I sat still, listening and wondering, and wondering and listening; but I ought to have known that no sound could reach me where I was from my father's study. Five minutes passed and they did not return. Ten, fifteen. I drew near the fire and made myself comfortable in a great arm-chair, looking on the embers, but not seeing all the scenery and dramatis personae of my past life or future fortunes, in their shifting glow, as people in romances usually do; but fanciful castles and caverns in blood-red and golden glare, suggestive of dreamy fairy-land, salamanders, sunsets, and palaces of fire-kings, and all this partly shaping and partly shaped by my fancy, and leading my closing eyes and drowsy senses off into dream-land. So I nodded and dozed, and sank into a deep slumber, from which I was roused by the voice of my cousin Monica. On opening my eyes, I saw nothing but Lady Knollys' face looking steadily into mine, and expanding into a good-natured laugh as she watched the vacant and lack-lustre stare with which I returned her gaze.
'Come, dear Maud, it is late; you ought to have been in your bed an hour ago.'
Up I stood, and so soon as I had begun to hear and see aright, it struck me that Cousin Monica was more grave and subdued than I had seen her.
'Come, let us light our candles and go together.'
Holding hands, we ascended, I sleepy, she silent; and not a word was spoken until we reached my room. Mary Quince was in waiting, and tea made.
'Tell her to come back in a few minutes; I wish to say a word to you,' said Lady Knollys.
The maid accordingly withdrew.
Lady Knollys' eyes followed her till she closed the door behind her.
'I'm going in the morning.'
'Yes, dear; I could not stay; in fact, I should have gone to-*night, but it was too late, and I leave instead in the morning.'
'I am so sorry—so very sorry,' I exclaimed, in honest disappointment, and the walls seemed to darken round me, and the monotony of the old routine loomed more terrible in prospect.
'So am I, dear Maud.'
'But can't you stay a little longer; won't you?'
'No, Maud; I'm vexed with Austin—very much vexed with your father; in short, I can't conceive anything so entirely preposterous, and dangerous, and insane as his conduct, now that his eyes are quite opened, and I must say a word to you before I go, and it is just this:—you must cease to be a mere child, you must try and be a woman, Maud: now don't be frightened or foolish, but hear me out. That woman—what does she call herself—Rougierre? I have reason to believe is—in fact, from circumstances, must be your enemy; you will find her very deep, daring, and unscrupulous, I venture to say, and you can't be too much on your guard. Do you quite understand me, Maud?'
'I do,' said I, with a gasp, and my eyes fixed on her with a terrified interest, as if on a warning ghost.
'You must bridle your tongue, mind, and govern your conduct, and command even your features. It is hard to practise reserve; but you must—you must be secret and vigilant. Try and be in appearance just as usual; don't quarrel; tell her nothing, if you do happen to know anything, of your father's business; be always on your guard when with her, and keep your eye upon her everywhere. Observe everything, disclose nothing—do you see?'
'Yes,' again I whispered.
'You have good, honest servants about you, and, thank God, they don't like her. But you must not repeat to them one word I am now saying to you. Servants are fond of dropping hints, and letting things ooze out in that way, and in their quarrels with her would compromise you—you understand me?'
'I do,' I sighed, with a wild stare.
'And—and, Maud, don't let her meddle with your food.'
Cousin Monica gave me a pale little nod, and looked away.
I could only stare at her; and under my breath I uttered an ejaculation of terror.
'Don't be so frightened; you must not be foolish; I only wish you to be upon your guard. I have my suspicions, but I may be quite wrong; your father thinks I am a fool; perhaps I am—perhaps not; maybe he may come to think as I do. But you must not speak to him on the subject; he's an odd man, and never did and never will act wisely, when his passions and prejudices are engaged.'
'Has she ever committed any great crime?' I asked, feeling as if I were on the point of fainting.
'No, dear Maud, I never said anything of the kind; don't be so frightened: I only said I have formed, from something I know, an ill opinion of her; and an unprincipled person, under temptation, is capable of a great deal. But no matter how wicked she may be, you may defy her, simply by assuming her to be so, and acting with caution; she is cunning and selfish, and she'll do nothing desperate. But I would give her no opportunity.'
'Oh, dear! Oh, Cousin Monica, don't leave me.'
'My dear, I can't stay; your papa and I—we've had a quarrel. I know I'm right, and he's wrong, and he'll come to see it soon, if he's left to himself, and then all will be right. But just now he misunderstands me, and we've not been civil to one another. I could not think of staying, and he would not allow you to come away with me for a short visit, which I wished. It won't last, though; and I do assure you, my dear Maud, I am quite happy about you now that you are quite on your guard. Just act respecting that person as if she were capable of any treachery, without showing distrust or dislike in your manner, and nothing will remain in her power; and write to me whenever you wish to hear from me, and if I can be of any real use, I don't care, I'll come: so there's a wise little woman; do as I've said, and depend upon it everything will go well, and I'll contrive before long to get that nasty creature away.'
Except a kiss and a few hurried words in the morning when she was leaving, and a pencilled farewell for papa, there was nothing more from Cousin Monica for some time.
Knowl was dark again—darker than ever. My father, gentle always to me, was now—perhaps it was contrast with his fitful return to something like the world's ways, during Lady Knollys' stay—more silent, sad, and isolated than before. Of Madame de la Rougierre I had nothing at first particular to remark. Only, reader, if you happen to be a rather nervous and very young girl, I ask you to conceive my fears and imaginings, and the kind of misery which I was suffering. Its intensity I cannot now even myself recall. But it overshadowed me perpetually—a care, an alarm. It lay down with me at night and got up with me in the morning, tinting and disturbing my dreams, and making my daily life terrible. I wonder now that I lived through the ordeal. The torment was secret and incessant, and kept my mind in unintermitting activity.
Externally things went on at Knowl for some weeks in the usual routine. Madame was, so far as her unpleasant ways were concerned, less tormenting than before, and constantly reminded me of 'our leetle vow of friendship, you remember, dearest Maud!' and she would stand beside me, and looked from the window with her bony arm round my waist, and my reluctant hand drawn round in hers; and thus she would smile, and talk affectionately and even playfully; for at times she would grow quite girlish, and smile with her great carious teeth, and begin to quiz and babble about the young 'faylows,' and tell bragging tales of her lovers, all of which were dreadful to me.
She was perpetually recurring, too, to the charming walk we had had together to Church Scarsdale, and proposing a repetition of that delightful excursion, which, you may be sure, I evaded, having by no means so agreeable a recollection of our visit.
One day, as I was dressing to go out for a walk, in came good Mrs. Rusk, the housekeeper, to my room.
'Miss Maud, dear, is not that too far for you? It is a long walk to Church Scarsdale, and you are not looking very well.'
'To Church Scarsdale?' I repeated; 'I'm not going to Church Scarsdale; who said I was going to Church Scarsdale? There is nothing I should so much dislike.'
'Well, I never!' exclaimed she. 'Why, there's old Madame's been down-stairs with me for fruit and sandwiches, telling me you were longing to go to Church Scarsdale——'
'It's quite untrue,' I interrupted. 'She knows I hate it.'
'She does?' said Mrs. Rusk, quietly; 'and you did not tell her nothing about the basket? Well—if there isn't a story! Now what may she be after—what is it—what is she driving at?'
'I can't tell, but I won't go.'
'No, of course, dear, you won't go. But you may be sure there's some scheme in her old head. Tom Fowkes says she's bin two or three times to drink tea at Farmer Gray's—now, could it be she's thinking to marry him?' And Mrs. Rusk sat down and laughed heartily, ending with a crow of derision.
'To think of a young fellow like that, and his wife, poor thing, not dead a year—maybe she's got money?'
'I don't know—I don't care—perhaps, Mrs. Rusk, you mistook Madame. I will go down; I am going out.'
Madame had a basket in her hand. She held it quietly by her capacious skirt, at the far side, and made no allusion to the preparation, neither to the direction in which she proposed walking, and prattling artlessly and affectionately she marched by my side.
Thus we reached the stile at the sheep-walk, and then I paused.
'Now, Madame, have not we gone far enough in this direction?—suppose we visit the pigeon-house in the park?'
'Wat folly! my dear a Maud—you cannot walk so far.'
'Well, towards home, then.'
'And wy not a this way? We ave not walk enough, and Mr. Ruthyn he will not be pleased if you do not take proper exercise. Let us walk on by the path, and stop when you like.'
'Where do you wish to go, Madame?'
'Nowhere particular—come along; don't be fool, Maud.'
'This leads to Church Scarsdale.'
'A yes indeed! wat sweet place! bote we need not a walk all the way to there.'
'I'd rather not walk outside the grounds to-day, Madame.'
'Come, Maud, you shall not be fool—wat you mean, Mademoiselle?' said the stalworth lady, growing yellow and greenish with an angry mottling, and accosting me very gruffly.
'I don't care to cross the stile, thank you, Madame. I shall remain at this side.'
'You shall do wat I tell you!' exclaimed she.
'Let go my arm, Madame, you hurt me,' I cried.
She had griped my arm very firmly in her great bony hand, and seemed preparing to drag me over by main force.
'Let me go,' I repeated shrilly, for the pain increased.
'La!' she cried with a smile of rage and a laugh, letting me go and shoving me backward at the same time, so that I had a rather dangerous tumble.
I stood up, a good deal hurt, and very angry, notwithstanding my fear of her.
'I'll ask papa if I am to be so ill-used.'
'Wat av I done?' cried Madame, laughing grimly from her hollow jaws; I did all I could to help you over—'ow could I prevent you to pull back and tumble if you would do so? That is the way wen you petites Mademoiselles are naughty and hurt yourself they always try to make blame other people. Tell a wat you like—you think I care?'
'Very well, Madame.'
'Are a you coming?'
She looked steadily in my face and very wickedly. I gazed at her as with dazzled eyes—I suppose as the feathered prey do at the owl that glares on them by night. I neither moved back nor forward, but stared at her quite helplessly.
'You are nice pupil—charming young person! So polite, so obedient, so amiable! I will walk towards Church Scarsdale,' she continued, suddenly breaking through the conventionalism of her irony, and accosting me in savage accents. 'You weel stay behind if you dare. I tell you to accompany—do you hear?'
More than ever resolved against following her, I remained where I was, watching her as she marched fiercely away, swinging her basket as though in imagination knocking my head off with it.
She soon cooled, however, and looking over her shoulder, and seeing me still at the other side of the stile, she paused, and beckoned me grimly to follow her. Seeing me resolutely maintain my position, she faced about, tossed her head, like an angry beast, and seemed uncertain for a while what course to take with me.
She stamped and beckoned furiously again. I stood firm. I was very much frightened, and could not tell to what violence she might resort in her exasperation. She walked towards me with an inflamed countenance, and a slight angry wagging of the head; my heart fluttered, and I awaited the crisis in extreme trepidation. She came close, the stile only separating us, and stopped short, glaring and grinning at me like a French grenadier who has crossed bayonets, but hesitates to close.