When Mrs. Gray came back into the room, two boys followed her. They were about the same height, one dark-haired and solid, the other brown-haired and bony. Both were neatly dressed in flannel shorts, shirts and ties, outfits hardly to be distinguished from their school uniform, except that their jerseys were navy instead of grey. Stephen could not tell which was which until the brown-haired boy said, ‘I’m James, Mr. Cole. I’m in the form below the others but I expect you’ll need me as well as Nick, to explain things.’
Stephen glanced at Mrs. Gray, whose smile was brief.
‘Let’s see how we get on,’ she said and sat down.
The boys ranged themselves one on either side of the fireplace and gazed at Stephen. He would have liked to stand up and roam about but he could not make himself so much at home. He concentrated on the dark-haired boy.
‘The school sent for me last week, Nicholas, because I’m Hugo’s uncle. I’d like to hear his explanation for what happened but he won’t talk to me. Do you know what he did?’
Nicholas thought this over. James said, ‘He set fire to a heap of books in the school library.’
‘So they told me. But why? What drove him to do it? Was it a dare or a quarrel with other boys?’
They looked at him steadily and said nothing.
‘I’m not trying to put the blame on anyone else, but Hugo does not strike me as a mischievous boy or a malicious one,’ Stephen said.
Nicholas looked at his brother, who said, ‘Everyone calls him Howler, not Hugo. That’s what he’s used to.’
‘He goes into rages. Sometimes he can keep the lid on but others he works himself into a fit and howls until they cart him off to the sanatorium.’
‘I didn’t know.’ The school had said the boy was subject to nervous attacks but this was worse than Stephen had realised. ‘But the fire?’
Nicholas spoke for the first time. ‘He was angry about the ghost stories.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He didn’t want to listen when Mr. Fletcher read ghost stories to us after prep, but he wasn’t allowed to leave the room all week. He couldn’t bear any more so he tried to burn all the books with ghosts in them.’
‘It wouldn’t have worked,’ James said, ‘but being haunted makes it hard to think logically, I expect.’
Mrs. Gray’s body tightened but her voice was neutral. ‘What does that mean?’
James looked surprised. ‘It was only a little fire, Mother. But anyway, the books could have been replaced. Old boys are always giving books to the library.’
‘Not that, James.’ Stephen leaned forward. ‘Are you saying Hugo is haunted?’
‘He doesn’t like talking about it.’ James grimaced. ‘That’s why he keeps getting into trouble.’
Stephen looked across to Mrs. Gray, whose face was stiff, and then at Nicholas, who might have been listening to his brother conjugate Latin verbs. ‘Is this a joke, boys? Because I really am worried about Hugo.’
They both shook their heads. Stephen tried to think back to his own schooldays and decided that, if they had been teasing, they would have protested noisily. ‘All right, then. What makes you think he is haunted?’
James looked at Nicholas, who shrugged and said, ‘I can tell.’