ithout: fog, drifting in dim wreaths of sooty vapour between my dirty windows and the dismal frontage of the opposite side of a street of superior lodging-houses.
Within: A fire smouldering under a mountain of slack; chairs and tables and a looking-glass murkily reflecting my melancholy self, an Army List and a yellow envelope.
In the distance, the departing wheels of my doctor's brougham faintly audible for some moments longer; then silence, but for the ticking of the clock and the distant cry of an evening paper vendor.
"No organic disease," my doctor - my sole friend in London - had pronounced some ten minutes ago: "Considerable derangement of the nervous system: want of tone," etc. "Haven't you any friends who will give you a mount during the hunting season, or can't you get some shooting somewhere?" were the good man's last suggestions, with "Doesn't anybody want you for Christmas?" by way of post-script.
Wanted! save the mark! When had I been wanted in all my life? Not from my birth. That had been decidedly inconvenient to a gay young couple with limited means and a taste for society. Later on, in my school-boy lifetime, I was even less welcome, though the days of my parents' poverty were over. My pretty little baby-sister, who had judiciously deferred her advent for six years after mine, was quite as much of "a family" as my graceful young mother cared to produce. I was too big, too ugly, and, I am afraid, too out-spoken to be a desirable addition to her home circle.
I don't think I was wanted in my regiment when I joined, being quiet, poor and unsocial; not a type cherished by the gallant 200th.
I was still one too many when my father died; and the remains of his property, when collected and divided into three, proved such a miserable pittance for my mother and sister that I could but "efface myself" as speedily as possible, resign my claim to a share, and effect an exchange to India.
I think there I had a brief delusion that my existence was necessary to somebody. Once a quarter came an elegant little acknowledgment from my mother of the small allowance my Indian pay enabled me to make her, and now and then was enclosed a schoolgirl scrawl - very cheering and heart-warming to read - from my little sister, Clarice.
I had just got into the way of looking forward to mail-days and trying to make my letters home interesting and provocative of replies, when I received the announcement of Clarice's marriage to somebody in the city; and, directly after, of my mother's engagement to M le Vicomte de Pignerolles. I despatched the handsomest pair of wedding presents my finances would allow to Madame la Vicomtesse and Mrs Van Schendal, and dropped out of their lives, less wanted than ever.
I never meant to return to England. Why should I? I had made some "skin-deep" friendships in India, and stuck to my work there - I really believe because I was wanted at it.
However, they sent me home. "The man's dying, and won't believe it," I overheard the old surgeon say. I did believe it, but I didn't happen to care. Not the saintliest recluse could hold more lightly to the things of this world than did I. My days were numbered? Good. It was no wish of mine to prolong or shorten them. I would return to England, get the best medical advice and act on it. I would set my affairs in order - a light labour that - and without either conscious bravado or resignation, await the end.
So now, to carry out my good physician's parting prescription, "Look up some friends," I had announced my arrival to my sister, and had made my way to Van Schendal's office in the city. He was in Amsterdam on business, the big house in Grosvenor Square shut up, and Mrs Van Schendal away on a round of visits. Madame la Vicomtesse was at Nice; hoped to be in town in May and make me known to her Maxime.
An old brother officer met me and asked me to dinner at the club; and a man I had known and been of some slight service to in India gave me two days' shooting in Lincolnshire. So far I had obeyed my medical friend's orders. I had tried sight-seeing, theatre-going, small expeditions in different directions, but the sense of friendlessness only grew more burdensome, and I had returned, almost gladly, to the familiar hideousness of my lodging-house surroundings.
I stood for some time, I remember, looking out into the sea of swirling dinginess that grew denser every moment, and then, chilled and disheartened, turned to my fire. A cloud of black smoke and a cataract of coal-dust descending into the fender was the sole result of my operations with the poker, so I gave it up and rang for assistance and candles.
"A telegram!" I exclaimed with languid surprise. "How did it get here?" I remembered something being brought into the room while my doctor was with me, but had forgotten the fact. I waited till lights came, and then opened it incuriously.
"From Sir Thos. Waldron, Broadstone, Marlby, Yorks, to Capt. Basil Acton, 14, Atherton Place, London. - Just heard of your arrival. Welcome home. Come to us at once for Christmas, and as much longer as possible."
A full shillingsworth of kindliness, and every word of it genuine. An actual physical glow of warmth and comfort suffused me as I read.
Sir Thomas Waldron is my cousin, the head of our family. He had crossed my path in life several times, and never without doing me some kindness; but that was long ago; and since then he had quarrelled first with my father and then with my mother, and I never expected to be remembered by him.
The invitation touched me deeply. It may seem odd, but had I been free to choose, I should have declined it. I shrank now from forming new ties to life.
"He'll not see the year out," my old Indian Army surgeon had said of me, and I believed him. "No organic disease, no functional derangement," my London friend assured me, with a perplexed face, and I believed him too. Only a gradual failing of the principle of life - call it what you will. Days of weakness, nights of wakeful torture. I shrank from inflicting myself and my miseries on a gay, hospitable household, such as I imagined the Waldrons' to be, and took pen and paper to send a grateful refusal. Then, moved by something in the very look of the telegram as it lay before me, I hastily scribbled a few lines, telling, as briefly as I could, what it has taken me all these pages to explain, and, mistrustful of my own resolution, sent it to be posted without further delay.
So it came to pass that three days before Christmas I found myself in the train, speeding northwards through clear, keen moorland air; leaving London fog and mud two hundred miles behind.
It was a plunge into a new life to alight at the little station where every creature knew at once that I was come on a visit to Sir Thomas, and took a personal interest in me from that moment. The station-master, the porter, the sedate old coachman who met me with the brougham, the old goody at the lodge gate, all beamed broad welcomes from their honest Yorkshire faces.
The stately ranges of windows twinkled hospitably in the southern sunlight, and under the portico stood waiting my cousin Thomas himself, his grey hair blowing about in the wind, and his blue eyes shining with cordial greeting.
"My dear fellow! I am glad to see you. Come in, come in! Ismay, my dear! Here he is!" and he led me into the hall where Lady Waldron was waiting.
Two soft little hands were put into mine, two clear dark eyes shone on me like kindly stars, and before the sweet low voice had ceased the music of its welcome, I was taken possession of, body and soul, and held captive in a bondage that will last my life.
This is no harrowing romance of love and guilt. I do not covet my neighbour's wife any more than I do the great iron-grey hunter that comes next in his affections. She is old enough to be my mother. Her hair is snowy white, and her sweet old face criss-crossed by many a wrinkle; but Ismay Waldron is one of those born queens of hearts whom age cannot depose, and I am the humblest of her subjects.
"Come and have some luncheon," spoke Sir Thomas, breaking in on my trance of admiration. "We are alone to-day. Everyone gone to a breakfast and drag-hunt at the Barracks. It's quite a treat to have time to speak to one another; eh, Ismay?"
"Let me first show Basil his rooms," she said, "that he may know where to retreat when he has had enough of us."
My bed-room was a queer, many-angled chamber in the corner of the building, looking northward.
"Bad for an invalid, I know," Lady Waldron said, "but we had no other to spare. You must live here as much as possible."
She flung open a door into a flood of western sunshine pouring through two large mullioned windows into what was manifestly a lady's boudoir filled with all sorts of feminine prettinesses.
"This is my special den, but I gladly give it up to you. I honestly prefer the children's old school-room. This is to be your special attendant. Give him your orders. You are to live here and visit us only when it so pleases you. I alone reserve the right of intruding on you. Now you must remember the geography of the place. That door behind the piano is fastened up. It opens into my dressing-room, but I never used it except in summer. The opposite one leads into your bed-room, and this one into the passage, on to which our rooms open (you see my present sitting-room is just across it), and so to the main staircase. You are sure to lose yourself once or twice at first. Nothing in this house ever ends where you naturally expect it should."
We returned to my bed-room, which had another entrance and a separate staircase and corridor all to itself, dim with borrowed lights and ghostly with flapping tapestry, but convenient as communicating with the servants' hall, where my appointed guardian angel, Micklethwaite by name, was to be found.
Much to Sir Thomas's satisfaction, after luncheon I professed myself equal to the inspection of the Home Farm - his pride and delight, and we three set out for a tour of the place.
Broadstone is a low, castellated grey pile, a famous stronghold in its day. The sun, wind and rain of centuries have worked their will on the grim old building, mellowing and softening, crumbling off angles, yellowing the roofs with lichen and hanging the battlements with ivy till it seems to have grown into one with the great crag on which it stands. The Waldrons have held it for generations. May their names be long in the land!
"I see some of our guests have returned," Lady Waldron said, as we passed the lighted library windows. "Had you not better come in and meet them by degrees, instead of en masse at dinner?"
I assenting, we made our way to the open door through which a rush of firelight and gentle clamour of high-bred voices streamed out into the cold dark hall.
A tall girl, with a beautiful figure, in a tight satin gown, formed the centre of a group round the heart, and was speaking loudly and decisively.
"Guinevere, of course, or Brunhilda. There cannot be two opinions on the subject. Herr von Kreifeldt's golden love-locks and wavy beard are too unspeakably precious in these close-cropped days to be wasted. Is there no other legend of Arthur?"
"Elaine," suggested somebody.
"Who's to be Lancelot? He must be an utter contrast; and where we are to find anybody gaunt and hollow-eyed, and heavy-moustached, and world-weary, and generally bilious-looking enough..."
The speaker stopped short as her gaze met mine; so short that I at once felt an assurance that she was afraid I should consider her remarks personal.
Lady Waldron glided in gently amongst them, introducing me quietly and rapidly. "Captain Acton, Miss Fordyce, Major Grimshaw, Sir Derwent Freemantle, Mrs Charles Halliday," and some half-dozen more; and then let me sink unobserved into a big chair in a dim corner.
Tableaux Vivants"A silent and motionless representation of a character, scene, incident, etc., by a person or group of people"
Definition from The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary Oxford University Press, 1993.
I was dimly amused at it all. The figures and voices seemed to belong to some shadowy region of visions that I was powerless to enter or approach. I felt beyond it all in some way, as though I were a ghostly visitant watching the scenes in which I might once have taken part. Only my cousin Ismay's voice and touch seemed to reach me now and then across the gulf. Then the sounds grew fainter in my ears - the lights dimmer. A deadly faintness seized me, and I struggled to my feet and hurried dizzily from the room. Sir Thomas met me in the hall, and helped me to my own quarters, where he left me under Micklethwaite's care for the rest of the evening.
"I should never have come," I was protesting miserably to myself in a fit of self-reproach after my solitary dinner, when the door opened suddenly, and a gracious vision shone in on me - Cousin Ismay in her shimmering satin and soft old lace.
"You did too much for your first day," she said. "No, don't stir. We don't know how to take care of invalids in this house. No one has ever ailed anything since Steevie came home from Oxford with a broken collar-bone."
I don't know how it came about, but ten minutes later I was talking to her as I had never done to mortal in my life before, telling her thoughts and feelings that I had never dreamt of putting into words, led on by the magnetism of her dark, kind eyes. She sighed when I ceased, but made no effort to contradict or soften my last words. "I am a dying man, Cousin Ismay, and your goodness only makes me feel that there is something in the world that I might have prized and lost."
"And Clarice?" she asked.
I smiled, not bitterly, but indifferently.
"Does Clarice count for nothing with you? Dear girl! I have been looking foward to your home-coming so much on her account. If only you were always at hand to fill a want in her life, as no on else can."
"I! Clarice!" I exclaimed, in blank amaze.
"Poor little child! We all love her very dearly. It is through her we seem to have known you so well all these years. You have been her hero, her ideal, from her childhood. I think she chafed impatiently under the idea that your life and prospects were crippled to support her lately, and that your mother rather worked on the feeling in Mr Van Schendal's behalf."
I gave an impatient start; but Ismay went on composedly, gazing thoughtfully at the fire.
"He is a good sort of man in his way: kind to her, but immersed, body and soul, in his business, and she is such a child - poor, lonely Clarice! How glad she will be to come here to us!"
I sat too stupefied to ask more, and Cousin Ismay presently left me to muse, with a pang of bitter sweetness, that there were more in the world to regret me than I should have counted on.
I strove hard to repay my host's kindness next day by resolutely abandoning all semblance of invalidism; went with Sir Thomas to the County Town, on magistrate's business, in the morning; drove with Ismay, and some of her guests, to an "At Home" in the afternoon, and actually promised to ride to the meet next day.
"I'll find you a very quiet mount," Sir Thomas said; thereby intensifying my determination to follow the hounds at all hazards.
I faced the dinner-party that evening - a large one, augmented by guests arrived for the Christmans festivities. Miss Fordyce fell to my lot, and I honestly tried to adjust my ideas to hers, with faint success. The rest of the evening I felt I might righteously shirk, and made my way to the library, to say "Good-night" to Sir Thomas, who had some writing to do there. I found the room empty, however, and dropped into an arm-chair by the fire, awaiting him in a lazy, pleasantly tired, frame of mind and body.
That red curtain? I hadn't noticed it before. Had it been drawn across the picture since I was last in the room? Or had the corner always been in shadow till that big log split asunder and rolled on the hearth in flaming fragments?
There was a family portrait, dingy and indistinguishable, in each of the other recesses between the book-shelves. What did this frame hold? What concern was it of mine? Something old and classic, as valuable as improper, I supposed. I was quite awake now, sitting bolt-upright and staring at the thing. I might just as well get up altogether, and settle my mind by crossing the room and drawing the curtain. I would.
Bah! What is there in the touch of red velvet that should make me shudder and sicken? I could no more grasp that curtain strongly and draw it aside than I could touch a slimy reptile without a qualm. What ails my nerves? Over-wrought, most certainly; or why do I stand gazing blankly at that veiled picture: nailed to the spot, yet with a sense of mysterious dread and repulsion thrilling every nerve?
Here Sir Thomas entered briskly, and I turned to him.
"What is that?" I asked briefly.
"That? Oh, nothing, nothing! - an old family portrait: a shocking bad one. You don't want to see it, eh?" he said hurriedly.
"But I do - most particularly."
Sir Thomas thrust his hands into his pockets, and took an impatient turn up and down the room, visibly bothered.
"Tut, tut! What will Ismay say? She so particularly said you mustn't. Now what do you want to see it for?"
"I don't know; only I feel as if I should have no peace till I did."
"Oh, come; that settles it," and he extended his hand to the curtain - then withdrew it suddenly. "Ismay said something about your nerves, I know. Now, do you think it can do any harm? All of us but you have seen it, and nobody is any the worse," and again he approached his hand, hesitatingly, this time. "Of course, the legend is all bosh, you understand. You don't believe it?"
"How can I tell when I don't know it?"
"Oh, then, it's all right!"
And Sir Thomas, evidently relieved in mind, pulled aside the velvet folds, disclosing a faded canvas.
Only a girl's portrait - a slim young figure, in a dress of the early Stuart period: grey, fur-trimmed, with a silver girdle, at which hung an ostrich-feather fan. Her hair was tucked back under a velvet hood, and in one hand she held a riding-mask. Such were the details, painted with little art, but none could dwell on them, so agonizingly realistic was the expression of horror in the large grey eyes and drawn mouth.
A face to haunt one, not from any beauty of its own - a face of one stricken to death or madness by some ghastly terror.
I shuddered and turned away, and Sir Thomas dropped the curtain.
"Who is it?" I asked, with an effort.
"Bless me! Do you mean to say you never heard of her? Our (and your) great-great-great-great-great-great - yes, that's right, six greats - grandmother, Lady Sybilla Waldron, the beautiful young woman who bewitched our geat-great-etc.-grandfather, and played the deuce's own game with the property. An abandoned young hussy! She shut the poor old boy up in one of the towers while she and her disreputable crew of acquaintances held high jinks in the place. There was a handsome young scapegrace, son of the steward. Well, well, it's an ugly bit of family history - they say she went mad after her baby was born, and I'm sure I charitably hope so," blundered Sir Thomas. "Anyhow, it was believed that she meant to dispose of our unlucky old progenitor, and marry him as soon as might be, and some kind neighbour thought fit to send a warning off to the eldest son, her step-son, then serving in the Low Countries. Home he came post-haste. His servant fell ill at York, and he pushed on alone. Crossing the wildest part of Whinstanes Moor, he met with a reception, kindly arranged by his step-mother, that had all but put an end to his military career on the spot. Half-a-dozen armed varlets set on him, but thanks to his admirable swordsmanship and the fleetness of his good grey mare, he escaped them , and arrived at Broadstone in the height of the Christmas merry-making. The neighbours had gathered from far and near to welcome him, the poor old squire doddering feebly about in their midst, with Lady Sybilla at his side, the gayest of the gay."
"A pretty story," I remarked.
"Very! She welcomed her step-son lovingly, led him to receive his half-blind father's blessing, and, with much presence of mind, handed him a goblet of hot spiced wine, into which a special flavouring of her own had been dropped. He bowed courteously and pledged her; but before his lips had touched the cup, there was a clamour without, and two men entered bearing a third, stiff and stark, just as young Waldron had left him on the Whinstanes Moor. It was one of the ruffians who had attacked him, he said. But when they laid him in the light of the fire, then Lady Sybilla gave one awful shriek and seizing the cup from her step-son's hand, drained it to the dregs, and fell senseless on the body of her lover. She died that night, raving mad. It saved her from a trial for murder and witchcraft, possibly. Anyhow, they buried her respectably in the family vault, and young Waldron stayed at home taking care of the property and his little half-brother, who eventually succeeded to it."
"Then we are descended from her?" I asked distastefully, as Sir Thomas finished the story, which came out with a fluency born of frequent narration.
"Of course we are, or we should never have heard more of her, I suppose."
"Why, what do we hear?"
"There, there" If I haven't let the cat out of the bag! Ismay says I'm never to be trusted! And you, of all people!" Sir Thomas rubbed his white head in vexation, till I expected to see sparks fly out of it. "Not a word to Basil till next week, at least, were her very words!"
"Why next week? And why not to me?"
"Because, don't you see, Christmas will be safely over then, and you won't be able to fancy anything, you know. If you were to suppose you saw her, in your state of health, of course you might go dwelling on it. It's been a legend of the place ever since I can remember. She passes through the house on Christmas Eve, they say, entering all the rooms, and imploring pardon from her descendants. If anyone had presence of mind to bid her 'Go in peace,' why, I suppose that would put a stop to it."
"Then why doesn't someone?"
"Because, you see, my dear boy, nobody can see her. Anyone who does is fated to die before the New Year is in; at least, so they say: but then nobody has seen her. Then again, nobody has died, so that disproves nothing."
"Is that all? Well, I don't feel much the worse for it, somehow. I'll not betray you to Lady Waldron; and if my wicked ancestress pays me a visit to-morrow night, I'll keep the fact to myself. I hope I shall remember the appropriate remark!"
"Don't, don't! My dear fellow, for mercy's sake don't talk as if you could possibly do such a thing! What? Going already? Good-night, then, good-night. No stars to-night and the barometer gently falling. Ha, ha!"
As I walked down the dimly-lighted passage to my room, I thought how, only a night or two ago, I might have welcomed the fancy that perhaps for me there was a summons on the way from the Shadowland. Only a fancy; yet I had a curious wish that next night were over and the legend discredited.
"A southerly wind and a cloudy sky" next morning. A gay breakfast, a lawn meet and a day's sport in every way satisfactory to the M.F.H. and the noble earl whose covers we drew. My "quiet mount" was a knowing old hunter whose sagacity balanced my inexperience and brought me through the day with credit. I was glad to turn homewards as soon as I fairly could, and plodded unsociably back through the muddy lanes long before "Barnabas" thought proper.
I came in unobserved, dog-tired, and had been asleep on my sofa for some time before I was aware of voices close at hand. My cousin Thomas, from his dressing-room, was carrying on a conversation with his wife across the passage, evidently under the impression that they had that part of the house to themselves.
"We shall make a man of him yet. I never despair of any fellow who can ride straight and take a joke. It's rousing he wants - that's all. Can't you find him a wife, Ismay? Eh? - Miss Fordyce? Not a bit of it. you wait and see. I'm going to send him in to dinner to-morrow with that little Carruthers girl..."
Here I sprang from my sofa and softly closed my door on the rest of his benevolent intentions.
All the sudden rush of energy that had carried me through the last two days seemed exhausted. I spent the evening in solitude, except for a bright ten minutes when Ismay beamed in on me, followed by Sir Thomas, jovial and urgent that I should shake off the blues and join them downstairs. "It's enough to give you the horrors, moping up here; you'll get to fancying all sorts of things," with a meaning nod of ominous significance.
I read myself weary, now and then breaking off to think of Clarice, my little unknown sister, whom Ismay's revelations had set in so different a light. It was late before I went to bed; though, judging from the far away bursts of merriment that faintly reached me, long before the rest of the party. I slept soundly, and woke to hear the carol-singers in the courtyard under my window.
As I tried to follow them, the great turret clock slowly struck out midnight over the singers' heads. Its great resonant bell mixed so discordantly with the shrill minor lilt that I half laughed out to myself while waiting patiently for the final stroke.
I started up with the last sonorous boom. What was that step on the floor? Across my dark floor streamed a river of shining moonlight, and bathed in its rays stood a woman, grey and spectral.
I knew her. Her gleaming girdle and fur-trimmed gown, her eyes dilated with sudden terror, and her lips parted with a voiceless cry of agony!
Only for a second could I bear the gaze of the frenzied eyes. I sprang up, speechless in my bewilderment, and dashed forward to seize or strike, I hardly knew which, the phantom; but ere my foot touched the streak of moonlight, it was gone. I saw its white arms tossed wildly in the air; I heard the ghostly rustle of its garments just for one instant; then, stumbling forward into the darkness, I struck violently against the open door of my sitting-room, and nearly fell.
When I recovered myself, all was still and dark. I hastily lighted my candle and commenced a careful and exhaustive search of the two rooms. It proved perfectly fruitless, as I expected it would.
Had I been dreaming? No. I could repeat the words of the carol to which I had been listening, and which was still shrilling itself to an end outside.
Was it a practical joke? Oddly enough, the reason that prevented my searching the corridor also disposed of that theory. Simultaneously with the carols and the clock had commenced the sound of Sir Thomas's voice outside in converse with Ismay. I had gently opened my door and seen her sitting at her writing-table in the opposite room, while Sir Thomas seemed to be wandering in and out, exchanging desultory observations in a lower tone than usual, out of deference to my supposed slumbers.
Their presence effectually guarded my apartments from invasion on that side.
As to the second door of my bed-room, the slightest movement caused such a crazy creaking of its ancient frame, that I had locked it on Micklethwaite's departure that night, and locked it remained.
I put out my light and sank into a chair, startled, yet on the whole rather surprised at myself for not being more excited and impressed. My pulse was beating regularly. There was no tremor in my hand when I held it up before me, black against the moonlight. My head felt clear, my wits alert. I was in a perfectly calm and reasonable frame of mind, and yet, try as I would, I could neither explain away, nor persuade myself of the unreality of my shadowy visitor. Every detail of her appearance rose before me, distinct as a photograph. The great rippling mass of fair hair from which the velvet hood had fallen back, the long white arms flashing up suddenly from out the falling fur-edged sleeves, the silver clasps to her gown and the broidered pouch hanging at her girdle; just the little variations from the picture in the library that would mark the original, instead of the copy.
Then it was true, the family tradition, and if true...?
I started from my chair impatiently. I had fancied that when my summons came I should hail it as a sailor the sight of land; I should rejoice as a prisoner at the striking off of his fetters; whereas I felt recklessly, wrathfully defiant. My hold on life grew strong with the clutch of desperation; a fierce thirst for its joy of which I had lived defrauded seemed to consume me.
"Six days more to live? Good. Let them pay me for the years I have lost. I spoke half aloud.
A sighing echo from the raftered roof seemed to reply to me as I threw myself on my bed, where I slept heavily and dreamlessly into the morning.
Christmas Day dawned bright and gladsome.
I thought of my pledge to Sir Thomas, and carefully avoided any appearance of singularity. I joined the church-going party, went round with Ismay, assisting in the distribution of her Christmas gifts; lent a hand at the Rectory Christmas-tree and magic-lantern; and, courageously descending to the drawing-room just as dinner was announced, offered my arm to Miss Fordyce, to her sovereign amazement. She evidently was not going to waste her fine eyes and powers of conversation on me, and, Major Grimshaw being her other neighbour, I was soon relegated to obscurity.
On my other hand sat a young girl of some eighteen or nineteen summers, whom I heard Sir Thomas address as "Miss Bell," in an un-come-out style of dress, with manners to correspond. At least, she was looking down and blushing so violently, when I noticed her, at the remarks of her neighbour that I could not help lending an ear.
"Deed, and ye are joost overpowering to us puir ignorant bodies, Miss Bell. Why, the puir curate laddie was fain to rin away at your approach; he judged ye wad be treckling him anent his deveenity, and maybe his metapheesics. Hech! hech!" spoke he, in a melodious Glaswegian accent, ending with an exasperating crackling laugh that drew all surrounding eyes on him and his victim. Miss Bell suddenly plucked up a spirit, and turned on him.
"Indeed, Professor McCraw, you are quite mistaken. I know nothing of divinity or metaphysics either; and Mr Pinkerton knows I don't. He was only asking what I had been reading lately, and I told him where I had got to in the 'History of Our Own Times,' and asked what he thought of McCarthy's views of disestablishment," she protested, in a clear, girlish voice.
"And then ye deleevered yourself finely about the land question. Puir Sir Thomas! Ye left him na leg to stand upon. We must have ye in Parliament, Miss Bell."
The girl turned away her head. I could see her eyes were full of tears of mortification, and her voice choked as she tried to reply. I poured her out a glass of water, and she looked at me gratefully.
"You feel the room too hot," I said."Let me get you some ice."
"It's not that," she said simply. "I was silly and vexed; that was all. It is so hard to know what to say to people. I never meant to say anything wrong to Mr Pinkerton or Sir Thomas, but they were both shocked at me."
"The Rev. Percy Pinkerton is easily shocked, I should imagine. Sir Thomas was only pretending," I replied with decision. She looked cheered, and went on.
"I was so glad to meet Professor McCraw. I thought he would have helped me to understand one of his books that I like so much; but he has done nothing but make jokes and try to set everybody laughing at me; and then I get into trouble with mamma. She says she wishes I had never been educated at all, sometimes."
"Don't talk to that Scotch brute, then. Let him feed in silence."
"But how can I help it, when he took me in to dinner?"
"Talk to me," was my prompt reply. "There, be quick! He's going to say something else. Here, let us look at this menu card."
"Aw'm thinking..." began the Professor, with a solemn clearing of his throat.
"Don't turn your head," I whispered; "keep steady."
"Aw'm thinking, Miss Bell, it's joost a question o'..."
"Oh, I must listen to him," said Miss Bell, lifting her laughing brown eyes to mine.
"On no consideration! Fix your mind on the entrées."
"Miss Bell! d'ye mind..." But here Miss Bell threw down her menu and fairly burst into a fit of girlish laughter, so utterly disconcerting to the great McCraw that he refused curried oysters in a voice of thunder, and was speechless for the rest of the repast.
"Oh, I'm such an unlucky girl!" sighed my new friend. "I'm always doing or saying the wrong thing. The frightful scrapes I get into are past telling. I don't know how I shall ever get on in society - and I am to come out next season."
I tried to look brimful of sympathy. She was a frank, fresh slip of a lass, with hair cut short on a well-shaped little head. Light, soft hair that made downly little curls on her white forehead and in the pretty curve of her slender neck behind her ears. Her eyes were brown, and had the full, unconscious gaze of a child.
"I've only been forty-eight hours in this house and I've offended six people at least, and done some dreadful things besides." She ended her confession, and then sank into silent meditation. I left her in peace for ten minutes, after which she suddenly asked my opinion of the Game Laws, which I gave her, and the conversation flowed briskly for the rest of the dinner.
"Oh, must we go!" she exclaimed, as Ismay rose. "I'm so sorry. I wish you might take me in to dinner all the time I am here!"
"I will if I can," I promised her, and she departed; leaving gloves, fan, handkerchief and a bracelet on her chair and under the table. All of which I carefully collected.
When we joined the ladies, Miss Bell was at the piano, labouring through a lengthy sonata, which came to a sudden stop on our entrance, as she jumped off the music stool. There was a general protest.
"I can't go on! It's too bad. I don't know why I ever began it," she cried.
"Isabel!" exclaimed her mother, with deep reproach. "Can you do nothing? She practises three hours a day, Lady Waldron. I insist on it, and yet she says she hates it!"
"I'll sing - if I must do something," cried Isabel. "I like doing that." And she sat down again, and began in a clear, young, pathetic voice -
"A place in they memory, dearest,
Is all I ask or claim;
To pause and look back when thou hearest
The sound of my name."
"Good-night, Basil," said Ismay to me on parting. "A merry Christmas to you! I wouldn't obey my lord and master, and send you in to dinner with the heiress; but you got on very well, nevertheless."
I went off down my corridor with "A place in thy memory, dearest," ringing in my ears; but as I entered my dark, solemn old chamber, all the past day's doings seemed to slip away from me, and I stood face to face with the fact - One day gone; one day nearer the end. Five days more.
I fumed at my own folly and superstition as I made the calculation, but half in jest pursued it. Then, in another day, I ought to leave. I must not die here. I should write to Ismay; and to Clarice a farewell from her unknown brother. I could leave both letters with Sir Thomas to be delivered this day week, when all was over. The New Year's Eve tableaux and ball would have gone off successfully, I reflected with grim satisfaction, before the news would reach here. How would they take it? That quaint young person with the brown eyes and frank, boyish ways?
Sunday morning, fair and frosty. Growls from the hunting men, jubilations from the skaters, more church going, and then a moorland ramble in a party a dozen strong, up to some point where the next county would be seen - if that were any object.
"Let me walk with you," Miss Bell had asked at starting, with her odd, shy, abrupt manner. Her thick sealskin hid her angles, and her little fur cap brought out the clear, creamy whiteness of her complexion. The sharp north wind kissed two little rose-blooms into her cheeks and made her eyes bright. She looked prettier and more ignorant of the fact than I could have thought possible.
We had reached a fine breezy height, and had come upon an upland pool, already skinned over with thin ice, when she turned to me suddenly.
"Why did you say you should not be here to see me skate?"
"I leave for town to-morrow," I answered shortly.
"Then I lose the only friend I possess in this place," she cried despairingly; "just as I was going to show you I could do something decently. I have gone through a good deal from Miss Fordyce since I came, and I was in hopes of taking it out of her when we got on the ice together. Do stay and see me do it. The ponds will bear by Tuesday."
There was not a trace of coquetry in her direct glance, only honest regret at losing a good comrade. It was a little thing to do for anyone, so I gave the required promise, and she brightened up forthwith and began chattering cheerily. About the good days of long ago, when she had her brother "Algy" for a companion, and all the fun they had together; when she was of no importance whatever, and might learn as she liked, or play as she liked, and "life was worth having."
"And now?" I asked sympathetically, for her voice grew unsteady, and her pretty eyes dropped and then lifted themselves to mine, shining through tears.
"Oh, don't you know? Algy died - and I am the unlucky heiress to the great Carruthers property!"
"You! Miss Bell?"
"Yes. Isabel Carruthers; that's my name. Didn't you know? Then I wish I'd never told you!"
What did it matter? Poor little woman, she would pass out of my life like the rest. Meanwhile, if she did care for my gloomy company, it was a small concession to make. So we tramped on briskly, and she told me more about herself and her surroundings; of the nun-like seclusion in which her anxious mother kept her, except when "Daddy" interfered, and let her run wild, took her out hunting and shooting, and tried to make a good man of business of her; of her secret dread of next season, and her presentation.
"Think of all I have to go through before I marry!" she sighed.
"Marry?" I asked, startled at the incongruousness of the idea.
"I suppose I must, some day," she answered innocently, "after I come out. Mamma has settled that I am to meet him in town. Oh, it's no one in particular. Only someone who will manage the property well and be kind to me, and won't object to being Mr Carruthers."
She gave her shoulders a shrug, as if to dismiss the subject.
"The New Year's Eve Ball!" she suddenly exclaimed. "Are you not coming back for that? And the tableaux next Friday? You will be here? No! Why, where shall you be?"
Next Friday! It was too ghastly. I evaded the question.
"Tell me about your dress. Are you going to act?"
She didn't answer for a moment, and when I looked at her was blushing as redly as when under torture by Professor McCraw.
"I'm to be the Novice in the Guinevere tableaux," she said hastily. "Dress from Worth; plain, but ever so costly."
The subject seemed distasteful, so I dropped it.
I don't remember much of the next two days. They flew past with fearful speed, pleasant beyond anything I could have imagined. I felt the courage of desperation possessing me, and threw myself into all the amusement going, Isabel aiding and abetting me.
On Tuesday came a pile of letters. One from Clarice, the first that I had received since her brief acknowledgment of her wedding present. A loving outburst of delight at the thought of our meeting. She was giving up all other visits, and speeding northwards as fast as possible. Paul had been so kind. He would write himself to me. I was to stay with them; give up India altogether if I liked, and live with them.
I don't mind saying that here I broke down utterly, and cried like a child over the gorgeous be-crested paper, with the scrawly, untidy writing. Paul Van Schendal's letter was kind and brotherly, if somewhat stiff and business-like, and I laid them down with a pang of regret, stronger than anything I believed it was in me to feel.
Here it was; Wednesday; my last day here. I packed my things, wrote a line to Ismay, and rang for Micklethwaite to order the dog-cart. I had fabricated some story of important business in town to excuse my stealing away like a thief in the night - hence to die. I looked at the reflection of myself in my glass with incredulity. I had never felt so young, so strong, so full of the joy of living. What fatality was on my track with silent, hurrying footsteps? Be it what it might, it must not overtake me here. Let me be alone to meet my doom, away from the kind hearts that might grieve for me.
"A place in thy memory, dearest," sang a clear voice outside.
Isabel's! I sprang up and hurried down the corridor to the great staircase. She was flying down two steps at a time as she sang. Into the library she flitted. I following.
"You here!" she cried, facing round on me suddenly. "I thought everyone was skating on the mere, and I had the house to myself. I am stopping at home to receive my dear old daddy, you know; and I thought I had a chance of being naughty!"
"How!" I asked.
For all answer she skipped on a chair, and flung back the curtain from the well-remembered picture. I started and winced.
"You wretch!" she cried, addressing it. "I wanted a good look at you. You began all my disasters here. You know all about her, don't you, Captain Acton?"
"Yes," I said, absently; "I believe I do."
"Then I wish you'd tell me. I only know it's something very solemn and dreadful, that one mustn't allude to at Broadstone on any consideration. Oh, I must tell you! You'll keep my secret, won't you? I was going to wear a beautiful, real old fancy dress at the ball, worn by my own ancestress, Christina Carruthers. You have heard of her? No! Why, it's a bit of English history; but never mind now. I told Lady Waldron about it, and she seemed put out, and at last brought me here and showed me this. I suppose everybody's ancestors dressed like everybody else's," in an aggrieved tone. "But it was very much like my get-up, and she implored me not to wear it. Sir Thomas would be made dreadfully uncomfortable; take it as a bad joke, and I don't know what. In short, it was just one of my blunders, and it ended in my giving up the dress and being made into a judy, just to show off Miss Fordyce." She came to a sudden pause. "That's all."
"No, it isn't," I exclaimed impulsively. "Tell me, did you never wear that dress?"
"Oh, don't ask me!" implored the poor girl, putting her hands to her face, and flying to the door.
I got there first - I caught her hands - I begged, besought, implored. I believe she thought I was mad, for she stood shrinking from me, with the white scared look on her face of the portrait above her.
"I don't know what you mean. You are too good and kind - too much of a gentleman, to tease me. If you please, I would rather not say anything about it - unless it is to do some real good."
"Won't you take my word for it that it is?" I pleaded. She nodded assent, and after a moment's consideration, with quite a new manner, grave and dignified, in spite of her trembling lips, began:
"It was another of my blunders. I wanted to show Lady Waldron my dress, and she told me to put it on and come to her room that night. I waited till the house was quiet, and then ran to her sitting-room where I always used to find her when I stayed here before. But I got bewildered at finding it dark and empty; and hearing Sir Thomas's voice in the passage outside, I knew there was a door into the dressing-room and tried to find it. And so I - I..."
"Frightened somebody else more than he frightened you, I dare say," I added lightly, trying to jest away the poor girl's obvious misery. "How did you escape Sir Thomas?"
"I rushed out again, right into Lady Waldron's arms. When his back was turned for a moment, she pushed me behind the portière of the opposite room without saying a word, and sat down, pretending to write till he was safely shut up in his own room. She was dreadfully annoyed, and made me promise never to tell the story. Very likely that I should, wasn't it? I had all my hair cut off that very night, for fear anybody should have seen me and might recognise me. And now you have made me break my word, and I can't imagine why."
I dropped her hands; I walked away to the window, and stood staring blankly out. So she had been the ghost in my room after all! Was I relieved - thankful? I don't know. I felt too like an utter fool to take account of any other sensation. Micklethwaite and the dog-cart passed outside. Should I go? Should I stay? Whatever I did, I should do it with a bad grace. - And Isabel?
She was standing as I had left her, gazing at me in forlorn dismay, the corners of her mouth twitching piteously.
"My dear! my dear! what a brute I am! Don't look like that. You are a good, kind, brave girl, and I owe you an explanation, only - only - what will you think of me when you hear it?"
"Why, you are not afraid of my opinion!" she cried, her eyes beginning to bighten again. "Let us cover up the horrid old creature and say nothing more about her for ever, if you like. There! Now for the explanation!"
I sent the dog-cart away and tore up my letters to Clarice and Ismay. Isabel must have her explanation, and here it is. Dare I give it to her? Ismay has followed me from the ball-room and reads it over my shoulder with a kind smile and a sigh.
"Why not accept the omen?" she says. "Perhaps you only misread it. It may have been a summons to a newer and happier life before the Old Year should end that Isabel was sent to bring you. Nay, I will prophecy that it was so. Hark - the bells! Isabel loves you, Basil, and you love her. You have only to accept your happiness. Come to her, and welcome new life and hopes with the New Year."
And led by her kind hand I go.