CHAPTER I – The George and Dragon
The pretty little town of Golden Friars—standing by the margin of the lake, hemmed round by an amphitheatre of purple mountain, rich in tint and furrowed by ravines, high in air, when the tall gables and narrow windows of its ancient graystone houses, and the tower of the old church, from which every evening the curfew still rings, show like silver in the moonbeams, and the black elms that stand round throw moveless shadows upon the short level grass—is one of the most singular and beautiful sights I have ever seen.
There it rises, ‘as from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand,’ looking so light and filmy, that you could scarcely believe it more than a picture reflected on the thin mist of night.
On such a still summer night the moon shone splendidly upon the front of the George and Dragon, the comfortable graystone inn of Golden Friars, with the grandest specimen of the old inn-sign, perhaps, left in England. It looks right across the lake; the road that skirts its margin running by the steps of the hall-door, opposite to which, at the other side of the road, between two great posts, and framed in a fanciful wrought-iron border splendid with gilding, swings the famous sign of St. George and the Dragon, gorgeous with colour and gold.
In the great room of the George and Dragon, three or four of the old habitués of that cozy lounge were refreshing a little after the fatigues of the day.
This is a comfortable chamber, with an oak wainscot; and whenever in summer months the air is sharp enough, as on the present occasion, a fire helped to light it up; which fire, being chiefly wood, made a pleasant broad flicker on panel and ceiling, and yet did not make the room too hot.
On one side sat Doctor Torvey, the doctor of Golden Friars, who knew the weak point of every man in the town, and what medicine agreed with each inhabitant—a fat gentleman, with a jolly laugh and an appetite for all sorts of news, big and little, and who liked a pipe, and made a tumbler of punch at about this hour, with a bit of lemon-peel in it. Beside him sat William Peers, a thin old gentleman, who had lived for more than thirty years in India, and was quiet and benevolent, and the last man in Golden Friars who wore a pigtail. Old Jack Amerald, an ex-captain of the navy, with his short stout leg on a chair, and its wooden companion beside it, sipped his grog, and bawled in the old-fashioned navy way, and called his friends his ‘hearties.’ In the middle, opposite the hearth, sat deaf Tom Hollar, always placid, and smoked his pipe, looking serenely at the fire. And the landlord of the George and Dragon every now and then strutted in, and sat down in the high-backed wooden arm-chair, according to the old-fashioned republican ways of the place, and took his share in the talk gravely, and was heartily welcome.
“And so Sir Bale is coming home at last,” said the Doctor. “Tell us any more you heard since.”
“Nothing,” answered Richard Turnbull, the host of the George. “Nothing to speak of; only ’tis certain sure, and so best; the old house won’t look so dowly now.”
“Twyne says the estate owes a good capful o’ money by this time, hey?” said the Doctor, lowering his voice and winking.
“Weel, they do say he’s been nout at dow. I don’t mind saying so to you, mind, sir, where all’s friends together; but he’ll get that right in time.”
“More like to save here than where he is,” said the Doctor with another grave nod.
“He does very wisely,” said Mr. Peers, having blown out a thin stream of smoke, “and creditably, to pull-up in time. He’s coming here to save a little, and perhaps he’ll marry; and it is the more creditable, if, as they say, he dislikes the place, and would prefer staying where he is.”
And having spoken thus gently, Mr. Peers resumed his pipe cheerfully.
“No, he don’t like the place; that is, I’m told he didn’t,” said the innkeeper.
“He hates it,” said the Doctor with another dark nod.
“And no wonder, if all’s true I’ve heard,” cried old Jack Amerald. “Didn’t he drown a woman and her child in the lake?”
“Hollo! my dear boy, don’t let them hear you say that; you’re all in the clouds.”
“By Jen!” exclaimed the landlord after an alarmed silence, with his mouth and eyes open, and his pipe in his hand, “why, sir, I pay rent for the house up there. I’m thankful—dear knows, I am thankful—we’re all to ourselves!”
Jack Amerald put his foot on the floor, leaving his wooden leg in its horizontal position, and looked round a little curiously.
“Well, if it wasn’t him, it was some one else. I’m sure it happened up at Mardykes. I took the bearings on the water myself from Glads Scaur to Mardykes Jetty, and from the George and Dragon sign down here—down to the white house under Forrick Fells. I could fix a buoy over the very spot. Some one here told me the bearings, I’d take my oath, where the body was seen; and yet no boat could ever come up with it; and that was queer, you know, so I clapt it down in my log.”
“Ay, sir, there was some flummery like that, Captain,” said Turnbull; “for folk will be gabbin’. But ’twas his grandsire was talked o’, not him; and ‘twould play the hangment wi’ me doun here, if ’twas thought there was stories like that passin’ in the George and Dragon.’
“Well, his grandfather; ’twas all one to him, I take it.”
“There never was no proof, Captain, no more than smoke; and the family up at Mardykes wouldn’t allow the king to talk o’ them like that, sir; for though they be lang deod that had most right to be angered in the matter, there’s none o’ the name but would be half daft to think ’twas still believed, and he full out as mich as any. Not that I need care more than another, though they do say he’s a bit frowsy and short-waisted; for he can’t shouther me out o’ the George while I pay my rent, till nine hundred and ninety-nine year be rin oot; and a man, be he ne’er sa het, has time to cool before then. But there’s no good quarrellin’ wi’ teathy folk; and it may lie in his way to do the George mony an ill turn, and mony a gude one; an’ it’s only fair to say it happened a long way before he was born, and there’s no good in vexin’ him; and I lay ye a pound, Captain, the Doctor hods wi’ me.”
The Doctor, whose business was also sensitive, nodded; and then he said, “But for all that, the story’s old, Dick Turnbull—older than you or I, my jolly good friend.”
“And best forgotten,” interposed the host of the George.
“Ay, best forgotten; but that it’s not like to be,” said the Doctor, plucking up courage. “Here’s our friend the Captain has heard it; and the mistake he has made shows there’s one thing worse than its being quite remembered, and that is, its being half remembered. We can’t stop people talking; and a story like that will see us all off the hooks, and be in folks’ mouths, still, as strong as ever.”
“Ay; and now I think on it, ’twas Dick Harman that has the boat down there—an old tar like myself—that told me that yarn. I was trying for pike, and he pulled me over the place, and that’s how I came to hear it. I say, Tom, my hearty, serve us out another glass of brandy, will you?” shouted the Captain’s voice as the waiter crossed the room; and that florid and grizzled naval hero clapped his leg again on the chair by its wooden companion, which he was wont to call his jury-mast.
“Well, I do believe it will be spoke of longer than we are like to hear,” said the host, “and I don’t much matter the story, if it baint told o’ the wrong man.” Here he touched his tumbler with the spoon, indicating by that little ring that Tom, who had returned with the Captain’s grog, was to replenish it with punch. “And Sir Bale is like to be a friend to this house. I don’t see no reason why he shouldn’t. The George and Dragon has bin in our family ever since the reign of King Charles the Second. It was William Turnbull in that time, which they called it the Restoration, he taking the lease from Sir Tony Mardykes that was then. They was but knights then. They was made baronets first in the reign of King George the Second; you may see it in the list of baronets and the nobility. The lease was made to William Turnbull, which came from London; and he built the stables, which they was out o’ repair, as you may read to this day in the lease; and the house has never had but one sign since—the George and Dragon, it is pretty well known in England—and one name to its master. It has been owned by a Turnbull from that day to this, and they have not been counted bad men.” A murmur of applause testified the assent of his guests. “They has been steady churchgoin’ folk, and brewed good drink, and maintained the best o’ characters, hereaways and farther off too, though ’tis I, Richard Turnbull, that says it; and while they pay their rent, no man has power to put them out; for their title’s as good to the George and Dragon, and the two fields, and the croft, and the grazing o’ their kye on the green, as Sir Bale Mardykes to the Hall up there and estate. So ’tis nout to me, except in the way o’ friendliness, what the family may think o’ me; only the George and they has always been kind and friendly, and I don’t want to break the old custom.”
“Well said, Dick!” exclaimed Doctor Torvey; “I own to your conclusion; but there ain’t a soul here but ourselves—and we’re all friends, and you are your own master—and, hang it, you’ll tell us that story about the drowned woman, as you heard it from your father long ago.”
“Ay, do, and keep us to our liquor, my hearty!” cried the Captain.
Mr. Peers looked his entreaty; and deaf Mr. Hollar, having no interest in the petition, was at least a safe witness, and, with his pipe in his lips, a cozy piece of furniture.
Richard Turnbull had his punch beside him; he looked over his shoulder. The door was closed, the fire was cheery, and the punch was fragrant, and all friendly faces about him. So said he:
“Gentlemen, as you’re pleased to wish it, I don’t see no great harm in it; and at any rate, ’twill prevent mistakes. It is more than ninety years since. My father was but a boy then; and many a time I have heard him tell it in this very room.”
And looking into his glass he mused, and stirred his punch slowly.
CHAPTER II – The Drowned Woman
“It ain’t much of a homminy,” said the host of the George. “I’ll not keep you long over it, gentlemen. There was a handsome young lady, Miss Mary Feltram o’ Cloostedd by name. She was the last o’ that family; and had gone very poor. There’s but the walls o’ the house left now; grass growing in the hall, and ivy over the gables; there’s no one livin’ has ever hard tell o’ smoke out o’ they chimblies. It stands on t’other side o’ the lake, on the level wi’ a deal o’ a’ad trees behint and aside it at the gap o’ the clough, under the pike o’ Maiden Fells. Ye may see it wi’ a spyin’-glass from the boatbield at Mardykes Hall.”
“I’ve been there fifty times,” said the Doctor.
“Well there was dealin’s betwixt the two families; and there’s good and bad in every family; but the Mardykes, in them days, was a wild lot. And when old Feltram o’ Cloostedd died, and the young lady his daughter was left a ward o’ Sir Jasper Mardykes—an ill day for her, poor lass!–twenty year older than her he was, an’ more; and nothin’ about him, they say, to make anyone like or love him, ill-faur’d and little and dow.”
“Dow—that’s gloomy,” Doctor Torvey instructed the Captain aside.
“But they do say, they has an old blud-stean ring in the family that has a charm in’t; and happen how it might, the poor lass fell in love wi’ him. Some said they was married. Some said it hang’d i’ the bell-ropes, and never had the priest’s blessing; but anyhow, married or no, there was talk enough amang the folk, and out o’ doors she would na budge. And there was two wee barns; and she prayed him hard to confess the marriage, poor thing! But t’was a bootlese bene, and he would not allow they should bear his name, but their mother’s; he was a hard man, and hed the bit in his teeth, and went his ain gait. And having tired of her, he took in his head to marry a lady of the Barnets, and it behoved him to be shut o’ her and her children; and so she nor them was seen no more at Mardykes Hall. And the eldest, a boy, was left in care of my grandfather’s father here in the George.”
“That queer Philip Feltram that’s travelling with Sir Bale so long is a descendant of his?” said the Doctor.
“Grandson,” observed Mr. Peers, removing his pipe for a moment; “and is the last of that stock.”
“Well, no one could tell where she had gone to. Some said to distant parts, some said to the madhouse, some one thing, some another; but neither she nor the barn was ever seen or spoke to by the folk at Mardykes in life again. There was one Mr. Wigram that lived in them times down at Moultry, and had sarved, like the Captain here, in the king’s navy in his day; and early of a morning down he comes to the town for a boat, sayin’ he was looking towards Snakes Island through his spyin’-glass, and he seen a woman about a hundred and fifty yards outside of it; the Captain here has heard the bearings right enough. From her hips upwards she was stark and straight out o’ the water, and a baby in her arms. Well, no one else could see it, nor he neither, when they went down to the boat. But next morning he saw the same thing, and the boatman saw it too; and they rowed for it, both pulling might and main; but after a mile or so they could see it no more, and gave over. The next that saw it was the vicar, I forget his name now—but he was up the lake to a funeral at Mortlock Church; and coming back with a bit of a sail up, just passin’ Snakes Island, what should they hear on a sudden but a wowl like a death-cry, shrill and bleak, as made the very blood hoot in their veins; and looking along the water not a hundred yards away, saw the same grizzled sight in the moonlight; so they turned the tiller, and came near enough to see her face—blea it was, and drenched wi’ water—and she was above the lake to her middle, stiff as a post, holdin’ the weeny barn out to them, and flyrin’ [smiling scornfully] on them as they drew nigh her. They were half-frighted, not knowing what to make of it; but passing as close as the boatman could bring her side, the vicar stretched over the gunwale to catch her, and she bent forward, pushing the dead bab forward; and as she did, on a sudden she gave a yelloch that scared them, and they saw her no more. ‘Twas no livin’ woman, for she couldn’t rise that height above the water, as they well knew when they came to think; and knew it was a dobby they saw; and ye may be sure they didn’t spare prayer and blessin’, and went on their course straight before the wind; for neither would a-took the worth o’ all the Mardykes to look sich a freetin’ i’ the face again. ‘Twas seen another time by market-folk crossin’ fra Gyllenstan in the self-same place; and Snakes Island got a bad neam, and none cared to go nar it after nightfall.”
“Do you know anything of that Feltram that has been with him abroad?” asked the Doctor.
“They say he’s no good at anything—a harmless mafflin; he was a long gaumless gawky when he went awa,” said Richard Turnbull. “The Feltrams and the Mardykes was sib, ye know; and that made what passed in the misfortune o’ that young lady spoken of all the harder; and this young man ye speak of is a grandson o’ the lad that was put here in care o’ my grandfather.”
“Great-grandson. His father was grandson,” said Mr. Peers; “he held a commission in the army and died in the West Indies. This Philip Feltram is the last o’ that line—illegitimate, you know, it is held—and the little that remained of the Feltram property went nearly fourscore years ago to the Mardykes, and this Philip is maintained by Sir Bale; it is pleasant, notwithstanding all the stories one hears, gentlemen, that the only thing we know of him for certain should be so creditable to his kindness.”
“To be sure,” acquiesced Mr. Turnbull.
While they talked the horn sounded, and the mail-coach drew up at the door of the George and Dragon to set down a passenger and his luggage.
Dick Turnbull rose and went out to the hall with careful bustle, and Doctor Torvey followed as far as the door, which commanded a view of it, and saw several trunks cased in canvas pitched into the hall, and by careful Tom and a boy lifted one on top of the other, behind the corner of the banister. It would have been below the dignity of his cloth to go out and read the labels on these, or the Doctor would have done otherwise, so great was his curiosity.
CHAPTER III – Philip Feltram
The new guest was now in the hall of the George, and Doctor Torvey could hear him talking with Mr. Turnbull. Being himself one of the dignitaries of Golden Friars, the Doctor, having regard to first impressions, did not care to be seen in his post of observation; and closing the door gently, returned to his chair by the fire, and in an under-tone informed his cronies that there was a new arrival in the George, and he could not hear, but would not wonder if he were taking a private room; and he seemed to have trunks enough to build a church with.
“Don’t be too sure we haven’t Sir Bale on board,” said Amerald, who would have followed his crony the Doctor to the door—for never was retired naval hero of a village more curious than he—were it not that his wooden leg made a distinct pounding on the floor that was inimical, as experience had taught him, to mystery.
“That can’t be,” answered the Doctor; “Charley Twyne knows everything about it, and has a letter every second day; and there’s no chance of Sir Bale before the tenth; this is a tourist, you’ll find. I don’t know what the d—l keeps Turnbull; he knows well enough we are all naturally willing to hear who it is.”
“Well, he won’t trouble us here, I bet ye;” and catching deaf Mr. Hollar’s eye, the Captain nodded, and pointed to the little table beside him, and made a gesture imitative of the rattling of a dice-box; at which that quiet old gentleman also nodded sunnily; and up got the Captain and conveyed the backgammon-box to the table, near Hollar’s elbow, and the two worthies were soon sinc-ducing and catre-acing, with the pleasant clatter that accompanies that ancient game. Hollar had thrown sizes and made his double point, and the honest Captain, who could stand many things better than Hollar’s throwing such throws so early in the evening, cursed his opponent’s luck and sneered at his play, and called the company to witness, with a distinctness which a stranger to smiling Hollar’s deafness would have thought hardly civil; and just at this moment the door opened, and Richard Turnbull showed his new guest into the room, and ushered him to a vacant seat near the other corner of the table before the fire.
The stranger advanced slowly and shyly, with something a little deprecatory in his air, to which a lathy figure, a slight stoop, and a very gentle and even heartbroken look in his pale long face, gave a more marked character of shrinking and timidity.
He thanked the landlord aside, as it were, and took his seat with a furtive glance round, as if he had no right to come in and intrude upon the happiness of these honest gentlemen.
He saw the Captain scanning him from under his shaggy grey eyebrows while he was pretending to look only at his game; and the Doctor was able to recount to Mrs. Torvey when he went home every article of the stranger’s dress.
It was odd and melancholy as his peaked face.
He had come into the room with a short black cloak on, and a rather tall foreign felt hat, and a pair of shiny leather gaiters or leggings on his thin legs; and altogether presented a general resemblance to the conventional figure of Guy Fawkes.
Not one of the company assembled knew the appearance of the Baronet. The Doctor and old Mr. Peers remembered something of his looks; and certainly they had no likeness, but the reverse, to those presented by the new-comer. The Baronet, as now described by people who had chanced to see him, was a dark man, not above the middle size, and with a certain decision in his air and talk; whereas this person was tall, pale, and in air and manner feeble. So this broken trader in the world’s commerce, with whom all seemed to have gone wrong, could not possibly be he.
Presently, in one of his stealthy glances, the Doctor’s eye encountered that of the stranger, who was by this time drinking his tea—a thin and feminine liquor little used in that room.
The stranger did not seem put out; and the Doctor, interpreting his look as a permission to converse, cleared his voice, and said urbanely,
“We have had a little frost by night, down here, sir, and a little fire is no great harm—it is rather pleasant, don’t you think?”
The stranger bowed acquiescence with a transient wintry smile, and looked gratefully on the fire.
“This place is a good deal admired, sir, and people come a good way to see it; you have been here perhaps before?”
“Many years ago.”
Here was another pause.
“Places change imperceptibly—in detail, at least—a good deal,” said the Doctor, making an effort to keep up a conversation that plainly would not go on of itself; “and people too; population shifts—there’s an old fellow, sir, they call Death.”
“And an old fellow they call the Doctor, that helps him,” threw in the Captain humorously, allowing his attention to get entangled in the conversation, and treating them to one of his tempestuous ha-ha-ha’s.
“We are expecting the return of a gentleman who would be a very leading member of our little society down here,” said the Doctor, not noticing the Captain’s joke. “I mean Sir Bale Mardykes. Mardykes Hall is a pretty object from the water, sir, and a very fine old place.”
The melancholy stranger bowed slightly, but rather in courtesy to the relator, it seemed, than that the Doctor’s lore interested him much.
“And on the opposite side of the lake,” continued Doctor Torvey, “there is a building that contrasts very well with it—the old house of the Feltrams—quite a ruin now, at the mouth of the glen—Cloostedd House, a very picturesque object.”
“Exactly opposite,” said the stranger dreamily, but whether in the tone of acquiescence or interrogatory, the Doctor could not be quite sure.
“That was one of our great families down here that has disappeared. It has dwindled down to nothing.”
“Duce ace,” remarked Mr. Hollar, who was attending to his game.
“While others have mounted more suddenly and amazingly still,” observed gentle Mr. Peers, who was great upon county genealogies.
“Sizes!” thundered the Captain, thumping the table with an oath of disgust.
“And Snakes Island is a very pretty object; they say there used to be snakes there,” said the Doctor, enlightening the visitor.
“Ah! that’s a mistake,” said the dejected guest, making his first original observation. “It should be spelt Snaiks. In the old papers it is called Sen-aiks Island from the seven oaks that grew in a clump there.”
“Hey? that’s very curious, egad! I daresay,” said the Doctor, set right thus by the stranger, and eyeing him curiously.
“Very true, sir,” observed Mr. Peers; “three of those oaks, though, two of them little better than stumps, are there still; and Clewson of Heckleston has an old document——”
Here, unhappily, the landlord entered the room in a fuss, and walking up to the stranger, said, “The chaise is at the door, Mr. Feltram, and the trunks up, sir.”
Mr. Feltram rose quietly and took out his purse, and said,
“I suppose I had better pay at the bar?”
“As you like best, sir,” said Richard Turnbull.
Mr. Feltram bowed all round to the gentlemen, who smiled, ducked or waved their hands; and the Doctor fussily followed him to the hall-door, and welcomed him back to Golden Friars—there was real kindness in this welcome—and proffered his broad brown hand, which Mr. Feltram took; and then he plunged into his chaise, and the door being shut, away he glided, chaise, horses, and driver, like shadows, by the margin of the moonlighted lake, towards Mardykes Hall.
And after a few minutes’ stand upon the steps, looking along the shadowy track of the chaise, they returned to the glow of the room, in which a pleasant perfume of punch still prevailed; and beside Mr. Philip Feltram’s deserted tea-things, the host of the George enlightened his guests by communicating freely the little he had picked up. The principal fact he had to tell was, that Sir Bale adhered strictly to his original plan, and was to arrive on the tenth. A few days would bring them to that, and the nine-days wonder run its course and lose its interest. But in the meantime, all Golden Friars was anxious to see what Sir Bale Mardykes was like.
CHAPTER IV – The Baronet Appears
As the candles burn blue and the air smells of brimstone at the approach of the Evil One, so, in the quiet and healthy air of Golden Friars, a depressing and agitating influence announced the coming of the long-absent Baronet.
From abroad, no good whatever had been at any time heard of him, and a great deal that was, in the ears of simple folk living in that unsophisticated part of the world, vaguely awful.
Stories that travel so far, however, lose something of their authority, as well as definiteness, on the way; there was always room for charity to suggest a mistake or exaggeration; and if good men turned up their hands and eyes after a new story, and ladies of experience, who knew mankind, held their heads high and looked grim and mysterious at mention of his name, nevertheless an interval of silence softened matters a little, and the sulphureous perfume dissipated itself in time.
Now that Sir Bale Mardykes had arrived at the Hall, there were hurried consultations held in many households. And though he was tried and sentenced by drum-head over some austere hearths, as a rule the law of gravitation prevailed, and the greater house drew the lesser about it, and county people within the visiting radius paid their respects at the Hall.
The Reverend Martin Bedel, the then vicar of Golden Friars, a stout short man, with a mulberry-coloured face and small gray eyes, and taciturn habits, called and entered the drawing-room at Mardykes Hall, with his fat and garrulous wife on his arm.
The drawing-room has a great projecting Tudor window looking out on the lake, with its magnificent background of furrowed and purple mountains.
Sir Bale was not there, and Mrs. Bedel examined the pictures, and ornaments, and the books, making such remarks as she saw fit; and then she looked out of the window, and admired the prospect. She wished to stand well with the Baronet, and was in a mood to praise everything.
You may suppose she was curious to see him, having heard for years such strange tales of his doings.
She expected the hero of a brilliant and wicked romance; and listened for the step of the truant Lovelace who was to fulfil her idea of manly beauty and fascination.
She sustained a slight shock when he did appear.
Sir Bale Mardykes was, as she might easily have remembered, a middle-aged man—and he looked it. He was not even an imposing-looking man for his time of life: he was of about the middle height, slightly made, and dark featured. She had expected something of the gaiety and animation of Versailles, and an evident cultivation of the art of pleasing. What she did see was a remarkable gravity, not to say gloom, of countenance—the only feature of which that struck her being a pair of large dark-gray eyes, that were cold and earnest. His manners had the ease of perfect confidence; and his talk and air were those of a person who might have known how to please, if it were worth the trouble, but who did not care twopence whether he pleased or not.
He made them each a bow, courtly enough, but there was no smile—not even an affectation of cordiality. Sir Bale, however, was chatty, and did not seem to care much what he said, or what people thought of him; and there was a suspicion of sarcasm in what he said that the rustic literality of good Mrs. Bedel did not always detect.
“I believe I have not a clergyman but you, sir, within any reasonable distance?”
“Golden Friars is the nearest,” said Mrs. Bedel, answering, as was her pleasure on all practicable occasions, for her husband. “And southwards, the nearest is Wyllarden—and by a bird’s flight that is thirteen miles and a half, and by the road more than nineteen—twenty, I may say, by the road. Ha, ha, ha! it is a long way to look for a clergyman.”
“Twenty miles of road to carry you thirteen miles across, hey? The road-makers lead you a pretty dance here; those gentlemen know how to make money, and like to show people the scenery from a variety of points. No one likes a straight road but the man who pays for it, or who, when he travels, is brute enough to wish to get to his journey’s end.”
“That is so true, Sir Bale; one never cares if one is not in a hurry. That’s what Martin thinks—don’t we, Martin?—And then, you know, coming home is the time you are in a hurry—when you are thinking of your cup of tea and the children; and then, you know, you have the fall of the ground all in your favour.”
“It’s well to have anything in your favour in this place. And so there are children?”
“A good many,” said Mrs. Bedel, with a proud and mysterious smile, and a nod; “you wouldn’t guess how many.”
“Not I; I only wonder you did not bring them all.”
“That’s very good-natured of you, Sir Bale, but all could not come at one bout; there are—tell him, Martin—ha, ha, ha! there are eleven.”
“It must be very cheerful down at the vicarage,” said Sir Bale graciously; and turning to the vicar he added, “But how unequally blessings are divided! You have eleven, and I not one—that I’m aware of.”
“And then, in that direction straight before you, you have the lake, and then the fells; and five miles from the foot of the mountain at the other side, before you reach Fottrell—and that is twenty-five miles by the road——”
“Dear me! how far apart they are set! My gardener told me this morning that asparagus grows very thinly in this part of the world. How thinly clergymen grow also down here—in one sense,” he added politely, for the vicar was stout.
“We were looking out of the window—we amused ourselves that way before you came—and your view is certainly the very best anywhere round this side; your view of the lake and the fells—what mountains they are, Sir Bale!”
“‘Pon my soul, they are! I wish I could blow them asunder with a charge of duck-shot, and I shouldn’t be stifled by them long. But I suppose, as we can’t get rid of them, the next best thing is to admire them. We are pretty well married to them, and there is no use in quarrelling.”
“I know you don’t think so, Sir Bale, ha, ha, ha! You wouldn’t take a good deal and spoil Mardykes Hall.”
“You can’t get a mouthful or air, or see the sun of a morning, for those frightful mountains,” he said with a peevish frown at them.
“Well, the lake at all events—that you must admire, Sir Bale?”
“No ma’am, I don’t admire the lake. I’d drain the lake if I could—I hate the lake. There’s nothing so gloomy as a lake pent up among barren mountains. I can’t conceive what possessed my people to build our house down here, at the edge of a lake; unless it was the fish, and precious fish it is—pike! I don’t know how people digest it—I can’t. I’d as soon think of eating a watchman’s pike.”
“I thought that having travelled so much abroad, you would have acquired a great liking for that kind of scenery, Sir Bale; there is a great deal of it on the Continent, ain’t there?” said Mrs. Bedel. “And the boating.”
“Boating, my dear Mrs. Bedel, is the dullest of all things; don’t you think so? Because a boat looks very pretty from the shore, we fancy the shore must look very pretty from a boat; and when we try it, we find we have only got down into a pit and can see nothing rightly. For my part I hate boating, and I hate the water; and I’d rather have my house, like Haworth, at the edge of a moss, with good wholesome peat to look at, and an open horizon—savage and stupid and bleak as all that is—than be suffocated among impassable mountains, or upset in a black lake and drowned like a kitten. O, there’s luncheon in the next room; won’t you take some?”
CHAPTER V – Mrs. Julaper’s Room
Sir Bale Mardykes being now established in his ancestral house, people had time to form conclusions respecting him. It must be allowed he was not popular. There was, perhaps, in his conduct something of the caprice of contempt. At all events his temper and conduct were uncertain, and his moods sometimes violent and insulting.
With respect to but one person was his conduct uniform, and that was Philip Feltram. He was a sort of aide-de-camp near Sir Bale’s person, and chargeable with all the commissions and offices which could not be suitably intrusted to a mere servant. But in many respects he was treated worse than any servant of the Baronet’s. Sir Bale swore at him, and cursed him; laid the blame of everything that went wrong in house, stable, or field upon his shoulders; railed at him, and used him, as people said, worse than a dog.
Why did Feltram endure this contumelious life? What could he do but endure it? was the answer. What was the power that induced strong soldiers to put off their jackets and shirts, and present their hands to be tied up, and tortured for hours, it might be, under the scourge, with an air of ready volition? The moral coercion of despair; the result of an unconscious calculation of chances which satisfies them that it is ultimately better to do all that, bad as it is, than try the alternative. These unconscious calculations are going on every day with each of us, and the results embody themselves in our lives; and no one knows that there has been a process and a balance struck, and that what they see, and very likely blame, is by the fiat of an invisible but quite irresistible power.
A man of spirit would rather break stones on the highway than eat that bitter bread, was the burden of every man’s song on Feltram’s bondage. But he was not so sure that even the stone-breaker’s employment was open to him, or that he could break stones well enough to retain it on a fair trial. And he had other ideas of providing for himself, and a different alternative in his mind.
Good-natured Mrs. Julaper, the old housekeeper at Mardykes Hall, was kind to Feltram, as to all others who lay in her way and were in affliction.
She was one of those good women whom Nature provides to receive the burden of other people’s secrets, as the reeds did long ago, only that no chance wind could steal them away, and send them singing into strange ears.
You may still see her snuggery in Mardykes Hall, though the housekeeper’s room is now in a different part of the house.
Mrs. Julaper’s room was in the oldest quarter of that old house. It was wainscoted, in black panels, up to the ceiling, which was stuccoed over in the fanciful diagrams of James the First’s time. Several dingy portraits, banished from time to time from other statelier rooms, found a temporary abode in this quiet spot, where they had come finally to settle and drop out of remembrance. There is a lady in white satin and a ruff; a gentleman whose legs have faded out of view, with a peaked beard, and a hawk on his wrist. There is another in a black periwig lost in the dark background, and with a steel cuirass, the gleam of which out of the darkness strikes the eye, and a scarf is dimly discoverable across it. This is that foolish Sir Guy Mardykes, who crossed the Border and joined Dundee, and was shot through the temple at Killiecrankie and whom more prudent and whiggish scions of the Mardykes family removed forthwith from his place in the Hall, and found a retirement here, from which he has not since emerged.
At the far end of this snug room is a second door, on opening which you find yourself looking down upon the great kitchen, with a little balcony before you, from which the housekeeper used to issue her commands to the cook, and exercise a sovereign supervision.
There is a shelf on which Mrs Julaper had her Bible, her Whole Duty of Man, and her Pilgrim’s Progress; and, in a file beside them, her books of housewifery, and among them volumes of MS. recipes, cookery-books, and some too on surgery and medicine, as practised by the Ladies Bountiful of the Elizabethan age, for which an antiquarian would nowadays give an eye or a hand.
Gentle half-foolish Philip Feltram would tell the story of his wrongs, and weep and wish he was dead; and kind Mrs. Julaper, who remembered him a child, would comfort him with cold pie and cherry-brandy, or a cup of coffee, or some little dainty.
“O, ma’am, I’m tired of my life. What’s the good of living, if a poor devil is never let alone, and called worse names than a dog? Would not it be better, Mrs. Julaper, to be dead? Wouldn’t it be better, ma’am? I think so; I think it night and day. I’m always thinking the same thing. I don’t care, I’ll just tell him what I think, and have it off my mind. I’ll tell him I can’t live and bear it longer.”
“There now, don’t you be frettin’; but just sip this, and remember you’re not to judge a friend by a wry word. He does not mean it, not he. They all had a rough side to their tongue now and again; but no one minded that. I don’t, nor you needn’t, no more than other folk; for the tongue, be it never so bitin’, it can’t draw blood, mind ye, and hard words break no bones; and I’ll make a cup o’ tea—ye like a cup o’ tea—and we’ll take a cup together, and ye’ll chirp up a bit, and see how pleasant and ruddy the sun shines on the lake this evening.”
She was patting him gently on the shoulder, as she stood slim and stiff in her dark silk by his chair, and her rosy little face smiled down on him. She was, for an old woman, wonderfully pretty still. What a delicate skin she must have had! The wrinkles were etched upon it with so fine a needle, you scarcely could see them a little way off; and as she smiled her cheeks looked fresh and smooth as two ruddy little apples.
“Look out, I say,” and she nodded towards the window, deep set in the thick wall. “See how bright and soft everything looks in that pleasant light; that’s better, child, than the finest picture man’s hand ever painted yet, and God gives it us for nothing; and how pretty Snakes Island glows up in that light!”
The dejected man, hardly raising his head, followed with his eyes the glance of the old woman, and looked mournfully through the window.
“That island troubles me, Mrs. Julaper.”
“Everything troubles you, my poor goose-cap. I’ll pull your lug for ye, child, if ye be so dowly;” and with a mimic pluck the good-natured old housekeeper pinched his ear and laughed.
“I’ll go to the still-room now, where the water’s boiling, and I’ll make a cup of tea; and if I find ye so dow when I come back, I’ll throw it all out o’ the window, mind.”
It was indeed a beautiful picture that Feltram saw in its deep frame of old masonry. The near part of the lake was flushed all over with the low western light; the more distant waters lay dark in the shadow of the mountains; and against this shadow of purple the rocks on Snakes Island, illuminated by the setting sun, started into sharp clear yellow.
But this beautiful view had no charm—at least, none powerful enough to master the latent horror associated with its prettiest feature—for the weak and dismal man who was looking at it; and being now alone, he rose and leant on the window, and looked out, and then with a kind of shudder clutching his hands together, and walking distractedly about the room.
Without his perceiving, while his back was turned, the housekeeper came back; and seeing him walking in this distracted way, she thought to herself, as he leant again upon the window:
“Well, it is a burning shame to worrit any poor soul into that state. Sir Bale was always down on someone or something, man or beast; there always was something he hated, and could never let alone. It was not pretty; it was his nature. Happen, poor fellow, he could not help it; but so it was.”
A maid came in and set the tea-things down; and Mrs. Julaper drew her sad guest over by the arm, and made him sit down, and she said: “What has a man to do, frettin’ in that way? By Jen, I’m ashamed o’ ye, Master Philip! Ye like three lumps o’ sugar, I think, and—look cheerful, ye must!–a good deal o’ cream?”
“You’re so kind, Mrs. Julaper, you’re so cheery. I feel quite comfortable after awhile when I’m with you; I feel quite happy,” and he began to cry.
She understood him very well by this time and took no notice, but went on chatting gaily, and made his tea as he liked it; and he dried his tears hastily, thinking she had not observed.
So the clouds began to clear. This innocent fellow liked nothing better than a cup of tea and a chat with gentle and cheery old Mrs. Julaper, and a talk in which the shadowy old times which he remembered as a child emerged into sunlight and lived again.
When he began to feel better, drawn into the kindly old times by the tinkle of that harmless old woman’s tongue, he said:
“I sometimes think I would not so much mind—I should not care so much—if my spirits were not so depressed, and I so agitated. I suppose I am not quite well.”
“Well, tell me what’s wrong, child, and it’s odd but I have a recipe on the shelf there that will do you good.”
“It is not a matter of that sort I mean; though I’d rather have you than any doctor, if I needed medicine, to prescribe for me.”
Mrs. Julaper smiled in spite of herself, well pleased; for her skill in pharmacy was a point on which the good lady prided herself, and was open to flattery, which, without intending it, the simple fellow administered.
“No, I’m well enough; I can’t say I ever was better. It is only, ma’am, that I have such dreams—you have no idea.”
“There are dreams and dreams, my dear: there’s some signifies no more than the babble of the lake down there on the pebbles, and there’s others that has a meaning; there’s dreams that is but vanity, and there’s dreams that is good, and dreams that is bad. Lady Mardykes—heavens be her bed this day! that’s his grandmother I mean—was very sharp for reading dreams. Take another cup of tea. Dear me! what a noise the crows keep aboon our heads, going home! and how high they wing it!–that’s a sure sign of fine weather. An’ what do you dream about? Tell me your dream, and I may show you it’s a good one, after all. For many a dream is ugly to see and ugly to tell, and a good dream, with a happy meaning, for all that.”
CHAPTER VI – The Intruder
“Well, Mrs. Julaper, dreams I’ve dreamed like other people, old and young; but this, ma’am, has taken a fast hold of me,” said Mr. Feltram dejectedly, leaning back in his chair and looking down with his hands in his pockets. “I think, Mrs. Julaper, it is getting into me. I think it’s like possession.”
“Possession, child! what do you mean?”
“I think there is something trying to influence me. Perhaps it is the way fellows go mad; but it won’t let me alone. I’ve seen it three times, think of that!”
“Well, dear, and what have ye seen?” she asked, with an uneasy cheerfulness, smiling, with eyes fixed steadily upon him; for the idea of a madman—even gentle Philip in that state—was not quieting.
“Do you remember the picture, full-length, that had no frame—the lady in the white-satin saque—she was beautiful, funeste,” he added, talking more to himself; and then more distinctly to Mrs. Julaper again——”in the white-satin saque; and with the little mob cap and blue ribbons to it, and a bouquet in her fingers; that was—that—you know who she was?”
“That was your great-grandmother, my dear,” said Mrs. Julaper, lowering her eyes. “It was a dreadful pity it was spoiled. The boys in the pantry had it for a year there on the table for a tray, to wash the glasses on and the like. It was a shame; that was the prettiest picture in the house, with the gentlest, rosiest face.”
“It ain’t so gentle or rosy now, I can tell you,” said Philip. “As fixed as marble; with thin lips, and a curve at the nostril. Do you remember the woman that was found dead in the clough, when I was a boy, that the gipsies murdered, it was thought,—a cruel-looking woman?”
“Agoy! Master Philip, dear! ye would not name that terrible-looking creature with the pretty, fresh, kindly face!”
“Faces change, you see; no matter what she’s like; it’s her talk that frightens me. She wants to make use of me; and, you see, it is like getting a share in my mind, and a voice in my thoughts, and a command over me gradually; and it is just one idea, as straight as a line of light across the lake—see what she’s come to. O Lord, help me!”
“Well, now, don’t you be talkin’ like that. It is just a little bit dowly and troubled, because the master says a wry word now and then; and so ye let your spirits go down, don’t ye see, and all sorts o’ fancies comes into your head.”
“There’s no fancy in my head,” he said with a quick look of suspicion; “only you asked me what I dreamed. I don’t care if all the world knew. I dreamed I went down a flight of steps under the lake, and got a message. There are no steps near Snakes Island, we all know that,” and he laughed chillily. “I’m out of spirits, as you say; and—and—O dear! I wish—Mrs. Julaper—I wish I was in my coffin, and quiet.”
“Now that’s very wrong of you, Master Philip; you should think of all the blessings you have, and not be makin’ mountains o’ molehills; and those little bits o’ temper Sir Bale shows, why, no one minds ’em—that is, to take ’em to heart like you do, don’t ye see?”
“I daresay; I suppose, Mrs. Julaper, you are right. I’m unreasonable often, I know,” said gentle Philip Feltram. “I daresay I make too much of it; I’ll try. I’m his secretary, and I know I’m not so bright as he is, and it is natural he should sometimes be a little impatient; I ought to be more reasonable, I’m sure. It is all that thing that has been disturbing me—I mean fretting, and, I think, I’m not quite well; and—and letting myself think too much of vexations. It’s my own fault, I’m sure, Mrs. Julaper; and I know I’m to blame.”
“That’s quite right, that’s spoken like a wise lad; only I don’t say you’re to blame, nor no one; for folk can’t help frettin’ sometimes, no more than they can help a headache—none but a mafflin would say that—and I’ll not deny but he has dowly ways when the fit’s on him, and he frumps us all round, if such be his humour. But who is there hasn’t his faults? We must bear and forbear, and take what we get and be cheerful. So chirp up, my lad; Philip, didn’t I often ring the a’d rhyme in your ear long ago?
“Be always as merry as ever you can,
For no one delights in a sorrowful man.
“So don’t ye be gettin’ up off your chair like that, and tramping about the room wi’ your hands in your pockets, looking out o’ this window, and staring out o’ that, and sighing and crying, and looking so black-ox-trodden, ‘twould break a body’s heart to see you. Ye must be cheery; and happen you’re hungry, and don’t know it. I’ll tell the cook to grill a hot bit for ye.”
“But I’m not hungry, Mrs. Julaper. How kind you are! dear me, Mrs. Julaper, I’m not worthy of it; I don’t deserve half your kindness. I’d have been heartbroken long ago, but for you.”
“And I’ll make a sup of something hot for you; you’ll take a rummer-glass of punch—you must.”
“But I like the tea better; I do, indeed, Mrs. Julaper.”
“Tea is no drink for a man when his heart’s down. It should be something with a leg in it, lad; something hot that will warm your courage for ye, and set your blood a-dancing, and make ye talk brave and merry; and will you have a bit of a broil first? No? Well then, you’ll have a drop o’ punch?—ye sha’n’t say no.”
And so, all resistance overpowered, the consolation of Philip Feltram proceeded.
A gentler spirit than poor Feltram, a more good-natured soul than the old housekeeper, were nowhere among the children of earth.
Philip Feltram, who was reserved enough elsewhere, used to come into her room and cry, and take her by both hands piteously, standing before her and looking down in her face, while tears ran deviously down his cheeks.
“Did you ever know such a case? was there ever a fellow like me? did you ever know such a thing? You know what I am, Mrs. Julaper, and who I am. They call me Feltram; but Sir Bale knows as well as I that my true name is not that. I’m Philip Mardykes; and another fellow would make a row about it, and claim his name and his rights, as she is always croaking in my ear I ought. But you know that is not reasonable. My grandmother was married; she was the true Lady Mardykes; think what it was to see a woman like that turned out of doors, and her children robbed of their name. O, ma’am, you can’t think it; unless you were me, you couldn’t—you couldn’t—you couldn’t!”
“Come, come, Master Philip, don’t you be taking on so; and ye mustn’t be talking like that, d’ye mind? You know he wouldn’t stand that; and it’s an old story now, and there’s naught can be proved concerning it; and what I think is this—I wouldn’t wonder the poor lady was beguiled. But anyhow she surely thought she was his lawful wife; and though the law may hev found a flaw somewhere—and I take it ’twas so—yet sure I am she was an honourable lady. But where’s the use of stirring that old sorrow? or how can ye prove aught? and the dead hold their peace, you know; dead mice, they say, feels no cold; and dead folks are past fooling. So don’t you talk like that; for stone walls have ears, and ye might say that ye couldn’t unsay; and death’s day is doom’s day. So leave all in the keeping of God; and, above all, never lift hand when ye can’t strike.”
“Lift my hand! O, Mrs. Julaper, you couldn’t think that; you little know me; I did not mean that; I never dreamed of hurting Sir Bale. Good heavens! Mrs. Julaper, you couldn’t think that! It all comes of my poor impatient temper, and complaining as I do, and my misery; but O, Mrs. Julaper, you could not think I ever meant to trouble him by law, or any other annoyance! I’d like to see a stain removed from my family, and my name restored; but to touch his property, O, no!–O, no! that never entered my mind, by heaven! that never entered my mind, Mrs. Julaper. I’m not cruel; I’m not rapacious; I don’t care for money; don’t you know that, Mrs. Julaper? O, surely you won’t think me capable of attacking the man whose bread I have eaten so long! I never dreamed of it; I should hate myself. Tell me you don’t believe it; O, Mrs. Julaper, say you don’t!”
And the gentle feeble creature burst into tears and good Mrs. Julaper comforted him with kind words; and he said,
“Thank you, ma’am; thank you. God knows I would not hurt Bale, nor give him one uneasy hour. It is only this: that I’m—I’m so miserable; and I’m only casting in my mind where to turn to, and what to do. So little a thing would be enough, and then I shall leave Mardykes. I’ll go; not in any anger, Mrs. Julaper—don’t think that; but I can’t stay, I must be gone.”
“Well, now, there’s nothing yet, Master Philip, to fret you like that. You should not be talking so wild-like. Master Bale has his sharp word and his short temper now and again; but I’m sure he likes you. If he didn’t, he’d a-said so to me long ago. I’m sure he likes you well.”
“Hollo! I say, who’s there? Where the devil’s Mr. Feltram?” called the voice of the baronet, at a fierce pitch, along the passage.
“La! Mr. Feltram, it’s him! Ye’d better run to him,” whispered Mrs. Julaper.
“D—n me! does nobody hear? Mrs. Julaper! Hollo! ho! house, there! ho! D—n me, will nobody answer?”
And Sir Bale began to slap the wainscot fast and furiously with his walking-cane with a clatter like a harlequin’s lath in a pantomime.
Mrs. Julaper, a little paler than usual, opened her door, and stood with the handle in her hand, making a little curtsey, enframed in the door-case; and Sir Bale, being in a fume, when he saw her, ceased whacking the panels of the corridor, and stamped on the floor, crying,
“Upon my soul, ma’am, I’m glad to see you! Perhaps you can tell me where Feltram is?”
“He is in my room, Sir Bale. Shall I tell him you want him, please?”
“Never mind; thanks,” said the Baronet. “I’ve a tongue in my head;” marching down the passage to the housekeeper’s room, with his cane clutched hard, glaring savagely, and with his teeth fast set, like a fellow advancing to beat a vicious horse that has chafed his temper.
CHAPTER VII – The Bank Note
Sir Bale brushed by the housekeeper as he strode into her sanctuary, and there found Philip Feltram awaiting him dejectedly, but with no signs of agitation.
If one were to judge by the appearance the master of Mardykes presented, very grave surmises as to impending violence would have suggested themselves; but though he clutched his cane so hard that it quivered in his grasp, he had no notion of committing the outrage of a blow. The Baronet was unusually angry notwithstanding, and stopping short about three steps away, addressed Feltram with a pale face and gleaming eyes. It was quite plain that there was something very exciting upon his mind.
“I’ve been looking for you, Mr. Feltram; I want a word or two, if you have done your—your—whatever it is.” He whisked the point of his stick towards the modest tea-tray. “I should like five minutes in the library.”
The Baronet was all this time eyeing Feltram with a hard suspicious gaze, as if he expected to read in his face the shrinkings and trepidations of guilt; and then turning suddenly on his heel he led the way to his library—a good long march, with a good many turnings. He walked very fast, and was not long in getting there. And as Sir Bale reached the hearth, on which was smouldering a great log of wood, and turned about suddenly, facing the door, Philip Feltram entered.
The Baronet looked oddly and stern—so oddly, it seemed to Feltram, that he could not take his eyes off him, and returned his grim and somewhat embarrassed gaze with a stare of alarm and speculation.
And so doing, his step was shortened, and grew slow and slower, and came quite to a stop before he had got far from the door—a wide stretch of that wide floor still intervening between him and Sir Bale, who stood upon the hearthrug, with his heels together and his back to the fire, cane in hand, like a drill-sergeant, facing him.
“Shut that door, please; that will do; come nearer now. I don’t want to bawl what I have to say. Now listen.”
The Baronet cleared his voice and paused, with his eyes upon Feltram.
“It is only two or three days ago,” said he, “that you said you wished you had a hundred pounds. Am I right?”
“Yes; I think so.”
“Think? you know it, sir, devilish well. You said that you wished to get away. I have nothing particular to say against that, more especially now. Do you understand what I say?”
“Understand, Sir Bale? I do, sir—quite.”
“I daresay quite” he repeated with an angry sneer. “Here, sir, is an odd coincidence: you want a hundred pounds, and you can’t earn it, and you can’t borrow it—there’s another way, it seems—but I have got it—a Bank-of-England note of £100—locked up in that desk;” and he poked the end of his cane against the brass lock of it viciously. “There it is, and there are the papers you work at; and there are two keys—I’ve got one and you have the other—and devil another key in or out of the house has any one living. Well, do you begin to see? Don’t mind. I don’t want any d—-d lying about it.”
Feltram was indeed beginning to see that he was suspected of something very bad, but exactly what, he was not yet sure; and being a man of that unhappy temperament which shrinks from suspicion, as others do from detection, he looked very much put out indeed.
“Ha, ha! I think we do begin to see,” said Sir Bale savagely. “It’s a bore, I know, troubling a fellow with a story that he knows before; but I’ll make mine short. When I take my key, intending to send the note to pay the crown and quit-rents that you know—you—you—no matter—you know well enough must be paid, I open it so—and so—and look there, where I left it, for my note; and the note’s gone—you understand, the note’s gone!”
Here was a pause, during which, under the Baronet’s hard insulting eye, poor Feltram winced, and cleared his voice, and essayed to speak, but said nothing.
“It’s gone, and we know where. Now, Mr. Feltram, I did not steal that note, and no one but you and I have access to this desk. You wish to go away, and I have no objection to that—but d—n me if you take away that note with you; and you may as well produce it now and here, as hereafter in a worse place.”
“O, my good heaven!” exclaimed poor Feltram at last. “I’m very ill.”
“So you are, of course. It takes a stiff emetic to get all that money off a fellow’s stomach; and it’s like parting with a tooth to give up a bank-note. Of course you’re ill, but that’s no sign of innocence, and I’m no fool. You had better give the thing up quietly.”
“May my Maker strike me——”
“So He will, you d—-d rascal, if there’s justice in heaven, unless you produce the money. I don’t want to hang you. I’m willing to let you off if you’ll let me, but I’m cursed if I let my note off along with you; and unless you give it up forthwith, I’ll get a warrant and have you searched, pockets, bag, and baggage.”
“Lord! am I awake?” exclaimed Philip Feltram.
“Wide awake, and so am I,” replied Sir Bale. “You don’t happen to have got it about you?”
“God forbid, sir! O, Sir—O, Sir Bale—why, Bale, Bale, it’s impossible! You can’t believe it. When did I ever wrong you? You know me since I was not higher than the table, and—and——”
He burst into tears.
“Stop your snivelling, sir, and give up the note. You know devilish well I can’t spare it; and I won’t spare you if you put me to it. I’ve said my say.”
Sir Bale signed towards the door; and like a somnambulist, with dilated gaze and pale as death, Philip Feltram, at his wit’s end, went out of the room. It was not till he had again reached the housekeeper’s door that he recollected in what direction he was going. His shut hand was pressed with all his force to his heart, and the first breath he was conscious of was a deep wild sob or two that quivered from his heart as he looked from the lobby-window upon a landscape which he did not see.
All he had ever suffered before was mild in comparison with this dire paroxysm. Now, for the first time, was he made acquainted with his real capacity for pain, and how near he might be to madness and yet retain intellect enough to weigh every scruple, and calculate every chance and consequence, in his torture.
Sir Bale, in the meantime, had walked out a little more excited than he would have allowed. He was still convinced that Feltram had stolen the note, but not quite so certain as he had been. There were things in his manner that confirmed, and others that perplexed, Sir Bale.
The Baronet stood upon the margin of the lake, almost under the evening shadow of the house, looking towards Snakes Island. There were two things about Mardykes he specially disliked.
One was Philip Feltram, who, right or wrong, he fancied knew more than was pleasant of his past life.
The other was the lake. It was a beautiful piece of water, his eye, educated at least in the excellences of landscape-painting, acknowledged. But although he could pull a good oar, and liked other lakes, to this particular sheet of water there lurked within him an insurmountable antipathy. It was engendered by a variety of associations.
There is a faculty in man that will acknowledge the unseen. He may scout and scare religion from him; but if he does, superstition perches near. His boding was made-up of omens, dreams, and such stuff as he most affected to despise, and there fluttered at his heart a presentiment and disgust.
His foot was on the gunwale of the boat, that was chained to its ring at the margin; but he would not have crossed that water in it for any reason that man could urge.
What was the mischief that sooner or later was to befall him from that lake, he could not define; but that some fatal danger lurked there, was the one idea concerning it that had possession of his fancy.
He was now looking along its still waters, towards the copse and rocks of Snakes Island, thinking of Philip Feltram; and the yellow level sunbeams touched his dark features, that bore a saturnine resemblance to those of Charles II, and marked sharply their firm grim lines, and left his deep-set eyes in shadow.
Who has the happy gift to seize the present, as a child does, and live in it? Who is not often looking far off for his happiness, as Sidney Smith says, like a man looking for his hat when it is upon his head? Sir Bale was brooding over his double hatred, of Feltram and of the lake. It would have been better had he struck down the raven that croaked upon his shoulder, and listened to the harmless birds that were whistling all round among the branches in the golden sunset.
CHAPTER VIII – Feltram’s Plan
This horror of the beautiful lake, which other people thought so lovely, was, in that mind which affected to scoff at the unseen, a distinct creation of downright superstition.
The nursery tales which had scared him in his childhood were founded on the tragedy of Snakes Island, and haunted him with an unavowed persistence still. Strange dreams untold had visited him, and a German conjuror, who had made some strangely successful vaticinations, had told him that his worst enemy would come up to him from a lake. He had heard very nearly the same thing from a fortune-teller in France; and once at Lucerne, when he was waiting alone in his room for the hour at which he had appointed to go upon the lake, all being quiet, there came to the window, which was open, a sunburnt, lean, wicked face. Its ragged owner leaned his arm on the window-frame, and with his head in the room, said in his patois, “Ho! waiting are you? You’ll have enough of the lake one day. Don’t you mind watching; they’ll send when you’re wanted;” and twisting his yellow face into a malicious distortion, he went on.
This thing had occurred so suddenly, and chimed-in so oddly with his thoughts, which were at that moment at distant Mardykes and the haunted lake, that it disconcerted him. He laughed, he looked out of the window. He would have given that fellow money to tell him why he said that. But there was no good in looking for the scamp; he was gone.
A memory not preoccupied with that lake and its omens, and a presentiment about himself, would not have noted such things. But his mind they touched indelibly; and he was ashamed of his childish slavery, but could not help it.
The foundation of all this had been laid in the nursery, in the winter’s tales told by its fireside, and which seized upon his fancy and his fears with a strange congeniality.
There is a large bedroom at Mardykes Hall, which tradition assigns to the lady who had perished tragically in the lake. Mrs. Julaper was sure of it; for her aunt, who died a very old woman twenty years before, remembered the time of the lady’s death, and when she grew to woman’s estate had opportunity in abundance; for the old people who surrounded her could remember forty years farther back, and tell everything connected with the old house in beautiful Miss Feltram’s time.
This large old-fashioned room, commanding a view of Snakes Island, the fells, and the lake—somewhat vast and gloomy, and furnished in a stately old fashion—was said to be haunted, especially when the wind blew from the direction of Golden Friars, the point from which it blew on the night of her death in the lake; or when the sky was overcast, and thunder rolled among the lofty fells, and lightning gleamed on the wide sheet of water.
It was on a night like this that a lady visitor, who long after that event occupied, in entire ignorance of its supernatural character, that large room; and being herself a lady of a picturesque turn, and loving the grander melodrama of Nature, bid her maid leave the shutters open, and watched the splendid effects from her bed, until, the storm being still distant, she fell asleep.
It was travelling slowly across the lake, and it was the deep-mouthed clangour of its near approach that startled her, at dead of night, from her slumber, to witness the same phenomena in the tremendous loudness and brilliancy of their near approach.
At this magnificent spectacle she was looking with the awful ecstasy of an observer in whom the sense of danger is subordinated to that of the sublime, when she saw suddenly at the window a woman, whose long hair and dress seemed drenched with water. She was gazing in with a look of terror, and was shaking the sash of the window with vehemence. Having stood there for a few seconds, and before the lady, who beheld all this from her bed, could make up her mind what to do, the storm-beaten figure, wringing her hands, seemed to throw herself backward, and was gone.
Possessed with the idea that she had seen some poor woman overtaken in the storm, who, failing to procure admission there, had gone round to some of the many doors of the mansion, and obtained an entry there, she again fell asleep.
It was not till the morning, when she went to her window to look out upon the now tranquil scene, that she discovered what, being a stranger to the house, she had quite forgotten, that this room was at a great height—some thirty feet—from the ground.
Another story was that of good old Mr. Randal Rymer, who was often a visitor at the house in the late Lady Mardykes’ day. In his youth he had been a campaigner; and now that he was a preacher he maintained his hardy habits, and always slept, summer and winter, with a bit of his window up. Being in that room in his bed, and after a short sleep lying awake, the moon shining softly through the window, there passed by that aperture into the room a figure dressed, it seemed to him, in gray that was nearly white. It passed straight to the hearth, where was an expiring wood fire; and cowering over it with outstretched hands, it appeared to be gathering what little heat was to be had. Mr. Rymer, amazed and awestruck, made a movement in his bed; and the figure looked round, with large eyes that in the moonlight looked like melting snow, and stretching its long arms up the chimney, they and the figure itself seemed to blend with the smoke, and so pass up and away.
Sir Bale, I have said, did not like Feltram. His father, Sir William, had left a letter creating a trust, it was said, in favour of Philip Feltram. The document had been found with the will, addressed to Sir Bale in the form of a letter.
“That is mine,” said the Baronet, when it dropped out of the will; and he slipped it into his pocket, and no one ever saw it after.
But Mr. Charles Twyne, the attorney of Golden Friars, whenever he got drunk, which was pretty often, used to tell his friends with a grave wink that he knew a thing or two about that letter. It gave Philip Feltram two hundred a-year, charged on Harfax. It was only a direction. It made Sir Bale a trustee, however; and having made away with the “letter,” the Baronet had been robbing Philip Feltram ever since.
Old Twyne was cautious, even in his cups, in his choice of an audience, and was a little enigmatical in his revelations. For he was afraid of Sir Bale, though he hated him for employing a lawyer who lived seven miles away, and was a rival. So people were not quite sure whether Mr. Twyne was telling lies or truth, and the principal fact that corroborated his story was Sir Bale’s manifest hatred of his secretary. In fact, Sir Bale’s retaining him in his house, detesting him as he seemed to do, was not easily to be accounted for, except on the principle of a tacit compromise—a miserable compensation for having robbed him of his rights.
The battle about the bank-note proceeded. Sir Bale certainly had doubts, and vacillated; for moral evidence made powerfully in favour of poor Feltram, though the evidence of circumstance made as powerfully against him. But Sir Bale admitted suspicion easily, and in weighing probabilities would count a virtue very lightly against temptation and opportunity; and whatever his doubts might sometimes be, he resisted and quenched them, and never let that ungrateful scoundrel Philip Feltram so much as suspect their existence.
For two days Sir Bale had not spoken to Feltram. He passed by on stair and passage, carrying his head high, and with a thundrous countenance, rolling conclusions and revenges in his soul.
Poor Feltram all this time existed in one long agony. He would have left Mardykes, were it not that he looked vaguely to some just power—to chance itself—against this hideous imputation. To go with this indictment ringing in his ears, would amount to a confession and flight.
Mrs. Julaper consoled him with might and main. She was a sympathetic and trusting spirit, and knew poor Philip Feltram, in her simplicity, better than the shrewdest profligate on earth could have known him. She cried with him in his misery. She was fired with indignation by these suspicions, and still more at what followed.
Sir Bale showed no signs of relenting. It might have been that he was rather glad of so unexceptionable an opportunity of getting rid of Feltram, who, people thought, knew something which it galled the Baronet’s pride that he should know.
The Baronet had another shorter and sterner interview with Feltram in his study. The result was, that unless he restored the missing note before ten o’clock next morning, he should leave Mardykes.
To leave Mardykes was no more than Philip Feltram, feeble as he was of will, had already resolved. But what was to become of him? He did not very much care, if he could find any calling, however humble, that would just give him bread.
There was an old fellow and his wife (an ancient dame,) who lived at the other side of the lake, on the old territories of the Feltrams, and who, from some tradition of loyalty, perhaps, were fond of poor Philip Feltram. They lived somewhat high up on the fells—about as high as trees would grow—and those which were clumped about their rude dwelling were nearly the last you passed in your ascent of the mountain. These people had a multitude of sheep and goats, and lived in their airy solitude a pastoral and simple life, and were childless. Philip Feltram was hardy and active, having passed his early days among that arduous scenery. Cold and rain did not trouble him; and these people being wealthy in their way, and loving him, would be glad to find him employment of that desultory pastoral kind which would best suit him.
This vague idea was the only thing resembling a plan in his mind.
When Philip Feltram came to Mrs. Julaper’s room, and told her that he had made up his mind to leave the house forthwith—to cross the lake to the Cloostedd side in Tom Marlin’s boat, and then to make his way up the hill alone to Trebeck’s lonely farmstead, Mrs. Julaper was overwhelmed.
“Ye’ll do no such thing to-night, anyhow. You’re not to go like that. Ye’ll come into the small room here, where he can’t follow; and we’ll sit down and talk it over a bit, and ye’ll find ’twill all come straight; and this will be no night, anyhow, for such a march. Why, man,’twould take an hour and more to cross the lake, and then a long uphill walk before ye could reach Trebeck’s place; and if the night should fall while you were still on the mountain, ye might lose your life among the rocks. It can’t be ’tis come to that yet; and the call was in the air, I’m told, all yesterday, and distant thunder to-day, travelling this way over Blarwyn Fells; and ’twill be a night no one will be out, much less on the mountain side.”
CHAPTER IX – The Crazy Parson
Mrs. Julaper had grown weather-wise, living for so long among this noble and solitary scenery, where people must observe Nature or else nothing—where signs of coming storm or change are almost local, and record themselves on particular cliffs and mountain-peaks, or in the mists, or in mirrored tints of the familiar lake, and are easily learned or remembered. At all events, her presage proved too true.
The sun had set an hour and more. It was dark; and an awful thunder-storm, whose march, like the distant reverberations of an invading army, had been faintly heard beyond the barriers of Blarwyn Fells throughout the afternoon, was near them now, and had burst in deep-mouthed battle among the ravines at the other side, and over the broad lake, that glared like a sheet of burnished steel under its flashes of dazzling blue. Wild and fitful blasts sweeping down the hollows and cloughs of the fells of Golden Friars agitated the lake, and bent the trees low, and whirled away their sere leaves in melancholy drift in their tremendous gusts. And from the window, looking on a scene enveloped in more than the darkness of the night, you saw in the pulsations of the lightning, before “the speedy gleams the darkness swallowed,” the tossing trees and the flying foam and eddies on the lake.
In the midst of the hurlyburly, a loud and long knocking came at the hall-door of Mardykes. How long it had lasted before a chance lull made it audible I do not know.
There was nothing picturesquely poor, any more than there were evidences of wealth, anywhere in Sir Bale Mardykes’ household. He had no lack of servants, but they were of an inexpensive and homely sort; and the hall-door being opened by the son of an old tenant on the estate—the tempest beating on the other side of the house, and comparative shelter under the gables at the front—he saw standing before him, in the agitated air, a thin old man, who muttering, it might be, a benediction, stepped into the hall, and displayed long silver tresses, just as the storm had blown them, ascetic and eager features, and a pair of large light eyes that wandered wildly. He was dressed in threadbare black; a pair of long leather gaiters, buckled high above his knee, protecting his thin shanks through moss and pool; and the singularity of his appearance was heightened by a wide-leafed felt hat, over which he had tied his handkerchief, so as to bring the leaf of it over his ears, and to secure it from being whirled from his head by the storm.
This odd and storm-beaten figure—tall, and a little stooping, as well as thin—was not unknown to the servant, who saluted him with something of fear as well as of respect as he bid him reverently welcome, and asked him to come in and sit by the fire.
“Get you to your master, and tell him I have a message to him from one he has not seen for two-and-forty years.”
As the old man, with his harsh old voice, thus spoke, he unknotted his handkerchief and bet the rain-drops from his hat upon his knee.
The servant knocked at the library-door, where he found Sir Bale.
“Well, what’s the matter?” cried Sir Bale sharply, from his chair before the fire, with angry eyes looking over his shoulder.
“Here’s ‘t sir cumman, Sir Bale,” he answered.
“Sir,” or “the Sir,” is still used as the clergyman’s title in the Northumbrian counties.
“Sir Hugh Creswell, if you please, Sir Bale.”
“Ho!–mad Creswell?—O, the crazy parson. Well, tell Mrs. Julaper to let him have some supper—and—and to let him have a bed in some suitable place. That’s what he wants. These mad fellows know what they are about.”
“No, Sir Bale Mardykes, that is not what he wants,” said the loud wild voice of the daft sir over the servant’s shoulder. “Often has Mardykes Hall given me share of its cheer and its shelter and the warmth of its fire; and I bless the house that has been an inn to the wayfarer of the Lord. But to-night I go up the lake to Pindar’s Bield, three miles on; and there I rest and refresh—not here.”
“And why not here, Mr. Creswell?” asked the Baronet; for about this crazy old man, who preached in the fields, and appeared and disappeared so suddenly in the orbit of his wide and unknown perambulations of those northern and border counties, there was that sort of superstitious feeling which attaches to the mysterious and the good—an idea that it was lucky to harbour and dangerous to offend him. No one knew whence he came or whither he went. Once in a year, perhaps, he might appear at a lonely farmstead door among the fells, salute the house, enter, and be gone in the morning. His life was austere; his piety enthusiastic, severe, and tinged with the craze which inspired among the rustic population a sort of awe.
“I’ll not sleep at Mardykes to-night; neither will I eat, nor drink, nor sit me down—no, nor so much as stretch my hands to the fire. As the man of God came out of Judah to king Jeroboam, so come I to you, sent by a vision, to bear a warning; and as he said, ‘If thou wilt give me half thy house, I will not go in with thee, neither will I eat bread nor drink water in this place,’ so also say I.”
“Do as you please,” said Sir Bale, a little sulkily. “Say your say; and you are welcome to stay or go, if go you will on so mad a night as this.”
“Leave us,” said Creswell, beckoning the servant back with his thin hands; “what I have to say is to your master.”
The servant went, in obedience to a gesture from Sir Bale, and shut the door.
The old man drew nearer to the Baronet, and lowering his loud stern voice a little, and interrupting his discourse from time to time, to allow the near thunder-peals to subside, he said,
“Answer me, Sir Bale—what is this that has chanced between you and Philip Feltram?”
The Baronet, under the influence of that blunt and peremptory demand, told him shortly and sternly enough.
“And of all these facts you are sure, else ye would not blast your early companion and kinsman with the name of thief?”
“I am sure,” said Sir Bale grimly.
“Unlock that cabinet,” said the old man with the long white locks.
“I’ve no objection,” said Sir Bale; and he did unlock an old oak cabinet that stood, carved in high relief with strange figures and gothic grotesques, against the wall, opposite the fireplace. On opening it there were displayed a system of little drawers and pigeon-holes such as we see in more modern escritoires.
“Open that drawer with the red mark of a seal upon it,” continued Hugh Creswell, pointing to it with his lank finger.
Sir Bale did so; and to his momentary amazement, and even consternation, there lay the missing note, which now, with one of those sudden caprices of memory which depend on the laws of suggestion and association, he remembered having placed there with his own hand.
“That is it,” said old Creswell with a pallid smile, and fixing his wild eyes on the Baronet. The smile subsided into a frown, and said he: “Last night I slept near Haworth Moss; and your father came to me in a dream, and said: ‘My son Bale accuses Philip of having stolen a bank-note from his desk. He forgets that he himself placed it in his cabinet. Come with me.’ I was, in the spirit, in this room; and he led me to this cabinet, which he opened; and in that drawer he showed me that note. ‘Go,’ said he, ‘and tell him to ask Philip Feltram’s pardon, else he will but go in weakness to return in power;’ and he said that which it is not lawful to repeat. My message is told. Now a word from myself,” he added sternly. “The dead, through my lips, has spoken, and under God’s thunder and lightning his words have found ye. Why so uppish wi’ Philip Feltram? See how ye threaped, and yet were wrong. He’s no tazzle—he’s no taggelt. Ask his pardon. Ye must change, or he will no taggelt. Go, in weakness, come in power: mark ye the words. ‘Twill make a peal that will be heard in toon and desert, in the swirls o’ the mountain, through pikes and valleys, and mak’ a waaly man o’ thee.”
The old man with these words, uttered in the broad northern dialect of his common speech, strode from the room and shut the door. In another minute he was forth into the storm, pursuing what remained of his long march to Pindar’s Bield.
“Upon my soul!” said Sir Bale, recovering from his sort of stun which the sudden and strange visit had left, “that’s a cool old fellow! Come to rate me and teach me my own business in my own house!” and he rapped out a fierce oath. “Change his mind or no, here he sha’n’t stay to-night—not an hour.”
Sir Bale was in the lobby in a moment, and thundered to his servants:
“I say, put that fool out of the door—put him out by the shoulder, and never let him put his foot inside it more!”
But the old man’s yea was yea, and his nay nay. He had quite meant what he said; and, as I related, was beyond the reach of the indignity of extrusion.
Sir Bale on his return shut his door as violently as if it were in the face of the old prophet.
“Ask Feltram’s pardon, by Jove! For what? Why, any jury on earth would have hanged him on half the evidence; and I, like a fool, was going to let him off with his liberty and my hundred pound-note! Ask his pardon indeed!”
Still there were misgivings in his mind; a consciousness that he did owe explanation and apology to Feltram, and an insurmountable reluctance to undertake either. The old dislike—a contempt mingled with fear—not any fear of his malevolence, a fear only of his carelessness and folly; for, as I have said, Feltram knew many things, it was believed, of the Baronet’s Continental and Asiatic life, and had even gently remonstrated with him upon the dangers into which he was running. A simple fellow like Philip Feltram is a dangerous depository of a secret. This Baronet was proud, too; and the mere possession of his secrets by Feltram was an involuntary insult, which Sir Bale could not forgive. He wished him far away; and except for the recovery of his bank-note, which he could ill spare, he was sorry that this suspicion was cleared up.
The thunder and storm were unabated; it seemed indeed that they were growing wilder and more awful.
He opened the window-shutter and looked out upon that sublimest of scenes; and so intense and magnificent were its phenomena, that Sir Bale, for a while, was absorbed in this contemplation.
When he turned about, the sight of his £100 note, still between his finger and thumb, made him smile grimly.
The more he thought of it, the clearer it was that he could not leave matters exactly as they were. Well, what should he do? He would send for Mrs. Julaper, and tell her vaguely that he had changed his mind about Feltram, and that he might continue to stay at Mardykes Hall as usual. That would suffice. She could speak to Feltram.
He sent for her; and soon, in the lulls of the great uproar without, he could hear the jingle of Mrs. Julaper’s keys and her light tread upon the lobby.
“Mrs. Julaper,” said the Baronet, in his dry careless way, “Feltram may remain; your eloquence has prevailed. What have you been crying about?” he asked, observing that his housekeeper’s usually cheerful face was, in her own phrase, ‘all cried.’
“It is too late, sir; he’s gone.”
“And when did he go?” asked Sir Bale, a little put out. “He chose an odd evening, didn’t he? So like him!”
“He went about half an hour ago; and I’m very sorry, sir; it’s a sore sight to see the poor lad going from the place he was reared in, and a hard thing, sir; and on such a night, above all.”
“No one asked him to go to-night. Where is he gone to?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure; he left my room, sir, when I was upstairs; and Janet saw him pass the window not ten minutes after Mr. Creswell left the house.”
“Well, then, there’s no good, Mrs. Julaper, in thinking more about it; he has settled the matter his own way; and as he so ordains it—amen, say I. Goodnight.”
CHAPTER X – Adventure in Tom Marlin’s Boat
Philip Feltram was liked very well—a gentle, kindly, and very timid creature, and, before he became so heart-broken, a fellow who liked a joke or a pleasant story, and could laugh heartily. Where will Sir Bale find so unresisting and respectful a butt and retainer? and whom will he bully now?
Something like remorse was worrying Sir Bale’s heart a little; and the more he thought on the strange visit of Hugh Creswell that night, with its unexplained menace, the more uneasy he became.
The storm continued; and even to him there seemed something exaggerated and inhuman in the severity of his expulsion on such a night. It was his own doing, it was true; but would people believe that? and would he have thought of leaving Mardykes at all if it had not been for his kinsman’s severity? Nay, was it not certain that if Sir Bale had done as Hugh Creswell had urged him, and sent for Feltram forthwith, and told him how all had been cleared up, and been a little friendly with him, he would have found him still in the house?—for he had not yet gone for ten minutes after Creswell’s departure, and thus, all that was to follow might have been averted. But it was too late now, and Sir Bale would let the affair take its own course.
Below him, outside the window at which he stood ruminating, he heard voices mingling with the storm. He could with tolerable certainty perceive, looking into the obscurity, that there were three men passing close under it, carrying some very heavy burden among them.
He did not know what these three black figures in the obscurity were about. He saw them pass round the corner of the building toward the front, and in the lulls of the storm could hear their gruff voices talking.
We have all experienced what a presentiment is, and we all know with what an intuition the faculty of observation is sometimes heightened. It was such an apprehension as sometimes gives its peculiar horror to a dream—a sort of knowledge that what those people were about was in a dreadful way connected with his own fate.
He watched for a time, thinking that they might return; but they did not. He was in a state of uncomfortable suspense.
“If they want me, they won’t have much trouble in finding me, nor any scruple, egad, in plaguing me; they never have.”
Sir Bale returned to his letters, a score of which he was that night getting off his conscience—an arrear which would not have troubled him had he not ceased, for two or three days, altogether to employ Philip Feltram, who had been accustomed to take all that sort of drudgery off his hands.
All the time he was writing now he had a feeling that the shadows he had seen pass under his window were machinating some trouble for him, and an uneasy suspense made him lift his eyes now and then to the door, fancying sounds and footsteps; and after a resultless wait he would say to himself, “If any one is coming, why the devil don’t he come?” and then he would apply himself again to his letters.
But on a sudden he heard good Mrs. Julaper’s step trotting along the lobby, and the tiny ringing of her keys.
Here was news coming; and the Baronet stood up looking at the door, on which presently came a hurried rapping; and before he had answered, in the midst of a long thunder-clap that suddenly broke, rattling over the house, the good woman opened the door in great agitation, and cried with a tremulous uplifting of her hands.
“O, Sir Bale! O, la, sir! here’s poor dear Philip Feltram come home dead!”
Sir Bale stared at her sternly for some seconds.
“Gome, now, do be distinct,” said Sir Bale; “what has happened?”
“He’s lying on the sofer in the old still-room. You never saw—my God!–O, sir—what is life?”
“D—n it, can’t you cry by-and-by, and tell me what’s the matter now?”
“A bit o’ fire there, as luck would have it; but what is hot or cold now? La, sir, they’re all doin’ what they can; he’s drowned, sir, and Tom Warren is on the gallop down to Golden Friars for Doctor Torvey.”
“Is he drowned, or is it only a ducking? Come, bring me to the place. Dead men don’t usually want a fire, or consult doctors. I’ll see for myself.”
So Sir Bale Mardykes, pale and grim, accompanied by the light-footed Mrs. Julaper, strode along the passages, and was led by her into the old still-room, which had ceased to be used for its original purpose. All the servants in the house were now collected there, and three men also who lived by the margin of the lake; one of them thoroughly drenched, with rivulets of water still trickling from his sleeves, water along the wrinkles and pockets of his waistcoat and from the feet of his trousers, and pumping and oozing from his shoes, and streaming from his hair down the channels of his cheeks like a continuous rain of tears.
The people drew back a little as Sir Bale entered with a quick step and a sharp pallid frown on his face. There was a silence as he stooped over Philip Feltram, who lay on a low bed next the wall, dimly lighted by two or three candles here and there about the room.
He laid his hand, for a moment, on his cold wet breast.
Sir Bale knew what should be done in order to give a man in such a case his last chance for life. Everybody was speedily put in motion. Philip’s drenched clothes were removed, hot blankets enveloped him, warming-pans and hot bricks lent their aid; he was placed at the prescribed angle, so that the water flowed freely from his mouth. The old expedient for inducing artificial breathing was employed, and a lusty pair of bellows did duty for his lungs.
But these helps to life, and suggestions to nature, availed not. Forlorn and peaceful lay the features of poor Philip Feltram; cold and dull to the touch; no breath through the blue lips; no sight in the fish-like eyes; pulseless and cold in the midst of all the hot bricks and warming-pans about him.
At length, everything having been tried, Sir Bale, who had been directing, placed his hand within the clothes, and laid it silently on Philip’s shoulder and over his heart; and after a little wait, he shook his head, and looking down on his sunken face, he said,
“I am afraid he’s gone. Yes, he’s gone, poor fellow! And bear you this in mind, all of you; Mrs. Julaper there can tell you more about it. She knows that it was certainly in no compliance with my wish that he left the house to-night: it was his own obstinate perversity, and perhaps—I forgive him for it—a wish in his unreasonable resentment to throw some blame upon this house, as having refused him shelter on such a night; than which imputation nothing can be more utterly false. Mrs. Julaper there knows how welcome he was to stay the night; but he would not; he had made up his mind, it seems, without telling any person. Had he told you, Mrs. Julaper?”
“No, sir,” sobbed Mrs. Julaper from the centre of a pocket-handkerchief in which her face was buried.
“Not a human being: an angry whim of his own. Poor Feltram! and here’s the result,” said the Baronet. “We have done our best—done everything. I don’t think the doctor, when he comes, will say that anything has been omitted; but all won’t do. Does any one here know how it happened?”
Two men knew very well—the man who had been ducked, and his companion, a younger man, who was also in the still-room, and had lent a hand in carrying Feltram up to the house.
Tom Marlin had a queer old stone tenement by the edge of the lake just under Mardykes Hall. Some people said it was the stump of an old tower that had once belonged to Mardykes Castle, of which in the modern building scarcely a relic was discoverable.
This Tom Marlin had an ancient right of fishing in the lake, where he caught pike enough for all Golden Friars; and keeping a couple of boats, he made money beside by ferrying passengers over now and then. This fellow, with a furrowed face and shaggy eyebrows, bald at top, but with long grizzled locks falling upon his shoulders, said,
“He wer wi’ me this mornin’, sayin’ he’d want t’ boat to cross the lake in, but he didn’t say what hour; and when it came on to thunder and blow like this, ye guess I did not look to see him to-night. Well, my wife was just lightin’ a pig-tail—tho’ light enough and to spare there was in the lift already—when who should come clatterin’ at the latch-pin in the blow o’ thunder and wind but Philip, poor lad, himself; and an ill hour for him it was. He’s been some time in ill fettle, though he was never frowsy, not he, but always kind and dooce, and canty once, like anither; and he asked me to tak the boat across the lake at once to the Clough o’ Cloostedd at t’other side. The woman took the pet and wodn’t hear o’t; and, ‘Dall me, if I go to-night,’ quoth I. But he would not be put off so, not he; and dingdrive he went to it, cryin’ and putrein’ ye’d a-said, poor fellow, he was wrang i’ his garrets a’most. So at long last I bethought me, there’s nout o’ a sea to the north o’ Snakes Island, so I’ll pull him by that side—for the storm is blowin’ right up by Golden Friars, ye mind—and when we get near the point, thinks I, he’ll see wi’ his een how the lake is, and gie it up. For I liked him, poor lad; and seein’ he’d set his heart on’t, I wouldn’t vex nor frump him wi’ a no. So down we three—myself, and Bill there, and Philip Feltram—come to the boat; and we pulled out, keeping Snakes Island atwixt us and the wind. ‘Twas smooth water wi’ us, for ’twas a scug there, but white enough was all beyont the point; and passing the finger-stone, not forty fathom from the shore o’ the island, Bill and me pullin’ and he sittin’ in the stern, poor lad, up he rises, a bit rabblin’ to himself, wi’ his hands lifted so.
“‘Look a-head!’ says I, thinkin’ something wos comin’ atort us.
“But ’twasn’t that. The boat was quiet, for while we looked, oo’er our shouthers, oo’er her bows, we didn’t pull, so she lay still; and lookin’ back again on Philip, he was rabblin’ on all the same.
“‘It’s nobbut a prass wi’ himsel”, poor lad,’ thinks I.
“But that wasn’t it neither; for I sid something white come out o’ t’ water, by the gunwale, like a hand. By Jen! and he leans oo’er and tuk it; and he sagged like, and so it drew him in, under the mere, before I cud du nout. There was nout to thraa tu him, and no time; down he went, and I followed; and thrice I dived before I found him, and brought him up by the hair at last; and there he is, poor lad! and all one if he lay at the bottom o’ t’ mere.”
As Tom Marlin ended his narrative—often interrupted by the noise of the tempest without, and the peals of thunder that echoed awfully above, like the chorus of a melancholy ballad—the sudden clang of the hall-door bell, and a more faintly-heard knocking, announced a new arrival.
“I sid something white come out o’ t’ water,
by the gunwale, like a hand.”
CHAPTER XI – Sir Bale’s Dream
It was Doctor Torvey who entered the old still-room now, buttoned-up to the chin in his greatcoat, and with a muffler of many colours wrapped partly over that feature.
“Well!–hey? So poor Feltram’s had an accident?”
The Doctor was addressing Sir Bale, and getting to the bedside as he pulled off his gloves.
“I see you’ve been keeping him warm—that’s right; and a considerable flow of water from his mouth; turn him a little that way. Hey? O, ho!” said the Doctor, as he placed his hand upon Philip, and gently stirred his limbs. “It’s more than an hour since this happened. I’m afraid there’s very little to be done now;” and in a lower tone, with his hand on poor Philip Feltram’s arm, and so down to his fingers, he said in Sir Bale Mardykes’ ear, with a shake of his head,
“Here, you see, poor fellow, here’s the cadaveric stiffness; it’s very melancholy, but it’s all over, he’s gone; there’s no good trying any more. Come here, Mrs. Julaper. Did you ever see any one dead? Look at his eyes, look at his mouth. You ought to have known that, with half an eye. And you know,” he added again confidentially in Sir Bale’s ear, “trying any more now is all my eye.”
Then after a few more words with the Baronet, and having heard his narrative, he said from time to time, “Quite right; nothing could be better; capital practice, sir,” and so forth. And at the close of all this, amid the sobs of kind Mrs. Julaper and the general whimpering of the humbler handmaids, the Doctor standing by the bed, with his knuckles on the coverlet, and a glance now and then on the dead face beside him, said—by way of ‘quieting men’s minds,’ as the old tract-writers used to say—a few words to the following effect:
“Everything has been done here that the most experienced physician could have wished. Everything has been done in the best way. I don’t know anything that has not been done, in fact. If I had been here myself, I don’t know—hot bricks—salt isn’t a bad thing. I don’t know, I say, that anything of any consequence has been omitted.” And looking at the body, “You see,” and he drew the fingers a little this way and that, letting them return, as they stiffly did, to their former attitude, “you may be sure that the poor gentleman was quite dead by the time he arrived here. So, since he was laid there, nothing has been lost by delay. And, Sir Bale, if you have any directions to send to Golden Friars, sir, I shall be most happy to undertake your message.”
“Nothing, thanks; it is a melancholy ending, poor fellow! You must come to the study with me, Doctor Torvey, and talk a little bit more; and—very sad, doctor—and you must have a glass of sherry, or some port—the port used not to be bad here; I don’t take it—but very melancholy it is—bring some port and sherry; and, Mrs. Julaper, you’ll be good enough to see that everything that should be done here is looked to; and let Marlin and the men have supper and something to drink. You have been too long in your wet clothes, Marlin.”
So, with gracious words all round, he led the Doctor to the library where he had been sitting, and was affable and hospitable, and told him his own version of all that had passed between him and Philip Feltram, and presented himself in an amiable point of view, and pleased the Doctor with his port and flatteries—for he could not afford to lose anyone’s good word just now; and the Doctor was a bit of a gossip, and in most houses in that region, in one character or another, every three months in the year.
So in due time the Doctor drove back to Golden Friars, with a high opinion of Sir Bale, and higher still of his port, and highest of all of himself: in the best possible humour with the world, not minding the storm that blew in his face, and which he defied in good-humoured mock-heroics spoken in somewhat thick accents, and regarding the thunder and lightning as a lively gala of fireworks; and if there had been a chance of finding his cronies still in the George and Dragon, he would have been among them forthwith, to relate the tragedy of the night, and tell what a good fellow, after all, Sir Bale was; and what a fool, at best, poor Philip Feltram.
But the George was quiet for that night. The thunder rolled over voiceless chambers; and the lights had been put out within the windows, on whose multitudinous small panes the lightning glared. So the Doctor went home to Mrs. Torvey, whom he charmed into good-humoured curiosity by the tale of wonder he had to relate.
Sir Bale’s qualms were symptomatic of something a little less sublime and more selfish than conscience. He was not sorry that Philip Feltram was out of the way. His lips might begin to babble inconveniently at any time, and why should not his mouth be stopped? and what stopper so effectual as that plug of clay which fate had introduced? But he did not want to be charged with the odium of the catastrophe. Every man cares something for the opinion of his fellows. And seeing that Feltram had been well liked, and that his death had excited a vehement commiseration, Sir Bale did not wish it to be said that he had made the house too hot to hold him, and had so driven him to extremity.
Sir Bale’s first agitation had subsided. It was now late, he had written many letters, and he was tired. It was not wonderful, then, that having turned his lounging-chair to the fire, he should have fallen asleep in it, as at last he did.
The storm was passing gradually away by this time. The thunder was now echoing among the distant glens and gorges of Daulness Fells, and the angry roar and gusts of the tempest were subsiding into the melancholy soughing and piping that soothe like a lullaby.
Sir Bale therefore had his unpremeditated sleep very comfortably, except that his head was hanging a little uneasily; which, perhaps, helped him to this dream.
It was one of those dreams in which the continuity of the waking state that immediately preceded it seems unbroken; for he thought that he was sitting in the chair which he occupied, and in the room where he actually was. It seemed to him that he got up, took a candle in his hand, and went through the passages to the old still-room where Philip Feltram lay. The house seemed perfectly still. He could hear the chirp of the crickets faintly from the distant kitchen, and the tick of the clock sounded loud and hollow along the passage. In the old still-room, as he opened the door, was no light, except what was admitted from the candle he carried. He found the body of poor Philip Feltram just as he had left it—his gentle face, saddened by the touch of death, was turned upwards, with white lips: with traces of suffering fixed in its outlines, such as caused Sir Bale, standing by the bed, to draw the coverlet over the dead man’s features, which seemed silently to upbraid him. “Gone in weakness!” said Sir Bale, repeating the words of the “daft sir,” Hugh Creswell; as he did so, a voice whispered near him, with a great sigh, “Come in power!” He looked round, in his dream, but there was no one; the light seemed to fail, and a horror slowly overcame him, especially as he thought he saw the figure under the coverlet stealthily beginning to move. Backing towards the door, for he could not take his eyes off it, he saw something like a huge black ape creep out at the foot of the bed; and springing at him, it griped him by the throat, so that he could not breathe; and a thousand voices were instantly round him, holloaing, cursing, laughing in his ears; and in this direful plight he waked.
Was it the ring of those voices still in his ears, or a real shriek, and another, and a long peal, shriek after shriek, swelling madly through the distant passages, that held him still, freezing in the horror of his dream?
I will tell you what this noise was.
CHAPTER XII – Marcella Bligh and Judith Wale Keep Watch
After his bottle of port with Sir Bale, the Doctor had gone down again to the room where poor Philip Feltram lay.
Mrs. Julaper had dried her eyes, and was busy by this time; and two old women were making all their arrangements for a night-watch by the body, which they had washed, and, as their phrase goes, ‘laid out’ in the humble bed where it had lain while there was still a hope that a spark sufficient to rekindle the fire of life might remain. These old women had points of resemblance: they were lean, sallow, and wonderfully wrinkled, and looked each malign and ugly enough for a witch.
Marcella Bligh’s thin hooked nose was now like the beak of a bird of prey over the face of the drowned man, upon whose eyelids she was placing penny-pieces, to keep them from opening; and her one eye was fixed on her work, its sightless companion showing white in its socket, with an ugly leer.
Judith Wale was lifting the pail of hot water with which they had just washed the body. She had long lean arms, a hunched back, a great sharp chin sunk on her hollow breast, and small eyes restless as a ferret’s; and she clattered about in great bowls of shoes, old and clouted, that were made for a foot as big as two of hers.
The Doctor knew these two old women, who were often employed in such dismal offices.
“How does Mrs. Bligh? See me with half an eye? Hey—that’s rhyme, isn’t it?—And, Judy lass—why, I thought you lived nearer the town—here making poor Mr. Feltram’s last toilet. You have helped to dress many a poor fellow for his last journey. Not a bad notion of drill either—they stand at attention stiff and straight enough in the sentry-box. Your recruits do you credit, Mrs. Wale.”
The Doctor stood at the foot of the bed to inspect, breathing forth a vapour of very fine old port, his hands in his pockets, speaking with a lazy thickness, and looking so comfortable and facetious, that Mrs. Julaper would have liked to turn him out of the room.
But the Doctor was not unkind, only extremely comfortable. He was a good-natured fellow, and had thought and care for the living, but not a great deal of sentiment for the dead, whom he had looked in the face too often to be much disturbed by the spectacle.
“You’ll have to keep that bandage on. You should be sharp; you should know all about it, girl, by this time, and not let those muscles stiffen. I need not tell you the mouth shuts as easily as this snuff-box, if you only take it in time.—I suppose, Mrs. Julaper, you’ll send to Jos Fringer for the poor fellow’s outfit. Fringer is a very proper man—there ain’t a properer und-aker in England. I always re-mmend Fringer—in Church-street in Golden Friars. You know Fringer, I daresay.”
“I can’t say, sir, I’m sure. That will be as Sir Bale may please to direct,” answered Mrs. Julaper.
“You’ve got him very straight—straighter than I thought you could; but the large joints were not so stiff. A very little longer wait, and you’d hardly have got him into his coffin. He’ll want a vr-r-ry long one, poor lad. Short cake is life, ma’am. Sad thing this. They’ll open their eyes, I promise you, down in the town. ‘Twill be cool enough, I’d shay, affre all th-thunr-thunnle, you know. I think I’ll take a nip, Mrs. Jool-fr, if you wouldn’t mine makin’ me out a thimmle-ful bran-band-bran-rand-andy, eh, Mishs Joolfr?”
And the Doctor took a chair by the fire; and Mrs. Julaper, with a dubious conscience and dry hospitality, procured the brandy-flask and wine-glass, and helped the physician in a thin hesitating stream, which left him ample opportunity to cry “Hold—enough!” had he been so minded. But that able physician had no confidence, it would seem, in any dose under a bumper, which he sipped with commendation, and then fell asleep with the firelight on his face—to tender-hearted Mrs. Julaper’s disgust—and snored with a sensual disregard of the solemnity of his situation; until with a profound nod, or rather dive, toward the fire, he awoke, got up and shook his ears with a kind of start, and standing with his back to the fire, asked for his muffler and horse; and so took his leave also of the weird sisters, who were still pottering about the body, with croak and whisper, and nod and ogle. He took his leave also of good Mrs. Julaper, who was completing arrangements with teapot and kettle, spiced elderberry wine, and other comforts, to support them through their proposed vigil. And finally, in a sort of way, he took his leave of the body, with a long business-like stare, from the foot of the bed, with his short hands stuffed into his pockets. And so, to Mrs. Julaper’s relief, this unseemly doctor, speaking thickly, departed.
And now, the Doctor being gone, and all things prepared for the ‘wake’ to be observed by withered Mrs. Bligh of the one eye, and yellow Mrs. Wale of the crooked back, the house grew gradually still. The thunder had by this time died into the solid boom of distant battle, and the fury of the gale had subsided to the long sobbing wail that is charged with so eerie a melancholy. Within all was stirless, and the two old women, each a ‘Mrs.’ by courtesy, who had not much to thank Nature or the world for, sad and cynical, and in a sort outcasts told off by fortune to these sad and grizzly services, sat themselves down by the fire, each perhaps feeling unusually at home in the other’s society; and in this soured and forlorn comfort, trimming their fire, quickening the song of the kettle to a boil, and waxing polite and chatty; each treating the other with that deprecatory and formal courtesy which invites a return in kind, and both growing strangely happy in this little world of their own, in the unusual and momentary sense of an importance and consideration which were delightful.
The old still-room of Mardykes Hall is an oblong room wainscoted. From the door you look its full length to the wide stone-shafted Tudor window at the other end. At your left is the ponderous mantelpiece, supported by two spiral stone pillars; and close to the door at the right was the bed in which the two crones had just stretched poor Philip Feltram, who lay as still as an uncoloured wax-work, with a heavy penny-piece on each eye, and a bandage under his jaw, making his mouth look stern. And the two old ladies over their tea by the fire conversed agreeably, compared their rheumatisms and other ailments wordily, and talked of old times, and early recollections, and of sick-beds they had attended, and corpses that “you would not know, so pined and windered” were they; and others so fresh and canny, you’d say the dead had never looked so bonny in life.
Then they began to talk of people who grew tall in their coffins, of others who had been buried alive, and of others who walked after death. Stories as true as holy writ.
“Were you ever down by Hawarth, Mrs. Bligh—hard by Dalworth Moss?” asked crook-backed Mrs. Wale, holding her spoon suspended over her cup.
“Neea whaar sooa far south, Mrs. Wale, ma’am; but ma father was off times down thar cuttin’ peat.”
“Ah, then ye’ll not a kenned farmer Dykes that lived by the Lin-tree Scaur. ‘Tweer I that laid him out, poor aad fellow, and a dow man he was when aught went cross wi’ him; and he cursed and sweared, twad gar ye dodder to hear him. They said he was a hard man wi’ some folk; but he kep a good house, and liked to see plenty, and many a time when I was swaimous about my food, he’d clap t’ meat on ma plate, and mak’ me eat ma fill. Na, na—there was good as well as bad in farmer Dykes. It was a year after he deed, and Tom Ettles was walking home, down by the Birken Stoop one night, and not a soul nigh, when he sees a big ball, as high as his knee, whirlin’ and spangin’ away before him on the road. What it wer he could not think; but he never consayted there was a freet or a bo thereaway; so he kep near it, watching every spang and turn it took, till it ran into the gripe by the roadside. There was a gravel pit just there, and Tom Ettles wished to take another gliff at it before he went on. But when he keeked into the pit, what should he see but a man attoppa a horse that could not get up or on: and says he, ‘I think ye be at a dead-lift there, gaffer.’ And wi’ the word, up looks the man, and who sud it be but farmer Dykes himsel; and Tom Ettles saw him plain eneugh, and kenned the horse too for Black Captain, the farmer’s aad beast, that broke his leg and was shot two years and more before the farmer died. ‘Ay,’ says farmer Dykes, lookin’ very bad; ‘forsett-and-backsett, ye’ll tak me oot, Tom Ettles, and clap ye doun behint me quick, or I’ll claw ho’d o’ thee.’ Tom felt his hair risin’ stiff on his heed, and his tongue so fast to the roof o’ his mouth he could scarce get oot a word; but says he, ‘If Black Jack can’t do it o’ noo, he’ll ne’er do’t and carry double.’ ‘I ken my ain business best,’ says Dykes. ‘If ye gar me gie ye a look, ’twill gie ye the creepin’s while ye live; so git ye doun, Tom;’ and with that the dobby lifts its neaf, and Tom saw there was a red light round horse and man, like the glow of a peat fire. And says Tom, ‘In the name o’ God, ye’ll let me pass;’ and with the word the gooast draws itsel’ doun, all a-creaked, like a man wi’ a sudden pain; and Tom Ettles took to his heels more deed than alive.”
They had approached their heads, and the story had sunk to that mysterious murmur that thrills the listener, when in the brief silence that followed they heard a low odd laugh near the door.
In that direction each lady looked aghast, and saw Feltram sitting straight up in the bed, with the white bandage in his hand, and as it seemed, for one foot was below the coverlet, near the floor, about to glide forth.
Mrs. Bligh, uttering a hideous shriek, clutched Mrs. Wale, and Mrs. Wale, with a scream as dreadful, gripped Mrs. Bligh; and quite forgetting their somewhat formal politeness, they reeled and tugged, wrestling towards the window, each struggling to place her companion between her and the ‘dobby,’ and both uniting in a direful peal of yells.
This was the uproar which had startled Sir Bale from his dream, and was now startling the servants from theirs.
CHAPTER XIII – The Mist on the Mountain
Doctor Torvey was sent for early next morning, and came full of wonder, learning and scepticism. Seeing is believing, however; and there was Philip Feltram living, and soon to be, in all bodily functions, just as usual.
“Upon my soul, Sir Bale, I couldn’t have believed it, if I had not seen it with my eyes,” said the Doctor impressively, while sipping a glass of sherry in the ‘breakfast parlour,’ as the great panelled and pictured room next the dining-room was called. “I don’t think there is any similar case on record—no pulse, no more than the poker; no respiration, by Jove, no more than the chimney-piece; as cold as a lead image in the garden there. Well, you’ll say all that might possibly be fallacious; but what will you say to the cadaveric stiffness? Old Judy Wale can tell you; and my friend Marcella—Monocula would be nearer the mark—Mrs. Bligh, she knows all those common, and I may say up to this, infallible, signs of death, as well as I do. There is no mystery about them; they’ll depose to the literality of the symptoms. You heard how they gave tongue. Upon my honour, I’ll send the whole case up to my old chief, Sir Hervey Hansard, to London. You’ll hear what a noise it will make among the profession. There never was—and it ain’t too much to say there never will be—another case like it.”
During this lecture, and a great deal more, Sir Bale leaned back in his chair, with his legs extended, his heels on the ground, and his arms folded, looking sourly up in the face of a tall lady in white satin, in a ruff, and with a bird on her hand, who smiled down superciliously from her frame on the Baronet. Sir Bale seemed a little bit high and dry with the Doctor.
“You physicians are unquestionably,” he said, “a very learned profession.”
The Doctor bowed.
“But there’s just one thing you know nothing about——”
“Eh? What’s that?” inquired Doctor Torvey.
“Medicine,” answered Sir Bale. “I was aware you never knew what was the matter with a sick man; but I didn’t know, till now, that you couldn’t tell when he was dead.”
“Ha, ha!–well—ha, ha!–yes—well, you see, you—ha, ha!–you certainly have me there. But it’s a case without a parallel—it is, upon my honour. You’ll find it will not only be talked about, but written about; and, whatever papers appear upon it, will come to me; and I’ll take care, Sir Bale, you shall have an opportunity of reading them.”
“Of which I shan’t avail myself,” answered Sir Bale. “Take another glass of sherry, Doctor.”
The Doctor made his acknowledgments and filled his glass, and looked through the wine between him and the window.
“Ha, ha!–see there, your port, Sir Bale, gives a fellow such habits—looking for the beeswing, by Jove. It isn’t easy, in one sense at least, to get your port out of a fellow’s head when once he has tasted it.”
But if the honest Doctor meant a hint for a glass of that admirable bin, it fell pointless; and Sir Bale had no notion of making another libation of that precious fluid in honour of Doctor Torvey.
“And I take it for granted,” said Sir Bale, “that Feltram will do very well; and, should anything go wrong, I can send for you—unless he should die again; and in that case I think I shall take my own opinion.”
So he and the Doctor parted.
Sir Bale, although he did not consult the Doctor on his own case, was not particularly well. “That lonely place, those frightful mountains, and that damp black lake”—which features in the landscape he cursed all round—”are enough to give any man blue devils; and when a fellow’s spirits go, he’s all gone. That’s why I’m dyspeptic—that and those d—-d debts—and the post, with its flight of croaking and screeching letters from London. I wish there was no post here. I wish it was like Sir Amyrald’s time, when they shot the York mercer that came to dun him, and no one ever took anyone to task about it; and now they can pelt you at any distance they please through the post; and fellows lose their spirits and their appetite and any sort of miserable comfort that is possible in this odious abyss.”
Was there gout in Sir Bale’s case, or ‘vapours’? I know not what the faculty would have called it; but Sir Bale’s mode of treatment was simply to work off the attack by long and laborious walking.
This evening his walk was upon the Fells of Golden Friars—long after the landscape below was in the eclipse of twilight, the broad bare sides and angles of these gigantic uplands were still lighted by the misty western sun.
There is no such sense of solitude as that which we experience upon the silent and vast elevations of great mountains. Lifted high above the level of human sounds and habitations, among the wild expanses and colossal features of Nature, we are thrilled in our loneliness with a strange fear and elation—an ascent above the reach of life’s vexations or companionship, and the tremblings of a wild and undefined misgiving. The filmy disc of the moon had risen in the east, and was already faintly silvering the shadowy scenery below, while yet Sir Bale stood in the mellow light of the western sun, which still touched also the summits of the opposite peaks of Morvyn Fells.
Sir Bale Mardykes did not, as a stranger might, in prudence, hasten his descent from the heights at which he stood while yet a gleam of daylight remained to him. For he was, from his boyhood, familiar with those solitary regions; and, beside this, the thin circle of the moon, hung in the eastern sky, would brighten as the sunlight sank, and hang like a lamp above his steps.
There was in the bronzed and resolute face of the Baronet, lighted now in the parting beams of sunset, a resemblance to that of Charles the Second—not our “merry” ideal, but the more energetic and saturnine face which the portraits have preserved to us.
He stood with folded arms on the side of the slope, admiring, in spite of his prejudice, the unusual effects of a view so strangely lighted—the sunset tints on the opposite peaks, lost in the misty twilight, now deepening lower down into a darker shade, through which the outlines of the stone gables and tower of Golden Friars and the light of fire or candle in their windows were dimly visible.
As he stood and looked, his more distant sunset went down, and sudden twilight was upon him, and he began to remember the beautiful Homeric picture of a landscape coming out, rock and headland, in the moonlight.
There had hung upon the higher summits, at his right, a heavy fold of white cloud, which on a sudden broke, and, like the smoke of artillery, came rolling down the slopes toward him. Its principal volume, however, unfolded itself in a mighty flood down the side of the mountain towards the lake; and that which spread towards and soon enveloped the ground on which he stood was by no means so dense a fog. A thick mist enough it was; but still, to a distance of twenty or thirty yards, he could discern the outline of a rock or scaur, but not beyond it.
There are few sensations more intimidating than that of being thus enveloped on a lonely mountain-side, which, like this one, here and there breaks into precipice.
There is another sensation, too, which affects the imagination. Overtaken thus on the solitary expanse, there comes a new chill and tremour as this treacherous medium surrounds us, through which unperceived those shapes which fancy conjures up might approach so near and bar our path.
From the risk of being reduced to an actual standstill he knew he was exempt. The point from which the wind blew, light as it was, assured him of that. Still the mist was thick enough seriously to embarrass him. It had overtaken him as he was looking down upon the lake; and he now looked to his left, to try whether in that direction it was too thick to permit a view of the nearest landmarks. Through this white film he saw a figure standing only about five-and-twenty steps away, looking down, as it seemed, in precisely the same direction as he, quite motionless, and standing like a shadow projected upon the smoky vapour. It was the figure of a slight tall man, with his arm extended, as if pointing to a remote object, which no mortal eye certainly could discern through the mist. Sir Bale gazed at this figure, doubtful whether he were in a waking dream, unable to conjecture whence it had come; and as he looked, it moved, and was almost instantly out of sight.
He descended the mountain cautiously. The mist was now thinner, and through the haze he was beginning to see objects more distinctly, and, without danger, to proceed at a quicker pace. He had still a long walk by the uplands towards Mardykes Hall before he descended to the level of the lake.
The mist was still quite thick enough to circumscribe his view and to hide the general features of the landscape; and well was it, perhaps, for Sir Bale that his boyhood had familiarised him with the landmarks on the mountain-side.
He had made nearly four miles on his solitary homeward way, when, passing under a ledge of rock which bears the name of the Cat’s Skaitch, he saw the same figure in the short cloak standing within some thirty or forty yards of him—the thin curtain of mist, through which the moonlight touched it, giving to it an airy and unsubstantial character.
Sir Bale came to a standstill. The man in the short cloak nodded and drew back, and was concealed by the angle of the rock.
Sir Bale was now irritated, as men are after a start, and shouting to the stranger to halt, he ‘slapped’ after him, as the northern phrase goes, at his best pace. But again he was gone, and nowhere could he see him, the mist favouring his evasion.
Looking down the fells that overhang Mardykes Hall, the mountain-side dips gradually into a glen, which, as it descends, becomes precipitous and wooded. A footpath through this ravine conducts the wayfarer to the level ground that borders the lake; and by this dark pass Sir Bale Mardykes strode, in comparatively clear air, along the rocky path dappled with moonlight.
As he emerged upon the lower ground he again encountered the same figure. It approached. It was Philip Feltram.
CHAPTER XIV – A New Philip Feltram
The Baronet had not seen Feltram since his strange escape from death. His last interview with him had been stern and threatening; Sir Bale dealing with appearances in the spirit of an incensed judge, Philip Feltram lamenting in the submission of a helpless despair.
Feltram was full in the moonlight now, standing erect, and smiling cynically on the Baronet.
There was that in the bearing and countenance of Feltram that disconcerted him more than the surprise of the sudden meeting.
He had determined to meet Feltram in a friendly way, whenever that not very comfortable interview became inevitable. But he was confused by the suddenness of Feltram’s appearance; and the tone, cold and stern, in which he had last spoken to him came first, and he spoke in it after a brief silence.
“I fancied, Mr. Feltram, you were in your bed; I little expected to find you here. I think the Doctor gave very particular directions, and said that you were to remain perfectly quiet.”
“But I know more than the Doctor,” replied Feltram, still smiling unpleasantly.
“I think, sir, you would have been better in your bed,” said Sir Bale loftily.
“Come, come, come, come!” exclaimed Philip Feltram contemptuously.
It was the figure of a slight tall man,
with his arm extended,
as if pointing to a remote object.
“It seems to me,” said Sir Bale, a good deal astonished, “you rather forget yourself.”
“Easier to forget oneself, Sir Bale, than to forgive others, at times,” replied Philip Feltram in his unparalleled mood.
“That’s the way fools knock themselves up,” continued Sir Bale. “You’ve been walking ever so far—away to the Fells of Golden Friars. It was you whom I saw there. What d—-d folly! What brought you there?”
“To observe you,” he replied.
“And have you walked the whole way there and back again? How did you get there?”
“Pooh! how did I come—how did you come—how did the fog come? From the lake, I suppose. We all come up, and then down.” So spoke Philip Feltram, with serene insolence.
“You are pleased to talk nonsense,” said Sir Bale.
“Because I like it—with a meaning.”
Sir Bale looked at him, not knowing whether to believe his eyes and ears. He did not know what to make of him.
“I had intended speaking to you in a conciliatory way; you seem to wish to make that impossible”—Philip Feltram’s face wore its repulsive smile;—”and in fact I don’t know what to make of you, unless you are ill; and ill you well may be. You can’t have walked much less than twelve miles.”
“Wonderful effort for me!” said Feltram with the same sneer.
“Rather surprising for a man so nearly drowned,” answered Sir Bale Mardykes.
“A dip: you don’t like the lake, sir; but I do. And so it is: as Antaeus touched the earth, so I the water, and rise refreshed.”
“I think you’d better get in and refresh there. I meant to tell you that all the unpleasantness about that bank-note is over.”
“Yes. It has been recovered by Mr. Creswell, who came here last night. I’ve got it, and you’re not to blame,” said Sir Bale.
“But some one is to blame,” observed Mr. Feltram, smiling still.
“Well, you are not, and that ends it,” said the Baronet peremptorily.
“Ends it? Really, how good! how very good!”
Sir Bale looked at him, for there was something ambiguous and even derisive in the tone of Feltram’s voice.
But before he could quite make up his mind, Feltram spoke again.
“Everything is settled about you and me?”
“There is nothing to prevent your staying at Mardykes now,” said Sir Bale graciously.
“I shall be with you for two years, and then I go on my travels,” answered Feltram, with a saturnine and somewhat wild look around him.
“Is he going mad?” thought the Baronet.
“But before I go, I’m to put you in a way of paying off your mortgages. That is my business here.”
Sir Bale looked at him sharply. But now there was not the unpleasant smile, but the darkened look of a man in secret pain.
“You shall know it all by and by.”
And without more ceremony, and with a darkening face, Philip Feltram made his way under the boughs of the thick oaks that grew there, leaving on Sir Bale’s mind an impression that he had been watching some one at a distance, and had gone in consequence of a signal.
In a few seconds he followed in the same direction, halloaing after Feltram; for he did not like the idea of his wandering about the country by moonlight, or possibly losing his life among the precipices, and bringing a new discredit upon his house. But no answer came; nor could he in that thick copse gain sight of him again.
When Sir Bale reached Mardykes Hall he summoned Mrs. Julaper, and had a long talk with her. But she could not say that there appeared anything amiss with Philip Feltram; only he seemed more reserved, and as if he was brooding over something he did not intend to tell.
“But, you know, Sir Bale, what happened might well make a thoughtful man of him. If he’s ever to think of Death, it should be after looking him so hard in the face; and I’m not ashamed to say, I’m glad to see he has grace to take the lesson, and I hope his experiences may be sanctified to him, poor fellow! Amen.”
“Very good song, and very well sung,” said Sir Bale; “but it doesn’t seem to me that he has been improved, Mrs. Julaper. He seems, on the contrary, in a queer temper and anything but a heavenly frame of mind; and I thought I’d ask you, because if he is ill—I mean feverish—it might account for his eccentricities, as well as make it necessary to send after him, and bring him home, and put him to bed. But I suppose it is as you say,—his adventure has upset him a little, and he’ll sober in a day or two, and return to his old ways.”
But this did not happen. A change, more comprehensive than at first appeared, had taken place, and a singular alteration was gradually established.
He grew thin, his eyes hollow, his face gradually forbidding.
His ways and temper were changed: he was a new man with Sir Bale; and the Baronet after a time, people said, began to grow afraid of him. And certainly Feltram had acquired an extraordinary influence over the Baronet, who a little while ago had regarded and treated him with so much contempt.
CHAPTER XV – The Purse of Gold
The Baronet was very slightly known in his county. He had led a reserved and inhospitable life. He was pressed upon by heavy debts; and being a proud man, held aloof from society and its doings. He wished people to understand that he was nursing his estate; but somehow the estate did not thrive at nurse. In the country other people’s business is admirably well known; and the lord of Mardykes was conscious, perhaps, that his neighbours knew as well he did, that the utmost he could do was to pay the interest charged upon it, and to live in a frugal way enough.
The lake measures some four or five miles across, from the little jetty under the walls of Mardykes Hall to Cloostedd.
Philip Feltram, changed and morose, loved a solitary row upon the lake; and sometimes, with no one to aid him in its management, would take the little sailboat and pass the whole day upon those lonely waters.
Frequently he crossed to Cloostedd; and mooring the boat under the solemn trees that stand reflected in that dark mirror, he would disembark and wander among the lonely woodlands, as people thought, cherishing in those ancestral scenes the memory of ineffaceable injuries, and the wrath and revenge that seemed of late to darken his countenance, and to hold him always in a moody silence.
One autumnal evening Sir Bale Mardykes was sourly ruminating after his solitary meal. A very red sun was pouring its last low beams through the valley at the western extremity of the lake, across its elsewhere sombre waters, and touching with a sudden and blood-red tint the sail of the skiff in which Feltram was returning from his lonely cruise.
“Here comes my domestic water-fiend,” sneered Sir Bale, as he lay back in his cumbrous arm-chair. “Cheerful place, pleasant people, delicious fate! The place alone has been enough to set that fool out of his little senses, d—n him!”
Sir Bale averted his eyes, and another subject not pleasanter entered his mind. He was thinking of the races that were coming off next week at Heckleston Downs, and what sums of money might be made there, and how hard it was that he should be excluded by fortune from that brilliant lottery.
“Ah, Mrs. Julaper, is that you?”
Mrs. Julaper, who was still at the door, curtsied, and said, “I came, Sir Bale, to see whether you’d please to like a jug of mulled claret, sir.”
“Not I, my dear. I’ll take a mug of beer and my pipe; that homely solace better befits a ruined gentleman.”
“H’m, sir; you’re not that, Sir Bale; you’re no worse than half the lords and great men that are going. I would not hear another say that of you, sir.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Julaper; but you won’t call me out for backbiting myself, especially as it is true, d—-d true, Mrs. Julaper! Look ye; there never was a Mardykes here before but he could lay his hundred or his thousand pounds on the winner of the Heckleston Cup; and what could I bet? Little more than that mug of beer I spoke of. It was my great-grandfather who opened the course on the Downs of Heckleston, and now I can’t show there! Well, what must I do? Grin and bear it, that’s all. If you please, Mrs. Julaper, I will have that jug of claret you offered. I want spice and hot wine to keep me alive; but I’ll smoke my pipe first, and in an hour’s time it will do.”
When Mrs. Julaper was gone, he lighted his pipe, and drew near the window, through which he looked upon the now fading sky and the twilight landscape.
He smoked his pipe out, and by that time it had grown nearly dark. He was still looking out upon the faint outlines of the view, and thinking angrily what a little bit of luck at the races would do for many a man who probably did not want it half so much as he. Vague and sombre as his thoughts were, they had, like the darkening landscape outside, shape enough to define their general character. Bitter and impious they were—as those of egotistic men naturally are in suffering. And after brooding, and muttering by fits and starts, he said:
“How many tens and hundreds of thousands of pounds will change hands at Heckleston next week; and not a shilling in all the change and shuffle will stick to me! How many a fellow would sell himself, like Dr. Faustus, just for the knowledge of the name of the winner! But he’s no fool, and does not buy his own.”
Something caught his eye; something moving on the wall. The fire was lighted, and cast a flickering and gigantic shadow upward; the figure of a man standing behind Sir Bale Mardykes, on whose shoulder he placed a lean hand. Sir Bale turned suddenly about, and saw Philip Feltram. He was looking dark and stern, and did not remove his hand from his shoulder as he peered into the Baronet’s face with his deep-set mad eyes.
“Ha, Philip, upon my soul!” exclaimed Sir Bale, surprised. “How time flies! It seems only this minute since I saw the boat a mile and a half away from the shore. Well—yes; there has been time; it is dark now. Ha, ha! I assure you, you startled me. Won’t you take something? Do. Shall I touch the bell?”
“You have been troubled about those mortgages. I told you I should pay them off, I thought.”
Here there was a pause, and Sir Bale looked hard in Feltram’s face. If he had been in his ordinary spirits, or perhaps in some of his haunts less solitary than Mardykes, he would have laughed; but here he had grown unlike himself, gloomy and credulous, and was, in fact, a nervous man.
Sir Bale smiled, and shook his head dismally.
“It is very kind of you, Feltram; the idea shows a kindly disposition. I know you would do me a kindness if you could.”
As Sir Bale, each looking in the other’s eyes, repeated in this sentence the words “kind,” “kindly,” “kindness,” a smile lighted Feltram’s face with at each word an intenser light; and Sir Bale grew sombre in its glare; and when he had done speaking, Feltram’s face also on a sudden darkened.
“I have found a fortune-teller in Cloostedd Wood. Look here.”
And he drew from his pocket a leathern purse, which he placed on the table in his hand; and Sir Bale heard the pleasant clink of coin in it.
“A fortune-teller! You don’t mean to say she gave you that?” said Sir Bale.
Feltram smiled again, and nodded.
“It was the custom to give the fortuneteller a trifle. It is a great improvement making her fee you,” observed Sir Bale, with an approach to his old manner.
“He put that in my hand with a message,” said Feltram.
“He? O, then it was a male fortune-teller!”
“Gipsies go in gangs, men and women. He might lend, though she told fortunes,” said Feltram.
“It’s the first time I ever heard of gipsies lending money;” and he eyed the purse with a whimsical smile.
With his lean fingers still holding it, Feltram sat down at the table. His face contracted as if in cunning thought, and his chin sank upon his breast as he leaned back.
“I think,” continued Sir Bale, “ever since they were spoiled, the Egyptians have been a little shy of lending, and leave that branch of business to the Hebrews.”
“What would you give to know, now, the winner at Heckleston races?” said Feltram suddenly, raising his eyes.
“Yes; that would be worth something,” answered Sir Bale, looking at him with more interest than the incredulity he affected would quite warrant.
“And this money I have power to lend you, to make your game.”
“Do you mean that really?” said Sir Bale, with a new energy in tone, manner, and features.
“That’s heavy; there are some guineas there,” said Feltram with a dark smile, raising the purse in his hand a little, and letting it drop upon the table with a clang.
“There is something there, at all events,” said Sir Bale.
Feltram took the purse by the bottom, and poured out on the table a handsome pile of guineas.
“And do you mean to say you got all that from a gipsy in Cloostedd Wood?”
“A friend, who is—myself,” answered Philip Feltram.
“Yourself! Then it is yours—you lend it?” said the Baronet, amazed; for there was no getting over the heap of guineas, and the wonder was pretty equal whence they had come.
“Myself, and not myself,” said Feltram oracularly; “as like as voice and echo, man and shadow.”
Had Feltram in some of his solitary wanderings and potterings lighted upon hidden treasure? There was a story of two Feltrams of Cloostedd, brothers, who had joined the king’s army and fought at Marston Moor, having buried in Cloostedd Wood a great deal of gold and plate and jewels. They had, it was said, intrusted one tried servant with the secret; and that servant remained at home. But by a perverse fatality the three witnesses had perished within a month: the two brothers at Marston Moor; and the confidant, of fever, at Cloostedd. From that day forth treasure-seekers had from time to time explored the woods of Cloostedd; and many a tree of mark was dug beside, and the earth beneath many a stone and scar and other landmark in that solitary forest was opened by night, until hope gradually died out, and the tradition had long ceased to prompt to action, and had become a story and nothing more.
The image of the nursery-tale had now recurred to Sir Bale after so long a reach of years; and the only imaginable way, in his mind, of accounting for penniless Philip Feltram having all that gold in his possession was that, in some of his lonely wanderings, chance had led him to the undiscovered hoard of the two Feltrams who had died in the great civil wars.
“Perhaps those gipsies you speak of found the money where you found them; and in that case, as Cloostedd Forest, and all that is in it is my property, their sending it to me is more like my servant’s handing me my hat and stick when I’m going out, than making me a present.”
“You will not be wise to rely upon the law, Sir Bale, and to refuse the help that comes unasked. But if you like your mortgages as they are, keep them; and if you like my terms as they are, take them; and when you have made up your mind, let me know.”
Philip Feltram dropped the heavy purse into his capacious coat-pocket, and walked, muttering, out of the room.
CHAPTER XVI – The Message from Cloostedd
“Come back, Feltram; come back, Philip!” cried Sir Bale hastily. “Let us talk, can’t we? Come and talk this odd business over a little; you must have mistaken what I meant; I should like to hear all about it.”
“All is not much, sir,” said Philip Feltram, entering the room again, the door of which he had half closed after him. “In the forest of Cloostedd I met to-day some people, one of whom can foretell events, and told me the names of the winners of the first three races at Heckleston, and gave me this purse, with leave to lend you so much money as you care to stake upon the races. I take no security; you shan’t be troubled; and you’ll never see the lender, unless you seek him out.”
“Well, those are not bad terms,” said Sir Bale, smiling wistfully at the purse, which Feltram had again placed upon the table.
“No, not bad,” repeated Feltram, in the harsh low tone in which he now habitually spoke.
“You’ll tell me what the prophet said about the winners; I should like to hear their names.”
“The names I shall tell you if you walk out with me,” said Feltram.
“Why not here?” asked Sir Bale.
“My memory does not serve me here so well. Some people, in some places, though they be silent, obstruct thought. Come, let us speak,” said Philip Feltram, leading the way.
Sir Bale, with a shrug, followed him.
By this time it was dark. Feltram was walking slowly towards the margin of the lake; and Sir Bale, more curious as the delay increased, followed him, and smiled faintly as he looked after his tall, gaunt figure, as if, even in the dark, expressing a ridicule which he did not honestly feel, and the expression of which, even if there had been light, there was no one near enough to see.
When he reached the edge of the lake, Feltram stooped, and Sir Bale thought that his attitude was that of one who whispers to and caresses a reclining person. What he fancied was a dark figure lying horizontally in the shallow water, near the edge, turned out to be, as he drew near, no more than a shadow on the elsewhere lighter water; and with his change of position it had shifted and was gone, and Philip Feltram was but dabbling his hand this way and that in the water, and muttering faintly to himself. He rose as the Baronet drew near, and standing upright, said,
“I like to listen to the ripple of the water among the grass and pebbles; the tongue and lips of the lake are lapping and whispering all along. It is the merest poetry; but you are so romantic, you excuse me.”
There was an angry curve in Feltram’s eyebrows, and a cynical smile, and something in the tone which to the satirical Baronet was almost insulting. But even had he been less curious, I don’t think he would have betrayed his mortification; for an odd and unavowed influence which he hated was gradually establishing in Feltram an ascendency which sometimes vexed and sometimes cowed him.
“You are not to tell,” said Feltram, drawing near him in the dusk. “The secret is yours when you promise.”
“Of course I promise,” said Sir Bale. “If I believed it, you don’t think I could be such an ass as to tell it; and if I didn’t believe it, I’d hardly take the trouble.”
Feltram stooped, and dipping the hollow of his hand in the water, he raised it full, and said he, “Hold out your hand—the hollow of your hand—like this. I divide the water for a sign—share to me and share to you.” And he turned his hand, so as to pour half the water into the hollow palm of Sir Bale, who was smiling, with some uneasiness mixed in his mockery.
“Now, you promise to keep all secrets respecting the teller and the finder, be that who it may?”
“Yes, I promise,” said Sir Bale.
“Now do as I do,” said Feltram. And he shed the water on the ground, and with his wet fingers touched his forehead and his breast; and then he joined his hand with Sir Bale’s, and said, “Now you are my safe man.”
Sir Bale laughed. “That’s the game they call ‘grand mufti,'” said he.
“Exactly; and means nothing,” said Feltram, “except that some day it will serve you to remember by. And now the names. Don’t speak; listen—you may break the thought else. The winner of the first is Beeswing; of the second, Falcon; and of the third, Lightning.”
He had stood for some seconds in silence before he spoke; his eyes were closed; he seemed to bring up thought and speech with difficulty, and spoke faintly and drowsily, both his hands a little raised, and the fingers extended, with the groping air of a man who moves in the dark. In this odd way, slowly, faintly, with many a sigh and scarcely audible groan, he gradually delivered his message and was silent. He stood, it seemed, scarcely half awake, muttering indistinctly and sighing to himself. You would have said that he was exhausted and suffering, like a man at his last hour resigning himself to death.
At length he opened his eyes, looked round a little wildly and languidly, and with another great sigh sat down on a large rock that lies by the margin of the lake, and sighed heavily again and again. You might have fancied that he was a second time recovering from drowning.
Then he got up, and looked drowsily round again, and sighed like a man worn out with fatigue, and was silent.
Sir Bale did not care to speak until he seemed a little more likely to obtain an answer. When that time came, he said, “I wish, for the sake of my believing, that your list was a little less incredible. Not one of the horses you name is the least likely; not one of them has a chance.”
“So much the better for you; you’ll get what odds you please. You had better seize your luck; on Tuesday Beeswing runs,” said Feltram. “When you want money for the purpose, I’m your banker—here is your bank.”
He touched his breast, where he had placed the purse, and then he turned and walked swiftly away.
Sir Bale looked after him till he disappeared in the dark. He fluctuated among many surmises about Feltram. Was he insane, or was he practising an imposture? or was he fool enough to believe the predictions of some real gipsies? and had he borrowed this money, which in Sir Bale’s eyes seemed the greatest miracle in the matter, from those thriving shepherd mountaineers, the old Trebecks, who, he believed, were attached to him? Feltram had, he thought, borrowed it as if for himself; and having, as Sir Bale in his egotism supposed, “a sneaking regard” for him, had meant the loan for his patron, and conceived the idea of his using his revelations for the purpose of making his fortune. So, seeing no risk, and the temptation being strong, Sir Bale resolved to avail himself of the purse, and use his own judgment as to what horse to back.
About eleven o’clock Feltram, unannounced, walked, with his hat still on, into Sir Bale’s library, and sat down at the opposite side of his table, looking gloomily into the Baronet’s face for a time.
“Shall you want the purse?” he asked at last.
“Certainly; I always want a purse,” said Sir Bale energetically.
“The condition is, that you shall back each of the three horses I have named. But you may back them for much or little, as you like, only the sum must not be less than five pounds in each hundred which this purse contains. That is the condition, and if you violate it, you will make some powerful people very angry, and you will feel it. Do you agree?”
“Of course; five pounds in the hundred—certainly; and how many hundreds are there?”
“Well, a fellow with luck may win something with three hundred pounds, but it ain’t very much.”
“Quite enough, if you use it aright.”
“Three hundred pounds,” repeated the Baronet, as he emptied the purse, which Feltram had just placed in his hand, upon the table; and contemplating them with grave interest, he began telling them off in little heaps of five-and-twenty each. He might have thanked Feltram, but he was thinking more of the guineas than of the grizzly donor.
“Ay,” said he, after a second counting, “I think there are exactly three hundred. Well, so you say I must apply three times five—fifteen of these. It is an awful pity backing those queer horses you have named; but if I must make the sacrifice, I must, I suppose?” he added, with a hesitating inquiry in the tone.
“If you don’t, you’ll rue it,” said Feltram coldly, and walked away.
“Penny in pocket’s a merry companion,” says the old English proverb, and Sir Bale felt in better spirits and temper than he had for many a day as he replaced the guineas in the purse.
It was long since he had visited either the race-course or any other place of amusement. Now he might face his kind without fear that his pride should be mortified, and dabble in the fascinating agitations of the turf once more.
“Who knows how this little venture may turn out?” he thought. “It is time the luck should turn. My last summer in Germany, my last winter in Paris—d—n me, I’m owed something. It’s time I should win a bit.”
Sir Bale had suffered the indolence of a solitary and discontented life imperceptibly to steal upon him. It would not do to appear for the first time on Heckleston Lea with any of those signs of negligence which, in his case, might easily be taken for poverty. All his appointments, therefore, were carefully looked after; and on the Monday following, he, followed by his groom, rode away for the Saracen’s Head at Heckleston, where he was to put up, for the races that were to begin on the day following, and presented as handsome an appearance as a peer in those days need have cared to show.
CHAPTER XVII – On the Course—Beeswing, Falcon, and Lightning
As he rode towards Golden Friars, through which his route lay, in the early morning light, in which the mists of night were clearing, he looked back towards Mardykes with a hope of speedy deliverance from that hated imprisonment, and of a return to the continental life in which he took delight. He saw the summits and angles of the old building touched with the cheerful beams, and the grand old trees, and at the opposite side the fells dark, with their backs towards the east; and down the side of the wooded and precipitous clough of Feltram, the light, with a pleasant contrast against the beetling purple of the fells, was breaking in the faint distance. On the lake he saw the white speck that indicated the sail of Philip Feltram’s boat, now midway between Mardykes and the wooded shores of Cloostedd.
“Going on the same errand,” thought Sir Bale, “I should not wonder. I wish him the same luck. Yes, he’s going to Cloostedd Forest. I hope he may meet his gipsies there—the Trebecks, or whoever they are.”
And as a momentary sense of degradation in being thus beholden to such people smote him, “Well,” thought he, “who knows? Many a fellow will make a handsome sum of a poorer purse than this at Heckleston. It will be a light matter paying them then.”
Through Golden Friars he rode. Some of the spectators who did not like him, wondered audibly at the gallant show, hoped it was paid for, and conjectured that he had ridden out in search of a wife. On the whole, however, the appearance of their Baronet in a smarter style than usual was popular, and accepted as a change to the advantage of the town.
Next morning he was on the race-course of Heckleston, renewing old acquaintance and making himself as agreeable as he could—an object, among some people, of curiosity and even interest. Leaving the carriage-sides, the hoods and bonnets, Sir Bale was soon among the betting men, deep in more serious business.
How did he make his book? He did not break his word. He backed Beeswing, Falcon, and Lightning. But it must be owned not for a shilling more than the five guineas each, to which he stood pledged. The odds were forty-five to one against Beeswing, sixty to one against Lightning, and fifty to one against Falcon.
“A pretty lot to choose!” exclaimed Sir Bale, with vexation. “As if I had money so often, that I should throw it away!”
The Baronet was testy thinking over all this, and looked on Feltram’s message as an impertinence and the money as his own.
Let us now see how Sir Bale Mardykes’ pocket fared.
Sulkily enough at the close of the week he turned his back on Heckleston racecourse, and took the road to Golden Friars.
He was in a rage with his luck, and by no means satisfied with himself; and yet he had won something. The result of the racing had been curious. In the three principal races the favourites had been beaten: one by an accident, another on a technical point, and the third by fair running. And what horses had won? The names were precisely those which the “fortune-teller” had predicted.
Well, then, how was Sir Bale in pocket as he rode up to his ancestral house of Mardykes, where a few thousand pounds would have been very welcome? He had won exactly 775 guineas; and had he staked a hundred instead of five on each of the names communicated by Feltram, he would have won 15,500 guineas.
He dismounted before his hall-door, therefore, with the discontent of a man who had lost nearly 15,000 pounds. Feltram was upon the steps, and laughed dryly.
“What do you laugh at?” asked Sir Bale tartly.
“You’ve won, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I’ve won; I’ve won a trifle.”
“On the horses I named?”
“Well, yes; it so turned out, by the merest accident.”
Feltram laughed again dryly, and turned away.
Sir Bale entered Mardykes Hall, and was surly. He was in a much worse mood than before he had ridden to Heckleston. But after a week or so ruminating upon the occurrence, he wondered that Feltram spoke no more of it. It was undoubtedly wonderful. There had been no hint of repayment yet, and he had made some hundreds by the loan; and, contrary to all likelihood, the three horses named by the unknown soothsayer had won. Who was this gipsy? It would be worth bringing the soothsayer to Mardykes, and giving his people a camp on the warren, and all the poultry they could catch, and a pig or a sheep every now and then. Why, that seer was worth the philosopher’s stone, and could make Sir Bale’s fortune in a season. Some one else would be sure to pick him up if he did not.
So, tired of waiting for Feltram to begin, he opened the subject one day himself. He had not seen him for two or three days; and in the wood of Mardykes he saw his lank figure standing among the thick trees, upon a little knoll, leaning on a staff which he sometimes carried with him in his excursions up the mountains.
“Feltram!” shouted Sir Bale.
Feltram turned and beckoned. Sir Bale muttered, but obeyed the signal.
“I brought you here, because you can from this point with unusual clearness today see the opening of the Clough of Feltram at the other side, and the clump of trees, where you will find the way to reach the person about whom you are always thinking.”
“Who said I am always thinking about him?” said the Baronet angrily; for he felt like a man detected in a weakness, and resented it.
“I say it, because I know it; and you know it also. See that clump of trees standing solitary in the hollow? Among them, to the left, grows an ancient oak. Cut in its bark are two enormous letters H—F; so large and bold, that the rugged furrows of the oak bark fail to obscure them, although they are ancient and spread by time. Standing against the trunk of this great tree, with your back to these letters, you are looking up the Glen or Clough of Feltram, that opens northward, where stands Cloostedd Forest spreading far and thick. Now, how do you find our fortune-teller?”
“That is exactly what I wish to know,” answered Sir Bale; “because, although I can’t, of course, believe that he’s a witch, yet he has either made the most marvellous fluke I’ve heard of, or else he has got extraordinary sources of information; or perhaps he acts partly on chance, partly on facts. Be it which you please, I say he’s a marvellous fellow; and I should like to see him, and have a talk with him; and perhaps he could arrange with me. I should be very glad to make an arrangement with him to give me the benefit of his advice about any matter of the same kind again.”
“I think he’s willing to see you; but he’s a fellow with a queer fancy and a pig-head. He’ll not come here; you must go to him; and approach him his own way too, or you may fail to find him. On these terms he invites you.”
Sir Bale laughed.
“He knows his value, and means to make his own terms.”
“Well, there’s nothing unfair in that; and I don’t see that I should dispute it. How is one to find him?”
“Stand, as I told you, with your back to those letters cut in the oak. Right before you lies an old Druidic altar-stone. Cast your eye over its surface, and on some part of it you are sure to see a black stain about the size of a man’s head. Standing, as I suppose you, against the oak, that stain, which changes its place from day to day, will give you the line you must follow through the forest in order to light upon him. Take carefully from it such trees or objects as will guide you; and when the forest thickens, do the best you can to keep to the same line. You are sure to find him.”
“You’ll come, Feltram. I should lose myself in that wilderness, and probably fail to discover him,” said Sir Bale; “and I really wish to see him.”
“When two people wish to meet, it is hard if they don’t. I can go with you a bit of the way; I can walk a little through the forest by your side, until I see the small flower that grows peeping here and there, that always springs where those people walk; and when I begin to see that sign, I must leave you. And, first, I’ll take you across the lake.”
“By Jove, you’ll do no such thing!” said Sir Bale hastily.
“But that is the way he chooses to be approached,” said Philip Feltram.
“I have a sort of feeling about that lake; it’s the one childish spot that is left in my imagination. The nursery is to blame for it—old stories and warnings; and I can’t think of that. I should feel I had invoked an evil omen if I did. I know it is all nonsense; but we are queer creatures, Feltram. I must only ride there.”
“Why, it is five-and-twenty miles round the lake to that; and after all were done, he would not see you. He knows what he’s worth, and he’ll have his own way,” answered Feltram. “The sun will soon set. See that withered branch, near Snakes Island, that looks like fingers rising from the water? When its points grow tipped with red, the sun has but three minutes to live.”
“That is a wonder which I can’t see; it is too far away.”
“Yes, the lake has many signs; but it needs sight to see them,” said Feltram.
“So it does,” said the Baronet; “more than most men have got. I’ll ride round, I say; and I make my visit, for this time, my own way.”
“You’ll not find him, then; and he wants his money. It would be a pity to vex him.”
“It was to you he lent the money,” said Sir Bale.
“Well, you are the proper person to find him out and pay him,” urged Sir Bale.
“Perhaps so; but he invites you; and if you don’t go, he may be offended, and you may hear no more from him.”
“We’ll try. When can you go? There are races to come off next week, for once and away, at Langton. I should not mind trying my luck there. What do you say?
“You can go there and pay him, and ask the same question—what horses, I mean, are to win. All the county are to be there; and plenty of money will change hands.”
“I’ll try,” said Feltram.
“When will you go?”
“To-morrow,” he answered.
“I have an odd idea, Feltram, that you are really going to pay off those cursed mortgages.”
He laid his hand with at least a gesture of kindness on the thin arm of Feltram, who coldly answered,
“So have I;” and walked down the side of the little knoll and away, without another word or look.
CHAPTER XVIII – On the Lake, at Last
Next day Philip Feltram crossed the lake; and Sir Bale, seeing the boat on the water, guessed its destination, and watched its progress with no little interest, until he saw it moored and its sail drop at the rude pier that affords a landing at the Clough of Feltram. He was now satisfied that Philip had actually gone to seek out the ‘cunning man,’ and gather hints for the next race.
When that evening Feltram returned, and, later still, entered Sir Bale’s library, the master of Mardykes was gladder to see his face and more interested about his news than he would have cared to confess.
Philip Feltram did not affect unconsciousness of that anxiety, but, with great directness, proceeded to satisfy it.
“I was in Cloostedd Forest to-day, nearly all day—and found the old gentleman in a wax. He did not ask me to drink, nor show me any kindness. He was huffed because you would not take the trouble to cross the lake to speak to him yourself. He took the money you sent him and counted it over, and dropped it into his pocket; and he called you hard names enough and to spare; but I brought him round, and at last he did talk.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said that the estate of Mardykes would belong to a Feltram.”
“He might have said something more likely,” said Sir Bale sourly. “Did he say anything more?”
“Yes. He said the winner at Langton Lea would be Silver Bell.”
“Any other name?”
“Silver Bell? Well, that’s not so odd as the last. Silver Bell stands high in the list. He has a good many backers—long odds in his favour against most of the field. I should not mind backing Silver Bell.”
The fact is, that he had no idea of backing any other horse from the moment he heard the soothsayer’s prediction. He made up his mind to no half measures this time. He would go in to win something handsome.
He was in great force and full of confidence on the race-course. He had no fears for the result. He bet heavily. There was a good margin still untouched of the Mardykes estate; and Sir Bale was a good old name in the county. He found a ready market for his offers, and had soon staked—such is the growing frenzy of that excitement—about twenty thousand pounds on his favourite, and stood to win seven.
He did not win, however. He lost his twenty thousand pounds.
And now the Mardykes estate was in imminent danger. Sir Bale returned, having distributed I O Us and promissory notes in all directions about him—quite at his wit’s end.
Feltram was standing—as on the occasion of his former happier return—on the steps of Mardykes Hall, in the evening sun, throwing eastward a long shadow that was lost in the lake. He received him, as before, with a laugh.
Sir Bale was too much broken to resent this laugh as furiously as he might, had he been a degree less desperate.
He looked at Feltram savagely, and dismounted.
“Last time you would not trust him, and this time he would not trust you. He’s huffed, and played you false.”
“It was not he. I should have backed that d—-d horse in any case,” said Sir Bale, grinding his teeth. “What a witch you have discovered! One thing is true, perhaps. If there was a Feltram rich enough, he might have the estate now; but there ain’t. They are all beggars. So much for your conjurer.”
“He may make amends to you, if you make amends to him.”
“He! Why, what can that wretched impostor do? D—n me, I’m past helping now.”
“Don’t you talk so,” said Feltram. “Be civil. You must please the old gentleman. He’ll make it up. He’s placable when it suits him. Why not go to him his own way? I hear you are nearly ruined. You must go and make it up.”
“Make it up! With whom? With a fellow who can’t make even a guess at what’s coming? Why should I trouble my head about him more?”
“No man, young or old, likes to be frumped. Why did you cross his fancy? He won’t see you unless you go to him as he chooses.”
“If he waits for that, he may wait till doomsday. I don’t choose to go on that water—and cross it I won’t,” said Sir Bale.
But when his distracting reminders began to pour in upon him, and the idea of dismembering what remained of his property came home to him, his resolution faltered.
“I say, Feltram, what difference can it possibly make to him if I choose to ride round to Cloostedd Forest instead of crossing the lake in a boat?”
Feltram smiled darkly, and answered.
“I can’t tell. Can you?”
“Of course I can’t—I say I can’t; besides, what audacity of a fellow like that presuming to prescribe to me! Utterly ludicrous! And he can’t predict—do you really think or believe, Feltram, that he can?”
“I know he can. I know he misled you on purpose. He likes to punish those who don’t respect his will; and there is a reason in it, often quite clear—not ill-natured. Now you see he compels you to seek him out, and when you do, I think he’ll help you through your trouble. He said he would.”
“Then you have seen him since?”
“Yesterday. He has put a pressure on you; but he means to help you.”
“If he means to help me, let him remember I want a banker more than a seer. Let him give me a lift, as he did before. He must lend me money.”
“He’ll not stick at that. When he takes up a man, he carries him through.”
“The races of Byermere—I might retrieve at them. But they don’t come off for a month nearly; and what is a man like me to do in the meantime?”
“Every man should know his own business best. I’m not like you,” said Feltram grimly.
Now Sir Bale’s trouble increased, for some people were pressing. Something like panic supervened; for it happened that land was bringing just then a bad price, and more must be sold in consequence.
“All I can tell them is, I am selling land. It can’t be done in an hour. I’m selling enough to pay them all twice over. Gentlemen used to be able to wait till a man sold his acres for payment. D—n them! do they want my body, that they can’t let me alone for five minutes?”
The end of it was, that before a week Sir Bale told Feltram that he would go by boat, since that fellow insisted on it; and he did not very much care if he were drowned.
It was a beautiful autumnal day. Everything was bright in that mellowed sun, and the deep blue of the lake was tremulous with golden ripples; and crag and peak and scattered wood, faint in the distance, came out with a filmy distinctness on the fells in that pleasant light.
Sir Bale had been ill, and sent down the night before for Doctor Torvey. He was away with a patient. Now, in the morning, he had arrived inopportunely. He met Sir Bale as he issued from the house, and had a word with him in the court, for he would not turn back.
“Well,” said the Doctor, after his brief inspection, “you ought to be in your bed; that’s all I can say. You are perfectly mad to think of knocking about like this. Your pulse is at a hundred and ten; and, if you go across the lake and walk about Cloostedd, you’ll be raving before you come back.”
Sir Bale told him, apologetically, as if his life were more to his doctor than to himself, that he would take care not to fatigue himself, and that the air would do him good, and that in any case he could not avoid going; and so they parted.
Sir Bale took his seat beside Feltram in the boat, the sail was spread, and, bending to the light breeze that blew from Golden Friars, she glided from the jetty under Mardykes Hall, and the eventful voyage had begun.
CHAPTER XIX – Mystagogus
The sail was loosed, the boat touched the stone step, and Feltram sprang out and made her fast to the old iron ring. The Baronet followed. So! he had ventured upon that water without being drowned. He looked round him as if in a dream. He had not been there since his childhood. There were no regrets, no sentiment, no remorse; only an odd return of the associations and fresh feelings of boyhood, and a long reach of time suddenly annihilated.
The little hollow in which he stood; the three hawthorn trees at his right; every crease and undulation of the sward, every angle and crack in the lichen-covered rock at his feet, recurred with a sharp and instantaneous recognition to his memory.
“Many a time your brother and I fished for hours together from that bank there, just where the bramble grows. That bramble has not grown an inch ever since, not a leaf altered; we used to pick blackberries off it, with our rods stuck in the bank—it was later in the year than now—till we stript it quite bare after a day or two. The steward used to come over—they were marking timber for cutting and we used to stay here while they rambled through the wood, with an axe marking the trees that were to come down. I wonder whether the big old boat is still anywhere. I suppose she was broken up, or left to rot; I have not seen her since we came home. It was in the wood that lies at the right—the other wood is called the forest; they say in old times it was eight miles long, northward up the shore of the lake, and full of deer; with a forester, and a reeve, and a verderer, and all that. Your brother was older than you; he went to India, or the Colonies; is he living still?”
“I care not.”
“That’s good-natured, at all events; but do you know?”
“Not I; and what matter? If he’s living, I warrant he has his share of the curse, the sweat of his brow and his bitter crust; and if he is dead, he’s dust or worse, he’s rotten, and smells accordingly.”
Sir Bale looked at him; for this was the brother over whom, only a year or two ago, Philip used to cry tears of pathetic longing. Feltram looked darkly in his face, and sneered with a cold laugh.
“I suppose you mean to jest?” said Sir Bale.
“Not I; it is the truth. It is what you’d say, if you were honest. If he’s alive, let him keep where he is; and if he’s dead, I’ll have none of him, body or soul. Do you hear that sound?”
“Like the wind moaning in the forest?”
“But I feel no wind. There’s hardly a leaf stirring.”
“I think so,” said Feltram. “Come along.”
And he began striding up the gentle slope of the glen, with many a rock peeping through its sward, and tufted ferns and furze, giving a wild and neglected character to the scene; the background of which, where the glen loses itself in a distant turn, is formed by its craggy and wooded side.
Up they marched, side by side, in silence, towards that irregular clump of trees, to which Feltram had pointed from the Mardykes side.
As they approached, it showed more scattered, and two or three of the trees were of grander dimensions than in the distance they had appeared; and as they walked, the broad valley of Cloostedd Forest opened grandly on their left, studding the sides of the valley with solitary trees or groups, which thickened as it descended to the broad level, in parts nearly three miles wide, on which stands the noble forest of Cloostedd, now majestically reposing in the stirless air, gilded and flushed with the melancholy tints of autumn.
I am now going to relate wonderful things; but they rest on the report, strangely consistent, it is true, of Sir Bale Mardykes. That all his senses, however, were sick and feverish, and his brain not quite to be relied on at that moment, is a fact of which sceptics have a right to make all they please and can.
Startled at their approach, a bird like a huge mackaw bounced from the boughs of the trees, and sped away, every now and then upon the ground, toward the shelter of the forest, fluttering and hopping close by the side of the little brook which, emerging from the forest, winds into the glen, and beside the course of which Sir Bale and Philip Feltram had ascended from the margin of the lake.
It fluttered on, as if one of its wings were hurt, and kept hopping and bobbing and flying along the grass at its swiftest, screaming all the time discordantly.
“That must be old Mrs. Amerald’s bird, that got away a week ago,” said Sir Bale, stopping and looking after it. “Was not it a mackaw?”
“No,” said Feltram; “that was a gray parrot; but there are stranger birds in Cloostedd Forest, for my ancestors collected all that would live in our climate, and were at pains to find them the food and shelter they were accustomed to until they grew hardy—that is how it happens.”
“By Jove, that’s a secret worth knowing,” said Sir Bale. “That would make quite a feature. What a fat brute that bird was! and green and dusky-crimson and yellow; but its head is white—age, I suspect; and what a broken beak—hideous bird! splendid plumage; something between a mackaw and a vulture.”
Sir Bale spoke jocularly, but with the interest of a bird-fancier; a taste which, when young, he had indulged; and for the moment forgot his cares and the object of his unwonted excursion.
A moment after, a lank slim bird, perfectly white, started from the same boughs, and winged its way to the forest.
“A kite, I think; but its body is a little too long, isn’t it?” said Sir Bale again, stopping and looking after its flight also.
“A foreign kite, I daresay?” said Feltram.
All this time there was hopping near them a jay, with the tameness of a bird accustomed to these solitudes. It peered over its slender wing curiously at the visitors; pecking here and nodding there; and thus hopping, it made a circle round them more than once. Then it fluttered up, and perched on a bough of the old oak, from the deep labyrinth of whose branches the other birds had emerged; and from thence it flew down and lighted on the broad druidic stone, that stood like a cyclopean table on its sunken stone props, before the snakelike roots of the oak.
Across this it hopped conceitedly, as over a stage on which it figured becomingly; and after a momentary hesitation, with a little spring, it rose and winged its way in the same direction which the other birds had taken, and was quickly lost in thick forest to the left.
“Here,” said Feltram, “this is the tree.”
“I remember it well! A gigantic trunk; and, yes, those marks; but I never before read them as letters. Yes, H.F., so they are—very odd I should not have remarked them. They are so large, and so strangely drawn-out in some places, and filled-in in others, and distorted, and the moss has grown about them; I don’t wonder I took them for natural cracks and chasms in the bark,” said Sir Bale.
“Very like,” said Feltram.
Sir Bale had remarked, ever since they had begun their walk from the shore, that Feltram seemed to undergo a gloomy change. Sharper, grimmer, wilder grew his features, and shadow after shadow darkened his face wickedly.
The solitude and grandeur of the forest, and the repulsive gloom of his companion’s countenance and demeanour, communicated a tone of anxiety to Sir Bale; and they stood still, side by side, in total silence for a time, looking toward the forest glades; between themselves and which, on the level sward of the valley, stood many a noble tree and fantastic group of forked birch and thorn, in the irregular formations into which Nature had thrown them.
“Now you stand between the letters. Cast your eyes on the stone,” said Feltram suddenly, and his low stern tones almost startled the Baronet.
Looking round, he perceived that he had so placed himself that his point of vision was exactly from between the two great letters, now half-obliterated, which he had been scrutinizing just as he turned about to look toward the forest of Cloostedd.
“Yes, so I am,” said Sir Bale.
There was within him an excitement and misgiving, akin to the sensation of a man going into battle, and which corresponded with the pale and sombre frown which Feltram wore, and the manifest change which had come over him.
“Look on the stone steadily for a time, and tell me if you see a black mark, about the size of your hand, anywhere upon its surface,” said Feltram.
Sir Bale affected no airs of scepticism now; his imagination was stirred, and a sense of some unknown reality at the bottom of that which he had affected to treat before as illusion, inspired a strange interest in the experiment.
“Do you see it?” asked Feltram.
Sir Bale was watching patiently, but he had observed nothing of the kind.
Sharper, darker, more eager grew the face of Philip Feltram, as his eyes traversed the surface of that huge horizontal block.
“Now?” asked Feltram again.
No, he had seen nothing.
Feltram was growing manifestly uneasy, angry almost; he walked away a little, and back again, and then two or three times round the tree, with his hands shut, and treading the ground like a man trying to warm his feet, and so impatiently he returned, and looked again on the stone.
Sir Bale was still looking, and very soon said, drawing his brows together and looking hard,
“Ha!–yes—hush. There it is, by Jove!–wait—yes—there; it is growing quite plain.”
It seemed not as if a shadow fell upon the stone, but rather as if the stone became semi-transparent, and just under its surface was something dark—a hand, he thought it—and darker and darker it grew, as if coming up toward the surface, and after some little wavering, it fixed itself movelessly, pointing, as he thought, toward the forest.
“It looks like a hand,” said he. “By Jove, it is a hand—pointing towards the forest with a finger.”
“Don’t mind the finger; look only on that black blurred mark, and from the point where you stand, taking that point for your direction, look to the forest. Take some tree or other landmark for an object, enter the forest there, and pursue the same line, as well as you can, until you find little flowers with leaves like wood-sorrel, and with tall stems and a red blossom, not larger than a drop, such as you have not seen before, growing among the trees, and follow wherever they seem to grow thickest, and there you will find him.”
All the time that Feltram was making this little address, Sir Bale was endeavouring to fix his route by such indications as Feltram described; and when he had succeeded in quite establishing the form of a peculiar tree—a melancholy ash, one huge limb of which had been blasted by lightning, and its partly stricken arm stood high and barkless, stretching its white fingers, as it were, in invitation into the forest, and signing the way for him——
“I have it now,” said he. “Come Feltram, you’ll come a bit of the way with me.”
Feltram made no answer, but slowly shook his head, and turned and walked away, leaving Sir Bale to undertake his adventure alone.
The strange sound they had heard from the midst of the forest, like the rumble of a storm or the far-off trembling of a furnace, had quite ceased. Not a bird was hopping on the grass, or visible on bough or in the sky. Not a living creature was in sight—never was stillness more complete, or silence more oppressive.
It would have been ridiculous to give way to the old reluctance which struggled within him. Feltram had strode down the slope, and was concealed by a screen of bushes from his view. So alone, and full of an interest quite new to him, he set out in quest of his adventures.
CHAPTER XX – The Haunted Forest
Sir Bale Mardykes walked in a straight line, by bush and scaur, over the undulating ground, to the blighted ash-tree; and as he approached it, its withered bough stretched more gigantically into the air, and the forest seemed to open where it pointed.
He passed it by, and in a few minutes had lost sight of it again, and was striding onward under the shadow of the forest, which already enclosed him. He was directing his march with all the care he could, in exactly that line which, according to Feltram’s rule, had been laid down for him. Now and then, having, as soldiers say, taken an object, and fixed it well in his memory, he would pause and look about him.
As a boy he had never entered the wood so far; for he was under a prohibition, lest he should lose himself in its intricacies, and be benighted there. He had often heard that it was haunted ground, and that too would, when a boy, have deterred him. It was on this account that the scene was so new to him, and that he cared so often to stop and look about him. Here and there a vista opened, exhibiting the same utter desertion, and opening farther perspectives through the tall stems of the trees faintly visible in the solemn shadow. No flowers could he see, but once or twice a wood anemone, and now and then a tiny grove of wood-sorrel.
Huge oak-trees now began to mingle and show themselves more and more frequently among the other timber; and gradually the forest became a great oak wood unintruded upon by any less noble tree. Vast trunks curving outwards to the roots, and expanding again at the branches, stood like enormous columns, striking out their groining boughs, with the dark vaulting of a crypt.
As he walked under the shadow of these noble trees, suddenly his eye was struck by a strange little flower, nodding quite alone by the knotted root of one of those huge oaks.
He stooped and picked it up, and as he plucked it, with a harsh scream just over his head, a large bird with heavy beating wings broke away from the midst of the branches. He could not see it, but he fancied the scream was like that of the huge mackaw whose ill-poised flight he had watched. This conjecture was but founded on the odd cry he had heard.
The flower was a curious one—a stem fine as a hair supported a little bell, that looked like a drop of blood, and never ceased trembling. He walked on, holding this in his fingers; and soon he saw another of the same odd type, then another at a shorter distance, then one a little to the right and another to the left, and farther on a little group, and at last the dark slope was all over trembling with these little bells, thicker and thicker as he descended a gentle declivity to the bank of the little brook, which flowing through the forest loses itself in the lake. The low murmur of this forest stream was almost the first sound, except the shriek of the bird that startled him a little time ago, which had disturbed the profound silence of the wood since he entered it. Mingling with the faint sound of the brook, he now heard a harsh human voice calling words at intervals, the purport of which he could not yet catch; and walking on, he saw seated upon the grass, a strange figure, corpulent, with a great hanging nose, the whole face glowing like copper. He was dressed in a bottle-green cut-velvet coat, of the style of Queen Anne’s reign, with a dusky crimson waistcoat, both overlaid with broad and tarnished gold lace, and his silk stockings on thick swollen legs, with great buckled shoes, straddling on the grass, were rolled up over his knees to his short breeches. This ill-favoured old fellow, with a powdered wig that came down to his shoulders, had a dice-box in each hand, and was apparently playing his left against his right, and calling the throws with a hoarse cawing voice.
Raising his black piggish eyes, he roared to Sir Bale, by name, to come and sit down, raising one of his dice-boxes, and then indicating a place on the grass opposite to him.
Now Sir Bale instantly guessed that this was the man, gipsy, warlock, call him what he might, of whom he had come in search. With a strange feeling of curiosity, disgust, and awe, he drew near. He was resolved to do whatever this old man required of him, and to keep him, this time, in good humour.
Sir Bale did as he bid him, and sat down; and taking the box he presented, they began throwing turn about, with three dice, the copper-faced old man teaching him the value of the throws, as he proceeded, with many a curse and oath; and when he did not like a throw, grinning with a look of such real fury, that the master of Mardykes almost expected him to whip out his sword and prick him through as he sat before him.
After some time spent at this play, in which guineas passed now this way, now that, chucked across the intervening patch of grass, or rather moss, that served them for a green cloth, the old man roared over his shoulder,
“Drink;” and picking up a longstemmed conical glass which Sir Bale had not observed before, he handed it over to the Baronet; and taking another in his fingers, he held it up, while a very tall slim old man, dressed in a white livery, with powdered hair and cadaverous face, which seemed to run out nearly all into a long thin hooked nose, advanced with a flask in each hand. Looking at the unwieldly old man, with his heavy nose, powdered head, and all the bottle-green, crimson, and gold about him, and the long slim serving man, with sharp beak, and white from head to heel, standing by him, Sir Bale was forcibly reminded of the great old macaw and the long and slender kite, whose colours they, after their fashion, reproduced, with something, also indescribable, of the air and character of the birds. Not standing on ceremony, the old fellow held up his own glass first, which the white lackey filled from the flask, and then he filled Sir Bale’s glass.
It was a large glass, and might have held about half a pint; and the liquor with which the servant filled it was something of the colour of an opal, and circles of purple and gold seemed to be spreading continually outward from the centre, and running inward from the rim, and crossing one another, so as to form a beautiful rippling net-work.
“I drink to your better luck next time,” said the old man, lifting his glass high, and winking with one eye, and leering knowingly with the other; “and you know what I mean.”
Sir Bale put the liquor to his lips. Wine? Whatever it was, never had he tasted so delicious a flavour. He drained it to the bottom, and placing it on the grass beside him, and looking again at the old dicer, who was also setting down his glass, he saw, for the first time, the graceful figure of a young woman seated on the grass. She was dressed in deep mourning, had a black hood carelessly over her head, and, strangely, wore a black mask, such as are used at masquerades. So much of her throat and chin as he could see were beautifully white; and there was a prettiness in her air and figure which made him think what a beautiful creature she in all likelihood was. She was reclining slightly against the burly man in bottle-green and gold, and her arm was round his neck, and her slender white hand showed itself over his shoulder.
“Ho! my little Geaiette,” cried the old fellow hoarsely; “it will be time that you and I should get home.—So, Bale Mardykes, I have nothing to object to you this time; you’ve crossed the lake, and you’ve played with me and won and lost, and drank your glass like a jolly companion, and now we know one another; and an acquaintance is made that will last. I’ll let you go, and you’ll come when I call for you. And now you’ll want to know what horse will win next month at Rindermere races.—Whisper me, lass, and I’ll tell him.”
So her lips, under the black curtain, crept close to his ear, and she whispered.
“Ay, so it will;” roared the old man, gnashing his teeth; “it will be Rainbow, and now make your best speed out of the forest, or I’ll set my black dogs after you, ho, ho, ho! and they may chance to pull you down. Away!”
He cried this last order with a glare so black, and so savage a shake of his huge fist, that Sir Bale, merely making his general bow to the group, clapped his hat on his head, and hastily began his retreat; but the same discordant voice yelled after him:
“You’ll want that, you fool; pick it up.” And there came hurtling after and beside him a great leather bag, stained, and stuffed with a heavy burden, and bounding by him it stopped with a little wheel that brought it exactly before his feet.
He picked it up, and found it heavy.
Turning about to make his acknowledgments, he saw the two persons in full retreat; the profane old scoundrel in the bottle-green limping and stumbling, yet bowling along at a wonderful rate, with many a jerk and reel, and the slender lady in black gliding away by his side into the inner depths of the forest.
So Sir Bale, with a strange chill, and again in utter solitude, pursued his retreat, with his burden, at a swifter pace, and after an hour or so, had recovered the point where he had entered the forest, and passing by the druidic stone and the mighty oak, saw down the glen at his right, standing by the edge of the lake, Philip Feltram, close to the bow of the boat.
CHAPTER XXI – Rindermere
Feltram looked grim and agitated when Sir Bale came up to him, as he stood on the flat-stone by which the boat was moored.
“You found him?” said he.
“The lady in black was there?”
“And you played with him?”
“And what is that in your hand?”
“A bag of something, I fancy money; it is heavy; he threw it after me. We shall see just now; let us get away.”
“He gave you some of his wine to drink?” said Feltram, looking darkly in his face; but there was a laugh in his eyes.
“Yes; of course I drank it; my object was to please him.”
“To be sure.”
The faint wind that carried them across the lake had quite subsided by the time they had reached the side where they now were.
There was now not wind enough to fill the sail, and it was already evening.
“Give me an oar; we can pull her over in little more than an hour,” said Sir Bale; “only let us get away.”
He got into the boat, sat down, and placed the leather bag with its heavy freightage at his feet, and took an oar. Feltram loosed the rope and shoved the boat off; and taking his seat also, they began to pull together, without another word, until, in about ten minutes, they had got a considerable way off the Cloostedd shore.
The leather bag was too clumsy a burden to conceal; besides, Feltram knew all about the transaction, and Sir Bale had no need to make a secret. The bag was old and soiled, and tied about the “neck” with a long leather thong, and it seemed to have been sealed with red wax, fragments of which were still sticking to it.
He got it open, and found it full of guineas.
“Halt!” cried Sir Bale, delighted, for he had half apprehended a trick upon his hopes; “gold it is, and a lot of it, by Jove!”
Feltram did not seem to take the slightest interest in the matter. Sulkily and drowsily he was leaning with his elbow on his knee, and it seemed thinking of something far away. Sir Bale could not wait to count them any longer. He reckoned them on the bench, and found two thousand.
It took some time; and when he had got them back into the leather bag, and tied them up again, Feltram, with a sudden start, said sharply,
“Come, take your oar—unless you like the lake by night; and see, a wind will soon be up from Golden Friars!”
He cast a wild look towards Mardykes Hall and Snakes Island, and applying himself to his oar, told Sir Bale to take his also; and nothing loath, the Baronet did so.
It was slow work, for the boat was not built for speed; and by the time they had got about midway, the sun went down, and twilight and the melancholy flush of the sunset tints were upon the lake and fells.
“Ho! here comes the breeze—up from Golden Friars,” said Feltram; “we shall have enough to fill the sails now. If you don’t fear spirits and Snakes Island, it is all the better for us it should blow from that point. If it blew from Mardykes now, it would be a stiff pull for you and me to get this tub home.”
Talking as if to himself, and laughing low, he adjusted the sail and took the tiller, and so, yielding to the rising breeze, the boat glided slowly toward still distant Mardykes Hall.
The moon came out, and the shore grew misty, and the towering fells rose like sheeted giants; and leaning on the gunwale of the boat, Sir Bale, with the rush and gurgle of the water on the boat’s side sounding faintly in his ear, thought of his day’s adventure, which seemed to him like a dream—incredible but for the heavy bag that lay between his feet.
As they passed Snakes Island, a little mist, like a fragment of a fog, seemed to drift with them, and Sir Bale fancied that whenever it came near the boat’s side she made a dip, as if strained toward the water; and Feltram always put out his hand, as if waving it from him, and the mist seemed to obey the gesture; but returned again and again, and the same thing always happened.
It was three weeks after, that Sir Bale, sitting up in his bed, very pale and wan, with his silk night-cap nodding on one side, and his thin hand extended on the coverlet, where the doctor had been feeling his pulse, in his darkened room, related all the wonders of this day to Doctor Torvey. The doctor had attended him through a fever which followed immediately upon his visit to Cloostedd.
“And, my dear sir, by Jupiter, can you really believe all that delirium to be sober fact?” said the doctor, sitting by the bedside, and actually laughing.
“I can’t help believing it, because I can’t distinguish in any way between all that and everything else that actually happened, and which I must believe. And, except that this is more wonderful, I can find no reason to reject it, that does not as well apply to all the rest.”
“Come, come, my dear sir, this will never do—nothing is more common. These illusions accompanying fever frequently antedate the attack, and the man is actually raving before he knows he is ill.”
“But what do you make of that bag of gold?”
“Some one has lent it. You had better ask all about it of Feltram when you can see him; for in speaking to me he seemed to know all about it, and certainly did not seem to think the matter at all out of the commonplace. It is just like that fisherman’s story, about the hand that drew Feltram into the water on the night that he was nearly drowned. Every one can see what that was. Why of course it was simply the reflection of his own hand in the water, in that vivid lightning. When you have been out a little and have gained strength you will shake off these dreams.”
“I should not wonder,” said Sir Bale.
It is not to be supposed that Sir Bale reported all that was in his memory respecting his strange vision, if such it was, at Cloostedd. He made a selection of the incidents, and threw over the whole adventure an entirely accidental character, and described the money which the old man had thrown to him as amounting to a purse of five guineas, and mentioned nothing of the passages which bore on the coming race.
Good Doctor Torvey, therefore, reported only that Sir Bale’s delirium had left two or three illusions sticking in his memory.
But if they were illusions, they survived the event of his recovery, and remained impressed on his memory with the sharpness of very recent and accurately observed fact.
He was resolved on going to the races of Rindermere, where, having in his possession so weighty a guarantee as the leather purse, he was determined to stake it all boldly on Rainbow—against which horse he was glad to hear there were very heavy odds.
The race came off. One horse was scratched, another bolted, the rider of a third turned out to have lost a buckle and three half-pence and so was an ounce and a half under weight, a fourth knocked down the post near Rinderness churchyard, and was held to have done it with his left instead of his right knee, and so had run at the wrong side. The result was that Rainbow came in first, and I should be afraid to say how much Sir Bale won. It was a sum that paid off a heavy debt, and left his affairs in a much more manageable state.
From this time Sir Bale prospered. He visited Cloostedd no more; but Feltram often crossed to that lonely shore as heretofore, and it is believed conveyed to him messages which guided his betting. One thing is certain, his luck never deserted him. His debts disappeared; and his love of continental life seemed to have departed. He became content with Mardykes Hall, laid out money on it, and although he never again cared to cross the lake, he seemed to like the scenery.
In some respects, however, he lived exactly the same odd and unpopular life. He saw no one at Mardykes Hall. He practised a very strict reserve. The neighbours laughed at and disliked him, and he was voted, whenever any accidental contact arose, a very disagreeable man; and he had a shrewd and ready sarcasm that made them afraid of him, and himself more disliked.
Odd rumours prevailed about his household. It was said that his old relations with Philip Feltram had become reversed; and that he was as meek as a mouse, and Feltram the bully now. It was also said that Mrs. Julaper had one Sunday evening when she drank tea at the Vicar’s, told his good lady very mysteriously, and with many charges of secrecy, that Sir Bale was none the better of his late-found wealth; that he had a load upon his spirits, that he was afraid of Feltram, and so was every one else, more or less, in the house; that he was either mad or worse; and that it was an eerie dwelling, and strange company, and she should be glad herself of a change.
Good Mrs. Bedel told her friend Mrs. Torvey; and all Golden Friars heard all this, and a good deal more, in an incredibly short time.
All kinds of rumours now prevailed in Golden Friars, connecting Sir Bale’s successes on the turf with some mysterious doings in Cloostedd Forest. Philip Feltram laughed when he heard these stories—especially when he heard the story that a supernatural personage had lent the Baronet a purse full of money.
“You should not talk to Doctor Torvey so, sir,” said he grimly; “he’s the greatest tattler in the town. It was old Farmer Trebeck, who could buy and sell us all down here, who lent that money. Partly from good-will, but not without acknowledgment. He has my hand for the first, not worth much, and yours to a bond for the two thousand guineas you brought home with you. It seems strange you should not remember that venerable and kind old farmer whom you talked with so long that day. His grandson, who expects to stand well in his will, being a trainer in Lord Varney’s stables, has sometimes a tip to give, and he is the source of your information.”
“By Jove, I must be a bit mad, then, that’s all,” said Sir Bale, with a smile and a shrug.
Philip Feltram moped about the house, and did precisely what he pleased. The change which had taken place in him became more and more pronounced. Dark and stern he always looked, and often malignant. He was like a man possessed of one evil thought which never left him.
There was, besides, the good old Gothic superstition of a bargain or sale of the Baronet’s soul to the arch-fiend. This was, of course, very cautiously whispered in a place where he had influence. It was only a coarser and directer version of a suspicion, that in a more credulous generation penetrated a level of society quite exempt from such follies in our day.
One evening at dusk, Sir Bale, sitting after his dinner in his window, saw the tall figure of Feltram, like a dark streak, standing movelessly by the lake. An unpleasant feeling moved him, and then an impatience. He got up, and having primed himself with two glasses of brandy, walked down to the edge of the lake, and placed himself beside Feltram.
“Looking down from the window,” said he, nerved with his Dutch courage, “and seeing you standing like a post, do you know what I began to think of?”
Feltram looked at him, but answered nothing.
“I began to think of taking a wife—marrying.”
Feltram nodded. The announcement had not produced the least effect.
“Why the devil will you make me so uncomfortable! Can’t you be like yourself—what you were, I mean? I won’t go on living here alone with you. I’ll take a wife, I tell you. I’ll choose a good church-going woman, that will have every man, woman, and child in the house on their marrow-bones twice a day, morning and evening, and three times on Sundays. How will you like that?”
“Yes, you will be married,” said Feltram, with a quiet decision which chilled Sir Bale, for he had by no means made up his mind to that desperate step.
Feltram slowly walked away, and that conversation ended.
Now an odd thing happened about this time. There was a family of Feltram—county genealogists could show how related to the vanished family of Cloostedd—living at that time on their estate not far from Carlisle. Three co-heiresses now represented it. They were great beauties—the belles of their county in their day.
One was married to Sir Oliver Haworth of Haworth, a great family in those times. He was a knight of the shire, and had refused a baronetage, and, it was said, had his eye on a peerage. The other sister was married to Sir William Walsingham, a wealthy baronet; and the third and youngest, Miss Janet, was still unmarried, and at home at Cloudesly Hall, where her aunt, Lady Harbottle, lived with her, and made a dignified chaperon.
Now it so fell out that Sir Bale, having business at Carlisle, and knowing old Lady Harbottle, paid his respects at Cloudesly Hall; and being no less than five-and-forty years of age, was for the first time in his life, seriously in love.
Miss Janet was extremely pretty—a fair beauty with brilliant red lips and large blue eyes, and ever so many pretty dimples when she talked and smiled. It was odd, but not perhaps against the course of nature, that a man, though so old as he, and quite blasé, should fall at last under that fascination.
But what are we to say of the strange infatuation of the young lady? No one could tell why she liked him. It was a craze. Her family were against it, her intimates, her old nurse—all would not do; and the oddest thing was, that he seemed to take no pains to please her. The end of this strange courtship was that he married her; and she came home to Mardykes Hall, determined to please everybody, and to be the happiest woman in England.
With her came a female cousin, a good deal her senior, past thirty—Gertrude Mainyard, pale and sad, but very gentle, and with all the prettiness that can belong to her years.
This young lady has a romance. Her hero is far away in India; and she, content to await his uncertain return with means to accomplish the hope of their lives, in that frail chance has long embarked all the purpose and love of her life.
When Lady Mardykes came home, a new leaf was, as the phrase is, turned over. The neighbours and all the country people were willing to give the Hall a new trial. There was visiting and returning of visits; and young Lady Mardykes was liked and admired. It could not indeed have been otherwise. But here the improvement in the relations of Mardykes Hall with other homes ceased. On one excuse or another Sir Bale postponed or evaded the hospitalities which establish intimacies. Some people said he was jealous of his young and beautiful wife. But for the most part his reserve was set down to the old inhospitable cause, some ungenial defect in his character; and in a little time the tramp of horses and roll of carriage-wheels were seldom heard up or down the broad avenue of Mardykes Hall.
Sir Bale liked this seclusion; and his wife, “so infatuated with her idolatry of that graceless old man,” as surrounding young ladies said, that she was well content to forego the society of the county people for a less interrupted enjoyment of that of her husband. “What she could see in him” to interest or amuse her so, that for his sake she was willing to be “buried alive in that lonely place,” the same critics were perpetually wondering.
A year and more passed thus; for the young wife, happily—very happily indeed, had it not been for one topic on which she and her husband could not agree. This was Philip Feltram; and an odd quarrel it was.
CHAPTER XXII – Sir Bale is Frightened
To Feltram she had conceived, at first sight, a horror. It was not a mere antipathy; fear mingled largely in it. Although she did not see him often, this restless dread grew upon her so, that she urged his dismissal upon Sir Bale, offering to provide, herself, for him a handsome annuity, charged on that part of her property which, by her marriage settlement, had remained in her power. There was a time when Sir Bale was only too anxious to get rid of him. But that was changed now. Nothing could now induce the Baronet to part with him. He at first evaded and resisted quietly. But, urged with a perseverance to which he was unused, he at last broke into fury that appalled her, and swore that if he was worried more upon the subject, he would leave her and the country, and see neither again. This exhibition of violence affrighted her all the more by reason of the contrast; for up to this he had been an uxorious husband. Lady Mardykes was in hysterics, and thoroughly frightened, and remained in her room for two or three days. Sir Bale went up to London about business, and was not home for more than a week. This was the first little squall that disturbed the serenity of their sky.
This point, therefore, was settled; but soon there came other things to sadden Lady Mardykes. There occurred a little incident, soon after Sir Bale’s return from London, which recalled the topic on which they had so nearly quarrelled.
Sir Bale had a dressing-room, remote from the bedrooms, in which he sat and read and sometimes smoked. One night, after the house was all quiet, the Baronet being still up, the bell of this dressing-room rang long and furiously. It was such a peal as a person in extreme terror might ring. Lady Mardykes, with her maid in her room, heard it; and in great alarm she ran in her dressing-gown down the gallery to Sir Bale’s room. Mallard the butler had already arrived, and was striving to force the door, which was secured. It gave way just as she reached it, and she rushed through.
Sir Bale was standing with the bell-rope in his hand, in the extremest agitation, looking like a ghost; and Philip Feltram was sitting in his chair, with a dark smile fixed upon him. For a minute she thought he had attempted to assassinate his master. She could not otherwise account for the scene.
There had been nothing of the kind, however; as her husband assured her again and again, as she lay sobbing on his breast, with her arms about his neck.
“To her dying hour,” she afterwards said to her cousin, “she never could forget the dreadful look in Feltram’s face.”
No explanation of that scene did she ever obtain from Sir Bale, nor any clue to the cause of the agony that was so powerfully expressed in his countenance. Thus much only she learned from him, that Feltram had sought that interview for the purpose of announcing his departure, which was to take place within the year.
“You are not sorry to hear that. But if you knew all, you might. Let the curse fly where it may, it will come back to roost. So, darling, let us discuss him no more. Your wish is granted, dis iratis.”
Some crisis, during this interview, seemed to have occurred in the relations between Sir Bale and Feltram. Henceforward they seldom exchanged a word; and when they did speak, it was coldly and shortly, like men who were nearly strangers.
One day in the courtyard, Sir Bale seeing Feltram leaning upon the parapet that overlooks the lake, approached him, and said in a low tone,
“I’ve been thinking if we—that is, I—do owe that money to old Trebeck, it is high time I should pay it. I was ill, and had lost my head at the time; but it turned out luckily, and it ought to be paid. I don’t like the idea of a bond turning up, and a lot of interest.”
“The old fellow meant it for a present. He is richer than you are; he wished to give the family a lift. He has destroyed the bond, I believe, and in no case will he take payment.”
“No fellow has a right to force his money on another,” answered Sir Bale. “I never asked him. Besides, as you know, I was not really myself, and the whole thing seems to me quite different from what you say it was; and, so far as my brain is concerned, it was all a phantasmagoria; but, you say, it was he.”
“Every man is accountable for what he intends and for what he thinks he does,” said Feltram cynically.
“Well, I’m accountable for dealing with that wicked old dicer I thought I saw—isn’t that it? But I must pay old Trebeck all the same, since the money was his. Can you manage a meeting?”
“Look down here. Old Trebeck has just landed; he will sleep to-night at the George and Dragon, to meet his cattle in the morning at Golden Friars fair. You can speak to him yourself.”
So saying Feltram glided away, leaving Sir Bale the task of opening the matter to the wealthy farmer of Cloostedd Fells.
A broad night of steps leads down from the courtyard to the level of the jetty at the lake: and Sir Bale descended, and accosted the venerable farmer, who was bluff, honest, and as frank as a man can be who speaks a patois which hardly a living man but himself can understand.
Sir Bale asked him to come to the Hall and take luncheon; but Trebeck was in haste. Cattle had arrived which he wanted to look at, and a pony awaited him on the road, hard by, to Golden Friars; and the old fellow must mount and away.
Then Sir Bale, laying his hand upon his arm in a manner that was at once lofty and affectionate, told in his ears the subject on which he wished to be understood.
The old farmer looked hard at him, and shook his head and laughed in a way that would have been insupportable in a house, and told him, “I hev narra bond o’ thoine, mon.”
“I know how that is; so does Philip Feltram.”
“Well, I must replace the money.”
The old man laughed again, and in his outlandish dialect told him to wait till he asked him. Sir Bale pressed it, but the old fellow put it off with outlandish banter; and as the Baronet grew testy, the farmer only waxed more and more hilarious, and at last, mounting his shaggy pony, rode off, still laughing, at a canter to Golden Friars; and when he reached Golden Friars, and got into the hall of the George and Dragon, he asked Richard Turnbull with a chuckle if he ever knew a man refuse an offer of money, or a man want to pay who did not owe; and inquired whether the Squire down at Mardykes Hall mightn’t be a bit “wrang in t’ garrets.” All this, however, other people said, was intended merely to conceal the fact that he really had, through sheer loyalty, lent the money, or rather bestowed it, thinking the old family in jeopardy, and meaning a gift, was determined to hear no more about it. I can’t say; I only know people held, some by one interpretation, some by another.
As the caterpillar sickens and changes its hue when it is about to undergo its transformation, so an odd change took place in Feltram. He grew even more silent and morose; he seemed always in an agitation and a secret rage. He used to walk through the woodlands on the slopes of the fells above Mardykes, muttering to himself, picking up the rotten sticks with which the ground was strewn, breaking them in his hands, and hurling them from him, and stamping on the earth as he paced up and down.
One night a thunder-storm came on, the wind blowing gently up from Golden Friars. It was a night black as pitch, illuminated only by the intermittent glare of the lightning. At the foot of the stairs Sir Bale met Feltram, whom he had not seen for some days. He had his cloak and hat on.
“I am going to Cloostedd to-night,” he said, “and if all is as I expect, I sha’n’t return. We remember all, you and I.” And he nodded and walked down the passage.
Sir Bale knew that a crisis had happened in his own life. He felt faint and ill, and returned to the room where he had been sitting. Throughout that melancholy night he did not go to his bed.
In the morning he learned that Marlin, who had been out late, saw Feltram get the boat off, and sail towards the other side. The night was so dark that he could only see him start; but the wind was light and coming up the lake, so that without a tack he could easily make the other side. Feltram did not return. The boat was found fast to the ring at Cloostedd landing-place.
Lady Mardykes was relieved, and for a time was happier than ever. It was different with Sir Bale; and afterwards her sky grew dark also.
CHAPTER XXIII – A Lady in Black
Shortly after this, there arrived at the George and Dragon a stranger. He was a man somewhat past forty, embrowned by distant travel, and, his years considered, wonderfully good-looking. He had good eyes; his dark-brown hair had no sprinkling of gray in it; and his kindly smile showed very white and even teeth. He made inquiries about neighbours, especially respecting Mardykes Hall; and the answers seemed to interest him profoundly. He inquired after Philip Feltram, and shed tears when he heard that he was no longer at Mardykes Hall, and that Trebeck or other friends could give him no tidings of him.
And then he asked Richard Turnbull to show him to a quiet room; and so, taking the honest fellow by the hand, he said,
“Mr. Turnbull, don’t you know me?”
“No, sir,” said the host of the George and Dragon, after a puzzled stare, “I can’t say I do, sir.”
The stranger smiled a little sadly, and shook his head: and with a gentle laugh, still holding his hand in a very friendly way, he said, “I should have known you anywhere, Mr. Turnbull—anywhere on earth or water. Had you turned up on the Himalayas, or in a junk on the Canton river, or as a dervish in the mosque of St. Sophia, I should have recognised my old friend, and asked what news from Golden Friars. But of course I’m changed. You were a little my senior; and one advantage among many you have over your juniors is that you don’t change as we do. I have played many a game of hand-ball in the inn-yard of the George, Mr. Turnbull. You often wagered a pot of ale on my play; you used to say I’d make the best player of fives, and the best singer of a song, within ten miles round the meer. You used to have me behind the bar when I was a boy, with more of an appetite than I have now. I was then at Mardykes Hall, and used to go back in old Marlin’s boat. Is old Marlin still alive?”
“Ay, that—he—is,” said Turnbull slowly, as he eyed the stranger again carefully. “I don’t know who you can be, sir, unless you are—the boy—William Feltram. La! he was seven or eight years younger than Philip. But, lawk!–Well—By Jen, and be you Willie Feltram? But no, you can’t!”
“Ay, Mr. Turnbull, that very boy—Willie Feltram—even he, and no other; and now you’ll shake hands with me, not so formally, but like an old friend.”
“Ay, that I will,” said honest Richard Turnbull, with a great smile, and a hearty grasp of his guest’s hand; and they both laughed together, and the younger man’s eyes, for he was an affectionate fool, filled up with tears.
“And I want you to tell me this,” said William, after they had talked a little quietly, “now that there is no one to interrupt us, what has become of my brother Philip? I heard from a friend an account of his health that has caused me unspeakable anxiety.”
“His health was not bad; no, he was a hardy lad, and liked a walk over the fells, or a pull on the lake; but he was a bit daft, every one said, and a changed man; and, in troth, they say the air o’ Mardykes don’t agree with every one, no more than him. But that’s a tale that’s neither here nor there.”
“Yes,” said William, “that was what they told me—his mind affected. God help and guard us! I have been unhappy ever since; and if I only knew it was well with poor Philip, I think I should be too happy. And where is Philip now?”
“He crossed the lake one night, having took leave of Sir Bale. They thought he was going to old Trebeck’s up the Fells. He likes the Feltrams, and likes the folk at Mardykes Hall—though those two families was not always o’er kind to one another. But Trebeck seed nowt o’ him, nor no one else; and what has gone wi’ him no one can tell.”
“I heard that also,” said William with a deep sigh. “But I hoped it had been cleared up by now, and something happier been known of the poor fellow by this time. I’d give a great deal to know—I don’t know what I would not give to know—I’m so unhappy about him. And now, my good old friend, tell your people to get me a chaise, for I must go to Mardykes Hall; and, first, let me have a room to dress in.”
At Mardykes Hall a pale and pretty lady was looking out, alone, from the stone-shafted drawing-room window across the courtyard and the balustrade, on which stood many a great stone cup with flowers, whose leaves were half shed and gone with the winds—emblem of her hopes. The solemn melancholy of the towering fells, the ripple of the lonely lake, deepened her sadness.
The unwonted sound of carriage-wheels awoke her from her reverie.
Before the chaise reached the steps, a hand from its window had seized the handle, the door was thrown open, and William Feltram jumped out.
She was in the hall, she knew not how; and, with a wild scream and a sob, she threw herself into his arms.
Here at last was an end of the long waiting, the dejection which had reached almost the point of despair. And like two rescued from shipwreck, they clung together in an agony of happiness.
William had come back with no very splendid fortune. It was enough, and only enough, to enable them to marry. Prudent people would have thought it, very likely, too little. But he was now home in England, with health unimpaired by his long sojourn in the East, and with intelligence and energies improved by the discipline of his arduous struggle with fortune. He reckoned, therefore, upon one way or other adding something to their income; and he knew that a few hundreds a year would make them happier than hundreds of thousand could other people.
It was five years since they had parted in France, where a journey of importance to the Indian firm, whose right hand he was, had brought him.
The refined tastes that are supposed to accompany gentle blood, his love of art, his talent for music and drawing, had accidentally attracted the attention of the little travelling-party which old Lady Harbottle chaperoned. Miss Janet, now Lady Mardykes, learning that his name was Feltram, made inquiry through a common friend, and learned what interested her still more about him. It ended in an acquaintance, which his manly and gentle nature and his entertaining qualities soon improved into an intimacy.
Feltram had chosen to work his own way, being proud, and also prosperous enough to prevent his pride, in this respect, from being placed under too severe a pressure of temptation. He heard not from but of his brother, through a friend in London, and more lately from Gertrude, whose account of him was sad and even alarming.
When Lady Mardykes came in, her delight knew no bounds. She had already formed a plan for their future, and was not to be put off—William Feltram was to take the great grazing farm that belonged to the Mardykes estate; or, if he preferred it, to farm it for her, sharing the profits. She wanted something to interest her, and this was just the thing. It was hardly half-a-mile away, up the lake, and there was such a comfortable house and garden, and she and Gertrude could be as much together as ever almost; and, in fact, Gertrude and her husband could be nearly always at Mardykes Hall.
So eager and entreating was she, that there was no escape. The plan was adopted immediately on their marriage, and no happier neighbours for a time were ever known.
But was Lady Mardykes content? was she even exempt from the heartache which each mortal thinks he has all to himself? The longing of her life was for children; and again and again had her hopes been disappointed.
One tiny pretty little baby indeed was born, and lived for two years, and then died; and none had come to supply its place and break the childless silence in the great old nursery. That was her sorrow; a greater one than men can understand.
Another source of grief was this: that Sir Bale Mardykes conceived a dislike to William Feltram that was unaccountable. At first suppressed, it betrayed itself negatively only; but with time it increased; and in the end the Baronet made little secret of his wish to get rid of him. Many and ingenious were the annoyances he contrived; and at last he told his wife plainly that he wished William Feltram to find some other abode for himself.
Lady Mardykes pleaded earnestly, and even with tears; for if Gertrude were to leave the neighbourhood, she well knew how utterly solitary her own life would become.
Sir Bale at last vouchsafed some little light as to his motives. There was an old story, he told her, that his estate would go to a Feltram. He had an instinctive distrust of that family. It was a feeling not given him for nothing; it might be the means of defeating their plotting and strategy. Old Trebeck, he fancied, had a finger in it. Philip Feltram had told him that Mardykes was to pass away to a Feltram. Well, they might conspire; but he would take what care he could that the estate should not be stolen from his family. He did not want his wife stript of her jointure, or his children, if he had any, left without bread.
All this sounded very like madness; but the idea was propounded by Philip Feltram. His own jealousy was at bottom founded on superstition which he would not avow and could hardly define. He bitterly blamed himself for having permitted William Feltram to place himself where he was.
In the midst of these annoyances William Feltram was seriously thinking of throwing up the farm, and seeking similar occupation somewhere else.
One day, walking alone in the thick wood that skirts the lake near his farm, he was discussing this problem with himself; and every now and then he repeated his question, “Shall I throw it up, and give him the lease back if he likes?” On a sudden he heard a voice near him say:
“Hold it, you fool!–hold hard, you fool!–hold it, you fool!”
The situation being lonely, he was utterly puzzled to account for the interruption, until on a sudden a huge parrot, green, crimson, and yellow, plunged from among the boughs over his head to the ground, and partly flying, and partly hopping and tumbling along, got lamely, but swiftly, out of sight among the thick underwood; and he could neither start it nor hear it any more. The interruption reminded him of that which befel Robinson Crusoe. It was more singular, however; for he owned no such bird; and its strangeness impressed the omen all the more.
He related it when he got home to his wife; and as people when living a solitary life, and also suffering, are prone to superstition, she did not laugh at the adventure, as in a healthier state of spirits, I suppose, she would.
They continued, however, to discuss the question together; and all the more industriously as a farm of the same kind, only some fifteen miles away, was now offered to all bidders, under another landlord. Gertrude, who felt Sir Bale’s unkindness all the more that she was a distant cousin of his, as it had proved on comparing notes, was very strong in favour of the change, and had been urging it with true feminine ingenuity and persistence upon her husband. A very singular dream rather damped her ardour, however, and it appeared thus:
She had gone to her bed full of this subject; and she thought, although she could not remember having done so, had fallen asleep. She was still thinking, as she had been all the day, about leaving the farm. It seemed to her that she was quite awake, and a candle burning all the time in the room, awaiting the return of her husband, who was away at the fair near Haworth; she saw the interior of the room distinctly. It was a sultry night, and a little bit of the window was raised. A very slight sound in that direction attracted her attention; and to her surprise she saw a jay hop upon the window-sill, and into the room.
Up sat Gertrude, surprised and a little startled at the visit of so large a bird, without presence of mind for the moment even to frighten it away, and staring at it, as they say, with all her eyes. A sofa stood at the foot of the bed; and under this the bird swiftly hopped. She extended her hand now to take the bell-rope at the left side of the bed, and in doing so displaced the curtains, which were open only at the foot. She was amazed there to see a lady dressed entirely in black, and with the old-fashioned hood over her head. She was young and pretty, and looked kindly at her, but with now and then a slight contraction of lips and eyebrows that indicates pain. This little twitching was momentary, and recurred, it seemed, about once or twice in a minute.
How it was that she was not frightened on seeing this lady, standing like an old friend at her bedside, she could not afterwards understand. Some influence besides the kindness of her look prevented any sensation of terror at the time. With a very white hand the young lady in black held a white handkerchief pressed to her bosom at the top of her bodice.
“Who are you?” asked Gertrude.
“I am a kinswoman, although you don’t know me; and I have come to tell you that you must not leave Faxwell” (the name of the place) “or Janet. If you go, I will go with you; and I can make you fear me.”
Her voice was very distinct, but also very faint, with something undulatory in it, that seemed to enter Gertrude’s head rather than her ear.
Saying this she smiled horribly, and, lifting her handkerchief, disclosed for a moment a great wound in her breast, deep in which Gertrude saw darkly the head of a snake writhing.
Hereupon she uttered a wild scream of terror, and, diving under the bed-clothes, remained more dead than alive there, until her maid, alarmed by her cry, came in, and having searched the room, and shut the window at her desire, did all in her power to comfort her.
If this was a nightmare and embodied only by a form of expression which in some states belongs to the imagination, a leading idea in the controversy in which her mind had long been employed, it had at least the effect of deciding her against leaving Faxwell. And so that point was settled; and unpleasant relations continued between the tenants of the farm and the master of Mardykes Hall.
To Lady Mardykes all this was very painful, although Sir Bale did not insist upon making a separation between his wife and her cousin. But to Mardykes Hall that cousin came no more. Even Lady Mardykes thought it better to see her at Faxwell than to risk a meeting in the temper in which Sir Bale then was. And thus several years passed.
No tidings of Philip Feltram were heard; and, in fact, none ever reached that part of the world; and if it had not been highly improbable that he could have drowned himself in the lake without his body sooner or later having risen to the surface, it would have been concluded that he had either accidentally or by design made away with himself in its waters.
Over Mardykes Hall there was a gloom—no sound of children’s voices was heard there, and even the hope of that merry advent had died out.
This disappointment had no doubt helped to fix in Sir Bale’s mind the idea of the insecurity of his property, and the morbid fancy that William Feltram and old Trebeck were conspiring to seize it; than which, I need hardly say, no imagination more insane could have fixed itself in his mind.
In other things, however, Sir Bale was shrewd and sharp, a clear and rapid man of business, and although this was a strange whim, it was not so unnatural in a man who was by nature so prone to suspicion as Sir Bale Mardykes.
During the years, now seven, that had elapsed since the marriage of Sir Bale and Miss Janet Feltram, there had happened but one event, except the death of their only child, to place them in mourning. That was the decease of Sir William Walsingham, the husband of Lady Mardykes’ sister. She now lived in a handsome old dower-house at Islington, and being wealthy, made now and then an excursion to Mardykes Hall, in which she was sometimes accompanied by her sister Lady Haworth. Sir Oliver being a Parliament-man was much in London and deep in politics and intrigue, and subject, as convivial rogues are, to occasional hard hits from gout.
But change and separation had made no alteration in these ladies’ mutual affections, and no three sisters were ever more attached.
Was Lady Mardykes happy with her lord? A woman so gentle and loving as she, is a happy wife with any husband who is not an absolute brute. There must have been, I suppose, some good about Sir Bale. His wife was certainly deeply attached to him. She admired his wisdom, and feared his inflexible will, and altogether made of him a domestic idol. To acquire this enviable position, I suspect there must be something not essentially disagreeable about a man. At all events, what her neighbours good-naturedly termed her infatuation continued, and indeed rather improved by time.
CHAPTER XXIV – An Old Portrait
Sir Bale—whom some remembered a gay and convivial man, not to say a profligate one—had grown to be a very gloomy man indeed. There was something weighing upon his mind; and I daresay some of the good gossips of Golden Friars, had there been any materials for such a case, would have believed that Sir Bale had murdered Philip Feltram, and was now the victim of the worm and fire of remorse.
The gloom of the master of the house made his very servants gloomy, and the house itself looked sombre, as if it had been startled with strange and dismal sights.
Lady Mardykes was something of an artist. She had lighted lately, in an out-of-the-way room, upon a dozen or more old portraits. Several of these were full-lengths; and she was—with the help of her maid, both in long aprons, amid sponges and basins, soft handkerchiefs and varnish-pots and brushes—busy in removing the dust and smoke-stains, and in laying-on the varnish, which brought out the colouring, and made the transparent shadows yield up their long-buried treasures of finished detail.
Against the wall stood a full-length portrait as Sir Bale entered the room; having for a wonder, a word to say to his wife.
“O,” said the pretty lady, turning to him in her apron, and with her brush in her hand, “we are in such in pickle, Munnings and I have been cleaning these old pictures. Mrs. Julaper says they are the pictures that came from Cloostedd Hall long ago. They were buried in dust in the dark room in the clock-tower. Here is such a characteristic one. It has a long powdered wig—George the First or Second, I don’t know which—and such a combination of colours, and such a face. It seems starting out of the canvas, and all but speaks. Do look; that is, I mean, Bale, if you can spare time.”
Sir Bale abstractedly drew near, and looked over his wife’s shoulder on the full-length portrait that stood before him; and as he did so a strange expression for a moment passed over his face.
The picture represented a man of swarthy countenance, with signs of the bottle glowing through the dark skin; small fierce pig eyes, a rather flat pendulous nose, and a grim forbidding mouth, with a large wart a little above it. On the head hung one of those full-bottomed powdered wigs that look like a cloud of cotton-wadding; a lace cravat was about his neck; he wore short black-velvet breeches with stockings rolled over them, a bottle-green coat of cut velvet and a crimson waistcoat with long flaps; coat and waistcoat both heavily laced with gold. He wore a sword, and leaned upon a crutch-handled cane, and his figure and aspect indicated a swollen and gouty state. He could not be far from sixty. There was uncommon force in this fierce and forbidding-looking portrait. Lady Mardykes said, “What wonderful dresses they wore! How like a fine magic-lantern figure he looks! What gorgeous colouring! it looks like the plumage of a mackaw; and what a claw his hand is! and that huge broken beak of a nose! Isn’t he like a wicked old mackaw?”
“Where did you find that?” asked Sir Bale.
Surprised at his tone, she looked round, and was still more surprised at his looks.
“I told you, dear Bale, I found them in the clock-tower. I hope I did right; it was not wrong bringing them here? I ought to have asked. Are you vexed, Bale?”
“Vexed! not I. I only wish it was in the fire. I must have seen that picture when I was a child. I hate to look at it. I raved about it once, when I was ill. I don’t know who it is; I don’t remember when I saw it. I wish you’d tell them to burn it.”
“It is one of the Feltrams,” she answered. “‘Sir Hugh Feltram’ is on the frame at the foot; and old Mrs. Julaper says he was the father of the unhappy lady who was said to have been drowned near Snakes Island.”
“Well, suppose he is; there’s nothing interesting in that. It is a disgusting picture. I connect it with my illness; and I think it is the kind of thing that would make any one half mad, if they only looked at it often enough. Tell them to burn it; and come away, come to the next room; I can’t say what I want here.”
Sir Bale seemed to grow more and more agitated the longer he remained in the room. He seemed to her both frightened and furious; and taking her a little roughly by the wrist, he led her through the door.
When they were in another apartment alone, he again asked the affrighted lady who had told her that picture was there, and who told her to clean it.
She had only the truth to plead. It was, from beginning to end, the merest accident.
“If I thought, Janet, that you were taking counsel of others, talking me over, and trying clever experiments—” he stopped short with his eyes fixed on hers with black suspicion.
His wife’s answer was one pleading look, and to burst into tears.
Sir Bale let-go her wrist, which he had held up to this; and placing his hand gently on her shoulder, he said,
“You must not cry, Janet; I have given you no excuse for tears. I only wished an answer to a very harmless question; and I am sure you would tell me, if by any chance you have lately seen Philip Feltram; he is capable of arranging all that. No one knows him as I do. There, you must not cry any more; but tell me truly, has he turned up? is he at Faxwell?”
She denied all this with perfect truth; and after a hesitation of some time, the matter ended. And as soon as she and he were more themselves, he had something quite different to tell her.
“Sit down, Janet; sit down, and forget that vile picture and all I have been saying. What I came to tell you, I think you will like; I am sure it will please you.”
And with this little preface he placed his arm about her neck, and kissed her tenderly. She certainly was pleased; and when his little speech was over, she, smiling, with her tears still wet upon her cheeks, put her arms round her husband’s neck, and in turn kissed him with the ardour of gratitude, kissed him affectionately; again and again thanking him all the time.
It was no great matter, but from Sir Bale Mardykes it was something quite unusual.
Was it a sudden whim? What was it? Something had prompted Sir Bale, early in that dark shrewd month of December, to tell his wife that he wished to call together some of his county acquaintances, and to fill his house for a week or so, as near Christmas as she could get them to come. He wished her sisters—Lady Haworth (with her husband) and the Dowager Lady Walsingham—to be invited for an early day, before the coming of the other guests, so that she might enjoy their society for a little time quietly to herself before the less intimate guests should assemble.
Glad was Lady Mardykes to hear the resolve of her husband, and prompt to obey. She wrote to her sisters to beg them to arrange to come, together, by the tenth or twelfth of the month, which they accordingly arranged to do. Sir Oliver, it was true, could not be of the party. A minister of state was drinking the waters at Bath; and Sir Oliver thought it would do him no harm to sip a little also, and his fashionable doctor politely agreed, and “ordered” to those therapeutic springs the knight of the shire, who was “consumedly vexed” to lose the Christmas with that jolly dog, Bale, down at Mardykes Hall. But a fellow must have a stomach for his Christmas pudding, and politics takes it out of a poor gentleman deucedly; and health’s the first thing, egad!
So Sir Oliver went down to Bath, and I don’t know that he tippled much of the waters, but he did drink the burgundy of that haunt of the ailing; and he had the honour of making a fourth not unfrequently in the secretary of state’s whist-parties.
It was about the 8th of December when, in Lady Walsingham’s carriage, intending to post all the way, that lady, still young, and Lady Haworth, with all the servants that were usual in such expeditions in those days, started from the great Dower House at Islington in high spirits.
Lady Haworth had not been very well—low and nervous; but the clear frosty sun, and the pleasant nature of the excursion, raised her spirits to the point of enjoyment; and expecting nothing but happiness and gaiety—for, after all, Sir Bale was but one of a large party, and even he could make an effort and be agreeable as well as hospitable on occasion—they set out on their northward expedition. The journey, which is a long one, they had resolved to break into a four days’ progress; and the inns had been written to, bespeaking a comfortable reception.
CHAPTER XXV – Through the Wall
On the third night they put-up at the comfortable old inn called the Three Nuns. With an effort they might easily have pushed on to Mardykes Hall that night, for the distance is not more than five-and-thirty miles. But, considering her sister’s health, Lady Walsingham in planning their route had resolved against anything like a forced march.
Here the ladies took possession of the best sitting-room; and, notwithstanding the fatigue of the journey, Lady Haworth sat up with her sister till near ten o’clock, chatting gaily about a thousand things.
Of the three sisters, Lady Walsingham was the eldest. She had been in the habit of taking the command at home; and now, for advice and decision, her younger sisters, less prompt and courageous than she, were wont, whenever in her neighbourhood, to throw upon her all the cares and agitations of determining what was best to be done in small things and great. It is only fair to say, in addition, that this submission was not by any means exacted; it was the deference of early habit and feebler will, for she was neither officious nor imperious.
It was now time that Lady Haworth, a good deal more fatigued than her sister, should take leave of her for the night.
Accordingly they kissed and bid each other good-night; and Lady Walsingham, not yet disposed to sleep, sat for some time longer in the comfortable room where they had taken tea, amusing the time with the book that had, when conversation flagged, beguiled the weariness of the journey. Her sister had been in her room nearly an hour, when she became herself a little sleepy. She had lighted her candle, and was going to ring for her maid, when, to her surprise, the door opened, and her sister Lady Haworth entered in a dressing-gown, looking frightened.
“My darling Mary!” exclaimed Lady Walsingham, “what is the matter? Are you well?”
“Yes, darling,” she answered, “quite well; that is, I don’t know what is the matter—I’m frightened.” She paused, listening, with her eyes turned towards the wall. “O, darling Maud, I am so frightened! I don’t know what it can be.”
“You must not be agitated, darling; there’s nothing. You have been asleep, and I suppose you have had a dream. Were you asleep?”
Lady Haworth had caught her sister fast by the arm with both hands, and was looking wildly in her face.
“Have you heard nothing?” she asked, again looking towards the wall of the room, as if she expected to hear a voice through it.
“Nonsense, darling; you are dreaming still. Nothing; there has been nothing to hear. I have been awake ever since; if there had been anything to hear, I could not have missed it. Come, sit down. Sip a little of this water; you are nervous, and over-tired; and tell me plainly, like a good little soul, what is the matter; for nothing has happened here; and you ought to know that the Three Nuns is the quietest house in England; and I’m no witch, and if you won’t tell me what’s the matter, I can’t divine it.”
“Yes, of course,” said Mary, sitting down, and glancing round her wildly. “I don’t hear it now; you don’t?”
“Do, my dear Mary, tell me what you mean,” said Lady Walsingham kindly but firmly.
Lady Haworth was holding the still untasted glass of water in her hand.
“Yes, I’ll tell you; I have been so frightened! You are right; I had a dream, but I can scarcely remember anything of it, except the very end, when I wakened. But it was not the dream; only it was connected with what terrified me so. I was so tired when I went to bed, I thought I should have slept soundly; and indeed I fell asleep immediately; and I must have slept quietly for a good while. How long is it since I left you?”
“More than an hour.”
“Yes, I must have slept a good while; for I don’t think I have been ten minutes awake. How my dream began I don’t know. I remember only that gradually it came to this: I was standing in a recess in a panelled gallery; it was lofty, and, I thought, belonged to a handsome but old-fashioned house. I was looking straight towards the head of a wide staircase, with a great oak banister. At the top of the stairs, as near to me, about, as that window there, was a thick short column of oak, on top of which was a candlestick. There was no other light but from that one candle; and there was a lady standing beside it, looking down the stairs, with her back turned towards me; and from her gestures I should have thought speaking to people on a lower lobby, but whom from my place I could not see. I soon perceived that this lady was in great agony of mind; for she beat her breast and wrung her hands every now and then, and wagged her head slightly from side to side, like a person in great distraction. But one word she said I could not hear. Nor when she struck her hand on the banister, or stamped, as she seemed to do in her pain, upon the floor, could I hear any sound. I found myself somehow waiting upon this lady, and was watching her with awe and sympathy. But who she was I knew not, until turning towards me I plainly saw Janet’s face, pale and covered with tears, and with such a look of agony as—O God!–I can never forget.”
“Pshaw! Mary darling, what is it but a dream! I have had a thousand more startling; it is only that you are so nervous just now.”
“But that is not all—nothing; what followed is so dreadful; for either there is something very horrible going on at Mardykes, or else I am losing my reason,” said Lady Haworth in increasing agitation. “I wakened instantly in great alarm, but I suppose no more than I have felt a hundred times on awakening from a frightful dream. I sat up in my bed; I was thinking of ringing for Winnefred, my heart was beating so, but feeling better soon I changed my mind. All this time I heard a faint sound of a voice, as if coming through a thick wall. It came from the wall at the left side of my bed, and I fancied was that of some woman lamenting in a room separated from me by that thick partition. I could only perceive that it was a sound of crying mingled with ejaculations of misery, or fear, or entreaty. I listened with a painful curiosity, wondering who it could be, and what could have happened in the neighbouring rooms of the house; and as I looked and listened, I could distinguish my own name, but at first nothing more. That, of course, might have been an accident; and I knew there were many Marys in the world besides myself. But it made me more curious; and a strange thing struck me, for I was now looking at that very wall through which the sounds were coming. I saw that there was a window in it. Thinking that the rest of the wall might nevertheless be covered by another room, I drew the curtain of it and looked out. But there is no such thing. It is the outer wall the entire way along. And it is equally impossible of the other wall, for it is to the front of the house, and has two windows in it; and the wall that the head of my bed stands against has the gallery outside it all the way; for I remarked that as I came to you.”
“Tut, tut, Mary darling, nothing on earth is so deceptive as sound; this and fancy account for everything.”
“But hear me out; I have not told you all. I began to hear the voice more clearly, and at last quite distinctly. It was Janet’s, and she was conjuring you by name, as well as me, to come to her to Mardykes, without delay, in her extremity; yes, you, just as vehemently as me. It was Janet’s voice. It still seemed separated by the wall, but I heard every syllable now; and I never heard voice or words of such anguish. She was imploring of us to come on, without a moment’s delay, to Mardykes; and crying that, if we were not with her, she should go mad.”
“Well, darling,” said Lady Walsingham, “you see I’m included in this invitation as well as you, and should hate to disappoint Janet just as much; and I do assure you, in the morning you will laugh over this fancy with me; or rather, she will laugh over it with us, when we get to Mardykes. What you do want is rest, and a little sal-volatile.”
So saying she rang the bell for Lady Haworth’s maid. Having comforted her sister, and made her take the nervous specific she recommended, she went with her to her room; and taking possession of the arm-chair by the fire, she told her that she would keep her company until she was asleep, and remain long enough to be sure that the sleep was not likely to be interrupted. Lady Haworth had not been ten minutes in her bed, when she raised herself with a start to her elbow, listening with parted lips and wild eyes, her trembling fingers behind her ears. With an exclamation of horror, she cried,
“There it is again, upbraiding us! I can’t stay longer.”
She sprang from the bed, and rang the bell violently.
“Maud,” she cried in an ecstasy of horror, “nothing shall keep me here, whether you go or not. I will set out the moment the horses are put to. If you refuse to come, Maud, mind the responsibility is yours—listen!” and with white face and starting eyes she pointed to the wall. “Have you ears; don’t you hear?”
The sight of a person in extremity of terror so mysterious, might have unnerved a ruder system than Lady Walsingham’s. She was pale as she replied; for under certain circumstances those terrors which deal with the supernatural are more contagious than any others. Lady Walsingham still, in terms, held to her opinion; but although she tried to smile, her face showed that the panic had touched her.
“Well, dear Mary,” she said, “as you will have it so, I see no good in resisting you longer. Here, it is plain, your nerves will not suffer you to rest. Let us go then, in heaven’s name; and when you get to Mardykes Hall you will be relieved.”
All this time Lady Haworth was getting on her things, with the careless hurry of a person about to fly for her life; and Lady Walsingham issued her orders for horses, and the general preparations for resuming the journey.
It was now between ten and eleven; but the servant who rode armed with them, according to the not unnecessary usage of the times, thought that with a little judicious bribing of postboys they might easily reach Mardykes Hall before three o’clock in the morning.
When the party set forward again, Lady Haworth was comparatively tranquil. She no longer heard the unearthly mimickry of her sister’s voice; there remained only the fear and suspense which that illusion or visitation had produced.
Her sister, Lady Walsingham, after a brief effort to induce something like conversation, became silent. A thin sheet of snow had covered the darkened landscape, and some light flakes were still dropping. Lady Walsingham struck her repeater often in the dark, and inquired the distances frequently. She was anxious to get over the ground, though by no means fatigued. Something of the anxiety that lay heavy at her sister’s heart had touched her own.
CHAPTER XXVI – Perplexed
The roads even then were good, and very good horses the posting-houses turned out; so that by dint of extra pay the rapid rate of travelling undertaken by the servant was fully accomplished in the first two or three stages.
While Lady Walsingham was continually striking her repeater in her ear, and as they neared their destination, growing in spite of herself more anxious, her sister’s uneasiness showed itself in a less reserved way; for, cold as it was, with snowflakes actually dropping, Lady Haworth’s head was perpetually out at the window, and when she drew it up, sitting again in her place, she would audibly express her alarms, and apply to her sister for consolation and confidence in her suspense.
Under its thin carpet of snow, the pretty village of Golden Friars looked strangely to their eyes. It had long been fast asleep, and both ladies were excited as they drew up at the steps of the George and Dragon, and with bell and knocker roused the slumbering household.
What tidings awaited them here? In a very few minutes the door was opened, and the porter staggered down, after a word with the driver, to the carriage-window, not half awake.
“Is Lady Mardykes well?” demanded Lady Walsingham.
“Is Sir Bale well?”
“Are all the people at Mardykes Hall quite well?”
With clasped hands Lady Haworth listened to the successive answers to these questions which her sister hastily put. The answers were all satisfactory. With a great sigh and a little laugh, Lady Walsingham placed her hand affectionately on that of her sister; who, saying, “God be thanked!” began to weep.
“When had you last news from Mardykes?” asked Lady Walsingham.
“A servant was down here about four o’clock.”
“O! no one since?” said she in a disappointed tone.
No one had been from the great house since, but all were well then.
“They are early people, you know, dear; and it is dark at four, and that is as late as they could well have heard, and nothing could have happened since—very unlikely. We have come very fast; it is only a few minutes past two, darling.”
But each felt the chill and load of their returning anxiety.
While the people at the George were rapidly getting a team of horses to, Lady Walsingham contrived a moment for an order from the other window to her servant, who knew Golden Friars perfectly, to knock-up the people at Doctor Torvey’s, and to inquire whether all were well at Mardykes Hall.
There he learned that a messenger had come for Doctor Torvey at ten o’clock, and that the Doctor had not returned since. There was no news, however, of any one’s being ill; and the Doctor himself did not know what he was wanted about. While Lady Haworth was talking to her maid from the window next the steps, Lady Walsingham was, unobserved, receiving this information at the other.
It made her very uncomfortable.
In a few minutes more, however, with a team of fresh horses, they were again rapidly passing the distance between them and Mardykes Hall.
About two miles on, their drivers pulled-up, and they heard a voice talking with them from the roadside. A servant from the Hall had been sent with a note for Lady Walsingham, and had been ordered, if necessary, to ride the whole way to the Three Nuns to deliver it. The note was already in Lady Walsingham’s hand; her sister sat beside her, and with the corner of the open note in her fingers, she read it breathlessly at the same time by the light of a carriage-lamp which the man held to the window. It said:
My dearest love—my darling sister—dear sisters both!–in God’s name, lose not a moment. I am so overpowered and terrified. I cannot explain; I can only implore of you to come with all the haste you can make. Waste no time, darlings. I hardly understand what I write. Only this, dear sisters; I feel that my reason will desert me, unless you come soon. You will not fail me now. Your poor distracted
The sisters exchanged a pale glance, and Lady Haworth grasped her sister’s hand.
“Where is the messenger?” asked Lady Walsingham.
A mounted servant came to the window.
“Is any one ill at home?” she asked.
“No, all were well—my lady, and Sir Bale—no one sick.”
“But the Doctor was sent for; what was that for?”
“I can’t say, my lady.”
“You are quite certain that no one—think—no one is ill?”
“There is no one ill at the Hall, my lady, that I have heard of.”
“Is Lady Mardykes, my sister, still up?”
“Yes, my lady; and her maid is with her.”
“And Sir Bale, are you certain he is quite well?”
“Sir Bale is quite well, my lady; he has been busy settling papers to-night, and was as well as usual.”
“That will do, thanks,” said the perplexed lady; and to her own servant she added, “On to Mardykes Hall with all the speed they can make. I’ll pay them well, tell them.”
And in another minute they were gliding along the road at a pace which the muffled beating of the horses’ hoofs on the thin sheet of snow that covered the road showed to have broken out of the conventional trot, and to resemble something more like a gallop.
And now they were under the huge trees, that looked black as hearse-plumes in contrast with the snow. The cold gleam of the lake in the moon which had begun to shine out now met their gaze; and the familiar outline of Snakes Island, its solemn timber bleak and leafless, standing in a group, seemed to watch Mardykes Hall with a dismal observation across the water. Through the gate and between the huge files of trees the carriage seemed to fly; and at last the steaming horses stood panting, nodding and snorting, before the steps in the courtyard.
There was a light in an upper window, and a faint light in the hall, the door of which was opened; and an old servant came down and ushered the ladies into the house.
CHAPTER XXVII – The Hour
Lightly they stepped over the snow that lay upon the broad steps, and entering the door saw the dim figure of their sister, already in the large and faintly-lighted hall. One candle in the hand of her scared maid, and one burning on the table, leaving the distant parts of that great apartment in total darkness, touched the figures with the odd sharp lights in which Schalken delights; and a streak of chilly moonlight, through the open door, fell upon the floor, and was stretched like a white sheet at her feet. Lady Mardykes, with an exclamation of agitated relief, threw her arms, in turn, round the necks of her sisters, and hugging them, kissed them again and again, murmuring her thanks, calling them her “blessed sisters,” and praising God for his mercy in having sent them to her in time, and altogether in a rapture of agitation and gratitude.
Taking them each by a hand, she led them into a large room, on whose panels they could see the faint twinkle of the tall gilded frames, and the darker indication of the old portraits, in which that interesting house abounds. The moonbeams, entering obliquely through the Tudor stone-shafts of the window and thrown upon the floor, reflected an imperfect light; and the candle which the maid who followed her mistress held in her hand shone dimly from the sideboard, where she placed it. Lady Mardykes told her that she need not wait.
“They don’t know; they know only that we are in some great confusion; but—God have mercy on me!–nothing of the reality. Sit down, darlings; you are tired.”
She sat down between them on a sofa, holding a hand of each. They sat opposite the window, through which appeared the magnificent view commanded from the front of the house: in the foreground the solemn trees of Snakes Island, one great branch stretching upward, bare and moveless, from the side, like an arm raised to heaven in wonder or in menace towards the house; the lake, in part swept by the icy splendour of the moon, trembling with a dazzling glimmer, and farther off lost in blackness; the Fells rising from a base of gloom, into ribs and peaks white with snow, and looking against the pale sky, thin and transparent as a haze. Right across to the storied woods of Cloostedd, and the old domains of the Feltrams, this view extended.
Thus alone, their mufflers still on, their hands clasped in hers, they breathlessly listened to her strange tale.
Connectedly told it amounted to this: Sir Bale seemed to have been relieved of some great anxiety about the time when, ten days before, he had told her to invite her friends to Mardykes Hall. This morning he had gone out for a walk with Trevor, his under-steward, to talk over some plans about thinning the woods at this side; and also to discuss practically a proposal, lately made by a wealthy merchant, to take a very long lease, on advantageous terms to Sir Bale as he thought, of the old park and chase of Cloostedd, with the intention of building there, and making it once more a handsome residence.
In the improved state of his spirits, Sir Bale had taken a shrewd interest in this negotiation; and was actually persuaded to cross the lake that morning with his adviser, and to walk over the grounds with him.
Sir Bale had seemed unusually well, and talked with great animation. He was more like a young man who had just attained his majority, and for the first time grasped his estates, than the grim elderly Baronet who had been moping about Mardykes, and as much afraid as a cat of the water, for so many years.
As they were returning toward the boat, at the roots of that same scathed elm whose barkless bough had seemed, in his former visit to this old wood, to beckon him from a distance, like a skeleton arm, to enter the forest, he and his companion on a sudden missed an old map of the grounds which they had been consulting.
“We must have left it in the corner tower of Cloostedd House, which commands that view of the grounds, you remember; it would not do to lose it. It is the most accurate thing we have. I’ll sit down here and rest a little till you come back.”
The man was absent little more than twenty minutes. When he returned, he found that Sir Bale had changed his position, and was now walking to and fro, around and about, in what, at a distance, he fancied was mere impatience, on the open space a couple of hundred paces nearer to the turn in the valley towards the boat. It was not impatience. He was agitated. He looked pale, and he took his companion’s arm—a thing he had never thought of doing before—and said, “Let us away quickly. I’ve something to tell at home,—and I forgot it.”
Not another word did Sir Bale exchange with his companion. He sat in the stern of the boat, gloomy as a man about to glide under traitor’s-gate. He entered his house in the same sombre and agitated state. He entered his library, and sat for a long time as if stunned.
At last he seemed to have made-up his mind to something; and applied himself quietly and diligently to arranging papers, and docketing some and burning others. Dinner-time arrived. He sent to tell Lady Mardykes that he should not join her at dinner, but would see her afterwards.
“It was between eight and nine,” she continued, “I forget the exact time, when he came to the tower drawing-room where I was. I did not hear his approach. There is a stone stair, with a thick carpet on it. He told me he wished to speak to me there. It is an out-of-the-way place—a small old room with very thick walls, and there is a double door, the inner one of oak—I suppose he wished to guard against being overheard.
“There was a look in his face that frightened me; I saw he had something dreadful to tell. He looked like a man on whom a lot had fallen to put some one to death,” said Lady Mardykes. “O, my poor Bale! my husband, my husband! he knew what it would be to me.”
Here she broke into the wildest weeping, and it was some time before she resumed.
“He seemed very kind and very calm,” she said at last; “he said but little; and, I think, these were his words: ‘I find, Janet, I have made a great miscalculation—I thought my hour of danger had passed. We have been many years together, but a parting must sooner or later be, and my time has come.’
“I don’t know what I said. I would not have so much minded—for I could not have believed, if I had not seen him—but there was that in his look and tone which no one could doubt.
“‘I shall die before to-morrow morning,’ he said. ‘You must command yourself, Janet; it can’t be altered now.’
“‘O, Bale,’ I cried nearly distracted, ‘you would not kill yourself!’
“‘Kill myself! poor child! no, indeed,’ he said; ‘it is simply that I shall die. No violent death—nothing but the common subsidence of life—I have made up my mind; what happens to everybody can’t be so very bad; and millions of worse men than I die every year. You must not follow me to my room, darling; I shall see you by and by.’
“His language was collected and even cold; but his face looked as if it was cut in stone; you never saw, in a dream, a face like it.”
Lady Walsingham here said, “I am certain he is ill; he’s in a fever. You must not distract and torture yourself about his predictions. You sent for Doctor Torvey; what did he say?”
“I could not tell him all.”
“O, no; I don’t mean that; they’d only say he was mad, and we little better for minding what he says. But did the Doctor see him? and what did he say of his health?”
“Yes; he says there is nothing wrong—no fever—nothing whatever. Poor Bale has been so kind; he saw him to please me,” she sobbed again wildly. “I wrote to implore of him. It was my last hope, strange as it seems; and O, would to God I could think it! But there is nothing of that kind. Wait till you have seen him. There is a frightful calmness about all he says and does; and his directions are all so clear, and his mind so perfectly collected, it is quite impossible.”
And poor Lady Mardykes again burst into a frantic agony of tears.
CHAPTER XXVIII – Sir Bale in the Gallery
“Now, Janet darling, you are yourself low and nervous, and you treat this fancy of Bale’s as seriously as he does himself. The truth is, he is a hypochondriac, as the doctors say; and you will find that I am right; he will be quite well in the morning, and I daresay a little ashamed of himself for having frightened his poor little wife as he has. I will sit up with you. But our poor Mary is not, you know, very strong; and she ought to lie down and rest a little. Suppose you give me a cup of tea in the drawing-room. I will run up to my room and get these things off, and meet you in the drawing-room; or, if you like it better, you can sit with me in my own room; and for goodness’ sake let us have candles enough and a bright fire; and I promise you, if you will only exert your own good sense, you shall be a great deal more cheerful in a very little time.”
Lady Walsingham’s address was kind and cheery, and her air confident. For a moment a ray of hope returned, and her sister Janet acknowledged at least the possibility of her theory. But if confidence is contagious, so also is panic; and Lady Walsingham experienced a sinking of the heart which she dared not confess to her sister, and vainly strove to combat.
Lady Walsingham went up with her sister Mary, and having seen her in her room, and spoken again to her in the same cheery tone in which she had lectured her sister Lady Mardykes, she went on; and having taken possession of her own room, and put off her cloaks and shawls, she was going downstairs again, when she heard Sir Bale’s voice, as he approached along the gallery, issuing orders to a servant, as it seemed, exactly in his usual tone.
She turned, with a strange throb at her heart, and met him.
A little sterner, a little paler than usual he looked; she could perceive no other change. He took her hand kindly and held it, as with dilated eyes he looked with a dark inquiry for a moment in her face. He signed to the servant to go on, and said, “I’m glad you have come, Maud. You have heard what is to happen; and I don’t know how Janet could have borne it without your support. You did right to come; and you’ll stay with her for a day or two, and take her away from this place as soon as you can.”
She looked at him with the embarrassment of fear. He was speaking to her with the calmness of a leave-taking in the pressroom—the serenity that overlies the greatest awe and agony of which human nature is capable.
“I am glad to see you, Bale,” she began, hardly knowing what she said, and she stopped short.
“You are come, it turns out, on a sad mission,” he resumed; “you find all about to change. Poor Janet! it is a blow to her. I shall not live to see to-morrow’s sun.”
“Come,” she said, startled, “you must not talk so. No, Bale, you have no right to speak so; you can have no reason to justify it. It is cruel and wicked to trifle with your wife’s feelings. If you are under a delusion, you must make an effort and shake it off, or, at least, cease to talk of it. You are not well; I know by your looks you are ill; but I am very certain we shall see you much better by tomorrow, and still better the day following.”
“No, I’m not ill, sister. Feel that pulse, if you doubt me; there is no fever in it. I never was more perfectly in health; and yet I know that before the clock, that has just struck three, shall have struck five, I, who am talking to you, shall be dead.”
Lady Walsingham was frightened, and her fear irritated her.
“I have told you what I think and believe,” she said vehemently. “I think it wrong and cowardly of you to torture my poor sister with your whimsical predictions. Look into your own mind, and you will see you have absolutely no reason to support what you say. How can you inflict all this agony upon a poor creature foolish enough to love you as she does, and weak enough to believe in your idle dreams?”
“Stay, sister; it is not a matter to be debated so. If to-morrow I can hear you, it will be time enough to upbraid me. Pray return now to your sister; she needs all you can do for her. She is much to be pitied; her sufferings afflict me. I shall see you and her again before my death. It would have been more cruel to leave her unprepared. Do all in your power to nerve and tranquillise her. What is past cannot now be helped.”
He paused, looking hard at her, as if he had half made up his mind to say something more. But if there was a question of the kind, it was determined in favour of silence.
He dropped her hand, turned quickly, and left her.
CHAPTER XXIX – Dr. Torvey’s Opinion
When Lady Walsingham reached the head of the stairs, she met her maid, and from her learned that her sister, Lady Mardykes, was downstairs in the same room. On approaching, she heard her sister Mary’s voice talking with her, and found them together. Mary, finding that she could not sleep, had put on her clothes again, and come down to keep her sister company. The room looked more comfortable now. There were candles lighted, and a good fire burnt in the grate; tea-things stood on a little table near the fire, and the two sisters were talking, Lady Mardykes appearing more collected, and only they two in the room.
“Have you seen him, Maud?” cried Lady Mardykes, rising and hastily approaching her the moment she entered.
“Yes, dear; and talked with him, and——”
“And I think very much as I did before. I think he is nervous, he says he is not ill; but he is nervous and whimsical, and as men always are when they happen to be out of sorts, very positive; and of course the only thing that can quite undeceive him is the lapse of the time he has fixed for his prediction, as it is sure to pass without any tragic result of any sort. We shall then all see alike the nature of his delusion.”
“O, Maud, if I were only sure you thought so! if I were sure you really had hopes! Tell me, Maud, for God’s sake, what you really think.”
Lady Walsingham was a little disconcerted by the unexpected directness of her appeal.
“Come, darling, you must not be foolish,” she said; “we can only talk of impressions, and we are imposed upon by the solemnity of his manner, and the fact that he evidently believes in his own delusion; every one does believe in his own delusion—there is nothing strange in that.”
“O, Maud, I see you are not convinced; you are only trying to comfort me. You have no hope—none, none, none!” and she covered her face with her hands, and wept again convulsively.
Lady Walsingham was silent for a moment, and then with an effort said, as she placed her hand on her sister’s arm, “You see, dear Janet, there is no use in my saying the same thing over and over again; an hour or two will show who is right. Sit down again, and be like yourself. My maid told me that you had sent to the parlour for Doctor Torvey; he must not find you so. What would he think? Unless you mean to tell him of Bale’s strange fancy; and a pretty story that would be to set afloat in Golden Friars. I think I hear him coming.”
So, in effect, he was. Doctor Torvey—with the florid gravity of a man who, having just swallowed a bottle of port, besides some glasses of sherry, is admitted to the presence of ladies whom he respects—entered the room, made what he called his “leg and his compliments,” and awaited the ladies’ commands.
“Sit down, Doctor Torvey,” said Lady Walsingham, who in the incapacity of her sister undertook the doing of the honours. “My sister, Lady Mardykes, has got it into her head somehow that Sir Bale is ill. I have been speaking to him; he certainly does not look very well, but he says he is quite well. Do you think him well?—that is, we know you don’t think there is anything of importance amiss—but she wishes to know whether you think him perfectly well.”
The Doctor cleared his voice and delivered his lecture, a little thickly at some words, upon Sir Bale’s case; the result of which was that it was no case at all; and that if he would only live something more of a country gentleman’s life, he would be as well as any man could desire—as well as any man, gentle or simple, in the country.
“The utmost I should think of doing for him would be, perhaps, a little quinine, nothing mo’—shurely—he is really and toory a very shoun’ shtay of health.”
Lady Walsingham looked encouragingly at her sister and nodded.
“I’ve been shen’ for, La’y Walsh—Walse—Walsing—ham; old Jack Amerald—he likshe his glass o’ port,” he said roguishly, “and shuvversh accord’n’ly,” he continued, with a compassionating paddle of his right hand; “one of thoshe aw—odd feels in his stomach; and as I have pretty well done all I can man-n’ge down here, I must be off, ye shee. Wind up from Golden Friars, and a little flutter ovv zhnow, thazh all;” and with some remarks about the extreme cold of the weather, and the severity of their night journey, and many respectful and polite parting speeches, the Doctor took his leave; and they soon heard the wheels of his gig and the tread of his horse, faint and muffled from the snow in the court-yard, and the Doctor, who had connected that melancholy and agitated household with the outer circle of humanity, was gone.
There was very little snow falling, half-a-dozen flakes now and again, and their flight across the window showed, as the Doctor had in a manner boasted, that the wind was in his face as he returned to Golden Friars. Even these desultory snow-flakes ceased, at times, altogether; and returning, as they say, “by fits and starts,” left for long intervals the landscape, under the brilliant light of the moon, in its wide white shroud. The curtain of the great window had not been drawn. It seemed to Lady Walsingham that the moonbeams had grown more dazzling, that Snakes Island was nearer and more distinct, and the outstretched arm of the old tree looked bigger and angrier, like the uplifted arm of an assassin, who draws silently nearer as the catastrophe approaches.
Cold, dazzling, almost repulsive in this intense moonlight and white sheeting, the familiar landscape looked in the eyes of Lady Walsingham. The sisters gradually grew more and more silent, an unearthly suspense overhung them all, and Lady Mardykes rose every now and then and listened at the open door for step or voice in vain. They all were overpowered by the intenser horror that seemed gathering around them. And thus an hour or more passed.
CHAPTER XXX – Hush!
Pale and silent those three beautiful sisters sat. The horrible quietude of a suspense that had grown all but insupportable oppressed the guests of Lady Mardykes, and something like the numbness of despair had reduced her to silence, the dreadful counterfeit of peace.
Sir Bale Mardykes on a sudden softly entered the room. Reflected from the floor near the window, the white moonlight somehow gave to his fixed features the character of a smile. With a warning gesture, as he came in, he placed his finger to his lips, as if to enjoin silence; and then, having successively pressed the hands of his two sisters-in-law, he stooped over his almost fainting wife, and twice pressed her cold forehead with his lips; and so, without a word, he went softly from the room.
Some seconds elapsed before Lady Walsingham, recovering her presence of mind, with one of the candlesticks from the table in her hand, opened the door and followed.
She saw Sir Bale mount the last stair of the broad flight visible from the hall, and candle in hand turn the corner of the massive banister, and as the light thrown from his candle showed, he continued, without hurry, to ascend the second flight.
With the irrepressible curiosity of horror she continued to follow him at a distance.
She saw him enter his own private room, and close the door.
Continuing to follow she placed herself noiselessly at the door of the apartment, and in breathless silence, with a throbbing heart, listened for what should pass.
She distinctly heard Sir Bale pace the floor up and down for some time, and then, after a pause, a sound as if some one had thrown himself heavily on the bed. A silence followed, during which her sisters, who had followed more timidly, joined her. She warned them with a look and gesture to be silent.
Lady Haworth stood a little behind, her white lips moving, and her hands clasped in a silent agony of prayer. Lady Mardykes leaned against the massive oak door-case.
With her hand raised to her ear, and her lips parted, Lady Walsingham listened for some seconds—for a minute, two minutes, three. At last, losing heart, she seized the handle in her panic, and turned it sharply. The door was locked on the inside, but some one close to it said from within, “Hush, hush!”
Much alarmed now, the same lady knocked violently at the door. No answer was returned.
She knocked again more violently, and shook the door with all her fragile force. It was something of horror in her countenance as she did so, that, no doubt, terrified Lady Mardykes, who with a loud and long scream sank in a swoon upon the floor.
The servants, alarmed by these sounds, were speedily in the gallery. Lady Mardykes was carried to her room, and laid upon her bed; her sister, Lady Haworth, accompanying her. In the meantime the door was forced. Sir Bale Mardykes was found stretched upon his bed.
Those who have once seen it, will not mistake the aspect of death. Here, in Sir Bale Mardykes’ room, in his bed, in his clothes, is a stranger, grim and awful; in a few days to be insupportable, and to pass alone into the prison-house, and to be seen no more.
Where is Sir Bale Mardykes now, whose roof-tree and whose place at board and bed will know him no more? Here lies a chap-fallen, fish-eyed image, chilling already into clay, and stiffening in every joint.
There is a marble monument in the pretty church of Golden Friars. It stands at the left side of what antiquarians call “the high altar.” Two pillars at each end support an arch with several armorial bearings on as many shields sculptured above. Beneath, on a marble flooring raised some four feet, with a cornice round, lies Sir Bale Mardykes, of Mardykes Hall, ninth Baronet of that ancient family, chiseled in marble with knee-breeches and buckled-shoes, and ailes de pigeon, and single-breasted coat and long waist-coat, ruffles and sword, such as gentlemen wore about the year 1770, and bearing a strong resemblance to the features of the second Charles. On the broad marble which forms the background is inscribed an epitaph, which has perpetuated to our times the estimate formed by his “inconsolable widow,” the Dowager Lady Mardykes, of the virtues and accomplishments of her deceased lord.
Lady Walsingham would have qualified two or three of the more highly-coloured hyperboles, at which the Golden Friars of those days sniffed and tittered. They don’t signify now; there is no contemporary left to laugh or whisper. And if there be not much that is true in the letter of that inscription, it at least perpetuates something that is true—that wonderful glorificaion of partisanship, the affection of an idolising wife.
Lady Mardykes, a few days after the funeral, left Mardykes Hall for ever. She lived a great deal with her sister, Lady Walsingham; and died, as a line cut at the foot of Sir Bale Mardykes’ epitaph records, in the year 1790; her remains being laid beside those of her beloved husband in Golden Friars.
The estates had come to Sir Bale Mardykes free of entail. He had been pottering over a will, but it was never completed, nor even quite planned; and after much doubt and scrutiny, it was at last ascertained that, in default of a will and of issue, a clause in the marriage-settlement gave the entire estates to the Dowager Lady Mardykes.
By her will she bequeathed the estates to “her cousin, also a kinsman of the late Sir Bale Mardykes her husband,” William Feltram, on condition of his assuming the name and arms of Mardykes, the arms of Feltram being quartered in the shield.
Thus was oddly fulfilled the prediction which Philip Feltram had repeated, that the estates of Mardykes were to pass into the hands of a Feltram.
About the year 1795 the baronetage was revived, and William Feltram enjoyed the title for fifteen years, as Sir William Mardykes.