"THERE are Annie and Margaret Ducie—that makes two—and the Ladies Lascelles, five : I don't see how we can squeeze in another young lady, by any possibility ! "
Mrs. Pagonel was the speaker; and it was the sixth time that Beatrice and I had heard her say this, always winding up with a piteous appeal to us.
"Girls, what am I to do? "
"Really, mother dear, I don't see what you can do," said Beatrice, "except just write and say the truth, and that we are very sorry and so forth."
"What's the trouble, mother?" asked Hugh Pagonel, appearing in the doorway, ready equipped for his day's shooting.
"Oh I my dear, didn't you hear at breakfast? Those tiresome Mortons—at least they are charming people, I'm ' sure—only it is inconvenient—they have written to ask if they may bring a young lady, a niece of theirs, to stay here for the New Year's Eve Ball."
"Oh ! never mind, mother, pack her in somehow or other, can't you ? The more the merrier. Let her take my room, and I could have a shake-down anywhere."
"You are the kindest of boys," his mother said, looking fondly up at his stately height and bright, good-tempered face; " but it would be of no use, my dear, thank you. I could not offer a young lady a room in the bachelors' row, up a separate staircase and all: impossible ! and it wouldn't do to make room for her by putting a maid there. No, no, I really must write, as Beatrice proposes, only it does so vex your father to seem inhospitable."
"Can't Bee and Katie put up together for those two nights ?"
"Katie is to be badly enough quartered as it is," said Mrs. Pagonel, smiling at me; "we mean to put her into that little oak cupboard, which really is too small to turn round in, and Bee will give up her room to the Miss Ducies, and sleep in my dressing closet It is wonderful how little accommodation there is in this great rambling place."
"Well, I can only see one thing to be done, mother," said Hugh; "give Miss What's-her-name the choice of staying away, or sleeping in Cousin Geoffrey's chamber."
"Really, mamma, we never thought of that," said Beatrice; " it is never used as a sitting-room—why not put a bed there for once? You don't really believe that it is haunted, do you ?"
"Not exactly, but such a dreary soom, and on the ground floor away from everybody. I could hardly put a guest there."
"No, mamma, I never thought of your putting a guest there; but why should not Miss Morton sleep in your dressing closet ? She must put up with close quarters—and I will have the little stretcher bed put into Cousin Geoffrey's room."
"My dear child, I would not on any account risk your nerves meeting with any shock."
"My nerves are in no danger, mother, I assure you," said Beatrice, in her quiet, rather demure manner. "I don't believe in ghosts."
"That is no reason why you should not be afraid of them," I remarked; "you had much better let me sleep in the haunted room. I do believe in ghosts, you know, and I should not at all mind seeing one ; it would be great fun."
"I think we have used you ill enough already, Katie," said Mrs. Pagonel; "we don't treat you much like a visitor," and, with her sweet smile, she held out to me a hand, which, with its delicacy and look of exquisite keeping, its soft palm and nervous fluttering fingers, always seemed to me so like herself, and her whole character. I had by no means lost my childish pleasure in admiring it, and in fingering her many bright rings, and I took it into both my own hands as I answered her last speech.
"Indeed, I should hope not! No place ever seems halt so like home as dear old Ernscliff."
"We'll settle it as I proposed, please, mamma," Beatrice said, with the sober, well-judged decisiveuess which she usually brought to the rescue in her mother's many small worries and uncertainties. "I will take all the trouble if you will let me, and I will go at once and desire Mrs. White to see that the room is well aired before the 31st."
And, after making an orderly arrangement of her work, she left the room.
"I'm off too, now, mother," said Hugh, who had waited good-naturedly to see if he could be of any use. " Bee is a capital girl, isn't she ? she always hits on the right thing; and if she should see the ghost, I hope she'll ask him where the treasure is ; for, by Jove, it's wanted ! "
He left the room; and his words, light as they were, called up a deep sigh from his mother, of which I partly knew the cause, for I was too much like a child of the house not to be aware that there were money embarrassments at Ernscliff Castle, which weighed heavily upon them all The dear old squire, the kindest, but not the wisest of men, had been led into foolish speculations, which had resulted in severe losses. To meet these demands he had been obliged to effect a heavy mortgage on his estate; and the loss of income which this involved could not fail of being a serious annoyance and dificulty to a family like the Pagonels—warm-hearted, open-handed people, with a considerable position in the county to keep up, with the endless expenses belonging to a large estate, and with numerous traditions of hospitality and charity, to break through any of which would have broken Squire Pagonel's heart as well. I knew that Mrs. Pagonel had been anxious that the New Year's gathering of county neighbors, which was one of the institutions of Ernscliff Castle, should not take place this year; but her husband could not bear to give it up, especially as Hugh, whose birthday fell on the last day of the year, was to come of age, and his father had long determined that this event should be celebrated by a ball.
"Let us economize in some other way," he had said, as his custom was, and as his wife knew that he would say again when she should demur to a month in London, or a trip to Scotland, or any other pet scheme which involved the spending of money. So, with a little sigh, she had resigned herself, only trying feebly to introduce little economical amendments into the arrangements, to which, of course, the old servants opposed all their vis inertia, and which would never have been carried through, but for Beatrice's marvellous gift of managing everything and everybody. She had, as usual, been head in all the plans, and I had tried to be hands and feet; for, as I have already said, I was like another daughter of the house, though our relationship—for we did "call cousins"—was of the vaguest and most distant kind. My father, General Seaton, and Mr. Pagonel of Ernscliff, had been schoolfellows and brother officers ; and their friendship had been cemented by the marriage of both, within a few years of each other, with two girls, distant relations, who had been brought up together.
My father and mother had been for the last ten years in India, and I had been left under the care of an excellent kind-hearted lady who took a small number of pupils, and under whose roof I had led a healthy and satisfactory life enough; but Ernscliff, where I spent all my holidays, was the home of my heart; and it made me sad to think that this was probably my last visit there for many years, as I was to join my father and mother in India in a few months' time.
It was a place to attach any child, and especially an imaginative one like myself, used to the monotonous confinement of a London square. The park was wild in the extreme, a wide stretch of wood and hill and moorland, and the castle was a heavy dark-red mass of building, standing at the very edge of a steep descent, at the foot of which nestled the quaint little old-fashioned village, so directly below, that a stone could easily have been thrown from one of the castle windows down straight into the market-place. Inside it was a queer rambling house, full of narrow passages, and large long vaulted rooms, and unexpected staircases round dangerous corners, leading to haunted looking attics and ranges of dungeon-like cellars, charming for hide-and-seek, as we had often found, Hugh and Beatrice and I. The entrance-hall was of dark oak, with a stone floor, and with two heavy arched doors leading from it to the dining-room and library, and a third, rarely opened, which belonged to the room I have mentioned before—the blue chamber of the house—the haunted apartment known as Cousin Geoffrey's room. A gloomy, grewsome place it certainly was, partly because it had never, for generations, been made use of, so that it had gradually become a sort of hospital for disabled furniture and a receptacle for lumber. It took its share in the quarterly sweepings and scrubbings; but at other times I do not think the housemaids frequented it much ; and, though I never heard any well-authenticated story of ghostly sights or sounds being seen or heard there, there was a vague horror of the place, which, as well as its quaint name, had been handed down from generation to generation among the traditions of Ernscliff Castle.
When Hugh had gone out shooting, and Mrs. Pagonel had settled herself to her note-writing, I fell to musing on all I had ever heard of this room, and I was surprised to find how very little it was. The subject had hardly ever been mentioned before us in our nursery days ; and I knew that Mrs. Pagonel, who believed every one's nerves to be as delicately irritable as her own, would not encourage its discussion now ; but I resolved, on the next opportunity, to ask Beatrice or Hugh to tell me who was this dead and gone Cousin Geoffrey, who was supposed to haunt the chamber to which he had given his name.
The opportunity soon came. Dinner-hours in those days were earlier than they are now, and the blessed institution of five o'clock tea did not yet exist; but Beatrice was in advance of her age in this respect, and she had infected me with her propensity for tea-drinking at irregular hours. It had become a practice with her and me to find ourselves, in the dusk of the winter afternoons, on the large rug of furs which was spread before the wide old-fashioned hearth in the entrance-hall: there, crouching in the corners, out of the blaze and into the warmth, we used to sit and chat, and drink tea, which we waylaid on its road from the kitchen to the housekeeper's room; and there Hugh would often join us, glad to sit and rest before dressing-time, though his mud-coated gaiters and damp shooting-jacket were not presentable in the civilized drawing-room regions. Those hours were some of the most delightful in my many happy days at Ernscliff; it was so easy to talk, so charming to listen, while the red firelight through weird glares and ghostly shadows across the dark hall, and while a cheerful accompaniment was kept up by the crackling logs and the click of Beatrice's never-idle knitting needles.
On this evening we assembled rather earlier than usual, with aching arms and sore fingers, after a busy afternoon spent in dressing the castle with holly, in honor of the approaching Christmas.
As we drew round the fire, Hugh, who had good-naturedly come in early in order to help us in our task, asked his sister if her arrangement held good for New Year's Eve.
"Yes," she answered, smiling; "the mother was rather afraid about the ghost; but it is the best plan, and I am quite willing to take the risk."
"I wish I knew the real story about that room," said I; "it was always tabooed in the nursery, and I have only heard bits and scraps of it; tell it me, Bee, won't you ? "
"I would with pleasure, but I really do not know it, "said Beatrice, demurely. " I don't take much interest in ghost stories."
"I can't make out that there is any ghost in the case," said Hugh ; " but the other day, when J had to look up a lot of musty old family papers, I read the whole history of the man who used to live in that room. He didn't begin life as a ghost, you know."
"Oh! then, do tell it nicely, and make a story of it," I said, cowering closer into my corner, in expectation of some-thing delightfully horrible.
"Well, it dates back to the days of Queen Bess. The Pagonels of that time—not our branch of the family, you know—had the ill-luck to be Papists, and, after being rather in favor as long as Mary reigned, they found themselves quite in a wrong box after her sister came to the throne. The family consisted of two brothers, Ralph, the possessor of Ernscliff, and Geoffrey, the younger, who, I believe, had hung about the house contentedly enough, doing everything that nobody else chose to do, as younger brothers did in those days, till there was some trouble between them about a certain beautiful cousin, one Beatrix Pagonel, who had been brought up with them both, and whom they both fell in love with."
"Which did she like best? "
"She liked the eldest brother best, like a well brought-up young woman. In this instance I don't much wonder, for, judging by their portraits, Ralph had the best of it That is his picture over there; it is too dark to see it now, but you remember what a fine, handsome face it is."
"I would not praise it, if I were you," said Beatrice, smiling, " for it is the image of yourself"
"I'm glad I'm so good-looking. I only hope I sha'n't live to be hanged like my ancestor."
"Hanged ? What had he done ? "
"You shall hear. The Pagonels stuck to their faith when times changed, the only alteration being that their old chaplain disappeared for a little while, and then reappeared in the character of secretary and house-steward—a very transparent deceit I should think, but I dare say nobody wished to get the family into trouble. Now the story goes that somewhere in the intricacies of the castle there was a hiding-hole, so remote and so skilfully concealed that it defied discovery; the secret of which used to be in the possession of the head of the family, and of one confidant only chosen by himself. It is said that even the political or religious fugitives who had sometimes taken shelter there had been led to and from it blindfold, such was the jealousy with which the Pagonels guarded their precious secret In Ralph Pagonel's day he had chosen for his confidant his brother Geoffrey; and, trusting to this place of refuge, where the old priest and all his pious belongings could be stowed away at a moment's notice, they practised their religion more fearlessly than most folks of their persuasion in the glorious days of good Queen Bess. At last, a few years after Ralph's marriage, the coolness between him and Geoffrey seems to have ended in an open rupture. Ralph Pagonel turned Geoffrey out of doors, with high words, which I have no doubt he deserved, and Geoffrey went off, vowing to be revenged on his brother."
"Oh! I know what he is going to do—he gave information."
"When next the little congregation at Ernscliff assembled for prayers, one who was always on the watch on these occasions came to give notice that the sheriff's officers were in the neighborhood. When they arrived, everything was prepared to receive them, and Mr. Pagonel and his wife welcomed them politely, trusting to baffle them, as they had done before ; but fancy their dismay and their fury, when they saw Geoffrey appear, bringing with him the poor old priest and all the sacred vessels which had been hidden in the hiding-hole of which he only knew the secret! "
"Wretched man ! no wonder he can't rest in his grave."
"I don't know that he ever had a grave."
"Is he still living then, like the Wandering Jew? I hope he won't come back some day and claim the estate, Hugh."
"Wait till you hear the end. How far all these ins and outs are true I can't tell, but it is certain that Ralph and Beatrix Pagonel, and Francis Rivers, priest, are among those who died on the scaffold, and that Geoffrey was permitted to take possession of the estate ' in consideration of good service rendered to the Crown.' He seems to have led a most miserable life here, shunned by everybody as a traitor and a fratricide, and to have shut himself up at last quite alone in the castle, in that dreary room, having driven even his servants away."
"I don't feel as if I could pity him."
He was supposed to have become a great miser, for he squeezed all he could out of his tenants ; and it was believed that vast sums were accumulated in the castle while he lived here; but when our branch of the family took possession they found not a coin in the house and no signs of wealth—not even a trace of the family plate or jewels, which had been extremely valuable."
"When did your people come into the estate ? "
"When this wretched man disappeared mysteriously, which he did at last. There is no record among the papers of the exact way in which his absence was first discovered; probably from his queer hermit way of life, not for a long time ; but after some months had elapsed his cousin, our ancestor, came and took possession.
"Where can the hiding hole be ? " I asked.
"To tell you the truth, I don't believe it ever existed. There are no end of closets and corners in all parts of the house, as you know, where a person who knew the place well could play at hide-and-seek very cleverly with a stranger; I fancy that is the origin of the story."
"And has any one ever seen this horrible Cousin Geoffrey ? "
"I never heard of his being seen, but I have no doubt the horror which was felt for him caused his room to be shut up; and that of course would lead to all kinds of stories; and then there was a great belief that he had left a treasure buried somewhere, and might appear in approved ghost fashion to show its whereabouts."
"O Bee, what a chance for you !"
Beatrice laughed, and said she was in no way desirous of an interview with her unpleasant ancestor, though she added with a sigh:
"Anything short of that I would go through for the chance of finding the treasure."
"Ah! and wouldn't I?" said Hugh. " I can't bear to see the dear old squire look so careworn. I'd do anything to put things square for him."
"Not anything, Hugh?" his sister said, with emphasis; and I saw in the firelight how the color mounted to his fore* head as he answered :
"What do you mean? Why do you say that?"
"Because I know there are some things which you would not do for any one," she answered. " Did you hear mamma say that Miss Barnett is coming to the ball with the Lascelles?
I didn't know why the name of the great Blankshire heiress struck unpleasantly on my ear, but it certainly did, and Hugh's free, gay laugh had never been so welcome.
"Oh! no, hang it," he answered; "we are not quite come to that: I'd sooner have—
"My hollow tree, My crust of bread and liberty."
There was a pause, and his tone was quite grave and sad, when he said a moment after:
"But at all events, I'll never do anything to add to his cares—God helping me."
Nobody spoke, and we all sat and looked at the fire, and I felt—I don't know how. Hugh Pagonel had always been very dear to me; all, and more than all that our close intimacy warranted—brother, companion, champion ; but I had never thought of him in any other light; and when, with the shy consciousness of my seventeen years, had come the feeling that our friendship could not be as close and free as that of myself and Beatrice, I had been more irritated and chafed than confused by the conviction. But the idea which Beatrice had suggested was strangely distasfful to me; it made me realize how dreary it would be to see Hugh married to another woman ; and I found myself recollecting with a pang that my father had no fortune independent of his profession, and that for Hugh to marry a penniless wife would be to take the surest way of adding to the squire's embarrassments. As I raised my eyes I met Hugh's fixed upon me with a look as sad and earnest as my own could have been. For the first time, his gaze confused me, and it Was a relief when the sound of the great clanging house-bell scattered us in our different directions to dress for dinner.
ON New Year's Eve the guests assembled for the coming-of-age ball that night, and to stay over the next day, when a tenants' supper was to take place. There is no need to describe them ; they were pleasant, good-natured people, most of them old friends and neighbors of the Pagonels; and, as I had met them, year after year, during my holiday visits at Ernscliff, they were all kind in their notice of me, and civil in their regrets at hearing that this was my last stay there before leaving England. The only stranger, besides the Miss Morton whose coming had caused so much discussion, was Miss Barnett the heiress, who came with the Lord Lieutenant's party from Lascelles Acres. I could not help looking at her with much interest, and I am afraid I felt an uncharitable vexation at finding her to be a remarkably sweet-looking girl, very young, and simple in appearance and manner, and so unaffectedly delighted with the guawd old castle, and the wide expanse of park through which they had driven, that I could almost have accused her, spitefully,. of wishing to win Hugh's heart by praising the home which he loved so dearly. With my childish notion of what an heiress must be like, I was rather surprised to see her dressed in a sober, dark-colored linsey, and coarse straw bonnet of the plainest kind; but, when we all went to dress after dinner, I heard Lady Lascelles telling Mrs. Pagonel that she had persuaded " Isabella to bring her jewels, as she thought they really were worth seeing;" and accordingly she entered the great drawing-room where we were to dance blazing with diamonds, which gleamed from the bosom of her white lace dress, and shone like stars in her thick plaits of light brown hair. She blushed a little when they were admired by all who felt intimate enough to speak of them to her, and anxiously explained that Lady Lascelles had made her wear them, as if she dreaded being supposed to have herself wished to make the display; and again I felt unreasonably annoyed—angered at the pretty diffident manner which formed such a piquant contrast to her gorgeous ornaments, and cruelly mortified when a glance at the mirror showed me my tali figure in a dress of the simplest muslin (manufactured by my own fingers under the superintendence of Mrs. Pagonel's maid), and my dark hair with a simple wreath of holly laid across it. The consciousness that my face was wreathed into a peculiarly crabbed and unlovely form warned met o recover my temper, and try to acquire something less unlike the sweet looks of the heiress; and I turned away from the mirror and endeavored to throw myself into the interest of the moment The ball began and went on with great spirit: I had plenty of partners, and should have enjoyed myself thoroughly, if it had not been that Hugh did not once dance with me—a state of things unprecedented at any of the Ernscliff festivities since I was seven years old. Last year I should have taken him to task for his neglect as fearlessly as if he had been my brother; now I could only fret in wardly while I tried to assume an extra gaiety of manner whenever he was near me, especially if Miss Barnett was his partner.
The result was that I was thoroughly tired before the end of the evening, and heartily glad when I heard the guests who were not staying at Ernscliff order their carriages; and, when the squire insisted that the ball should wind up with Sir Roger de Coverley, I stole away into a small room adjoin-ing the drawing-room, and always known as the "spirit chamber "—not, I believe, from any ghostly association, bat simply from the preference of the Pagonel ancestry for having something at hand, Gamp-like, to which they "could put their lips when so disposed." It was fitted up as a little boudoir, and there I found Beatrice alone, looking so blue and cold, that I exclaimed at the sight—
"What have you been doing to yourself, Bee? You look like a ghost."
"Don't talk about ghosts !" she said, with a little shiver; "I am so ashamed of myself, Katie I I have a regular fit of nerves upon me to-night—so unlike me !"
"Are you not well, dear Bee?"
"Quite; but it is so foolish! You know I can't dance long without getting a pain in my side, and it is the same with Margaret Ducie ; so we came in here to rest, and then our partners would come with us; and somehow they began asking about the family pictures in the hall, and that led to talking about Cousin Geoffrey's room, and they made me tell the story."
"And you frightened yourself? Oh! Bee, what a triumph ! I thought you were much too wise to care for ghosts or goblins."
"That didn't frighten me; but then Margaret told us their horrible Ducie ghost-story, and Captain Lascelles capped it with something worse. You know I always dislike that sort of ghost talk, which seems to me such waste of time and trial of nerves for nothing; but I could not stop it, and none of them knew that I was to sleep in that dreary, lonely room to-night"
"And you sha'n't sleep there," I cried ; "you shall have my room, Bee, darling. I sha'n't mind sleeping downstairs in the least."
"No; I'm not quite so selfish as that," she said. "I shall be all right when I get to bed and to sleep; I can't think why I have such a silly fit; it is very unlike me, I flatter myself—very odd."
"Not odd at all, my dear, when you consider that you were up at five this morning dressing the supper-table, and have been hard at work ever since. You may have prodigious strength of mind, but in body you are not a Hercules ; and nerves belong to the body, don't they ? "
The dance was over, the guests departing; and we had to emerge from our retreat At the door Hugh was standing, leaning against the wall, and looking gloomy enough, but gazing fixedly across the room. Following his eyes I saw, with a thrill of pain, that they were riveted on Miss Barnett, who was looking peculiarly soft and attractive as she stood listening to Captain Lascelles, the light flashing from her splendid jewels.
" Do you admire her, Hugh ? " I heard Beatrice whisper.
"I admire her jewels," he answered; "but her hair is hardly dark enough to set them off. Wouldn't they look well in black hair? I certainly do like diamonds."
"Most people do," his sister said, smiling.
"I wish I thought that I should ever be able to dress up my wife in such jewels as those," he answered.
"Well," she glanced with her demure gravity at his face, "you know the way, Hugh; faint heart never won fair lady."
"Ah! but the jewels must be of my giving, or I shouldn't value them a rush," he said; and as he moved off to hand some lady to her carriage, I felt my heart wonderfully lightened, and was ready to respond cordially when Beatrice began to sing Miss Barnett's praises.
It was some time before the various guests were shown to their rooms; but as soon as they had disappeared in their different directions I drew Beatrice into the little closet where I was to sleep. She was looking white and overtired ; and though well aware that it was not easy to persuade her to relinquish a plan, I was determined that she should not pass the night in that dreary room downstairs.
"Beatrice," I began, trying to be very authoritative, "I am going to help you out of your dress, and wrap you up in my dressing-gown, and then I shall carry my goods downstairs and bring yours up. I am quite determined to change places with you to-night."
"You shall do nothing of the kind, Katie : I am quite ashamed of myself as it is, but you can't suppose I'm quite so selfish !"
"Selfish? but really and truly I should enjoy the fun. You know I like an adventure, and here is the chance of one for me; and I am not feeling in the least nervous tonight."
"I wouldn't on any account Couldn't we both squeeze in here for this short part of a night ? "
And she glanced at the tiny bed which had been with difficulty wedged in from wall to wall of the little cell I laughed at the idea, but was charmed to see this sign of wavering ; and by a few more vehement words I carried my point, for indeed Beatrice was over-tired and unhinged, and had not the strength to oppose me. In one thing, however, she was unpersuadable; she insisted on helping, me to Garry down my garments, and on seeing me safely installed in my apartment This I allowed her to do, knowing that the servants were still about, and that therefore her night journey through the gloomy house would not be as eerie as it sounded.
The door of Cousin Geoffrey's room gave a dismal creak as it swung back on its rusty hinges, and the candle which each of us carried only made the great cavern of darkness look more impenetrable. Truly it was a dreary roomy even apart from the memories of sin, and remorse, and lonely wretchedness which seemed to hang heavily about it. Like most rooms in Ernscliff Castle, it was panelled with oak: the window recesses were of such depth as to form small rooms, testifying to the immense thickness of the walls, and were only half concealed by the scanty curtains, so fusty and ragged that I think they must have come down from the days of Cousin Geoffrey himself, There was a dreary array of dilapidated chairs, broken tables, and odds and ends of furniture banished for their ugliness from the more civilized parts of the house, and a space had been cleared in the middle for the light stretcher—a reminiscence of the squire's campaigning days—for a hastily-arranged dressing-table and a sponging-bath—the latter an essentially everyday, nineteenth-century affair, which was quite a cheering sight amidst so much dilapidation and decay. The housemaid had forgotten, or had been afraid to visit the room since dark, and the logs on the hearth had smouldered themselves away. This was the first thing which struck Beatrice, and with a shiver she exclaimed—
"Oh, dear, they have let the fire out I how excessively dreary!"
"Never mind," I cried, "it is all en régle; much more ghostified than if it were warm and light, like amy commonplace room. Now, Bee, make haste to bed Here, bundle all these things over your arm—good-night."
"I can't bear to leave you," she said, lingering; but ray spirit was now thoroughly made up to the adventure, and I would not hear of giving it up. I laughed at all Beatrice's demurs and scruples, told her that she would be a ghost herself if she stayed any longer shivering in the cold ; and finally dismissed her, saying, as I gave her a last kiss, and saw her wistful, troubled look at me : " My dear, you needn't make yourself unhappy! you know I don't possess nerves—I never was afraid of anything in my life."
Foolish, boastful words, which I had often said before, but which I was never to say again !
As the last sound of Beatrice's receding footsteps died away, I did feel rather lonely and queer; but rallying my spirits, and telling myself that it was "capital fun," as Hugh would have said, I began bustling about and preparing for bed, without leaving myself time to get nervous. I was soon out of my ball-dress, and in my warm dressing-gown and fur-lined slippers, which felt very comfortable in that cold, cellar-like atmosphere. The unplaiting of my hair was a longer business, and I could not help falling into a reverie as I sate opposite the glass, and forgetting cold and fright and all things in speculating as to whether Hugh would, after all, repair the family fortunes by marrying Miss Barnett With an ingenuity in self-torture which never, I think, exists in perfection except at seventeen, I built a series of most gloomy castles in the air—saw Hugh married to the heiress; Beatrice settled far from Ernscliff, and the dear old place closed against me forever; and then I indulged in a hearty fit of the dismals over my own future—in a strange country, and with parents who were little more to me than a vague memory and a name. I sate mournfully gazing into the depths of the looking-glass, when I suddenly found that a pair of gloomy painted eyes, from the wall behind, were looking back at me with the earnest, solemn gaze which always lives in the fixed eyes of a picture. I hastily turned and looked at the portrait, which I had not noticed before, but on which the rays of my candle happened now to fall. It represented a young man, not uncouth to look upon, though there was a peering, near-sighted contraction about the eyes, and a sort of suppressed sneer on the mouth, which gave an unpleasant expression to the otherwise handsome features. No doubt this was the wretched Geoffrey Pagonel: whose portrait but his would have been thus banished from the hall, where all the others hung in honored remembrance ? The haunting eyes of the picture made me shiver. I could hardly help gazing at it, fascinated, and felt as if in another moment the painted lips would begin to move, and the painted finger be raised to point out the buried treasure. Oh, it was very well to laugh and joke about the ghost in the cheerful rooms upstairs; but it was very different in this gloomy, darkened chamber, and with those spectral eyes glaring at me from the walls. A sensation as if cold water were running down the back of my neck suddenly warned me that I was getting overpoweringly nervous: there was nothing for it but to hurry over my preparations, and plunge into the safe harbor of my bed, where I could draw the clothes over eyes and ears, and try to sleep away the haunted hours till daylight With a sudden resolution I sprang up, and in doing so struck the candlestick with my elbow ; it fell with a crash to the ground, the light being of course extinguished in the fall, and myself left in total darkness!
That was a horrible moment; and yet there was something ludicrous in the adventure which gave me courage; and I instantly remembered that the fire in the hall had been burning cheerily a few minutes before, and, moreover, that a box of lucifer-matches and a pair of unlighted candles were always to be found on the mantelpiece there. To finish undressing in the dark, téte-a-téte with that dreadful picture, was not to be thought of; and, though not very sure of my bearings, I began to grope my way in the direction where I believed the door to be, stretching out my hand before me in hopes of finding the handle. Suddenly my foot caught, probably in a hole in the ragged carpet; I fell forward and was saved by the wall, or rather the door, for it yielded as I fell against it, and as I stumbled forward I heard it close with a sharp click behind me. I must be in the hall, of course ; but why was it in such total darkness ? Could that blazing fire have gone out entirely in so very short a time? And even if it had, was there no glimmer from the staircase-window, which I knew had no shutters ?—and why was there such a strange, close smell, as if there was hardly any fresh air in the place ? I stood for a moment bewildered; then I determined to grope my way along the wall, where I must come in time to the table, which stood only a few paces to the right of the door leading into Cousin Geoffrey's room. I groped on—on—on—till I was suddenly brought up by another wall, at right angles: turning the corner, I groped on there, and this time I was stopped by stumbling against what seemed to be a chest or box, about as high as my waist. I still felt my way on, and there seemed to be other chests, sacks, boxes. Oh ! where was I ? Was there any cupboard in the room, into which I had unwittingly Strayed ? No; I was sure that there was none. Again and again I felt high and low for a door-handle; but the wooden walls were hopelessly smooth ; there was no trace of the door by which I had entered, though I felt sure that I must have groped more than once quite round my prison. It appeared to be a small room; long, but very narrow; raising my hand above my head, I could feel no roof. Bewildered, scared, I believe—for I really hardly know—that I began to scream, the conviction rushing suddenly over me that my light words had been awfully fulfilled—that I had found the hidden room, the existence of which nobody now believed in; perhaps, too, to judge by the presence of these chests and sacks against the walls, I had found the missing treasure. My voice re-echoed drearily. No help came; no sound, no stir was to be heard. Never—never can I remember without a shudder, the feeling of utter desolation which struck cold on my heart at that moment—the sense of being cut off from all human help ; alone, in the cruel, unfriendly darkness, I knew not where! I think I could almost have gone mad; but fortunately the very feeling that my senses were leaving me gave me strength to make one last strong effort to regain composure. First, I heartily commended myself to the protection of God; and then I was able to recollect that, after all, my situation was more ludicrous than terrible. I must be in some unknown recess in the thickness of the wall—probably the outer wall—and, of course, though it might be a work of time to discover the spring which I must have unwittingly pressed, it would be easy to effect my deliverance by removing a panel. The housemaid would come to call me at eight or nine o'clock, and all I had to do was to reserve my voice, instead of screaming it away, so that I might make her hear and understand when she should enter the room. With this resolve, I sank down on the ground where I was—somewhere in the middle of the little narrow cell—and stretching out my hand, I felt along one of the chests, if chests they were, to ascertain if it was to be trusted as a support for my back. Oh, heaven! what, what met my hand?—what was hanging down the side of the chest? My cold fingers closed on other fingers; stiff, unyielding fingers; fleshless, bony. Something—I dared not think what—something which had probably been stretched along on the flat top of the chest—yielding to my frightened clutch, fell down close to me—almost over me, with a horrible rattle, which echoed drearily. Terror, sickening terror, overwhelmed me, and for the first time in my life I must have become entirely insensible; for I remember recovering by slow degrees the consciouness of where I was. When it all came back to me, my first impulse was to crouch up and draw my dress close round me, lest it should touch that horrible, nameless thing. And then a fresh dread came over me. How long had my swoon lasted? Was it not very likely that the housemaid had come and gone while I was insensible and incapable of making her hear ? If so, might not days, nay, weeks elapse before any one entered the fatal room ? There was something too fearful in the idea that they might be searching for me everywhere, wondering at my disappearance, while I should be starving, dying, suffering all the agonies of a lingering torture, close to them. I thought of the poor bride in the old ballad of the "Mistletoe Bough;" and the tears which I could not shed over my own situation began to flow freely at the recollection of a horror which was long over and past, if indeed it ever existed in real life. On, on, on crept the lingering hours, and I could not at last help feeling sure that my worst fears must be realized. Day must surely be come, though there was no day for me in my narrow tomb. It seemed as if the ball had happened ages ago ; as if I must have been many, many hours shut up here. The intense cold which I felt, the thirst which burned my throat, the sinking weakness in all my limbs, strengthened this conviction. Were these the first beginnings of the slow agony which was to end in death ?
The horror of this thought swept away all self-control, and I broke out into a frantic cry—
"Will no one help me?—will no one hear me? Oh! I can't—I can't die here !—die like this !" and I shrieked violently.
Oh ! joy of joys ! I was answered. Yes, there was a voice -—a loud, strong voice, though it sounded strangely muffled, and yet not very far off.
"What is it? What the deuce has happened? What is the matter ?"
"Oh! is it Hugh? I am here, Hugh—I—Katie—oh! do let me out."
"Katie ? Where on earth are you ? Your voice seems to come out of the wall."
"Yes I am, I am in the wall; I do believe it is the hiding-hole, and oh! I don't know what there is here—such hop mors! Can't you take me out, Hugh? dear, dear Hugh."
"Of course ; but how the deuce did you ever get in ? "
"From that dreadful room—Cousin Geoffrey's room. I was sleeping there instead of Bee."
"Oh! then I had better go round to that room." And his voice receded, leaving me greatly bewildered as to his present whereabouts. Just as the dreadful sense of loneliness began to creep over me again, I heard the joyous sound of tramping feet and opening doors—and then his dear, cheery voice, always welcome—how welcome now !—sounded from the opposite side and much more clearly, "Speak, Katie, I can't tell the least where you are."
"Oh ! here, here! Oh ! you won't leave me again, Hugh I I fell: I must have touched a spring. Where am I ? "
"How uncommonly queer! My poor Katie I You are in the thickness of the outer wall, I fancy. Well! this is a tunny state of things ! "
In a minute he said, in a calm, serious voice, which went a tang way towards quieting my nerves—
"Katie, I must leave you for a few minutes. I might fumble here forever before I touched the spring, as no doubt you happened to do. The best way will be to take out a panel, and for that I must get Adams and his tools Luckily he has been sleeping here, because of all the ball carpentry. I sha'n't be away long, but probably he is not up, so it may take some minutes; ten perhaps."
"Not up ? What can the time be ?"
"Just half-past six by the watch."
"Not six in the morning? Oh! I thought I had been here for ages. I thought I must have missed the housemaid when she came to call me. Hugh—you're not gone, are you?"
"Not gone, but going."
But don't, don't!" I cried; "if you are only away five minutes, I know it will seem an hour, and I can't bear it—I can't indeed; " and, ashamed as I was of my childishness, I could not prevent my voice from dying away in a burst of cobs and tears. Hugh's answer came back in fond, caressing tones, such as I had never heard from him before :
"My poor little darling Katie," he said, " you have had a cruel shock. We shall never forgive ourselves for what we have exposed you to. But you must be reasonable, dearest Katie, and trust me that I won't be one minute longer than I can help. I'm going now, my Katie—don't be afraid. Yon will be all right and safe in a very few minutes now."
I heard his footsteps die away ; but before I had time to become thoroughly nervous again I heard other feet and other voices gathering in the room, and speaking to me in tones of pity and consternation, but of amusement too, which did me great good : for in my feelings of horror and dismay, I had lost sight of the absurd side to my adventure. Beatrice was there, and I heard the squire's good-tempered voice, and his wife's gentle tones ; and then came back again the voice that I liked best of all, and soon I was aware that Adams was busy at the panel, and at last—oh, blessed moment !—I saw the light of their candles, and the familiar figures in all sorts of quaint deshabilles. I felt myself drawn out through the narrow aperture and upheld by Hugh's strong supporting arms, and overwhelmed by the sudden sense of relief and safety, I let my head fall helplessly upon his shoulder, and I remember no more.
In a few moments I was conscious again, and found myself laid on the bed, Mrs. Pagonel and Beatrice attending on me, while the squire and Hugh seemed to be intent on examining the contents of the mysterious cell which I had so strangely been the means of discovering. I heard exclamations of wonder and satisfaction, and then of dismay—and Mrs. Pagonel interposed, and said that I must at once be taken to some warmer and more cheerful room. The squire accordingly came forward to give me the support of his arm, but not before I had seen a look of sick horror on his broad, ruddy face, and heard him mutter to Hugh, " Horrible ! Is it not well written, ' Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, saith the Lord'?"
All that day I was throughly upset; suffering from headache to such a degree that I could do nothing but lie still and endure. Towards evening, however, I fell into a deep sleep, from which I awoke to find myself out of pain ; and drawing aside the bed-curtains—I was in Mrs. Pagonel's room—I was well pleased to see Beatrice sitting by the fire, pre siding over a most tempting-looking tea equipage."
"Oh ! Katie, I am so sorry," were her first words.
"There is nothing to be sorry for, Bee : it is all over, and I am quite well now," I said, rising, and proceeding to twist up my hair and arrange my dress, and then seating myself in the arm-chair which she was drawing close to the fire for me ; "but do tell me ; have I really found the hiding hole?"
"That you have," answered Beatrice, handing me a cup of tea, which I enjoyed as never tea was enjoyed before; "the hiding-hole, and the treasure as well! Such hoards, Katie ! chests and sacks full of coins, and all the jewels and plate of which we have the lists among our family papers, but which have always been missing, you know. O Katie, how can we thank you ? This will put an end to papa's anxieties, I do believe !"
"Thank heaven ! Oh ! that is worth all I went through. But, Bee, how came those treasure there, do you suppose ? What can have become of the wretched man ? I can't tell you what horrible fancies I had about him."
"Are you sure they were fancies?" said Beatrice, very low : then as I looked questioningly at her, she said with a shudder—
"Yes, my poor dear Katie ; he must have really met with the fate which you were afraid of—how it happened, of course, no one can say—and after all, we may be jumping to a wrong conclusion; but a skeleton they have found there: surely it must be his—he must have starved to death in the midst of all the wealth he had hoarded,"
"Yes and sold his soul for! Poor wretched man !" I answered with a shiver: the whole subject was to me too painful for discussion, and when Bee added that one could hardly pity such a wicked man, I could not echo her words ; the horror was only a vague, unreal seeming romance to her, seen though the mists of so many hundred years, but to me it was a frightful reality—a thing of to-day.
I was not well enough to take part in the tenants' supper; but I came down into the little "spirit chamber," and there the guests visited me, one or two at a time. My last visitor was Hugh, who, as soon as he was released from his arduous task of proposing and responding to toasts, and keeping order among his tenants, came to ask how I was.
"You look dreadfully white, Katie," he said, sitting down near me; "not at all the better for your night in Cousin Geoffrey's room ! How lucky it was that I could not sleep after the ball, and thought at last I'd go out before light, and try to get a shot at a wild duck !"
"Oh ! that was how it was ? "
"Yes : from my hearing your voice so plainly outside the house, I fancy there must be a shaft somewhere leading to the outer air—but we'll turn the place regularly out to-morrow. Poor Cousin Geoffrey ! he's done us a good turn after all, hasn't he ? and those bones of his shall have Christian burial at last."
I could not fruk about this part of the subject; Hugh saw it, and went on quickly :
"And do you know that you've discovered a perfect mine of wealth for us ? My father says a great portion must go in charity before he can feel sure that it won't bring a curse with it: but even so, there'll be enough bullion to pay off this mortgage which has been worrying his life out."
"I am so glad!"
"Ah I and what am I? I wonder if you have the least idea how wretched I have been these last few days."
I felt that, weak and shaken as I was, I could not answer without beginning to cry, and in a moment Hugh went on :
"To-morrow, Katie, will you let me show you all the quaint old plate and the jewels ? Such jewels ! Miss Barnett may hide her diminished head forever. But one of them I must show you now—I can't wait till to-morrow."
He took my hand, and held over the third finger a diamond hoop, heavy and old-fashioned in setting, but the atones of great size and brilliancy.
"Katie, dearest, we have been looking out these jewels in the lists which we have : shall I tell you the name by which this is described there ? The troth plight, the betrothal ring: ft has been handed down as such evidently from one gene-ration of us Pagonels to another. Katie, don't you and I belong naturally to each other? Won't you promise me not to go to India ? May I not put the ring upon your finger ?"
And so it was that Hugh was enabled to carry out hit wish of decking his wife in jewels surpassing the Barnett diamonds, and this was what came of my terrible New Year's Eve in Cousin Geoffrey's Chamber.
* The main incident of this story is one which really took place.