Ravenshoe, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 38.

The House Full of Ghosts.

Chaeles had really no idea where he was going. Although he Ivnew that Hornby had been playing with Lord Welter, yet he thought, from what Hornby had said, that he would not bring him into collision with him; and indeed he did not — only taking Charles with him as a reserve in case of accidents, for he thoroughly distrusted his lordship.

At half-past six in the evening Hornby rode slowly away, followed by Charles. He had told Charles that he should dine in St. John’s Wood at seven, and should ride there, and Charles was to wait with the horses. But it was nearly seven, and yet Hornby loitered, and seemed undetermined. It was a wild, gusty evening, threatening rain. There were very few people abroad, and those who were rode or walked rapidly. And yet Hornby dawdled irresolute, as though his determination were hardly strong enough yet.

At first he rode quite away from his destination, but by degrees his horse’s head got changed into the right direction; then he made another detour, but a shorter one; at last he put spurs to his horse, and rode resolutely up the short carriage-drive before the door, and, giving the reins to Charles, walked firmly in.

Charles put up the horses, and went into the servants’ hall, or the room which answered that end in the rather small house of Lord Welter. No one was there. All the servants were busy with the dinner, and Charles was left unnoticed.

By and by a page, noticing a strange servant in passing the door, brought him some beer, and a volume of the Newgate Calendar. This young gentleman called his attention to a print of a lady cutting up the body of her husband with a chopper, assisted by a young Jew, who was depicted “walking off with a leg,” like one of the Fans (the use of which seems to be, to cool the warm imagination of other travellers into proper limits), while the woman was preparing for another effort. After having recommended Charles to read the letterpress thereof, as he would find it tolerably spicy, he departed, and left him alone.

The dinner was got over in time; and after a time there was silence in the house — a silence so great that Charles rose and left the room. He soon found his way to another; but all was dark and silent, though it was not more than half-past nine.

He stood in the dark passage, wondering where to go, and determined to turn back to the room from which he had come. There was a light there, at all events.

There was a light, and the Newgate Calendar. The wild wind, that had eddied and whirled the dust at the street corners, and swept across the park all day, had gone down, and the rain had come on. He could hear it, drip, drip, outside; it was very melancholy. Confound the Newgate Calendar!

He was in a very queer house, he knew. What did Hornby mean by asking him the night before whether or no he could fight, and whether he would stick to him? Drip, drip; otherwise a dead silence. Charles’s heart began to beat a little faster.

Where were all the servants? He had heard plenty of them half an hour ago. He had heard a French cook swearing at English kitchen-girls, and had heard plenty of other voices; and now — the silence of the grave. Or of Christie and Manson’s on Saturday evening; or of the Southern Indian Ocean in a calm at midnight; or of anything else you like; similes are cheap.

He remembered now that Hornby had said, “Come and lie in the hall as if asleep; no one will notice you.” He determined to do so. But where was it? His candle was flickering in its socket, and, as he tried to move it, it went out.

He could scarcely keep from muttering an oath, but he did. His situation was very uncomfortable. He did not know in what house he was — only that he was in a quarter of the town in which there were not a few uncommonly queer houses. He determined to grope his way to the light.

He felt his way out of the room and along a passage. The darkness was intense, and the silence perfect

Suddenly a dull red liglit gleamed iu his eyes, and made him start. It was the liglit of the kitchen fire. A cricket would have been company, but there was none.

He continued to advance cautiously. Soon a ghosth’ square of very dim grey light on his left showed him where was a long narrow window. It was barred with iron bars. He was just thinking of this, and how very queer it was, when he uttered a loud oath, and came crashing down. He had fallen upstairs.

He had made noise enough to waken the seven sleepers; but those gentlemen did not seem to be in the neighbourhood, or, at all events, if awakened, gave no sign of it. Dead silence. He sat on the bottom stair and rubbed his shins, and, in spite of a strong suspicion that he had got into a scrape, laughed to himself at the absurdity of his position.

“Would it be worth while, I wonder,” he said to himself, “to go back to the kitchen and get the poker? I’d better not, I suppose. It would be so deuced awkward to be caught in the dark with a poker in your hand. Being on the premises for the purpose of committing a felony — that is what they would say; and then they would be sure to say that you were the companion of thieves, and had been convicted before. No. Under this staircase, in the nature of things, is the housemaid’s cupboard. What should I find there as a weapon of defence? A dust-pan. A great deal might be done with a dust-pan, mind you, at close quarters. How would it do to arrange all her paraphernalia on the stairs, and by fire, so that mine enemies, rushing forth, might stumble and fall, and be taken unawares? But that would be acting on the offensive, and I have no safe grounds for pitching into anyone yet.”

Though Charles tried to comfort himself by talking nonsense, he was very uncomfortable. Staying where he was, was intolerable; and he hardly dared [ascend into the upper regions imbidden. Besides, he had fully persuaded himself that a disturbance was imminent, and, though a brave man, did not like to precipitate it. He had mistaken the character of the house he was in. At last, taking heart, he turned and felt his way upstairs. He came before a door through the keyhole of which the light streamed strongly; he was deliberating whether to open it or not, when a shadow crossed it, though he heard no noise, but a minute after the distant sound of a closing door. He could stand it no longer. He opened the door, and advanced into a blaze of light.

He entered a beautiful flagged hall, frescoed and gilded. There were vases of flowers round the walls, and strips of Indian matting on the pavement. It was Ht by a single chandelier, which was reflected in four great pier-glasses reaching to the ground, in which Charles’s top-boots and brown face were reduplicated most startingly. The tout ensemble was very beautiful; but what struck Charles, was the bad taste of having an entrance-hall decorated like a drawingroom, “That is just the sort of thing they do in these places,” he thought.

There were only two hats on the entrance table; one of which he was rejoiced to recognise as that of his most respected master. “May the deuce take his silly noddle for bringing me to such a place!” thought Charles.

This was evidently the front hall spoken of by Hornby; and he remembered his advice to pretend to go to sleep. So he lay down on three hall-chairs, and put his hat over his eyes.

Hall-chairs are hard; and, although Charles had just been laughing at the proprietor of the house for being so lavish in his decorations, he now wished that he had carried out his system a little further, and had cushions to his chairs. But no; the chairs were de rigueur, with crests on the backs of them. Charles did not notice whose.

If a man pretends to go to sleep, and, like the Marchioness with her orangepeel and water, “makes believe very much,” he may sometimes succeed in going to sleep in good earnest. Charles imitated the thing so well, that in five ixdnutes he was as fast off as a top.

Till a night or two before this, Charles had never dreamt of Ravenshoe since he had left it. When the first sharp sting of his trouble was in his soul, his mind had refused to go back farther than to the events of a day or so before. He had dreamt long silly dreams of his master, or his fellow-servants, or his horses, but always, all through the night, with a dread on him of waking in the dark. But, as his mind began to settle and his pain got dulled, he began to dream about Ravenshoe, and Oxford, and Shrewsbury again; and he no longer dreaded the waking as he did, for the reality of his life was no longer hideous to him. With the fatal “plasticity ” of his nature, he had lowered himself, body and soul, to the level of it.

But tonight, as he slept on these chairs, he dreamt of Ravenshoe, and of Cuthbert, and of Ellen. And he woke, and she was standing within ten feet of him, under the chandelier.

He was awake in an instant, but he lay as still as a mouse, staring at her. She had not noticed him, but was standing in profound thought. Found, and so soon! His sister! How lovely she was, standing, dressed in light pearl grey, like some beautiful ghost, with her speaking eyes fixed on nothing. She moved now, but so lightly that her footfall was barely heard upon the matting. Then she turned and noticed him. She did not seem surprised at seeing a groom stretched out asleep on the chairs — she was used to that sort of thing probably — but she turned away, gliding through a door at the further end of the hall, and was gone.

Charles’s heart was leaping and beating madly, l3ut he heard another door open, and lay still.

Adelaide came out of a door opposite to the one into which Ellen had passed. Charles was not surprised. He was beyond surprise. But, when he saw her and Ellen in the same house, in one instant, with the quickness of lightning, he understood it all. It was Welter had tempted Ellen from Ravenshoe! Fool! fool! he might have prevented it once if he had only-guessed.

If he had any doubt as to where he was now, it was soon dispelled. Lord Welter came rapidly out of the door after Adelaide, and called her in a whisper, “Adelaide.”

“Well,” she said, turning round sharply.

“Come back, do you hear?” said Lord Welter. “Where the deuce are you going?”

“To my own room.”

“Come back, I tell you,” said Lord Welter savagely, in a low voice. “You are going to spoil everything with your confounded airs.”

“I shall not come back. I am not going to act as a decoy-duck to that man, or any other man. Let me go, Welter.”

Lord Welter was very near having to let her go with a vengeance. Charles was ready for a spring, but watched, and waited his time. Lord Welter had only caught her firmly by the wrist to detain her. He was not hurting her.

“Look you here, my Lady Welter,” he said slowly and distinctly. “Listen to what I’ve got to say, and don’t try the shadow of a tantrum with me, for I won’t have it for one moment. I don’t nnnd your chaff and nonsense in public; it blinds people, it is racy and attracts people; but in private I am master, do you hear? Master. You know you are afraid of me, and ave good cause to be, by Jove. You are shaking now. Go back to that room.”

“I won’t, I won’t, I won’t. Not without you, Welter. How can you use nie so cruelly, Welter? Oh, Welter, how can you be such a villain?”

“You conceited fool,” said Lord Welter contemptuously. “Do you think he wants to make love to you?”

“You know he does, Welter; you know it,” said Adelaide passionately.

Lord Welter laughed good-naturedly. (He could be good-natured.) He drew her towards him and kissed her. “My poor little girl,” he said, “if I thought that, I would break his neck. But it is utterly wide of the truth. Look here, Adelaide; you are as safe from insult as my wife, as you were at Ranford. What you are not safe from is my own temper. Let us be friends in private and not squabble so much, eh? You are a good shrewd, clever wife to me. Do keep your tongue quiet. Come in and mark what follows. ”

They had not noticed Charles, though he had been so sure that they would, that he had got his face down on the chair, covered with his arms, feigning sleep. When they went into the room again, Charles caught hold of a coat which was on the back of a chair, and, curling himself up, put it over him. He would listen, listen, listen for every word. He had a right to listen now.

In a minute a bell rang twice. Almost at the same moment some one came out of the door through which

Lord Welter had passed, and stood silent. In about two minutes another door opened, and some one else came into the hall.

A woman’s voice — Ellen’s — said, “Oh, are you come again?”

A man’s voice — Lieutenant Hornby’s — said in answer, “You see I am. I got Lady Welter to ring her bell twice for you, and then to stay in that room, so that I might have an interview with you.”

“I am obliged to her ladyship. She must have been surprised that I was the object of attraction. She fancied herself so.”

“She was surprised. And she was more so, when I told her what my real object was.”

“Indeed,” said Ellen bitterly. “But her ladyship’s surprise does not appear to have prevented her from assisting you.”

“On the contrary,” said Hornby, “she wished me God speed — her own words.”

“Sir, you are a gentleman. Don’t disgrace yourself and me — if I can be disgraced — by quoting that woman’s blasphemy before me. Sir, you have had your answer. I shall go.”

“Ellen, you must stay. I have got this interview with you tonight, to ask you to be my wife. I love you as I believe woman was never loved before, and I ask you to be my wife.”

“You madman! you madman!”

“I am no madman. I was a madman when I spoke to you before; I pray your forgiveness for that. You must forget that. I say that I love you as a woman was never loved before. Shall I say something more, Ellen?”

“Say on.”

“You love me.”

“I love you as man was never loved before; and I swear to you that I hope I may lie stiff and cold in my unhonoured coffin, before I’ll ruin the man I love, by tying him to such a wretch as myself”

“Ellen, Ellen, don’t say that. Don’t take such vows, which you will not dare to break afterwards. Think, you may regain all that you have lost, and marry a man who loves you — ah, so dearly! — and whom you love too.”

“Ay; there’s the rub. If I did not love you, I would marry you tomorrow. Piegain all I have lost, say you? Bring my mother to life again, for instance, or walk among other women again as an honest one? You talk nonsense, Mr. Hornby — nonsense. I am going.”

“Ellen! Ellen! Why do you stay in this house? Think once again.”

“I shall never leave thinking; but my determination is the same. I tell you, as a desperate woman like me dare tell you, that I love you far too well to ruin your prospects, and I love my own soul too well ever to make another false step. I stayed in this house because I loved to see you now and then, and hear your voice; but now I shall leave it.”

“See me once more, Ellen — only once more!”

“I will see you once more. I will tear my heart once more, if you wish it. You have deserved all I can do for you, God knows. Come here the day after tomorrow; but come without hope, mind. A woman who has been through what I have can trust herself. Do you know that I am a Catholic?”

“No.”

“I am. Would you turn Catholic if I were to marry you?”

God forgive poor Hornby! He said, “Yes.” What will not men say at such times?

“Did I not say you were a madman? Do you think I would ruin you in the next world, as well as in this? Go away, sir; and, when your children are round you, humbly bless God’s mercy for saving you, body and soul, this night.”

“I shall see you again?”

“Come here the day after tomorrow; but come without hope.”

She passed through the door, and left him standing alone. Charles rose from his lair, and, coming up to him, laid his hand on his shoulder.

“You have heard all this,” said poor Hornby.

“Every word, ” said Charles. “I had a right to listen, you know. She is my sister.”

“Your sister?”

Then Charles told him all. Hornby had heard enough from Lord Welter to understand it.

“Your sister! Can you help me, Horton? Surely she will hear reason from you. Will you persuade her to listen to me?”

“No,” said Charles. “She was right. You are mad. I will not help you do an act which you would bitterly repent all your life. You must forget her. She and I are disgraced, and must get away somewhere, and hide our shame together.”

What Hornby would have answered, no man can tell; for at this moment Adelaide came out of the room, and passed quickly across the hall, saying good night to him as she passed. She did not recognise Charles, or seem surprised at seeing Hornby talking to his groom. Nobody who had lived in Lord Welter’s house a day or two was surprised at anything.

But Charles, speaking to Hornby more as if he were master than servant, said, “Wait here; ” and, stepping quickly from him, went into the room where Lord Welter sat alone, and shut the door. Hornby heard it locked behind him, and waited in the hall, listening intensely, for what was to follow.

“There’ll be a row directly,” said Hornby to himself; “and that chivalrous fool, Charles, has locked himself in. I wish Welter did not send all his servants out of the house at night. There’ll be murder done here some day.”

He listened and heard voices, low as yet — so low that he could hear the dripping of the rain outside. Drip — drip! The suspense was intolerable. “VMien would they be at one another’s throats?

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44