OCTOBER 10, 1791.
I was not mistaken. Madame is not only interested in, but has serious designs upon the oak parlor. Not content with roaming up and down the hallway leading to it, she was detected yesterday morning trying to open its door, and when politely questioned as to whom she was seeking, answered that she was looking for the sitting room, which, by the way, is on the other side of the house. And this is not all. As I lay in my bed last night resting as only a weary woman can rest, I heard a light tap at my door. Rising, I opened it, and was astonished to see standing before me the light figure of mademoiselle.
“Excuse me for troubling you,” said she, in her pure English — they both speak good English, though with a foreign accent —“I am sorry to wake you, but I am so anxious about my mother. She went to bed with me, and we fell asleep; but when I woke a little while ago she was missing, and though I have waited for her a long time, she does not return. I am not well, and easily frightened! Oh, how cold it is.”
I drew her in, wrapped a shawl about her, and led her back to her room.
“Your mother will return speedily,” I promised. “Doubtless she felt restless, and is taking a turn or two up and down the hall.”
“Perhaps; for her dressing gown and slippers are gone. But she never did anything like this before, and in a strange house —”
A slight trembling stopped the young lady from continuing.
Urging her to get into bed, I spoke one or two further words of a comforting nature, at which the lovely girl seemed to forget her pride, for she threw her arms about my neck with a low sigh, and then, pushing me softly from her, observed:
“You are a kind woman; you make me feel happier whenever you speak to me.”
Touched, I made some loving reply, and withdrew. I longed to linger, longed to tell her how truly I was her friend; but I feared the mother’s return — feared to miss the knowledge of madame’s whereabouts, which my secret suspicion made important; so I subdued my feelings and hastened quickly to my room, where I wrapped myself in a long, dark cloak. Thus equipped, I stole back again to the hall, and gliding with as noiseless a step as possible, found my way to the back stairs, down which I crept, holding my breath, and listening intently.
To many who read these words the situation of those back stairs is well known; but there may be others who will not understand that they lead directly, after a couple of turns, to that hall upon which opens the oak parlor. Five steps from the lower floor there is a landing, and upon this landing there is a tall Dutch clock, so placed as to offer a very good hiding place behind it to any one anxious to gaze unobserved down the hall. But to reach the clock one has to pass a window, and as this looks south, and was upon this night open to the moonlight, I felt that the situation demanded circumspection.
I, therefore, paused when I reached the last step above the platform, and listened intently before proceeding further. There was no noise; all was quiet, as a respectable house should be at two o’clock in the morning. Yet from the hall below came an undefinable something which made me feel that she was there; a breathing influence that woke every nervous sensibility within me, and made my heart-beats so irregular that I tried to stop them lest my own presence should be betrayed. She was there, a creeping, baleful figure, blotting the moonshine with her tall shadow, as she passed, panther-like, to and fro before that closed door, or crouched against the wall in the same attitude of listening which I myself assumed. Or so I pictured her as I clung to the balustrade above, asking myself how I could cross that strip of moonlight separating me from that vantage-point I longed to gain. For that I knew her to be there was not enough. I must see her, and learn, if possible, what the attraction was which drew her to this fatal door. But how, how, how? If she were watching, as secrecy ever watches, I could not take a step upon that platform without being discerned. Not even if a friendly cloud came to obscure the brightness of the moon, could I hope to project my dark figure into that belt of light without discovery. I must see what was to be seen from the step where I stood, and to do this I knew but one way. Taking up the end of my long cloak, I advanced it the merest trifle beyond the edge of the partition that separated me from the hall below. Then I listened again. No sound, no stir. I breathed deeply and thrust my arm still further, the long cloak hanging from it dark and impenetrable to the floor below. Then I waited. The moonlight was not quite as bright as it had been; surely that was a cloud I saw careering over the face of the sky above me, and in another moment, if I could wait for it, the hall would be almost dark. I let my arm advance an inch or so further, and satisfied now that I had got the slit which answers for an arm-hole into a position that would afford me full opportunity of looking through the black wall I had thus improvised, I watched the cloud for the moment of comparative darkness which I so confidently expected. It came, and with it a sound — the first I had heard. It was from far down the hall, and was, as near as I could judge, of a jingling nature, which for an instant I found it hard to understand. Then the quick suspicion came as to what it was, and unable to restrain myself longer I separated the slit I have spoken of with the fingers of my right hand, and looked through.
There she was, standing before the door of the oak parlor, fitting keys. I knew it at my first glimpse, both from her attitude and the slight noise which the keys made. Taken aback, for I had not expected this, I sank out of sight, cloak and all, asking myself what I should do. I finally decided to do nothing. I would listen, and if the least intimation came to prove that she had succeeded in her endeavor, I would then spring down the steps that separated us and hold her back by the hair of her head. Meanwhile I congratulated myself that the lock of that room was a peculiar one, and that the only key I knew of that would unlock it was under the pillow of the bed I had just left.
She worked several minutes; then the moon came out. Instantly all was still. I knew whither she had gone. Near the door she was tampering with is a short passageway leading to another window. Into this she had slipped, and I could look out now with impunity, sure that she would not see me.
But I remained immovable. There was another cloud rushing up from the south, and in another moment I was confident that I should hear again the slight clatter of the key against the lock. And I did, and not only once, but several times, which fact assured me that she had not only brought a handful of keys with her, but that these keys must have come from some more distant quarter than the town; that indeed she had come provided to the Happy–Go-Lucky for this nocturnal visit, and that any doubts I might cherish were likely to have a better foundation in fact than is usual with women circumstanced like myself.
She did not succeed in her efforts. Had she brought burglar’s tools I hardly think she would have been able to open that lock; as it was, there was no hope for her, and presently she seemed to comprehend this, for the slight sounds ceased and, presently, I heard a step, and peering recklessly from my corner, I perceived her gliding away toward the front stairs. I smiled, but it could not have been in a way she would have enjoyed seeing, and crept noiselessly to my own room, and our doors closed simultaneously.
This morning I watched with some anxiety for her first look. It was slightly inquiring. Summoning up my best smile, I gave her a cheerful good-morning, and then observed:
“I am glad to see you look so well this morning! Your daughter seemed to be concerned about you in the night because you had left your bed. But I told her I was sure all was right, that you were feeling nervous, and only wanted a breath of the fresh air you would find in the halls.” And my glance did not flinch, nor my mouth lose its smile, though she surveyed me keenly with eyes whose look might penetrate a stone.
“You understand your own sex,” was her light reply, after this short study of my face. “Yes; I was very nervous. I have cares on my mind, and, though my daughter does not realize it, I often lie awake at her side, longing for space to breathe in and freedom to move as freely as my uneasiness demands. Last night my feelings were too much for my self-control, and I arose. I hope I did not seriously disturb you, or awaken anybody, with my restless pacing up and down the hall.”
I assured her that it took more than this to disturb me, and that after quieting her daughter I had immediately fallen asleep; all of which she may have believed or may not; I had no means of reading her mind, as she had no means of reading mine.
But whether she was deceived or whether she was not, she certainly looked relieved, and after some short remarks about the weather, turned from me with the most cheerful air in the world, to greet her daughter.
As for me, I have made up my mind to change my room. I shall not say anything about it or make any fuss on the subject, but to-night, and for some nights to come, I intend to take up my abode in a certain small room in the west wing, not very far removed from the dreadful oak parlor.
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