The Haunted Baronet, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter XVI

The Message from Cloostedd

“Come back, Feltram; come back, Philip!” cried Sir Bale hastily. “Let us talk, can’t we? Come and talk this odd business over a little; you must have mistaken what I meant; I should like to hear all about it.”

“All is not much, sir,” said Philip Feltram, entering the room again, the door of which he had half closed after him. “In the forest of Cloostedd I met today some people, one of whom can foretell events, and told me the names of the winners of the first three races at Heckleston, and gave me this purse, with leave to lend you so much money as you care to stake upon the races. I take no security; you shan’t be troubled; and you’ll never see the lender, unless you seek him out.”

“Well, those are not bad terms,” said Sir Bale, smiling wistfully at the purse, which Feltram had again placed upon the table.

“No, not bad,” repeated Feltram, in the harsh low tone in which he now habitually spoke.

“You’ll tell me what the prophet said about the winners; I should like to hear their names.”

“The names I shall tell you if you walk out with me,” said Feltram.

“Why not here?” asked Sir Bale.

“My memory does not serve me here so well. Some people, in some places, though they be silent, obstruct thought. Come, let us speak,” said Philip Feltram, leading the way.

Sir Bale, with a shrug, followed him.

By this time it was dark. Feltram was walking slowly towards the margin of the lake; and Sir Bale, more curious as the delay increased, followed him, and smiled faintly as he looked after his tall, gaunt figure, as if, even in the dark, expressing a ridicule which he did not honestly feel, and the expression of which, even if there had been light, there was no one near enough to see.

When he reached the edge of the lake, Feltram stooped, and Sir Bale thought that his attitude was that of one who whispers to and caresses a reclining person. What he fancied was a dark figure lying horizontally in the shallow water, near the edge, turned out to be, as he drew near, no more than a shadow on the elsewhere lighter water; and with his change of position it had shifted and was gone, and Philip Feltram was but dabbling his hand this way and that in the water, and muttering faintly to himself. He rose as the Baronet drew near, and standing upright, said,

“I like to listen to the ripple of the water among the grass and pebbles; the tongue and lips of the lake are lapping and whispering all along. It is the merest poetry; but you are so romantic, you excuse me.”

There was an angry curve in Feltram’s eyebrows, and a cynical smile, and something in the tone which to the satirical Baronet was almost insulting. But even had he been less curious, I don’t think he would have betrayed his mortification; for an odd and unavowed influence which he hated was gradually establishing in Feltram an ascendency which sometimes vexed and sometimes cowed him.

“You are not to tell,” said Feltram, drawing near him in the dusk. “The secret is yours when you promise.”

“Of course I promise,” said Sir Bale. “If I believed it, you don’t think I could be such an ass as to tell it; and if I didn’t believe it, I’d hardly take the trouble.”

Feltram stooped, and dipping the hollow of his hand in the water, he raised it full, and said he, “Hold out your hand — the hollow of your hand — like this. I divide the water for a sign — share to me and share to you.” And he turned his hand, so as to pour half the water into the hollow palm of Sir Bale, who was smiling, with some uneasiness mixed in his mockery.

“Now, you promise to keep all secrets respecting the teller and the finder, be that who it may?”

“Yes, I promise,” said Sir Bale.

“Now do as I do,” said Feltram. And he shed the water on the ground, and with his wet fingers touched his forehead and his breast; and then he joined his hand with Sir Bale’s, and said, “Now you are my safe man.”

Sir Bale laughed. “That’s the game they call ‘grand mufti,’” said he.

“Exactly; and means nothing,” said Feltram, “except that some day it will serve you to remember by. And now the names. Don’t speak; listen — you may break the thought else. The winner of the first is Beeswing; of the second, Falcon; and of the third, Lightning.”

He had stood for some seconds in silence before he spoke; his eyes were closed; he seemed to bring up thought and speech with difficulty, and spoke faintly and drowsily, both his hands a little raised, and the fingers extended, with the groping air of a man who moves in the dark. In this odd way, slowly, faintly, with many a sigh and scarcely audible groan, he gradually delivered his message and was silent. He stood, it seemed, scarcely half awake, muttering indistinctly and sighing to himself. You would have said that he was exhausted and suffering, like a man at his last hour resigning himself to death.

At length he opened his eyes, looked round a little wildly and languidly, and with another great sigh sat down on a large rock that lies by the margin of the lake, and sighed heavily again and again. You might have fancied that he was a second time recovering from drowning.

Then he got up, and looked drowsily round again, and sighed like a man worn out with fatigue, and was silent.

Sir Bale did not care to speak until he seemed a little more likely to obtain an answer. When that time came, he said, “I wish, for the sake of my believing, that your list was a little less incredible. Not one of the horses you name is the least likely; not one of them has a chance.”

“So much the better for you; you’ll get what odds you please. You had better seize your luck; on Tuesday Beeswing runs,” said Feltram. “When you want money for the purpose, I’m your banker — here is your bank.”

He touched his breast, where he had placed the purse, and then he turned and walked swiftly away.

Sir Bale looked after him till he disappeared in the dark. He fluctuated among many surmises about Feltram. Was he insane, or was he practising an imposture? or was he fool enough to believe the predictions of some real gipsies? and had he borrowed this money, which in Sir Bale’s eyes seemed the greatest miracle in the matter, from those thriving shepherd mountaineers, the old Trebecks, who, he believed, were attached to him? Feltram had, he thought, borrowed it as if for himself; and having, as Sir Bale in his egotism supposed, “a sneaking regard” for him, had meant the loan for his patron, and conceived the idea of his using his revelations for the purpose of making his fortune. So, seeing no risk, and the temptation being strong, Sir Bale resolved to avail himself of the purse, and use his own judgment as to what horse to back.

About eleven o’clock Feltram, unannounced, walked, with his hat still on, into Sir Bale’s library, and sat down at the opposite side of his table, looking gloomily into the Baronet’s face for a time.

“Shall you want the purse?” he asked at last.

“Certainly; I always want a purse,” said Sir Bale energetically.

“The condition is, that you shall back each of the three horses I have named. But you may back them for much or little, as you like, only the sum must not be less than five pounds in each hundred which this purse contains. That is the condition, and if you violate it, you will make some powerful people very angry, and you will feel it. Do you agree?”

“Of course; five pounds in the hundred — certainly; and how many hundreds are there?”

“Three.”

“Well, a fellow with luck may win something with three hundred pounds, but it ain’t very much.”

“Quite enough, if you use it aright.”

“Three hundred pounds,” repeated the Baronet, as he emptied the purse, which Feltram had just placed in his hand, upon the table; and contemplating them with grave interest, he began telling them off in little heaps of five-and-twenty each. He might have thanked Feltram, but he was thinking more of the guineas than of the grizzly donor.

“Ay,” said he, after a second counting, “I think there are exactly three hundred. Well, so you say I must apply three times five — fifteen of these. It is an awful pity backing those queer horses you have named; but if I must make the sacrifice, I must, I suppose?” he added, with a hesitating inquiry in the tone.

“If you don’t, you’ll rue it,” said Feltram coldly, and walked away.

“Penny in pocket’s a merry companion,” says the old English proverb, and Sir Bale felt in better spirits and temper than he had for many a day as he replaced the guineas in the purse.

It was long since he had visited either the race-course or any other place of amusement. Now he might face his kind without fear that his pride should be mortified, and dabble in the fascinating agitations of the turf once more.

“Who knows how this little venture may turn out?” he thought. “It is time the luck should turn. My last summer in Germany, my last winter in Paris — damn me, I’m owed something. It’s time I should win a bit.”

Sir Bale had suffered the indolence of a solitary and discontented life imperceptibly to steal upon him. It would not do to appear for the first time on Heckleston Lea with any of those signs of negligence which, in his case, might easily be taken for poverty. All his appointments, therefore, were carefully looked after; and on the Monday following, he, followed by his groom, rode away for the Saracen’s Head at Heckleston, where he was to put up, for the races that were to begin on the day following, and presented as handsome an appearance as a peer in those days need have cared to show.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49