The Chrightons were very great people in that part of the country where my childhood and youth were spent. To speak of Squire Chrighton was to speak of a power in that remote western region of England. Chrighton Abbey had belonged to the family ever since the reign of Stephen, and there was a curious old wing and a cloistered quadrangle still remaining of the original edifice, and in excellent preservation. The rooms at this end of the house were low, and somewhat darksome and gloomy, it is true; but, though rarely used, they were perfectly habitable, and were of service on great occasions when the Abbey was crowded with guests.
The central portion of the Abbey had been rebuilt in the reign of Elizabeth, and was of noble and palatial proportions. The southern wing, and a long music-room with eight tall narrow windows added on to it, were as modern as the time of Anne. Altogether, the Abbey was a very splendid mansion, and one of the chief glories of our county.
All the land in Chrighton parish, and for a long way beyond its boundaries, belonged to the great Squire. The parish church was within the park walls, and the living in the Squire’s gift-not a very valuable benefice, but a useful thing to bestow upon a younger son’s younger son, once in a way, or sometimes on a tutor or dependent of the wealthy house.
I was a Chrighton, and my father, a distant cousin of the reigning Squire, had been rector of Chrighton parish. His death left me utterly unprovided for, and I was fain to go out into the bleak unknown world, and earn my living in a position of dependence-a dreadful thing for a Chrighton to be obliged to do.
Out of respect for the traditions and prejudices of my race, I made it my business to seek employment abroad, where the degradation of one solitary Chrighton was not so likely to inflict shame upon the ancient house to which I belonged. Happily for myself, I had been carefully educated, and had industriously cultivated the usual modern accomplishments in the calm retirement of the Vicarage. I was so fortunate as to obtain a situation at Vienna, in a German family of high rank; and here I remained seven years, laying aside year by year a considerable portion of my liberal salary. When my pupils had grown up, my kind mistress procured me a still more profitable position at St Petersburg, where I remained five more years, at the end of which time I yielded to a yearning that had been long growing upon me-an ardent desire to see my dear old country home once more.
I had no very near relations in England. My mother had died some years before my father; my only brother was far away, in the Indian Civil Service; sister I had none. But I was a Chrighton, and I loved the soil from which I had sprung. I was sure, moreover, of a warm welcome from friends who had loved and honoured my father and mother, and I was still further encouraged to treat myself to this holiday by the very cordial letters I had from time to time received from the Squire’s wife, a noble warm-hearted woman, who fully approved the independent course I had taken, and who had ever shown herself my friend.
In all her letters for some time past Mrs Chrighton begged that, whenever I felt myself justified in coming home, I would pay a long visit to the Abbey.
‘I wish you could come at Christmas,’ she wrote, in the autumn of the year of which I am speaking. ‘We shall be very gay, and I expect all kinds of pleasant people at the Abbey. Edward is to be married early in the spring-much to his father’s satisfaction, for the match is a good and appropriate one. His fiancée is to be among our guests. She is a very beautiful girl; perhaps I should say handsome rather than beautiful. Julia Tremaine, one of the Tremaines of Old Court, near Hayswell – a very old family, as I daresay you remember. She has several brothers and sisters, and will have little, perhaps nothing, from her father; but she has a considerable fortune left her by an aunt, and is thought quite an heiress in the county-not, of course, that this latter fact had any influence with Edward. He fell in love with her at an assize ball in his usual impulsive fashion, and proposed to her in something less than a fortnight. It is, I hope and believe, a thorough love-match on both sides.’
After this followed a cordial repetition of the invitation to myself. I was to go straight to the Abbey when I went to England, and was to take up my abode there as long as ever I pleased.
This letter decided me. The wish to look on the dear scenes of my happy childhood had grown almost into a pain. I was free to take a holiday, without detriment to my prospects. So, early in December, regardless of the bleak dreary weather, I turned my face homewards, and made the long journey from St Petersburg to London, under the kind escort of Major Manson, a Queen’s Messenger, who was a friend of my late employer, the Baron Fruydorff, and whose courtesy had been enlisted for me by that gentleman.
I was three-and-thirty years of age. Youth was quite gone; beauty I had never possessed; and I was content to think of myself as a – confirmed old maid, a quiet spectator of life’s great drama, disturbed by no feverish desire for an active part in the play. I had a disposition to which this kind of passive existence is easy. There was no wasting fire in my veins. Simple duties, rare and simple pleasures, filled up my sum of life. The dear ones who had given a special charm and brightness to my existence were gone. Nothing could recall them, and without them actual happiness seemed impossible to me. Everything had a subdued and neutral tint; life at its best was calm and colourless, like a grey sunless day in early autumn, serene but joyless.
The old Abbey was in its glory when I arrived there, at about nine o’clock on a clear starlit night. A light frost whitened the broad sweep of grass that stretched away from the long stone terrace in front of the house to a semicircle of grand old oaks and beeches. From the music-room at the end of the southern wing, to the heavily framed gothic windows of the old rooms on the north, there shone one blaze of light. The scene reminded me of some weird palace in a German legend; and I half expected to see the lights fade out all in a moment, and the long stone facade wrapped in sudden darkness.
The old butler, whom I remembered from my very infancy, and who did not seem to have grown a day older during my twelve years’ exile came out of the dining-room as the footman opened the hall-door for me, and gave me cordial welcome, nay insisted upon helping to bring in my portmanteau with his own hands, an act of unusual condescension, the full force of which was felt by his subordinates.
‘It’s a real treat to see your pleasant face once more, Miss Sarah,’ said this faithful retainer, as he assisted me to take off my travelling-cloak, and took my dressing-bag from my hand. ‘You look a trifle older than when you used to live at the Vicarage twelve year ago, but you’re looking uncommon well for all that; and, Lord love your heart, miss, how pleased they all will be to see you! Missus told me with her own lips about your coming. You’d like to take off your bonnet before you go to the drawing-room, I daresay. The house is full of company. Call Mrs Marjorum, James, will you?’
The footman disappeared into the back regions, and presently reappeared with Mrs Marjorum, a portly dame, who, like Truefold the butler, had been a fixture at the Abbey in the time of the present Squire’s father. From her I received the same cordial greeting, and by her I was led off up staircases and along corridor, till I wondered where I was being taken.
We arrived at last at a very comfortable room – a square, tapestried chamber, with a low ceiling supported by a great oaken beam. The room looked cheery enough, with a bright fire roaring in the wide chimney; but it had a somewhat ancient aspect, which the superstitiously inclined might have associated with possible ghosts.
I was fortunately of a matter-of-fact disposition, utterly sceptical upon the ghost subject; and the old-fashioned appearance of the room took my fancy.
‘We are in King Stephen’s wing, are we not, Mrs Marjorum?’ I asked; ‘this room seems quite strange to me. I doubt if I have ever been in it before.’
‘Very likely not, miss. Yes, this is the old wing. Your window looks out into the old stable-yard, where the kennel used to be in the time of our Squire’s grandfather, when the Abbey was even a finer place than it is now, I’ve heard say. We are so full of company this winter, you see, miss, that we are obliged to make use of all these rooms. You’ll have no need to feel lonesome. There’s Captain and Mrs Cranwick in the next room to this, and the two Miss Newports in the blue room opposite.’
‘My dear good Marjorum, I like my quarters excessively; and I quite enjoy the idea of sleeping in a room that was extant in the time of Stephen, when the Abbey really was an abbey. I daresay some grave old monk has worn these boards with his devout knees.’
The old woman stared dubiously, with the air of a person who had small sympathy with monkish times, and begged to be excused for leaving me, she had so much on her hands just now.
There was coffee to be sent in; and she doubted if the still-room maid would manage matters properly, if she, Mrs Marjorum, were not at hand to see that things were right.
‘You’ve only to ring your bell, miss, and Susan will attend to you. She’s used to help waiting on our young ladies sometimes, and she’s very handy. Missus has given particular orders that she should be always at your service.’
‘Mrs Chrighton is very kind; but I assure you, Marjorum, I don’t require the help of a maid once in a month. I am accustomed to do everything for myself. There, run along, Mrs Marjorum, and see after your coffee; and I’ll be down in the drawing-room in ten minutes. Are there many people there, by the bye?’
‘A good many. There’s Miss Tremaine, and her mamma and younger sister; of course you’ve heard all about the marriage – such a handsome young lady-rather too proud for my liking; but the Tremaines always were a proud family, and this one’s an heiress. Mr Edward is so fond of her – thinks the ground is scarcely good enough for her to walk upon, I do believe; and somehow I can’t help wishing he’d chosen someone else someone who would have thought more of him, and who would not take all his attentions in such a cool off hand way. But of course it isn’t my business to say such things, and I wouldn’t venture upon it to any one but you, Miss Sarah.’
She told me that I would find dinner ready for me in the breakfast-room, and then bustled off, leaving me to my toilet.
This ceremony I performed as rapidly as I could, admiring the perfect comfort of my chamber as I dressed. Every modern appliance had been added to the sombre and ponderous furniture of an age gone by, and the combination produced a very pleasant effect. Perfume-bottles of ruby-coloured Bohemian glass, china brush-trays and ring-stands brightened the massive oak dressing-table; a low luxurious chintz-covered easy-chair of the Victorian era stood before the hearth; a dear little writing-table of polished maple was placed conveniently near it; and in the background the tapestried walls loomed duskily, as they had done hundreds of years before my time.
I had no leisure for dreamy musings on the past, however, provocative though the chamber might be of such thoughts. I arranged my hair in its usual simple fashion, and put on a dark-grey silk dress, trimmed with some fine old black lace that had been given to me by the Baroness – an unobtrusive demi-toilette, adapted to any occasion. I tied a massive gold cross, an ornament that had belonged to my dear mother, round my neck with a scarlet ribbon; and my costume was complete. One glance at the looking-glass convinced me that there was nothing dowdy in my appearance; and then I hurried along the corridor and down the staircase to the hall, where Truefold received me and conducted me to the breakfast-room, in which an excellent dinner awaited me.
I did not waste much time over this repast, although I had eaten nothing all day; for I was anxious to make my way to the drawing-room. Just as I had finished, the door opened, and Mrs Chrighton sailed in, looking superb in a dark-green velvet dress richly trimmed with old point lace. She had been a beauty in her youth, and, as a matron, was still remarkably handsome. She had, above all, a charm of expression which to me was rarer and more delightful than her beauty of feature and complexion.
She put her arms round me, and kissed me affectionately.
‘I have only this moment been told of your arrival, my dear Sarah,’ she said; ‘and I find you have been in the house half an hour. What must you have thought of me!’
‘What can I think of you, except that you are all goodness, my dear Fanny? I did not expect you to leave your guests to receive me, and am really sorry that you have done so. I need no ceremony to convince me of your kindness.’
‘But, my dear child, it is not a question of ceremony. I have been looking forward so anxiously to your coming, and I should not have liked to see you for the first time before all those people. Give me another kiss, that’s a darling. Welcome to Chrighton. Remember, Sarah, this house is always to be your home, whenever you have need of one.
‘My dear kind cousin! And you are not ashamed of me, who have eaten the bread of strangers?’
‘Ashamed of you! No, my love; I admire your industry and spirit. And now come to the drawing-room. The girls will be so pleased to see you.
‘And I to see them. They were quite little things when I went away, romping in the hay-fields in their short white frocks; and now, I suppose, they are handsome young women.’
‘They are very nice-looking; not as handsome as their brother. Edward is really a magnificent young man. I do not think my maternal pride is guilty of any gross exaggeration when I say that.’
‘And Miss Tremaine?’ I said. ‘I am very curious to see her.’
I fancied a faint shadow came over my cousin’s face as I mentioned this name.
‘Miss Tremaine, yes, you cannot fail to admire her,’ she said, rather thoughtfully.
She drew my hand through her arm and led me to the drawing-room: a very large room, with a fireplace at each end, brilliantly lighted tonight, and containing about twenty people, scattered about in little groups, and all seeming to be talking and laughing merrily. Mrs Chrighton took me straight to one of the fireplaces, beside which two girls were sitting on a low sofa, while a young man of something more than six feet high stood near them, with his arm resting on the broad marble slab of the mantelpiece. A glance told me that this young man with the dark eyes and crisp waving brown hair was Edward Chrighton. His likeness to his mother was in itself enough to tell me who he was; but I remembered the boyish face and bright eyes which had so often looked up to mine in the days when the heir of the Abbey was one of the most juvenile scholars at Eton.
The lady seated nearest Edward Chrighton attracted my chief attention; for I felt sure that this lady was Miss Tremaine. She was tall and slim, and carried her head and neck with a stately air, which struck me more than anything in that first glance. Yes, she was handsome, undeniably handsome; and my cousin had been right when she said I could not fail to admire her; but to me the dazzlingly fair face with its perfect features, the marked aquiline nose, the short upper lip expressive of unmitigated pride, the full cold blue eyes, pencilled brows, and aureole of pale golden hair, were the very reverse of sympathetic. That Miss Tremaine must needs be universally admired, it was impossible to doubt; but I could not understand how any man could fall in love with such a woman.
She was dressed in white muslin, and her only ornament was a superb diamond locket, heart-shaped, tied round her long white throat with a broad black ribbon. Her hair, of which she seemed to have a great quantity, was arranged in a massive coronet of plaits, which surmounted the small head as proudly as an imperial crown.
To this young lady Mrs Chrighton introduced me.
‘I have another cousin to present to you, Julia,’ she said smiling ‘Miss Sarah Chrighton, just arrived from St Petersburg.’
‘From St Petersburg? What an awful-journey! How do you do, Miss Chrighton? It was really very courageous of you to come so far. Did you travel alone?’
‘No; I had a companion as far as London, and a very kind one. I came on to the Abbey by myself.’
The young lady had given me her hand with rather a languid air, I thought. I saw the cold blue eyes surveying me curiously from head to foot, and it seemed to me as if I could read the condemnatory summing-up – ‘A frump, and a poor relation’ – in Miss Tremaine’s face.
I had not much time to think about her just now; for Edward Chrighton suddenly seized both my hands, and gave me so hearty and loving a welcome, that he almost brought the tears ‘up from my heart into my eyes’.
Two pretty girls in blue crape came running forward from different pans of the room, and gaily saluted me as ‘Cousin Sarah’; and the three surrounded me in a little cluster, and assailed me with a string of questions – whether I remembered this, and whether I had forgotten that, the battle in the hayfield, the charity-school tea-party in the vicarage orchard, our picnics in Hawsley Combe, our botanical and entomological excursions on Chorwell-common, and all the simple pleasures of their childhood and my. youth. While this catechism was going on, Miss Tremaine watched us with a disdainful expression, which she evidently did not care to hide.
‘I should not have thought you capable of such Arcadian simplicity, Mr Chrighton,’ she said at last. ‘Pray continue your recollections. These juvenile experiences are most interesting.’
‘I don’t expect you to be interested in them, Julia,’ Edward answered, with a tone that sounded rather too bitter for a lover. ‘I know what a contempt you have for trifling rustic pleasures. Were you ever a child yourself, I wonder, by the way? I don’t believe you ever ran after a butterfly in your life.’
Her speech put an end to our talk of the past, somehow. I saw that Edward was vexed, and that all the pleasant memories of his boyhood had fled before that cold scornful face. A young lady in pink, who had been sitting next Julia Tremaine, vacated the sofa, and Edward slipped into her place, and devoted himself for the rest of the evening to his betrothed. I glanced at his bright expressive face now and then as he talked to her, and could not help wondering what charm he could discover in one who seemed to me so unworthy of him.
It was midnight when I went back to my room in the north wing, thoroughly happy in the cordial welcome that had been given me. I rose early next morning – for early rising had long been habitual to me – and, drawing back the damask-curtain that sheltered my window, looked out at the scene below.
I saw a stable-yard, a spacious quadrangle, surrounded by the closed doors of stables and dog-kennels: low massive buildings of grey stone, with the ivy creeping over them here and there, and with an ancient moss-grown look, that gave them a weird kind of interest in my eyes. This range of stabling must have been disused for a long time, I fancied. The stables now in use were a pile of handsome red-brick buildings at the other extremity of the house, to the rear of the music-room, and forming a striking feature in the back view of the Abbey.
I had often heard how the present Squire’s grandfather had kept a pack of hounds, which had been sold immediately after his death; and I knew that my cousin, the present Mr Chrighton, had been more than once requested to follow his ancestor’s good example; for there were no hounds now within twenty miles of the Abbey, though it was a fine country for fox-hunting.
George Chrighton, however – the reigning lord of the Abbey – was not a hunting man. He had, indeed, a secret horror of the sport; for more than one scion of the house had perished untimely in the hunting-field. The family had not been altogether a lucky one, in spite of its wealth and prosperity. It was not often that the goodly heritage had descended to the eldest son. Death in some form or other on too many occasions a violent death had come between the heir and his inheritance. And when I pondered on the dark pages in the story of the house, I used to wonder whether my cousin Fanny was ever troubled by morbid forebodings about her only and fondly loved son.
Was there a ghost at Chrighton-that spectral visitant without which the state and splendour of a grand old house seem scarcely complete? Yes, I had heard vague hints of some shadowy presence that had been seen on rare occasions within the precincts of the Abbey; but I had never been able to ascertain what shape it bore.
Those whom I questioned were prompt to assure me that they had seen nothing. They had heard stories of the past-foolish legends, most likely, not worth listening to. Once, when I had spoken of the subject to my cousin George, he told me angrily never again to let him hear any allusion to that folly from my lips.
That December passed merrily. The old house was full of really pleasant people, and the brief winter days were spent in one unbroken round of amusement and gaiety. To me the old familiar English country-house life was a perpetual delight-to feel myself amongst kindred an unceasing pleasure. I could not have believed myself capable of being so completely happy.
I saw a great deal of my cousin Edward, and I think he contrived to make Miss Tremaine understand that, to please him, she must be gracious to me. She certainly took some pains to make herself agreeable to me; and I discovered that, in spite of that proud disdainful temper, which she so rarely took the trouble to conceal, she was really anxious to gratify her lover.
Their courtship was not altogether a halcyon period. They had frequent quarrels, the details of which Edward’s sisters Sophy and Agnes delighted to discuss with me. It was the struggle of two proud spirits for mastery; but my cousin Edward’s pride was of the nobler kind-the lofty scorn of all things mean – a pride that does not ill – become a generous nature. To me he seemed all that was admirable, and I was never tired of hearing his mother praise him. I think my cousin Fanny knew this, and that she used to confide in me as fully as if I had been her sister.
‘I daresay you can see I am not quite so fond as I should wish to be of Julia Tremaine,’ she said to me one day; ‘but I am very glad that my son is going to marry. My husband’s has not been a fortunate family, you know, Sarah. The eldest sons have been wild and unlucky for generations past; and when Edward was a boy I used to have many a bitter hour, dreading what the future might bring forth. Thank God he has been, and is, all that I can wish. He has never given me an hour’s anxiety by any act of his. Yet I am not the less glad of his marriage. The heirs of Chrighton who have come to an untimely end have all died unmarried. There was Hugh Chrighton, in the reign of George the Second, who was killed in a duel; John, who broke his back in the hunting-field thirty years later; Theodore, shot accidentally by a schoolfellow at Eton; Jasper, whose yacht went down in the Mediterranean forty years ago. An awful list, is it not, Sarah? I shall feel as if my son were safer somehow when he is married. It will seem as if he has escaped the ban that has fallen on so many of our house. He will have greater reason to be careful of his life when he is a married man.’
I agreed with Mrs Chrighton; but could not help wishing that Edward had chosen any other woman than the cold handsome Julia. I could not fancy his future life happy with such a mate.
Christmas came by and by-a real old English Christmas-frost and snow without, warmth and revelry within; skating on the great pond in the park, and sledging on the ice-bound high-roads, by day; private theatricals, charades, and amateur concerts, by night. I was surprised to find that Miss Tremaine refused to take any active part in these evening amusements. She preferred to sit among the elders as a spectator, and had the air and bearing of a princess for whose diversion all our entertainments had been planned. She seemed to think that she fulfilled her mission by sitting still and looking handsome. No desire to show-off appeared to enter her mind. Her intense pride left no room for vanity. Yet I knew that she could have distinguished herself as a musician if she had chosen to do so; for I had heard her sing and play in Mrs Chrighton’s morning-room, when only Edward, his sisters, and myself were present; and I knew that both as a vocalist and a pianist she excelled all our guests.
The two girls and I had many a happy morning and afternoon, going from cottage to cottage in a pony-carriage laden with Mrs Chrighton’s gifts to the poor of her parish. There was no public formal distribution of blanketing and coals, but the wants of all were amply provided for in a quiet friendly way. Agnes and Sophy, aided by an indefatigable maid, the Rector’s daughter, and one or two other young ladies, had been at work for the last three months making smart warm frocks and useful under-garments for the children of the cottagers; so that on Christmas morning every child in the parish was arrayed in a complete set of new garments. Mrs Chrighton had an admirable faculty of knowing precisely what was most wanted in every household; and our pony-carriage used to convey a varied collection of goods, every parcel directed in the firm free hand of the chatelaine of the Abbey.
Edward used sometimes to drive us on these expeditions, and I found that he was eminently popular among the poor of Chrighton parish. He had such an airy pleasant way of talking to them, a manner which set them at their ease at once. He never forgot their names or relationships, or wants or ailments; had a packet of exactly the kind of tobacco each man liked best always ready in his coat-pockets; and was full of jokes, which may not have been particularly witty, but which used to make the small low-roofed chambers ring with hearty laughter.
Miss Tremaine coolly declined any share in these pleasant duties.
‘I don’t like poor people,’ she said. ‘I daresay it sounds very dreadful, but it’s just as well to confess my iniquity at once. I never can get on with them, or they with me. I am not simpatica, I suppose. And then I cannot endure their stifling rooms. The close faint odour of their houses gives me a fever. And again, what is the use of visiting them? It is only an inducement to them to become hypocrites. Surely it is better to arrange on a sheet of paper what it is just and fair for them to have-blankets, and coals, and groceries, and money, and wine, and so on-and let them receive the things from some trustworthy servant. In that case, there need be no cringing on one side, and no endurance on the other.’
‘But, you see, Julia, there are some kinds of people to whom that sort of thing is not a question of endurance,’ Edward answered, his face flushing indignantly. ‘People who like to share in the pleasure they give-who like to see the poor careworn faces lighted up with sudden joy-who like to make these sons of the soil feel that there is some friendly link between themselves and their masters-some point of union between the cottage and the great house. There is my mother, for instance: all these duties which you think so tiresome are to her an unfailing delight. There will be a change, I’m afraid, Julia, when you are mistress of the Abbey.’
‘You have not made me that yet,’ she answered; ‘and there is plenty of time for you to change your mind, if you do not think me suited for the position. I do not pretend to be like your mother. It is better that I should not affect any feminine virtues which I do not possess.’
After this Edward insisted on driving our pony-carriage almost every day, leaving Miss Tremaine to find her own amusement; and I think this conversation was the beginning of an estrangement between them, which became more serious than any of their previous quarrels had been.
Miss Tremaine did not care for sledging, or skating, or billiard playing. She had none of the ‘fast’ tendencies which have become so common lately. She used to sit in one particular bow-window of the drawing-room all the morning, working a screen in berlin-wool and beads, assisted and attended by her younger sister Laura, who was a kind of slave to her-a very colourless young lady in mind, capable of no such thing as an original opinion, and in person a pale replica of her sister.
Had there been less company in the house, the breach between Edward Chrighton and his betrothed must have become notorious; but with a house so full of people, all bent on enjoying themselves, I doubt if it was noticed. On all public occasions my cousin showed himself attentive and apparently devoted to Miss Tremaine. It was only I and his sisters who knew the real state of affairs.
I was surprised, after the young lady’s total repudiation of all benevolent sentiments, when she beckoned me aside one morning, and slipped a little purse of gold-twenty sovereigns-into my hand.
‘I shall be very much obliged if you will distribute that among your cottagers today, Miss Chrighton,’ she said. ‘Of course I should like to give them something; it’s only the trouble of talking to them that I shrink from; and you are just the person for an almoner. Don’t mention my little commission to any one, please.’
‘Of course I may tell Edward,’ I said; for I was anxious that he should know his betrothed was not as hard-hearted as she had appeared.
‘To him least of all,’ she answered eagerly. You know that our ideas vary on that point. He would think I gave the money to please him. Not a word, pray, Miss Chrighton.’ I submitted, and distributed my sovereigns quietly, with the most careful exercise of my judgement.
So Christmas came and passed. It was the day after the great anniversary-a very quiet day for the guests and family at the Abbey, but a grand occasion for the servants, who were to have their annual ball in the evening-a ball to which all the humbler class of tenantry were invited. The frost had broken up suddenly, and it was a thorough wet day-a depressing kind of day for any one whose spirits are liable to be affected by the weather, as mine are. I felt out of spirits for the first time since my arrival at the Abbey.
No one else appeared to feel the same influence. The elder ladies sat in a wide semicircle round one of the fireplaces in the drawing-room; a group of merry girls and dashing young men chatted gaily before the other. From the billiard-room there came the frequent clash of balls, and cheery peals of stentorian laughter. I sat in one of the deep windows, half hidden by the curtains, reading a novel-one of a boxful that came from town every month.
If the picture within was bright and cheerful, the prospect was dreary enough without. The fairy forest of snow-wreathed trees, the white valleys and undulating banks of snow, had vanished, and the rain dripped slowly and sullenly upon a darksome expanse of sodden grass, and a dismal background of leafless timber. The merry sound of the sledge-bells no longer enlivened the air; all was silence and gloom.
Edward Chrighton was not amongst the billiard-players; he was pacing the drawing-room to and fro from end to end, with an air that was at once moody and restless.
‘Thank heaven, the frost has broken up at last!’ he exclaimed, stopping in front of the window where I sat.
He had spoken to himself, quite unaware of my close neighbourhood. Unpromising as his aspect was just then, I ventured to accost him.
‘What bad taste, to prefer such weather as this to frost and snow!’ I answered. ‘The park looked enchanting yesterday-a real scene from fairyland. And only look at it today!’
‘O yes, of course, from an artistic point of view, the snow was better. The place does look something like the great dismal swamp today; but I am thinking of hunting, and that confounded frost made a day’s sport impossible. We are in for a spell of mild weather now, I think.’
‘But you are not going to hunt, are you, Edward?’
‘Indeed I am, my gentle cousin, in spite of that frightened look in your amiable countenance.
‘I thought there were no hounds hereabouts.’
‘Nor are there; but there is as fine a pack as any in the country – the Daleborough hounds-five-and-twenty miles away.’
‘And you are going five-and-twenty miles for the sake of a day’s run?’
‘I would travel forty, fifty, a hundred miles for that same diversion. But I am not going for a single day this time; I am going over to Sir Francis Wycherly’s place-young Frank Wycherly and I were sworn chums at Christchurch-for three or four days. I am due today, but I scarcely cared to travel by cross-country roads in such rain as this. However, if the floodgates of the sky are loosened for a new deluge, I must go tomorrow.’
‘What a headstrong young man!’ I exclaimed. ‘And what will Miss Tremaine say to this desertion?’ I asked in a lower voice.
‘Miss Tremaine can say whatever she pleases. She had it in her power to make me forget the pleasures of the chase, if she had chosen, though we had been in the heart of the shires, and the welkin ringing with the baying of hounds.’
‘O, I begin to understand. This hunting engagement is not of long standing.’
‘No; I began to find myself bored here a few days ago, and wrote to Frank to offer myself for two or three days at Wycherly. I received a most cordial answer by return, and am booked till the end of this week.’
‘You have not forgotten the ball on the first?’
‘O, no; to do that would be to vex my mother, and to offer a slight to our guests. I shall be here for the first, come what may.’
Come what may! so lightly spoken. The time came when I had bitter occasion to remember those words.
‘I’m afraid you will vex your mother by going at all,’ I said. ‘You know what a horror both she and your father have of hunting.’
‘A most un-country-gentleman-like aversion on my father’s part. But he is a dear old book-worm, seldom happy out of his library. Yes, I admit they both have a dislike to hunting in the abstract; but they know I am a pretty good rider, and that it would need a bigger country than I shall find about Wycherly to floor me. You need not feel nervous, my dear Sarah; I am not going to give papa and mamma the smallest ground for uneasiness.’
‘You will take your own horses, I suppose?’
‘That goes without saying. No man who has cattle of his own cares to mount another man’s horses. I shall take Pepperbox and the Druid.’
‘Pepperbox has a queer temper, I have heard your sisters say.’
‘My sisters expect a horse to be a kind of overgrown baa-lamb. Everything splendid in horseflesh and womankind is prone to that slight defect, an ugly temper. There is Miss Tremaine, for instance.’
‘I shall take Miss Tremaine’s part. I believe it is you who are in the wrong in the matter of this estrangement, Edward.’
‘Do you? Well, wrong or right, my cousin, until the fair Julia comes to me with sweet looks and gentle words, we can never be what we have been.’
‘You will return from your hunting expedition in a softer mood,’ I answered; ‘that is to say, if you persist in going. But I hope and believe you will change your mind.’
‘Such a change is not within the limits of possibility, Sarah. I am fixed as Fate.’
He strolled away, humming some gay hunting-song as he went. I was alone with Mrs Chrighton later in the afternoon, and she spoke to me about this intended visit to Wycherly.
‘Edward has set his heart upon it evidently,’ she said regretfully, ‘and his father and I have always made a point of avoiding anything that could seem like domestic tyranny. Our dear boy is such a good son, that it would be very hard if we came between him and his pleasures. You know what a morbid horror my husband has of the dangers of the hunting-field, and perhaps I am almost as weak-minded. But in spite of this we have never interfered with Edward’s enjoyment of a sport which he is passionately fond of and hitherto, thank God! he has escaped without a scratch. Yet I have had many a bitter hour, I can assure you, my dear, when my son has been away in Leicestershire hunting four days a week.’
‘He rides well, I suppose.’
‘Superbly. He has a great reputation among the sportsmen of our neighbourhood. I daresay when he is master of the Abbey he will start a pack of hounds, and revive the old days of his great-grandfather, Meredith Chrighton.’
‘I fancy the hounds were kenneled in the stable-yard below my bedroom window in those days, were they not, Fanny?’
‘Yes,’ Mrs Chrighton answered gravely; and I wondered at the sudden shadow that fell upon her face.
I went up to my room earlier than usual that afternoon, and I had a clear hour to spare before it would be time to dress for the seven o’clock dinner. This leisure hour I intended to devote to letter-writing; but on arriving in my room I found myself in a very idle frame of mind, and instead of opening my desk, I seated myself in the low easy-chair before the fire, and fell into a reverie.
How long I had been sitting there I scarcely know; I had been half meditating, half dozing, mixing broken snatches of thought with brief glimpses of dreaming, when I was startled into wakefulness by a sound that was strange to me.
It was a huntsman’s horn – a few low plaintive notes on a huntsman’s horn – notes which had a strange far-away sound, that was more unearthly than anything my ears had ever heard. I thought of the music in Der Freisckutz; but the weirdest snatch of melody Weber ever wrote had not so ghastly a sound as these few simple notes conveyed to my ear.
I stood transfixed, listening to that awful music. It had grown dusk, my fire was almost out, and the room in shadow. As I listened, a light flashed suddenly on the wall before me. The light was as unearthly as the sound – a light that never shone from earth or sky.
I ran to the window; for this ghastly shimmer flashed through the window upon the opposite wall. The great gates of the stable-yard were open, and men in scarlet coats were riding in, a pack of hounds crowding in before them, obedient to the huntsman’s whip. The whole scene was dimly visible by the declining light of the winter evening and the weird gleams of a lantern carried by one of the men. It was this lantern which had shone upon the tapestried wall. I saw the stable doors opened one after another; gentlemen and grooms alighting from their horses; the dogs driven into their kennel; the helpers hurrying to and fro; and that strange wan lantern-light glimmering here and there is the gathering dusk. But there was no sound of horse’s hoof or of human voices – not one yelp or cry from the hounds. Since those faint far-away sounds of the horn had died out in the distance, the ghastly silence had been unbroken.
I stood at my window quite calmly, and watched while the group of men and animals in the yard below noiselessly dispersed. There was nothing supernatural in the manner of their disappearance. The figures did not vanish or melt into empty air. One by one I saw the horses led into their separate quarters; one by one the redcoats strolled out of the gates, and the grooms departed, some one way, some another. The scene, but for its noiselessness, was natural enough; and had I been a stranger in the house, I might have fancied that those figures were real – those stables in full occupation.
But I knew that stable-yard and all its range of building to have been disused for more than half a century. Could I believe that, without an hour’s warning, the long-deserted quadrangle could be filled – the empty stalls tenanted?
Had some hunting-party from the neighbourhood sought shelter here, glad to escape the pitiless rain? That was not impossible, I thought. I was an utter unbeliever in all ghostly things – ready to credit any possibility rather than suppose that I had been looking upon shadows. And yet the noiselessness, the awful sound of that horn – the strange unearthly gleam of that lantern! Little superstitious as I might be, a cold sweat stood out upon my forehead, and I trembled in every limb.
For some minutes I stood by the window, statue-like, staring blankly into the empty quadrangle. Then I roused myself suddenly, and ran softly downstairs by a back staircase leading to the servants’ quarters, determined to solve the mystery somehow or other. The way to Mrs Marjorum’s room was familiar to me from old experience, and it was thither that I bent my steps, determined to ask the housekeeper the meaning of what I had seen. I had a lurking conviction that it would be well for me not to mention that scene to any member of the family till I had taken counsel with some one who knew the secrets of Chrighton Abbey.
I heard the sound of merry voices and laughter as I passed the kitchen and servants’ hall. Men and maids were all busy in the pleasant labour of decorating their rooms for the evening’s festival. They were puffing the last touches to garlands of holly and laurel, ivy and fir, as I passed the open doors; and in both rooms I saw tables laid for a substantial tea. The housekeeper’s room was in a retired nook at the end of a long passage – a charming old room, panelled with dark oak, and full of capacious cupboards, which in my childhood I had looked upon as storehouses of inexhaustible treasures in the way of preserves and other confectionery. It was a shady old room, with a wide old-fashioned fireplace, cool in summer, when the hearth was adorned with a great jar of roses and lavender; and warm in winter, when the logs burnt merrily all day long.
I opened the door softly, and went in. Mrs Marjorum was dozing in a high-backed arm-chair by the glowing hearth, dressed in her state gown of grey watered silk, and with a cap that was a perfect garden of roses. She opened her eyes as I approached her, and stared at me with a puzzled look for the first moment or so.
‘Why, is that you, Miss Sarah?’ she exclaimed; ‘and looking as pale as a ghost, I can see, even by this firelight! Let me just light a candle, and then I’ll get you some sal volatile. Sit down in my armchair, miss; why, I declare you’re all of a tremble!’
She put me into her easy-chair before I could resist, and lighted the two candles which stood ready upon her table, while I was trying to speak. My lips were dry, and it seemed at first as if my voice was gone.
‘Never mind the sal volatile, Marjorum,’ I said at last. ‘I am not ill; I’ve been startled, that’s all; and I’ve come to ask you for an explanation of the business that frightened me.’
‘What business, Miss Sarah?’
‘You must have heard something of it yourself, surely. Didn’t you hear a horn just now, a huntsman’s horn?’
‘A horn! Lord no, Miss Sarah. What ever could have put such a fancy into your head?’
I saw that Mrs Marjorum’s ruddy cheeks had suddenly lost their colour, that she was now almost as pale as I could have been myself.
‘It was no fancy,’ I said; ‘I heard the sound, and saw the people. A hunting-party has just taken shelter in the north quadrangle. Dogs and horses, and gentlemen and servants.’
‘What were they like, Miss Sarah?’ the housekeeper asked in a strange voice.
‘I can hardly tell you that. I could see that they wore red coats; and I could scarcely see more than that. Yes, I did get a glimpse of one of the gentlemen by the light of the lantern. A tall man, with grey hair and whiskers, and a stoop in his shoulders. I noticed that he wore a short waisted coat with a very high collar – a coat that looked a hundred years old.’
‘The old Squire!’ muttered Mrs Marjorum under her breath; and then turning to me, she said with a cheery resolute air, ‘You’ve been dreaming, Miss Sarah, that’s just what it is. You’ve dropped off in your chair before the fire, and had a dream, that’s it.’
‘No, Marjorum, it was no dream. The horn woke me, and I stood at my window and saw the dogs and huntsmen come in.’
‘Do you know, Miss Sarah, that the gates of the north quadrangle have been locked and barred for the last forty years, and that no one ever goes in there except through the house?’
‘The gates may have been opened this evening to give shelter to strangers,’ I said.
‘Not when the only keys that will open them hang yonder in my cupboard, miss,’ said the housekeeper, pointing to a corner of the room.
‘But I tell you, Marjorum, these people came into the quadrangle; the horses and dogs are in the stables and kennels at this moment. I’ll go and ask Mr Chrighton, or my cousin Fanny, or Edward, all about it, since you won’t tell me the truth.’
I said this with a purpose, and it answered. Mrs Marjorum caught me eagerly by the wrist.
‘No, miss, don’t do that; for pity’s sake don’t do that; don’t breathe a word to missus or master.’
‘But why not?’
‘Because you’ve seen that which always brings misfortune and sorrow to this house, Miss Sarah. You’ve seen the dead.’
‘What do you mean?’ I gasped, awed in spite of myself.
‘I daresay you’ve heard say that there’s been something seen at times at the Abbey – many years apart, thank God; for it never came that trouble didn’t come after it.’
‘Yes,’ I answered hurriedly; ‘but I could never get any one to tell me what it was that haunted this place.’
‘No, miss. Those that know have kept the secret. But you have seen it all tonight. There’s no use in trying to hide it from you any longer. You have seen the old Squire, Meredith Chrighton, whose eldest son was killed by a fall in the hunting-field, brought home dead one December night, an hour after his father and the rest of the party had come safe home to the Abbey. The old gentleman had missed his son in the field, but had thought nothing of that, fancying that master John had had enough of the day’s sport, and had turned his horse’s head homewards. He was found by a labouring-man, poor lad, lying in a ditch with his back broken, and his horse beside him staked. The old Squire never held his head up after that day, and never rode to hounds again, though he was passionately fond of hunting. Dogs and horses were sold, and the north quadrangle ham been empty from that day.’
‘How long is it since this kind of thing has been seen?’
‘A long time, miss. I was a slip of a girl when it last happened. It was in the winter-time – this very night – the night Squire Meredith’s son was killed; and the house was full of company, just as it is now. There was a wild young Oxford gentleman sleeping in your room at that time, and he saw the hunting-party come into the quadrangle; and what did he do but throw his window wide open, and give them the view-hallo as loud as ever he could. He had only arrived the day before, and knew nothing about the neighbourhood; so at dinner he began to ask where were his friends the sportsmen, and to hope he should be allowed to have a run with the Abbey hounds next day. It was in the time of our master’s father; and his lady at the head of the table turned as white as a sheet when she heard this talk. She had good reason, poor soul. Before the week was out her husband was lying dead. He was struck with a fit of apoplexy, and never spoke or knew anyone afterwards.’
‘An awful coincidence,’ I said; ‘but it may have been only a coincidence.’
‘I’ve heard other stories, miss – heard them from those that wouldn’t deceive – all proving the same thing: that the appearance of the old Squire and his pack is a warning of death to this house.’
‘I cannot believe these things,’ I exclaimed; ‘I cannot believe them. Does Mr Edward know anything about this?’
‘No, miss. His father and mother have been most careful that it should be kept from him.’
‘I think he is too strong-minded to be much affected by the fact,’ I said.
‘And you’ll not say anything about what you’ve seen to my master or my mistress, will you, Miss Sarah?’ pleaded the faithful old servant. ‘The knowledge of it would be sure to make them nervous and unhappy. And if evil is to come upon this house, it isn’t in human power to prevent its coming.’
‘God forbid that there is any evil at hand!’ I answered. ‘I am no believer in visions or omens. After all, I would sooner fancy that I was dreaming – dreaming with my eyes open as I stood at the window – than that I beheld the shadows of the dead.’
Mrs Marjorum sighed, and said nothing. I could see that she believed firmly in the phantom hunt.
I went back to my room to dress for dinner. However rationally I might try to think of what I had seen, its effect upon my mind and nerves was not the less powerful. I could think of nothing else; and a strange morbid dread of coming misery weighted me down like an actual burden.
There was a very cheerful party in the drawing-room when I went downstairs, and at dinner the talk and laughter were unceasing – but I could see that my cousin Fanny’s face was a little graver than usual, and I had no doubt she was thinking of her son’s intended visit to Wycherly.
At the thought of this a sudden terror flashed upon me. How if the shadows I had seen that evening were ominous of danger to him – to Edward, the heir and only son of the house? My heart grew cold as I thought of this, and yet in the next moment I despised myself for such weakness.
‘It is natural enough for an old servant to believe in such things,’ I said to myself; ‘but for me – an educated woman of the world – preposterous folly.’
And yet from that moment I began to puzzle myself in the endeavour to devise some means by which Edward’s journey might be prevented. Of my own influence I knew that I was powerless to hinder his departure by so much as an hour; but I fancied that Julia Tremaine could persuade him to any sacrifice of his inclination, if she could only humble her pride so far as to entreat it. I determined to appeal to her in the course of the evening.
We were very merry all that evening. The servants and their guests danced in the great hall, while we sat in the gallery above, and in little groups upon the staircase, watching their diversions. I think this arrangement afforded excellent opportunities for flirtation, and that the younger members of our party made good use of their chances – with one exception: Edward Chrighton and his affianced contrived to keep far away from each other all the evening.
While all was going on noisily in the hall below, I managed to get Miss Tremaine apart from the others in the embrasure of a painted window on the stairs, where there was a wide oaken seat. Seated here side by side, I described to her, under a promise of secrecy, the scene which I had witnessed that afternoon, and my conversation with Mrs Marjorum.
‘But, good gracious me, Miss Chrighton!’ the young lady exclaimed, lifting her pencilled eyebrows with unconcealed disdain, ‘you don’t mean to tell me that you believe in such nonsense – ghosts and omens, and old woman’s folly like that!’
‘I assure you, Miss Tremaine, it is most difficult for me to believe in the supernatural,’ I answered earnestly; ‘but that which I saw this evening was something more than human. The thought of it has made me very unhappy; and I cannot help connecting it somehow with my cousin Edward’s visit to Wycherly. If I had the power to prevent his going, I would do it at any cost; but I have not. You alone have influence enough for that. For heaven’s sake use it! do anything to hinder his hunting with the Daleborough hounds.’
‘You would have me humiliate myself by asking him to forgo his pleasure, and that after his conduct to me during the last week?’
‘I confess that he has done much to offend you. But you love him, Miss Tremaine, though you are too proud to let your love be seen:
I am certain that you do love him. For pity’s sake speak to him; do not let him hazard his life, when a few words from you may prevent the danger.’
‘I don’t believe he would give up this visit to please me,’ she answered; ‘and I shall certainly not put it in his power to humiliate me by a refusal. Besides, all this fear of yours is such utter nonsense. As if nobody had ever hunted before. My brothers hunt four times a week every winter, and not one of them has ever been the worse for it yet.
I did not give up the attempt lightly. I pleaded with this proud obstinate girl for a long time, as long as I could induce her to listen to me; but it was all in vain. She stuck to her text – no one should persuade her to degrade herself by asking a favour of Edward Chrighton. He had chosen to hold himself aloof from her, and she would show him that she could live without him. When she left Chrighton Abbey, they would part as strangers.
So the night closed, and at breakfast next morning I heard that Edward had started for Wycherly soon after daybreak. His absence made, for me at least, a sad blank in our circle. For one other also, I think; for Miss Tremaine’s fair proud face was very pale, though she tried to seem gayer than usual, and exerted herself in quite an unaccustomed manner in her endeavour to be agreeable to everyone.
The days passed slowly for me after my cousin’s departure. There was a weight upon my mind, a vague anxiety, which I struggled in vain to shake off. The house, full as it was of pleasant people, seemed to me to have become dull and dreary now that Edward was gone. The place where he had sat appeared always vacant to my eyes, though another filled it, and there was no gap on either side of the long dinner-table. Lighthearted young men still made the billiard-room resonant with their laughter; merry girls flirted as gaily as ever, undisturbed in the smallest degree by the absence of the heir of the house. Yet for me all was changed. A morbid fancy had taken complete possession of me. I found myself continually brooding over the housekeeper’s words; those words which had told me that the shadows I had seen boded death and sorrow to the house of Chrighton.
My cousins, Sophy and Agnes, were no more concerned about their brother’s welfare than were their guests. They were full of excitement about the New-Year’s ball, which was to be a very grand affair. Every one of importance within fifty miles was to be present, every nook and corner of the Abbey would be filled with visitors coming from a great distance, while others were to be billeted upon the better class of tenantry round about. Altogether the organization of this affair was no small business; and Mrs Chrighton’s mornings were broken by discussions with the housekeeper, messages from the cook, interviews with the head-gardener on the subject of floral decorations, and other details, which all alike demanded the attention of the chatelaine herself. With these duties, and with the claims of her numerous guests, my cousin Fanny’s time was so fully occupied, that she had little leisure to indulge in anxious feelings about her son, whatever secret uneasiness may have been lurking in her maternal heart. As for the master of the Abbey, he spent so much of his time in the library, where, under the pretext of business with his bailiff, he read Greek, that it was not easy for any one to discover what he did feel. Once, and once only, I heard him speak of his son, in a tone that betrayed an intense eagerness for his return.
The girls were to have new dresses from a French milliner in Wigmore Street; and as the great event drew near, bulky packages of millinery were continually arriving, and feminine consultations and expositions of finery were being held all day long in bedrooms and dressing-rooms with closed doors. Thus, with a mind always troubled by the same dark shapeless foreboding, I was perpetually being called upon to give an opinion about pink tulle and lilies of the valley, or maize silk and apple-blossoms.
New-Year’s morning came at last, after an interval of abnormal length, as it seemed to me. It was a bright clear day, an almost spring-like sunshine lighting up the leafless landscape. The great dining-room was noisy with congratulations and good wishes as we assembled for breakfast on this first morning of a new year, after having seen the old one out cheerily the night before; but Edward had not yet returned, and I missed him sadly. Some touch of sympathy drew me to the side of Julia Tremaine on this particular morning. I had watched her very often during the last few days, and I had seen that her cheek grew paler every day. Today her eyes had the dull heavy look that betokens a sleepless night. Yes, I was sure that she was unhappy – that the proud relentless nature suffered bitterly.
‘He must be home today,’ I said to her in a low voice, as she sat in stately silence before an untasted breakfast.
‘Who must?’ she answered, turning towards me with a cold distant look.
‘My cousin Edward. You know he promised to be back in time for the ball.’
‘I know nothing of Mr Chrighton’s intended movements,’ she said in her haughtiest tone; ‘but of course it is only natural that he should be here tonight. He would scarcely care to insult half the county by his absence, however little he may value those now staying in his father’s house.’
‘But you know that there is one here whom he does value better than any one else in the world, Miss Tremaine,’ I answered, anxious to soothe this proud girl.
‘I know nothing of the kind. But why do you speak so solemnly about his return? He will come, of course. There is no reason he should not come.’
She spoke in a rapid manner that was strange to her, and looked at me with a sharp enquiring glance, that touched me somehow, it was so unlike herself – it revealed to me so keen an anxiety.
‘No, there is no reasonable cause for anything like uneasiness,’ I said; ‘but you remember what I told you the other night. That has preyed upon my mind, and it will be an unspeakable relief to me when I see my cousin safe at home.’
‘I am sorry that you should indulge in such weakness, Miss Chrighton.’ That was all she said; but when I saw her in the drawing-room after breakfast, she had established herself in a window tat commanded a view of the long winding drive leading to the front of the Abbey. From this point she could not fail to see anyone approaching the house. She sat there all day; everyone else was more or less busy with arrangements for the evening, or at any rate occupied wit an appearance of business; but Julia Tremaine kept her place by the window, pleading a headache as an excuse for sitting still, with a book in her hand, all day, yet obstinately refusing to go to her room and lie down, when her mother entreated her to do so.
‘You will be fit for nothing tonight, Julia,’ Mrs Tremaine said, almost angrily; ‘you have been looking ill for ever so long, and today you are as pale as a ghost.’
I knew that she was watching for him; and I pitied her with all my heart, as the day wore itself out, and he did not come.
We dined earlier than usual, played a game or two of billiards after dinner, made a tour of inspection trough the bright rooms, lit with wax-candles only, and odorous with exotics; and then came a long interregnum devoted to the arts and mysteries of the toilet; while maids flitted to and fro laden with frilled muslin petticoats from the laundry, and a faint smell of singed hair pervaded the corridors. At ten o’clock the band were tuning their violins, and pretty girls and elegant-looking men were coming slowly down the broad oak staircase, as the roll of fast-coming wheels sounded louder without, and stentorian voices announced the best people in the county.
I have no need to dwell long upon the details of that evening’s festival. It was very much like other balls – a brilliant success, a night of splendour and enchantment for those whose hearts were light and happy, and who could abandon themselves utterly to the pleasure of the moment; a far-away picture of fair faces and bright-hued dresses, a wearisome kaleidoscopic procession of form and colour for those whose minds were weighed down with the burden of a hidden care.
For me the music had no melody, the dazzling scene no charm. Hour after hour went by; supper was over, and the waltzers were enjoying those latest dances which always seem the most delightful, and yet Edward Chrighton had not appeared amongst us.
There had been innumerable enquiries about him, and Mrs Chrighton had apologized for his absence as best she might. Poor soul, I well knew that his non-return was now a source of poignant anxiety to her, although she greeted all her guests with the same gracious smile, and was able to talk gaily and well upon every subject. Once, when she was sitting alone for a few minutes, watching the dancers, I saw the smile fade from her face, and a look of anguish come over it. I ventured to approach her at this moment, and never shall I forget the look which she turned towards me.
‘My son, Sarah!’ she said in a low voice – ‘something has happened to my son!’
I did my best to comfort her; but my own heart was growing heavier and heavier, and my attempt was a very poor one.
Julia Tremaine had danced a little at the beginning of the evening, to keep up appearances, I believe, in order that no one might suppose that she was distressed by her lover’s absence; but after the first two or three dances she pronounced herself tired, and withdrew to a seat amongst the matrons. She was looking very lovely in spite of her extreme pallor, dressed in white tulle, a perfect cloud of airy puffings, and with a wreath of ivy-leaves and diamonds crowning her pale golden hair.
The night waned, the dancers were revolving in the last waltz, when I happened to look towards the doorway at the end of the room. I was startled by seeing a man standing there, with his hat in his hand, not in evening costume; a man with a pale anxious-looking face, peering cautiously into the room. My first thought was of evil; but in the next moment the man had disappeared, and I saw no more of him.
I lingered by my cousin Fanny’s side till the rooms were empty. Even Sophy and Aggy had gone off to their own apartments, their airy dresses sadly dilapidated by a night’s vigorous dancing. There were only Mr and Mrs Chrighton and myself in the long suite of rooms, where the flowers were drooping and the wax-lights dying out one by one in the silver sconces against the walls.
‘I think the evening went off very well,’ Fanny said, looking rather anxiously at her husband, who was stretching himself and yawning with an air of intense relief.
‘Yes, the affair went off well enough. But Edward has committed a terrible breach of manners by not being here. Upon my word, the young men of the present day think of nothing but their own pleasures. I suppose that something especially attractive was going on at Wycherly today, and he couldn’t tear himself away.’
‘It is so unlike him to break his word,’ Mrs Chrighton answered. ‘You are not alarmed, Frederick? You don’t think that anything has happened – any accident?’
‘What should happen? Ned is one of the best riders in the county. I don’t think there’s any fear of his coming to grief.’
‘He might be ill.’
‘Not he. He’s a young Hercules. And if it were possible for him to be ill – which it is not – we should have had a message from Wycherly.’
The words were scarcely spoken when Truefold the old butler stood by his master’s side, with a solemn anxious face.
‘There is a – a person who wishes to see you, sir,’ he said in a low voice, ‘alone.’
Low as the words were, both Fanny and myself heard them.
‘Someone from Wycherly?’ she exclaimed. ‘Let him come here.’
‘But, madam, the person most particularly wished to see master alone. Shall I show him into the library, sir? The lights are not out there.’
‘Then it is someone from Wycherly,’ said my cousin, seizing my wrist with a hand that was icy cold. ‘Didn’t I tell you so, Sarah? Something has happened to my son. Let the person come here, Truefold, here; I insist upon it.’
The tone of command was quite strange in a wife who was always deferential to her husband, in a mistress who was ever gentle to her servants.
‘Let it be so, Truefold,’ said Mr Chrighton. ‘Whatever ill news has come to us we will hear together.’
He put his arm round his wife’s waist. Both were pale as marble, both stood in stony stillness waiting for the blow that was to fall upon them.
The stranger, the man I had seen in the doorway, came in. He was curate of Wycherly church, and chaplain to Sir Francis Wycherly; a grave middle-aged man. He told what he had to tell with all kindness, with all the usual forms of consolation which Christianity and an experience of sorrow could suggest. Vain words, wasted trouble. The blow must fall, and earthly consolation was unable to lighten it by a feather’s weight.
There had been a steeplechase at Wycherly – an amateur affair with gentlemen riders – on that bright New-Year’s-day, and Edward Chrighton had been persuaded to ride his favourite hunter Pepperbox. There would be plenty of time for him to return to Chrighton after the races. He had consented; and his horse was winning easily, when, at the last fence, a double one, with water beyond, Pepperbox baulked his leap, and went over head-foremost, flinging his rider over a hedge into a field close beside the course, where there was a heavy stone roller. Upon this stone roller Edward Chrighton had fallen, his head receiving the full force of the concussion. All was told. It was while the curate was relating the fatal catastrophe that I looked round suddenly, and saw Julia Tremaine standing a little way behind the speaker. She had heard all; she uttered no cry, she showed no signs of fainting, but stood calm and motionless, waiting for the end.
I know not how that night ended: there seemed an awful calm upon us all. A carriage was got ready, and Mr and Mrs Chrighton started for Wycherly to look upon their dead son. He had died while they were carrying him from the course to Sir Francis’s house. I went with Julia Tremaine to her room, and sat with her while the winter morning dawned slowly upon us – a bitter dawning.
I have little more to tell. Life goes on, though hearts are broken. Upon Chrighton Abbey there came a dreary time of desolation. The master of the house lived in his library, shut from the outer world, buried almost as completely as a hermit in his cell. I have heard that Julia Tremaine was never known to smile after that day. She is still unmarried, and lives entirely at her father’s country house; proud and reserved in her conduct to her equals, but a very angel of mercy and compassion amongst the poor of the neighbourhood. Yes; this haughty girl, who once declared herself unable to endure the hovels of the poor, is now a Sister of Charity in all but the robe. So does a great sorrow change the current of a woman’s life.
I have seen my cousin Fanny many times since that awful New-Year’s night; for I have always the same welcome at the Abbey. I have seen her calm and cheerful, doing her duty, smiling upon her daughter’s children, the honoured mistress of a great household; but I know that the mainspring of life is broken, that for her there hath passed a glory from the earth, and that upon all the pleasures and joys of this world she looks with the solemn calm of one for whom all things are dark with the shadow of a great sorrow.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 — 1915)