Waiting for the train, as we stood upon the platform, I looked back again toward the wooded uplands of Bartram; and far behind, the fine range of mountains, azure and soft in the distance, beyond which lay beloved old Knowl, and my lost father and mother, and the scenes of my childhood, never embittered except by the sibyl who sat beside me.
Under happier circumstances I should have been, at my then early age, quite wild with pleasurable excitement on entering London for the first time. But black Care sat by me, with her pale hand in mine: a voice of fear and warning, whose words I could not catch, was always in my ear. We drove through London, amid the glare of lamps, toward the West-end, and for a little while the sense of novelty and curiosity overcame my despondency, and I peeped eagerly from the window; while Madame, who was in high good-humour, spite of the fatigues of our long railway flight, screeched scraps of topographic information in my ear; for London was a picture-book in which she was well read.
'That is Euston Square, my dear—Russell Square. Here is Oxford Street—Haymarket. See, there is the Opera House—Hair Majesty's Theatre. See all the carriages waiting;' and so on, till we reached at length a little narrow street, which she told me was off Piccadilly, where we drew up before a private house, as it seemed to me—a family hotel—and I was glad to be at rest for the night.
Fatigued with the peculiar fatigue of railway travelling, dusty, a little chilly, with eyes aching and wearied, I ascended the stairs silently, our garrulous and bustling landlady leading the way, and telling her oft-told story of the house, its noble owner in old time, and how those fine drawing-rooms were taken every year during the Session by the Bishop of Rochet-on-Copeley, and at last into our double-bedded room.
I would fain have been alone, but I was too tired and dejected to care very much for anything.
At tea, Madame expanded in spirit, like a giant refreshed, and chattered and sang; and at last, seeing that I was nodding, advised my going to bed, while she ran across the street to see 'her dear old friend, Mademoiselle St. Eloi, who was sure to be up, and would be offended if she failed to make her ever so short a call.'
I cared little what she said, and was glad to be rid of her even for a short time, and was soon fast asleep.
I saw her, I know not how much later, poking about the room, like a figure in a dream, and taking off her things.
She had her breakfast in bed next morning, and I was, to my comfort, left to take mine in solitary possession of our sitting-room; where I began to wonder how little annoyance I had as yet suffered from her company, and began to speculate upon the chances of my making the journey with tolerable comfort.
Our hostess gave me five minutes of her valuable time. Her talk ran chiefly upon nuns and convents, and her old acquaintance with Madame; and it seemed to me that she had at one time driven a kind of trade, no doubt profitable enough, in escorting young ladies to establishments on the Continent; and although I did not then quite understand the tone in which she spoke to me, I often thought afterwards that Madame had represented me as a young person destined for the holy vocation of the veil.
When she was gone, I sat listlessly looking out of the window, and saw some chance equipages drive by, and now and then a fashionable pedestrian; and wondered if this quiet thoroughfare could really be one of the arteries so near the heart of the tumultuous capital.
I think my nervous vitality must have burnt very low just then, for I felt perfectly indifferent about all the novelty and world of wonders beyond, and should have hated to leave the dull tranquillity of my window for an excursion through the splendours of the unseen streets and palaces that surrounded me.
It was one o'clock before Madame joined me; and finding me in this dull mood, she did not press me to accompany her in her drive, no doubt well pleased to be rid of me.
After tea that evening, as we sat alone in our room, she entertained me with some very odd conversation—at the time unintelligible—but which acquired a tolerably distinct meaning from the events that followed.
Two or three times that day Madame appeared to me on the point of saying something of grave import, as she scanned me with her bleak wicked stare.
It was a peculiarity of hers, that whenever she was pressed upon by an anxiety that really troubled her, her countenance did not look sad or solicitous, as other people's would, but simply wicked. Her great gaunt mouth was compressed and drawn down firmly at the corners, and her eyes glared with a dismal scowl.
At last she said suddenly—
'Are you ever grateful, Maud?'
'I hope so, Madame,' I answered.
'And how do you show your gratitude? For instance, would a you do great deal for a person who would run risque for your sake?'
It struck me all at once that she was sounding me about poor Meg Hawkes, whose fidelity, notwithstanding the treason or cowardice of her lover, Tom Brice, I never doubted; and I grew at once wary and reserved.
'I know of no opportunity, thank Heaven, for any such service, Madame. How can anyone serve me at present, by themselves incurring danger? What do you mean?'
'Do you like, for example, to go to that French Pension? Would you not like better some other arrangement?'
'Of course there are other arrangements I should like better; but I see no use in talking of them; they are not to be,' I answered.
'What other arrangements do you mean, my dear cheaile?' enquired Madame. 'You mean, I suppose, you would like better to go to Lady Knollys?'
'My uncle does not choose it at present; and except with his consent nothing can be done!'
'He weel never consent, dear cheaile.'
'But he has consented—not immediately indeed, but in a short time, when his affairs are settled.'
'Lanternes! They will never be settle,' said Madame.
'At all events, for the present I am to go to France. Milly seems very happy, and I dare say I shall like it too. I am very glad to leave Bartram-Haugh, at all events.'
'But your uncle weel bring you back there,' said Madame, drily.
'It is doubtful whether he will ever return to Bartram himself,' I said.
'Ah!' said Madame, with a long-drawn nasal intonation, 'you theenk I hate you. You are quaite wrong, my dear Maud. I am, on the contrary, very much interested for you—I am, I assure you, dear a cheaile.'
And she laid her great hand, with joints misshapen by old chilblains, upon the back of mine. I looked up in her face. She was not smiling. On the contrary, her wide mouth was drawn down at the corners ruefully, as before, and she gazed on my face with a scowl from her abysmal eyes.
I used to think the flare of that irony which lighted her face so often immeasurably worse than any other expression she could assume; but this lack-lustre stare and dismal collapse of feature was more wicked still.
'Suppose I should bring you to Lady Knollys, and place you in her charge, what would a you do then for poor Madame?' said this dark spectre.
I was inwardly startled at these words. I looked into her unsearchable face, but could draw thence nothing but fear. Had she made the same overture only two days since, I think I would have offered her half my fortune. But circumstances were altered. I was no longer in the panic of despair. The lesson I had received from Tom Brice was fresh in my mind, and my profound distrust of her was uppermost. I saw before me only a tempter and betrayer, and said—
'Do you mean to imply, Madame, that my guardian is not to be trusted, and that I ought to make my escape from him, and that you are really willing to aid me in doing so?'
This, you see, was turning the tables upon her. I looked her steadily in the face as I spoke. She returned my gaze with a strange stare and a gape, which haunted me long after; and it seemed as we sat in utter silence that each was rather horribly fascinated by the other's gaze.
At last she shut her mouth sternly, and eyes me with a more determined and meaning scowl, and then said in a low tone—
'I believe, Maud, that you are a cunning and wicked little thing.'
'Wisdom is not cunning, Madame; nor is it wicked to ask your meaning in explicit language,' I replied.
'And so, you clever cheaile, we two sit here, playing at a game of chess, over this little table, to decide which shall destroy the other—is it not so?'
'I will not allow you to destroy me,' I retorted, with a sudden flash.
Madame stood up, and rubbed her mouth with her open hand. She looked to me like some evil being seen in a dream. I was frightened.
'You are going to hurt me!' I ejaculated, scarce knowing what I said.
'If I were, you deserve it. You are very malicious, ma chère: or, it may be, only very stupid.'
A knock came to the door.
'Come in,' I cried, with a glad sense of relief.
A maid entered.
'A letter, please, 'm,' she said, handing it to me.
'For me,' snarled Madame, snatching it.
I had seen my uncle's hand, and the Feltram post-mark.
Madame broke the seal, and read. It seemed but a word, for she turned it about after the first momentary glance, and examined the interior of the envelope, and then returned to the line she had already read.
She folded the letter again, drawing her nails in a sharp pinch along the creases, as she stared in a blank, hesitating way at me.
'You are stupid little ingrate, I am employ by Monsieur Ruthyn, and of course I am faithful to my employer. I do not want to talk to you. There, you may read that.'
She jerked the letter before me on the table. It contained but these words:—
'30th January, 1845. 'MY DEAR MADAME, 'Be so good as to take the half-past eight o'clock train to Dover to-night. Beds are prepared.—Yours very truly,
SILAS RUTHYN.' I cannot say what it was in this short advice that struck me with fear. Was it the thick line beneath the word 'Dover,' that was so uncalled for, and gave me a faint but terrible sense of something preconcerted? I said to Madame— 'Why is "Dover" underlined?' 'I do not know, little fool, no more than you. How can I tell what is passing in your oncle's head when he make that a mark?' 'Has it not a meaning, Madame?' 'How can you talk like that?' she answered, more in her old way. 'You are either mocking of me, or you are becoming truly a fool!' She rang the bell, called for our bill, saw our hostess; while I made a few hasty prepartions in my room. 'You need not look after the trunks—they will follow us all right. Let us go, cheaile—we 'av half an hour only to reach the train.' No one ever fussed like Madame when occasion offered. There was a cab at the door, into which she hurried me. I assumed that she would give all needful directions, and leaned back, very weary and sleepy already, though it was so early, listening to her farewell screamed from the cab-step, and seeing her black cloak flitting and flapping this way and that, like the wings of a raven disturbed over its prey. In she got, and away we drove through a glare of lamps, and shop-windows, still open; gas everywhere, and cabs, busses, and carriages, still thundering through the streets. I was too tired and too depressed to look at those things. Madame, on the contrary, had her head out of the window till we reached the station. 'Where are the rest of the boxes?' I asked, as Madame placed me in charge of her box and my bag in the office of the terminus. 'They will follow with Boots in another cab, and will come safe with us in this train. Mind those two, we weel bring in the carriage with us.' So into a carriage we got; in came Madame's box and my bag; Madame stood at the door, and, I think, frightened away intending passengers, by her size and shrillness. At last the bell rang her into her place, the door clapt, the whistle sounded, and we were off.