In a moment a tall, lithe girl, black-haired, black-eyed, and, as I thought, inexpressibly handsome, was smiling, with such beautiful rings of pearly teeth, at the window; and in her peculiar accent, with a suspicion of something foreign in it, proposing with many courtesies to tell the lady her fortune.
I had never seen this wild tribe of the human race before—children of mystery and liberty. Such vagabondism and beauty in the figure before me! I looked at their hovels and thought of the night, and wondered at their independence, and felt my inferiority. I could not resist. She held up her slim oriental hand.
'Yes, I'll hear my fortune,' I said, returning the sibyl's smile instinctively.
'Give me some money, Mary Quince. No, not that,' I said, rejecting the thrifty sixpence she tendered, for I had heard that the revelations of this weird sisterhood were bright in proportion to the kindness of their clients, and was resolved to approach Bartram with cheerful auguries. 'That five-shilling piece,' I insisted; and honest Mary reluctantly surrendered the coin.
So the feline beauty took it, with courtesies and 'thankees,' smiling still, and hid it away as if she stole it, and looked on my open palm still smiling; and told me, to my surprise, that there was somebody I liked very much, and I was almost afraid she would name Captain Oakley; that he would grow very rich, and that I should marry him; that I should move about from place to place a great deal for a good while to come. That I had some enemies, who should be sometimes so near as to be in the same room with me, and yet they should not be able to hurt me. That I should see blood spilt and yet not my own, and finally be very happy and splendid, like the heroine of a fairy tale.
Did this strange, girlish charlatan see in my face some signs of shrinking when she spoke of enemies, and set me down for a coward whose weakness might be profitable? Very likely. At all events she plucked a long brass pin, with a round bead for a head, from some part of her dress, and holding the point in her fingers, and exhibiting the treasure before my eyes, she told me that I must get a charmed pin like that, which her grandmother had given to her, and she ran glibly through a story of all the magic expended on it, and told me she could not part with it; but its virtue was that you were to stick it through the blanket, and while it was there neither rat, nor cat, nor snake—and then came two more terms in the catalogue, which I suppose belonged to the gipsy dialect, and which she explained to mean, as well as I could understand, the first a malevolent spirit, and the second 'a cove to cut your throat,' could approach or hurt you.
A charm like that, she gave me to understand, I must by hook or by crook obtain. She had not a second. None of her people in the camp over there possessed one. I am ashamed to confess that I actually paid her a pound for this brass pin! The purchase was partly an indication of my temperament, which could never let an opportunity pass away irrevocably without a struggle, and always apprehended 'Some day or other I'll reproach myself tor having neglected it!' and partly a record of the trepidations of that period of my life. At all events I had her pin, and she my pound, and I venture to say I was the gladder of the two.
She stood on the road-side bank courtseying and smiling, the first enchantress I had encountered, and I watched the receding picture, with its patches of firelight, its dusky groups and donkey carts, white as skeletons in the moonlight, as we drove rapidly away.
They, I suppose, had a wild sneer and a merry laugh over my purchase, as they sat and ate their supper of stolen poultry, about their fire, and were duly proud of belonging to the superior race.
Mary Quince, shocked at my prodigality, hinted a remonstrance.
'It went to my heart, Miss, it did. They're such a lot, young and old, all alike thieves and vagabonds, and many a poor body wanting.'
'Tut, Mary, never mind. Everyone has her fortune told some time in her life, and you can't have a good one without paying. I think, Mary, we must be near Bartram now.'
The road now traversed the side of a steep hill, parallel to which, along the opposite side of a winding river, rose the dark steeps of a corresponding upland, covered with forest that looked awful and dim in the deep shadow, while the moonlight rippled fitfully upon the stream beneath.
'It seems to be a beautiful country,' I said to Mary Quince, who was munching a sandwich in the corner, and thus appealed to, adjusted her bonnet, and made an inspection from her window, which, however, commanded nothing but the heathy slope of the hill whose side we were traversing.
'Well, Miss, I suppose it is; but there's a deal o' mountains—is not there?'
And so saying, honest Mary leaned back again, and went on with her sandwich.
We were now descending at a great pace. I knew we were coming near. I stood up as well as I could in the carriage, to see over the postilions' heads. I was eager, but frightened too; agitated as the crisis of the arrival and meeting approached. At last, a long stretch of comparatively level country below us, with masses of wood as well as I could see irregularly overspreading it, became visible as the narrow valley through which we were speeding made a sudden bend.
Down we drove, and now I did perceive a change. A great grass-grown park-wall, overtopped with mighty trees; but still on and on we came at a canter that seemed almost a gallop. The old grey park-wall flanking us at one side, and a pretty pastoral hedgerow of ash-trees, irregularly on the other.
At last the postilions began to draw bridle, and at a slight angle, the moon shining full upon them, we wheeled into a wide semicircle formed by the receding park-walls, and halted before a great fantastic iron gate, and a pair of tall fluted piers, of white stone, all grass-grown and ivy-bound, with great cornices, surmounted with shields and supporters, the Ruthyn bearings washed by the rains of Derbyshire for many a generation of Ruthyns, almost smooth by this time, and looking bleached and phantasmal, like giant sentinels, with each a hand clasped in his comrade's, to bar our passage to the enchanted castle—the florid tracery of the iron gate showing like the draperies of white robes hanging from their extended arms to the earth.
Our courier got down and shoved the great gate open, and we entered, between sombre files of magnificent forest trees, one of those very broad straight avenues whose width measures the front of the house. This was all built of white stone, resembling that of Caen, which parts of Derbyshire produce in such abundance.
So this was Bartram, and here was Uncle Silas. I was almost breathless as I approached. The bright moon shining full on the white front of the old house revealed not only its highly decorated style, its fluted pillars and doorway, rich and florid carving, and balustraded summit, but also its stained and moss-grown front. Two giant trees, overthrown at last by the recent storm, lay with their upturned roots, and their yellow foliage still flickering on the sprays that were to bloom no more, where they had fallen, at the right side of the court-yard, which, like the avenue, was studded with tufted weeds and grass.
All this gave to the aspect of Bartram a forlorn character of desertion and decay, contrasting almost awfully with the grandeur of its proportions and richness of its architecture.
There was a ruddy glow from a broad window in the second row, and I thought I saw some one peep from it and disappear; at the same moment there was a furious barking of dogs, some of whom ran scampering into the court-yard from a half-closed side door; and amid their uproar, the bawling of the man in the back seat, who jumped down to drive them off, and the crack of the postilions' whips, who struck at them, we drew up before the lordly door-steps of this melancholy mansion.
Just as our attendant had his hand on the knocker the door opened, and we saw, by a not very brilliant candle-light, three figures—a shabby little old man, thin, and very much stooped, with a white cravat, and looking as if his black clothes were too large, and made for some one else, stood with his hand upon the door; a young, plump, but very pretty female figure, in unusually short petticoats, with fattish legs, and nice ankles, in boots, stood in the centre; and a dowdy maid, like an old charwoman, behind her.
The household paraded for welcome was not certainly very brilliant. Amid the riot the trunks were deliberately put down by our attendant, who kept shouting to the old man at the door, and to the dogs in turn; and the old man was talking and pointing stiffly and tremulously, but I could not hear what he said.
'Was it possible—could that mean-looking old man be Uncle Silas?'
The idea stunned me; but I almost instantly perceived that he was much too small, and I was relieved, and even grateful. It was certainly an odd mode of procedure to devote primary attention to the trunks and boxes, leaving the travellers still shut up in the carriage, of which they were by this time pretty well tired. I was not sorry for the reprieve, however: being nervous about first impressions, and willing to defer mine, I sat shyly back, peeping at the candle and moonlight picture before me, myself unseen.
'Will you tell—yes or no—is my cousin in the coach?' screamed the plump young lady, stamping her stout black boot, in a momentary lull.
Yes, I was there, sure.
'And why the puck don't you let her out, you stupe, you?'
'Run down, Giblets, you never do nout without driving, and let Cousin Maud out. You're very welcome to Bartram.' This greeting was screamed at an amazing pitch, and repeated before I had time to drop the window, and say 'thank you.' 'I'd a let you out myself—there's a good dog, you would na' bite Cousin' (the parenthesis was to a huge mastiff, who thrust himself beside her, by this time quite pacified)—'only I daren't go down the steps, for the governor said I shouldn't.'
The venerable person who went by the name of Giblets had by this time opened the carriage door, and our courier, or 'boots'—he looked more like the latter functionary—had lowered the steps, and in greater trepidation than I experienced when in after-days I was presented to my sovereign, I glided down, to offer myself to the greeting and inspection of the plain-spoken young lady who stood at the top of the steps to receive me.
She welcomed me with a hug and a hearty buss, as she called that salutation, on each cheek, and pulled me into the hall, and was evidently glad to see me.
'And you're tired a bit, I warrant; and who's the old 'un, who?' she asked eagerly, in a stage whisper, which made my ear numb for five minutes after. 'Oh, oh, the maid! and a precious old 'un—ha, ha, ha! But lawk! how grand she is, with her black silk, cloak and crape, and I only in twilled cotton, and rotten old Coburg for Sundays. Odds! it's a shame; but you'll be tired, you will. It's a smartish pull, they do say, from Knowl. I know a spell of it, only so far as the "Cat and Fiddle," near the Lunnon-road. Come up, will you? Would you like to come in first and talk a bit wi' the governor? Father, you know, he's a bit silly, he is, this while.' I found that the phrase meant only bodily infirmity. 'He took a pain o' Friday, newralgie—something or other he calls it—rheumatics it is when it takes old "Giblets" there; and he's sitting in his own room; or maybe you'd like better to come to your bedroom first, for it is dirty work travelling, they do say.'
Yes; I preferred the preliminary adjustment. Mary Quince was standing behind me; and as my voluble kinswoman talked on, we had each ample time and opportunity to observe the personnel of the other; and she made no scruple of letting me perceive that she was improving it, for she stared me full in the face, taking in evidently feature after feature; and she felt the material of my mantle pretty carefully between her finger and thumb, and manually examined my chain and trinkets, and picked up my hand as she might a glove, to con over my rings.
I can't say, of course, exactly what impression I may have produced on her. But in my cousin Milly I saw a girl who looked younger than her years, plump, but with a slender waist, with light hair, lighter than mine, and very blue eyes, rather round; on the whole very good-looking. She had an odd swaggering walk, a toss of her head, and a saucy and imperious, but rather good-natured and honest countenance. She talked rather loud, with a good ringing voice, and a boisterous laugh when it came.
If I was behind the fashion, what would Cousin Monica have thought of her? She was arrayed, as she had stated, in black twilled cotton expressive of her affliction; but it was made almost as short in the skirt as that of the prints of the Bavarian broom girls. She had white cotton stockings, and a pair of black leather boots, with leather buttons, and, for a lady, prodigiously thick soles, which reminded me of the navvy boots I had so often admired in Punch. I must add that the hands with which she assisted her scrutiny of my dress, though pretty, were very much sunburnt indeed.
'And what's her name?' she demanded, nodding to Mary Quince, who was gazing on her awfully, with round eyes, as an inland spinster might upon a whale beheld for the first time.
Mary courtesied, and I answered.
'Mary Quince,' she repeated. 'You're welcome, Quince. What shall I call her? I've a name for all o' them. Old Giles there, is Giblets. He did not like it first, but he answers quick enough now; and Old Lucy Wyat there,' nodding toward the old woman, 'is Lucia de l'Amour.' A slightly erroneous reading of Lammermoor, for my cousin sometimes made mistakes, and was not much versed in the Italian opera. 'You know it's a play, and I call her L'Amour for shortness;' and she laughed hilariously, and I could not forbear joining; and, winking at me, she called aloud, 'L'Amour.'
To which the crone, with a high-cauled cap, resembling Mother Hubbard, responded with a courtesy and 'Yes,'m.'
'Are all the trunks and boxes took up?'
'Well, we'll come now; and what shall I call you, Quince? Let me see.'
'According to your pleasure, Miss,' answered Mary, with dignity, and a dry courtesy.
'Why, you're as hoarse as a frog, Quince. We'll call you Quinzy for the present. That'll do. Come along, Quinzy.'
So my Cousin Milly took me under the arm, and pulled me forward; but as we ascended, she let me go, leaning back to make inspection of my attire from a new point of view.
'Hallo, cousin,' she cried, giving my dress a smack with her open hand. 'What a plague do you want of all that bustle; you'll leave it behind, lass, the first bush you jump over.'
I was a good deal astounded. I was also very near laughing, for there was a sort of importance in her plump countenance, and an indescribable grotesqueness in the fashion of her garments, which heightened the outlandishness of her talk, in a way which I cannot at all describe.
What palatial wide stairs those were which we ascended, with their prodigious carved banisters of oak, and each huge pillar on the landing-place crowned with a shield and carved heraldic supporters; florid oak panelling covered the walls. But of the house I could form no estimate, for Uncle Silas's housekeeping did not provide light for hall and passages, and we were dependent on the glimmer of a single candle; but there would be quite enough of this kind of exploration in the daylight.
So along dark oak flooring we advanced to my room, and I had now an opportunity of admiring, at my leisure, the lordly proportions of the building. Two great windows, with dark and tarnished curtains, rose half as high again as the windows of Knowl; and yet Knowl, in its own style, is a fine house. The door-frames, like the window-frames, were richly carved; the fireplace was in the same massive style, and the mantelpiece projected with a mass of very rich carving. On the whole I was surprised. I had never slept in so noble a room before.
The furniture, I must confess, was by no means on a par with the architectural pretensions of the apartment. A French bed, a piece of carpet about three yards square, a small table, two chairs, a toilet table—no wardrobe—no chest of drawers. The furniture painted white, and of the light and diminutive kind, was particularly ill adapted to the scale and style of the apartment, one end only of which it occupied, and that but sparsely, leaving the rest of the chamber in the nakedness of a stately desolation. My cousin Milly ran away to report progress to 'the Governor,' as she termed Uncle Silas.
'Well, Miss Maud, I never did expect to see the like o' that!' exclaimed honest Mary Quince, 'Did you ever see such a young lady? She's no more like one o' the family than I am. Law bless us! and what's she dressed like? Well, well, well!' And Mary, with a rueful shake of her head, clicked her tongue pathetically to the back of her teeth, while I could not forbear laughing.
'And such a scrap o' furniture! Well, well, well!' and the same ticking of the tongue followed.
But, in a few minutes, back came Cousin Milly, and, with a barbarous sort of curiosity, assisted in unpacking my trunks, and stowing away the treasures, on which she ventured a variety of admiring criticisms, in the presses which, like cupboards, filled recesses in the walls, with great oak doors, the keys of which were in them.
As I was making my hurried toilet, she entertained me now and then with more strictly personal criticisms.
'Your hair's a shade darker than mine—it's none the better o' that though—is it? Mine's said to be the right shade. I don't know—what do you say?'
I conceded the point with a good grace.
'I wish my hands was as white though—you do lick me there; but it's all gloves, and I never could abide 'em. I think I'll try though—they are very white, sure.'
'I wonder which is the prettiest, you or me? I don't know, I'm sure—which do you think?'
I laughed outright at this challenge, and she blushed a little, and for the first time seemed for a moment a little shy.
'Well, you are a half an inch longer than me, I think—don't you?'
I was fully an inch taller, so I had no difficulty in making the proposed admission.
'Well, you do look handsome! doesn't she, Quinzy, lass? but your frock comes down almost to your heels—it does.'
And she glanced from mine to hers, and made a little kick up with the heel of the navvy boot to assist her in measuring the comparative distance.
'Maybe mine's a thought too short?' she suggested. 'Who's there? Oh! it's you, is it?' she cried as Mother Hubbard appeared at the door. 'Come in, L'Amour—don't you know, lass, you're always welcome?'
She had come to let us know that Uncle Silas would be happy to see me whenever I was ready; and that my cousin Millicent would conduct me to the room where he awaited me.
In an instant all the comic sensations awakened by my singular cousin's eccentricities vanished, and I was thrilled with awe. I was about to see in the flesh—faded, broken, aged, but still identical—that being who had been the vision and the problem of so many years of my short life.