MY WICKED ANCESTRESS. Part Two
A southerly wind and a cloudy sky next morning. A gay breakfast, a lawn meet and a day's sport in every way satisfactory to the M. F. H. and the noble earl whose covers we drew. My "quiet mount" was a knowing old hunter whose sagacity balanced my inexperience and brought me through the day with credit. I was glad to turn homewards as soon as I fairly could, and plodded unsociably back through the muddy lanes long before "Barnabas" thought proper.
I came in unobserved, dog-tired, and had been asleep on my sofa for some time before I was aware of voices close at hand. My cousin Thomas, from his dressing-room, was carrying on a conversation with his wife across the passage, evidently under the impression that they had that part of the house to themselves.
"We shall make a man of him yet. I never despair of any fellow who can ride straight and take a joke. It's rousing he wants—that's all. Can't you find him a wife, Ismay? Eh?—Miss Fordyce? Not a bit of it. You wait and see. I'm going to send him in to dinner to-morrow with that little Carruthers girl——"
Here I sprang from my sofa and softly closed my door on the rest of his benevolent intentions.
All the sudden rush of energy that had carried me through the last two days seemed exhausted. I spent the evening in solitude, except for a bright ten minutes when Ismay beamed in on me, followed by Sir Thomas, jovial and urgent that I should shake off the blues and join them downstairs. "It's enough to give you the horrors, moping up here; you'll get to fancying all sorts of things," with a meaning nod of ominous significance.
I read myself weary, now and then breaking off to think of Clarice, my little unknown sister, whom Ismay's revelations had set in so different a light. It was late before I went to bed; though, judging from the far away bursts of merriment that faintly reached me, long before the rest of the party. I slept soundly, and woke to hear the carol-singers in the courtyard under my window.
As I tried to follow them, the great turret clock slowly struck out midnight over the singers' heads. Its great resonant bell mixed so discordantly with the shrill minor lilt that I half laughed out to myself while waiting patiently for the final stroke.
I started up with the last sonorous boom. What was that step on the floor? Across my dark floor streamed a river of shining moonlight, and bathed in its rays stood a woman, grey and spectral. I knew her. Her gleaming girdle and fur-trimmed gown, her eyes dilated with sudden terror, and her lips parted with a voiceless cry of agony!
Only for a second could I bear the gaze of the frenzied eyes. I sprang up, speechless in my bewilderment, and dashed forward to seize or strike, I hardly knew which, the phantom; but ere my foot touched the streak of moonlight, it was gone. I saw its white arms tossed wildly in the air; I heard the ghostly rustle of its garments just for one instant; then, stumbling forward into the darkness, I struck violently against the open door of my sitting-room, and nearly fell.
When I recovered myself, all was still and dark. I hastily lighted my candle and commenced a careful and exhaustive search of the two rooms. It proved perfectly fruitless, as I expected it would. Had I been dreaming? No. I could repeat the words of the carol to which I had been listening, and which was still shrilling itself to an end outside.
Was it a practical joke? Oddly enough, the reason that prevented my searching the corridor also disposed of that theory. Simultaneously with the carols and the clock had commenced the sound of Sir Thomas's voice outside in converse with Ismay. I had gently opened my door and seen her sitting at her writing-table in the opposite room, while Sir Thomas seemed to be wandering in and out, exchanging desultory observations in a lower tone than usual, out of deference to my supposed slumbers.
Their presence effectually guarded my apartments from invasion on that side.
As to the second door of my bed-room, the slightest movement caused such a crazy creaking of its ancient frame, that I had locked it on Micklethwaite's departure that night, and locked it remained. I put out my light and sank into a chair, startled, yet on the whole rather surprised at myself for not being more excited and impressed. My pulse was beating regularly. There was no tremor in my hand when I held it up before me, black against the moon-light. My head felt clear, my wits alert. I was in a perfectly calm and reasonable frame of mind, and yet, try as I would, I could neither explain away, nor persuade myself of the unreality of my shadowy visitor. Every detail of her appearance rose before me, distinct as a photograph. The great rippling mass of fair hair from which the velvet hood had fallen back, the long white arms flashing up suddenly from out the falling fur-edged sleeves, the silver clasps to her gown and the broidered pouch hanging at her girdle; just the little variations from the picture in the library that would mark the original, instead of the copy.
Then it was true, the family tradition, and if true?
I started from my chair impatiently. I had fancied that when my summons came I should hail it as a sailor the sight of land; I should rejoice as a prisoner at the striking off of his fetters; whereas I felt recklessly, wrathfully defiant. My hold on life grew strong with the clutch of desperation; a fierce thirst for its joy of which I had lived defrauded seemed to consume me.
"Six days more to live? Good. Let them pay me for the years I have lost. I spoke half aloud.
A sighing echo from the raftered roof seemed to reply to me as I threw myself on my bed, where I slept heavily and dreamlessly into the morning.
Christmas Day dawned bright and gladsome.
I thought of my pledge to Sir Thomas, and carefully avoided any appearance of singularity. I joined the church-going party, went round with Ismay, assisting in the distribution of her Christmas gifts; lent a hand at the Rectory Christmas-tree and magic-lantern; and, courageously descending to the drawing-room just as dinner was announced, offered my arm to Miss Fordyce, to her sovereign amazement. She evidently was not going to waste her fine eyes and powers of conversation on me, and, Major Grimshaw being her other neighbour, I was soon relegated to obscurity.
On my other hand sat a young girl of some eighteen or nineteen summers, whom I heard Sir Thomas address as "Miss Bell," in an un-come-out style of dress, with manners to correspond. At least, she was looking down and blushing so violently, when I noticed her, at the remarks of her neighbour that I could not help lending an ear. "Deed, and ye are joost overpowering to us puir ignorant bodies, Miss Bell. Why, the puir curate laddie was fain to rin away at your approach ; he judged ye wad be treckling him anent his deveenity, and maybe his metapheesics. Hech! hech!" spoke he, in a melodious Glaswegian accent, ending with an exasperating cackling laugh that drew all surrounding eyes on him and his victim.
Miss Bell suddenly plucked up a spirit, and turned on him.
"Indeed, Professor McCraw, you are quite mistaken. I know nothing of divinity or metaphysics either; and Mr. Pinkerton knows I don't. He was only asking what I had been reading lately, and I told him where I had got to in the 'History of Our Own Times, and asked what he thought of McCarthy's views of disestablishment," she protested, in a clear, girlish voice.
"And then ye deleevered yourself finely about the land question. Puir Sir Thomas! Ye left him na leg to stand upon. We must have ye in Parliament, Miss Bell."
The girl turned away her head. I could see her eyes were full of tears of mortification, and her voice choked as she tried to reply. I poured her out a glass of water, and she looked at me gratefully.
"You feel the room too hot," I said. "Let me get you some ice."
"It's not that," she said simply. "I was silly and vexed; that was all. It is so hard to know what to say to people. I never meant to say anything wrong to Mr. Pinkerton or Sir Thomas, but they were both shocked at me."
"The Rev. Percy Pinkerton is easily shocked, I should imagine. Sir Thomas was only pretending," I replied with decision. She looked cheered, and went on.
"I was so glad to meet Professor McCraw. I thought he would have helped me to understand one of his books that I like so much; but he has done nothing but make jokes and try to set everybody laughing at me ; and then I get into trouble with mamma. She says she wishes I had never been educated at all, sometimes."
"Don't talk to that Scotch brute, then. Let him feed in silence."
"But how can I help it, when he took me in to dinner?"
"Talk to me," was my prompt reply. "There, be quick! He's going to say something else. Here, let us look at this menu card."
"Aw'm thinking —— " began the Professor, with a solemn clearing of his throat.
"Don't turn your head," I whispered; "keep steady."
"Aw'm thinking, Miss Bell, it's joost a question o' —— "
"Oh, I must listen to him," said Miss Bell, lifting her laughing brown eyes to mine.
"On no consideration! Fix your mind on the entrées."
"Miss Bell! d'ye mind ————" But here Miss Bell threw down her menu and fairly burst into a fit of girlish laughter, so utterly disconcerting to the great McCraw that he refused curried oysters in a voice of thunder, and was speechless for the rest of the repast.
"Oh, I'm such an unlucky girl!" sighed my new friend. "I'm always doing or saying the wrong thing. The frightful scrapes I get into are past telling. I don't know how I shall ever get on in society—and I am to come out next season."
I tried to look brimful of sympathy. She was a frank, fresh slip of a lass, with hair cut short on a well-shaped little head. Light, soft hair that made downy little curls on her white forehead and in the pretty curve of her slender neck behind her ears. Her eyes were brown, and had the full, unconscious gaze of a child.
"I've only been forty-eight hours in this house and I've offended six people at least, and done some dreadful things besides." She ended her confession, and then sank into silent meditation. I left her in peace for ten minutes, after which she suddenly asked my opinion of the Game Laws, which I gave her, and the conversation flowed briskly for the rest of the dinner.
"Oh, must we go!" she exclaimed, as Ismay rose. "I'm so sorry. I wish you might take me in to dinner all the time I am here!"
"I will if I can," I promised her, and she departed ; leaving gloves, fan, handkerchief and a bracelet on her chair and under the table. All of which I carefully collected.
When we joined the ladies, Miss Bell was at the piano, labouring through a lengthy sonata, which came to a sudden stop on our entrance, as she jumped off the music stool. There was a general protest.
"I can't go on! It's too bad. I don't know why I ever began it," she cried.
"Isabel!" exclaimed her mother, with deep reproach. "Can you do nothing? She practises three hours a day, Lady Waldron. I insist on it, and yet she says she hates it!"
"I'll sing—if I must do something," cried Isabel. "I like doing that." And she sat down again, and began in a clear, young, pathetic voice——
"A place in thy memory, dearest,
Is all I ask or claim;
To pause and look back when thou hearest
The sound of my name."
"Good-night, Basil," said Ismay to me on parting. "A merry Christmas to you! I wouldn't obey my lord and master, and send you in to dinner with the heiress; but you got on very well, nevertheless."
I went off down my corridor with "A place in thy memory, dearest," ringing in my ears; but as I entered my dark, solemn old chamber, all the past day's doings seemed to slip away from me, and I stood face to face with the fact—One day gone, one day nearer the end. Five days more.
I fumed at my own folly and superstition as I made the calculation, but half in jest pursued it. Then, in another day, I ought to leave. I must not die here. I should write to Ismay; and to Clarice a farewell from her unknown brother. I could leave both letters with Sir Thomas to be delivered this day week, when all was over. The New Year's Eve tableaux and ball would have gone off successfully, I reflected with grim satisfaction, before the news would reach here. How would they take it? That quaint young person with the brown eyes and frank, boyish ways?
Sunday morning, fair and frosty. Growls from the hunting men, jubilations from the skaters, more church going, and then a moor-land ramble in a party a dozen strong, up to some point where the next county could be seen—if that were any object.
"Let me walk with you," Miss Bell had asked at starting, with her odd, shy, abrupt manner. Her thick sealskin hid her angles, and her little fur cap brought out the clear, creamy whiteness of her complexion. The sharp north wind kissed two little rose-blooms into her cheeks and made her eyes bright. She looked prettier and more ignorant of the fact than I could have thought possible.
We had reached a fine breezy height, and had come upon an upland pool, already skinned over with thin ice, when she turned to me suddenly.
"Why did you say you should not be here to see me skate?"
"I leave for town to-morrow," I answered shortly.
"Then I lose the only friend I possess in this place," she cried despairingly; "just as I was going to show you I could do something decently. I have gone through a good deal from Miss Fordyce since I came, and I was in hopes of taking it out of her when we got on the ice together. Do stay and see me do it. The ponds will bear by Tuesday."
There was not a trace of coquetry in her direct glance, only honest regret at losing a good comrade. It was a little thing to do for anyone, so I gave the required promise, and she brightened up forthwith and began chattering cheerily. About the good days of long ago, when she had her brother "Algy " for a companion, and all the fun they had together; when size was of no importance whatever, and might learn as she liked, or play as she liked, and "life was worth having."
"And now?" I asked sympathetically, for her voice grew unsteady, and her pretty eyes dropped and then lifted themselves to mine, shining through tears.
"Oh, don't you know? Algy died—and I am the unlucky heiress to the great Carruthers property!"
"You? Miss Bell?"
"Yes. Isabel Carruthers; that's my name. Didn't you know? Then I wish I'd never told you!"
What did it matter? Poor little woman, she would pass out of my life like the rest. Meanwhile, if she did care for my gloomy company, it was a small concession to make. So we tramped on briskly, and she told me more about herself and her surroundings; of the nun-like seclusion in which her anxious mother kept her, except when "Daddy" interfered, and let her run wild, took her out hunting and shooting, and tried to make a good man of business of her; of her secret dread of next season, and her presentation.
"Think of all I have to go through before I marry!" she sighed.
"Marry?" I asked, startled at the incongruousness of the idea.
"I suppose I must, some day," she answered innocently, "after I come out. Mamma has settled that I am to meet him in town. Oh, it's no one in particular. Only someone who will manage the property well and be kind to me, and won't object to being Mr. Carruthers."
She gave her shoulders a shrug, as if to dismiss the subject.
"The New Year's Eve Ball!" she suddenly exclaimed. "Are you not coming back for that? And the tableaux next Friday? You will be here? No! Why, where shall you be?"
Next Friday! It was too ghastly. I evaded the question.
"Tell me about your dress. Are you going to act?"
She didn't answer for a moment, and when I looked at her was blushing as redly as when under torture by Professor McCraw.
"I'm to be the Novice in the Guinevere tableaux," she said hastily. "Dress from Worth; plain, but ever so costly."
The subject seemed distasteful, so I dropped it.
I don't remember much of the next two days. They flew past with fearful speed, pleasant beyond anything I could have imagined. I felt the courage of desperation possessing me, and threw myself into all the amusement going, Isabel aiding and abetting me.
On Tuesday came a pile of letters. One from Clarice, the first that I had received since her brief acknowledgment of her wedding present. A loving outburst of delight at the thought of our meeting. She was giving up all other visits, and speeding northwards as fast as possible. Paul had been so kind. He would write himself to me. I was to stay with them; give up India altogether if I liked, and live with them.
I don't mind saying that here I broke down utterly, and cried like a child over the gorgeous be-crested paper, with the scrawly, untidy writing. Paul Van Schendal's letter was kind and brotherly, if somewhat stiff and business-like, and I laid them down with a pang of regret, stronger than anything I believed it was in me to feel.
Here it was; Wednesday; my last day here. I packed my things, wrote a line to Ismay, and rang for Micklethwaite to order the dog- cart. I had fabricated some story of important business in town to excuse my stealing away like a thief in the night—hence to die. I looked at the reflection of myself in my glass with incredulity. I had never felt so young, so strong, so full of the joy of living. What fatality was on my track with silent, hurrying footsteps? Be it what it might, it must not overtake me here. Let me be alone to meet my doom, away from the kind hearts that might grieve for me.
"A place in thy memory, dearest," sang a clear voice outside.
Isabel's! I sprang up and hurried down the corridor to the great staircase. She was flying down two steps at a time as she sang. Into the library she flitted. I following.
"You here!" she cried, facing round on me suddenly. "I thought everyone was skating on the mere, and I had the house to myself. I am stopping at home to receive my dear old daddy, you know ; and I thought I had a chance of being naughty!"
"How?" I asked.
For all answer she skipped on a chair, and flung back the curtain from the well-remembered picture. I started and winced.
"You wretch!" she cried, addressing it. "I wanted a good look at you. You began all my disasters here. You know all about her, don't you, Captain Acton?"
"Yes," I said, absently ; "I believe I do."
"Then I wish you'd tell me. I only know it's something very solemn and dreadful, that one mustn't allude to at Broadstone on any consideration. Oh, I must tell you! You'll keep my secret, won't you? I was going to wear a beautiful, real old fancy dress at the ball, worn by my own ancestress, Christian Carruthers. You have heard of her? No! Why, it's a bit of English history; but never mind now. I told Lady Waldron about it, and she seemed put out, and at last brought me here and showed me this. I suppose everybody's ancestors dressed like everybody else's," in an aggrieved tone. "But it was very much like my get-up, and she implored me not to wear it. Sir Thomas would be made dreadfully uncomfortable; take it as a bad joke, and I don't know what. In short, it was just one of my blunders, and it ended in my giving up the dress and being made into a judy, just to show off Miss Fordyce." She came to a sudden pause. "That's all."
"No, it isn't," I exclaimed impulsively. "Tell me, did you never wear that dress?"
"Oh, don't ask me!" implored the poor girl, putting her hands to her face, and flying to the door.
I got there first--I caught her hands———I begged, besought, implored. I believe she thought I was mad, for she stood shrinking from me, with the white scared look on her face of the portrait above her.
"I don't know what you mean. You are too good and kind— too much of a gentleman, to tease me. If you please, I would rather not say anything about it unless "it is to do some real good."
"Won't you take my word for it that it is?" I pleaded. She nodded assent, and after a moment's consideration, with quite a new manner, grave and dignified, in spite of her trembling lips, began:
"It was another of my blunders. I wanted to show Lady Waldron my dress, and she told me to put it on and come to her room that night. I waited till the house was quiet, and then ran to her sitting-room where I always used to find her when I stayed here before. But I got bewildered at finding it dark and empty; and hearing Sir Thomas's voice in the passage outside, I knew there was a door into the dressing-room and tried to find it. And so I—I—— "
"Frightened somebody else more than he frightened you, I dare say," I added lightly, trying to jest away the poor girl's obvious misery. "How did you escape Sir Thomas?"
"I rushed out again, right into Lady Waldron's arms. When his back was turned for a moment, she pushed me behind the portiere of the opposite room without saying a word, and sat down, pretending to write till he was safely shut up in his own room. She was dreadfully annoyed, and made me promise never to tell the story. Very likely that I should, wasn't it? I had all my hair cut off that very night, for fear anybody should have seen me and might recognise me. And now you have made me break my word, and I can't imagine why."
I dropped her hands; I walked away to the window, and stood staring blankly out. So she had been the ghost in my room after all! Was I relieved—thankful? I don't know. I felt too like an utter fool to take account of any other sensation. Micklethwaite and the dog-cart passed outside. Should I go? Should I stay?
Whatever I did, I should do it with a bad grace.——And Isabel?
She was standing as I had left her, gazing at me in forlorn dismay, the corners of her mouth twitching piteously. "My dear! my dear! what a brute I am! Don't look like that. You are a good, kind, brave girl, and I owe you an explanation, only—only—what will you think of me when you hear it?"
"Why, you are not afraid of my opinion!" she cried, her eyes beginning to brighten again. "Let us cover up the horrid old creature and say nothing more about her for ever, if you like. There! Now for the explanation!"
I sent the dog-cart away and tore up my letters to Clarice and Ismay. Isabel must have her explanation, and here it is. Dare I give it to her?
Ismay has followed me from the ball-room and reads it over my shoulder with a kind smile and a sigh.
"Why not accept the omen?" she says. "Perhaps you only misread it. It may have been a summons to a newer and happier life before the Old Year should end that Isabel was sent to bring you. Nay, I will prophecy that it was so. Hark—the bells! Isabel loves you, Basil, and you love her. You have only to accept your happiness. Come to her, and welcome new life and hopes with the New Year."
And led by her kind hand I go.
MY WICKED ANCESTRESS. Anonymous story published in The Argosy, December 1887