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Having heard what I was about at the Hall, Charley expressed a desire to take a share in my labours, especially as thereby he would be able to see more of his mother and sister. I took him straight to the book-rooms, and we were hard at work when Clara entered.
'Here is your old friend Charley Osborne,' I said. 'You remember Miss Coningham, Charley, I know.'
He advanced in what seemed a strangely embarrassed--indeed, rather sheepish manner, altogether unlike his usual bearing. I attributed it to a doubt whether Clara would acknowledge their old acquaintance. On her part, she met him with some frankness, but I thought also a rather embarrassed look, which was the more surprising as I had let her know he was coming. But they shook hands, and in a little while we were all chatting comfortably.
'Shall I go and tell Mrs Osborne you are here?' she asked.
'Yes, if you please,' said Charley, and she went.
In a few minutes Mrs Osborne and Mary entered. The meeting was full of affection, but to my eye looked like a meeting of the living and the dead in a dream--there was such an evident sadness in it, as if each was dimly aware that they met but in appearance, and were in reality far asunder. I could not doubt that however much they loved him, and however little they sympathized with his father's treatment of him, his mother and sister yet regarded him as separated from them by a great gulf--that of culpable unbelief. But they seemed therefore only the more anxious to please and serve him--their anxiety revealing itself in an eagerness painfully like the service offered to one whom the doctors had given up, and who may now have any indulgence he happens to fancy.
'I say, mother,' said Charley, who seemed to strive after an airier manner even than usual--'couldn't you come and help us? It would be so jolly!'
'No, my dear; I mustn't leave Lady Brotherton. That would be rude, you know. But I dare say Mary might.'
'Oh, please, mamma! I should like it so much--especially if Clara would stop! But perhaps Mr Cumbermede--we ought to have asked him first.'
'Yes--to be sure--he's the foreman,' said Charley. 'But he's not a bad fellow, and won't be disobliging. Only you must do as he tells you, or it'll be the worse for us all. I know him.'
'I shall be delighted,' I said. 'I can give both the ladies plenty to do. Indeed I regard Miss Coningham as one of my hands already. Won't Miss Brotherton honour us to-day, Miss Coningham?'
'I will go and ask her,' said Clara.
They all withdrew. In a little while I had four assistants, and we got on famously. The carpenter had been hard at work, and the room next the armoury, the oak-panelling of which had shown considerable signs of decay, had been repaired, and the shelves, which were in tolerable condition, were now ready to receive their burden, and reflect the first rays of a dawning order.
Plenty of talk went on during the dusting and arranging of the books by their size, which was the first step towards a cosmos. There was a certain playful na´vetÚ about Charley's manner and speech, when he was happy, which gave him an instant advantage with women, and even made the impression of wit where there was only grace. Although he was perfectly capable, however, of engaging to any extent in the badinage which has ever been in place between young men and women since dawning humanity was first aware of a lovely difference, there was always a certain indescribable dignity about what he said which I now see could have come only from a believing heart. I use the word advisedly, but would rather my reader should find what I mean than require me to explain it fully. Belief, to my mind, lies chiefly in the practical recognition of the high and pure.
Miss Brotherton looked considerably puzzled sometimes, and indeed out of her element. But her dignity had no chance with so many young people, and was compelled to thaw visibly; and while growing more friendly with the others, she could not avoid unbending towards me also, notwithstanding I was a neighbour and the son of a dairy-farmer.
Mary Osborne took little part in the fun beyond a smile, or in the more solid conversation beyond an assent or an ordinary remark. I did not find her very interesting. An onlooker would probably have said she lacked expression. But the stillness upon her face bore to me the shadow of a reproof. Perhaps it was only a want of sympathy with what was going on around her. Perhaps her soul was either far withdrawn from its present circumstances, or not yet awake to the general interests of life. There was little in the form or hue of her countenance to move admiration, beyond a complexion without spot. It was very fair and delicate, with little more colour in it than in the white rose, which but the faintest warmth redeems from dead whiteness. Her features were good in form, but in no way remarkable; her eyes were of the so-called hazel, which consists of a mingling of brown and green; her figure was good, but seemed unelastic, and she had nothing of her brother's gaiety or grace of movement or expression. I do not mean that either her motions or her speech was clumsy--there was simply nothing to remark in them beyond the absence of anything special. In a word, I did not find her interesting, save as the sister of my delightful Charley, and the sharer of his mother's griefs concerning him.
'If I had as good help in the afternoon,' I said, 'we should have all the books on the shelves to-night, and be able to set about assorting them to-morrow.'
'I am sorry I cannot come this afternoon,' said Miss Brotherton. 'I should have been most happy if I could. It is really very pleasant notwithstanding the dust. But Mrs Osborne and mamma want me to go with them to Minstercombe. You will lunch with us to-day, won't you?' she added, turning to Charley.
'Thank you, Miss Brotherton,' he replied; 'I should have been delighted, but I am not my own master--I am Cumbermede's slave at present, and can eat and drink only when and where he chooses.'
'You must stay with your mother, Charley,' I said. 'You cannot refuse Miss Brotherton.'
She could thereupon scarcely avoid extending the invitation to me, but I declined it on some pretext or other, and I was again, thanks to Lilith, back from my dinner before they had finished luncheon. The carriage was at the door when I rode up, and the moment I heard it drive away, I went to the dining-room to find my coadjutors. The only person there was Miss Pease. A thought struck me.
'Won't you come and help us, Miss Pease?' I said. 'I have lost one of my assistants, and I am very anxious to get the room we are at now so far finished to-night.'
A smile found its way to her cold eyes, and set the blue sparkling for one briefest moment.
'It is very kind of you, Mr Cumbermede, but--'
'Kind!' I exclaimed--'I want your help, Miss Pease.'
'Lady Brotherton can't want you now. Do oblige me. You will find it fun.'
She smiled outright--evidently at the fancy of any relation between her and fun.
'Do go and put a cap on, and a cotton dress, and come,' I persisted.
Without another word she left the room. I was still alone in the library when she came to me, and having shown her what I wanted, we were already busy when the rest arrived.
'Oh, Peasey! Are you there?' said Clara, as she entered--not unkindly.
'I have got a substitute for Miss Brotherton, you see, Clara--Miss Coningham--I beg your pardon.'
'There's no occasion to beg my pardon. Why shouldn't you call me Clara if you like? It is my name.'
'Charley might be taking the same liberty,' I returned, extemporizing a reason.
'And why shouldn't Charley take the same liberty?' she retorted.
'For no reason that I know,' I answered, a trifle hurt, 'if it be agreeable to the lady.'
'And the gentleman,' she amended.
'And the gentleman,' I added.
'Very well. Then we are all good boys and girls. Now, Peasey, I'm very glad you're come. Only mind you get back to your place before the ogress returns, or you'll have your head snapped off.'
Was I right, or was it the result of the slight offence I had taken? Was the gracious, graceful, na´ve, playful, daring woman--or could she be--or had she been just the least little bit vulgar? I am afraid I was then more sensitive to vulgarity in a woman, real or fancied, than even to wickedness--at least I thought I was. At all events, the first conviction of anything common or unrefined in a woman would at once have placed me beyond the sphere of her attraction. But I had no time to think the suggestion over now; and in a few minutes--whether she saw the cloud on my face I cannot tell--Clara had given me a look and a smile which banished the possibility of my thinking about it for the present.
Miss Pease worked more diligently than any of the party. She seldom spoke, and when she did, it was in a gentle, subdued, almost mournful tone; but the company of the young people, without the restraint of her mistress, was evidently grateful to what of youth yet remained in her oppressed being.
Before it was dark we had got the books all upon the shelves, and leaving Charley with the ladies, I walked home.
I found Styles had got everything out of the lumber-room except a heavy oak chest in the corner, which, our united strength being insufficient to displace it, I concluded was fixed to the floor. I collected all the keys my aunt had left behind her, but sought the key of this chest in vain. For my uncle, I never saw a key in his possession. Even what little money he might have in the house, was only put away at the back of an open drawer. For the present, therefore, we had to leave it undisturbed.
When Charley came home we went to look at it together. It was of oak, and somewhat elaborately carved.
I was very restless in bed that night. The air was close and hot, and as often as I dropped half asleep I woke again with a start. My thoughts kept stupidly running on the old chest. It had mechanically possessed me. I felt no disturbing curiosity concerning its contents; I was not annoyed at the want of the key; it was only that, like a nursery rhyme that keeps repeating itself over and over in the half-sleeping brain, this chest kept rising before me till I was out of patience with its intrusiveness. It brought me wide awake at last; and I thought, as I could not sleep, I would have a search for the key. I got out of bed, put on my dressing-gown and slippers, lighted my chamber-candle, and made an inroad upon the contents of the closet in my room, which had apparently remained undisturbed since the morning when I missed my watch. I believe I had never entered it since. Almost the first thing I came upon was the pendulum, which woke a strange sensation for which I could not account, until by slow degrees the twilight memory of the incidents connected with it half dawned upon me. I searched the whole place, but not a key could I find.
I started violently at the sound of something like a groan, and for the briefest imaginable moment forgot that my grannie was dead, and thought it must come from her room. It may be remembered that such a sound had led me to her in the middle of the night on which she died. Whether I really heard the sound, or only fancied I heard it--by some half-mechanical action of the brain, roused by the association of ideas--I do not even yet know. It may have been changed or expanded into a groan, from one of those innumerable sounds heard in every old house in the stillness of the night; for such, in the absence of the correction given by other sounds, assume place and proportion as it were at their pleasure. What lady has not at midnight mistaken the trail of her own dress on the carpet, in a silent house, for some tumult in a distant room? Curious to say, however, it now led to the same action as the groan I had heard so many years before; for I caught up my candle at once, and took my way down to the kitchen, and up the winding stair behind the chimney to grannie's room. Strange as it may seem, I had not been in it since my return; for my thoughts had been so entirely occupied with other things, that, although I now and then looked forward with considerable expectation to a thorough search of the place, especially of the bureau, I kept it up as a bonne bouche, the anticipation of which was consolation enough for the postponement.
I confess it was with no little quavering of the spirit that I sought this chamber in the middle of the night. For, by its association with one who had from my earliest recollection seemed like something forgotten and left behind in the onward rush of life, it was, far more than anything else in the house, like a piece of the past embedded in the present--a fragment that had been, by some eddy in the stream of time, prevented from gliding away down its course, and left to lie for ever in a cranny of the solid shore of unmoving space. But although subject to more than the ordinary tremor at the thought of unknown and invisible presences, I must say for myself that I had never yielded so far as to allow such tremor to govern my actions. Even in my dreams I have resisted ghostly terrors, and can recall one in which I so far conquered a lady-ghost who took every means of overcoming me with terror, that at length she fell in love with me, whereupon my fear vanished utterly--a conceited fancy, and as such let it fare.
I opened the door then with some trembling, half expecting to see first the white of my grannie's cap against the tall back of her dark chair. But my senses were sound, and no such illusion seized me. All was empty, cheerless, and musty. Grannie's bed, with its white curtains, looked as if it were mouldering away after her. The dust lay thick on the counterpane of patchwork silk. The bureau stood silent with all its secrets. In the fire-place was the same brushwood and coals which Nannie laid the morning of grannie's death: interrupted by the discovery of my presence, she had left it, and that fire had never been lighted. Half for the sake of companionship, half because the air felt sepulchral and I was thinly clad, I put my candle to it and it blazed up. My courage revived, and after a little more gazing about the room, I ventured to sit down in my grannie's chair and watch the growing fire. Warned, however, by the shortness of my candle, I soon rose to proceed with my search, and turned towards the bureau.
Here, however, the same difficulty occurred. The top of the bureau was locked as when I had last tried it, and not one of my keys would fit it. At a loss what to do or where to search, I dropped again into the chair by the fire, and my eyes went roving about the room. They fell upon a black dress which hung against the wall. At the same moment I remembered that, when she gave me the watch, she took the keys of the bureau from her pocket. I went to the dress and found a pocket, not indeed in the dress, but hanging under it from the same peg. There her keys were! It would have been a marvel to me how my aunt came to leave them undisturbed all those years, but for the instant suggestion that my uncle must have expressed a wish to that effect. With eager hand I opened the bureau. Besides many trinkets in the drawers, some of them of exceedingly antique form, and, I fancied, of considerable value, I found in the pigeon-holes what I was far more pleased to discover--a good many letters, carefully tied in small bundles, with ribbon which had lost all determinable colour. These I reserved to take an early opportunity of reading, but replaced for the present, and, having come at last upon one hopeful-looking key, I made haste to return before my candle, which was already flickering in the socket, should go out altogether, and leave me darkling. When I reached the kitchen, however, I found the grey dawn already breaking. I retired once more to my chamber, and was soon fast asleep.
In the morning, my first care was to try the key. It fitted. I oiled it well, and then tried the lock. I had to use considerable force, but at last there came a great clang that echoed through the empty room. When I raised the lid, I knew by the weight it was of iron. In fact, the whole chest was iron with a casing of oak. The lock threw eight bolts, which laid hold of a rim that ran all round the lip of the chest. It was full of 'very ancient and fish-like' papers and parchments. I do not know whether my father or grandfather had ever disturbed them, but I am certain my uncle never had, for, as far back as I can remember, the part of the room where it stood was filled with what had been, at one time and another, condemned as lumber.
Charley was intensely interested in the discovery, and would have sat down at once to examine the contents of the chest, had I not persuaded him to leave them till the afternoon, that we might get on with our work at the Hall.
The second room was now ready for the carpenter, but, having had a peep of tapestry behind the shelves, a new thought had struck me. If it was in good preservation, it would be out of the question to hide it behind books.
I fear I am getting tedious. My apology for diffuseness in this part of my narrative is that some threads of the fringe of my own fate show every now and then in the record of these proceedings. I confess also that I hang back from certain things which are pressing nearer with their claim for record.
When we reached the Hall, I took the carpenter with me, and had the bookshelves taken down. To my disappointment we found that an oblong piece of some size was missing from the centre of the tapestry on one of the walls. That which covered the rest of the room was entire. It was all of good Gobelins work--somewhat tame in colour. The damaged portion represented a wooded landscape with water and reedy flowers and aquatic fowl, towards which in the distance came a hunter with a crossbow in his hand, and a queer, lurcher-looking dog bounding uncouthly at his heel; the edge of the vacant space cut off the dog's tail and the top of the man's crossbow.
I went to find Sir Giles. He was in the dining-room, where they had just finished breakfast.
'Ah, Mr Cumbermede!' he said, rising as I entered, and holding out his hand--'here already?'
'We have uncovered some tapestry, Sir Giles, and I want you to come and look at it, if you please.'
'I will,' he answered. 'Would any of you ladies like to go and see it?'
His daughter and Clara rose. Lady Brotherton and Mrs Osborne sat still. Mary, glancing at her mother, remained seated also.
'Won't you come, Miss Pease?' I said.
She looked almost alarmed at the audacity of the proposal, and murmured, 'No, thank you,' with a glance at Lady Brotherton, which appeared as involuntary as it was timid.
'Is my son with you?' asked Mrs Osborne.
I told her he was.
'I shall look in upon you before the morning is over,' she said quietly.
They were all pleased with the tapestry, and the ladies offered several conjectures as to the cause of the mutilation.
'It would be a shame to cover it up again--would it not, Sir Giles?' I remarked.
'Indeed it would,' he assented.
'If it weren't for that broken piece,' said Clara. 'That spoils it altogether. I should have the books up again as soon as possible.'
'It does look shabby,' said Charley. 'I can't say I should enjoy having anything so defective always before my eyes.'
'We must have it taken down very carefully, Hobbes,' said Sir Giles, turning to the carpenter.
'Must it come down, Sir Giles?' I interposed. 'I think it would be risky. No one knows how long it has been there, and though it might hang where it is for a century yet, and look nothing the worse, it can't be strong, and at best we could not get it down without some injury, while it is a great chance if it would fit any other place half as well.'
'What do you propose, then?'
'This is the largest room of the six, and the best lighted--with that lovely oriel window: I would venture to propose, Sir Giles, that it should be left clear of books and fitted up as a reading-room.'
'But how would you deal with that frightful lacuna in the tapestry?' said Charley.
'Yes,' said Sir Giles; 'it won't look handsome, I fear--do what you will.'
'I think I know how to manage it,' I said. 'If I succeed to your satisfaction, will you allow me to carry out the project?'
'But what are we to do with the books, then? We shan't have room for them.'
'Couldn't you let me have the next room beyond?'
'You mean to turn me out, I suppose,' said Clara.
'Is there tapestry on your walls?' I asked.
'Not a thread--all wainscot--painted.'
'Then your room would be the very thing.'
'It is much larger than any of these,' she said.
'Then do let us have it for the library, Sir Giles,' I entreated.
'I will see what Lady Brotherton says,' he replied, and left the room.
In a few minutes we heard his step returning.
'Lady Brotherton has no particular objection to giving up the room you want,' he said. 'Will you see Mrs Wilson, Clara, and arrange with her for your accommodation?'
'With pleasure. I don't mind where I'm put--unless it be in Lord Edward's room--where the ghost is.'
'You mean the one next to ours? There is no ghost there, I assure you,' said Sir Giles, laughing, as he again left the room with short, heavy steps. 'Manage it all to your own mind, Mr Cumbermede. I shall be satisfied,' he called back as he went.
'Until further notice,' I said, with grandiloquence, 'I request that no one may come into this room. If you are kind enough to assort the books we put up yesterday, oblige me by going through the armoury. I must find Mrs Wilson.'
'I will go with you,' said Clara. 'I wonder where the old thing will want to put me. I'm not going where I don't like, I can tell her,' she added, following me down the stair and across the hall and the court.
We found the housekeeper in her room. I accosted her in a friendly way. She made but a bare response.
'Would you kindly show me where I slept that night I lost my sword, Mrs Wilson?' I said.
'I know nothing about your sword, Mr Cumbermede,' she answered, shaking her head and pursing up her mouth.
'I don't ask you anything about it, Mrs Wilson; I only ask you where I slept the night I lost it.'
'Really, Mr Cumbermede, you can hardly expect me to remember in what room a visitor slept--let me see--it must be twelve or fifteen years ago! I do not take it upon me.'
'Oh! never mind, then. I referred to the circumstances of that night, thinking they might help you to remember the room; but it is of no consequence; I shall find it for myself. Miss Coningham will, I hope, help me in the search. She knows the house better than I do.'
'I must attend to my own business first, if you please, sir,' said Clara. 'Mrs Wilson, I am ordered out of my room by Mr Cumbermede. You must find me fresh quarters, if you please.'
Mrs Wilson stared.
'Do you mean, miss, that you want your things moved to another bed-room?'
'That is what I mean, Mrs Wilson.'
'I must see what Lady Brotherton says to it, miss.'
'Do, by all means.'
I saw that Clara was bent on annoying her old enemy, and interposed.
'Sir Giles and Lady Brotherton have agreed to let me have Miss Coningham's room for an addition to the library, Mrs Wilson,' I said.
She looked very grim, but made no answer. We turned and left her. She stood for a moment as if thinking, and then, taking down her bunch of keys, followed us.
'If you will come this way,' she said, stopping just behind us at another door in the court, 'I think I can show you the room you want. But really, Mr Cumbermede, you are turning the place upside down. If I had thought it would come to this--'
'I hope to do so a little more yet, Mrs Wilson,' I interrupted. 'But I am sure you will be pleased with the result.'
She did not reply, but led the way up a stair, across the little open gallery, and by passages I did not remember, to the room I wanted. It was in precisely the same condition as when I occupied it.
'This is the room, I believe,' she said, as she unlocked and threw open the door. 'Perhaps it would suit you, Miss Coningham?'
'Not in the least,' answered Clara. 'Who knows which of my small possessions might vanish before the morning!'
The housekeeper's face grew turkey-red with indignation.
'Mr Cumbermede has been filling your head with some of his romances, I see, Miss Clara!'
I laughed, for I did not care to show myself offended with her rudeness.
'Never you mind,' said Clara; 'I am not going to sleep there.'
'Very good,' said Mrs Wilson, in a tone of offence severely restrained.
'Will you show me the way to the library?' I requested.
'I will,' said Clara; 'I know it as well as Mrs Wilson--every bit.'
'Then that is all I want at present, Mrs Wilson,' I said, as we came out of the room. 'Don't lock the door, though, please,' I added. 'Or, if you do, give me the key.'
She left the door open, and us in the passage. Clara led me to the library. There we found Charley waiting our return.
'Will you take that little boy to his mother, Clara?' I said. 'I don't want him here to-day. We'll have a look over those papers in the evening, Charley.'
'That's right,' said Clara. 'I hope Charley will help you to a little rational interest in your own affairs. I am quite bewildered to think that an author, not to say a young man, the sole remnant of an ancient family, however humble, shouldn't even know whether he had any papers in the house or not.'
'We've come upon a glorious nest of such addled eggs, Clara. Charley and I are going to blow them to-night,' I said.
'You never know when such eggs are addled,' retorted Clara. 'You'd better put them under some sensible fowl or other first,' she added, looking back from the door as they went.
I turned to the carpenter's tool-basket, and taking from it an old chisel, a screw-driver, and a pair of pincers, went back to the room we had just left.
There could be no doubt about it. There was the tip of the dog's tail, and the top of the hunter's crossbow.
But my reader may not have retained in her memory the facts to which I implicitly refer. I would therefore, to spare repetition, beg her to look back to chapter xiv., containing the account of the loss of my sword.
In the consternation caused me by the discovery that this loss was no dream of the night, I had never thought of examining the wall of the chamber, to see whether there was in it a door or not; but I saw now at once plainly enough that the inserted patch did cover a small door. Opening it, I found within, a creaking wooden stair, leading up to another low door, which, fashioned like the door of a companion, opened upon the roof:--nowhere, except in the towers, had the Hall more than two stories. As soon as I had drawn back the bolt and stepped out, I found myself standing at the foot of an ornate stack of chimneys, and remembered quite well having tried the door that night Clara and I were shut out on the leads--the same night on which my sword was stolen.
For the first time the question now rose in my mind whether Mrs Wilson could have been in league with Mr Close. Was it likely I should have been placed in a room so entirely fitted to his purposes by accident? But I could not imagine any respectable woman running such a risk of terrifying a child out of his senses, even if she could have connived at his being robbed of what she might well judge unsuitable for his possession.
Descending again to the bed-room, I set to work with my tools. The utmost care was necessary, for the threads were weak with old age. I had only one or two slight mishaps, however, succeeding on the whole better than I had expected. Leaving the door denuded of its covering, I took the patch on my arm, and again sought the library. Hobbes's surprise, and indeed pleasure, when he saw that my plunder not only fitted the gap, but completed the design, was great. I directed him to get the whole piece down as carefully as he could, and went to extract, if possible, a favour from Lady Brotherton.
She was of course very stiff--no doubt she would have called it dignified; but I did all I could to please her, and perhaps in some small measure succeeded. After representing, amongst other advantages, what an addition a suite of rooms filled with a valuable library must be to the capacity of the house for the reception and entertainment of guests, I ventured at last to beg the services of Miss Pease for the repair of the bit of the tapestry.
She rang the bell, sent for Miss Pease, and ordered her, in a style of the coldest arrogance, to put herself under my direction. She followed me to the door in the meekest manner, but declined the arm I offered. As we went I explained what I wanted, saying I could not trust it to any hands but those of a lady, expressing a hope that she would not think I had taken too great a liberty, and begging her to say nothing about the work itself, as I wished to surprise Sir Giles and my assistants. She said she would be most happy to help me, but when she saw how much was wanted, she did look a little dismayed. She went and fetched her work-basket at once, however, and set about it, tacking the edges to a strip of canvas, in preparation for some kind of darning, which would not, she hoped, be unsightly.
For a whole week she and the carpenter were the only persons I admitted, and while she gave to her darning every moment she could redeem from her attendance on Lady Brotherton, the carpenter and I were busy--he cleaning and polishing, and I ranging the more deserted parts of the house to find furniture suitable for our purpose. In Clara's room was an old Turkey-carpet which we appropriated, and when we had the tapestry up again, which Miss Pease had at length restored in a marvellous manner--surpassing my best hopes, and more like healing than repairing--the place was to my eyes a very nest of dusky harmonies.
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