London Pride, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 10

The Priest’s Hole.

Denzil dined at the Abbey, where he was always made welcome. Lady Fareham had been warmly insistent upon his presence at their Christmas gaieties.

“We want to show you a Cavalier’s Christmas,” she told him at dinner, he seated at her side in the place of honour, while Angela sat at the other end of the table between Fareham and De Malfort. “For ourselves we care little for such simple sports: but for the poor folk and the children Yule should be a season to be remembered for good cheer and merriment through all their slow, dull year. Poor wretches! I think of their hard life sometimes, and wonder they don’t either drown themselves or massacre us.”

“They are like the beasts of the field, Lady Fareham. They have learnt patience from the habit of suffering. They are born poor, and they die poor. It is happy for us that they are not learned enough to consider the inequalities of fortune, or we should have the rising of want against abundance, a bitterer strife, perhaps, than the strife of adverse creeds, which made Ireland so bloody a spectacle for the world’s wonder thirty years ago.”

“Well, we shall make them all happy this afternoon; and there will be a supper in the great stone barn which will acquaint them with abundance for this one evening at least,” answered Hyacinth, gaily.

“We are going to play games after dinner!” cried Henriette, from her place at her father’s elbow.

His lordship was the only person who ever reproved her seriously, yet she loved him best of all her kindred or friends.

“Aunt Angy is going to play hide-and-seek with us. Will you play, Sir Denzil?”

“I shall think myself privileged if I may join in your amusements.”

“What a courteous speech! You will be cutting off your pretty curly hair, and putting on a French perruque, like his”— pointing to De Malfort. “Please do not. You would be like everybody else in London — and now you are only like yourself — and vastly handsome.”

“Hush, Henriette! you are much too pert,” remonstrated Fareham.

“But ’tis the very truth, father. All the women who visit mother paint their faces, so that they are all alike; and all the men talk alike, so that I don’t know one from t’other, except Lord Rochester, who is impudenter and younger than the others, and gives me more sugar-plums and pays me prettier compliments than anybody else.”

“Hold your tongue, mistress! A dinner-table is no place for pert children. Thy brother there has better manners,” said her father, pointing to the cherubic son and heir, whose ideas were concentrated upon a loaded plate of red-deer pasty.

“You mean that he is greedier than I,” retorted Papillon. “He will eat till he won’t be able to run about with us after dinner; and then he will sprawl upon mother’s satin train by the fire, with Ganymede and Phosphor, and she will tell everybody how good and gentle he is, and how much better bred than his sister. And now, if people are ever going to leave off eating, we may as well begin our games before it is quite dark. Perhaps you are ready, auntie, if nobody else is.”

Dinner may have ended a little quicker for this speech, although Papillon was sternly suppressed, and bade to keep silence or leave the table. She obeyed so far as to make no further remarks, but expressed her contempt for the gluttony of her elders by several loud yawns, and bounced up out of her seat, like a ball from a racket, directly the little gentleman in black sitting near his lordship had murmured a discreet thanksgiving. This gentleman was the Roman Catholic priest from Oxford, who had said Mass early that morning in the muniment room, and had been invited to his lordship’s table in honour of the festival.

Papillon led all the games, and ordered everybody about. Mrs. Dorothy Lettsome, the young lady who was sorry she had not had the honour to be born in France, was of the party, with her brother, honest Dan Lettsome, an Oxfordshire squire, who had been in London only once in his life, to see the Coronation, and had nearly lost his life, as well as his purse and jewellery, in a tavern, after that august ceremonial. This bitter experience had given him a distaste for the pleasures of the town which his poor sister deplored exceedingly; since she was dependent upon his coffers, and subject to his authority, and had no hope of leaving Oxfordshire unless she were fortunate enough to find a town-bred husband.

These two joined in the sports with ardour, Squire Dan glad to be moving about, rather than to sit still and listen to music which he hated, or to conversation to which he could contribute neither wit nor sense, unless the kennel or the gun-room were the topic under discussion. The talk of a lady and gentleman who had graduated in the salons of the Hôtel de Rambouillet was a foreign language to him; and he told his sister that it was all one to him whether Lady Fareham and the Mounseer talked French or English, since it was quite as hard to understand ’em in one language as in t’other.

Papillon, this rustic youth adored. He knew no greater pleasure than to break and train a pony for her, to teach her the true knack of clearing a hedge, to explain the habits and nature of those vermin in whose lawless lives she was deeply interested — rats, weasels, badgers, and such-like — to attend her when she hunted, or flew her peregrine.

“If you will marry me, sweetheart, when you are of the marrying age, I would rather wait half a dozen years for you than have the best woman in Oxfordshire that I know of at this present.”

“Marry you!” cried Lord Fareham’s daughter. “Why, I shall marry no one under an earl; and I hope it will be a duke or a marquis. Marchioness is a pretty title: it sounds better than duchess, because it is in three syllables — mar-chion-ess,” with an affected drawl. “I am going to be very beautiful. Mrs. Hubbuck says so, and mother’s own woman; and I heard that painted old wretch, Mrs. Lewin, tell mother so. ‘Eh, gud, your la’ship, the young miss will be almost as great a beauty as your la’ship’s self!’ Mrs. Lewin always begins her speeches with ‘Eh, gud!’ or ‘What devil!’ But I hope I shall be handsomer than mother” concluded Papillon, in a tone which implied a poor opinion of the maternal charms.

And now on this Christmas evening, in the thickening twilight of the rambling old house, through long galleries, crooked passages, queer little turns at right angles, rooms opening out of rooms, half a dozen in succession, Squire Dan led the games, ordered about all the time by Papillon, whom he talked of admiringly as a high-mettled filly, declaring that she had more tricks than the running-horse he was training for Abingdon races.

De Malfort, after assisting in their sports for a quarter of an hour with considerable spirit, had deserted them, and sneaked off to the great saloon, where he sat on the Turkey carpet at Lady Fareham’s feet, singing chansonettes to his guitar, while George and the spaniels sprawled beside him, the whole group making a picture of indolent enjoyment, fitfully lighted by the blaze of a yule log that filled the width of the chimney. Fareham and the Priest were playing chess at the other end of the long low room, by the light of a single candle.

Papillon ran in at the door and ejaculated her disgust at De Malfort’s desertion.

“Was there ever such laziness? It’s bad enough in Georgie to be so idle; but then, he has over-eaten himself.”

“And how do you know that I haven’t over-eaten myself, mistress?” asked De Malfort.

“You never do that; but you often drink too much — much, much, much too much!”

“That’s a slanderous thing to say of your mother’s most devoted servant,” laughed De Malfort. “And pray how does a baby-girl like you know when a gentleman has been more thirsty than discreet?”

“By the way you talk — always French. Jarni! ch’dame, n’savons joui d’ n’belle s’rée — n’fam-partie d’ombre. Moi j’ai p’du n’belle f’tune, p’rol’d’nneur! You clip your words to nothing. Aren’t you coming to play hide-and-seek?”

“Not I, fair slanderer. I am a salamander, and love the fire.”

“Is that a kind of Turk? Good-bye. I’m going to hide.”

“Beware of the chests in the gallery, sweetheart,” said her father, who heard only this last sentence, as his daughter ran past him towards the door. “When I was in Italy I was told of a bride who hid herself in an old dower-chest, on her wedding-day — and the lid clapped to with a spring and kept her there for half a century.”

“There’s no spring that ever locksmith wrought that will keep down Papillon,” cried De Malfort, sounding a light accompaniment to his words on the guitar strings, with delicatest touch, like fairy music.

“I know of better hiding-places,” answered the child, and vanished, banging the great door behind her.

She found her aunt with Dorothy Lettsome and her brother and Denzil in the gallery above stairs, walking up and down, and listening with every indication of weariness to the Squire’s discourse about his hunters and running-horses.

“Now we are going to have real good sport!” cried Papillon. “Aunt Angy and I are to hide, and you three are to look for us. You must stop in this gallery for ten minutes by the French clock yonder — with the door shut. You must give us ten minutes’ law, Mr. Lettsome, as you did the hare the other day, when I was out with you — and then you may begin to look for us. Promise.”

“Stay, little miss, you will be outside the house belike, roaming lord knows where; in the shrubberies, or the barns, or halfway to Oxford — while we are made fools of here.”

“No, no. We will be inside the house.”

“Do you promise that, pretty lady?”

“Yes, I promise.”

Mrs. Dorothy suggested that there had been enough of childish play, and that it would be pleasanter to sit in the saloon with her ladyship, and hear Monsieur de Malfort sing.

“I’ll wager he was singing when you saw him just now.”

“Yes, he is always singing foolish French songs — and I’m sure you can’t understand ’em.”

“I’ve learnt the French ever since I was as old as you, Mistress Henriette.”

“Ah! that was too late to begin. People who learn French out of books know what it looks like, but not what it sounds like.”

“I should be very sorry if I could not understand a French ballad, little miss.”

“Would you — would you, really?” cried Papillon, her face alight with impish mirth. “Then, of course, you understand this —

Oh, la d’moiselle, comme elle est sot-te,

Eh, je me moque de sa sot-ti-se!

Eh, la d’moiselle, comme elle est bê-te,

Eh, je m’ris de sa bê-ti-se!”

She sang this impromptu nonsense prestissimo as she danced out of the room, leaving the accomplished Dorothy vexed and perplexed at not having understood a single word.

It was nearly an hour later when Denzil entered the saloon hurriedly, pale and perturbed of aspect, with Dorothy and her brother following him.

“We have been hunting all over the house for Mrs. Angela and Henriette,” Denzil said, and Fareham started up from the chess-table, scared at the young man’s agitated tone and pallid countenance. “We have looked in every room —”

“In every closet,” interrupted Dorothy.

“In every corner of the staircases and passages,” said Squire Dan.

“Can your lordship help us? There may be places you know of which we do not know?” said Denzil, his voice trembling a little. “It is alarming that they should be so long in concealment. We have called to them in every part of the house.”

Fareham hurried to the door, taking instant alarm — anxious, pale, alert.

“Come!” he said to the others. “The oak chests in the music-room — the great Florentine coffer in the gallery? Have you looked in those?”

“Yes; we have opened every chest.”

“Faith, to see Sir Denzil turn over piles of tapestries, you would have thought he was looking for a fairy that could hide in the folds of a curtain!” said Lettsome.

“It is no theme for jesting. I hate these tricks of hiding in strange corners,” said Fareham. “Now, show me where they left you.”

“In the long gallery.”

“They have gone up to the roof, perhaps.”

“We have been in the roof,” said Denzil.

“I have scarcely recovered my senses after the cracked skull I got from one of your tie-beams,” added Lettsome; and Fareham saw that both men had their doublets coated with dust and cobwebs, in a manner which indicated a remorseless searching of places unvisited by housemaids and brooms.

Mrs. Dorothy, with a due regard for her dainty lace kerchief and ruffles, and her cherry silk petticoat, had avoided these loathly places, the abode of darkness, haunted by the fear of rats.

Fareham tramped the house from cellar to garret, Denzil alone accompanying him.

“We want no posse comitatus,” he had said, somewhat discourteously. “You, Squire, had best go and mend your cracked head in the eating-parlour with a brimmer or two of clary wine; and you, Mrs. Dorothy, can go and keep her ladyship company. But not a word of our fright. Swoons and screaming would only hinder us.”

He took Mrs. Lettsome’s arm, and led her to the staircase, pushing the Squire after her, and then turned his anxious countenance to Denzil.

“If they are not to be found in the house, they must be found outside the house. Oh, the folly, the madness of it! A December night — snow on the ground — a rising wind — another fall of snow, perhaps — and those two afoot and alone!”

“I do not believe they are out-of-doors,” Denzil answered. “Your daughter promised that they would not leave the house.”

“My daughter tells the truth. It is her chief virtue.”

“And yet we have hunted in every hole and corner,” said Denzil, dejectedly.

“Hole!” cried Fareham, almost in a shout. “Thou hast hit it, man! That one word is a flash of lightning. The Priest’s Hole! Come this way. Bring your candle!” snatching up that which he had himself set down on a table, when he stood still to deliberate. “The Priest’s Hole? The child knew the secret of it — fool that I was ever to show her. God! what a place to hide in on a winter night!”

He was halfway up the staircase to the second story before he had uttered the last of these exclamations, Denzil following him.

Suddenly, through the stillness of the house, there sounded a faint far-off cry, the shrill thin sound of a child’s voice. Fareham and Warner would hardly have heard it had they not been sportsmen, with ears trained to listen for distant sounds. No view-hallo sounding across miles of wood and valley was ever fainter or more ethereal.

“You hear them?” cried Fareham. “Quick, quick!”

He led the way along a narrow gallery, about eight feet high, where people had danced in Elizabeth’s time, when the house was newly converted to secular uses; and then into a room in which there were several iron chests, the muniment room, where a sliding panel, of which the master of the house knew the trick, revealed an opening in the wall. Fareham squeezed himself through the gap, still carrying the tall iron candlestick, with flaring candle, and vanished. Denzil followed, and found himself descending a narrow stone staircase, very steep, built into an angle of the great chimney, while as if from the bowels of the earth there came, louder at every step, that shrill cry of distress, in a voice he could not doubt was Henriette’s.

“The other is mute,” groaned Fareham; “scared to death, perhaps, like a frightened bird.” And then he called, “I am coming. You are safe, love; safe, safe!” And then he groaned aloud, “Oh, the madness, the folly of it!”

Halfway down the staircase there was a sudden gap of six feet, down which Fareham dropped with his hands on the lowest stair, Denzil following; a break in the continuity of the descent planned for the discomfiture of strangers and the protection of the family hiding-place.

Fareham and Denzil were on a narrow stone landing at the bottom of the house; and the child’s wail of anguish changed to a joyous shriek, “Father, father!” close in their ears. Fareham set his shoulder against the heavy oak door, and it burst inwards. There had been no question of secret spring or complicated machinery; but the great, clumsy door dragged upon its rusty hinges, and the united strength of the two girls had not served to pull it open, though Papillon, in her eagerness for concealment in the first fever of hiding, had been strong enough to push the door till she had jammed it, and thus made all after efforts vain.

“Father!” she cried, leaping into his arms, as he came into the room, large enough to hold six-men standing upright; but a hideous den in which to perish alone in the dark. “Oh, father! I thought no one would ever find us. I was afraid we should have died like the Italian lady — and people would have found our skeletons and wondered about us. I never was afraid before. Not when the great horse reared as high as a house — and her ladyship screamed. I only laughed then — but to-night I have been afraid.”

Fareham put her aside without looking at her.

“Angela! Great God! She is dead!”

No, she was not dead, only in a half swoon, leaning against the angle of the wall, ghastly white in the flare of the candles. She was not quite unconscious. She knew whose strong arms were holding her, whose lips were so near her own, whose head bent suddenly upon her breast, leaning against the lace kerchief, to listen for the beating of her heart.

She made a great effort to relieve his fear, understanding dimly that he thought her dead; but could only murmur broken syllables, till he carried her up three or four stairs, to a secret door that opened into the garden. There in the wintry air, under the steely light of wintry stars, her senses came back to her. She opened her eyes and looked at him.

“I am sorry I have not Papillon’s courage,” she said.

“Tu m’as donné une affreuse peur — je te croyais morte,” muttered Fareham, letting his arms drop like lead as she released herself from their support.

Denzil and Henriette were close to them. They had come to the open door for fresh air, after the charnel-like chill and closeness of the small underground chamber.

“Father is angry with me,” said the girl; “he won’t speak to me.”

“Angry! no, no;” and he bent to kiss her. “But oh, child, the folly of it! She might have died — you too — found just an hour too late.”

“It would have taken a long time to kill me,” said Papillon; “but I was very cold, and my teeth were chattering, and I should soon have been hungry. Have you had supper yet?”

“Nobody has even thought of supper.”

“I am glad of that. And I may have supper with you, mayn’t I, and eat what I like, because it’s Christmas, and because I might have been starved to death in the Priest’s Hole. But it was a good hiding-place, tout de meme. Who guessed at last?”

“The only person who knew of the place, child. And now, remember, the secret is to be kept. Your dungeon may some day save an honest man’s life. You must tell nobody where you were hid.”

“But what shall I say when they ask me? I must not tell them a story.”

“Say you were hidden in the great chimney — which is truth; for the Priest’s Hole is but a recess at the back of the chimney. And you, Warner,” turning to Denzil, who had not spoken since the opening of the door, “I know you’ll keep the secret.”

“Yes. I will keep your secret,” Denzil answered, cold as ice; and said no word more.

They walked slowly round the house by the terrace, where the clipped yews stood out like obelisks against the bleak bright sky. Papillon ran and skipped at her father’s side, clinging to him, expatiating upon her sufferings in the dust and darkness. Denzil followed with, Angela, in a dead silence.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31