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The Whispering Mountain

Joan Aiken

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  “Owen, are you all right?”

  “Yes, they had hardly started on me—thanks to Hawc!” He settled his glasses—which were dangling from one ear but miraculously unbroken—back on his nose. “But how do you come to be here?”

  “I asked Dada to come through by Pennygaff on purpose so that there would be a chance of seeing you, maybe. On our way to the fair at Devil’s Leap—Nant Agerddau, we are. But how is it with you, Owen bach? Dear to goodness, how you’ve grown! Taller than me, now! Did you find your grandfather all right? Are you happy, with you? Who were those brutes?”

  “Boys from my school.”

  “Fine sort of school! Why were they after you?”

  “Oh, just because I am a stranger here.”

  Owen glanced down the hill. His enemies had dispersed. For the moment, at least, he was saved.

  I wish to express my gratitude to Kitty Norris, who corrected my Welsh, and to the Head Librarian of Brecon Public Library, who let me rummage among his archives.


  On a sharp autumn evening a boy stood waiting inside the high stone pillars which flanked the gateway of the Jones Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen and Respectable Tradesmen in the small town of Pennygaff.

  School had finished for the day some time since, and all the other scholars had gladly streamed away into the windy dusk, but still the boy hesitated, shivering with cold and indecision. Once or twice he edged close against one of the soot-blackened pillars, so that his form was almost invisible, and, leaning forward, peered out through the close-set iron railings.

  The street outside seemed empty. But was it really so? Very little daylight now remained. A thin yellow strip of light in the west made the shadows along the narrow cobbled way even blacker; there were too many doorways, porches, passages, and flights of steps in or behind which any number of enemies could lurk unseen. And a great bank of purple-black cloud was advancing steadily westward across the sky, blotting out what little light yet lingered. In a minute, torrents of rain would fall.

  The sound of quick footsteps behind him rang in the paved yard and the boy swung round sharply, but it was only the schoolmaster, Mr. Price, on his way home to tea.

  “Owen Hughes!” the teacher said with displeasure. “What are you doing here? Run along, boy, run along; you should not be loitering in the grounds after school has ended. Where are your books? And why have you no coat? It will rain directly. Your good grandfather will be wondering where you have got to. Hurry along now.”

  Mr. Price said all this as he passed the boy at a rapid pace, without pausing, meanwhile buttoning his own greatcoat against the huge drops of rain which were beginning to strike heavily on the flagged pavement. Owen’s “Yes, sir,” followed him, but he did not turn his head to see whether he had been obeyed, and Owen did not move from his position by the gate despite the downpour, which, now commencing in good earnest, soon drenched his thin nankeen jacket.

  Intent on his scrutiny of the empty street, Owen did not even notice that he had begun to shiver with wet and cold, and that the scrap of paper which he rolled between his fingers had become sodden and indecipherable. Its short message was printed on his memory.


  The message, written in large, uneven capitals, was unsigned, but Owen was in no doubt as to where it had come from: only one of his seven persecutors could write.

  “Dove Thurbey,” he said to himself. “Dove Thurbey, Dick Abrystowe, Luggins Cadwallader, Mog Glendower, Follentine Hylles, Soth Gard, and Hwfa Morgan. They’ll all be waiting, and they’ll have stones and stakes and broken bottles. What had I better do?”

  He simply did not know.

  He could probably run faster than any of the seven, but he could not escape from a hail of cobblestones, and his chief dread was that his spectacles should be broken, for he possessed only one pair, and there was no means of repairing them. He was not a coward but he knew, too, that once Dove, Dick, Luggins, Mog, Follentine, Soth and Hwfa had him down there would be little hope for him. They wore metal-tipped clogs and they were all twice his size—Hwfa was nearly six foot—and big and brawny. Mog was going to work next month, Dick, Dove, and Luggins played in the town football team. The seven of them sat together at the back of the school and paid no heed to Mr. Price, who had long ago given up trying to teach them.

  Nor was there much chance of aid. The citizens of Pennygaff were all snug in their kitchens by now, with doors and windows shut; if they heard a sound of fighting they were more likely to pull the curtains tighter than to leave their firesides in defence of an outsider. Wild boars from the forest were known to come into the streets after dark, and wild men too, on occasion; it was very seldom that the townspeople left their homes after nightfall except in compact groups.

  While he was thinking these gloomy thoughts Owen heard, with surprise, the sound of running footsteps. His heart jolted with anxiety, hope, suspense. Could the runner be a possible ally? He could tell that it was not one of his enemies—the steps were too light and much too fast.

  A man came into view, bolting at top speed down the mountain road. As he approached Owen saw, first, that he wore some sort of livery; next, that he was a stranger. He grasped a staff in his right hand. But here was no ally, Owen realized with sinking hope—this man was in the last extremity of haste and exhaustion. His legs would hardly have carried him had not the way lain downhill. As it was, they fled weakly along and he followed them, only half aware, it seemed, of where they were taking him.

  As he neared Owen, words fell from him in a clot:


  “Yes!” Owen called back. “—Sir!”

  But already the runner was past, careering down the hill into the darkness below, as if all the wolves of the Black Mountains were at his heels.

  Down in the valley the town clock tolled six times.

  Owen knew that in the next few moments he must come to a decision.

  He had left his schoolbooks and coat under a loose board in the classroom—a hiding-place which, fortunately, had so far gone undiscovered. A coat would only hinder flight and give his pursuers something to catch hold of, while the books belonged to his grandfather and were precious with age and use. Owen could hardly imagine what his punishment would be if any harm came to them. Besides, he loved books for their own sake, and hated the thought of their being torn apart and dashed on the muddy cobbles.

  What was that sound?

  He turned quickly, just in time to see a black shadow dart from one point of concealment to another. He caught a whisper, and a brutal chuckle.

  They were closing in.

  There was no second way out of the school, which stood enclosed by iron railings, higher up the mountain than any other building on that side of Pennygaff. To reach home, Owen was obliged to descend the steep winding hill through the town, cross the single bridge over the river Gaff, and climb an equally steep hill on the other side. Even supposing he could outdistance his enemies as far as the bridge, he could hardly keep ahead of them up the farther hill; some of them would almost certainly be posted on the bridge, waiting for him.

  Now a second figure dashed across the road, apelike and crouching; he recognized Mog. And to his left Owen heard the sound of a throat being cleared, deliberately, mocking and shrill; th
at was Hwfa, who, despite his size, still sang treble in the chapel choir.

  “Well now, boys,” whispered another voice—that was Luggins—“if the snivelling little dummer won’t come out, go in and get him we must!”

  Searching his pockets for anything that might serve as a weapon, Owen found a small heavy worsted bag. He ran his fingers over it in bewilderment; what could it be? Then he recollected that his grandfather had bidden him go during his dinner hour and collect a couple of items that had been omitted from the weekly order sent up by old Mrs. Evans the grocery. Soap and something else—perhaps whatever it was would serve to delay his attackers for a moment—

  Just then both parties were checked by a new sound, the clipclop of hoofs and carriage wheels rattling over the uneven roadway. Next moment a chaise came briskly round the corner above the school and drew to a halt beside the gates, its single lamp shining on Owen’s face.

  “Hey, you—you there, you boy!” The driver’s voice startled Owen by its loud, harsh, resonant tones. A tall man, swathed in many capes, waved a whip at him commandingly. The deep brim of his beaver hat shaded his face from Owen’s view.

  “Y-yes, sir,” he stammered. “Can I help you?”

  “Is this dismal place the town of Pennygaff?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Thank God for that, at least. I’ve been traversing these hideous black hills for the best part of three hours—I wish to heaven I may never have to set foot here again! Well then, can you direct me to the museum—though, by Beelzebub, if ever there was a piece of arrant impudence, it is for a pre-historic settlement like this to possess such a thing? Place should be on show itself as a savage relic.”

  “Down the hill, sir, across the bridge, and up the other side. You’ll see it on your right, above the Habakkuk chapel,” said Owen, rather indignant at this slight on the town of his ancestors, and surprised, too. What could this stranger want with the museum, at such an hour?

  “Any decent inns here?” the man demanded.

  “There’s one inn, sir—the Dragon of Gwaun, by the bridge.”

  “One—is that all? How far is this desolate spot from Caer Malyn?”

  “A matter of twenty mile, sir.”

  “Perdition! The mare’ll never do it, she’s dead lame. I fear I must resign myself to pass the night at the inn.” The driver was about to touch up his horses when he paused again, and said in a careless, offhand manner,

  “Do you know, boy, if a pair of ruffianly rogues of English peddlers have come to this hamlet recently—a tall man and a short one? Bilk and Prigman, I believe they call themselves.”

  “Why—why, yes, sir,” Owen said, pondering, “I do believe such a pair has been about. You might hear tell of them at the inn.”

  “Humph! Very probably! Come up, then, mare!”

  The chaise clattered on without a word of thanks from its driver, leaving Owen ready to curse himself for his folly at letting slip such a chance of escape. Why had he not offered to accompany the man and show him the way to the museum? Nothing could have been more natural. But there had been something about the stranger’s harsh voice and cold, half-angry bearing that made Owen discard the notion as soon as it entered his head; this was not a man likely to grant favours.

  Almost before the sound of hoofs had faded down the hill, Owen’s attackers were closing in once more. Only three of them, though. It seemed that he had guessed right; Soth, Dick, Follentine, and Dove were waiting down at the bridge to cut off his escape.

  Well, he would sell his life dear.

  He pulled the cloth bag from his pocket and, delving inside, extracted a twist of paper.

  “Go on, Hwfa, man! Pound the little flamer!” whispered Mog.

  As the three of them edged towards him Owen, suddenly taking the initiative, darted forward and shot the contents of the packet full into Hwfa’s face.

  It was snuff. Nothing could have been more unexpected, or more successful. Stopping short with a gasp of pain, Hwfa rubbed and rubbed at his eyes, cursing and blubbering.

  “Wait till I get at you, will you! Oh dammo, my eyes. Have the head off him, Mog!”

  But Owen had not waited. Darting past Hwfa he doubled round Luggins and Mog while they were still taken by surprise, and was off like lightning down the hill. In a moment, though, he heard them coming after him. A cobblestone whistled past his ears. He had very little start.

  Halfway down, the road from Hereford came in on the left. As he crossed the turning, Owen was obliged to swerve in order to avoid a hooded wagon which swung out of the side road and turned downhill towards the bridge. Grabbing, to steady himself, at the shaft, which had passed within six inches of his shoulder, Owen glanced up at the driver in apology.

  “I’m sorry, sir,” he panted, and then, in utter astonishment, “Why—Mr. Dando!”

  “Eh? What’s that? Who? Where?” The man on the box peered down at him absently. “Dando’s my name sure enough, but do I know you? Face seems familiar, certainly—but then, so many faces do—all faces much alike, I am thinking? Still, yours—yes, seen it before somewhere, I do feel I have. But where, now?”

  “Don’t you remember? You took me up in the port of Southampton last summer when I was starting out to walk to Wales and carried me as far as Gloucester—surely you recall?”

  Mr. Dando was still rubbing a hand through his long dark locks, making them stand on end, while he muttered, “Perhaps—perhaps—” when he was interrupted by the three pursuers, who arrived with a clatter of clogs and hurled themselves on Owen. For a moment, all was confusion. Owen fought desperately, but his feet were knocked from under him and he was being borne to the ground when a girl in a red dress put her head out at the back of the wagon.

  “What is it, Father? What is happening? Why—Owen!”

  Big clumsy Mog, hindered temporarily from his assault by the bodies of his two allies, looked up at the girl on the wagon and gaped in astonishment at what he saw. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head in a knob, or coronet, and perched upon this, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, was a large black-and-white bird, with a curved roman bill.

  When the girl saw what was happening she exclaimed, “Scatter them, Hawc!” in a voice that carried like a bell.

  Instantly the great bird launched himself off her head, rose, circled a couple of times high over the combatants, and then hurtled down on them in a whistling dive. He landed with a thump, striking his razor-sharp talons into the jacket of Hwfa, who gave a shrill yell and ran for his life. The falcon loosed him, at another command from the girl, and returned to pounce on Luggins, scoring a set of deep parallel tracks through his tow-coloured hair. Completely terrified at this unexpected pain and the fierce clutching weight on his head, Luggins let go of Owen, whom he was slowly throttling, and tried to shake off the falcon. Mog, seeing the battle was lost, had already made his escape.

  Luggins stumbled after him, calling out desperately,

  “Mog! Mog! Don’t leave me! Get this brute off me, boy!

  Mog made not the slightest effort to help, but at another whistle from his mistress Hawc released the punishing grip on Luggins’s scalp and came oaring back through the rainy night, to take up his perch once more on the girl’s crown of hair.

  She had jumped off the wagon and was hugging Owen, who could hardly believe his eyes.

  “Arabis! What are you and your father doing in these parts?”

  “Owen, are you all right?”

  “Yes, they had hardly started on me—thanks to Hawc!” He settled his glasses—which were dangling from one ear but miraculously unbroken—back on his nose. “But how do you come to be here?”

  “I asked Dada to come through by Pennygaff on purpose so that there would be a chance of seeing you, maybe. On our way to the fair at Devil’s Leap—Nant Agerddau, we are. But how is it with you, Owen bach? Dear to goodness, how you’ve grown! Taller than me, now! Did you find your grandfather all right? Are you happy, with you? Who were those brutes

  “Boys from my school.”

  “Fine sort of school! Why were they after you?”

  “Oh, just because I am a stranger here.”

  Owen glanced down the hill. His enemies had dispersed. For the moment, at least, he was saved.

  “There’s silly, and your father and granda born here. Gracious, how it rains! Come inside the wagon, Galahad won’t mind another in the load, will he, Dada? I’m sure Owen doesn’t weigh any more than he did last summer—thin as a withy he is, still.”

  “Galahad? He could haul half the mountain and never notice. Fresh as a daisy, aren’t you, my little one?” Mr. Dando clucked to the horse—who was indeed of massive build—and shook up the reins; the wagon began to rumble slowly on down the cobbled hill while Arabis and Owen scrambled up the steps, under a bilingual notice which said, “Barbwr a Moddion. Barber & Medicine. Prydydd. Poet.”

  Once inside, Owen looked round with indescribable pleasure at the place which had been his happy home for two months as they travelled leisurely across southern England. And a snug, delightful home it made: the roof and sides were cunningly woven of latticed withies, which had a canvas facing within and without; a coat of pitch had rendered this weather-proof on the outside: inside it was whitewashed and Arabis, who had a decided talent for painting, had decorated it with a design of roses, cabbages, and daffodils. Red drugget covered the floor, and a fire burned in an iron stove. An aromatic smell came from the many bunches of herbs which hung overhead drying in the warmth, and on a high shelf stood pillboxes, medicine bottles, jars of ointment and papers of powder. Two shelf-beds were neatly made up and covered by patchwork quilts, while two more, strewn with cushions, were used as seats. A red baize curtain could divide the room in half but was at this moment drawn back. A table, fastened to the floor, had a kind of wicker fence to prevent dishes sliding off it if the wagon tilted. An oil lamp swung on a chain from the ceiling, throwing warm golden light and a never-ending procession of shadows. Pots, pans and some Bristol ware shone on a slatted shelf: everything there sparkled with cleanliness. From a hook on the wall dangled a gaily ribboned instrument, something between a violin and a mandolin; it was called a crwth.