You who have never experienced it can have no idea how angry and frightened you become under the sinister insult of being locked into a room, as on trying the door I found I was.
The key was in the lock; I could see it through the hole. I called after Madame, I shook at the solid oak-door, beat upon it with my hands, kicked it—but all to no purpose.
I rushed into the next room, forgetting—if indeed I had observed it, that there was no door from it upon the gallery. I turned round in an angry and dismayed perplexity, and, like prisoners in romances, examined the windows.
I was shocked and affrighted on discovering in reality what they occasionally find—a series of iron bars crossing the window! They were firmly secured in the oak woodwork of the window-frame, and each window was, besides, so compactly screwed down that it could not open. This bedroom was converted into a prison. A momentary hope flashed on me—perhaps all the windows were secured alike! But it was no such thing: these gaol-like precautions were confined to the windows to which I had access.
For a few minutes I felt quite distracted; but I bethought me that I must now, if ever, control my terrors and exert whatever faculties I possessed.
I stood upon a chair and examined the oak-work. I thought I detected marks of new chiselling here and there. The screws, too, looked new; and they and the scars on the woodwork were freshly smeared over with some coloured stuff by way of disguise.
While I was making these observations, I heard the key stealthily stirred. I suspect that Madame wished to surprise me. Her approaching step, indeed, was seldom audible; she had the soft tread of the feline tribe.
I was standing in the centre of the room confronting her when she entered.
'Why did you lock the door, Madame?' I demanded.
She slipped in suddenly with an insidious smirk, and locked the door hastily.
'Hish!' whispered Madame, raising her broad palm; and then screwing in her cheeks, she made an ogle over her shoulder in the direction of the passage.
'Hish! be quiate, cheaile, weel you, and I weel tale you everything presently.'
She paused, with her ear laid to the door.
'Now I can speak, ma chère; I weel tale a you there is bailiff in the house, two, three, four soche impertinent fallows! They have another as bad as themselve to make a leest of the furniture: we most keep them out of these rooms, dear Maud.'
'You left the key in the door on the outside,' I retorted; 'that was not to keep them out, but me in, Madame.'
'Deed I leave the key in the door?' ejaculated Madame, with both hands raised, and such a genuine look of consternation as for a moment shook me.
It was the nature of this woman's deceptions that they often puzzled though they seldom convinced me.
'I re-ally think, Maud, all those so frequent changes and excite-ments they weel overturn my poor head.'
'And the windows are secured with iron bars—what are they for?' I whispered sternly, pointing with my finger at these grim securities.
'That is for more a than forty years, when Sir Phileep Aylmer was to reside here, and had this room for his children's nursery, and was afraid they should fall out.'
'But if you look you will find these bars have been put here very recently: the screws and marks are quite new.'
Eendeed! ejaculated Madame, with prolonged emphasis, in precisely the same consternation. 'Why, my dear, they told a me down stair what I have tell a you, when I ask the reason! Late a me see.'
And Madame mounted on a chair, and made her scrutiny with much curiosity, but could not agree with me as to the very recent date of the carpentry.
There is nothing, I think, so exasperating as that sort of falsehood which affects not to see what is quite palpable.
'Do you mean to say, Madame, that you really think those chisellings and screws are forty years old?'
'How can I tell, cheaile? What does signify whether it is forty or only fourteen years? Bah! we av other theeng to theenk about. Those villain men! I am glad to see bar and bolt, and lock and key, at least, to our room, to keep soche faylows out!'
At that moment a knock came to the door, and Madame's nasal 'in moment' answered promptly, and she opened the door, stealthily popping out her head.
'Oh, that is all right; go you long, no ting more, go way.'
'Who's there?' I cried.
'Hold a your tongue,' said Madame imperiously to the visitor, whose voice I fancied I recognised—'go way.'
Out slipped Madame again, locking the door; but this time she returned immediately, bearing a tray with breakfast.
I think she fancied that I would perhaps attempt to break away and escape; but I had no such thought at that moment. She hastily set down the tray on the floor at the threshold, locking the door as before.
My share of breakfast was a little tea; but Madame's digestion was seldom disturbed by her sympathies, and she ate voraciously. During this process there was a silence unusual in her company; but when her meal was ended she proposed a reconnaissance, professing much uncertainty as to whether my Uncle had been arrested or not.
'And in case the poor old gentleman be poot in what you call stone jug, where are we to go my dear Maud—to Knowl or to Elverston? You must direct.'
And so she disappeared, turning the key in the door as before. It was an old custom of hers, locking herself in her room, and leaving the key in the lock; and the habit prevailed, for she left it there again.
With a heavy heart I completed my simple toilet, wondering all the while how much of Madame's story might be false and how much, if any, true. Then I looked out upon the dingy courtyard below, in its deep damp shadow, and thought, 'How could an assassin have scaled that height in safety, and entered so noiselessly as not to awaken the slumbering gamester?' Then there were the iron bars across my window. What a fool had I been to object to that security!
I was labouring hard to reassure myself, and keep all ghastly suspicions at arm's length. But I wished that my room had been to the front of the house, with some view less dismal.
Lost in these ruminations of fear, as I stood at the window I was startled by the sound of a sharp tread on the lobby, and by the key turning in the lock of my door.
In a panic I sprang back into the corner, and stood with my eyes fixed upon the door. It opened a little, and the black head of Meg Hawkes was introduced.
'Oh, Meg!' I cried; 'thank God!'
'I guessed'twas you, Miss Maud. I am feared, Miss.'
The miller's daughter was pale, and her eyes, I thought, were red and swollen.
'Oh, Meg! for God's sake, what is it all?'
'I darn't come in. The old un's gone down, and locked the cross-door, and left me to watch. They think I care nout about ye, no more nor themselves. I donna know all, but summat more nor her. They tell her nout, she's so gi'n to drink; they say she's not safe, an' awful quarrelsome. I hear a deal when fayther and Master Dudley be a-talkin' in the mill. They think, comin' in an' out, I don't mind; but I put one think an' t'other together. An' don't ye eat nor drink nout here, Miss; hide away this; it's black enough, but wholesome anyhow!' and she slipt a piece of a coarse loaf from under her apron. 'Hide it mind. Drink nout but the water in the jug there—it's clean spring.'
'Oh, Meg! Oh, Meg! I know what you mean,' said I, faintly.
'Ay, Miss, I'm feared they'll try it; they'll try to make away wi' ye somehow. I'm goin' to your friends arter dark; I darn't try it no sooner. I'll git awa to Ellerston, to your lady-cousin, and I'll bring 'em back wi' me in a rin; so keep a good hairt, lass. Meg Hawkes will stan' to ye. Ye were better to me than fayther and mother, and a';' and she clasped me round the waist, and buried her head in my dress; 'an I'll gie my life for ye, darling, and if they hurt ye I'll kill myself.'
She recovered her sterner mood quickly—
'Not a word, lass,' she said, in her old tone. 'Don't ye try to git away—they'll kill ye—ye can't do't. Leave a' to me. It won't be, whatever it is, till two or three o'clock in the morning. I'll ha'e them a' here long afore; so keep a brave heart—there's a darling.'
I suppose she heard, or fancied she heard, a step approaching, for she said—
Her pale wild face vanished, the door shut quickly and softly, and the key turned again in the lock.
Meg, in her rude way, had spoken softly—almost under her breath; but no prophecy shrieked by the Pythoness ever thundered so madly in the ears of the hearer. I dare say that Meg fancied I was marvellously little moved by her words. I felt my gaze grow intense, and my flesh and bones literally freeze. She did not know that every word she spoke seemed to burst like a blaze in my brain. She had delivered her frightful warning, and told her story coarsely and bluntly, which, in effect, means distinctly and concisely; and, I dare say, the announcement so made, like a quick bold incision in surgery, was more tolerable than the slow imperfect mangling, which falters and recedes and equivocates with torture. Madame was long away. I sat down at the window, and tried to appreciate my dreadful situation. I was stupid—the imagery was all frightful; but I beheld it as we sometimes see horrors—heads cut off and houses burnt—in a dream, and without the corresponding emotions. It did not seem as if all this were really happening to me. I remember sitting at the window, and looking and blinking at the opposite side of the building, like a person unable but striving to see an object distinctly, and every minute pressing my hand to the side of my head and saying—
'Oh, it won't be—it won't be—Oh no!—never!—it could not be!' And in this stunned state Madame found me on her return.
But the valley of the shadow of death has its varieties of dread. The 'horror of great darkness' is disturbed by voices and illumed by sights. There are periods of incapacity and collapse, followed by paroxysms of active terror. Thus in my journey during those long hours I found it—agonies subsiding into lethargies, and these breaking again into frenzy. I sometimes wonder how I carried my reason safely through the ordeal.
Madame locked the door, and amused herself with her own business, without minding me, humming little nasal snatches of French airs, as she smirked on her silken purchases displayed in the daylight. Suddenly it struck me that it was very dark, considering how early it was. I looked at my watch; it seemed to me a great effort of concentration to understand it. Four o'clock, it said. Four o'clock! It would be dark at five—night in one hour!
'Madame, what o'clock is it? Is it evening?' I cried with my hand to my forehead, like a person puzzled.
'Two three minutes past four. It had five minutes to four when I came up-stairs,' answered she, without interrupting her examination of a piece of darned lace which she was holding close to her eyes at the window.
'Oh, Madame! Madame! I'm frightened,' cried I, with a wild and piteous voice, grasping her arm, and looking up, as shipwrecked people may their last to heaven, into her inexorable eyes. Madame looked frightened too, I thought, as she stared into my face. At last she said, rather angrily, and shaking her arm loose—
'What you mean, cheaile?'
'Oh save me, Madame!—oh save me!—oh save me, Madame!' I pleaded, with the wild monotony of perfect terror, grasping and clinging to her dress, and looking up, with an agonised face, into the eyes of that shadowy Atropos.
'Save a you, indeed! Save! What niaiserie!'
'Oh, Madame! Oh, dear Madame! for God's sake, only get me away—get me from this, and I'll do everything you ask me all my life—I will—indeed, Madame, I will! Oh save me! save me! save me!'
I was clinging to Madame as to my guardian angel in my agony.
'And who told you, cheaile, you are in any danger?' demanded Madame, looking down on me with a black and witchlike stare.
'I am, Madame—I am—in great danger! Oh, Madame, think of me—take pity on me! I have none to help me—there is no one but God and you!'
Madame all this time viewed me with the same dismal stare, like a sorceress reading futurity in my face.
'Well, maybe you are—how can I tell? Maybe your uncle is mad—maybe you are mad. You have been my enemy always—why should I care?'
Again I burst into wild entreaty, and, clasping her fast, poured forth my supplications with the bitterness of death.
'I have no confidence in you, little Maud; you are little rogue—petite traîtresse! Reflect, if you can, how you 'av always treat Madame. You 'av attempt to ruin me—you conspire with the bad domestics at Knowl to destroy me—and you expect me here to take a your part! You would never listen to me—you 'ad no mercy for me—you join to hunt me away from your house like wolf. Well, what you expect to find me now? Bah!'
This terrific 'Bah!' with a long nasal yell of scorn, rang in my ears like a clap of thunder.
'I say you are mad, petite insolente, to suppose I should care for you more than the poor hare it will care for the hound—more than the bird who has escape will love the oiseleur. I do not care—I ought not care. It is your turn to suffer. Lie down on your bed there, and suffer quaitely.'