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My story has not to do with city-life, in which occur frequent shocks, changes, and recombinations, but with the life of a country region; and is, therefore, "to a lingering motion bound," like the day, like the ripening of the harvest, like the growth of all good things. But clouds and rainbows will come in the quietest skies; adventures and coincidences in the quietest village.
As Kate and Alec walked along the street, on their way to the castle, one of the coaches from the county-town drove up with its four thorough-breds.
"What a handsome fellow the driver is!" said Kate.
Alec looked up at the box. There sat Beauchamp, with the ribbons in his grasp, handling his horses with composure and skill. Beside him sat the owner of the coach, a laird of the neighbourhood.
Certainly Beauchamp was a handsome fellow. But a sting went through Alec's heart. It was the first time that he thought of his own person in comparison with another. That she should admire Beauchamp, though he was handsome!
The memory even of that moment made him writhe on his bed years after; for a mental and bodily wound are alike in this, that after there is but the scar of either left, bad weather will revive the torture. His face fell. Kate saw it, and did him some injustice. They walked on in silence, in the shadow of a high wall. Kate looked up at the top of the wall and stopped. Alec looked at her. Her face was as full of light as a diamond in the sun. He forgot all his jealousy. The fresh tide of his love swept it away, or at least covered it. On the top of the wall, in the sun, grew one wild scarlet poppy, a delicate transparent glory, through which the sunlight shone, staining itself red, and almost dissolving the poppy.
The red light melted away the mist between them, and they walked in it up to the ruined walls. Long grass grew about them, close to the very door, which was locked, that if old Time could not be kept out, younger destroyers might. Other walls stood around, vitrified by fire--the remnants of an older castle still, about which Jamblichus might have spied the lingering phantoms of many a terrible deed.
They entered by the door in the great tower, under the spiky remnants of the spiral stair projecting from the huge circular wall. To the right, a steep descent, once a stair, led down to the cellars and the dungeon; a terrible place, the visible negations of which are horrid, and need no popular legends such as Alec had been telling Kate, of a walled-up door and a lost room, to add to their influence. It was no wonder that when he held out his hand to lead her down into the darkness and through winding ways to the mouth of the far-off beehive dungeon--it was no wonder, I say, that she should shrink and draw back. A few rays came through the decayed planks of the door which Alec had pushed to behind them, and fell upon the rubbish of centuries sloping in the brown light and damp air down into the abyss. One larger ray from the keyhole fell upon Kate's face, and showed it blanched with fear, and her eyes distended with the effort to see through the gloom.
At that moment, a sweet, low voice came from somewhere, out of the darkness, saying:
"Dinna be feared, mem, to gang whaur Alec wants ye to gang. Ye can lippen (trust) to him."
Staring in the direction of the sound, Kate saw the pale face of a slender--half child, half maiden, glimmering across the gulf that led to the dungeon. She stood in the midst of a sepulchral light, whose faintness differed from mere obscuration, inasmuch as it told how bright it was out of doors in the sun. Annie, I say, stood in this dimness--a dusky and yet radiant creature, seeming to throw off from her a faint brown light--a lovely, earth-stained ghost.
"Oh! Annie, is that you?" said Alec.
"Ay is't, Alec," Annie answered.
"This is an old schoolfellow of mine," he said, turning to Kate, who was looking haughtily at the girl.
"Oh! is it?" said Kate, condescending.
Between the two, each looking ghostly to the other, lay a dark cavern-mouth that seemed to go down to Hades.
"Wonna ye gang doon, mem?" said Annie.
"No, thank you," answered Kate, decisively.
"Alec'll tak' guid care o' ye, mem."
"Oh! yes, I daresay; but I had rather not."
Alec said nothing. Kate would not trust him then! He would not have thought much of it, however, but for what had passed before. Would she have gone with Beauchamp if he had asked her? Ah! if he had asked Annie, she too would have turned pale, but she would have laid her hand in his, and gone with him.
"Gin ye want to gang up, than," she said, "I'll lat ye see the easiest road. It's roun' this way."
And she pointed to a narrow ledge between the descent and the circular wall, by which they could cross to where she stood. But Alec, who had no desire for Annie's company, declined her guidance, and took Kate up a nearer though more difficult ascent to the higher level. Here all the floors of the castle lay in dust beneath their feet, mingled with fragments of chimney-piece and battlement. The whole central space lay open to the sky.
Annie remained standing on the edge of the dungeon-slope.
She had been on her way to see Tibbie, when she caught a glimpse of Kate and Alec as they passed. Since watching them in the boat the evening before, she had been longing to speak to Alec, longing to see Kate nearer: perhaps the beautiful lady would let her love her. She guessed where they were going, and across the fields she bounded like a fawn, straight as the crows flew home to the precincts of that "ancient rest," and reached it before them. She did not need to fetch the key, for she knew a hole on the level of the grass, wide enough to let her creep through the two yards of wall. So she crept in and took her place near the door.
After they had rambled over the lower part of the building, Alec took Kate up a small winding stair, past a succession of empty doorways like eyeless sockets, leading nowhither because the floors had fallen. Kate was so frightened by coming suddenly upon one after another of these defenceless openings, that by the time she reached the broad platform, which ran, all bare of parapet or battlement, around the top of the tower, she felt faint; and when Alec scampered off like a goat to reach the bartizan at the other side, she sank in an agony of fear upon the landing of the stair.
Looking down upon her from the top of the little turret, Alec saw that she was ill, and returning instantly in great dismay, comforted her as well as he could, and got her by degrees to the bottom. There was a spot of grass inside the walls, on which he made her rest; and as the sun shone upon her through one of the ruined windows, he stood so that his shadow should fall across her eyes. While he stood thus a strange fancy seized him. The sun became in his eyes a fiery dragon, which having devoured half of the building, having eaten the inside out of it, having torn and gnawed it everywhere, and having at length reached its kernel, the sleeping beauty, whose bed had, in the long years, mouldered away, and been replaced by the living grass, would swallow her up anon, if he were not there to stand between and defend her. When he looked at her next, she had indeed become the sleeping beauty he had fancied her; and sleep had already restored the colour to her cheeks.
Turning his eyes up to the tower from which they had just descended, he saw, looking down upon them from one of the isolated doorways, the pale face of Patrick Beauchamp. Alec bounded to the stair, rushed to the top and round the platform, but found nobody. Beginning to doubt his eyes, his next glance showed him Beauchamp standing over the sleeping girl. He darted down the screw of the stair, but when he reached the bottom Beauchamp had again disappeared.
The same moment Kate began to wake. Her first movement brought Alec to his senses: why should he follow Beauchamp? He returned to her side, and they left the place, locked the door behind them, took the key to the lodge, and went home.
After tea, Alec, believing he had locked Beauchamp into the castle, returned and searched the building from top to bottom, even got a candle and a ladder, and went down into the dungeon, found no one, and went home bewildered.
While Alec was searching the vacant ruin, Beauchamp was comfortably seated on the box of the Spitfire, tooling it halfway home--namely, as far as the house of its owner, the laird above mentioned, who was a relative of his mother, and whom he was then visiting. He had seen Kate and Alec take the way to the castle, and had followed them, and found the door unlocked. Watching them about the place, he ascended the stair from another approach. The moment Alec looked up at him, he ran down again, and had just dropped into a sort of well-like place which the stair had used to fill on its way to a lower level, when he heard Alec's feet thundering up over his head. Determined then to see what the lady was like, for he had never seen her close, or without her bonnet, which now lay beside her on the grass, he scrambled out, and, approaching her cautiously, had a few moments to contemplate her before he saw--for he kept a watch on the tower--that Alec had again caught sight of him, when he immediately fled to his former refuge, which communicated with a low-pitched story lying between the open level and the vaults.
The sound of the ponderous and rusty bolt reached him across the cavernous space. He had not expected their immediate departure, and was rather alarmed. His first impulse was to try whether he could not shoot the bolt from the inside. This he soon found to be impossible. He next turned to the windows in the front, but there the ground fell away so suddenly that he was many feet from it--an altogether dangerous leap. He was beginning to feel seriously concerned, when he heard a voice:
"Do ye want to win oot, sir? They hae lockit the door."
He turned but could see no one. Approaching the door again, he spied Annie, in the dark twilight, standing on the edge of the descent to the vaults. He had passed the spot not a minute before, and she was certainly not there then. She looked as if she had just glided up that slope from a region so dark that a spectre might haunt it all day long. But Beauchamp was not of a fanciful disposition, and instead of taking her for a spectre, he accosted her with easy insolence!
"Tell me how to get out, my pretty girl, and I'll give you a kiss."
Seized with a terror she did not understand, Annie darted into the cavern between them, and sped down its steep into the darkness which lay there like a lurking beast. A few yards down, however, she turned aside, through a low doorway, into a vault. Beauchamp rushed after her, passed her, and fell over a great stone lying in the middle of the way. Annie heard him fall, sprung forth again, and, flying to the upper light, found her way out, and left the discourteous knight a safe captive, fallen upon that horrible stair.--A horrible stair it was: up and down those steps, then steep and worn, now massed into an incline of beaten earth, had swarmed, for months together, a multitude of naked children, orphaned and captive by the sword, to and from the troughs at which they fed like pigs, amidst the laughter of the lord of the castle and his guests; while he who passed down them to the dungeon beyond, had little chance of ever retracing his steps upward to the light.
Annie told the keeper that there was a gentleman shut into the castle, and then ran a mile and a half to Tibbie's cottage, without stopping. But she did not say a word to Tibbie about her adventure.
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