AT nineteen I returned from a foreign school and lived with my father in England. I had been at home a year when I received an urgent invitation from an old friend of my dead mother, to go and spend Christmas at her house, far away in the country.
'It may be dull,' she wrote, 'but you can go away whenever you wish. Only let me look on the face of your mother's child.'
My father said, 'Go, my dear, I wish you to make this visit.'
Heatherbell Abbey was situated in a remote moorland country. I arrived there one wintry evening, when all the old chimneys were roaring, and the wet ivy was slapping against the window-panes. I found my mother's friend a kind-faced, stately old lady, reclining in front of a wide grate full of glowing fire. She was too infirm to rise, but received me tenderly, and sent me with the housekeeper to get rid of my travel-stains. I liked at once the pretty fire-lit room to which I was conducted, also the housekeeper's good-humoured grandmotherly countenance. I soon felt at home in Heatherbell Abbey. It was a still, quaint household, where the people seemed to me to live and move about in a kind of peaceful dream. I liked it at first, and afterwards I loved it.
Christmas week arrived, and with it Mrs. Holme's only son, the youngest, and the only living child of many. I made tea on those happy evenings for mother and son, and I cantered every day over the frosty roads with Alaric Holme, and worked frivolité at night by the lamplight, while he read aloud to his mother and me. It was a happy time and very quiet, because Mrs. Holme was not able to receive visitors.
On days when Alaric Holme went to shoot over the hills, I loved to roam the moors alone, and climb the rocks, or gather holly and snow-berries for a drawing-room basket; or when December snows and rains forbade such excursions, to take my block and pencil up to one of the odd little cell-like rooms at the top of the house, with their slanting roofs and latticed windows, and there pass delightful hours in sketching illustrations for German legends made up of wild suggestive bits of the landscape, and eerie figures traced in the drifting clouds.
Mrs. Betty the housekeeper accompanied me all over the abbey, telling many a story of forgotten tenants who once occupied its many chambers. It was a quaint, stately old building, perplexingly suggestive of exactly opposite phases of life. Some of the apartments were fitted up in a style of old-fashioned frivolous grandeur, while the corridors looked like cloisters, and the oriel window which faced the sun would have fitly enriched a church. I discovered that the abbey had, as its name suggests, once been inhabited by monks; and as I sat often on dark days under the grave smiles of the twelve apostles, basking in the amber glow from the glass, and dreaming of summer sunsets, I delighted in sketching heads of saintly abbots who might have prayed and laboured within the walls, and groups of acolytes, whose voices might have rung through the abbey—how many silent years backward into the past.
There was a certain long, bleak drawing-room, which was never used, and which seemed too damp and chill ever to be inhabited with comfort. I sometimes strayed into it, and speculated on what it might have been when in use, or what it might still be if revivified. I believed it was a pretty room once, when the buff- and-silver papering was fresh, when the faded carpet was bright, when flowers overflowed those monster china vases, and the tall windows stood open like doors, with the ivy and jasmine crushing into the room. But now there was a chill, earthy dampness in the atmosphere, as though no window had been opened, and no fire lighted in it for years. Garnishings of withered holly were falling into dust over the highest mirrors and pictures. I drew Mrs. Betty's attention to this. She said: 'Yes, it was last used at Christmas time, and the holly was never taken down. The mistress took a dislike to the room, and never entered it since.'
This room had a ghostly fascination for me, and I used to steal into it in the wintry twilight, and walk up and down in the gathering shadows, watching with relish the tossing of spectral branches outside, and listening to the pealing howl of the wind. I had of late been reading too many German legends; but I was young, and full of bright health, and what must have been intolerably dismal to many, was luxury to me.
One evening I was thus passing the half-hour before tea. I walked up and down, repeating softly to myself—
'It stands in the lonely Winterthal
At the base of Ilsburg hill;
It stands as though it fain would fall,
The dark deserted Mill.
'Its engines coated with moss and mould
Bide silent all the day;
Its mildewed walls and windows old
Are crumbling into decay.'
It was quite dusk, but that gleam of clearness which sometimes comes just before dark after a day of continuous rain, now struggled with the shadows, and cast a broad space of lightness under the dull eye of each blank window. This was the aspect of the room as I turned near the door to retrace my steps to the shadowy recesses at the farther end.
Pausing a moment, and glancing involuntarily at the most distant window, I started at seeing some one standing beside it. I instinctively passed my hand over my eyes, and looked again. Neither fancy, nor any grotesque combination of light and shade had deceived me. A young lady was standing gazing intently out on the misty moors with her small clenched hand leaning on a little work-table which stood in the window. The figure was tall, though so exquisitely shaped that it hardly appeared so, and clad in black silk, which fell in graceful lustrous drapery to the ground, sweeping the floor behind. The side of the cheek turned towards me was perfect in symmetry and fair as a lily, without a tinge of colour. The hair, black as night, was twined in profuse braided masses round the small head. A band of white encircled the throat and wrists, relieving the darkness of the dress.
As I gazed, the figure turned slowly round with such an expression of hate and deadly purpose on the face as I shall never forget. Then as the countenance became perfectly revealed to me, its look changed gradually to one of triumph, malicious joy, its wickedness almost hidden under a radiant smile.
I gazed with amazement on the face, so wondrously beautiful. The dark eyes glittered like jewels, haloed with dusk fringes, and lightly overshadowed by delicate curved brows. The nose was small and straight, the lips red and thin, like a vermilion line traced on ivory. That wild, beautiful, audacious smile quivered over all like moonlight, making me shrink in terror from I knew not what. As I watched the smile faded, and an expression of anguish and despair convulsed the face; a veil of mist seemed to rise between me and the strange figure, and then, cold and trembling, I crept out of the room. With a return of courage I paused in the hall, and glanced backward, but the darkness had fallen, and no figure was discernible.
I fled down the hall, scarce breathing till I reached Mrs. Betty's room. I met her coming to seek me. The urn had gone up, and Mrs. Holme was impatient for tea. I pressed across Mrs. Betty's threshold, eager to feel, even for a moment, the reassurance given by light and warmth.
Mrs. Betty looked startled when she saw my face. 'My word, miss,' she said, 'you look as if you had seen a ghost.'
I tried to laugh. 'Tell me quickly,' I said, 'who is the strange young lady in the long drawing-room?'
'A young lady in the long drawing-room?'
'Yes, do you not know? Nay, you must. A beautiful girl in a black silk dress, with dark hair, and pale, fair face.'
Mrs. Betty turned pale, and laid the jar of preserves which she carried upon the table, as if she had grown suddenly too weak to hold it.
'It must be a mistake, or you are only in jest, miss,' she said. 'There is no such person in or near the house as you describe.'
'I have not been mistaken, and I am too much in earnest to jest. If there is no such person, then it must have been a ghost.'
'Hush! miss, for God's sake!' said Mrs. Betty, joining her hands in awe. 'Do not say such a thing lightly. Your eyes deceived you in the dark. Think no more about it, miss, but please go quickly to the drawing-room. The mistress will wonder where you can be.'
'I will go,' I said; 'but remember I am positive.'
'Stay, miss,' said Mrs. Betty, coming after me ere I had taken half a dozen steps. 'You will promise to say nothing of this to any one; not to the mistress or Mr. Alaric?'
I promised, and reluctantly hastened to the drawing-room.
A MONTH passed, and I had never encountered the strange young lady again. During this time Mr. Alaric had departed, leaving Heatherbell Abbey more still and dreamlike a dwelling than before. Mrs. Holme and Mrs. Betty each mourned his departure in her own particular way, but each consoled herself with the promise he had given of a speedy return. The morning on which he went was raw and cheerless, and somehow, as I passed down the corridor to breakfast, I thought the twelve apostles looked particularly grave, and the stained glass miserably dull. Coming up again, however (after the wheels had rolled out of hearing down the avenue), with some hot-house violets in my hand, I thought the amber sunshine had grown wonderfully radiant, a fact difficult to account for, as the day was certainly as dark as ever.
A month had passed, and though I had not forgotten my vision of the long drawing-room, pleasanter and more engrossing thoughts had prevented me from dwelling morbidly upon the recollection. One evening Mrs. Holme slept in the firelight, and I had flown up to one of the cell-like rooms to snatch a bit of waste and cloudland for a vignette. I had lingered till there was danger of spoiling my work for want of light, and at last gathered up my pencils to descend. On opening the door I beheld the opposite door unclose also, and a figure flitted over the threshold, the same that I had seen in the long drawing-room; the slim, swaying form, the black, lustrous drapery, the pale face, and raven hair. Only the width of the corridor separated me from her; I heard the rustle of her silk skirt, and felt a cold stir in the air as it wafted past. She flung a strange, gleaming smile at me, and flitted on along the corridor, and disappeared down the staircase.
I felt all the sickening distress of supernatural terror; it tormented and paralyzed me, but I could not swoon. I staggered against the wall, but the wild question, 'What is it? What is it?' would not suffer my senses to leave me. My eyes wandered from that mysterious door opposite to the staircase, to which my limbs refused to carry me, and up which I had a horrid expectation of seeing that terrible white face with its fearful beauty coming again to meet me. At length, with a frantic effort I dashed down the corridor and stairs. Reckless with terror, I sprang from flight to flight with a speed which my weak limbs could not support. The swift descent made my head reel, my knees bent, I grew blind, and fell heavily from a considerable height into the hall.
I broke my arm in that fall, and then I did faint. When I recovered, my arm was set, and Mrs. Betty and a doctor were with me in my own pretty chamber.
I implored Mrs. Betty not to leave me for a moment. I shuddered at the thought of being left alone. I told my story at once. The doctor shrugged his shoulders, and desired Mrs. Betty on no account to leave me, an order which she scrupulously obeyed, nursing me tenderly till I had grown quite well again.
She tried to divert me by telling anecdotes of the family, and especially of Mr. Alaric, child, boy, and man. But still my thoughts would wander back to that haunting vision, oftenest in twilight, when the white face and glittering eyes seemed gleaming on me from every shadowy corner.
One evening when my brain ached with pondering this uneasy theme, I said:
'Mrs. Betty, is there no story connected with the house which might account for the appearance of this spirit, for spirit I believe it to be?'
She tried to evade the question, but I saw that I had guessed rightly. There was a story, and after much coaxing I prevailed on her to tell it to me. It impressed me drearily at the time; I suffered from it for a day and two nights; but then the sun shone out, and a summer wind blew away all my trouble. I have tried to put together the fragments of a story which Mrs. Betty told me. It runs as follows:—
TWENTY-FIVE years before the date of my first visit there, Heatherbell Abbey was a merry home, full of young life, and the music of young voices. Alaric Holme, the youngest of many, was then unborn, and Clarence, the eldest, the hope and pride of the house and name, was twenty-five. Clarence was the child of a former marriage, and all the rest of the children were very much younger. Mrs. Holme was the most affectionate of stepmothers, and all almost forgot that she was not the real mother of the eldest son.
A few months before the period of the story, Mrs. Holme had made a change in the arrangements of her household; the elder children had been sent to school, and a governess had been engaged for the younger ones. The mother had been anxious to find a young person who would be gentle and yielding, and not too strict with her darlings. She fancied that an inexperienced girl might better submit to her supervision than one well drilled to the occupation of teaching. She engaged her governess rather indiscreetly; but the young lady had excellent testimonials, and Mrs. Holme was at the time quite satisfied.
Eunice Frith arrived at Heatherbell Abbey one stormy evening in October. The trees were wailing and crashing, and the sea booming on the strand between the gusts, when a vehicle rolled up the avenue, bringing the newcomer to her destination. When opened, the great hall door was swung back to the wall by the storm, and a cold wind swirled in under the mats and over the thresholds, and swept the bright inner hearth with a chill breath, and an unheard wail.
The long drawing-room, then the family evening room, was filled with glow and brilliance. It was teatime, pleasantest of domestic hours. Mr. Holme reclined in his armchair by the wide, bright hearth. Mrs. Holme had just taken her seat opposite the steaming urn. The rich lamp and firelight sparkled on the china and the silver, on the half-closed, reposing eyes, and the ease- enjoying brows and lips of the husband and father, and on the shining hair and burnished drapery of the wife and mother. It danced into the bewildering recesses and flattering vistas of the mirrors. It leaped over polished ornaments and fanciful cabinets, and the carved backs of dark, grotesque chairs. It was everywhere in snatches, this beautiful wandering home-light, beckoning quaint fancies from their nooks, sweet affections from their rose-coloured niches, young thrifty hopes from the warm atmosphere of their teeming growth, and leading them in flowery chains to dance a dance of worship round the silent, potent hearth-blaze. It brought Clarence Holme to his seat at the tea- table, and thus it brought a new flush of smiles to the other two faces in the room.
Clarence Holme was the more petted by all, and the more beloved by his stepmother because that she had no son of her own. He was the heir and the pride of the house, and the darling of father, mother, and sisters. His innocent manhood excused their creed that Clarence could do no wrong. His affectionate smile was their brightest sunshine, his kindly word and witty jest their dearest music.
Clarence came and took his seat at the table. His figure was a good height and well knit, broad-chested, and round-limbed. His fair hair swept from his forehead in sunshiny rings and masses, with a dash of warmer colour in the shadows. He had been out in the storm with the gamekeeper, and his brow was very fair and his eyes very bright as he sat down smiling by his step-mother's side. Three little fairies who had been allowed to wait up to welcome their new governess, gathered round his elbows with a score of questions and appeals to 'Clarrie'.
Mr. Holme, with beaming eyes resting on the group at the table, had just risen to approach and join it, when that expected peal rang out from the bell with an unrecognized menace in its shrill clamour, the hall door swung back, and that cold breath swept under the threshold.
Eunice Frith entered the long drawing-room with the step of an empress, her black silken drapery glistening and darkling around and behind her like a sombre cloud. She looked like the young queen of night, though she wore no jewels, except one diamond which blazed at her throat, and her eyes which glittered under her white forehead with a brilliance which no gems ever possessed.
Mr. Holme started and looked at his wife. Mrs. Holme rose, flushed and uneasy. This was not quite the kind of person she had wished to see. She glanced from her husband to Clarence, who stood with his hand on the back of his chair, and his head bent forward in reverential and wondering admiration.
Eunice Frith passed down the long drawing-room without blush or falter, her dark head with its braided crown gracefully erect, her face, fair and unruffled as snow, her lips—red as the holly-berries ripening for Christmas in the wood—undistressed by any nervous quiver. She accepted the greetings of her surprised employers with passionless ease, and took her seat at the tea-table as though she had been accustomed to sit there all her life.
And the shrinking home-light glanced over her with a nervous start, and fled away; and Eunice Frith seemed illumined by some cold, foreign gleam—some white reflection from an iceberg.
TWO months passed, and Eunice Frith was one of the household. In her glistening and darkling robe she flitted from school-room to drawing-room. Her low, clear voice was expected to mingle in the domestic converse, and her smile, though too gleamy, was found to possess a fascination. Her influence over the children was complete—an influence which had no root in love, but was composed of a share of admiration and a species of attraction which was more than half fear—a fear of which the little pupils themselves were scarce conscious.
It was breakfast-time at Heatherbell Abbey. Eunice Frith stood at the window unlacing and lacing her white fingers, while her wild dark eyes with their jewelled glitter were roving restlessly over the waste land of snow outside. Mrs. Holme stood by the hearth, waiting for her husband's entrance, with her eyes fixed uneasily on Clarence, who was studying the young governess over the edge of his book. He met his stepmother's glance as the appearance of the letter-bag diverted his attention. He met that anxious, scrutinizing look with an open smile which seemed to say—
'No, mother; be at rest. I shall never fall love with that uncanny beauty.'
And Mrs. Holme turned to the letter-bag.
Eunice Frith expected no letters, for she never turned her head, nor removed her eyes, nor appeared to disturb the spirit within her from the contemplation of that silent white world whose temperature seemed so nearly akin to that of her own blood. Clarence sprang forward for his share of the correspondence, and Mrs. Holme, with an open letter in her hand, uttered an exclamation of sorrow and alarm. One of her precious girls was ill in a far-away school in France. Not dangerously, but still ill. They must go away at once, she and her husband; they must depart at once to see the sufferer.
'How provoking!' cried Mrs. Holme to Clarence.
'Ariel Forrest was to have been here the day after to- morrow.'
Ariel Forrest was a name Mrs. Holme loved to utter. The girl was the motherless daughter of a school friend. And this name, which his stepmother loved to utter, Clarence loved to hear.
Eunice Frith opened her red lips and closed them again. This was the only token she gave of having heard what had been said.
'And will she not come now?' asked Clarence, in a voice which was careless with an effort.
'No; she will not come now, I am sure. I must write and tell her.'
And the disappointing note was written to Ariel Forrest, who had promised to spend her Christmas at Heatherbell Abbey, and Mr. and Mrs. Holme left for France that night. 'We shall be home again for Christmas-day, if possible,' were their last words.
A certain kind, harmless old Aunt Mattie, who lived a few miles away, came to matronize the household in the absence of the mistress, and took up her abode in the Abbey.
'But she is not coming,' said Eunice Frith, as she stood tapping her foot in the twilight at the window, where the chill snow-wreaths looked wanly in at the ruddy hearth. 'She is not coming, and the watchful stepmother is away. And as for her'— with a scornful glance at the poor old lady, unconsciously nodding in her chair—'she is no match for me. I fear her as little as the mouse that nibbles at the wainscot.'
But Eunice Frith was not omniscient. She could not see beyond the verge of ordinary mortal vision. She did not know that Mrs. Holme's note had not reached her young friend's dwelling till the bird had flown. Therefore, when one evening she tied on her bonnet and wrapped herself in a rough gray shawl for a swift walk over the snow, she did not expect to meet Ariel Forrest before she returned.
EUNICE FRITH stood transfixed in meditation on the Elfin Span, a quaint old bridge built high over a boiling torrent rushing from the mountain. There were weird stories about this bridge of ghosts and goblins haunting it at nightfall. It was near nightfall now, and there were few in the country besides the governess from the Abbey who would have stood there so calmly leaning over the old wall, the only speck in the white waste. But Eunice Frith feared neither man nor spirit.
Snow was on the earth and snow was in the sky. Nature wore a shroud, and the shroud was stained with blood. A long, ragged, crimson streak lay on the brink of the horizon, like gore welling from the dull lips of the gray distant sea. Eunice Frith looked like a spirit herself, motionless by the wall in her gray garments, with her weird glittering eyes building monuments of ambition in the misty undulations of the thick white clouds.
Woods and mountains, regal in their wintry ermine, stretched behind her, pale uplands swept away at either side, and below in the vale rose the Abbey with its ivied gables and chimneys, one fiery star from the oriel glaring back defiance at that angry western gleam by the sea.
'Mine! Mine!' whispered Eunice Frith between her closed lips as her eyes roved over the rich lands and the noble homestead.
'Mine! mine!' echoed the water rushing under the dark arch of the Span; and the wind swept by moaning faintly—'Oh! Clarence Holme, woe on you that you have looked with frank admiration on this woman's cruel beauty!'
Hark! there were wheels on the road in the distance; and as the governess looked and listened a figure sprang up on the pathway down below. The slight form of a young girl with bright brown curls blowing in waves and clusters from under her velvet hat with its drooping scarlet-tipped feathers. She was wrapped up in black velvet and sables, and her hands were thrust in a costly muff. She stepped airily over the snow in her dainty boots, seeming to follow the carriage with haste.
She glanced up and beheld the gray figure on the bridge, and met the white repellent face and wrathful eyes of the governess. From her triumphant dream of ambition Eunice Frith was aroused to behold the advent of her rival.
'My foe!' murmured Eunice Frith between her shut teeth; and then, as the young stranger fled away in fear, and she stood once more alone in the ghostly twilight, with the white foam of the river hissing in her ears, she became aware, by a sudden shock of intolerable pain, that not only were all the hopes of her deep- laid ambition cast upon this stake, but that all the love of which her resolute, tenacious nature was capable of conceiving and retaining, had gone forth to wrestle and do battle for its one prize in life. Racked and quivering, the heart of Eunice Frith crouched in humiliation before her intellect like an unfaithful slave before his enraged master. It had sworn to take a cool, stern part in a great cause, and it had turned craven and suffered defeat.
But the discovery was made, the humiliation endured, and her suffering only strengthened a thousandfold the iron determination to work her own will.
'She shall not crush me!' she said. I will crush her, him first.'
And then she wrapped herself more closely in her gray shawl, and with fiercely swift footsteps hurried over the snowy moors home to the Abbey. The long drawing-room was full of fire-light when Eunice Frith's white face peered in at the window like a wintry moon when there are signs of a storm. Ariel Forrest had thrown her hat on the floor, and her bright curls were wandering away from her blooming cheeks and down over her shoulders as she sat on a low stool by old Aunt Mattie's arm-chair, and heard of the departure of the mistress and master of Heatherbell Abbey.
'But I am glad I came,' said she, 'if only to see you, Aunt Mattie, and the children.'
'And no one else, Ariel?' whispered Clarence, who stood gravely in the flickering shadows, watching her every movement.
Aunt Mattie was very deaf, but Ariel made no answer with her lips. She looked silently at the coals for a few moments, and then, as a chill recollection startled her reverie, she cried, with a shiver—
'Oh! Aunt Mattie, I wonder who is the beautiful, fierce- looking girl whom I passed standing all alone on the Elfin Span? I almost thought she was a ghost.'
'Miss Frith, the governess, is out walking, is she not, Clarence? I don't know any one else whom the description would suit. Yes, my dear, I suppose you met the governess.'
A VERY sunbeam on the snow was Ariel Forrest on those December days at Heatherbell Abbey. A very home sprite, with her radiant smile, her sunny hair, her white floating dress. The children flew from Eunice Frith and clung to her. Aunt Mattie spoke querulously to the governess, and beamed her love in smiles upon her blithe, pretty young favourite. Clarence Holme, in his capacity of host to a beautiful, friendless girl in his father's house, was kind and attentive and chivalrous, never thinking how Eunice Frith's glittering eyes followed every speaking look that passed from his to Ariel's, little dreaming how she paced her chamber night after night, biting her red lips and clenching her slender hands in paroxysms of jealousy.
It was vacation time now, and children and governess were free to mingle in the general sports and merriment of the household. Good news had arrived from France, and all were gay and glad— but one.
A wonderful change came over Eunice Frith. Cold and still and proud in her exceeding beauty she had been. She had thought to conquer without an effort, or to retire haughtily from the field. Now her proud neck was bent, and she stooped to work, to toil, to make a mighty struggle to gain her object.
Eunice Frith, who could have imagined that your cold cheek could glow with so radiant a blush; who guessed that your proud lips could wreathe themselves into such bewildering smiles; that your low, seldom-heard voice could pour forth a cataract of song such as to shake the souls of reverent listeners? And yet these miracles were wrought in Heatherbell Abbey on those snowy December days; and with triumph Eunice Frith saw Ariel Forrest stand eclipsed.
The governess was sweet-voiced and gentle to the curly-haired girl whose trusting eyes met hers without a shadow of suspicion. She was amiable to the children and attentive to Aunt Mattie. Eunice Frith was singular and admirable from every point of view,— and yet—the heart of Clarence Holme was in the keeping of Ariel Forrest.
Slowly, like a storm-cloud, the truth gathered round the soul of Eunice Frith, and still her eyes shone forth like stars from the darkness. But the crisis was coming, the shadow was falling, chill winds were gathering round the Abbey hearth. A prophecy had been uttered that night on the Elfin Span—'I will crush her or him.'
IT was the day before Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Eve Mr. and Mrs. Holme were to return to Heatherbell Abbey. It was a calm evening after a night and day of such rain and storm as had enraged the mountain torrents, making them rush madly through the glens and valleys, crashing down trees and bridges, and annihilating all slight impediments to the fury of their flight. It was now quite still, but for the hoarse baying of waters in the distance, and it was growing dark. Eunice Frith had been for one of her swift solitary walks to the Elfin Span, and she was returning at her usual firelight hour. Through the drawing-room window she saw a picture—Clarence Holme standing on the hearth, and Ariel's head upon his shoulder, and Ariel's drapery sweeping his feet.
Eunice Frith went straight through the hall-door, crossed the hall, and stood at the drawing-room threshold, listening.
Ariel had asked some question, for Clarence was saying, half jestingly, half-tenderly, 'Is there anything I would not do for you, Ariel?'
'There is one thing you would scarcely do, Mr. Holme,' said a low, icy voice behind Clarence. 'You would not ride across the Elfin Span at nightfall, at this hour, not to save the life dearest to you in the world.'
There was a cutting sneer in the words, and Clarence turned sharply, in surprise; but he was too happy just then to be angry with any one.
'Why so, Miss Frith?' he said. 'Is it because of the ghosts and goblins?'
'You would not do it,' coldly persisted the governess.
'Why do you accuse him of being a coward?' cried Ariel, with kindling cheeks.
But Eunice Frith simply walked out of the room.
'Do it, Clarence!' said Ariel, when the door had closed upon her. 'How dare she stigmatize you as a coward! She thinks herself braver than any one in the world, because she walks from that place every evening at nightfall. Don't leave her the boast that no one would do it but herself. 'Tis only a mile: go and get Chestnut, and canter to the bridge and back again.'
'But, Ariel, my child, it would be nonsense to take so much notice of silly words!'
'No matter; it won't be nonsense. She shan't say that again. I'll give orders for tea, and by the time the urn is on the table you'll be here again.'
'Well, be it so, my liege lady. I shall imagine myself your knight-errant as I ride along, journeying to do battle with some terrible giant for your sake, instead of going on a foolish errand, like the King of France and all his men, “up the hill and down again.”'
'Bring a bunch of heather, as a proof of your having been there!' called Ariel from the porch, as her lover rode merrily away down the avenue, among the shadows of the trees.
'I wish I had not sent him: something may happen to him,' said Ariel, as she re-entered the long drawing-room. But she checked her speech in mortification at seeing Eunice Frith standing at the far window, leaning with one hand on a little work-table, and looking intently towards the Elfin Span.
Ariel Forrest sat down with a shiver beside the fender, and tried to wrestle with a feeling which was daily growing stronger within her—dislike of Eunice Frith.
The governess from her window could see the flutter of a rider's cloak flying along the upland path to the Elfin Span. It reached a certain point, and vanished. At that moment Ariel Forrest started to hear a low moan from the window where Eunice Frith stood.
'WHERE can he be?—where can he be?' sobbed Ariel Forrest, sitting up stairs in Aunt Mattie's dressing-room, with her head on the old lady's lap.
Nine o'clock struck, and ten, and still the rider had not come back, and still the untasted tea was on the table in the long drawing-room, and Eunice Frith stood staring at the dark window, with her hand on the work-table, and her face from the light.
No one sought her, no one disturbed her. The room was deserted.
Servants were hurrying to and fro, looking blankly and fearfully in one another's faces, and speaking in subdued whispers; messengers went, and returned with white faces and stiff tongues. The Elfin Span was broken in by the torrent, and horse and rider lay at the bottom of the horrid chasm.
CLARENCE HOLME was carried stark and stiff to the door through which he had passed forth so gaily. Father and mother returned on that dismal Christmas Eve, and found their boy, their hope and pride, a corpse.
Ariel Forrest—we will not speak of her, but to hope and pray that God comforted her in her surpassing sorrow.
When in the gray morning a weeping, shuddering servant sought the desolation of the long drawing-room, she was seized with an unaccountable terror at seeing the slight statuesque figure still standing at the distant window—still with the braid-crowned head turned towards the Elfin Span, and the little clenched hand leaning on the work-table. Perfectly motionless, without a rustle disturbing the glistening flow of her silken drapery, so stood Eunice Frith in the dreary dawn on that terrible Christmas morning.
Mrs. Betty approached her with awe-struck steps. The right hand was tightly tangled in the heavy curtain beside the window. Mrs. Betty looked in the staring glassy eyes, and removed the stiff fingers from the curtain, and Eunice Frith fell heavily to the floor, dead.
'There has been disease of the heart,' said the doctor, 'and death has resulted from the violent action caused by some sudden passion.'
MRS. BETTY'S story is told. Time has been busy effacing his own work, and these things are never spoken of now. I am the wife of Alaric Holme, and the good old lady who was so kind a stepmother to the murdered Clarence is now in her grave. Of Ariel Forrest I can say nothing, except that she went abroad with her father. Mrs. Betty still lives.
I stood last night on the Elfin Span, and I fancied I saw a gray figure glide past me in the gloaming. I hurried, shivering, away, and I promised, as I walked homeward, that if ever again the spirit of Eunice Frith is seen to haunt Heatherbell Abbey, we will shut up the old place, and find a home elsewhere.