The high wall that surrounded the court-yard, and the towering foliage of the old trees, were gloomy. Still if the quaint stone front of the house had shown through its many windows the glow of life and welcome, I dare say the effect of those sombre accessories would have been lost in pleasanter associations, and the house might have showed cheerily and cozily enough. As it was, with no relief but the cold moonlight that mottled the pavement and tipped the chimney tops, the silence and deep shadow were chilling, and it needed the deep enthusiasm of true love to see in that dismal frontage the delightful picture that Alice Maybell’s eyes beheld.
“Welcome, darling, to our poor retreat, made bright and beautiful by your presence,” said he, with a gush of tenderness; “but how unworthy to receive you none knows better than your poor Ry. Still for a short time—and it will be but short—you will endure it. Delightful your presence will make it to me; and to you, darling, my love will perhaps render it tolerable. Take my hand, and get down; and welcome to Carwell Grange.”
Lightly she touched the ground, with her hand on his strong arm, for love rather than for assistance.
“I know how I shall like this quaint, quiet place,” said she, “love it, and grow perhaps fit for no other, if only my darling is always with me. You’ll show it all to me in daylight tomorrow—won’t you?”
Their little talk was murmured, and unheard by others, under friendly cover of the snorting horses, and the talk of the men about the luggage.
“But I must get our door opened,” said he with a little laugh; and with the heavy old knocker he hammered a long echoing summons at the door.
In a minute more lights flickered in the hall. The door was opened, and the old woman smiling her best, though that was far from being very pleasant. Her eye was dark and lifeless and never smiled, and there were lines of ill-temper, or worse, near them which never relaxed. Still she was doing her best, dropping little courtesies all the time, and holding her flaring tallow candle in its brass candlestick, and thus illuminating the furrows and minuter wrinkles of her forbidding face with a yellow light that suited its box-wood complexion.
Behind her, with another mutton-fat, for this was a state occasion, stood a square-shouldered little girl, some twelve years old, with a brown, somewhat flat face, and no good feature but her dark eyes and white teeth. This was Lilly Dogger, who had been called in to help the crone who stood in the foreground. With a grave, observing stare, she was watching the young lady, who, smiling, stepped into the hall.
“Welcome, my lady—very welcome to Carwell,” said the old woman. “Welcome, Squire, very welcome to Carwell.”
“Thank you very much. I’m sure I shall like it,” said the young lady, smiling happily; “it is such a fine old place ; and it’s so quiet—I like quiet.”
“Old enough and quiet enough, anyhow,” answered the old woman. “You’ll not see many new faces to trouble you here, Miss—Ma’am, my lady, I mean.”
“But we’ll all try to make her as pleasant and as comfortable as we can!” said Charles Fairfield, clapping the old woman on the shoulder a little impatiently.
“There don’t lay much in my way to make her time pass pleasant, Master Charles; but I suppose we’ll all do what we can?”
“And more we can’t,” said Charles Fairfield. “Come, darling. I suppose there’s a bit of fire somewhere; it’s a little cold, isn’t it?”
“A fire burning all day, sir, in the cedar-room; and the kettle’s a-boiling on the hob, if the lady ’d like a cup o’ tea?”
“Yes, of course,” said Charles; “and a fire in the room upstairs?”
“Yes, so there is, sir, a great fire all day long, and everything well aired.”
“Well, darling, shall we look first at the cedar-room?” he asked, and smiling, hand in hand, they walked through the hall, and by a staircase, and through a second and smaller hall, with a back stair off it, and so into a comfortable panelled-room, with a great cheery fire of mingled coal and wood, and old-fashioned furniture, which though faded, was scrupulously neat.
Old and homely as was the room, it agreeably surprised Alice, who was prepared to be delighted with everything, and at sight of this, exclaimed quite in a rapture—so honest a rapture that Charles Fairfield could not forbear laughing, though he felt also very grateful.
“Well, I admit,” he said, looking round, “it does look wonderfully comfortable, all things considered; but here, I am afraid, is the beginning and the end of our magnificence—for the present, of course, and by-and-by, little by little, we may improve and extend; but I don’t think in the whole house there’s a habitable room—sitting-room I mean—but this,” he laughed.
“It is the pleasantest room I ever was in, Charlie—a delightful room—I’m more than content,” said she.
“You are a good little creature,” said he, “at all events, the best little wife in the world, determined to make the best of every-thing, and as I said, we certainly shall be better very soon, and in the mean time, good humour and cheerfulness will make our quarters, poor as they are, brighter and better than luxury and ill—temper could find in a palace. Here are tea-things, and a kettle boiling—very primitive, very cosy—we’ll be more like civilised people tomorrow or next day, when we have had time to look about us, and in the mean time, suppose I make tea while you run upstairs and put off your things—what do you say?”
“Yes, certainly,” and she looked at the old woman, who stood with her ominous smile at, the door.
“I ought to have told you her name, Mildred Tarnley—the genius loci. Mildred, you’ll show your mistress to her room.”
And he and his young wife smiled a mutual farewell. A little curious she was to see something more of the old house, and she peeped about her as she went up, and asked a few questions as they went along. “And this room,” she asked, peeping into a door that opened from the back stairs which they were ascending, “it has such a large fire-place and little ovens, or what are they?”
“It was the still-room once, my lady, my mother remembered the time, but it was always shut up in my day.”
“Oh, and can you tell me—I forget—where is my servant?”
“Upstairs, please, with your things, ma’am, when the man brought up your boxes.”
Still looking about her and delaying, she went on. There was nothing stately about this house; but there was that about it which, if Alice had been in less cheerful and happy spirits, would have quelled and awed her. Thick walls, windows deep sunk, double doors now and then, wainscoting, and oak floors, warped with age.
On the landing there was an archway admitting to a gallery. In this archway was no door, and, on the landing, Alice Fairfield, as I may now call her, stood for a moment and looked round.
Happy as she was, I cannot tell what effect these faintly lighted glimpses of old and desolate rooms, aided by the repulsive companionship of her ancient guide, may have insensibly wrought upon her imagination, or what a trick that faculty may have just then played upon her senses, but turning round to enter the gallery under the open arch, the old woman standing by her, with the candle raised a little, Alice Fairfield stepped back, startled, with a little exclamation of surprise.
The ugly face of old Mildred Tarnley peeped curiously over the young lady’s shoulder. She stepped before her, and peered, right and left, into the gallery; and then, with ominous inquiry into the young lady’s eyes, “I thought it might be a bat, my lady; there was one last night got in,” she said; “but there’s no such a thing now—was you afeard of anything, my lady?”
“I—didn’t you see it?” said the young lady, both frightened and disconcerted.
“I saw’d nothing, ma’am.”
“It’s very odd. I did see it; I swear I saw it, and felt the air all stirred about my face and dress by it.”
“On here, miss—my lady; was it?”
“Yes; here before us. I— weren’t you looking?”
“Not that way, miss—I don’t know,” she said.
“Well, something fell down before us—all the way—from the top to the bottom of this place.”
And with a slight movement of her hand and eyes, she indicated the open archway before which they stood.
“Oh, lawk! Well, I dare to say it may a bin a fancy, just.”
“Yes; but it’s very odd—a great heavy curtain of black fell down in folds from the top to the floor just as I was going to step through. It seemed to make a little cloud of dust about our feet; and I felt a wind from it quite distinctly.”
“Hey, then it was a black curtain, I suppose,” said the old woman, looking hard at her.
“Yes—but why do you suppose so?”
“Sich nonsense is always black, ye know. I see’d nothing—nothing—no more there was nothing. Didn’t ye see me walk through?”
And she stepped back and forward, candle in hand, with an uncomfortable laugh.
“Oh, I know perfectly well there is nothing; but I saw it. I— I wish I hadn’t, said the young lady.
“I wish ye hadn’t, too,” said Mildred Tarnley, pale and lowering. “Them as says their prayers, they needn’t be afeard ’o sich things; and, for my part, I never see’d anything in the Grange, and I’m an old woman, and lived here girl, and woman, good sixty years and more.”
“Let us go on, please,” said Alice.
“At your service, my lady,” said the crone, with a courtesy, and conducted her to her room.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57