Helen looked serious and Amy indignant when their uncle joined them, ready to set out by the afternoon train, all having dined and rested after the morning's excursion.
"Well, little girls, what's the matter now?" he asked, paternally, for the excellent man adored his nieces.
"Helen says it's not best to go on with the Pole, and is perfectly nonsensical, uncle," began Amy, petulantly, and not very coherently.
"Better be silly now than sorry by and by. I only suggested that, being interesting, and Amy romantic, she might find this young man too charming, if we see too much of him," said Helen.
"Bless my soul, what an idea!" cried the major. "Why, Nell, he's an invalid, a Catholic, and a foreigner, any one of which objections are enough to settle that matter. Little Amy isn't so foolish as to be in danger of losing her heart to a person so entirely out of the question as this poor lad, is she?"
"Of course not. You do me justice, uncle. Nell thinks she may pity and pet any one she likes because she is five years older than I, and entirely forgets that she is a great deal more attractive than a feeble thing like me. I should as soon think of losing my heart to Hoffman as to the Pole, even if he wasn't what he is. One may surely be kind to a dying man, without being accused of coquetry;" and Amy sobbed in the most heart-rending manner.
Helen comforted her by withdrawing all objections, and promising to leave the matter in the major's hands. But she shook her head privately when she saw the ill-disguised eagerness with which her cousin glanced up and down the platform after they were in the train, and she whispered to her uncle, unobserved,--
"Leave future meetings to chance, and don't ask the Pole in, if you can help it."
"Nonsense, my dear. You are as particular as your aunt. The lad amuses me, and you can't deny you like to nurse sick heroes," was all the answer she got, as the major, with true masculine perversity, put his head out of the window and hailed Casimer as he was passing with a bow.
"Here, Teblinski, my good fellow, don't desert us. We've always a spare seat for you, if you haven't pleasanter quarters."
With a flush of pleasure the young man came up, but hesitated to accept the invitation till Helen seconded it with a smile of welcome.
Amy was in an injured mood, and, shrouded in a great blue veil, pensively reclined in her corner as if indifferent to everything about her. But soon the cloud passed, and she emerged in a radiant state of good humor, which lasted unbroken until the journey ended.
For two days they went on together, a very happy party, for the major called in Hoffman to see his friend and describe the places through which they passed. An arrangement very agreeable to all, as Karl was a favorite, and every one missed him when away.
At Lausanne they waited while he crossed the lake to secure rooms at Vevay. On his return he reported that all the hotels and pensions were full, but that at La Tour he had secured rooms for a few weeks in a quaint old chateau on the banks of the lake.
"Count Severin is absent in Egypt, and the housekeeper has permission to let the apartments to transient visitors. The suite of rooms I speak of were engaged to a party who are detained by sickness--they are cheap, pleasant, and comfortable. A salon and four bed-rooms. I engaged them all, thinking that Teblinski might like a room there till he finds lodgings at Montreaux. We can enter at once, and I am sure the ladies will approve of the picturesque place."
"Well done, Hoffman; off we go without delay, for I really long to rest my old bones in something like a home, after this long trip," said the major, who always kept his little troop in light marching order.
The sail across that loveliest of lakes prepared the new-comers to be charmed with all they saw; and when, entering by the old stone gate, they were led into a large saloon, quaintly furnished and opening into a terrace-garden overhanging the water, with Chillon and the Alps in sight, Amy declared nothing could be more perfect, and Helen's face proved her satisfaction.
An English widow and two quiet old German professors on a vacation were the only inmates besides themselves and the buxom Swiss housekeeper and her maids.
It was late when our party arrived, and there was only time for a hasty survey of their rooms and a stroll in the garden before dinner.
The great chamber, with its shadowy bed, dark mirrors, ghostly wainscot-doors and narrow windows, had not been brightened for a long time by such a charming little apparition as Amy when she shook out her airy muslins, smoothed her curls, and assumed all manner of distracting devices for the captivation of mankind. Even Helen, though not much given to personal vanity, found herself putting flowers in her hair, and studying the effect of bracelets on her handsome arms, as if there was some especial need of looking her best on this occasion.
Both were certainly great ornaments to the drawing-room that evening, as the old professors agreed while they sat blinking at them, like a pair of benign owls. Casimer surprised them by his skill in music, for, though forbidden to sing on account of his weak lungs, he played as if inspired. Amy hovered about him like a moth; the major cultivated the acquaintance of the plump widow; and Helen stood at the window, enjoying the lovely night and music, till something happened which destroyed her pleasure in both.
The window was open, and, leaning from it, she was watching the lake, when the sound of a heavy sigh caught her ear. There was no moon, but through the starlight she saw a man's figure among the shrubs below, sitting with bent head and hidden face in the forlorn attitude of one shut out from the music, light, and gayety that reigned within.
"It is Karl," she thought, and was about to speak, when, as if startled by some sound she did not hear, he rose and vanished in the gloom of the garden.
"Poor man! he thought of his wife and child, perhaps, sitting here alone while all the rest make merry, with no care for him. Uncle must see to this;" and Helen fell into a reverie till Amy came to propose retiring.
"I meant to have seen where all these doors led, but was so busy dressing I had no time, so must leave it for my amusement to-morrow. Uncle says it's a very Radcliffian place. How like an angel that man did play!" chattered Amy, and lulled herself to sleep by humming the last air Casimer had given them.
Helen could not sleep, for the lonely figure in the garden haunted her, and she wearied herself with conjectures about Hoffman and his mystery. Hour after hour rung from the cuckoo-clock in the hall, but still she lay awake, watching the curious shadows in the room, and exciting herself with recalling the tales of German goblins with which the courier had amused them the day before.
"It is close and musty here, with all this old tapestry and stuff about; I'll open the other window," she thought; and, noiselessly slipping from Amy's side, she threw on wrapper and slippers, lighted her candle and tried to unbolt the tall, diamond-paned lattice. It was rusty and would not yield, and, giving it up, she glanced about to see whence air could be admitted. There were four doors in the room, all low and arched, with clumsy locks and heavy handles. One opened into a closet, one into the passage; the third was locked, but the fourth opened easily, and, lifting her light, she peeped into a small octagon room, full of all manner of curiosities. What they were she had no time to see, for her startled eyes were riveted on an object that turned her faint and cold with terror.
A heavy table stood in the middle of the room, and seated at it, with some kind of weapon before him, was a man who looked over his shoulder, with a ghastly face half hidden by hair and beard, and fierce black eyes as full of malignant menace as was the clinched hand holding the pistol. One instant Helen looked, the next flung to the door, bolted it and dropped into a chair, trembling in every limb. The noise did not wake Amy, and a moment's thought showed Helen the wisdom of keeping her in ignorance of this affair. She knew the major was close by, and possessing much courage, she resolved to wait a little before rousing the house.
Hardly had she collected herself, when steps were heard moving softly in the octagon room. Her light had gone out as she closed the door, and sitting close by in the dark, she heard the sound of some one breathing as he listened at the key-hole. Then a careful hand tried the door, so noiselessly that no sleeper would have been awakened; and as if to guard against a second surprise, the unknown person drew two bolts across the door and stole away.
"Safe for a time; but I'll not pass another night under this roof, unless this is satisfactorily cleared up," thought Helen, now feeling more angry than frightened.
The last hour that struck was three, and soon the summer dawn reddened the sky. Dressing herself, Helen sat by Amy, a sleepless guard, till she woke, smiling and rosy as a child. Saying nothing of her last night's alarm, Helen went down to breakfast a little paler than usual, but otherwise unchanged. The major never liked to be disturbed till he had broken his fast, and the moment they rose from the table he exclaimed,--
"Now, girls, come and see the mysteries of Udolpho."
"I'll say nothing, yet," thought Helen, feeling braver by daylight, yet troubled by her secret, for Hoffman might be a traitor, and this charming chateau a den of thieves. Such things had been, and she was in a mood to believe anything.
The upper story was a perfect museum of antique relics, very entertaining to examine. Having finished these, Hoffman, who acted as guide, led them into a little gloomy room containing a straw pallet, a stone table with a loaf and pitcher on it, and, kneeling before a crucifix, where the light from a single slit in the wall fell on him, was the figure of a monk. The waxen mask was life-like, the attitude effective, and the cell excellently arranged. Amy cried out when she first saw it, but a second glance reassured her, and she patted the bald head approvingly, as Karl explained.--
"Count Severin is an antiquarian, and amuses himself with things of this sort. In old times there really was a hermit here, and this is his effigy. Come down these narrow stairs, if you please, and see the rest of the mummery."
Down they went, and the instant Helen looked about her, she burst into a hysterical laugh, for there sat her ruffian, exactly as she saw him, glaring over his shoulder with threatening eyes, and one hand on the pistol. They all looked at her, for she was pale, and her merriment unnatural; so, feeling she had excited curiosity, she gratified it by narrating her night's adventure. Hoffman looked much concerned.
"Pardon, mademoiselle, the door should have been bolted on this side. It usually is, but that room being unused, it was forgotten. I remembered it, and having risen early, crept up to make sure that you did not come upon this ugly thing unexpectedly. But I was too late, it seems; you have suffered, to my sorrow."
"Dear Nell, and that was why I found you so pale and cold and quiet, sitting by me when I woke, guarding me faithfully as you promised you would. How brave and kind you were!"
"Villain! I should much like to fire your own pistols at you for this prank of yours."
And Casimer laughingly filliped the image on its absurdly aquiline nose.
"What in the name of common sense is this goblin here for?" demanded the major, testily.
"There is a legend that once the owner of the chateau amused himself by decoying travellers here, putting them to sleep in that room, and by various devices alluring them thither. Here, one step beyond the threshold of the door, was a trap, down which the unfortunates were precipitated to the dungeon at the bottom of the tower, there to die and be cast into the lake through a water-gate, still to be seen. Severin keeps this flattering likeness of the rascal, as he does the monk above, to amuse visitors by daylight, not at night, mademoiselle."
And Hoffman looked wrathfully at the image, as if he would much enjoy sending it down the trap.
"How ridiculous! I shall not go about this place alone, for fear of lighting upon some horror of this sort. I've had enough; come away into the garden; it's full of roses, and we may have as many as we like."
As she spoke Amy involuntarily put out her hand for Casimer to lead her down the steep stone steps, and he pressed the little hand with a tender look which caused it to be hastily withdrawn.
"Here are your roses. Pretty flower; I know its meaning in English, for it is the same with us. To give a bud to a lady is to confess the beginning of love, a half open one tells of its growth, and a full-blown one is to declare one's passion. Do you have that custom in your land, mademoiselle?"
He had gathered the three as he spoke, and held the bud separately while looking at his companion wistfully.
"No, we are not poetical, like your people, but it is a pretty fancy," and Amy settled her bouquet with an absorbed expression, though inwardly wondering what he would do with his flowers.
He stood silent a moment, with a sudden flush sweeping across his face, then flung all three into the lake with a gesture that made the girl start, and muttered between his teeth:
"No, no; for me it is too late."
She affected not to hear, but making up a second bouquet, she gave it to him, with no touch of coquetry in compassionate eyes or gentle voice.
"Make your room bright with these. When one is ill nothing is so cheering as the sight of flowers."
Meantime the others had descended and gone their separate ways.
As Karl crossed the courtyard a little child ran to meet him with outstretched arms and a shout of satisfaction. He caught it up and carried it away on his shoulder, like one used to caress and be caressed by children.
Helen, waiting at the door of the tower while the major dusted his coat, saw this, and said, suddenly, directing his attention to man and child,--
"He seems fond of little people. I wonder if he has any of his own."
"Hoffman? No, my dear; he's not married; I asked him that when I engaged him."
"And he said he was not?"
"Yes; he's not more than five or six-and-twenty, and fond of a wandering life, so what should he want of a wife and a flock of bantlings?"
"He seems sad and sober sometimes, and I fancied he might have some domestic trouble to harass him. Don't you think there is something peculiar about him?" asked Helen, remembering Hoffman's hint that her uncle knew his wish to travel incognito, and wondering if he would throw any light upon the matter. But the major's face was impenetrable and his answer unsatisfactory.
"Well, I don't know. Every one has some worry or other, and as for being peculiar, all foreigners seem more or less so to us, they are so unreserved and demonstrative. I like Hoffman more and more every day, and shall be sorry when I part with him."
"Ludmilla is his sister, then, or he didn't tell uncle the truth. It is no concern of mine; but I wish I knew," thought Helen anxiously, and then wondered why she should care.
A feeling of distrust had taken possession of her and she determined to be on the watch, for the unsuspicious major would be easily duped, and Helen trusted more to her own quick and keen eye than to his experience. She tried to show nothing of the change in her manner: but Hoffman perceived it, and bore it with a proud patience which often touched her heart, but never altered her purpose.