I was going to my governess, as Lady Knollys said; and so I went. The undefinable sense of danger that smote me whenever I beheld that woman had deepened since last night's occurrence, and was taken out of the region of instinct or prepossession by the strange though slight indications of recognition and abhorrence which I had witnessed in Lady Knollys on that occasion.
The tone in which Cousin Monica had asked, 'are you going to your governess?' and the curious, grave, and anxious look that accompanied the question, disturbed me; and there was something odd and cold in the tone as if a remembrance had suddenly chilled her. The accent remained in my ear, and the sharp brooding look was fixed before me as I glided up the broad dark stairs to Madame de la Rougierre's chamber.
She had not come down to the school-room, as the scene of my studies was called. She had decided on having a relapse, and accordingly had not made her appearance down-stairs that morning. The gallery leading to her room was dark and lonely, and I grew more nervous as I approached; I paused at the door, making up my mind to knock.
But the door opened suddenly, and, like a magic-lantern figure, presented with a snap, appeared close before my eyes the great muffled face, with the forbidding smirk, of Madame de la Rougierre.
'Wat you mean, my dear cheaile?' she inquired with a malevolent shrewdness in her eyes, and her hollow smile all the time disconcerting me more even than the suddenness of her appearance; 'wat for you approach so softly? I do not sleep, you see, but you feared, perhaps, to have the misfortune of wakening me, and so you came—is it not so?—to leesten, and looke in very gentily; you want to know how I was. Vous êtes bien aimable d'avoir pensé à moi. Bah!' she cried, suddenly bursting through her irony. 'Wy could not Lady Knollys come herself and leesten to the keyhole to make her report? Fi donc! wat is there to conceal? Nothing. Enter, if you please. Every one they are welcome!' and she flung the door wide, turned her back upon me, and, with an ejaculation which I did not understand, strode into the room.
'I did not come with any intention, Madame, to pry or to intrude—you don't think so—you can't think so—you can't possibly mean to insinuate anything so insulting!'
I was very angry, and my tremors had all vanished now.
'No, not for you, dear cheaile; I was thinking to miladi Knollys, who, without cause, is my enemy. Every one has enemy; you will learn all that so soon as you are little older, and without cause she is mine. Come, Maud, speak a the truth—was it not miladi Knollys who sent you here doucement, doucement, so quaite to my door—is it not so, little rogue?'
Madame had confronted me again, and we were now standing in the middle of her floor.
I indignantly repelled the charge, and searching me for a moment with her oddly-shaped, cunning eyes, she said—
'That is good cheaile, you speak a so direct—I like that, and am glad to hear; but, my dear Maud, that woman——'
'Lady Knollys is papa's cousin,' I interposed a little gravely.
'She does hate a me so, you av no idea. She as tryed to injure me several times, and would employ the most innocent person, unconsciously you know, my dear, to assist her malice.'
Here Madame wept a little. I had already discovered that she could shed tears whenever she pleased. I have heard of such persons, but I never met another before or since.
Madame was unusually frank—no one ever knew better when to be candid. At present I suppose she concluded that Lady Knollys would certainly relate whatever she knew concerning her before she left Knowl; and so Madame's reserves, whatever they might be, were dissolving, and she growing childlike and confiding.
'Et comment va monsieur votre père aujourd'hui?'
'Very well,' I thanked her.
'And how long miladi Knollys her visit is likely to be?'
'I could not say exactly, but for some days.'
'Eh bien, my dear cheaile, I find myself better this morning, and we must return to our lessons. Je veux m'habiller, ma chère Maud; you will wait me in the school-room.'
By this time Madame, who, though lazy, could make an effort, and was capable of getting into a sudden hurry, had placed herself before her dressing-table, and was ogling her discoloured and bony countenance in the glass.
'Wat horror! I am so pale. Quel ennui! wat bore! Ow weak av I grow in two three days!'
And she practised some plaintive, invalid glances into the mirror. But on a sudden there came a little sharp inquisitive frown as she looked over the frame of the glass, upon the terrace beneath. It was only a glance, and she sat down languidly in her arm-chair to prepare, I suppose, for the fatigues of the toilet.
My curiosity was sufficiently aroused to induce me to ask—
'But why, Madame, do you fancy that Lady Knollys dislikes you?'
Tis not fancy, my dear Maud. Ah ha, no! Mais c'est toute une histoire—too tedious to tell now—some time maybe—and you will learn when you are little older, the most violent hatreds often they are the most without cause. But, my dear cheaile, the hours they are running from us, and I must dress. Vite, vite! so you run away to the school-room, and I will come after.'
Madame had her dressing-case and her mysteries, and palpably stood in need of repairs; so away I went to my studies. The room which we called the school-room was partly beneath the floor of Madame's bed-chamber, and commanded the same view; so, remembering my governess's peering glance from her windows, I looked out, and saw Cousin Monica making a brisk promenade up and down the terrace-walk. Well, that was quite enough to account for it. I had grown very curious, and I resolved when our lessons were over to join her and make another attempt to discover the mystery.
As I sat over my books, I fancied I heard a movement outside the door. I suspected that Madame was listening. I waited for a time, expecting to see the door open, but she did not come; so I opened it suddenly myself, but Madame was not on the threshold nor on the lobby. I heard a rustling, however, and on the staircase over the banister I saw the folds of her silk dress as she descended.
She is going, I thought, to seek an interview with Lady Knollys. She intends to propitiate that dangerous lady; so I amused some eight or ten minutes in watching Cousin Monica's quick march and right-about face upon the parade-ground of the terrace. But no one joined her.
'She is certainly talking to papa,' was my next and more probable conjecture. Having the profoundest distrust of Madame, I was naturally extremely jealous of the confidential interviews in which deceit and malice might make their representations plausibly and without answer.
'Yes, I'll run down and see—see papa; she shan't tell lies behind my back, horrid woman!'
At the study-door I knocked, and forthwith entered. My father was sitting near the window, his open book before him, Madame standing at the other side of the table, her cunning eyes bathed in tears, and her pocket-handkerchief pressed to her mouth. Her eyes glittered stealthily on me for an instant: she was sobbing—désolée, in fact—that grim grenadier lady, and her attitude was exquisitely dejected and timid. But she was, notwithstanding, reading closely and craftily my father's face. He was not looking at her, but rather upward toward the ceiling, reflectively leaning on his hand, with an expression, not angry, but rather surly and annoyed.
'I ought to have heard of this before, Madame,' my father was saying as I came in; 'not that it would have made any difference—not the least; mind that. But it was the kind of thing that I ought to have heard, and the omission was not strictly right.'
Madame, in a shrill and lamentable key, opened her voluble reply, but was arrested by a nod from my father, who asked me if I wanted anything.
'Only—only that I was waiting in the school-room for Madame, and did not know where she was.'
'Well, she is here, you see, and will join you up-stairs in a few minutes.'
So back I went again, huffed, angry, and curious, and sat back in my chair with a clouded countenance, thinking very little about lessons.
When Madame entered, I did not lift my head or eyes.
'Good cheaile! reading,' said she, as she approached briskly and reassured.
'No,' I answered tartly; 'not good, nor a child either; I'm not reading, I've been thinking.'
'Très-bien!' she said, with an insufferable smile, 'thinking is very good also; but you look unhappy—very, poor cheaile. Take care you are not grow jealous for poor Madame talking sometime to your papa; you must not, little fool. It is only for a your good, my dear Maud, and I had no objection you should stay.'
'You! Madame!' I said loftily. I was very angry, and showed it through my dignity, to Madame's evident satisfaction.
'No—it was your papa, Mr. Ruthyn, who weesh to speak alone; for me I do not care; there was something I weesh to tell him. I don't care who know, but Mr. Ruthyn he is deeferent.'
I made no remark.
'Come, leetle Maud, you are not to be so cross; it will be much better you and I to be good friends together. Why should a we quarrel?—wat nonsense! Do you imagine I would anywhere undertake a the education of a young person unless I could speak with her parent?—wat folly! I would like to be your friend, however, my poor Maud, if you would allow—you and I together—wat you say?'
'People grow to be friends by liking, Madame, and liking comes of itself, not by bargain; I like every one who is kind to me.'
'And so I. You are like me in so many things, my dear Maud! Are you quaite well to-day? I think you look fateague; so I feel, too, vary tire. I think we weel put off the lessons to to-morrow. Eh? and we will come to play la grace in the garden.'
Madame was plainly in a high state of exultation. Her audience had evidently been satisfactory, and, like other people, when things went well, her soul lighted up into a sulphureous good-humour, not very genuine nor pleasant, but still it was better than other moods.
I was glad when our calisthenics were ended, and Madame had returned to her apartment, so that I had a pleasant little walk with Cousin Monica.
We women are persevering when once our curiosity is roused, but she gaily foiled mine, and, I think, had a mischievous pleasure in doing so. As we were going in to dress for dinner, however, she said, quite gravely—
'I am sorry, Maud, I allowed you to see that I have any unpleasant impressions about that governess lady. I shall be at liberty some day to explain all about it, and, indeed, it will be enough to tell your father, whom I have not been able to find all day; but really we are, perhaps, making too much of the matter, and I cannot say that I know anything against Madame that is conclusive, or—or, indeed, at all; but that there are reasons, and—you must not ask any more—no, you must not.'
That evening, while I was playing the overture to Cenerentola, for the entertainment of my cousin, there arose from the tea-table, where she and my father were sitting, a spirited and rather angry harangue from Lady Knollys' lips; I turned my eyes from the music towards the speakers; the overture swooned away with a little hesitating babble into silence, and I listened.
Their conversation had begun under cover of the music which I was making, and now they were too much engrossed to perceive its discontinuance. The first sentence I heard seized my attention; my father had closed the book he was reading, upon his finger, and was leaning back in his chair, as he used to do when at all angry; his face was a little flushed, and I knew the fierce and glassy stare which expressed pride, surprise, and wrath.
'Yes, Lady Knollys, there's an animus; I know the spirit you speak in—it does you no honour,' said my father.
'And I know the spirit you speak in, the spirit of madness,' retorted Cousin Monica, just as much in earnest. 'I can't conceive how you can be so demented, Austin. What has perverted you? are you blind?'
'You are, Monica; your own unnatural prejudice—unnatural prejudice, blinds you. What is it all?—nothing. Were I to act as you say, I should be a coward and a traitor. I see, I do see, all that's real. I'm no Quixote, to draw my sword on illusions.'
'There should be no halting here. How can you—do you ever think? I wonder if you can breathe. I feel as if the evil one were in the house.'
A stern, momentary frown was my father's only answer, as he looked fixedly at her.
'People need not nail up horseshoes and mark their door-stones with charms to keep the evil spirit out,' ran on Lady Knollys, who looked pale and angry, in her way, 'but you open your door in the dark and invoke unknown danger. How can you look at that child that's—she's not playing,' said Knollys, abruptly stopping.
My father rose, muttering to himself, and cast a lurid glance at me, as he went in high displeasure to the door. Cousin Monica, now flushed a little, glanced also silently at me, biting the tip of her slender gold cross, and doubtful how much I had heard.
My father opened the door suddenly, which he had just closed, and looking in, said, in a calmer tone—
'Perhaps, Monica, you would come for a moment to the study; I'm sure you have none but kindly feelings towards me and little Maud, there; and I thank you for your good-will; but you must see other things more reasonably, and I think you will.'
Cousin Monica got up silently and followed him, only throwing up her eyes and hands as she did so, and I was left alone, wondering and curious more than ever.