Perhaps, if Madame had murmured, 'It is quite well—pray permit me to sleep,' she would have escaped an awkwardness. But having adopted the rôle of the exhausted slumberer, she could not consistently speak at the moment; neither would it do by main force, to hold the coverlet about her face, and so her presence of mind forsook her. Cousin Monica drew it back and hardly beheld the profile of the sufferer, when her good-humoured face was lined and shadowed with a dark curiosity and a surprise by no means pleasant. She stood erect beside the bed, with her mouth firmly shut and drawn down at the corners, in a sort of recoil and perturbation, looking down upon the patient.
'So that's Madame de la Rougierre?' at length exclaimed Lady Knollys, with a very stately disdain. I think I never saw anyone look more shocked.
Madame sat up, very flushed. No wonder, for she had been wrapped so close in the coverlet. She did not look quite at Lady Knollys, but straight before her, rather downward, and very luridly.
I was very much frightened and amazed, and felt on the point of bursting into tears.
'So, Mademoiselle, you have married, it seems, since I had last the honour of seeing you? I did not recognise Mademoiselle under her new name.'
'Yes—I am married, Lady Knollys; I thought everyone who knew me had heard of that. Very respectably married, for a person of my rank. I shall not need long the life of a governess. There is no harm, I hope?'
'I hope not,' said Lady Knollys, drily, a little pale, and still looking with a dark sort of wonder upon the flushed face and forehead of the governess, who was looking downward, straight before her, very sulkily and disconcerted.
'I suppose you have explained everything satisfactorily to Mr. Ruthyn, in whose house I find you?' said Cousin Monica.
'Yes, certainly, everything he requires—in effect there is nothing to explain. I am ready to answer to any question. Let him demand me.'
'Very good, Mademoiselle.'
'Madame, if you please.'
'I forgot—Madame—yes, I shall apprise him of everything.'
Madame turned upon her a peaked and malign look, smiling askance with a stealthy scorn.
'For myself, I have nothing to conceal. I have always done my duty. What fine scene about nothing absolutely—what charming remedies for a sick person! Ma foi! how much oblige I am for these so amiable attentions!'
'So far as I can see, Mademoiselle—Madame, I mean—you don't stand very much in need of remedies. Your ear and head don't seem to trouble you just now. I fancy these pains may now be dismissed.'
Lady Knollys was now speaking French.
'Mi ladi has diverted my attention for a moment, but that does not prevent that I suffer frightfully. I am, of course, only poor governess, and such people perhaps ought not to have pain—at least to show when they suffer. It is permitted us to die, but not to be sick.'
'Come, Maud, my dear, let us leave the invalid to her repose and to nature. I don't think she needs my chloroform and opium at present.'
'Mi ladi is herself a physic which chases many things, and powerfully affects the ear. I would wish to sleep, notwithstanding, and can but gain that in silence, if it pleases mi ladi.'
'Come, my dear,' said Lady Knollys, without again glancing at the scowling, smiling, swarthy face in the bed; 'let us leave your instructress to her concforto.'
'The room smells all over of brandy, my dear—does she drink?' said Lady Knollys, as she closed the door, a little sharply.
I am sure I looked as much amazed as I felt, at an imputation which then seemed to me so entirely incredible.
'Good little simpleton!' said Cousin Monica, smiling in my face, and bestowing a little kiss on my cheek; 'such a thing as a tipsy lady has never been dreamt of in your philosophy. Well, we live and learn. Let us have our tea in my room—the gentlemen, I dare say, have retired.'
I assented, of course, and we had tea very cosily by her bedroom fire.
'How long have you had that woman?' she asked suddenly, after, for her, a very long rumination.
'She came in the beginning of February—nearly ten months ago—is not it?'
'And who sent her?'
'I really don't know; papa tells me so little—he arranged it all himself, I think.'
Cousin Monica made a sound of acquiescence—her lips closed and a nod, frowning hard at the bars.
'It is very odd!' she said; 'how people can be such fools!' Here there came a little pause. 'And what sort of person is she—do you like her?'
'Very well—that is, pretty well. You won't tell?—but she rather frightens me. I'm sure she does not intend it, but somehow I am very much afraid of her.'
'She does not beat you?' said Cousin Monica, with an incipient frenzy in her face that made me love her.
'Nor ill-use you in any way?'
'Upon your honour and word, Maud?'
'No, upon my honour.'
'You know I won't tell her anything you say to me; and I only want to know, that I may put an end to it, my poor little cousin.'
'Thank you, Cousin Monica very much; but really and truly she does not ill-use me.'
'Nor threaten you, child?'
'Well, no—no, she does not threaten.'
'And how the plague does she frighten you, child?'
'Well, I really—I'm half ashamed to tell you—you'll laugh at me—and I don't know that she wishes to frighten me. But there is something, is not there, ghosty, you know, about her?'
'Ghosty—is there? well, I'm sure I don't know, but I suspect there's something devilish—I mean, she seems roguish—does not she? And I really think she has had neither cold nor pain, but has just been shamming sickness, to keep out of my way.'
I perceived plainly enough that Cousin Monica's damnatory epithet referred to some retrospective knowledge, which she was not going to disclose to me.
'You knew Madame before,' I said. 'Who is she?'
'She assures me she is Madame de la Rougierre, and, I suppose, in French phrase she so calls herself,' answered Lady Knollys, with a laugh, but uncomfortably, I thought.
'Oh, dear Cousin Monica, do tell me—is she—is she very wicked? I am so afraid of her!'
'How should I know, dear Maud? But I do remember her face, and I don't very much like her, and you may depend on it. I will speak to your father in the morning about her, and don't, darling, ask me any more about her, for I really have not very much to tell that you would care to hear, and the fact is I won't say any more about her—there!'
And Cousin Monica laughed, and gave me a little slap on the cheek, and then a kiss.
'Well, just tell me this——'
'Well, I won't tell you this, nor anything—not a word, curious little woman. The fact is, I have little to tell, and I mean to speak to your father, and he, I am sure, will do what is right; so don't ask me any more, and let us talk of something pleasanter.'
There was something indescribably winning, it seemed to me, in Cousin Monica. Old as she was, she seemed to me so girlish, compared with those slow, unexceptionable young ladies whom I had met in my few visits at the county houses. By this time my shyness was quite gone, and I was on the most intimate terms with her.
'You know a great deal about her, Cousin Monica, but you won't tell me.'
'Nothing I should like better, if I were at liberty, little rogue; but you know, after all, I don't really say whether I do know anything about her or not, or what sort of knowledge it is. But tell me what you mean by ghosty, and all about it.'
So I recounted my experiences, to which, so far from laughing at me, she listened with very special gravity.
'Does she write and receive many letters?'
I had seen her write letters, and supposed, though I could only recollect one or two, that she received in proportion.
'Are you Mary Quince?' asked my lady cousin.
Mary was arranging the window-curtains, and turned, dropping a courtesy affirmatively toward her.
'You wait on my little cousin, Miss Ruthyn, don't you?'
'Yes,'m,' said Mary, in her genteelest way.
'Does anyone sleep in her room?'
'Yes,'m, I—please, my lady.'
'And no one else?'
'No,'m—please, my lady.'
'Not even the governess, sometimes?
'No, please, my lady.'
'Never, you are quite sure, my dear?' said Lady Knollys, transferring the question to me.
'Oh, no, never,' I answered.
Cousin Monica mused gravely, I fancied even anxiously, into the grate; then stirred her tea and sipped it, still looking into the same point of our cheery fire.
'I like your face, Mary Quince; I'm sure you are a good creature,' she said, suddenly turning toward her with a pleasant countenance. 'I'm very glad you have got her, dear. I wonder whether Austin has gone to his bed yet!'
'I think not. I am certain he is either in the library or in his private room—papa often reads or prays alone at night, and—and he does not like to be interrupted.'
'No, no; of course not—it will do very well in the morning.'
Lady Knollys was thinking deeply, as it seemed to me.
'And so you are afraid of goblins, my dear,' she said at last, with a faded sort of smile, turning toward me; 'well, if I were, I know what I should do—so soon as I, and good Mary Quince here, had got into my bed-chamber for the night, I should stir the fire into a good blaze, and bolt the door—do you see, Mary Quince?—bolt the door and keep a candle lighted all night. You'll be very attentive to her, Mary Quince, for I—I don't think she is very strong, and she must not grow nervous: so get to bed early, and don't leave her alone—do you see?—and—and remember to bolt the door, Mary Quince, and I shall be sending a little Christmas-box to my cousin, and I shan't forget you. Good-night.'
And with a pleasant courtesy Mary fluttered out of the room.