• Chapter I
• Chapter II
• Chapter III
• Chapter IV
• Chapter V
• Chapter VI
• Chapter VII
• Chapter VIII
• Chapter IX
• Chapter X
• Chapter XI
• Chapter XII
• Chapter XIII
• Chapter XIV
• Chapter XV
• Chapter XVI
• Chapter XVII
• Chapter XVIII
• Chapter XIX
• Chapter XX
Mrs Barlow was extremely surprised to hear an iron tongue striking impatiently into the night, for she guessed this sound to be the clang of the great bell which hung over the main entrance to Holcot Grange; it was not the small bell which tinkled feebly over the side entrance that she and the other servants used.
The house had been uninhabited for two generations. It was well off the road nor was any traveller likely to pass...The imperious summons was repeated; Mrs Barlow huddled on her clothes.
'I wonder when that sounded last?' she thought nervously, and, for company, she tried to rouse Grace, the maid who shared her room. But Grace was a country girl and slept as soundly as an exhausted animal. So Mrs Barlow took up the lantern she had lit with trembling fingers. The moonlight was bright without, but she had to go through the shuttered portion of the house, along the left wing of Holcot Grange; she reached the front door and came out into the quadrangle as the bell rang a third time. The moonlight was very bright. The seven gables of the Grange were picked out sharply against a sky that dazzled with silver radiance. The moon itself hung above the old elms beyond, where the doves had made a deep cooing all day, but which now held only silence in their boughs.
Mrs Barlow was not much comforted by this dazzle of moonlight which she always considered an unwholesome and unnatural illumination.
She hastened across the courtyard, keeping on her slippers with difficulty, and firmly holding the lit lantern, which gave a coarse yellow flame amid all the heavenly silver.
The entrance to Holcot Grange, which had not been opened for near half a century, was very magnificent. Two pillars held trophies of arms and garlands. The moonlight glistened on the white stone of these and made them appear as if they were covered with snow crystals, the gates between were of exquisitely hammered iron.
Through the sharp black design Mrs Barlow could see a man holding a horse. The beast appeared weary, the man full of energy; with a useless gesture of impatience he struck with a glove on the iron grille and then, although he must have seen Mrs Barlow approaching, pulled again at the iron chain connected with the great bell that hung to one side of the gates.
'I wonder how he's found it,' grumbled Mrs Barlow. She felt nervous and apprehensive of danger and called out (her own voice sounded thin and strange to her in the silence):
'Who are you, sir, and what do you want here? You must have sadly mistook your way!'
A man's voice that had the rough hoarseness which comes from one who has been silent for hours, replied:
'This is Holcot Grange, is it not?'
'Then it is the place I want.' And, in an agony of impatience (with wrath, too, Mrs Barlow feared), he added: 'Whoever you are, open to me, and at once!'
'I must know your business,' she trembled. She tried to make out his person and his features, but this was impossible, the moonlight was behind him, he was but a black shape. The animal, she could see, was weary, its head hung down and its motionless limbs and heaving body were steaming.
'I will tell you my business when I'm the other side of the gates.'
Mrs Barlow had been trained from a child to obey her superiors, and this man was plainly her superior. She had caught up her keys with her; she prided herself on never allowing these out of her sight, and among them, well polished and oiled but never used, was the key of the main gate.
She turned this stiffly in the ward with a trembling hand, while the man without continually urged haste and as soon as the gate was forced on its rusty hinges, pushed through without ceremony. If Mrs Barlow had been surprised by being roused in the middle of the night at a summons on the main gate of the deserted Grange, she was still more terribly surprised at the personage whom she had admitted, who was no less, her bulging eyes assured her, than the Devil himself.
The lantern fell from her hand, then crashed on the cobbles, and she would have shrieked had not the terrible guest at once put his hand over her mouth, bidding her, in the lewd and abominable terms she might have expected from such a character, to be silent.
'Who are you?' she stammered through his fingers, which was very foolish as she knew well enough that only one person could own such infernal insignia. Under his light, summer travelling cloak she could discern a tail which trailed on the ground as he walked. The hoofs she could not see, but then he wore hoggers, or riding boots, which might well have concealed such a deformity. The two points on his head which she had noticed with faint terror through the gate, she had thought and hoped to be feathers, or some outlandish ornamentation, but they were certainly horns.
For the rest, all she could see of his clothes was a tatter of red.
His face was smooth, hideous, expressionless, and a glittering yellow.
'Who am I?' he answered angrily, in reply to her quavering question, 'I am your master. I have come home. Go in and prepare a bed and a meal for me. And who is there to look after my horse?'
Mrs Barlow, though ready to swoon with fright, contrived a defiance to the powers of darkness.
'You're no master of mine,' she stammered. 'I've been a God-fearing Christian ever since I could talk.'
He had taken his hand from her mouth and stared at her with those glassy, unnatural eyes in such a threatening fashion that she began to moan, and added in a tone of complete surrender:
'I'll rouse Jack and tell him to look after your horse.'
'I perceive you are a fool,' he answered, 'and that nothing is to be got from you,' he then turned away and walked towards the house.
Mrs Barlow stared after him, black and red in the moonlight as he crossed the quadrangle. She had left the great front doors open behind her and he passed into the house and closed them.
'Oh dear, oh Lord, I have let the Devil into the house! The Devil has shut himself into the house!' whimpered Mrs Barlow.
Great as was this misfortune, she felt a certain relief at being rid of his actual presence, and the sight of the poor tired horse standing dejectedly beyond the gates, restored a little of her common sense and her courage. If the rider had come from the infernal regions, the horse at least seemed ordinary flesh and blood.
Mrs Barlow went out of the gates that she had never passed through before, closed them behind her, and taking the bridle of the weary animal led it round the Grange to the side gate, passed through this postern into the parts familiar to herself where she lived with her fellow servants, Grace and Jenny, in an irregular pile of outbuildings which had been built on the back of the Grange. There were stables here and the stable boy slept above those occupied by the two horses used by the men-servants.
With tears and cries and lamentations Mrs Barlow roused this youth, who presently came down the ladder, dragging on his smock and pulling at the straps of his leggings, with straw in his hair and horror in his eyes, for Mrs Barlow kept on repeating that the Devil had gone into the Grange, she had let him in with her own hand—the Devil and no one else, tail and horns and all...
But the boy looked at the horse.
'That's an ordinary animal,' he said, 'and has been ridden fast and bad and a good many miles too.'
'Well, I hope,' cried Mrs Barlow, 'that Hell is a long way off! I wouldn't like to think it were just round the corner.'
'But it's not much of a bit of horseflesh for the Devil to be riding,' remarked Jack with slow shrewdness. 'Why, it's just an ordinary post hack, hired at some stage inn.'
'I don't care what it is, the Devil was riding it and he's gone into the house!'
'Gone into the Grange!'
The youth was plainly awed. Neither he nor Mrs Barlow could remember when anyone had been in the Grange before, save the servants when they went to clean and repair.
'Yes, he went into the Grange, through the great gate and through the front door, and he's there now. You had better take up a lantern and come with me, Jack, and look for him, from room to room. It's our plain duty to do so.'
But the boy never gave this proposal even a second's consideration. He shook his head resolutely.
'I'll look after the horse, but I won't come into the Grange with you, Mrs Barlow, not if it meant losing my place.'
The housekeeper wrung her hands, torn between a very reasonable and bitter fear and a keen, honest sense of duty.
'What shall I do?' she kept saying in a foolish fashion, her goggling eyes staring at the boy, as he put the horse in the stable and unharnessed it.
'If I were you I'd go and ask the advice of Miss Julia Roseingrave,' suggested the lad. 'She's clever. She'll be able to tell you if you're dreaming, or if it's all just moonshine, and I shouldn't be surprised if she didn't mind going with you and searching over the Grange.'
With that, Jack, grinning, closed the stable door.
Mrs Barlow followed his advice. She had a great respect both for the courage and the judgment of Miss Julia Roseingrave.
So she set off, very panting and exhausted, along the path under the chestnut trees to the Dower House where Miss Roseingrave lived with her mother and her sister Phoebe. The housekeeper had begun to hope by now that she might have been dreaming or suffering from some horrible hallucination. The grinning incredulity of Jack had somewhat restored her equanimity. At the same time Jack had refused to go into the Grange with her, and as a proof that something tangible had arrived that night there was the exhausted, sweating horse.
The estate was small. The Dower House was not much more than a large cottage, nor was it far from the Grange. The familiar sight of the plain, brick front, with honeysuckles growing over the porch, and the pretty rose-pink curtains showing in the moonlight gave Mrs Barlow fresh heart.
She knocked at the door, and an upper window was instantly opened. Julia Roseingrave was always on the alert, and her neat, graceful head and shoulders looked out, as her dark eyes were turned on Mrs Barlow.
'Why, Mrs Barlow! At this time of night? It is very late, is it not?'
'Oh, Miss Julia, if you would come down and allow me to speak to you!'
'Certainly, I shall come down. But is it so important? Cannot you tell me now?'
'It's only this,' said poor Mrs Barlow, 'I believe I've let the Devil into the Grange.'
Julia Roseingrave laughed.
'Indeed Mrs Barlow, that would be very interesting, after you have had no company for so long to be thus honoured! Pray, tell me all about it.'
'Oh, Miss Julia, I knew you would mock me, but someone came up tonight, there's his horse in the stable now and young Jack attending to it. And I opened the great gates that have never been opened before. At least, not that I can remember, nor anyone else that I know, and the front door, too, and he passed straight in.'
'Some traveller,' said Miss Julia coolly. 'Don't talk too much and too loud, Mrs Barlow, you will wake my mother. I shall be down directly.'
The housekeeper was instantly silent, she was rather afraid of Miss Julia, but she admired and respected her very much.
In a very short while Miss Julia was down and had opened the door. She held a candle in her hand which showed her very neatly arrayed in a dimity gown, her hair very smoothly combed, her buckled shoes on her feet; she seemed never to be taken by surprise. Mrs Barlow followed her into the small parlour where everything was fair and orderly.
'Now, Mrs Barlow, pray tell me this strange tale.'
Mrs Barlow obeyed, and when she had finished her breathless recital, Miss Julia did not laugh or mock, but said pleasantly:
'It is clear that someone has gone into the Grange, and someone who has no business to be there. Of course, it is nonsense about it being the Devil, and, of course, we must go and see who it is. You say that Jack would not go, and of course, neither of the maids would. And there's nobody else, is there?'
Mrs Barlow shook her head. There would be nobody else at Holcot Grange till the morning, when the gardener and two other men who worked there would come up from the village for their day's work.
'Well, I shall go,' said Julia Roseingrave, 'if you will stay here, Mrs Barlow, in case my mother or my sister wake. You know that they must never be left alone.'
Mrs Barlow knew. Miss Julia's mother was a paralytic, and her sister Phoebe was an imbecile. But she made a protest against the young woman undertaking such a dangerous expedition as that she proposed, to the deserted Grange where the Devil had certainly taken up his night's lodging. But her protests were not very vehement, for she really thought this a good solution of the problem. She did not want to go to the Grange herself, she did not know anybody else who would go, and yet she was very willing to have the mystery solved as soon as possible. She also knew that Julia Roseingrave was completely without fear; never had she seen her in the least discomposed nor put out by any person, so she agreed to stay with the two invalids in the Dower House while Julia Roseingrave, putting a light shawl over her shoulders and taking Mrs Barlow's keys in her hand, set off through the moonlight under the chestnut trees towards the Grange.
She could have found her way there in the dark, for she had been a very young child when she had first come to live at the Dower House, and she was now a woman of twenty-seven.
As she proceeded directly, but without haste, on this strange errand, she turned over in her mind the nonsensical story of the housekeeper, which she thought the more striking, because she had always found the woman sensible and quiet, not given to either hysterics or romancing. Some traveller, she decided, whose fantastic appearance had deceived the good woman...'But why should there be a traveller going past Holcot Grange?—for the road leads nowhere, and who could have had the impertinence to force his way in thus without an explanation?...leaving poor Mrs Barlow in such a fright.'
The housekeeper's last injunction to her, whispered from under the honeysuckle-leaved porch of the Dower House had been that she must surely rouse Jack or get Grace or the other maid to go with her for company, but Miss Julia Roseingrave never gave this advice a thought. She did not wish to be embarrassed by the company of fools or rustics. The adventure was in her own hands, where she wished to keep it. She was indeed afraid of nothing.
'The house is under a curse,' Mrs Barlow had quavered.
Julia Roseingrave was not afraid of that menace either. The fancy also took her to enter the Grange by the front entrance. She had been into the house but very seldom, and only on those occasions when the servants were cleaning. There had been always a sort of understanding that she was not to go into the house, and Mrs Barlow had tacitly given her to understand that she would not very readily give her the keys. So there were many rooms and many things in the house which Miss Julia Roseingrave had never seen and which she had a rather lively curiosity to see. It pleased her, too, to enter by the great gates which she had always seen chained and then through the big main doors always kept closed. The house was not very large nor very magnificent, but it was the largest and most magnificent that she had ever seen. For years she had envied the owner of Holcot Grange.
So, skirting the outbuildings where the servants lodged, the stables and, beyond, the disused chapel, she went leisurely round to the front of the house. The iron gates were closed. She unlocked them with a pleasurable sensation of power and passed into the moonlit quadrangle. The whole house was clear before her and she studied it intently. There was no light in any of the windows; the gables rose sharply against the moonlight-filled sky. A faint night breeze rustled in the tops of the elms; her own shadow and the design of the gate lay black before her on the cobbles, which were bleached to the look of marble by the moonlight.
No house could have seemed more blank and silent than did the Grange. 'The foolish woman imagined it all,' thought Julia Roseingrave with a feeling of disappointment.
She went up to the front door and after some difficulty found the right key and entered. Then in the hall she lit the candle, on the plain stick, that she had brought with her...the stairs were directly before her; leading up into darkness.
She listened. There was no sound, except, after she had stood still a considerable while, the scuttle of a mouse in the wainscoting.
'If there were indeed anyone here and he is as tired as his horse is said to be, he would have gone upstairs to rest, I suppose.'
And resolutely holding her candle aloft Miss Julia Roseingrave mounted the stairs.
'The Devil, I suppose, would choose the finest apartments.'
She remembered the largest bedroom that had always been used by the master of Holcot Grange, when it had had a master. She turned to that and opened the door.
The room was fully furnished, and like the rest of the house kept in tolerable repair; Mrs Barlow fulfilled her duties conscientiously; the two maids had nothing else to do but to keep repaired, darned and cleaned, the hangings and the furniture of the deserted house.
Shielding her light with a delicate hand Julia Roseingrave entered the room and softly closed the door behind her. There were long curtains of green rep to the bed and these were half pulled back. The shutters were closed and there was no sign of disarray in the room, but the young woman sensed that someone was lying in the bed.
With a steady hand she pulled back the sage-green curtains, and saw extended there in a deep slumber, the figure that had so affrighted Mrs Barlow—a man in a tattered carnival dress of scarlet was lying stretched on the hangings which Mrs Barlow kept rolled up in the bed. The tufted tail which the housekeeper had found so affrighting now looked ridiculous and even pitiful, trailing across the relaxed limbs.
The man had not even pulled off his boots. His dusty cloak still hung from his shoulders and he had loosened but not removed a mask of light gilded wood with holes for lips and eyes, and which still partially covered his face—a hood with crumpled cardboard horns lay beneath his head.
Julia Roseingrave stared at this stranger in a rapt curiosity. She wondered where he could have come from...For miles around the monotonous countryside afforded no more than a few sheep farms. She knew of no house where people were rich enough and idle enough to amuse themselves by dressing up as devils.
With a delicate and adroit hand she pulled aside the mask, and looked at the stranger's features. His face was peculiar and to some tastes handsome. In his slumber it twitched as if in the spasm of some half-spent passion or the feverish dreams of over-exhaustion. He was dark, and his curls, very rich and full, were pressed into the hood with the trumpery cardboard horns. He did not look the thoughtless fool that his disguise and his strange entrance to Holcot Grange might have shown him to be.
Miss Julia Roseingrave supposed that he was drunk. He was powerful and a small sword and a case of travelling pistols lay beside him on the bed. She knew it might very likely be dangerous to rouse him, but she did not hesitate.
Carefully placing her candle on a tall table by the bedside she bent over the sleeper, and, using more force than her fine hands seemed capable of, took him by the shoulders, commanding him, at the same time, in a low, tense voice, to wake up and tell her his business in Holcot Grange.
After a while he did stir, with a sigh and a groan as one who surrenders with reluctance a hard-won repose. She continued to shake him and adjure him. He sat up in the bed and opened his eyes which were swollen and bloodshot, but of a deep blue that she instantly admired.
'Who are you? Perhaps you do not even know who you are?' she asked, 'and what are you doing here? You frightened poor Mrs Barlow, the housekeeper, very much with your foolish costume, and your forcing of your way here in the middle of the night.'
He set his teeth at her with a mechanical ferocity, not meant, she thought, for her at all, but for some personage out of the episode which had sent him flying through the dark to shelter.
'Do not be foolish,' she said coldly, 'explain yourself. This is not an inn nor the house of any friend of yours.'
He seemed, by then, to have some little sense of his situation. He looked at the young woman and then beyond her at as much of the room as the candle light allowed him to see.
'To whom does this house belong?' he asked, and his voice, though still hoarse, was steady. She believed that she had made a mistake when she assumed him to be drunk for the man seemed sober enough.
'The house belongs to Sir William Notley,' she said. 'He has never been here in all his life. No, nor his father, neither. Sir William has many finer and larger estates.'
The stranger smiled. He seemed now to be alert. Miss Julia Roseingrave liked the way in which he was studying her and her neat charms. To allow him to prolong his scrutiny, she lengthened her conversation, telling him unnecessarily:
'Sir William never comes here. He is a very wealthy man. This place is lonely, desolate, old-fashioned, but he pays to have it kept up. It is supposed to be under a curse, nobody lives in it at all. I don't think till Mrs Barlow, in her fright, opened to you tonight, that the front door and gates have been unlocked for half a century.'
Then, her curiosity proving stronger than the pleasure she found in the stare of the handsome young man, she asked quickly:
'Who are you and where did you come from? I don't know anyone for miles round here who would be holding carnival!'
'Pray,' said he, rising stiffly to his feet as if he suddenly remembered some courtesy, 'who are you thus to question me?'
'Well, if you want to know that, I'm Julia Roseingrave.'
'And what right have you in this house which you say the owner has not inhabited for all his life?'
'I live in the Dower House,' said Miss Roseingrave, 'with my mother and my sister. My mother is a distant cousin of Sir William's father. It was he, of his charity, when we were quite ruined, who allowed us the Dower House. Sir William has not withdrawn that favour, so there we have been for twenty years. Tonight, Mrs Barlow, that is the housekeeper who admitted you, came running to me to tell me she had let the Devil into Holcot Grange.'
'And you came by yourself to investigate if that were true or no?'
'Why, certainly. Do you think we get so many excitements here that I could let that one pass?'
The young man leant against the bed pillar. His interest in her, which seemed to have flared up so suddenly, had suddenly sunk down; he was again overpowered by fatigue. He seemed indeed near swooning.
'I will see you in the morning,' he said. 'Pray do me the kindness to give orders from me to that foolish woman who admitted me, that the house is to be opened and aired. The house is mine though I have never been here before.'
'You are Sir William Notley?' she asked very quick and peering.
'I am he, Miss Roseingrave, and I shall stay here for a while. I have a good reason for that and a good reason for coming here suddenly. Good night, cousin.'
Then he threw himself down again on the rolled up coverlet, smiling in his tattered devil's finery. The young woman thought instantly:
'Mr Morley, the steward, who lives over at Griffinshaws, will know if this is he or no. Meanwhile it were best that I accepted his tale.'
So she said, still composed, but pale:
'It is a very strange home-coming, Sir William, and you must forgive us if we mistook you. Will you not have another bed prepared, it can be done in a little while?'
'I have ridden from London, only stopping to change horses, and I could sleep on a board.'
'Good night, then, cousin, I will see you, perhaps, in the morning.'
She took up her candle daintily and left him.
In this strange fashion Miss Julia Roseingrave and Sir William Notley first met.
When the young man woke it was well past noon on a perfect summer day and the room full of a dull brownish light which filtered through the joints in the shutters, in each of which blazed a small mock sun through the round aperture in the wood.
Sir William looked at his strange bed, his pillow of rolled tapestries, his mattress of grey serges and holland covers, and sat up, pulled aside the sage-green curtains and stared about him. He could not, for a while, remember where he was, but he remembered perfectly where he had come from—the masquerade, the brawl, the murder, the flight into the night, the advice given by the friend who had clung to his bridle even as he was starting.
'Why don't you go to Holcot Grange? Nobody will look for you there! You will be your own master. It will blow over in a week or so.'
Yes, he could remember that, and the ride, and the change of horses at the post-house...they had been very glad to take the beautiful but exhausted horse from the young gentleman in his carnival dress who was riding, he said, for a wager, and to give him in exchange the post hack which had brought him to Holcot Grange...
Holcot Grange! That, then, was where he was now...
He sat up and put his aching head into his hands, and remembered the woman who had roused him in the middle of the night. She, surely, was a dream, but he recalled the name she had given him—Julia Roseingrave—an extraordinary name. Surely he had heard it before? She had been unlike any other woman he had ever seen, and his fine taste in gallantry dwelt on her with zest. So cool and self-possessed she was, so dark of hair and eye, and yet so pale of skin, very erect, neat figured and small boned, with hands that were very delicate and yet strong enough to rouse him by shaking his shoulder. He could recall her dress laced so tightly round the waist...little sprigs of roses all over it. There had been something not altogether pleasant in the steady look of her drowsy black eyes. She had been readier with her speech than he cared for in a woman. What had the woman been like for whom that sudden blood had flown at the masquerade? He could scarcely remember.
He rose and looked down with disgust at the painted mask lying on the bed, and then at his own ragged and tattered scarlet suit, the fantastic boots of painted leather; he did not believe that he would ever wear a masquerade dress again. Never in his life before had he been without a body servant. He stood helpless, without clothes, without service, and then impatiently pulled off the tawdry scarlet finery, the gaudy dusty boots and stood in shirt, breeches and stockings.
He opened the shutters and the strong sweetness of the day overpowered him.
'Am I master of this place? I never saw anything so alien.'
He found a bell rope and pulled it, and when Mrs Barlow, at once suspicious and deferential, overawed and incredulous, came, he desired her to send someone at once to Griffinshaws, to fetch the steward, Mr Morley he believed the name was—indeed, he had almost forgotten that...
Miss Roseingrave was a very self-contained character and led a reserved life. She always disdained to gossip with the servants at the Grange or to make any acquaintance with the neighbouring farmers; those who had timidly endeavoured to solicit her friendship had received sharp rebuffs. Even the strange home-coming of Sir William Notley did not induce her to lower her pride so far as to go up to the Grange and ask Mrs Barlow for news.
When, in last night's moonlight, she had returned home she had merely gone to the little kitchen where the housekeeper sat gibbering and praying and said coldly:
'Mrs Barlow, you are a very foolish woman. It is your master come home—Sir William himself—or else some acquaintance of his making a clever imposture. Mr Morley of Griffinshaws will soon set us aright on the matter, but as for the Devil,' the young woman had laughed contemptuously, 'why, I wonder that those tawdry bits so deceived you!' And then, without waiting for the abashed woman to reply with exclamations of doubt and astonishment, she had blown out her candle and ascended, by the light of the moon to her own room, still filled with silver light.
On the next hot, quiet day she had gone decorously about her duties. There were plenty of these in the Dower House, for though it was but small it was elaborately furnished and Miss Roseingrave had no assistance beyond that of Mother Cloke, a reputed witch who had a cottage down on the marshlands; she would work for none other than Miss Roseingrave, nor would Miss Roseingrave employ any other woman. She disdained to give any explanation for this peculiar choice, for there was many a hardworking, lusty girl who would have been glad of the work at the Dower House; she might have had her choice of many servants, but would have none other than the gnarled Mother Cloke of dubious reputation.
No doubt this association helped to give a slightly sinister air to Miss Roseingrave's retirement at the Dower House. Mrs Barlow and the other servants who looked after the Grange, the tenants of the scattered sheep farms, the shepherds who tended their flocks in the wide fields sloping to the marsh, the village folk, all thought with a certain awe, of the young woman who lived in the Dower House amid the chestnut trees of the great park with her imbecile sister and her paralysed mother and only Mother Cloke to help her nurse these two piteous invalids, for Phoebe was sickly as well as feeble-minded, and often came near to dying.
It was known that the Roseingraves had the Dower House through the charity of the late Sir William and that they were in some way his relatives, but their history was vague in the minds of their simple neighbours. Mrs Roseingrave, though now stiff and distorted by her disease, yet bore the remains of considerable beauty, and the tale went that she had been a belle and well dowered, too, from a fine family; she had run away with a poor musician who had afterwards gone mad and left her penniless, and only through her desperate appeal to her cousin, the late Sir William, had she and her two daughters found this asylum in their utmost distress.
However this might be, Miss Roseingrave never spoke of her past nor of her mother's story, nor did any relatives of her father's family ever come to visit them, nor the mail-coach ever leave letters for them at the Ewe and Lamb. They had lived isolated in the park of the deserted Grange for twenty years. Their visitors were few; sometimes the Vicar rather timidly made his way into the park and drank a dish of tea with Miss Julia. She did not encourage this courtesy and was seldom seen at the church, though she professed a cold orthodoxy. She had a valid excuse for her neglect, in the charge of her afflicted relatives.
Sometimes, too, Dr Rowland would come to the Dower House, and he seemed more after Miss Julia's mind. He was learned and a great scholar and might have done well for himself in the City, but preferred a philosophic peace.
He was a man of great mental energy and all his activities were turned inward, for outwardly he led an eventless life. His mind and his spirit dwelt much in other worlds, and he was accused of magical experiments and crystal gazing and even of some obscure partnership with Mother Cloke, whose knowledge of natural forces he had often declared to be extraordinary.
But Doctor Rowland lived far away from Holcot Grange and was much absorbed in his own speculations and experiments, so his visits, therefore, to Miss Julia Roseingrave, were rare.
One other acquaintance this lady had who might be considered of her own rank, that was Mr Morley, steward of Holcot, who lived at Griffinshaws. He was a middle-aged man, robust, and not uncomely. Five years before he had had the daring to offer himself as a suitor for the hand of the dark young woman. He was so sincere in his passion, which took more the form of a fascination than an affection, that he, practical and businesslike as he was, had been prepared to waive the question of the young lady's dowry. He understood that she lived on a mere pittance and even that, such as it was, would have to be reserved for her helpless mother and sister. But she had refused him with sharp contempt, and when he, being really involved in the affair, had overlooked her insults and still pressed his suit, she took him into the Dower House and showed him her mother, lying rigid on a couch, and her sister drolling by the window and said to him with a fine curl of her arched upper lip: 'Are you willing to take these too, with you, till one of us, you or I, die? As for the insane, Dr Rowland tells me they will live very long.'
Then Mr Morley had gone away without a word and a twelvemonth after had married a farmer's daughter who made him happy. His feelings for Miss Julia Roseingrave had had a curious reaction, he now never saw her without feeling glad that he had not married her, yet, as far as her beauty went, she had improved with the years. She was now a rare creature, of such uncommon graces that they were not rightly to be valued by the rustics among whom she lived.
The day after the coming of Sir William Notley to Holcot Grange, Mr Morley, who had, early in the day, been summoned to the house, chose to return through the park, and rode his horse slowly past the Dower House. He was not above the pleasure of giving and receiving news, and Mrs Barlow had told him of the part Miss Roseingrave had played last night. He was not deceived in his expectation that she would be waiting for him, she must have been listening for the sound of his horse's hoofs, for by the time he reached the Dower House she was standing under the honeysuckle on the porch.
Mr Morley looked at her with a curious sense of the emptiness and deadness of the little house behind. Her alert and vivid vitality was like a tiny flame in a dark lantern. The coral horns of the honeysuckle waved above her dark hair and she was wiping, on a small square of muslin, her fingers, stained from plucking currants.
'I thought you would come this way,' she smiled. 'You want to speak to me about last night, I suppose.'
Mr Morley, leaning good-humouredly from his saddle, tried to turn this about.
'I thought you would want to know the news, Miss Roseingrave.'
But her indifference was not to be pierced.
'Oh, I care very little. You may ride on if you will.'
So then he had to surrender, for he was eager to tell someone of his interview with Sir William, and who else was there to tell besides Miss Julia Roseingrave? His own wife would be totally disinterested. She was absorbed, dear, pretty Priscilla, as a good kind woman should be, in the two babies, and her house.
'It is Sir William in very truth, though I believe, Miss Julia, last night you doubted it. It was very courageous of you to go up there alone after Mrs Barlow's crazy story of the Devil.'
'Why was it courageous, since the story was so crazy?' she countered, 'and I did believe it was Sir William. Who else could have known the place and come in with such effrontery?' Then lowering her voice she added cunningly: 'What has he done?'
'Why, what should he have done?' replied Mr Morley, uncomfortably. 'He had a whim to come here, I suppose. It is one of his properties that he has never visited before.'
'And would not have visited now,' said Miss Roseingrave, 'had he not had a good reason. Do you think, Mr Morley, that he would have come here to make your acquaintance or mine?'
'It would be only natural, Miss Roseingrave, that he should wish to see the place, which, after all, is a property of considerable value, and has been well and carefully kept up.'
'To come here like that at dead of night in a stupid carnival dress, masked, and on a sweating post-horse!'
The steward shrugged before her cool contempt.
'Well, if Sir William has his story he does not tell it to me. He said he was here for several months, for the full summer, he thought. That he was sick of town ways and rioting; he gave me to understand that he had not a great deal of money, but had gambled away whole estates and sold others and was by no means the rich man we still suppose him.'
'He looked,' remarked Miss Roseingrave dryly, 'that manner of fool.'
'Fool, I don't think he is,' said Mr Morley, 'but merely a young fashionable who must go the way of his time and his set. He told me there was something he wished to do, for which he must have privacy. To write a book or make some chemical experiment, as I suppose. No doubt it is but a whim of one who can afford to indulge whims.'
'No doubt,' echoed Miss Julia Roseingrave. 'I do not suppose he will be here for longer than a short time. The rest of the summer shall we say? Six weeks, two months?'
'His servant,' said the steward, 'is coming today with some of his effects. At present he has nothing to wear but my brown jersey suit he begged me to bring along.'
'You are sure that it is Sir William Notley?' asked Miss Roseingrave. She came from under the waving shadows of the honeysuckle and approached Mr Morley's side. From the Dower House came the sudden sound of the idiot girl singing in a thin, broken voice.
'Yes, it is Sir William,' said Mr Morley. 'I have never seen him before, but his conversation proves that he is no impostor.'
'Where did he come ftom?' asked the young lady. Her slender, cool fingers, which smelt of currant leaves, patted the glossy neck of the bay horse.
'I believe he came from London.' Mr Morley could not resist gossiping. He lowered his voice, carefully, however; he thought it was not altogether wise, even in the depths of the park, to be turning tales of his master on whom his livelihood depended, over his tongue. 'And I believe, Miss Julia, that there was some trouble. Some riot or brawl, or maybe a duello, for he had certainly ridden fast, and it was a strange dress to ride in.'
'How did he get through the turnpikes?'
'By talking, I suppose, of a wager.'
'What manner of man do you suppose him to be, Mr Morley?'
And Julia Roseingrave raised her dark eyes that were full of a deep lustre like a flame reflected in a stone of polished jet, to the good-natured, comely face of the steward.
'I could not judge much in a short interview, Madam Julia, but he seemed to me to be rather a fantastical kind of a fellow, full of odd notions and whims and who must be ever experimenting. He thinks that he will have a new experience at Holcot Grange such as he has read of in poems writ by men who have never been out of a town, of neat handed Phillis, and curds and whey, lowing herds and bowls of cream and perpetual peace.'
'There is all that here,' smiled Miss Julia. 'Give my duty to your wife.'
Thus, with a nod and a smile, as if she dismissed an inferior, Miss Julia returned to the Dower House. She had scarcely closed the door behind her before the wild songs of the idiot girl ceased.
Mr Morley rode on his way with a faint sense of uneasiness, which never failed to touch him after he had encountered Miss Roseingrave. He pondered a little over her name—rose-in-a-grave—when he had first seen her he had thought it should be rather rose-in-leaf, or rose-in-bloom, but now he did rather think of her as a rose shut into a grave; the grave of that lonely house, with those two people who lived their death in life around her.
Sir William Notley had asked him questions of Miss Roseingrave, and he, Jonathan Morley, had answered them with some embarrassment.
What was there to say of her? She was much respected and admired.
By simple rustics who rather feared her reserve and pride.
'Why does she continue to live there?' Sir William had asked impatiently. 'Why did she come to look at me last night? That was a strange thing to do.'
Then Mr Morley had found himself saying, though he had not meant to admit as much:
'She is a strange woman.'
To which remark the young baronet had replied with a certain exasperation:
'Bah! There is no such thing as a strange woman. I have met a fair number, Mr Morley, but look you, there were none of them strange, though many of them affected to be thought so.'
When Mother Cloke came up that evening to the Dower House to redress Mrs Roseingrave's bed and set all the house in order for the night and the morrow, Miss Julia gave her a large glass of damson wine, a privilege that the old woman only had when Miss Julia was in a good humour or required some favour.
Mother Cloke, like many another wise, learned and laborious person, remained very poor. She would not work for any save Miss Julia, and the peasants were frightened to go near her, even though they often greatly longed to ask her for a potion or to implore her to weave a spell. She did a little trade in face washes and balms, and unguents, but this brought her in but a few pence.
She could not often afford such luxuries as a large glass of wine.
Miss Roseingrave watched her as she drank, seated in the neat kitchen, where everything was shining and furbished, and a blue bowl lavishly filled with roses stood on the scrubbed oak table.
Mother Cloke was a pale, meek looking woman, in colouring like a sandy cat. She always wore a mutch bonnet and a tippet of stiff white linen and a skirt of grey cotton damask. She was clean in her person, too, which was one reason why Miss Roseingrave employed her. Her clothes and her hands always had a faint perfume from the herbs that she so constantly touched.
'I wish,' said Miss Roseingrave, watching the old woman relish gratefully the thick purple liquid, 'that you really were a witch, Mother Cloke, and that some of your herbs had the virtues that the rustics think they have.'
'And what would you want of me, my dear, if that were true?' asked Mother Cloke pleasantly. She had a soft, pleasant voice that seemed cultured above her station.
'I would ask you for a love potion.'
'And I have been asked for that often enough.' The herb woman nodded above her wine. 'But what need would you have, Madame Julia, for such a thing?'
'Why should I not have need of it?'
The young woman drew her thick black brows together in a heavy frown.
'There is never a man round here worth your pains, Madame Julia.'
'The young squire came home last night, Mrs Cloke, and if you had such a potion as I have mentioned I would take it up to him and see that Mrs Barlow mixed it with his caudle.'
'Is he, then, so brave and goodly, Madame Julia?'
'As to that, nothing much. As far as I marked him, but an ordinary kind of man. But I think of his place and his power, Mrs Cloke, and his parks and his houses, and how pleasantly gorgeous the world might be for the woman who was his wife.'
Miss Roseingrave turned about and stirred the pap for her mother that was cooking in a small pot on the little fire which was gathered to one corner of the hearth.
Mother Cloke finished the last drop of the damson wine and said:
'I did not think you were ambitious, Madame Julia, you have stayed here so long and so patiently.'
'When one has no hope one is patient.'
'And have you now a little hope, Miss Roseingrave?'
The young woman rose from her task; the spoon on which the milk steamed was still in her hand. She looked very thin in her tight-laced cotton gown and swayed like a willow herb in the breeze as she spoke. She was moved, it seemed, by some considerable emotion.
'Look you, Mother Cloke, surely you know of something which the ignorant call a love potion, that confuses the senses and raises the appetite and might make this man desire me, seeing there is no other woman within his reach, nor like to be these many weeks, save sluts, at whom I am sure he would not look.'
Mother Cloke shook her head and pursed her lips.
'I have never meddled in such matters,' she muttered. 'I can tell you many secrets and have already told you a few, Madame Julia, for easing the stomach and the head, for beautifying the complexion, stopping the bleeding of green wounds, even for checking the ague and driving away a mad fit, for giving sleep and raising the spirits; but as for love potions, could I have discovered them, I should have been a rich woman long ago.' She added on a whistling sigh: 'Poisons were ever easy to find, but everything else is difficult.'
Miss Roseingrave looked angry.
'I have never been discontented till now,' she said. 'But he is a fool who does not take an opportunity when it comes his way.'
'Take it by natural means,' suggested the old woman uneasily. 'No pretty lady should need to ask for the help of spells.'
'I want but a charm to bring him here,' muttered Julia Roseingrave. 'Once I could see him and frequently, the thing were done, as I take it. How can I go up to the Grange without a sacrifice of my pride and making a mockery of myself to the servants?'
'As to that,' said Mother Cloke, setting the tray for the invalid woman, 'I daresay I can contrive it and in a lawful manner.'
For several days after his coming to Holcot Grange, Sir William lay on his bed, which Mrs Barlow had made very comfortable with clean sheets and soft coverlets, and slept or day-dreamt.
He found that the place exactly suited his mood, or rather, had changed his mood in harmony with itself. The oblivion that he desired he now possessed. He found himself completely shut away from those events from which he most wished to escape. It was as if life began anew for him in this quiet house that had not been lived in for so long, but which nevertheless was orderly, clean, and full of beautiful and strange objects, and the isolation soothed his exasperated nerves, and the peculiarity of his lonely situation pleased his fantastical temperament.
It was perfect summer, the weather itself was sufficient to make a festival. Beyond the garden was the park and beyond the park all his fields and meadows, and beyond again, the sea, a mere glimmer of light in the sunshine.
Mrs Barlow was always attentive, and the servants knew their work, and he had his own man, Martin, to make him comfortable.
This was a dry, satirical fellow, well trained and shrewd, who remained in Sir William's employ with much fidelity, constant either to his affections or to his interests. He had been not without blame in the affair which had sent his master flying from town, and was glad to be out of the way. When he had followed Sir William from the city he had brought with him, besides money and clothes, a reassuring letter for his master from a friend.
The affray at the masquerade had been a bad business, no doubt, but it seemed likely to die away without ill consequences, yet it were best that Sir William should keep from town for the summer at least.
The friend had concocted a good story to account for his sudden departure and had so confused the truth that there were many who doubted whether he had been at the masquerade at all. Sir William, on receipt of this letter, had spoken to the servant, whom he held in careless confidence and a kind of negligent, half-contemptuous friendship.
'You are willing to stay with me in this place, Martin? It is to your interests, as I believe, to do so.'
The servant repeated in a parrot-like fashion that was not, however, in the least stupid:
'I am quite willing to do so, Sir William. And I believe that it is to your own interest as well as mine to remain away from town for a while. And if I might give my opinion I should say that Holcot Grange is an ideal place for this retreat.'
'It pleases me, for a while,' assented the young baronet, 'but who knows, Martin, in a moment, one might suddenly tire!'
'It is the novelty that pleases, Sir William,' said the servant. 'The question is, how long will the novelty endure? It is like a spell which must, sooner or later, wear off.'
'Aye, the novelty,' laughed Sir William Notley. 'No news-sheets, no coffee houses, no riots or carnivals or theatres, no races or sports, no friends or acquaintances, not as much as a barber or a tailor. Novelty indeed, Martin! Come, can you tell me nothing of the place? We have been here several days.'
'I know all there is to know, Sir William, and it is very little. Holcot Grange stands far away from the high road, as you found to your cost, I expect, sir, when you were endeavouring to find it, the night you rode from London. The village is very small and the Vicar an old, mild man, sunk in the sloth of age. For the rest it is sheep farming, and the farms very far apart—the village but a handful of cottages. Then there is Mr Morley at Griffinshaws, who has married a farmer's daughter and lives as if he were a farmer himself.'
'But I found him honest,' said Sir William; 'he gave a good account of his charges. And I thought as I saw him anxiously going over items of even a few pence, "Consider what a life that man leads for the small amount I pay him."'
'Philosophy apart, Sir William, he does very well.'
'And there is no one else?'
'There is a Miss Julia Roseingrave who lives in the Dower House with her sister, who is idiotic, and her mother, who is like a block of wood from paralysis.'
'That is the cool creature who came to see me on the night of my arrival. Do you know, Martin, I have no desire to behold her again, yet I think she is handsome enough.'
'And the only woman within miles, Sir William, if your thoughts should turn in that direction.'
'They are not like to, Martin. I am now for a chaste and studious life. If I should have an intrigue here it would not be with a creature like Miss Roseingrave—and that's a strange name, too, Martin—but with some milkmaid, some white-handed Hebe, all milk and roses.'
'There is none such, I do assure you, sir. The two maids here are coarse, stupid creatures, and only worthy of the swains who have bespoke them.'
'Well, let that go, it does not trouble me. And is there no one else with any pretence to breeding besides this Miss Roseingrave?'
'She is very much respected, sir,' said Martin, 'and lives a very virtuous life. Her devotion to her mother and her sister is very commendable, and I think, Sir William, it would only be a usual courtesy if you were to wait on her. She is, in some manner, your relation.'
Sir William was not offended at this advice. He permitted his servant a great freedom.
'Have you seen her, then, Martin?'
'Yes, I took the chance to walk past the Dower House. I went several times before I caught a glimpse of her. I thought her, too, Sir William, a very handsome creature.'
'I will not go, I do not know why. As I am here incognito it cannot be pronounced a discourtesy. But tell me,' added the young baronet, impatiently, 'are there no others?'
'There is old Dr Rowland, sir, who is gently born, and I believe was a scholar at Trinity College once. He lives like a hermit, given up to experiments and speculations.'
'As I mean to be,' cried the young baronet, 'I must make the acquaintance of this fantastic. And who else?'
'No one else at all, sir.'
The young man sighed and smiled together, stretched his arms above his head, and went to the window. The peace of the place was incredible. He could scarcely believe in those sunny gardens, in those trees, tossing their high tops in a cloudless blue, in the continuous cooing of the doves and in the profusion of scent of flowers opening their hearts to the last strength of summer.
The room, too—surely there was a certain spell about this clean apartment where nothing had been moved nor even touched for so many years; where everything had been left exactly in its place, mirrors, in which every face that had ever looked must now be dust, chairs, couches and beds on which none but ghosts could have rested for so long, embroideries, worked by fingers now long withered away, portraits of dead beauties by dead artists, treasures, hoarded long ago, but now neglected, their very meaning incomprehensible. And over all the sunlight, mellow as run honey.
In a closet in one of the upper rooms the young man had found some women's clothes, shoes of wrinkled leather, corsets with rusted steels, and brocades with tarnished tinsel braidings.
'Is there not supposed to be a curse on this house, Martin? I heard Mrs Barlow, the good housekeeper, speak of it.'
'Yes, I have heard that tale, sir,' replied Martin, who made it his business to hear all tales wherever he went. 'But this is nothing much, only that the property was forfeit during the rebellion and given to a follower of Oliver Cromwell, and when the Restoration came his descendant, a young man, married the heiress of the Royalist family. It was a match of convenience.'
'And of mighty convenience, too,' laughed Sir William, 'since it saved the estates to each.'
'But the story goes, as I have heard it from Mrs Barlow, that they were very unhappy and that he ill-treated her and she died, calling a curse on her descendants, sprung from this union.'
'Was she an ancestress of mine?' asked Sir William carelessly. 'Perhaps I have inherited this curse. I would it were so, Martin. There would be a relish and piquancy about such a fate. I feel, now I have come to this place, that all my days have been very dull.'
At this point Mrs Barlow ventured into the room. She said that a clean old woman who was named Mother Cloke, and against whom indeed no one had ever had any complaints, desired to see Sir William. It would only be to beg some charity of course, but she had been very insistent.
Sir William checked these apologies.
'Do you know anything of this Mother Cloke?' he asked his body-servant.
The man replied:
'She is reputed, Sir William, to be a witch.'
Mrs Barlow was not altogether in favour of Mother Cloke and regarded her coming to the Grange as an impertinence, but at the same time she was somewhat in awe of the herb-woman, whom she believed to be something more than her appearance gave warrant for. So she had desired her to wait in the room to the left of the entrance hall, which had once been used for card playing and musical diversions. It was furnished, therefore, with alcoves for tables and in a large press were several musical instruments which had been for long in a sad state of disrepair.
There was only one portrait in the room and that was of a lady in a failing collar, holding in one hand an apple. Both the lady and the fruit seemed to have long ago withered, for it was but a ghostly face and a ghostly apple which gleamed faintly from the faded wood panel.
Mrs Cloke waited patiently among these splendours so long since unvisited. She had a large basket covered with a white napkin on her arm. When Sir William Notley entered she curtsied very low in a manner that seemed as if she were used to dealing with the gentry, and yet the young baronet had been assured that there were no people of breeding in his neighbourhood.
He liked the look, at once intelligent and meek, of the old woman, and her ready address which was respectful and not servile, pleased him also. She told him that she was a tenant of his, and had lived all her life on the small piece of land for which she paid rent to Mr Morley of Griffinshaws. Her ancestors, she said, had been tenants of the lords of Holcot Grange for as many years as a man could remember.
'The owners of the Grange were but distantly connected ancestors of mine,' said Sir William courteously. 'I came into the Grange through my mother's people. She was by birth a Wilbraham.'
'You can see all their graves in the chapel if your honour but takes the trouble to look.'
'I have not been to the chapel yet, good Mrs Cloke. It has been long closed up, and I hold it but a dusty business to pry into these dismal places. Yet, for the sake of the dead, through whom I come into this estate, it seems, I will go there, and even, perhaps, set a priest up. And yet if I did who would attend for his ministry, for I shall go away quite soon, and I think there would be no one else to go to this chapel.'
'All the farmers, the villagers, the shepherds, would be very glad to go there. The village church is a poor place and this is nearer for most of them.'
With that she took the cover off her basket which she had set on one of the walnut tables where cards had been flung down and picked up so often so long ago.
She had brought him, she said, as a gift and a little act of homage from his oldest tenant, some samples of her herbs.
Here in their separate bags were hyssop or mother of time, a decoction of which, made with figs, honey and rue, was good against the cough, and the stiff branches of woody lavender, with the long hoary leaves, which, taken in the morning, fasting, were good for the panting of the heart.
Another bag contained the small shining seeds of fleawort which, pressed into a plaster, were excellent for swelling of the joints. Common pimpernel she had, too, which, though it was but a vulgar weed and growing on wastes, and even barren places, had much virtue in it she declared, for a pottage of this herb would draw out thorns which had been buried in the flesh, or help the dim-sighted when made into a wash for the eyes. From ditches and streams down by the marsh where she lived, and in moist woods, she had plucked the herb twopence, or moneywort, or twopenny grass, which cured ulcers when mixed with resin, wax and turpentine; comfrey she had also, prunel, mouse-ear, cudweed, featherfew, good, she said, for such as are sad and pensive, and eyebright, much commended for the eyes.
While she named and praised these and laid them out severally on the card table, the young baronet listened amused and pleased, for in reaction from what had happened to him in the city, he was gratified by all simple things that served to lull his senses and were different from his usual habits.
She observed him very shrewdly; although she had little experience and had seen few people, she had much natural wisdom.
'Your honour,' said she, suddenly coming to an end of her long catalogue, 'does not, very like, believe in magic.'
He, sighing with a sincere regret, answered as so many others had answered before him:
'I would that I could.'
'Some,' said she, 'give me the name of witch, though I am by no means deserving of that. I have seen strange things, particularly down in Ballote Wood.'
'And where's that?' asked he, willing to humour her fantasy.
'That, sir, slopes from the high ground to the marsh, and is near my home; it takes its name from the black horehound, which grows there in quantities and which the rustics call ballote. It has the smell of a citron and the flowers are of a carnation colour, and is a very powerful balm,' she added cunningly, 'helping much the sudden anguish of love, sir, that affects the heart.'
'From which I have never suffered,' said Sir William pleasantly. 'Yet I must purchase from you some of this balm, good mother. Now tell me some of the mysteries you have seen in Ballote Wood.'
'It would not be safe to do so,' she replied quickly. 'The young and the gallant ever like curious adventures, and you are both young and gallant, and so I thought to tell you that if you cared, when the moon is full, to walk in Ballote Wood, you might see what would please you.'
'So these, then, are not ugly sights?' he asked, teasing, 'no apparition of the devil or his attendant friends?'
'Nay, nothing of that,' she said. Then lowering her voice as if they might be overheard, even in the empty room in the empty house, she added: 'A nymph or fairy or goddess walks there and bathes in the deep pool underneath the willow trees. I have seen her sometimes when the lunar rays are directly overhead. She shines like a silver spool.'
'When can I see this?' asked Sir William laughing still more, 'and what charm must I bring with me to open my eyes? For I believe no ordinary traveller could behold such marvels.'
At that Mother Cloke seemed reluctant and would shut up the subject, but he pressed her, swallowing his amusement, though he believed she only feigned the hesitation for art's sake, and to lead him on. No doubt she had a trick up her sleeve, yet her talk had suited his mood. And at last she said in a sudden hurry as if she would be rid of the matter:
'The moon will be full in three days' time, and if you should come to my cottage, sir, I will go with you and show you the place and the person.'
'You do not undertake a little matter,' said he in hearty mirth. 'I am to behold a goddess and at so little cost?'
'Aye, but you must have some charm with you. I will give it you—a bunch of red archangels, tied with a specially woven thread. But leave all that matter to me.'
'I will do so very willingly, but see to it, good Mother, that you do not dress up some village wench as your goddess. My senses are not so gross but that I should not at once discover the fraud.'
'If I do anything so crazy, beat me for an old cheat, your Honour.'
When the moon was full, Sir William Notley went down to Ballote Wood and found on the edge of it the cottage of Mother Cloke. This was small, of but two rooms, and close to it were three young oak trees which stood like sentinels on the edge of the battalions of the woods. The place was very lonely and set on the edge of a hill, which appeared rather to be a cliff, as if in the old days the water had come right inland (as it did indeed now, sometimes in the winter or after great storms of rain) along the flat marshes below.
In the daylight these marshes could be seen dotted with white sheep and the little silver lines of small canals, half choked with feathering grasses and bulrushes; in the distance shone the shimmer of the blue sea. In the spring there would be another whiteness, that of blackthorn and hawthorn and daisies, and in the autumn the red and gold of berries.
But none of this could be seen now, only the moon mist that was over everything and the dark shape of the wood.
Sir William Notley knocked at Mother Cloke's door. She opened it in an instant and stood there ready with the bunch of red archangel or dead nettle, which she put into the hand of the young man. As she did so she murmured some words in a hocus-pocus language. He took these to be charms and asked her, laughing, if they would protect him against any possible evil in the haunted woods, but her answer surprised him considerably:
'No, it is to protect me against you.'
'To protect yourself against me, Goody Cloke.' He was curious. 'Now what do you fear in me?'
'Something which you do not yet know exists in yourself.'
'Evil?' he asked.
'There has been blood on your hands and might be again.'
The young man was startled and affronted. The adventure began to take too realistic a turn. His mind was turned back to places where it would not journey willingly.
'Don't frown at me, Sir William,' said the old woman, calmly, 'I shall neither help nor hinder you on your way. There's others more powerful than I will do that. I have said I will show you a pretty sight tonight. Think of that, young sir, and of nothing else.'
He followed her sullenly along a sloping path which led directly to the woods.
The moonlight was very brilliant. Sir William never remembered to have noticed such a powerful radiance at night before. It cast a blur over everything; the shapes of the trees seemed intangible and a glimpse of marshland below the hill shimmered like a sea of light. The wood was very dark by contrast, and at first he was blinded, and could with difficulty follow the old woman.
'In such a shade as this I should see nobody if she were to appear.'
'Have patience, good Sir William, and follow me. Speak no doubt nor profanity, whether you believe it or no, there is magic abroad.'
Then again he wished that it might be so, for he was weary of almost every delight that common joys and ordinary day could provide. So after awhile they came out on to a space where the trees were sparse and in the middle of this was a pool, deep set and overhung by slender boughs of willow saplings, and the frail, tall spikes of loosestrife, their purple blossoms showing like a faint tinge of blood in that silver glow.
Mother Cloke drew the young man behind an oak tree, which stood on the height above this pool, and bade him look down and presently he should see the strange creature, nymph, or goddess, or witch, or she knew not what, who would come and bathe in the pool under the moonlight.
'Goody Cloke,' whispered the young man, 'if this comes to pass and there be no trick or imposture about it, I will fill up your herb basket with gold pieces.'
'And they would be of little use to me,' she whispered back, 'and I should have to travel very far to be able to spend them. But if your honour can spare, say, half a dozen good bottles of wine from the cellar of Holcot Grange, they would tide me through the winter when I am much troubled with the old cough.'
'That you shall have,' said he, 'the best that can be found. Show me now your goddess.'
'Look now, Sir William, and speak no more. Keep your eyes and your mind on the pool.'
So the young man looked down, and even without the goddess for whom he waited, the scene was fair enough to snatch him from all bad and evil thoughts.
He had waited but five minutes or so as he judged, but indeed it was difficult to keep time in this place where time seemed to have stopped, when she appeared on the other side of the clearing or open space.
She was naked and held a long twist of black hair in her hand as she came lightly over the ground towards the pool.
At first he did not think of a ruse or trick for she was exceedingly lovely and seemed to him of an immortal cast, and he knew there could be no woman of such a make in these rough and lonely parts; so he stared, his heart panting, thick and frightening, believing he looked on something unearthly.
The woman came through the tall flowers, the nature of which he could not tell by reason of the moonlight dazzle, and so to the edge of the pool where she sat and dipped in her long limbs, and then sank beneath the water and began swimming across so that only her head and the black hair floating like a weed, showed.
And then the young man recovered his senses.
He said: 'It is a mortal woman,' and prepared to run down the bank. But the herb woman held him back with a surprising strength.
'If you stir or say a word, she will vanish.'
And so, because he still, against his will, feared some magic, the young man stayed his impetuous movement and stared down through the leafage on to the pool where her face floated like a water lily and her hair like a dark leaf; and looking down into that face, which remained still for a moment on the surface of the water with closed eyes and slightly parted lips and all the light of the moon turning the flesh to an unearthly look of silver, he knew himself lost, and he tried to turn and escape away through the haunted darkness of Ballote Wood, but the old beldame clung to him and impeded him and bade him watch, and still watch, so he stared again down to the pool.
The woman stirred in the limpid waters; her shoulders, her bosom, her arms and hands rose from out the pool. She opened her eyes and looked up at him. Her wet hair clung, a dark tracery, on the whiteness of her body.
She stared up at the oak tree behind which he hid, as if she saw him, yet he thought that it was impossible that she could do so.
'It is an earthly woman,' he repeated, 'but who?'
'Follow her and see,' said Mother Cloke, stretching up to his ear.
The bather swam across the pool again, and bending the tall flowers that grew on the bank, stepped out into the sheer moonlight which clothed her from head to foot as modestly as a veil. He saw her blurred by this radiance; he could observe only that she was tall and curved and very slender and surely unearthly after all...
He watched her wring out the long black hair and saw how the drops sparkled like diamonds as they fell from her hands to nothingness about her feet.
She crossed the open space of blossoming, gleaming weeds, and entered the grove of young trees on the other side, and he, watching her, saw her pick up some garment and put it about her shoulders.
He looked round for Mother Cloke, but the herb woman had gone and he made little matter of that. The adventure that was to have been but a phantasy or a delusion had proved real enough.
Agile and resolute he lowered himself down the bank and he also, skirting the pool, crossed the clearing. As he neared the grove where the woman robed herself, she moved away, but not so far as to be lost among the trees, and not so rapidly but that he could follow her. And follow her he did, keeping a few paces behind until they had left the wood and come out into the park. He could see her very clearly. It was a night of sullen warmth and he observed that her hair was already dry and strands blowing loose over the light cloak or robe that she wore.
He followed her to a grove of chestnut trees and directly to the honeysuckle porch of the Dower House and there she turned and faced him as if she had known all along that he was behind her, and yet he had flattered himself that he had been very discreet, hiding continually behind the trees and in shrubs, and walking very softly.
When she paused in the porch he was still some paces away, half behind one of the chestnut trees, but she beckoned with her hand, which was like a lily waving in the wind, and he came forward and stood at the gate of her little garden which was packed with carnations that gave forth a strong night perfume.
'I am Julia Roseingrave,' she said, 'what do you want with me?'
He did not answer for he did not know, and he felt, too, ashamed of himself, and remorseful that he had been taken in by the old woman's trick, if trick it were and not some strange chance, and so he stood mute, which was not his usual way with women.
'Oh, you are but a dullard,' said Julia Roseingrave, coolly, 'and I liked Ballote Wood better before you came prying there.'
At that she went into the darkness of the Dower House and shut the door in his face.
Sir William Notley was enchanted, as the two women had intended that he should be. Nothing now would please him but the possession of Julia Roseingrave. Though she might appear to the casual eye but an ordinary woman in her clothes, he knew that in herself she was as beautiful as a lily spike, as a branch of silver bells. He knew, too, that she was strange and cold and had lived all her life apart from the world.
He liked to think that she were a witch or a fairy or possibly a goddess, and that Mother Cloke, who had beguiled him into the woods, was her handmaiden or attendant. Perhaps they were evil, both of them, but for that he cared nothing. The herb woman had said that he was evil, too. He was even pleased by the thought that she lived alone in the park in the Dower House with those two stricken creatures. He felt that strange exaltation which was always his, when he fell in or out of love.
He did not immediately endeavour to see her, but for two days after he had beheld her bathing in the pool in Ballote Wood, he stayed in the house or went abroad but in the garden at sunset, when the doves were homing and all the flowers giving out their evening scent.
He took out the old instruments from the press in the room where he had first met the herb woman, and repaired them, for he had great skill in music. He wrested the keys aright, and tuned them and restrung the stringed instruments, he tenderly oiled and polished the delicate woods. Some were cracked and beyond repair, but others only needed careful handling which he gave them, to emit again their sweet, mournful melodies.
The harpsichord was easily put aright, for Mrs Barlow had kept it oiled and cleaned. He had flowers in large glass cups brought into this room and the windows set open so that the sun came in, and he asked Mrs Barlow when she was doing this work for him, who was the original of the portrait—the pale lady with the withered apple?
She replied that it was the Lady Dorcas, who had set the curse on the Grange and her descendants—that was one reason, said Mrs Barlow, why it had been so long uninhabited. As long as a man had another house he did not care to live in Holcot Grange.
Sir William laughed.
'I have seldom seen a pleasanter place nor one where a man might be more readily at peace.'
Mrs Barlow looked at him with a certain apprehension. She thought him very handsome yet she was not altogether attracted by him, the expression was too wilful and imperious, and the splendour of his youth was something tarnished—good Mrs Barlow did not know by what. She dreaded him and did not like his residence at the Grange, she could not get over the impression she had received the night of his arrival, when she thought she had admitted the Devil into the old house, yet his manners to her were always civil and even courteous and he was lavish with his money to all the servants. Mrs Barlow did not like Martin either. The man was taciturn and would say nothing of what had happened to his master or to himself in London.
While Sir William Notley dallied with the after-taste of his nocturnal adventure in Ballote Wood, the weather changed. The brilliant sunshine disappeared, but not behind any cloud; it was rather obscured by a subtle mist, light, yet not to be penetrated, as if mysteries were to be performed in Heaven, which must be veiled from the earth. This withdrawal of the light was not without a certain menace, but the young man found it much to his taste. While Mrs Barlow talked with an odd apprehension of a coming storm, he noted curiously the changes that this mist gave to the house, the gardens, and the landscape, still to him so unfamiliar.
The gardens greatly interested him; the sombre man who worked there had done his duty skilfully, and it was that season in the year, the height of summer turning into autumn, that the strangest and most gorgeous flowers were in bloom. The young man admired the Rosa Ultramarina or Outlandish Rose, with the bright purple, double blossoms rising high above all the more lowly plants and the Indian Sun, heavy with seeds, hanging languidly and not knowing to which part of the heavens to turn since the sun was hid.
He noted the helmet-shaped, blue flowers of the Monkshood, the delicate tints of the Dovesfeet, and when he saw the small red grapes of the woodbine or honeysuckle, he thought of Julia Roseingrave standing under the porch of the Dower House.
At night the mist was denser than it had been in the day; moist exhalations rose from the low, fenny ground beyond the woods and the park, and these divided into the likeness of large, strange shapes that floated up and away into the dim upper radiance. Mrs Barlow entertained an intense conviction that it was dangerous to go out at night and to breathe in deeply the marsh mist.
He took no heed of her warning, but walked abroad in the quadrangle right up to the iron gates that had been opened for the first time in so many years, to admit him in his devil's disguise. And then in the garden to the quidnuncs where the narrow box hedges were kept carefully clipped, and in the centre was a great globe of metal tarnished by damp.
The young man had left lights in an upper room of the Grange and the windows open, for he liked to look back and see the place thus illuminated as if somebody were waiting to receive and welcome him on his return. The Grange was silent in the daytime, but even more profound was the silence of the night, for there were not the homely noises of the servants going to and fro in their quarters, nor the bark of a dog, nor the low of a sheep or cow to be heard, nor the cooing of the doves. All living creatures were mute.
Sir William recognised something unhealthy and evil in the marsh mist; the air was heavy and close. When he looked back at the Grange he saw that not one of his lights had stirred, because no breath of wind floated through the open windows. There was a little pavilion at the far end of the garden close to a small pond or, rather, a great stone basin of water, in the centre of which had once been a fountain, but the machinery had been neglected and the waters no longer played from the pipes concealed in the moss-greened dolphins in the centre of the pond. There were dark weeds and white lilies on the water and through the mist Sir William could see them and they reminded him, though he needed no such aid to his remembrance for her face was constantly before him, of the creature whom he had seen bathing in the depths of Ballote Wood, her dark hair like the pond weeds, and face and shoulders and bosom white as the lilies.
He tried to recall the expression of her eyes when she had looked up at him, neither trustful nor beckoning, nor suspicious, but a look of blank acceptance as if she drew all his soul into hers as a matter of course, as a casual gift. He wondered if she had been sleep walking on that night, or if it were her ghost that he had seen.
He knew the old tale—that the ghosts of those about to die in the ensuing year wandered round the churchyard near the spot where they were likely to lie.
Had he then disturbed Julia Roseingrave while she had been returning from a visit to her future tomb?
The miasmas from the marsh had invaded the painted pavilion, which was damp from being long shut away and had no furniture beyond a couch of gilded wood very tarnished.
The young man stood at the door of this pavilion and looked out across the lily pond at the stone figure of the great fish, at the poisonous mists which rose and slowly dispersed in the upper moonlit air. Above, was a curious silver gloom, unreal and fascinating; his own swarthy brow, lowering glance, and dark clothes were not ill-fitted to the scene, nor was his mood.
He thought of his past life and all the deeds he had done as shut away in a book...he endeavoured by this symbol to express his complete severance from his former life, shut away in a book and clasped, locked, and sealed.
He strained his ears against the silence, half expecting a voice of warning or of menace or of invitation, and it seemed to him that he was lifted up and away from the earth, but not towards any heaven.
He had hitherto ridden towards his destiny with a loose rein, careless as to the consequences of his pleasures, his wanton sins, of temptations unresisted, indifferent as to the morrow, and contemptuous of Hell.
Now, with his past shut so resolutely behind him, he felt as if he had his fate in grip, and could and would deliberately choose his own path, and in that moment he felt disdainful both of good and evil, as if he held fiends and archangels helpless in the palm of his hand. He remained near the pavilion until dawn.
With the first pallor of eastern light a little breeze arose and set the lilies rocking in the pond, and fluttered those few candles in the upper rooms of the Grange that had not yet burnt out.
The marsh mist divided and hung for a second or so in the likeness of ghostly, hooded, shrouded figures, then dispersed, and the air was pure.
Sir William walked back to the house.
The flowers looked strange in that first light, many of them were yet folded, their petals closed over their hearts, all were pearled by the moisture of the night. They were entangled in a great luxuriancy, and the leaves of many had begun to decay and turn yellow.
Sir William went to the Dower House and looked at it earnestly before he knocked for admission.
The garden, unlike the garden of the Grange, was small, modest, and homely. There were no weeds nor any faded flowers. Even the most prodigal sweets of the summer were pruned and trained. And the front of the small brick house had an innocent, care-free look. Clean white curtains were at the windows, the panes of glass shone brightly, being newly rubbed, and the honeysuckle over the porch had been tied back with a careful hand.
The young man thought that all this air of orderly decorum was a mere deception or part of a snare.
He knocked at the door. He had been so sure that she would open to him that the look on his face was for her and for her only. He was therefore amazed when a man stood before him holding the door-knob in his hand and greeting him with a ready courtesy.
'You are Sir William Notley? Miss Roseingrave saw you from the window and asked me to admit you at once.'
'And who, sir, are you?' asked the young baronet, sullenly. He felt the flavour of the afternoon spoiled by the intrusion of the personality of this stranger.
'I am Dr Rowland, and I ride over sometimes to attend to Mrs Roseingrave. Not that anything can be done for her,' he added confidentially, lowering his voice as the two stood together in the narrow passage, 'but I believe that my occasional presence is some comfort to Miss Julia.'
Sir William eyed the physician with disdain.
He was a man past middle age with an air of great vitality and energy. The cut of his murrey-coloured suit was long out of date, but he was neat and orderly in his attire. His limbs were well made and well knit and there was a cast of nobility in his haggard face round which the pale hair, half blond, half grey, curled like a mane.
He courteously stood aside while Sir William preceded him to a little parlour, overstocked with small, bright, shining objects where Julia Roseingrave sat behind a tea service of pale blue china.
She wore a linen gown, that had been many times washed and mended, fastened with scoured, ironed green ribbon. The long swathes of her dark hair were fastened by iron pins and there was nothing about her that was not faded and common.
Sir William thought that this decorous poverty was like the respectable exterior of the house, part of the disguise and the snare.
Dr Rowland took his leave almost immediately; he displayed neither curiosity nor deference towards Sir William, only a rather abstracted courtesy, and when he had left the house the young man remarked:
'You are strange people here, you live in an isolation where nothing seems to have ever happened, yet when the unusual occurs you do not marvel at it.'
'That is Dr Rowland,' said Miss Roseingrave, replying obliquely to this comment. 'He lives a long way from here and I do not often see him. I cannot suppose that a man like that would ever be greatly surprised at anything. His studies are very abstruse and take him into other worlds.'
'But you,' he asked directly, 'you have no such consolation in your solitude. I hear from Mrs Barlow, who is a good gossip, that your mother and your sister are both ill. You must, then, have very little company.'
'Very little human company,' she replied.
'Then you, also, Miss Roseingrave, know something of those other worlds with which Dr Rowland is familiar?'
She poured out the steaming tea into the shallow blue cups and offered him one. The sun had begun to penetrate very faintly the mist, so that a dim pattern of light fell through the waving boughs of the woodbine into the small room.
'If I were to tell you of my life here and the company I have, and what goes on on the marsh and in the woods, aye, and even in the open pastures, you would no more believe it than I should be able to credit you, were you to tell me what your life was in the city.'
'I shall never tell you that,' he countered, 'for I wish to forget it myself.'
She directly challenged that.
'Why? Everything that has ever happened to me I wish to remember.'
Sir William smiled unpleasantly, and gulped his tea. It was the first time that he ever recalled having tasted that beverage, for he had always avoided the company of gentlewomen.
'You do not wish to tell me,' said Julia Roseingrave, coolly. 'Well, no doubt you were concerned in something frightful or you never would have come to Holcot Grange. And, of course, you will not stay, as soon as you realise that you are out of danger.'
It seemed to the young man, sitting there holding the blue cup in his hands, that there was another voice behind hers which rose shrill and high like an echo, and said: 'Fly, you are in more danger now than you ever were in your life.' So intense was this impression that he glanced round the room to see if, small as the apartment was, there might not be somebody concealed behind one of the pieces of furniture, who had thus mocked her and him. But they were alone together.
She marked his glance and asked:
'What are you considering? You are not at all open with me, Sir William. You were very short when I first saw you on the night of your arrival at the Grange. It was strange, no doubt, for me to come into your chamber like that, but remember that poor Mrs Barlow came running up through the night and told me that she had admitted the Devil.'
'You were courageous,' he mocked, 'seeing that you do not believe in the Devil or maybe are his ally.'
'And you are blunt,' she replied indifferently. 'I have never met a fine gentleman before. I had thought you would have been more courteous. Why have you paid me the honour of this visit?—I do not think we shall greatly amuse each other.'
'Oh, Miss Roseingrave,' he exclaimed impatiently and rising as he spoke, 'will you not come with me into the woods? It is so close and confined here.'
'I may not leave my mother and sister,' she answered. 'At present my mother sleeps, my sister plays with her white rabbits, but at any moment my mother may wake and Phoebe may begin to cry.'
Sir William walked up and down the room, which his great height and lordly presence made appear as cabined and as contemptible as a cage.
'The herb woman whom they call Goody Cloke, she is your friend, is she not?'
'She is an acquaintance of mine, Sir William, she works for me. She is the only person whom I can find who is willing to drudge for my mother and sister. This is not accounted a cheerful house and I can afford to pay very little.'
He gave her a sidelong look where she sat sipping her tea primly and thought of all his life had been, as a schoolboy, as a scholar at Oxford, as a young man travelling in Italy and France, of the people whom he had met and the adventures he had had, and the large sums of money he had spent and thrown away, and all the while Julia Roseingrave had been sitting in the Dower House, drinking tea, going about her small duties, and, with the aid of the herb woman, attending a paralysed mother and an imbecile sister, and throughout all there had been ahead of him and of her, the day when they were bound to meet. He said:
'I walked in Ballote Wood the other night and saw a nymph bathing.'
'You may, sir,' said she, 'see many worse, and many better things in Ballote Wood.'
'If I go there again shall I see her again?' he challenged; and her eyes that had that smouldering light in them, like a flame reflected in a tablet of polished jet, were full on him as she answered:
'I can assure you that you will not. No one who pries in Ballote Wood sees the same thing twice.'
'Stop this fencing or play of words,' said he. 'Could you not love me a little?'
Miss Roseingrave set down her tea-cup and put her smooth hand to her smooth hair that was slipping slightly from the iron pins.
'I could love no man a little,' she answered; 'I have a scorn for love measured out, aye, or passion, by the thimbleful.'
'What do you know,' he asked, half-angrily, 'of either love or passion?'
'Enough, Sir William, to fill all my days and nights with dreams,' she said, but more with uneasiness than contempt. 'You are here for a space,' she smiled, 'hiding, as I think, at odds with your usual fortunes, concealed from the handlings of mischance. And you wish for a pleasant interlude, a play of shadows-love-in-idleness. Well, I shall not be your partner.'
'Why?' he demanded, pausing full in front of her.
The sun had brightened again and the room was full of yellow light, only broken by the waving shadows of the woodbine-torn flowers, red tendrils, and scarlet berries blown sideways from the porch.
'Perhaps you do not please me,' she said coldly, and at that he raged, for no woman had ever scorned him before, but all, out of liking or interest or fear, had flattered him.
'You think to lead me on by tricks,' he stormed sullenly. 'You think to set on yourself a higher value than you have.'
Miss Julia Roseingrave got to her feet with one graceful movement and set down her blue tea-cup.
'Have you ever met a proud woman before?' she asked lazily. 'Go, and I shall not follow. Turn away, and I shall not beckon you back.'
He was forced to assume a humility that he did not feel.
'Come, pretty one, there is a full summer's month before us and I am weary of common delights, and you, I think, have never known them—'
'Youth goes so fast, is that your common conclusion?' she jeeringly interrupted. 'I shall not care when I am old. Youth or age is the same to me.'
'But not to me,' he answered, suddenly serious. 'I hope to die as soon as I lose the first iota of my strength and power.' Then he fell a-coaxing. 'Come, play with me a little, pretty one. Take me on the marsh and show me the strange people that live there. Smugglers are there not, and eel-catchers in their huts and old wise women and shepherds who see nothing but their sheep all the year long? Come up with me to the Grange. There are many secrets in that house and I have discovered none of them yet. We will have quests through all those rooms that have been so long since closed.'
'And raise the ghosts?' she queried. 'They say, you know, that the place is cursed.'
'Maybe. How should that concern us? If we be cursed I doubt if we can avoid our fate. Come up to the Grange, I need an audience for my music. I have put into order some old instruments I found there.'
'I shall not care for your London airs,' she replied. I, too, am a musician. I have here, in the next room, a harp and a spinet on which I play very fairly.'
'No doubt you have all the arts and all the graces,' he mocked. 'It is a strange thing to me that you have been shut away here so long. I swear that you have a secret and that I shall surprise it.'
A steady wailing broke the afternoon silence. He had forgotten the imbecile girl and was startled. The sound seemed like the cry of one in mortal distress.
'It is my sister Phoebe,' said Miss Roseingrave, with what seemed a malicious pleasure. 'I told you she would not be long quiet.'
The door opened and the idiot girl entered. She was thin, and dark, and pale, and had a certain likeness to her sister. Her hair straggled from under a white mob cap, she wore an untidy cotton gown and held in her arms a dead white rabbit. Her eyes were vacant, her lips blubbered as she cried and caressed the limp shape of the little animal.
'See, she has strangled it,' said Miss Julia, 'that is how her play always ends. It is the same with the doves and the kittens. You had best go, Sir William. You see we are not a pleasant household.'
But he was not a man to be shocked by cruelty, nor by any strange nor displeasing sight.
He said: 'Send Goody Cloke up to look after the poor, deranged creature and come abroad with me.'
She replied: 'It is not duty but lack of interest in your company that bids me stay.'
He snatched at his gloves and his hat, and left the Dower House.
He did not take the path that led under the chestnut trees through the park towards the Grange, but passed on beyond into loneliness.
He skirted a meadow where the moon-daisies grew in the second haysel, where the berries of the arum or cuckoo pint ripened underneath the tangle of the rough bindweed. The stagnant wet beneath the hedges was full of the leaves of the water caltrops.
By these open places he made his way to Ballote Wood. The trees were mostly ash and now the mist had cleared, every leaf on every bough showed clear and vivid in the westering light. It was silent but not absolutely still. Small wild things could be heard running and almost breathing through the shrubs and herbage. After sundry mistakings of his way, for there were no paths in the wood, Sir William reached the pool where he had seen Julia Roseingrave or her wraith bathing. Thrusting aside the sorrel and loosestrife that bordered the sloping side, and lifting the sprays of willow, he looked down into the lilied pool, almost hoping again to behold that white face, that drifting wreath of black hair, but all he saw was the reflection of his own scowling brow and petulant pouting lips and dark town clothes that were an affront to the light and freedom of the day and the careless peace of the place.
Dr Rowland worked day and night at his golden secrets. He was more used to the stars than to the earth, more at home in space than on solid ground.
He lived in an oasthouse that had been used for the drying of hops in the old days, but it was long since hops had been grown in this part of the country. The little furnace was kept alight by Dr Rowland for other purposes than that of making savouring for beer. There was a two-roomed cottage attached to the oasthouse, and there, when he was not deep in his experiments, he lived. There was a stable, too, and one sound horse in it, and a boy who came from a farm two miles off to look after the beast, and sometimes to draw water and chop wood for Dr Rowland.
But for the most the learned man was his own servant. He sometimes so far neglected himself that for days together he would go without any food beyond a dry crust he might find in the closet, or a handful of wild fruit that he might gather in his wanderings, or the offerings of pies and preserves that he sometimes found on his doorstep, left by the grateful farm people whose sicknesses he tended without fee or reward.
The oasthouse was situate about five miles from Holcot Grange and low down on the marsh only a pace or two away from where the ground was below the sea level and commonly flooded. After rare heavy rains the oasthouse would be flooded also, and Dr Rowland would have to move to the friendly shelter of some distant farm until the waters had subsided.
On these occasions he would bring with him, in great packs on the horse, all his precious instruments and retorts and limbecks, his cases of herbs, his packages of powders.
Dr Rowland and his occupations did not cause the wonder on the marsh that they would have caused in the city. Everyone accepted him as a character both natural and admirable. They were all a little afraid of him, but it was a pleasurable kind of fear, such as a man might feel for an archangel. They did not question his learning nor mock at his wisdom; they believed that it was as right as it was wonderful that he should strive after the secrets of nature and of the skies. They believed that he endeavoured to discover the secret of making gold; yet why should Dr Rowland devote so much labour and time to discovering how to manufacture yellow metal that would have been but dross to him? All his needs were satisfied and he had no hankering after any earthly ambition. Though he was not much more than middle-aged he had discovered greater wonders than he had ever hoped to achieve in a lifetime, and stumbled upon many a discovery that amazed himself.
His life, although he lived in such isolation, was very rich and varied and full of excitement. The only woman who had ever been inside his laboratory was Julia Roseingrave, and she came secretly after twilight.
The moon had waned and the night was clear and dark save for the clustering brilliance of the stars which made a radiance more likely to confuse than to illuminate.
Sir William Notley felt himself utterly plucked away from his old life, he knew the even freedom of a man whose days have always been stainless. He had no burden of remembered sins. He felt at ease with his own soul, and in harmony with all about him.
When his city acquaintances sent him letters, which they did cautiously and severally, he burnt them without reading them. He wrote to no one. The care of the estate remained in the hands of Mr Morley of Griffinshaws, and the master of Holcot Grange and of so many other houses and estates lived on his own property as if he were a stranger and a guest there. His state became a very ecstasy of dreams and languid inaction. He made no effort to pursue Julia Roseingrave, it was enough for him to know that she was there in the Dower House with the woodbine ripening on the porch, behind the chestnut trees in the park.
He rejoiced in the fair weather, in the ineffable stillness of the long summer afternoons which held, surely, in their remote golden hours an echo of eternity. He listened with drowsy content to the song of the reapers and came to take it as part of the harvest (there was but a field or so of it on the estate); he watched the reaping-hooks laying low the bearded grain and the corn lilies and the corn roses that grew between the brittle yellow stalks.
Behind the song of the reapers which he felt to be melancholy and uncouth he seemed often to hear that other high voice, which he believed he had first caught the accent of in Julia Roseingrave's neat parlour—an unearthly voice which said: 'You are in more peril than you have ever been before.'
This warning, even though he believed it true, mattered little to him. If he were foreshadowed by his own fate, he cared nothing. He felt himself to be in possession of some persuasive and all-pervading truth which made all the incidents of human life unimportant, reconciled good and evil, and took the horror from crime, and the abnegation from duty, and blended both in one perpetual delight.
He was in that mood when the conflicting forces that divide Creation seemed united in his heart. There had been a time, and that not so long ago, though it seemed so far away, when he had been in the thick of that conflict. Now he was apart from it, and, as it seemed, for ever. A voluptuous sensation of acquiescence in things as they were, lulled his senses and his spirits. He ate very sparingly and he slept long, and his health became finer than it had been since he was a youth, and he had up some of the rose-coloured wine from the cellars, laid down and sealed by a dead hand so many years ago.
And in the evening he would sit with the windows open and watch the stars glittering like falling jewels among the high elm trees, and raise his glass and drink to Julia Roseingrave.
It was his decision that she should come to him; he would make no further step in the wooing of her. His waiting did not gall him, he felt no trepidation as to the result. One sunny mom, or one starlit eve, or one dense midnight she would come up to the Grange and be his entirely.
But Julia Roseingrave made no sign. The new moon waxed large again in the sky and became strong enough to fade the starlight, and still she did not come. He saw nothing of Mother Cloke the herb woman nor of Dr Rowland. The gardens became full of seed pods and fruit and withering leaves and drying blossoms.
The stubble field from which the harvest had been carted away looked bleached white in the sunlight. The last swallows were flying very low.
For a long while it had not rained and the vegetation was dried and brittle.
Sir William went several times to the lily pond in Ballote Wood and the water there was drying up and the lilies fading. His unrestrained and libertine fancy kept him inactive. He never turned his steps towards the Dower House beyond the chestnut trees in the park.
One night, after a day of heavy dreams, he saw the thunderclouds coming up behind the elm trees, packs of vapour, advancing and mingling with the natural dark. He felt at once enervated and excited by the menace of the approaching storm; several birds flew home in the murky twilight, their crying sounded like shrieks of terror. Mrs Barlow wanted to set lights in every room; she was afraid of thunderstorms, she could remember some terrible tempests coming up from the sea and striking the marsh and the woods, blasting many trees and killing sheep and even human beings.
But Sir William dismissed her. He found a sensuous charm in this majestic disturbance of the elements. He sat at his open window and cast a clear and penetrating glance into the dark turmoil of the heavens. He thought that perhaps she would come tonight; he believed that his withdrawal was wearing down her lofty and contemptuous spirit, and soon she must surrender, and he waited, drowsy and eager, for her to come fearlessly through the dark and the storm. With his own hand he even set a supper on the heavy waxed and shining oak table: fruit, and wine, and sweet cakes.
Something, his conscience, his heart, or that high voice he had heard singing above the reaper's song, warned him that her coming might be little conducive to his future peace or welfare, but he recklessly continued in a delicious moment of expectation.
There was an intense stillness as if every living thing down to the smallest of weeds in the crevice of the walls were motionless, and as if every breathing thing down to the most timid mouse in the wainscot held its breath.
Then the storm broke directly above the Grange.
Sir William felt peace, satisfaction, and repose as he stood beneath this opulent display of celestial fury. He saw the heavenly fires flash beyond the window, showing in a second's greenish brilliancy the outline of the elm trees, the garden, the vases of withered flowers on the terrace. Or, if he turned to another window, showing the bare quadrangle and the great iron gates through which he had ridden in the tawdry, red rags with which so gaily he adorned himself as a mock devil.
She could not, of course, bold and fearless as she was, come through the full fury of the tempest, but he looked for her immediately afterwards.
The storm was short, the thunder rolled and muttered away towards the West and seemed to draw the oppressive heat with it. The lightning diminished to mere sparkles on the dim horizon far beyond the marsh. The stars showed behind the light, hurrying vapour; the moon had already set, and silence and a gentle breeze came like a benison on the land.
Sir William set the silver lamp in the window. It was to guide her, for he was still sure that she would come. He glanced at the table to see that all was set fairly; he held up a crystal flagon of wine so that the light of the lamp was reflected in the heart of it—rosy gold it was, old and perfumed. He turned about the peaches that had ripened on the southern red brick walk of the fruit garden. He had collected some small early pale-yellow apples, wall pears and plums with the bloom unimpaired, taken from the muslin bags which protected them from wasp and fly.
He took off his dark coat and fetched from the press one of a ruby-coloured velvet, with long skirt and wide cuffs that he had made the fashion in the city through the mere wearing of it at Court. He looked round for a mirror, but there was none in the room—and still she did not come.
He went down to the door and set it wide and looked across the quadrangle. Surely she would arrive through the iron gates. That would please her, he had eased and left them ajar on purpose, she had but to touch the cold metal and it would yield. The night was no longer very dark, the glimmer of the stars was sufficient and the way was very familiar to her, but still she did not come.
And when the dawn, with unusual magnificence, suddenly coloured the East with saffron he knew that she would not come, and for the first time since his arrival at Holcot Grange he felt a definite disappointment, a definite uneasiness.
With the full daylight Sir William rode over to Dr Rowland's strange dwelling, which he had some difficulty in finding; he had indeed to pause several times to ask his direction, once from a woman standing scouring a bowl at the door of a solitary cottage, and once from a shepherd, sitting on a knoll covered with wild thyme, watching his sheep.
It was a very fair, pure day, and there were larks singing in the upper air, and as Sir William rode across the fields and the hedgerows and out on the open ground that skirted the lower marsh he could discern in the distance, the shimmer of the blue sea. But for all that he no longer felt the ease and harmony which had been his for the last few days. That state of expectancy had been, indeed, too perfect to last. He was even touched by a certain fear and frequently looked behind him as he rode, though all around him was so clear and open that no one could have followed him nor lurked at his side, for there was nowhere for anyone to hide.
When he reached the oasthouse Dr Rowland himself came at once to the door and greeted him with the same emphatic courtesy he had used when he had met him at the Dower House.
Without any explanation of or excuse for his lack of service, Dr Rowland himself took Sir William's horse to the small stable, and then returned and conducted him to the room underneath the laboratory, which was reached by a ladder stairway and from which came faint fumes of chemicals.
Dr Rowland wore an ancient coat, stained and scorched from his various experiments. His hands in places were dyed with bluish patches, an overworn ribbon caught back his mane-like hair, and large spectacles disguised his piercing eyes.
Courteously he bade the young man be seated. Without any sign of haste or curiosity he waited for him to disclose his business, and Sir William came to this without any preamble.
'I want to know,' he asked, 'what you can tell me of Miss Julia Roseingrave.'
Dr Rowland answered at what appeared a tangent.
'Ah, of course, you are the young baronet, are you not? You own the whole estate and others beside. Those three creatures live on your charity.'
Sir William was angered at this, which was spoken in a tone of contempt, for he had never been ungenerous in these matters.
'I do not name it charity,' he answered dryly. 'Had they the whole Grange and all the estates for their pleasure, it had made little difference to me. I am not as rich as I was, but I have still sufficient not to miss the gift of Holcot Grange.'
'Ah, you boast, as the young and the rich and the well-favoured always do,' smiled Dr Rowland. 'No doubt it does not show much kindness in you to spare a house you do not want. I have thought before that you might have made some little provision beyond the Dower House for their poverty is very keen.'
'I did not even know of their existence and now I know very little about them.'
'What does their history really matter?' interrupted Dr Rowland, pointing his finger in the direction of the young man's heart.
'Nothing, indeed, to me, nothing, but—Madam Julia? You seem to be her only friend. What do you know of her?'
'The same as you know, Sir William, that she lives in that house in the middle of your park and tends her mother and her sister, and goes to church when she can be spared. She is very neat in her ways and she is dutiful in her behaviour.'
'I think all that,' said Sir William, lowering his voice, 'which I have remarked to be a delusion or even a snare. I do not consider this woman to be what she seems.'
'Why?' asked the Doctor coolly. He took off his glasses and wiped them on his sleeve, his eyes seemed to be heavy, bloodshot and weary.
'I think of my own life and I think of hers,' said the young man earnestly. 'I remember how I have lived all my days. We are much of an age, and she, I would swear, is no saint cut in marble on a tombstone, or in stone above a church door. She is flesh and blood. She has lived alone like that, without company, without love, without excitement? What is her secret? What is her charm?'
'You must find that out for yourself,' replied the doctor, 'for indeed I do not know it.'
'I thought,' confessed Sir William sullenly, 'that she would find some diversion in my company.' He hesitated, he seemed half likely to tell his adventure in Ballote Wood, but he held his tongue about this, partly because he thought he played a ridiculous part in the tale, partly because there was something about it he wished to keep as his own secret.
He then related how he had waited day after day for Miss Roseingrave to come to the Grange and how he had expected her after the storm. Dr Rowland laughed in a way that the young man found very little flattering.
'If you want her you must go after her. She is not a woman to come to a whistle. Nay, I do not think you would be able, were you to search for ten years, to find a spell strong enough to lure Julia Roseingrave to you.'
The young man caught at the word 'spell'.
'Do you know any charms?' he asked, half mocking, half earnest. 'Is there some potion that I could bribe Goody Cloke to put into that pale tea she drinks, that would make her come to me when I beckon? Any incantation I can mutter the next time the moon is full to make her walk through Ballote Wood or a meeting-place I should appoint?'
'I know of none,' said Dr Rowland. He looked at him straightly with his exhausted yet brilliant eyes, 'and, Sir William, you disturb me. I have my crucible on the furnace above. I am now, as always, on the verge of some strange, some golden secret.'
'Alchemy?' asked the young man, not without interest; he had, in his time, made his experiments.
'Hermetic Philosopy,' corrected Dr Rowland.
'And what have you discovered, my learned philosopher?'
'Enough to keep my lips sealed, Sir William.'
'I would pay you very well for some of this secret knowledge of yours.'
'There is nothing you could give me, for I have all that I want.'
'You have found then the secret of making gold?'
'I have more gold than suffices my needs,' parried Doctor Rowland.
'Then you might have helped those three women with whose poverty you have reproached me.'
'Perhaps I have done so,' said the Doctor gravely. 'How do you know that they had not starved were it not for my help?'
'As poor as that,' said Sir William, not without a malicious pleasure, 'then surely I have been too cautious, too timid. She can be bribed, if you may not be.'
'How could you bribe her?' asked Dr Rowland cautiously, staring at the blue stains on his hands.
'I should think—with anything! Surely she would be pleased enough to leave the woods, the park. Why, she has never been more than a few miles from where she lives since she came here twenty years ago.'
'You would no more move her than you would the foxgloves,' said Dr Rowland. 'They die when they are transplanted, you know.'
'Has she no ambitions, no desires?' asked the young baron impatiently. 'Come, you must know her heart if anyone does. Does she never sicken or weary of that wretched idiot, that paralysed woman, for company? Does she never want gay gowns nor jewels nor a festival nor a lover?'
'Go and ask her that yourself,' answered Dr Rowland indifferently.
'Aye, and so I will. But I have ridden here for your judgment, for your opinion.'
'Why should I give it you, Sir William?'
'Oh, I grant that you are not interested in me, nor my fortunes, but, say, for the sake of Miss Julia Roseingrave, so that I may know how to approach her without offence.'
Dr Rowland had gone to the ladder which led to his laboratory above. He paused there with one hand on the wooden rungs and looked back over his powerful shoulder as he answered:
'I would say that her dreams suffice her. That it were better for you and for her if you left her with those same dreams.'
Sir William was disappointed and angered. He left the old house and fetched his horse and rode back to Holcot Grange, not to the mansion, but straight through the park and under the chestnut trees to the Dower House. He fastened loosely the bridle to one of the lower boughs and entered the little garden, still stocked with pinks. The flowers seemed to last longer here than in any other place he had noticed near by, he thought as he passed under the fruiting bindweed and knocked on the porch.
It was she who opened to him, and immediately, as if she had been waiting for him behind the door.
She had on a thin dress of fine old silk, cowslip coloured and furbished, of a design of black violets on the sleeves and at the bosom. Her black hair was fastened with silver bodkins, she appeared to have prepared herself carefully for some extraordinary occasion. He came swiftly across the threshold and asked her why she had kept him waiting so long.
'For what?' asked she, and closed the door on him.
They stood close together in the narrow passage. Phoebe, from an upper room, was singing, plaintively, it was not a disagreeable nor a disturbing sound for a lovesick man; he took her by the arms.
'You were expecting me?' she asked, without fear, but not, he thought, without a certain edge of triumph to her voice, and he sacrificed his pride.
'Yes, and in particular on the night of the storm. How was it you did not come?'
'Was there a storm?' she asked drowsily. 'I must have slept, I did not hear it.'
He now longed for her so intensely that he trembled with impatience. Her coolness inflamed his desperation.
'How can you be so cruel, Julia, and waste so much time?'
'I have never wasted a second's time,' she said, entering the parlour, speaking over her shoulder. 'I enjoy every moment of my existence. I told you before that you did not enter into it. Have you come begging and pleading for my favour?'
A last flare of pride made him deny this. He tried to go, but his feet were like lead and his spirit sank into a very woe of despondency at the thought of leaving her. There had been an ecstasy to wait for her when he was sure of her, but now that she so perpetually denied him, and he could see no good end to his delay, the thought of the loneliness of the Grange became insupportable.
He began to offer her high and reckless bribes. 'I will give you anything you ask for. You can have no idea, living as you do, what I am able to offer you.'
'I only want one thing,' said Miss Roseingrave, looking at him steadily, out of those black eyes whose glance he never could meet with complete composure, 'and that, I think, you are in no mind to tender me.'
'You do not know me,' he protested. 'I am never minded to cheapen a woman's favours.'
'I perceive,' she said, 'that you misconceive me utterly. You will never get as much as a smile from me until I am your promised wife.'
He was, at this, amazed to the swallowing up of all other possible emotions, and then he laughed, and opened his mouth as if to speak, then changed his mind. She stood very coolly waiting for his answer, but her glance was not indifferent.
'My wife. Now that's a strange request. Now that's a curious wish.'
'It is my request and my wish. There are no other terms on which you get anything from me.'
He was silent for a while and seemed to listen to the song of Phoebe coming from the upper room.
'I had not thought of it, but, as you will. My wife, then, and how soon?'
Julia Roseingrave strongly shuddered, as if his abrupt surrender brought more distress than delight.
'We will go away from here,' she said. 'I shall pay someone to look after my mother and Phoebe. We will go far away across the sea.'
He shook his head.
'No, my dear, you belong here, to Holcot Grange. I should not care to see you transplanted. Dr Rowland said you were like the foxgloves that died as soon as they were plucked or removed.'
'Did you see Dr Rowland, then?' she asked, very sharp.
'I rode over today and asked him if he knew of a spell to get you for me. But it seems that you are not so difficult. A mere wedding-ring—I might have thought of that myself.'
'You'll take me away,' she repeated. It was more like a command than an entreaty.
He shook his head again. For him she was one with Ballote Wood and the park and chestnut trees and the deserted Grange. He would not dare to break the spell by taking her away. He, too, had his commands to give.
'You will marry me within a day or so and come and live with me at the Grange. You will do as I wish or I am like to prove an ill husband. And you must like me a little, too,' he added, 'for I will make no hollow bargain.'
She answered, her voice was heavy with passion:
'Oh, William, I shall like you well enough.'
He stepped towards her, but she raised her hand and such was the force of her gesture that she seemed to shut gates between them. 'I am going upstairs to give my hour's reading to my mother. You can go to the church and have the banns called. Remember, when we are married I shall belong to you entirely, we can afford to wait.'
Thus dismissed he left her, at once in an ecstasy and raging with deep pain.
Julia Roseingrave glided into the kitchen where Goody Cloke was making camomile tea.
'I have him, Mother Cloke, and without any of your spells,' she whispered. 'He has been here this afternoon and with very little ado promised to make me his wife. You see what I have gained by holding back. No town madam of great experience could have behaved with greater discretion.'
'You are very clever, Miss Roseingrave,' said Goody Cloke with admiration, 'and I, poor old woman as I am, have helped a little.'
'You shall be rewarded,' said Miss Julia carelessly, 'you shall be rewarded. I shall pay you good gold every week to stay here with my mother and sister while I go away.'
'While you go away,' echoed the old woman. 'Do you think you are wise? You will give up such a deal when you leave Holcot Grange, will you not? All the places and the people, and the dreams.'
'I shall see the world, Goody Cloke, for the first time. I shall ride in a carriage. I shall sleep in a gilt bed with vermilion curtains. I shall have diamonds to put round my throat and pearls to put in my ears. I shall have fine paints and unguents and powders to put upon my face and make myself a real beauty. I shall go where people admire me. I shall hear music and see dancing, I shall travel and behold many strange spectacles.'
'Do you think you will be happy?' said the old woman, crushing the yellow flowers. 'Do you really suppose that you will not find all those worldly pleasures brittle and hollow?'
'Sometimes I'm afraid so, sometimes I fear that I have lived here too long. I daresay I shall be homesick for the solitude. And there's the man himself, Mother Cloke, the man himself.'
'Does he please you?' asked the old woman, pausing in her labour. The mangled daisies sent up an acrid perfume.
'Too well,' said Miss Roseingrave, 'too well.'
It was their whim to be married in the little chapel of the Grange, which was to be cleaned and furnished for the occasion. Mrs Barlow and the maids worked diligently to scour and polish.
The gardens were searched for trophies of the late summer to deck the altar. There was not much to be found, only late marigolds, St Michael's daisies, and a few spears of tawny lilies.
'Not like bridal flowers,' grumbled Mrs Barlow, who disliked the marriage and the bride, and had nothing but fear for the bridegroom. It was all ill-omened, she said, and seemed more like the fulfilling of the curse on the Grange than anything else, and unnatural that Sir William should be married in this hole-and-corner fashion so far from his friends and his usual company.
And as for Julia Roseingrave, no one had ever imagined that she would marry at all. A sly, ambitious hussy she must have been, Mrs Barlow thought, who had waited patiently with her air of decorum and virtue for so long, ready to pounce on the first likely man who came her way. And lucky she had been to have found such a chance as that of a marriage with Sir William Notley!
Miss Roseingrave had few preparations to make for her marriage. As soon as she was Sir William's wife she intended to leave Holcot Grange and all the surrounding country, and leave it for ever. But at the present moment, a certain sloth and languor enveloped her, and she could not endure to make the long journey necessary to procure herself a fine wedding gown.
She therefore turned over the ancient garments belonging to her mother that she had stored in a press in her bedchamber. These were tarnished, and some even rent. She discovered one of rich white silk which greatly took her fancy, but it fell to pieces in her hand. So she resolved to be married in the gown of cowslip-coloured silk embroidered with the purple black violets.
What did it matter?—the few who would be present at her wedding knew her so well that she could not hope to impress them. And her bridegroom would care little what her garments were.
Three days before her wedding day she sat at the window sewing ruffles, which Mother Cloke had washed, mended and ironed, on to the wrists and bosom of this gown. Her mother lay on a couch in this same chamber and regarded her daughter secretly from under the shade of her frilled cambric cap.
Miss Roseingrave believed that her mother understood very well all about her marriage. She had told her in clear, deliberate tones and a slight convulsion had passed over the paralysed face of the dumb woman, as if she understood that she was to be left to the care of the herb woman while her daughter went far away out into the varying world that she herself had left so long ago.
Phoebe had certainly understood, for her mind had been quite clear of late, as it often was for months together, and when she heard that her sister was going away she had danced and clapped her hands above her head, upon which Miss Roseingrave had smiled at Mother Cloke, who had said: 'Ungrateful, and after all your kindness.'
'Those poor, simple creatures read the heart,' replied Miss Julia calmly, 'and I have never felt any kindness to her nor to my mother. Indeed, I often wonder what induced me to spend such long years with these two poor wretches.'
Looking up now from her fine sewing Miss Julia smiled and nodded across the green shade of the room. The chamber had a look as if it were under water by reason of the shadows of the trees without.
'Are you glad, Mother, that I am making this splendid and marvelous match and going far away? Perhaps you, like Phoebe, would clap your hands if you had the use of them, to be rid of me. It will make little difference to you, I think, whether or no I am gone, for the herb woman will look after you quite well.'
But though the words in themselves were gentle and even affectionate, Miss Julia's looks at the afflicted woman were keen and even mocking and Mrs Roseingrave dropped her eyelids and again that convulsion passed over her distorted face, as if she felt, like a stab in the heart, the harsh unkindness of her daughter.
There was a knock at the door, and Miss Julia's smooth, triumphant face clouded.
'That is Sir William, and I told him not to come. I shall be staled in his regard before we are married,' she added vexedly, and put down her sewing and descended the small stairs.
It was not her lover who stood under the ripening berries of the woodbine, but a stranger and a woman.
'Are you Miss Roseingrave?'
The accents were timid and accompanied by a gesture of clasped hands, almost like a supplication.
'I am she, madam.'
'Then perhaps you will let me come into your house. This is the Dower House of Holcot Grange, is it not?'
'It is so, madam.'
'Let me come into your house,' pursued the stranger with an increasing difficulty, as if she were faint and exhausted, 'to speak to you a little while. Perhaps, too, you will give me shelter for the night, for I have nowhere else to go.'
'Madam, there is an inn in the village,' said Miss Roseingrave, courteously, but not moving from the open door, 'and it is not so many miles, and an easy walk through the shadows of the woods.'
'I do not wish to go there,' said the stranger, in a low and humble voice; 'I want a woman's support and succour. I have travelled a long way today and I am very fatigued. I pray you, of your charity, allow me a little repose in your parlour.'
At that, Miss Roseingrave stood aside, and the other woman passed her with a deep sigh. She was young and very fair. There was dust on her shoes and bonnet. She walked heavily and Julia Roseingrave felt a ready contempt for her as she motioned her into the parlour where a large jar of tall foxgloves with spotted throats wide open and half-bursting seed pods hanging from the lower portion of the stems, stood in the centre of the table.
Miss Roseingrave offered the exhausted stranger a seat, and at the same time told her briefly that she was burdened with the care of an invalid mother and an imbecile sister, and was herself occupied with preparations for sudden departure, therefore she feared, whatever the lady's circumstances, she could be of little help.
'Yes, I know about your mother and sister, Miss Roseingrave,' said the stranger meekly. 'I was told about them at a cottage where I inquired, and that is really why I came to you. I thought that you must be a very good and gentle woman, living here so long with such a task. "Surely," I said to myself, "this lady will help me." But I shall not long trespass on your time or your good humour. Holcot Grange is my destination, and I should not in any case have delayed here long.'
'Holcot Grange,' repeated Miss Roseingrave, peering at the other behind the topmost spikes of the foxgloves.
'Yes, the truth is, Miss Roseingrave, that I have come to speak to my husband.'
'Madam, you will not find him at the Grange. This is a very solitary place.'
'Oh,' exclaimed the lady, in a tone of deep disappointment, and rising in her agitation, 'did not Sir William Notley come here a few weeks ago?'
'Yes, madam, Sir William Notley, but you said your husband?'
'Sir William is my husband,' said the lady.
Miss Roseingrave remained rigid, peering through the topmost branch of the foxgloves.
A sudden panic of unnameable terror set the other woman crying out. It was like the impotent buzzing of a fly who realises that he is caught in the web.
'Oh, I will go, I beg you not to concern yourself'. Indeed, I was distracted, or I should not have disturbed you! I will go at once to the Grange.'
She tried to escape from the room, but Miss Roseingrave moved swiftly before the door.
'It were better for all of us, madam, if you were to tell me your story first. Perhaps, indeed, I can help you.'
'I would rather be gone,' protested the other, but Miss Roseingrave dominated her without much trouble, and motioned her back to the chintz seat in the window-place, and bade her tell her tale.
'I have been married five years, Miss Roseingrave, and we have two little children. He certainly has neglected me very much of late, and been wild and getting into bad company and I have been unhappy. But he is my husband always, and the man whom I love, and when he fled from town some weeks ago I could not endure it but must make enquiries as to his whereabouts. There was a friend of his who was in his confidence, and who would solace me, and told me where he was, but said I had best leave him alone, so I wrote several times and had no answer. Then I thought how strange and dreadful it was that he should be so far away and I know nothing of what was happening to him. So I decided to come to Holcot Grange and find him for myself.
'Perhaps he is repentant,' said Miss Roseingrave.
'Ah, I should not use that word, it is cruel. And, after all, he did little harm on the night of the masquerade. It was another who struck the fatal blow.'
'Does anyone know that you have come here, Lady Notley?' asked Miss Roseingrave.
'Indeed no, madam, I dared tell none, for I knew that all would endeavour to prevent me, so I came secretly and travelled without incident. I have plenty of money. I left the coach three hours ago, and have been walking ever since. I had only to enquire my way once.'
'Why did you not, madam, go directly to the Grange?'
'I do not know. My courage failed me, I suppose. He can be very violent and dreadful. And I believe,' the tears lay in her gentle eyes, 'that he has long since ceased to care much for me, Miss Roseingrave. Perhaps he will resent that I have followed him, and so I asked if there was any about here with whom I could stay a little first to repose myself, and you were named.'
'You have done well, Lady Notley,' said Miss Roseingrave. 'It is true that Sir William is at the Grange, and has lived there very quietly, and seen no one but Mr Morley of Griffinshaws, the steward. I know nothing at all of his history, and indeed have seen him but seldom, and I shall be very pleased if you will come up to my room and rest. I will make you a dish of tea and you may bathe your hands and face and raise your spirits before you visit your husband.'
Lady Notley thanked Miss Roseingrave warmly and went upstairs eagerly enough, for indeed she was much fatigued, both by hard and unusual travelling and by the alternate elation and depression of her spirits. With a sigh of relief she stretched herself on Miss Roseingrave's narrow bed with the dimity coverlet, and, expressing her deep thankfulness for so much kindness, was soon asleep.
Miss Roseingrave looked at her keenly. She was a very fair woman, and if she were happy, might indeed be most beautiful.
Miss Roseingrave opened the bag that the strange lady had brought with her and found within it a miniature of Sir William Notley, a little packet of love letters, several rings, plenty of money, and two little drawings of young children in a book made of white satin.
Miss Roseingrave put all these objects carefully back in their place and went downstairs to the kitchen, where Mother Cloke was crimping and goffering a white dress for Phoebe to wear on the wedding-day.
'Mother Cloke,' said Miss Roseingrave, carefully closing the kitchen door, 'his wife has come searching for him. She is upstairs asleep now. They have two children.'
'His wife?' said Mother Cloke, in a whistling whisper. 'Why, it is some impostor, surely.'
'She is too much a baby fool to be an impostor,' said Miss Julia. 'I am a fool, too. I should have known from the readiness with which he agreed to our marriage that I was being deceived.'
Mother Cloke was frightened by her calmness.
'He is indeed a wicked man, Miss Roseingrave. You have been sorely deceived. What are you going to do?'
'She is wholly in my power,' said Miss Julia calmly. 'Though you could not help me to a love potion, Goody Cloke, I suppose there is another matter in which you could assist very well.'
The glances of the two women met, then Mother Cloke said, fearfully:
'Hush, Miss Phoebe is in the closet, eating cherry preserve, which I have given her to keep her quiet. She will have overheard every word of what we have said.'
'What does that matter, Goody Cloke? She understands nothing.'
But the herb woman was frightened, for she knew that the idiot girl did very often understand quite well what was said. In the rest of her conversation with Miss Roseingrave she lowered her voice, the two of them bending close together over the table, where lay the dainty piles of clear starched and goffered frocks and aprons and caps.
Phoebe Roseingrave was unnaturally swift and tireless. She could run, the villagers said, as fast as a hare, and they were often frightened to see how quickly she sped across the meadows and the marsh.
This afternoon, with smears of cherry preserve still on her lips and fingers she fled through the sunlight to the oasthouse were Dr Rowland lived. Once or twice she paused, completely forgetting her errand, and was distracted by the chasing of a mouse through the dry grasses or the sound of a skylark singing high above her head. But always there came back into her mind what she had to do, and when she arrived at the oasthouse, she was quite clear about her message.
'Why, poor Phoebe,' said Dr Rowland as he admitted her. 'It is a long time since I have seen you. Now, what brought you here all through the heat?'
And then she again forgot what she had to say and began to gibber and grimace, so he thought that this uncommon visit was but a whim of her imbecility and gave her a pack of cards to play with and went upstairs to his laboratory.
Phoebe lay on the floor in the square patch of sunlight that fell through the high windows and played with the cards which were covered with strange devices in red, green and yellow. She looked like Miss Julia Roseingrave when she lay there, long, slim, and graceful, with a swathe of black hair falling over her shoulders and her straight featured, pale face.
Then she remembered why she had run away into the empty afternoon. She sprang up and called up the ladder staircase: 'Dr Rowland! Dr Rowland!' So that he opened the top door and looked down, wiping his fingers on the leathern apron that he used when he was making his experiments.
'Oh, Dr Rowland,' said Miss Phoebe, slyly, 'Julia and Mother Cloke are making the foxglove tea for the strange lady who came this afternoon.'
'And who is the strange lady, my poor child?'
Phoebe grinned, showing her pale gums and long teeth.
'She is Sir William Notley's wife, and Julia was going to marry him.'
'Ali, yes, Julia is going to be married in two days' time,' frowned Dr Rowland. 'It had gone out of my head, it does not matter very much. I suppose it means she will go away, I shall certainly miss her.'
'But the wife has come, the wife has come!' said Phoebe, dancing round in the patch of sunlight on the bright faces of the fallen cards.
'You wild, mad thing,' said Dr Rowland, 'you are not telling the truth.'
'The truth, the truth!' shrieked Phoebe, leaping like poor Wat in the moonlight, and she opened the door and tore away across the sunny silence.
Dr Rowland stood thoughtfully at the top of the ladder stairway.
'If such a thing should be true, would Julia act like that? And if she intended to act like that, should I wish to prevent it? What will it matter one way or another? We shall all be dust ere the least of the stars have twinkled twice,' and he closed the door and went back to his experiments.
Miss Roseingrave and Mother Cloke were so occupied that afternoon that they did not notice the absence of Phoebe nor how, when she came home, she crept upstairs to her sister's bedroom and gaped long and curiously at the stranger, heavily asleep on the dimity-covered bed, and after that went to where her mother lay and whispered to her long and eagerly.
Although Miss Julia was not aware of the fact, these two understood each other perfectly. Mrs Roseingrave could use her left hand a little and shape a few characters on paper, though with difficulty. A pencil usually lay within her reach and she contrived to get hold of this, when Phoebe had finished her chatter, and to write with painful effort a few words on a fly-leaf she tore out of the Bible. It took her some time to accomplish this task, and Phoebe gaped at her the while without offering to help.
What Mrs Roseingrave had written was: 'Your wife is here,' and the name of Sir William Notley.
She pushed this paper into Phoebe's hands and tried to convey to her that she was to deliver it to the Baronet. Phoebe ran out of the room as if she had understood, but no sooner had she left her mother's presence than she forgot all about the paper and went out into the park, chasing the blue butterflies she saw flying under the chestnut trees, and in this frantic pursuit the paper fell out of her bosom, where she had tucked it, on to the path which led to Holcot Grange.
So that Sir William, coming towards the Dower House at the hour of sunset saw the paper, picked it up, and read the message.
Sir William went on steadily towards the Dower House. His startled thoughts had at first leapt in amaze, but afterwards it seemed to him that if his wife had followed him it were but a reasonable thing and what he should have expected. He ought to have known the lengths to which her fidelity, devotion, and innocent affection would drive her. When he had burnt her letters, one after another, holding them in a candle, and watching with delight the thin paper curl, he ought to have realised he would not be rid of her so easily.
And now she was at the Dower House and in the power of Julia Roseingrave. Julia must know by now his deception. Had she herself written the message in the uncouth characters and thrown it where he was sure to meet it on his path? How would she take this strange turn, but two days off her wedding? His mood became dark, sullen, and dangerous. He had planned it all so neatly, and all had gone so smoothly. Why should he have supposed that in this remote place any evil chance would find him out? But he knew only too well that there was no hiding from destiny.
When he came in sight of the brick fašade of the house with the ripening woodbine over the door and the last carnations blowing sweetly in the neat garden, he vowed in his soul that come what may he would not lose Julia Roseingrave and he felt a deep anger against his innocent wife, who, in a folly of love, had thus thwarted his designs.
Miss Julia did not come at once when he knocked, but when she did open the door to him her face was stormy and her greeting cold.
'I told you to stay away from me till our wedding-day,' she said.
'I could not, Julia, I love you too much. You are in my thoughts day and night. You come between me and sleep.'
She allowed him to enter the parlour. The foxgloves were gone from the table. As she seated herself in a haughty and displeased acquiescence in his presence, he saw at once that she was not going to tell him of her visitor. She, then, had not written the paper, and he wondered what he should do. His mood became, like hers, exasperated and dangerous.
She fenced with him for a little while, talking of indifferent matters and basing her coldness and her displeasure on his breaking of the rule she had laid down that he was not to try to see her till their wedding morning. But her arts were of little avail with him. All the course of his licentious and lawless life he had not been used to intrigue or to subtle meanings, so he broke bluntly and impatiently through her fine and delicate sentences.
'I found this on my path just now, Julia, as I came through the chestnut trees. Is it a trick or a jest? and he held out to her the fly-leaf of the Bible on which was painfully traced the message from the paralytic woman.
Miss Julia Roscingrave betrayed herself by a hot flush of anger, and a quiver in her voice in which she said:
'Who dared write that? Did Phoebe, after all, understand?
'My wife is here, then,' said Sir William Notley, coldly, returning the paper to his breast pocket, 'now, why did you conceal that from me, Juha?'
'Why did you conceal from me that you had a wife at all?' she demanded passionately. Then, staying his reply, with a contemptuous gesture she answered herself. 'But I should know you thought I was a rustic fool, to be easily caught and so I was such a fool and so caught.'
'Why should you think,' he demanded scornfully, 'that I was not married? Did you think at my age with my rank that I should be still free? And if I had been, do you suppose that I should have married you?'
'I had very little experience,' said Miss Roseingrave, 'and I was deceived.'
'I do not believe you,' he said. 'It suited you to pretend to be deceived.'
'Leave it like that, then, Sir William, it matters very little now. I have been saved in time.'
'Saved from me, do you mean? Indeed, Julia, you do not know what you are talking about. The fact that this poor foolish woman has come here will make no difference, none at all. I must and will have you.'
She smiled without answering, and maddened by her coldness, he added:
'If you wish for the wedding to deceive those about here, let us have it, and on some excuse I will send this poor fool back to the city.'
'She will not go,' said Miss Roseingrave. 'She loves you. I wonder why? You are a worthless man.'
'Do not you love me, Julia?'
'I intend to marry you,' she replied, and he was angered that she should be such a powerful magnet of attraction to him, when he could get no confession of passion from her cool lips.
This sudden and unexpected obstacle caused by the arrival of his wife further inflamed his wild illicit desire for Julia Roseingrave, a desire that seemed to him like a fever, something not quite normal, nor quite sane, so that sometimes it seemed to him that she had indeed bewitched him or cast some spell upon his senses.
It was not love, this passion, and sometimes it was near to hate. Now, as he sat quite close to her in the neat, overcrowded parlour he felt a sensation of repulsion—a desire to escape from the room, the house, the company of the woman; he felt that beneath all this parade of decorum and prudery there lay some trap, and again he seemed to hear that high, thin voice calling a warning.
His sight seemed affected and he struggled against the hallucination that the room was full of phantoms, moving, tall grey figures who came and went, and circled round and about the erect lovely shape, and cold smooth face of Miss Julia Roscingrave.
'The strain is intolerable,' he muttered, 'and I detest this place. We must get away. What does it matter about my wife? She can return as she came.'
'Have you no care at all, then, for her safety? Is not her dignity and honour something involved in yours?'
'I cannot think about that now. She has her own relatives. She is a woman who will take care of herself, she is very nice and fastidious.'
He scarcely knew what he said.
'She is sleeping upstairs,' said Miss Roseingrave, 'would you like to go and see her?'
'No, no,' he said violently.
'She has brought with her your portrait, and that of your children. She seems a good, sweet, gentle fool.'
'I never wish to see her again. She must not come between you and me, Julia.'
'She has come. She is your wife, and I, as I told you before, will not belong to you on any other terms than that of marriage.'
He felt impotent before her, corrupt and debased even from his own low standard. He had already understood her meaning and cried out in rage, because the solution that she now offered to him was unescapable and inevitable, was one that had come to him when he picked up the letter on the path under the chestnut trees, and one, too, that he had rejected with instantaneous horror, and now, in a sudden flash of terror, he saw that what Miss Julia Roseingrave proposed was not by any means to be rejected or slighted. He was in her snare, he could not lose her nor slight her...
'No one knows she is here,' said Miss Julia Roseingrave, speaking quietly, with her hands folded in her lap. And she related to his sullen silence the tale that Lady Notley had related.
'I should have expected it. I daresay her letters that I destroyed gave me some warning of it,' he said, with dull fury. 'But I did not wish to break the enchantment. Yes, it is as if I had been under an enchantment here. I want to forget her and all the old life.'
And then, undisciplined and fickle, violent and sudden as he was, he began to struggle against his destiny, which he read clearly enough in the lustrous dark eyes of Julia Roseingrave.
'Cannot we go away together, you and I, and leave the poor fool alone? I shall never look at her again if you are jealous of her.'
'Jealous,' interrupted Julia, 'not I!'
'Will nothing please you,' he pleaded, 'but to be my wife? I must have you and that you know. But here is a price I would never pay. Had this fond wretch never come to interrupt us I would have married you and you would have been my wife for all you had known. We would have gone abroad together.'
'You babble nonsense,' she interrupted. 'I should have found out and quite soon. As soon as I had left these solitudes and gone into the world the truth would have been manifest and then I should have hated you, and perhaps I should have—'
She paused, but he understood what she would have said.
'I daresay you know a few dangerous secrets,' he muttered. 'You mean that you would have revenged yourself on me.'
'I want,' she said, 'some of the prizes and honours of the world or nothing. I have been content in this desolation, for I have had sharp and sweet dreams, and if you take those from me you must give me something else. I shall be your wife and mistress of all you own, or I shall remain here, forgetting you quite easily and live as I lived before, on phantoms.'
'You talk and talk but to torment me, for you know that I cannot forgo you. I believe that you have given me some potion to drink.' Then he broke off and asked distractedly: 'What do you intend to do? We are in a far corner of the world here, but, remember, we are still in it. Do nothing that will put you in peril.'
'I shall do nothing at all,' she said, 'it was all in my hands and I intended to settle it by myself. I and Goody Cloke. Now you have interfered you may take it on to yourself.'
'I?' he asked, and terror flashed in his eyes. 'You want me to do it?'
'Why, certainly. If you want me it should not be so much to you to destroy what comes between us.'
'To destroy!' he echoed.
'Well, perhaps you are sorry for her!' mocked Miss Roseingrave. 'Perhaps you think of your two young children and all she endured for your sake, the tender, innocent love she still bears for you. Well, if these things influence you, you may go upstairs and take her by the hand and go on your knees and beg her to forgive you, and go away with her and leave me here alone.'
'You know,' he muttered in agony, 'that I cannot do this. You and I are bound together, by some horrid mischance, perhaps, Julia, but bound together none the less. And if marriage is the only way—'
'Nothing else concerns me,' she said. 'I wish to be Lady Notley.'
And he laughed because her intention and her words sat grotesquely together. And behind his own voice he heard again and very faintly, the shrill warning echo.
'She need not suffer,' he said sullenly.
'Why, no, Mother Cloke is very skilful. She will make a cordial that you shall give her and that will set her at rest for ever.'
'I cannot do it, Julia. I cannot see her, and do this.'
'You must. I desire you to do it. There is no escape. It must be quickly before anyone knows that she is here.'
Miss Roseingrave rose and approached him, speaking in a low, rapid whisper, that he listened to, fascinated as if indeed this were an incantation that she wove about his excited and bewildered senses.
He had an even deeper impression than before, that mysterious figures wove a mystic dance round about her and that the small, neat parlour was crowded with menacing phantoms.
'She will wake presently and I shall go up to her, and say that I have sent a message to the Grange, telling you of her arrival here and bidding you to come. And then she will be soothed and calmed and I shall help her make herself neat. She will come down and receive you here, and I shall come in as the pleasant, agreeable hostess and hand you a drink that you must not touch yourself but give to her. Then all will be over quite suddenly.'
'Why should you put this on to me? Why should you not take this terrible sin on your own head and hands? You gain the prize.'
He spoke thickly, from a wilderness of dreams, pressed on him very closely.
'Prize!' she cried. 'Am I no prize?'
And overpowered by the force of her and the strong truth of what she said, he went down on his knees and buried his face in the thin silk cushion, stuffed with hops for drowsiness, that lay on the little sofa.
'Never mind for what comes after,' she said, standing erect over him. 'What troubled sleep or restless dreams or flat disappointment. We have made our bargain and resolved to put it through. And shall this poor, slight thing come between us? And it can be done so easily.'
He looked up at her, his face haggard between the fallen dark locks.
'Afterwards it will be so easy,' said she, swiftly understanding him. 'You and I and Mother Cloke will take her out after it is dark and down to Ballote Wood. There has been a long drought, but the rain will come soon. Mother Cloke says so and she is always right—the pond, where you saw me bathing—'
'It was you, then?' he asked dully.
'Who should it be but I? That pond is nearly dry now, the lily roots are all exposed to the sun and rotting. There we may easily dig—the ground is soft, and anything placed there would sink immediately. And afterwards, when the rain comes, all will be hidden, and the lilies will grow again and no one will ever go searching near there for the place is supposed to be haunted.'
Miss Roseingrave lifted her lip at his silence.
'Could she have a better end? It is pleasanter for her this way than to live married to you.'
Then, as he did not move, she added:
'You are very faint-hearted. Is this worse than other things you have done?'
He rose to his feet and tried to menace her.
'Why should I not have my own way? Why should you plan this for me? You are fixing a dark stain on my soul that I shall never efface. This place is indeed cursed and haunted.'
He began to rave and to lament. She placed a cool, long hand on his arm, and bade him be silent, and then he shuddered with a baser fear.
'Have we been overheard? You trust Mother Cloke, you say? Why should we? Is it safe?'
'I will answer for her,' said Miss Roseingrave.
But his mean terror was not to be assuaged so easily. 'And the letter? Who dropped the letter in my path?'
'That must be some trick on the part of Phoebe,' she frowned. 'The girl is an idiot, and even if she should speak she will not be listened to.'
Sir William said: 'I never thought to be so under anyone's domination as I am under yours. The time will come when your spell will break and I shall loathe you.'
He would have said more and fallen to raging again, but she stemmed the torrent of his words by saying coldly:
'Begone, and come again about nine o'clock when it is quite dark.'
And he left her and returned to Holcot Grange.
The young man, alone in the empty house, brooded over what he was about to do. An extraordinary change had fallen over the empty apartments, the garden, and the landscape. He could not blame himself for his wickedness, for he was involved in a miasma of evil which penetrated into his veins with every breath he drew.
All fresh fragrancy had gone from the trees, and all perfumed beauty from the flowers. Everything was of a rancid yellow or a withered brown—rotting, corrupting, and rank.
As he had wandered by the quidnunc he had found a dead dove in his path and swarms of poisonous flies glimmered round the unwholesome seeds of exotic plants. The sky was a dull, sulphurous colour and there was not the slightest stir of wind.
The phantoms that he had noticed with such terror in the Dower House accompanied him to the Grange. They all, he thought, seemed aware of his diabolic purpose; he half believed them to be but the projections of his own delirium, and half feared they were the attendants of Julia Roseingrave sent to encompass him with demoniacal promptings until he had done her bidding.
He felt utterly exhausted and the exasperation of his disappointed desire put him out of harmony with everything, as suddenly as, a short while before, he had felt at one with the universe. Then, all had been smooth, now all was ajar. His misery was acute.
He wandered away to gaze in the chapel, where all was now complete for his accursed marriage. He realised that she would be his wife in very truth, not that mock bride that he had desired her to be. He could not peer into the future at all nor speculate on how long they would stay together, nor what their joint actions would be nor where they would go.
He shuddered at the thought of what she had bid him do, and, on the verge of delirium as he was, he saw his wife's eyes looking at him meekly, with an inexpressible tenderness and lustrous with tears.
Yet he knew that he could neither disobey nor forgo Julia Roseingrave.
The future was to him so dark and full of menace, yet it was shot with a hope of dreadful joy. Surely, in the possession of that woman he would know some such ecstasy as he had hitherto only touched in the phantasmagoria of dreams.
Yet as he waited under this strain and terror for the dark to fall, which would be the signal for him to go again to the Dower House, he thought of Miss Roseingrave almost with repugnance, and his mind, on the verge of complete overthrow, began to dwell on the question as to how long he should support her company.
She had largely won him by withholding herself so completely. Once she was completely his he might quickly tire, and he resolved with half-insane cunning that he would obtain from her the secret of Mother Cloke's potion, and take one with him on his wedding journey, and as soon as he had tired of her perverse and poisonous beauty, administer to her the same quictus for life's fever that she proposed to give his wife.
His broken and distracted thoughts hung about that word, and he thought of Blanche as she had been when he had first married her five years ago. So gay and charming and unsuspecting of evil, so fond and gracious! How soon he had tired of her tender affections, of her insipid talk, and shallow mind!
He began to consider the lily pond where he had first seen Julia Roseingrave bathing. Now, another tress of hair, this time pale, would float upon what was left of the stagnant water, and another face more deadly white even than that of Miss Roseingrave would show for a while between the lily roots.
It was all very cleverly contrived; never would he be suspected. Those who had missed his wife from the city might think a thousand times before they would fall upon the truth. Probably they would consider that the fond wretch must have drowned herself because she had loved and been forsaken.
Dimly there came to him the thought of his two little children, but this moved him not at all.
At sunset the spell on him deepened, and when Mrs Barlow came to set his last meal before him, she was frightened at his face, so scowling was he with his head thrust forward from his hunched-up shoulders.
How changed, she thought, from the man she had seen unmasked for the first time when she had brought Mr Morley of Griffinshaws into his presence some weeks ago! Yet even then she had thought his aspect dreadful.
In silence she laid out his food and wine. She was rather glad that he did not speak to her, yet his dumbness frightened her, too. And she wished that the Vicar lived nearer, that she might send one of the servant girls for him and bid him come over and keep her master company that night.
She thought to herself as she hurried from the Grange to the servants' quarters:
'This is an accursed marriage. Surely it is bringing a disaster with it.'
Sir William could not touch any of his food. Indeed, he scarcely saw it was there, but he rose up from the undisturbed table and went into the little parlour where he had first seen Mother Cloke with her basket of herbs and tried to play on the various instruments. But he found those that were stringed had all the cords snapped and those that were keyed were out of tune and jarred horribly when he touched them. And as he stood among all this ruined music, he realised that the day was darkening down and that soon it would be time for him to go to the Dower House. And all the phantoms seemed to crowd up close about him, pressing on his lips and bosom until he could scarcely breathe.
And he thought: 'This is the doom of all my evil life. It is now useless to think of escape.'
Dr Rowland's experiment had failed. There was nothing in the bottom of the crucible, that should have held flakes of pure gold, but a little evil-smelling deposit.
He laughed at himself, then damped his furnaces, locked the door of his laboratory and went out into the evening air.
A melancholy light was diffused over the far horizon. The delicate glow of evening diffused the dry September landscape into a semblance of beauty.
It was a long time since Doctor Rowland had left his laboratory or given much thought to anything besides his experiments. Now that the last of these had failed, his interest in worldly affairs revived, and he thought with delight of Julia Roseingrave and of the long hours which he would, for a space, spend in her company. And how she would comfort him in his disappointment, and how he would discuss with her fresh efforts to be made in the future.
And then he recalled, as idly he watched some thistledown seeds blown across his path, that Julia Roseingrave was to be married and would go away, leaving him quite desolate.
'Why that,' he said, half aloud, 'would overthrow me quite.'
And he wondered at what manner of trance he had been in, so to overlook this great misfortune, and he recalled the coming of Phoebe.
Had it been today, or yesterday, or the day before? What had she said? 'Sir William's wife has come back and Julia and Mother Cloke are going to give her the foxglove tea.' There was no trust to be put in anything that the idiot might say. But that did not concern him. He must keep Julia for himself.
He returned to his stable and saddled his willing horse, which yearned for the road after too long a stabling, and rode briskly to Holcot Grange.
He arrived there when the dusk had settled into complete dark. He had never been to the deserted Grange before, and he never thought of using the large front gates, but went instead to the servants' entrance and left his horse there, and Mrs Barlow brought him into the Grange by the side door, which she used herself, and so into the presence of Sir William as he was leaving the music-room, with an intent look as one drawn by a lodestone against his will, to go through the park and under the chestnut trees to the Dower House where both his wife and Julia Roseingrave waited for him.
The young man did not recognise his visitor and made a movement to pass him, as if, indeed, he were not there. But Dr Rowland detained him by taking him strongly by the wrist, drawing him into the room where all the broken musical instruments stood, and one lamp burnt in the window place.
'Where are you going, Sir William Notley? To visit Miss Roseingrave?'
'That is my destination,' replied the other in a muffled voice. 'And who are you, for indeed I cannot recall your features? But whoever you are,' he added, with impatience, 'you must not interrupt me now, I have serious business to do.'
'You look disordered,' said Dr Rowland, spying at him deeply from behind his silver-rimmed spectacles, 'and as if you were weighed down by dead sins and a debauched mind. Your pulse beats too fast and I think you are fevered. It were better for you to leave Julia Roseingrave alone.'
'I am to marry her, in two days' time,' and like one who has conned a lesson, the young man repeated, 'two days' time, in two days' time I am to be married to Julia Roseingrave.'
'No,' said Dr Rowland, flinging away from him with a movement of contempt the young man's hot hand, which until now he had held in his own, 'you're going to do nothing of the kind. I should have stopped this before. But I have been busy with an experiment which has, alas, come to nothing.'
'You will stop my marriage?'
'Miss Roseingrave is mine,' said Dr Rowland. 'How do you think that we have, either of us, endured this solitude, if we did not belong one to another? Whatever feeling you may have for her, or she for you, it is but visionary and transitory, she and I are together in this landscape, in this place, and always will be. You cannot remove her.'
'You are some demon or devil in disguise, seeking to thwart me!'
'Say, perhaps, rather your good angel,' smiled Dr Rowland. 'Do you think that you would taste any joys at all with a woman like Miss Roseingrave? Fie, for shame, what nonsensical notion have you allowed to get the possession of you? Has she put a spell on you?' he added, with a peering look. 'I did not think that she was clever enough for that.'
'A spell, a spell,' repeated the young man dully. He sat down by one of the viols with the snapped strings and took his face in his hands.
'Don't you understand,' said Dr Rowland, in a fashion not unkindly. 'She belongs to me and has done so ever since she was a young girl.'
'Are you married to her?' asked Sir William.
'If you like to believe it! There was a ceremony with a hedge priest down in the marsh and the guests were a motley and curious crowd. We have never avowed a union.'
'You lie,' said Sir William, heavily struggling to his feet, 'I must go to her. She has commanded me. She has appointed something for me to do.'
Dr Rowland's manner was now cold and ferocious. 'Have you become lunatic with fond and idle imaginings and unrestrained fancies? Do you not see that the net of the devil is about you? Even if you be something of a fiend yourself, a larger demon has you in his power. What, do you want to act like an idiot or a child? Be precise, tell me what has happened. Maybe I can save you. Knowing her I should have foreseen this peril,' he added in a more gentle tone. 'But as I say, I have been absorbed.'
Sir William laid his hands on Dr Rowland's shoulders, and said in the voice of a child confessing a small fault:
'She has my wife there—my true wife, and she has commanded me to destroy her tonight. Which can very easily be done, and I am not afraid of telling you, for no one would believe your word against mine.'
Dr Rowland took off his spectacles and out of his tired, bloodshot eyes stared at the young man with a great compassion. Sir William melted before this look and sighed:
'Save me, if you can, from what I am about to do, for I cannot save myself. A while ago I was without hope, but now I am dimly conscious that there is help coming.'
Dr Rowland put his hand into the bosom of his old-fashioned habit and drew out a crucifix.
'This is no use to me, but may be to you,' he said. 'Hold it tightly in your hand, and do not stir from this room until I return.'
As Sir William, clasping the sacred symbol, sank in the window place beside the solitary lamp, Dr Rowland turned through the sultry night under the yellow chestnut trees towards the Dower House.
He found Julia Roseingrave sewing the ruffles to the dress that was the colour of cowslips, embroidered with blue-black violets.
She scowled when she saw that it was Dr Rowland, and not Sir William Notley, who brusquely entered the parlour.
'How is it I did not know you before, you wicked, foolish woman?' he pondered quietly.
She shrank away from him and her sewing dropped from her fingers.
'Have you been trying spells and charms, incantations and witcheries?' he demanded, harshly, approaching her.
'No, master, no!' She shook her head. 'I wanted to get away, that was only natural, was it not?'
'You know that you'll never get away. You are here for ever. And now I shall leave you.'
She began to whimper.
'Oh, not that! Not that! I did not really mean to be unfaithful. I should soon have left him. It was only that I wanted a chance of seeing the great varied world. I meant to be rid of him.'
'With your foxglove potion, I suppose,' he interrupted; with a quick movement of his strong hands he knocked over a white glass of cordial that stood on a tray on the table in the spot where the foxgloves had been. 'You and your stupid womanish tricks! All of them learnt from me and misunderstood in the learning. I thought just now,' he said with some sorrow, 'that I could not endure to lose you. My experiments failed and I thought of you when my mind was empty, and I went up to Holcot Grange, to tell the young man that you were mine—that you were mine—I have no part in you now. Then I found what you had done to him.'
'It is nothing, master! It is nothing!' she sighed. 'Whatever he said to you was a lie—a lie!'
'Oh, no, he was already an outcast from Heaven, but you, gorgeously tricked out with all the delights of the senses, were going to make him an inhabitant of Hell.'
Julia Roseingrave began to weep. Dr Rowland took his spectacles from his pocket, wiped them, and placed them on the bridge of his high nose.
'Where is this woman, his lady wife?' he asked.
And Miss Roseingrave said: 'Upstairs. But he will never take her back. He belongs to me, I tell you.'
Dr Rowland made no answer to this, but went up the narrow stairway. The door of Mrs Roseingrave's room stood open.
She lay there, no more rigid than usual, and not much paler than usual, but Dr Rowland's one glance told him that the woman was dead. He was glad of this, but he said nothing to Phoebe, who lay stretched on the ground beside the corpse, playing by the light of the candle, with a large wooden doll.
At the door of Julia's bedroom he knocked respectfully. It was almost instantly opened, and Lady Notley stood within, her face newly bathed, her hair newly combed, all radiant and expectant.
'Your husband cannot come to you tonight,' he said, 'but I have come to fetch you to him.'
'He is not angry?' whispered the lady fearfully.
'No, he is not angry with anyone save himself.'
She trusted this strange-looking man and turned back in the room to fetch her small bag, in which lay her few treasures, and followed him down the stairs and out through the door under the ripening woodbine.
As they left the house a long wail of despair smote their ears. Lady Notley shuddered.
'It is that poor idiot,' she breathed fearfully. But Dr Rowland knew that it was not Phoebe but Julia who had wailed.
The moon rose when Dr Rowland brought Lady Notley across the park to Holcot Grange, the sultry mists dispersed. The lady trembled greatly as she came nearer and nearer to her husband's presence and began to lament her daring in undertaking this journey which she was sure was against his wish and in a manner forcing herself into the presence of one whom she dared swear had forgotten her.
'But I do it for my children's sake,' she said, 'and a little, too, for his own, for there is none other save myself who really cares to save him.'
'To save him from what, Lady Notley?' asked Dr Rowland kindly.
'To save him from all those evils that crowd about him.'
'Sincere love can do much,' said Dr Rowland. 'We so few of us have the strength of simplicity. My studies and experiments have set me something beyond good or evil. I see them fused as one or two facets of the same theme. Yet I have,' he murmured, half to himself, 'my low desires, my base instincts, and must at intervals satisfy them.'
She did not understand what he meant, and as they neared the garden, which was full of noxious fumes of rotting flowers, her fears increased and when she saw the one light in the window of the Grange and he told her that was where her husband waited, she began to weep.
'Alas, poor creature,' said Dr Rowland, 'I know not what power you have, but we must make the attempt. I am a physician, but I know when I meet cases beyond my skill.'
'Is he ill?' sighed the lady. 'Oh, ever since I was married to him I have feared disaster and disgrace.'
'Perhaps even now you can avert it, madam. Yes, I think he is ill. He is like the ill-kept instruments among which he sits, all ajarred and out of tune, his mind full of delusions and his body full of pain. He moves as in a dark dream, and constantly sees wrestling phantoms.'
They reached the house; the door was open and they entered without much sound and passed into the room where Dr Rowland had left Sir William Notley.
They found the young man prostrate on a couch, still clasping the crucifix. His brow and upper lip glistened with sweat, and his coat was loosened at the throat.
At sight of his suffering all the lady's fears vanished. She came forward with the greatest confidence and kneeling by his side took his hand, so that both of them clasped the crucifix, and said:
'William, I have come to take you home. This is a desolate, and, I fear, an evil place.'
He rose up then to a sitting posture and looked at her. Dr Rowland brought the lantern from the window-place so that he might see her clearly. In that moment she was truly beautiful and her husband had not looked on real beauty since he had seen her last.
'Take her,' said Dr Rowland, 'and ride away at once, not even staying to find a woman's saddle, but taking her up pillion behind you. You have done with the fantastic drama of Holcot Grange, and a reckless and despairing man stops at nothing to save himself, so begone.'
Sir William gave his wife's hand a convulsive pressure and rose to his feet.
'Do not let go of her,' said Dr Rowland, still standing with the lantern held aloft. 'Keep her close to you always. While she is with you you will not be conscious of those alluring forces, half-peril and half-delight, which have nearly destroyed you.
The Doctor bowed politely and the young couple left the room full of discarded, broken, musical instruments. He watched them go out into the quadrangle and pass through the great iron gates, she holding close on his arm, and looking lovingly up into his face, and presently while he listened he heard Sir William's horse bearing his wife away from Holcot Grange. And after that it was very silent.
Dr Rowland was a little perplexed at his own sensations, but nothing could for long disturb one whose fancy had so many worlds in which to range. He was sorry that he would have to leave the oasthouse, but there was no choice.
He returned slowly under the mounting moon to his little dwelling and packed up all the implements of his experiments in readiness for an immediate departure. Nor would he, he knew, ever come to this part of the world again.
But Phoebe and Julia Roseingrave continued to live alone in the Dower House beyond the chestnut trees in the park.