow on the top of Red Ridge, a distant hill, so they had fixed that as their Mecca.

It was a considerable tramp, but the bracing air helped them on, and they sat down at last to eat their lunch by the side of the path that led to the summit. The boys had wished to mount to the top without calling a halt, but the girls had struck, and insisted on a rest before the final climb.

“Pity Mother isn’t here!” said Ingred, voicing the general feeling of the family, which always missed its central pivot.

“Yes, but it would have been too great a trapse for her, poor darling!” qualified Quenrede. “I don’t see how we could get her all this way unless we hired a pony.”

“Or borrowed an aeroplane. One seems about as possible as the other,” grunted Ingred.

“She shall have a photo of the stones at any rate,” said Hereward, fingering his camera. “Hurry up and finish, you girls, or the light will be gone!”

“Well, we can’t bolt our sandwiches at the rate you do! I wonder you don’t choke!”

The old gray stones stood in a circle on the top of the hill, from whence they had possibly seen four thousand summers and winters pass by. Whether their original purpose was temple, astronomical observatory, or both is one of the riddles of antiquarian research, for neolithic man left no record of his doings beyond the weapons buried with him in his barrow. Legend, however, like a busy gossip, had stepped in and supplied points upon which history was silent. Traditions of the neighborhood explained the menhirs as twelve giants turned into stone by the magic powers of good King Arthur, who, in defiance of the claims of the isle of Avalon, was supposed to be buried in a hitherto unexplored chamber of the large green mound that stood near. Sometimes, so the story ran, the giants whispered to one another, and anyone who came there alone at daybreak on May morning might glean much useful information regarding the personal appearance of his or her future lover. As it was obviously difficult to reach so out-of-the-way a spot at such a very early hour, the oracles were seldom consulted at the one and only moment when they were supposed to whisper. There were reputed, however, to be other and easier means of gleaning knowledge from them. Ingred, who had been priming herself with local lore, confided details of the occult ceremonial to Quenrede.

“It sounds rather thrillsome!” admitted that damsel doubtfully. “I’d really like to try it, only the boys would tease me to death. You know what they are!”

“They’re going over there to photograph the cromlech. You’d have time before they come back.”

“Shall I?”

“Go on!”

“Tell me again what to do.”

“You let your hair down, and walk bareheaded in and out and in and out round all the circle of stones. Then you put an offering of flowers on that biggest stone⁠—the Giant King, he’s called⁠—and throw a pebble into the little pool below. You count the bubbles that come up⁠—one for A, two for B, etc.⁠—and they’ll give you the initial of your future lover. With very great luck, you might see his shadow in the pool, but that does not often happen.”

“I don’t believe in it, of course, but I’ll try for fun! The Giant King won’t get much in the way of a bouquet today!”

Quenrede, protesting her scepticism, but all the same palpably enjoying the magic experiment, picked an indifferent nosegay of the few buttercups, hawkweeds, and late pieces of scabious which were the only flowers available. Then she removed her hairpins, and, letting down a shower of flaxen hair, commenced her winding pilgrimage among the old gray stones. There is a vein of superstition in the most modern of minds, and she was probably following a custom that had come down the ages from the days when our primitive ancestresses clothed themselves in skins and twisted their prehistoric locks with pins of mammoth ivory. In and out and in and out, with Ingred, like an attendant priestess, behind her, she performed the necessary itinerary, and laid her floral offering upon what may have been the remains of a neolithic altar. The pool below was dark and boggy and brown with peat. She took a good-sized pebble, and flung it into the middle with a terrific splash. Ingred, giggling nervously, counted the bubbles.

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I⁠—It’s ‘I,’ Queenie! No, there’s another! It’s ‘J’! It’s going to be ‘J,’ old sport! Aren’t you thrilled? Oh, I say! Whoever on earth is that?”

Following the direction of her sister’s eyes, Quenrede looked through a veil of windblown hair, to see, standing among the stones, a stranger of the opposite sex, garbed in tweed knickers and leather gaiters. One glance was enough. The next second she turned, and beat a hurried and ignominious retreat to the sheltered side of the green mound. Ingred, panting in the rear, followed her to cover.

Quenrede, very pink in the face, sat down on a clump of heather and immediately began to put up her hair.

“I never felt such an idiot in my life!” she confided with energy to her sympathetic audience of one. “Ingred! That man knew what I was doing! I saw the horrid amusement in his face. He was laughing at me for all he was worth. I know he was!”

At eighteen it is an overwhelming matter to be laughed at. Quenrede’s newly-developed dignity was decidedly wounded.

“After all, it was a very schoolgirlish thing to do,” she remarked, sticking in hairpins as well as she could without a mirror. “Do you think he’s still there? I shall stop here till he marches off.”

“I’ll go and prospect,” said Ingred.

She came back with the bad news that not only was the stranger still there, but he was actually in close and apparently familiar conversation with Athelstane and Hereward, who were calling loudly for their sisters, and to confirm her words came distant jodellings of:



“Where are you girls?”

There was nothing for it but to come forth from their retreat. It was impossible to stay hidden forever. Quenrede issued as nonchalantly as she could, with her hair tucked under her tam-o’-shanter, and her gloves on. She bowed instead of shaking hands when Athelstane introduced Mr. Broughten, a fellow-student of his college; it seemed a more grownup and superior attitude to adopt. She thought his eyes twinkled, but she preserved such an air of standoff dignity that he promptly suppressed any undue inclinations towards mirth, and stood looking the epitome of grave politeness.

“Broughten knows all about the old barrow,” Athelstane explained. “He’s got a candle with him⁠—we were duds not to bring one ourselves⁠—and he’s going to act showman. Come along!”

The entrance into the mound was through a low doorway with lintel and posts of unhewn stone. Inside was a kind of central hall with three rudely-constructed chambers leading out of it. A pile of rough stones in front seemed to point to further chambers.

“That part’s never been explored yet,” said Mr. Broughten. “Some of us want to tackle it some day, if we can get permission, but it’s a big job. You don’t want to bring the barrow down on your head, and be buried in the ruins! I never think the roof looks too secure,” he added easily, poking at the stones above with his stick.

The girls, aghast at the notion of a possible subsidence, made a hasty exit to the open air, and hovered near the entrance in much agitation of mind till the rest of the party made a safe reappearance. Their conductor, with a side glance at the bunch of flowers⁠—which Quenrede ignored⁠—made some reference to the Giant King stone and his whispering companions: he was evidently well versed in all old traditions, though he refrained from mentioning local practices. He walked part of the way home with the Saxons before he branched off to the place where he had left his bicycle.

“You look nice⁠—you do, really, with your hair down,” said Ingred to Quenrede that night, as the latter sat wielding her hairbrush at bedtime. “And you needn’t be afraid anybody would mistake you for a flapper. Why, Harry Scampton actually asked Hereward the other day if you were married! By the by,” she added wickedly, “do you know I’ve ascertained that Mr. Broughten’s Christian name begins with ‘J.’ Whether ‘John’ or ‘James’ I can’t say!”

“I don’t care if it’s Jehosaphat!” snorted Queenie. “I’ve told you already he doesn’t interest me in the least!”