[from Hall Caine Drink]
The only decision the morning brought me was that I should write to Mrs. Hill, asking permission to call. This I did, with many expressions of solicitude and no concealment of the disquietude caused by the clergyman's summary message. I proposed to go up to Clousedale Hall in the course of the afternoon, but asked for an answer in the meantime encouraging me to do so.
It was. Christmas morning, and the bells were ringing for service. I went to church. The pew under the pulpit was empty-it was Lucy's pew. They had decorated it with ivy and holly and some sprigs of flowering gorse. There was a large congregation, chiefly of miners and their children. The minister was the Rev. McPherson, my visitor of the night before. Between the second lesson and the sermon he asked for the prayers of all present for their dear friend and donor, the patroness of their church, who at that hour of rejoicing lay sick at home. Many heads were bowed instantly-there could be no question of the response.
As I was coming out at the close, somebody touched me on the arm. It was an elderly man of a cheerful face, and with small, twinkling eyes behind large spectacles. He told me his name was Youdale, and he was the manager of the Clousedale mines. There was to be the usual Christmas dinner for poor children given by Miss Clousedale at the church schools-would I care to be present ? We went along together. The school-House was thronged with the little mites, all very untidy, very dirty very odorous, very noisy, but very happy, in spite of their condition. Grace was sung, and then numbers of steaming hot-pots were brought in.
The youngsters were stretching themselves with repletion before the dishes had been emptied. Thanks were offered, and then my friend of the spectacles got up on two forms to deliver an address. He began by regretting the absence of their beloved benefactress, who, out of the kindness of her heart, had provided this Christmas meal for the children, but by reason of illness could not partake of the good things herself. Let them pray that God would be gracious to her and bring her safely out of the valley of the shadow, to be a guide and a blessing to all who loved and revered her. young school-mistress sat down at a harmonium, and then the little folks shambled up and sang " Safe in the Arms of .Jesus." It was more than I could bear, and I stole out unobserved.
That evening I had a terrible shock. All the afternoon I had waited in pain for the reply to my letter addressed to the nurse. It did not come, but towards nightfall there came a letter from Lucy herself. It was penned in the same irregular hand which had struck me so painfully in the two letters received in London, and it was written in the same jerky and inconsequent sentences. I cannot attempt to transcribe it. Every syllable burnt itself into my brain with a finger of fire, but I will not dare to set it down. It begged, it prayed, it supplicated me not to come to the house. It craved my indulgence, my forgiveness, my everlasting forgetfulness of one who was unworthy of my love and devotion. She was ill, ,very ill, but she was also worse than ill. I must let her escape from our engagement. It had been the Joy and the charm of her life, but now it was the terror and torment of her existence. She must break it ; I must go back to London; we must never think of each other again. God forgive her and pity her! God be good to ine and keep ine and preserve me !
Such a letter could have but one effect. I snatched up my hat and turned my face towards Clousedale Hall. While going through the village I walked briskly, but on reaching the lanes I set of to run. Upon reaching the group of cottages that stood near to the gate of the house I was bathed in perspiration and my heart was beating audibly. Not to.defeat my purpose with such violence of zeal, I turned in at the "Clousedale Arms " and called for a glass of brandy. It was one of those old- fashioned public-houses which have the counter partitioned into compartments like the boxes of a pawnbroker's shop. In one of these compartments I stood and cooled myself and sipped my brandy, while I tried to collect my thoughts and determine what I was to do. There was a woman in the compartment next to me, and the landlady was leaning across and talking to her in whispers.
" I'm sorry Maggie's lossin' her place," said one of the two.
"She knows far owes much," said the other. "Only yesterday the mistress gave her half a sovereign to steal out and fetch her a bottle of something, and when she went back never asked her for a penny of change."
" Was it the doctor that gave Maggie her notice, then?"
" Like it was, but they have telt me no particulars."
The approach to Clousedale Hall was by a curving path bordered by trees, which, though leafless, made the way dark and gave out gruesome noises in a wind that was then rising. I found the door with difficulty, for there was no lamp burning at the porch, and I had nothing to guide me save the dim light that carrie from behind the blinds of the windows of the upper storey. It was not easy to get attention, and when after a long delay a little elderly manservant with a candle appeared in answer to my loud knocking, he held the door narrowly ajar while he told me that his mistress was very ill, and the housekeeper unable to leave her. I was not to be put off with such excuses, and brushing by the old man into the hall, I told him to take my name instantly to Mrs. Hill and request her to see me immediately. This, however, was not needful, for while I was speaking Mrs. Hill herself came hurriedly downstairs, as if she had been listening from the landing above, and was answering my emphatic summons.
I found her strangely agitated and painfully changed. Instead of the gracious, elderly lady in the unfashionable black silk, with soft manners and gentle speech-the companion of my dear one in London-I saw before me a nervous and hysterical old woman in a plaid dress. She took the candle from the manservant and asked me into a room without a fire. Then, closing the door and speaking in whispers, she delivered herself of many apologies and excuses, saying it was a grief to her to be so inhospitable, and that this was a cause of unhappi- ness to Lucy also. When I asked if I might see my darling, she appeared to be thrown into a state of extreme perturbation, declaring that it would be impossible, and that the doctor had forbidden all visits whatever except those of the clergyman. And when I inquired if she knew the nature of the letter which Lucy had sent me, her agitation in- creased, and she protested that, though it was written without her knowledge, she was afraid that what it suggested might be for the best.
" Is it true, then? " I said. " Am I to understand that Lucy's illness is beyond hope of recovery?" I had asked the question contemptuously, andI expected a prompt negative. It irritated me that the reply was faltering and uncertain.
" I cannot say-I'm not sure-the doctor would know best."
My patience was gone, and my answer was without ceremony.
Then, by ! the doctor shall tell me, if I have to ring it out of the man's throat. This mummery of a mystery is too much for me, and I shall stand no more of it!"
With that I flung out of the house and pulled the door after me. It had got into my head that Lucy was the victim of a conspiracy, and that the two men, the doctor and the clergyman, were at the bottom of everything. With heart and brain aflame I went tramping down the curving path. In my mind's eye I was seeing my dear girl as if by flashes of lightning, first with her beautiful bright eyes full of youth and health and happiness and love, and next in the toils of some hideous trouble.
I was awakened from my visions by a sudden apparition. It was that of a woman coming out of the " Clousedale Arms" as I passed by. Her figure was young; she wore a little dark shawl over her head; her appearance was untidy and neglected. She came out of the public-house by stealth, made a quick pause as I approached, and then half turned, as if thinking to go back. At that moment by the light of the window I saw her face: It was a horrible shock. The face bore an ugly resemblance to the face of Lucy. When I looked again the woman was gone.
I recovered myself and called after her. Her footsteps were going off in the darkness.
" Wait! " I cried, and I swung round to follow. I saw the woman turn in at the gate of Clousedale Hall.
"Wait!" I cried again, and I hastened my steps. When I reached the avenue the footsteps had ceased and the dark figure had disappeared. There was no noise but the creaking of the bare boughs overhead.
I returned to the house, and with both fists thumped heavily on the door. It was opened this time by Mrs. Hill herself. She looked like a woman distracted.
"Mrs. Hill," I said, " I am sorry to be rude, but I demand to see Miss Clousedale-I must see her instantly!
She burst out crying, and I stepped into the house. Then I observed that the whole place was in disorder. The servants, with candles in their bands, were running up and down stairs, and in and out of rooms on the ground floor.
"Where shall I find her?
At that the poor old soul made a clean, breast of it. Lucy had gone out of the house. They had been keeping her a prisoner, and watching her constantly, but she had escaped. Snatching the opportunity of Mrs. Hill's absence at the moment of my call, Lucy had slipped away, and nobody knew what had become of her.
"Good Lord Almighty!" I thought, and a terrible fear took hold of me.
I was outside again in a moment, running to- wards the gate. I thought I heard something passing me in the darkness. I stopped and stretched my arms towards the sound, but there was nothing there. Then I heard a rustle as of a woman's dress along the grass, dying off in the direction of the house. At the next moment I saw distinctly a female figure moving across the windows, where flickering lights were coming and going.
I ran after her and overtook her. She was throwing up the sash of a bay window and creeping through, when I caught her tightly in my arms.
"Who are you?" I cried, and she gave a smothered cry of " Let me go " let me go !"
"Not till I know who you are." "Let me go!"
"Who are you?"
Our voices had drawn the servants, and they ca me running into the room with their candles. Then I saw the face of the woman whom I held in my arms.
It was Lucy - Lucy, my love, my dear one, my wife that was to be - Lucy Clousedale, the beloved of everybody, the saintly soul, the generous heart, the sweet and beautiful flower of girlhood just budding into womanhood-and she was a poor, wretched dipsomaniac under the terrors of a curse.