The House by the Church-Yard, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 36

Narrating How Miss Lilias Visited Belmont, and Saw a Strange Cocked-Hat in the Shadow by the Window.

At that time, in every hall of gentility, there stood a sedan-chair, the property of the lady of the house; and by the time the chairmen had arrived and got the poles into their places, and trusty John Tracy had got himself into his brown surtout, trimmed with white lace, and his cane in his hand —(there was no need of a lantern, for the moon shone softly and pleasantly down)— Miss Lilias Walsingham drew her red riding hood about her pretty face, and stepped into the chair; and so the door shut, the roof closed in, and the young lady was fairly under weigh. She had so much to think of, so much to tell about her day’s adventure, that before she thought she had come half the way, they were flitting under the shadows of the poplars that grew beside the avenue; and, through the window, she saw the hospitable house spreading out its white front as they drew near, and opening its wings to embrace her.

The hall-door stood half open, though it had been dark some time; and the dogs came down with a low growl, and plenty of sniffing, which forthwith turned into a solemn wagging of tails, for they were intimate with the chairmen, and with John Tracy, and loved Lilias too. So she got out in the hall, and went into the little room at the right, and opening the door of the inner and larger one — there was no candle there, and ’twas nearly dark — saw Gertrude standing by the window which looked out on the lawn toward the river. That side of the house was in shade, but she saw that the window was thrown up, and Gertrude, she thought, was looking toward her, though she did not move, until she drew nearer, wondering why she did not approach, and then, pausing in a kind of unpleasant doubt, she heard a murmured talking, and plainly saw the figure of a man, with a cloak, it seemed, wrapped about him, and leaning from outside, against the window-sill, and, as she believed, holding Gertrude’s hand.

The thing that impressed her most was the sharp outline of the cocked-hat, with the corners so peculiarly pinched in, and the feeling that she had never seen that particular hat before in the parish of Chapelizod.

Lily made a step backward, and Gertrude instantly turned round, and seeing her, uttered a little scream.

‘’Tis I, Gertrude, darling — Lily — Lily Walsingham,’ she said, perhaps as much dismayed as Gertrude herself; ‘I’ll return in a moment.’

She saw the figure, outside, glide hurriedly away by the side of the wall.

‘Lily — Lily, darling; no, don’t go — I did not expect you;’ and Gertrude stopped suddenly, and then as suddenly said —

‘You are very welcome, Lily;’ and she drew the window down, and there was another pause before she said —‘Had not we better go up to the drawing-room, and — and — Lily darling, you’re very welcome. Are you better?’

And she took little Lily’s hand, and kissed her.

Little Lilias all this time had said nothing, so entirely was she disconcerted. And her heart beat fast with a kind of fear: and she felt Gertrude’s cold hand tremble she fancied in hers.

‘Yes, darling, the drawing-room, certainly,’ answered Lily. And the two young ladies went up stairs holding hands, and without exchanging another word.

‘Aunt Becky has gone some distance to see a sick pensioner; I don’t expect her return before an hour.’

‘Yes — I know — and she came, dear Gertrude, to see me; and I should not have come, but that she asked me, and — and ——’

She stopped, for she was speaking apologetically, like an intruder, and she was shocked to feel what a chasm on a sudden separated them, and oppressed with the consciousness that their old mutual girlish confidence was dead and gone; and the incident of the evening, and Gertrude’s changed aspect, and their changed relations, seemed a dreadful dream.

Gertrude looked so pale and wretchedly, and Lily saw her eyes, wild and clouded, once or twice steal toward her with a glance of such dark alarm and enquiry, that she was totally unable to keep up the semblance of their old merry gossiping talk, and felt that Gertrude read in her face the amazement and fear which possessed her.

‘Lily, darling, let us sit near the window, far away from the candles, and look out; I hate the light.’

‘With all my heart,’ said Lily. And two paler faces than theirs, that night, did not look out on the moonlight prospect.

‘I hate the light, Lily,’ repeated Gertrude, not looking at her companion, but directly out through the bow-window upon the dark outline of the lawn and river bank, and the high grounds on the other side. ‘I hate the light — yes, I hate the light, because my thoughts are darkness — yes, my thoughts are darkness. No human being knows me; and I feel like a person who is haunted. Tell me what you saw when you came into the parlour just now.’

‘Gertrude, dear, I ought not to have come in so suddenly.’

‘Yes, ’twas but right —’twas but kind in you, Lily — right and kind — to treat me like the open-hearted and intimate friend that, Heaven knows, I was to you, Lily, all my life. I think — at least, I think — till lately — but you were always franker than I— and truer. You’ve walked in the light, Lily, and that’s the way to peace. I turned aside, and walked in mystery; and it seems to me I am treading now the valley of the shadow of death. Waking and talking, I am, nevertheless, in the solitude and darkness of the grave. And what did you see, Lily — I know you’ll tell me truly — when you came into the parlour, as I stood by the window?’

‘I saw, I think, the form of a man in a cloak and hat, as I believe, talking with you in whispers, Gertrude, from without.’

‘The form of a man, Lily — you’re right — not a man, but the form of a man,’ she continued, bitterly; ‘for it seems to me sometimes it can be no human fascination that has brought me under the tyranny in which I can scarce be said to breathe.’

After an interval she said —

‘It will seem incredible. You’ve heard of Mr. Dangerfield’s proposal, and you’ve heard how I’ve received it. Well, listen.’

‘Gertrude, dear!’ said Lily, who was growing frightened.

‘I’m going,’ interrupted Miss Chattesworth, ‘to tell you my strange, if you will, but not guilty — no, not guilty — secret. I’m no agent now, but simply passive in the matter. But you must first pledge me your sacred word that neither to my father nor to yours, nor to my aunt, nor to any living being, will you ever reveal what I am about to tell you, till I have released you from your promise.’

Did ever woman refuse a secret? Well, Lily wavered for a moment. But then suddenly stooping down, and kissing her, she said:

‘No, Gertrude, darling — you’ll not be vexed with me — but you must not tell me your secret. You have excuses such as I should not have — you’ve been drawn into this concealment, step by step, unwillingly; but, Gertrude, darling, I must not hear it. I could not look Aunt Becky in the face, nor the kind general, knowing that I was ——’

She tried to find a word.

Deceiving them, Lily,’ said Gertrude, with a moan.

‘Yes, Gertrude, darling.’ And she kissed her again. ‘And it might be to your great hurt. But I thank you all the same from my heart for your confidence and love; and I’m gladder than you’ll ever know, Gerty, that they are still the same.’ And thus the two girls kissed silently and fervently, and poor Gertrude Chattesworth wept uncomplainingly, looking out upon the dark prospect.

‘And you’ll tell me, darling, when you’re happier, as you soon will be?’ said Lily.

‘I will — I will indeed. I’m sometimes happier — sometimes quite happy — but I’m very low to-night, Lily,’ answered she.

Then Lily comforted and caressed her friend. And I must confess she was very curious, too, and nothing but a terror of possessing a secret under such terms, withheld her from hearing Gertrude’s confession. But on her way home she thanked Heaven for her resolution, and was quite sure that she was happier and better for it.

They were roused by Aunt Becky’s knock at the hall-door, and her voice and Dominick’s under the window.

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