For many days after our quarrel, Madame hardly spoke to me. As for lessons, I was not much troubled with them. It was plain, too, that my father had spoken to her, for she never after that day proposed our extending our walks beyond the precincts of Knowl.
Knowl, however, was a very considerable territory, and it was possible for a much better pedestrian than I to tire herself effectually, without passing its limits. So we took occasionally long walks.
After some weeks of sullenness, during which for days at a time she hardly spoke to me, and seemed lost in dark and evil abstraction, she once more, and somewhat suddenly, recovered her spirits, and grew quite friendly. Her gaieties and friendliness were not reassuring, and in my mind presaged approaching mischief and treachery. The days were shortening to the wintry span. The edge of the red sun had already touched the horizon as Madame and I, overtaken at the warren by his last beams, were hastening homeward.
A narrow carriage-road traverses this wild region of the park, to which a distant gate gives entrance. On descending into this unfrequented road, I was surprised to see a carriage standing there. A thin, sly postilion, with that pert, turned-up nose which the old caricaturist Woodward used to attribute to the gentlemen of Tewkesbury, was leaning on his horses, and looked hard at me as I passed. A lady who sat within looked out, with an extra-fashionable bonnet on, and also treated us to a stare. Very pink and white cheeks she had, very black glossy hair and bright eyes—fat, bold, and rather cross, she looked—and in her bold way she examined us curiously as we passed.
I mistook the situation. It had once happened before that an intending visitor at Knowl had entered the place by that park-road, and lost several hours in a vain search for the house.
'Ask him, Madame, whether they want to go to the house; I dare say they have missed their way,' whispered I.
'Eh bien, they will find again. I do not choose to talk to post-boys; allons!'
But I asked the man as we passed, 'Do you want to reach the house?'
By this time he was at the horses' heads, buckling the harness.
'Noa,' he said in a surly tone, smiling oddly on the winkers, but, recollecting his politeness, he added, 'Noa, thankee, misses, it's what they calls a picnic; we'll be takin' the road now.'
He was smiling now on a little buckle with which he was engaged.
'Come—nonsense!' whispered Madame sharply in my ear, and she whisked me by the arm, so we crossed the little stile at the other side.
Our path lay across the warren, which undulates in little hillocks. The sun was down by this time, blue shadows were stretching round us, colder in the splendid contrast of the burnished sunset sky.
Descending over these hillocks we saw three figures a little in advance of us, not far from the path we were tracing. Two were standing smoking and chatting at intervals: one tall and slim, with a high chimney-pot, worn a little on one side, and a white great-coat buttoned up to the chin; the other shorter and stouter, with a dark-coloured wrapper. These gentlemen were facing rather our way as we came over the edge of the eminence, but turned their backs on perceiving our approach. As they did so, I remember so well each lowered his cigar suddenly with the simultaneousness of a drill. The third figure sustained the picnic character of the group, for he was repacking a hamper. He stood suddenly erect as we drew near, and a very ill-looking person he was, low-browed, square-chinned, and with a broad, broken nose. He wore gaiters, and was a little bandy, very broad, and had a closely-cropped bullet head, and deep-set little eyes. The moment I saw him, I beheld the living type of the burglars and bruisers whom I had so often beheld with a kind of scepticism in Punch. He stood over his hamper and scowled sharply at us for a moment; then with the point of his foot he jerked a little fur cap that lay on the ground into his hand, drew it tight over his lowering brows, and called to his companions, just as we passed him—'Hallo! mister. How's this?'
'All right,' said the tall person in the white great-coat, who, as he answered, shook his shorter companion by the arm, I thought angrily.
This shorter companion turned about. He had a muffler loose about his neck and chin. I thought he seemed shy and irresolute, and the tall man gave him a great jolt with his elbow, which made him stagger, and I fancied a little angry, for he said, as it seemed, a sulky word or two.
The gentleman in the white surtout, however, standing direct in our way, raised his hat with a mock salutation, placing his hand on his breast, and forthwith began to advance with an insolent grin and an air of tipsy frolic.
'Jist in time, ladies; five minutes more and we'd a bin off. Thankee, Mrs. Mouser, ma'am, for the honour of the meetin', and more particular for the pleasure of making your young lady's acquaintance—niece, ma'am? daughter, ma'am? granddaughter, by Jove, is it? Hallo! there, mild 'n, I say, stop packin'.' This was to the ill-favoured person with the broken nose. 'Bring us a couple o' glasses and a bottle o' curaçoa; what are you fear'd on, my dear? this is Lord Lollipop, here, a reg'lar charmer, wouldn't hurt a fly, hey Lolly? Isn't he pretty, Miss? and I'm Sir Simon Sugarstick—so called after old Sir Simon, ma'am; and I'm so tall and straight, Miss, and slim—ain't I? and ever so sweet, my honey, when you come to know me, just like a sugarstick; ain't I, Lolly, boy?'
'I'm Miss Ruthyn, tell them, Madame,' I said, stamping on the ground, and very much frightened.
'Be quaite, Maud. If you are angry, they will hurt us; leave me to speak,' whispered the gouvernante.
All this time they were approaching from separate points. I glanced back, and saw the ruffianly-looking man within a yard or two, with his arm raised and one finger up, telegraphing, as it seemed, to the gentlemen in front.
'Be quaite, Maud,' whispered Madame, with an awful adjuration, which I do not care to set down. 'They are teepsy; don't seem 'fraid.'
I was afraid—terrified. The circle had now so narrowed that they might have placed their hands on my shoulders.
'Pray, gentlemen, wat you want? weel a you 'av the goodness to permit us to go on?'
I now observed for the first time, with a kind of shock, that the shorter of the two men, who prevented our advance, was the person who had accosted me so offensively at Church Scarsdale. I pulled Madame by the arm, whispering, 'Let us run.'
'Be quaite, my dear Maud,' was her only reply.
'I tell you what,' said the tall man, who had replaced his high hat more jauntily than before on the side of his head, 'We've caught you now, fair game, and we'll let you off on conditions. You must not be frightened, Miss. Upon my honour and soul, I mean no mischief; do I, Lollipop? I call him Lord Lollipop; it's only chaff, though; his name's Smith. Now, Lolly, I vote we let the prisoners go, when we just introduce them to Mrs. Smith; she's sitting in the carriage, and keeps Mr. S. here in precious good order, I promise you. There's easy terms for you, eh, and we'll have a glass o' curaçoa round, and so part friends. Is it a bargain? Come!'
'Yes, Maud, we must go—wat matter?' whispered Madame vehemently.
'You shan't,' I said, instinctively terrified.
'You'll go with Ma'am, young 'un, won't you?' said Mr. Smith, as his companion called him.
Madame was holding my arm, but I snatched it from her, and would have run; the tall man, however, placed his arms round me and held me fast with an affectation of playfulness, but his grip was hard enough to hurt me a good deal. Being now thoroughly frightened, after an ineffectual struggle, during which I heard Madame say, 'You fool, Maud, weel you come with me? see wat you are doing,' I began to scream, shriek after shriek, which the man attempted to drown with loud hooting, peals of laughter, forcing his handkerchief against my mouth, while Madame continued to bawl her exhortations to 'be quaite' in my ear.
'I'll lift her, I say!' said a gruff voice behind me.
But at this instant, wild with terror, I distinctly heard other voices shouting. The men who surrounded me were instantly silent, and all looked in the direction of the sound, now very near, and I screamed with redoubled energy. The ruffian behind me thrust his great hand over my mouth.
'It is the gamekeeper,' cried Madame. 'Two gamekeepers—we are safe—thank Heaven!' and she began to call on Dykes by name.
I only remember, feeling myself at liberty—running a few steps—seeing Dykes' white furious face—clinging to his arm, with which he was bringing his gun to a level, and saying, 'Don't fire—they'll murder us if you do.'
Madame, screaming lustily, ran up at the same moment.
'Run on to the gate and lock it—I'll be wi' ye in a minute,' cried he to the other gamekeeper; who started instantly on this mission, for the three ruffians were already in full retreat for the carriage.
Giddy—wild—fainting—still terror carried me on.
'Now, Madame Rogers—s'pose you take young Misses on—I must run and len' Bill a hand.'
'No, no; you moste not,' cried Madame. 'I am fainting myself, and more villains they may be near to us.'
But at this moment we heard a shot, and, muttering to himself and grasping his gun, Dykes ran at his utmost speed in the direction of the sound.
With many exhortations to speed, and ejaculations of alarm, Madame hurried me on toward the house, which at length we reached without further adventure.
As it happened, my father met us in the hall. He was perfectly transported with fury on hearing from Madame what had happened, and set out at once, with some of the servants, in the hope of intercepting the party at the park-gate.
Here was a new agitation; for my father did not return for nearly three hours, and I could not conjecture what might be occurring during the period of his absence. My alarm was greatly increased by the arrival in the interval of poor Bill, the under-gamekeeper, very much injured.
Seeing that he was determined to intercept their retreat, the three men had set upon him, wrested his gun, which exploded in the struggle, from him, and beat him savagely. I mention these particulars, because they convinced everybody that there was something specially determined and ferocious in the spirit of the party, and that the fracas was no mere frolic, but the result of a predetermined plan.
My father had not succeeded in overtaking them. He traced them to the Lugton Station, where they had taken the railway, and no one could tell him in what direction the carriage and posthorses had driven.
Madame was, or affected to be, very much shattered by what had occurred. Her recollection and mine, when my father questioned us closely, differed very materially respecting many details of the personnel of the villanous party. She was obstinate and clear; and although the gamekeeper corroborated my description of them, still my father was puzzled. Perhaps he was not sorry that some hesitation was forced upon him, because although at first he would have gone almost any length to detect the persons, on reflection he was pleased that there was not evidence to bring them into a court of justice, the publicity and annoyance of which would have been inconceivably distressing to me.
Madame was in a strange state—tempestuous in temper, talking incessantly—every now and then in floods of tears, and perpetually on her knees pouring forth torrents of thanksgiving to Heaven for our joint deliverance from the hands of those villains. Notwithstanding our community of danger and her thankfulness on my behalf, however, she broke forth into wrath and railing whenever we were alone together.
'Wat fool you were! so disobedient and obstinate; if you 'ad done wat I say, then we should av been quaite safe; those persons they were tipsy, and there is nothing so dangerous as to quarrel with tipsy persons; I would 'av brought you quaite safe—the lady she seem so nice and quaite, and we should 'av been safe with her—there would 'av been nothing absolutely; but instead you would scream and pooshe, and so they grow quite wild, and all the impertinence and violence follow of course; and that a poor Bill—all his beating and danger to his life it is cause entairely by you.'
And she spoke with more real virulence than that kind of upbraiding generally exhibits.
'The beast!' exclaimed Mrs. Rusk, when she, I, and Mary Quince were in my room together, 'with all her crying and praying, I'd like to know as much as she does, maybe, about them rascals. There never was sich like about the place, long as I remember it, till she came to Knowl, old witch! with them unmerciful big bones of hers, and her great bald head, grinning here, and crying there, and her nose everywhere. The old French hypocrite!'
Mary Quince threw in an observation, and I believe Mrs. Rusk rejoined, but I heard neither. For whether the housekeeper spoke with reflection or not, what she said affected me strangely. Through the smallest aperture, for a moment, I had had a peep into Pandemonium. Were not peculiarities of Madame's demeanour and advice during the adventure partly accounted for by the suggestion? Could the proposed excursion to Church Scarsdale have had any purpose of the same sort? What was proposed? How was Madame interested in it? Were such immeasurable treason and hypocrisy possible? I could not explain nor quite believe in the shapeless suspicion that with these light and bitter words of the old housekeeper had stolen so horribly into my mind.
After Mrs. Rusk was gone I awoke from my dismal abstraction with something like a moan and a shudder, with a dreadful sense of danger.
'Oh! Mary Quince,' I cried, 'do you think she really knew?'
'Who, Miss Maud?'
'Do you think Madame knew of those dreadful people? Oh, no—say you don't—you don't believe it—tell me she did not. I'm distracted, Mary Quince, I'm frightened out of my life.'
'There now, Miss Maud, dear—there now, don't take on so—why should she?—no sich a thing. Mrs. Rusk, law bless you, she's no more meaning in what she says than the child unborn.'
But I was really frightened. I was in a horrible state of uncertainty as to Madame de la Rougierre's complicity with the party who had beset us at the warren, and afterwards so murderously beat our poor gamekeeper. How was I ever to get rid of that horrible woman? How long was she to enjoy her continual opportunities of affrighting and injuring me?
'She hates me—she hates me, Mary Quince; and she will never stop until she has done me some dreadful injury. Oh! will no one relieve me—will no one take her away? Oh, papa, papa, papa! you will be sorry when it is too late.'
I was crying and wringing my hands, and turning from side to side, at my wits' ends, and honest Mary Quince in vain endevoured to quiet and comfort me.