Warings is full of suitcases: Charles and Edmund are almost ready to leave for school. Edmund looks at Charles all day, but Charles avoids eye contact and says nothing.
Charles is so frightened of Edmund, and going to school with Edmund, that even a look from Edmund upsets him.
When Edmund came back from Fielding’s farm, he didn’t say anything about his chart disappearing. This unnerved Charles—Charles had expected Edmund to be angry and complain to his father. As the days went on, Charles was even tempted to confront Edmund and admit what he’d done.
Charles wants a confrontation with Edmund, but instead Edmund ignores him. This only unnerves Charles further, and makes him increasingly uneasy—since he has failed to get the reaction he wanted, making him feel powerless.
Late at night, only a few hours before he’s supposed to leave for school, Charles wakes up. He hears the sound of paper scraping on the ground. He notices a note slipped under his door: “Something will happen to you, Kingshaw.” Charles reads the note and then gets back in bed. Then, “the nightmares began.”
Edmund leaves a note for Charles, echoing his earlier threat. The note is vague (almost comically so, as if Edmund is too lazy to come up with an actual threat). And yet this vagueness actually makes the note more terrifying to Charles. Charles’s imagination runs wild with the threat, releasing a flood of uncontrollable fears that he has developed during his time at Warings.
Charles wakes up very early. He gets out of bed and walks outside to the field. As he approaches the wood, he begins to get excited, remembering, “this was his place.” He walks deeper and deeper into the wood, repeating to himself, “This is all right.”
In the depths of his fear and anxiety, Charles goes to the one place where he truly feels comfortable: the wood. Here, far away from Warings, he feels confident and capable in a way that he never does around Edmund.
That morning, Helena wakes up, happy that her son is about to leave for school. Meanwhile, Charles arrives at the clearing in the wood by the stream, where the stones from the fire are still piled. He removes his clothes, puts his head underwater, and “breathed in a long, careful breath.”
Helena has no idea that her son is on the verge of ending his life. After what feels like years of torture from Edmund (even though it’s no more than a couple months), Charles can’t take it anymore: he escapes from Edmund in the only way he feels he has left by taking his own life. Charles’s suicide also recalls the manner in which he found Edmund floating in the stream. This suggests his identification with Edmund and, by extension, his irrational sense of guilt despite having only the best intentions. Finally, Charles’s suicide reflects his affinity for nature in its living, breathing forms. Ironically, though, “living, breathing” nature becomes the site for Charles’s death.
A short while later, Edmund finds Charles. As soon as it was discovered that Charles was missing, Edmund knew where to look for him. As Edmund sees Charles’s body in the water, he thinks, “It was because of me.” He feels triumphant.
The ultimate horror of the book is that Edmund, unlike Charles, feels no guilt whatsoever. He believes that he’s superior to Charles and thinks of Charles as a nuisance, fit only to be bullied. Edmund, it would seem, is a force of pure malevolence: totally void of “childish innocence,” he savors and celebrates Charles’s death.
Helena puts her arm around Edmund and tells him that everything is all right. Edmund smells Helena’s “perfumey smell” and listens to “the sound of the men, splashing through the water.”
The novel ends with the suggestion that Helena will marry Joseph and treat Edmund like her own son. Hill gives no indication that Helena feels much sadness for her child’s death. It’s almost as if Charles’s worst nightmare has come true: he doesn’t matter at all, Helena doesn’t care about him, and she loves Edmund more than she loves her own boy. In this way, the book comes to an appallingly bleak, even nihilistic ending.