'That's a bad un, he is—oh, Miss, Miss Maud! It's nout that's good as keeps him an' fayther—(mind, lass, ye promised you would not tell no one)—as keeps them two a-talkin' and a-smokin' secret-like together in the mill. An' fayther don't know I found him out. They don't let me into the town, but Brice tells me, and he knows it's Dudley; and it's nout that's good, but summat very bad. An' I reckon, Miss, it's all about you. Be ye frightened, Miss Maud?'
I felt on the point of fainting, but I rallied.
'Not much, Meg. Go on, for Heaven's sake. Does Uncle Silas know he is here?'
'Well, Miss, they were with him, Brice told me, from eleven o'clock to nigh one o' Tuesday night, an' went in and come out like thieves, 'feard ye'd see 'em.'
'And how does Brice know anything bad?' I asked, with a strange freezing sensation creeping from my heels to my head and down again—I am sure deadly pale, but speaking very collectedly.
'Brice said, Miss, he saw Dudley a-cryin' and lookin' awful black, and says he to fayther, "'Tisn't in my line nohow, an' I can't;" and says fayther to he, "No one likes they soart o' things, but how can ye help it? The old boy's behind ye wi' his pitchfork, and ye canna stop." An' wi' that he bethought him o' Brice, and says he, "What be ye a-doin' there? Get ye down wi' the nags to blacksmith, do ye." An' oop gits Dudley, pullin' his hat ower his brows, an' says he, "I wish I was in the Seamew. I'm good for nout wi' this thing a-hangin' ower me." An' that's all as Brice heard. An' he's afeard o' fayther and Dudley awful. Dudley could lick him to pot if he crossed him, and he and fayther 'ud think nout o' havin' him afore the justices for poachin', and swearin' him into gaol.'
'But why does he think it's about me?'
'Hish!' said Meg, who fancied she heard a sound, but all was quiet. 'I can't say—we're in danger, lass. I don't know why—but he does, an' so do I, an', for that matter, so do ye.'
'Meg, I'll leave Bartram.'
'Can't. What do you mean, girl?'
'They won't let ye oot. The gates is all locked. They've dogs—they've bloodhounds, Brice says. Ye can't git oot, mind; put that oot o' your head.
'I tell ye what ye'll do. Write a bit o' a note to the lady yonder at Elverston; an' though Brice be a wild fellah, and 'appen not ower good sometimes, he likes me, an' I'll make him take it. Fayther will be grindin' at mill to-morrow. Coom ye here about one o'clock—that's if ye see the mill-sails a-turnin'—and me and Brice will meet ye here. Bring that old lass wi' ye. There's an old French un, though, that talks wi' Dudley. Mind ye, that un knows nout o' the matter. Brice be a kind lad to me, whatsoe'er he be wi' others, and I think he won't split. Now, lass, I must go. God help ye; God bless ye; an', for the world's wealth, don't ye let one o' them see ye've got ought in your head, not even that un.'
Before I could say another word, the girl had glided from me, with a wild gesture of silence, and a shake of her head.
I can't at all account for the state in which I was. There are resources both of energy and endurance in human nature which we never suspect until the tremendous voice of necessity summons them into play. Petrified with a totally new horror, but with something of the coldness and impassiveness of the transformation, I stood, spoke, and acted—a wonder, almost a terror, to myself.
I met Madame on my return as if nothing had happened. I heard her ugly gabble, and looked at the fruits of her hour's shopping, as I might hear, and see, and talk, and smile, in a dream.
But the night was dreadful. When Mary Quince and I were alone, I locked the door. I continued walking up and down the room, with my hands clasped, looking at the inexorable floor, the walls, the ceiling, with a sort of imploring despair. I was afraid to tell my dear old Mary. The least indiscretion would be failure, and failure destruction.
I answered her perplexed solicitudes by telling her that I was not very well—that I was uneasy; but I did not fail to extract from her a promise that she would not hint to mortal, either my suspicions about Dudley, or our rencontre with Meg Hawkes.
I remember how, when, after we had got, late at night, into bed, I sat up, shivering with horror, in mine, while honest Mary's tranquil breathing told how soundly she slept. I got up, and looked from the window, expecting to see some of those wolfish dogs which they had brought to the place prowling about the court-yard. Sometimes I prayed, and felt tranquillised, and fancied that I was perhaps to have a short interval of sleep. But the serenity was delusive, and all the time my nerves were strung hysterically. Sometimes I felt quite wild, and on the point of screaming. At length that dreadful night passed away. Morning came, and a less morbid, though hardly a less terrible state of mind. Madame paid me an early visit. A thought struck me. I knew that she loved shopping, and I said, quite carelessly—
'Your yesterday's shopping tempts me, Madame, and I must get a few things before we leave for France. Suppose we go into Feltram to-day, and make my purchases, you and I?'
She looked from the corner of her cunning eye in my face without answering. I did not blench, and she said—
'Vary good. I would be vary 'appy,' and again she looked oddly at me.
'Wat hour, my dear Maud? One o'clock? I think that weel de very well, eh?'
I assented, and she grew silent.
I wonder whether I did look as careless as I tried. I do not know. Through the whole of this awful period I was, I think, supernatural; and I even now look back with wonder upon my strange self-command.
Madame, I hoped, had heard nothing of the order which prohibited my exit from the place. She would herself conduct me to Feltram, and secure, by accompanying me, my free egress.
Once in Feltram, I would assert my freedom, and manage to reach my dear cousin Knollys. Back to Bartram no power should convey me. My heart swelled and fluttered in the awful suspense of that hour.
Oh, Bartram-Haugh! how came you by those lofty walls? Which of my ancestors had begirt me with an impassable barrier in this horrible strait?
Suddenly I remembered my letter to Lady Knollys. If I were disappointed in effecting my escape through Feltram, all would depend upon it.
Having locked my door, I wrote as follows:—
'Oh, my beloved cousin, as you hope for comfort in your hour of fear, aid me now. Dudley has returned, and is secreted somewhere about the grounds. It is a fraud. They all pretend to me that he is gone away in the Seamew; and he or they had his name published as one of the passengers. Madame de la Rougierre has appeared! She is here, and my uncle insists on making her my close companion. I am at my wits' ends. I cannot escape—the walls are a prison; and I believe the eyes of my gaolers are always upon me. Dogs are kept for pursuit—yes, dogs! and the gates are locked against my escape. God help me! I don't know where to look, or whom to trust. I fear my uncle more than all. I think I could bear this better if I knew what their plans are, even the worst. If ever you loved or pitied me, dear cousin, I conjure you, help me in this extremity. Take me away from this. Oh, darling, for God's sake take me away!
'Your distracted and terrified cousin,
MAUD' 'Bartram-Haugh.' I sealed this letter jealously, as if the inanimate missive would burst its cerements, and proclaim my desperate appeal through all the chambers and passages of silent Bartram. Old Quince, greatly to cousin Monica's amusement, persisted in furnishing me with those capacious pockets which belonged to a former generation. I was glad of this old-world eccentricity now, and placed my guilty letter, that, amidst all my hypocrisies, spoke out with terrible frankness, deep in this receptacle, and having hid away the pen and ink, my accomplices, I opened the door, and resumed my careless looks, awaiting Madame's return. 'I was to demand to Mr. Ruthyn the permission to go to Feltram, and I think he will allow. He want to speak to you.' With Madame I entered my uncle's room. He was reclining on a sofa, his back towards us, and his long white hair, as fine as spun glass, hung over the back of the couch. 'I was going to ask you, dear Maud, to execute two or three little commissions for me in Feltram.' My dreadful letter felt lighter in my pocket, and my heart beat violently. 'But I have just recollected that this is a market-day, and Feltram will be full of doubtful characters and tipsy persons, so we must wait till to-morrow; and Madame says, very kindly, that she will, as she does not so much mind, make any little purchases to-day which cannot conveniently wait.' Madame assented with a courtesy to Uncle Silas, and a great hollow smile to me. By this time Uncle Silas had raised himself from his reclining posture, and was sitting, gaunt and white, upon the sofa. 'News of my prodigal to-day,' he said, with a peevish smile, drawing the newspaper towards him. 'The vessel has been spoken again. How many miles away, do you suppose?' He spoke in a plaintive key, looking at me, with hungry eyes, and a horribly smiling countenance. 'How far do you suppose Dudley is to-day?' and he laid the palm of his hand on the paragraph as he spoke. Guess!' For a moment I fancied this was a theatric preparation to give point to the disclosure of Dudley's real whereabouts. 'It was a very long way. Guess!' he repeated. So, stammering a little and pale, I performed the required hypocrisy, after which my uncle read aloud for my benefit the line or two in which were recorded the event, and the latitude and longitude of the vessel at the time, of which Madame made a note in her memory, for the purpose of making her usual tracing in poor Milly's Atlas. I cannot say how it really was, but I fancied that Uncle Silas was all the time reading my countenance, with a grim and practised scrutiny; but nothing came of it, and we were dismissed. Madame loved shopping, even for its own sake, but shopping with opportunities of peculation still more. She she had had her luncheon, and was dressed for the excursion, she did precisely what I now most desired—she proposed to take charge of my commissions and my money; and thus entrusted, left me at liberty to keep tryst at the Chestnut Hollow. So soon as I had seen Madame fairly off, I hurried Mary Quince, and got my things on quickly. We left the house by the side entrance, which I knew my uncle's windows did not command. Glad was I to feel a slight breeze, enough to make the mill-sails revolve; and as we got further into the grounds, and obtained a distant view of the picturesque old windmill, I felt inexpressibly relieved on seeing that it was actually working. We were now in the Chestnut Hollow, and I sent Mary Quince to her old point of observation, which commanded a view of the path in the direction of the Windmill Wood, with her former order to call 'I've found it,' as loudly as she could, in case she should see anyone approaching. I stopped at the point of our yesterday's meeting. I peered under the branches, and my heart beat fast as I saw Meg Hawkes awaiting me.