Chapter 5 How Four of Us Came to Be Under the Shadow of Cloomber
I trust that my readers will not set me down as an inquisitive busybody when _ay that as the days and weeks went by I found my attention and my thought_ore and more attracted to General Heatherstone and the mystery whic_urrounded him.
It was in vain that I endeavoured by hard work and a strict attention to th_aird's affairs to direct my mind into some more healthy channel. Do what _ould, on land or on the water, I would still find myself puzzling over thi_ne question, until it obtained such a hold upon me that I felt it was useles_or me to attempt to apply myself to anything until I had come to som_atisfactory solution of it.
I could never pass the dark line of five-foot fencing, and the great iro_ate, with its massive lock, without pausing and racking my brain as to wha_he secret might be which was shut in by that inscrutable barrier. Yet, wit_ll my conjectures and all my observations, I could never come to an_onclusion which could for a moment be accepted as an explanation of th_acts.
My sister had been out for a stroll one night, visiting a sick peasant o_erforming some other of the numerous acts of charity by which she had mad_erself beloved by the whole countryside.
"John," she said when she returned, "have you seen Cloomber Hall at night?"
"No," I answered, laying down the book which I was reading. "Not since tha_emorable evening when the general and Mr. McNeil came over to make a_nspection."
"Well, John, will you put your hat on and come a little walk with me?"
I could see by her manner that something had agitated or frightened her.
"Why, bless the girl!" cried I boisterously, "what is the matter? The old Hal_s not on fire, surely? You look as grave as if all Wigtown were in a blaze."
"Not quite so bad as that," she said, smiling. "But do come out, Jack. _hould very much like you to see it."
I had always refrained from saying anything which might alarm my sister, s_hat she knew nothing of the interest which our neighbours' doings had for me.
At her request I took my hat and followed her out into the darkness. She le_he way along a little footpath over the moor, which brought us to some risin_round, from which we could look down upon the Hall without our view bein_bstructed by any of the fir-trees which had been planted round it.
"Look at that!" said my sister, pausing at the summit of this little eminence.
Cloomber lay beneath us in a blaze of light. In the lower floors the shutter_bscured the illumination, but above, from the broad windows of the secon_torey to the thin slits at the summit of the tower, there was not a chink o_n aperture which did not send forth a stream of radiance. So dazzling was th_ffect that for a moment I was persuaded that the house was on fire, but th_teadiness and clearness of the light soon freed me from that apprehension. I_as clearly the result of many lamps placed systematically all over th_uilding.
It added to the strange effect that all these brilliantly illuminated room_ere apparently untenanted, and some of them, so far as we could judge, wer_ot even furnished. Through the whole great house there was no sign o_ovement or of life—nothing but the clear, unwinking flood of yellow light.
I was still lost in wonder at the sight when I heard a short, quick sob at m_ide.
"What is it, Esther, dear?" I asked, looking down at my companion.
"I feel so frightened. Oh, John, John, take me home, I feel so frightened!"
She clung to my arm, and pulled at my coat in a perfect frenzy of fear.
"It's all safe, darling," I said soothingly. "There is nothing to fear. Wha_as upset you so?"
"I am afraid of them, John; I am afraid of the Heatherstones. Why is thei_ouse lit up like this every night? I have heard from others that it is alway_o. And why does the old man run like a frightened hare if any one comes upo_im. There is something wrong about it, John, and it frightens me."
I pacified her as well as I could, and led her home with me, where I took car_hat she should have some hot port negus before going to bed. I avoided th_ubject of the Heatherstones for fear of exciting her, and she did not recu_o it of her own accord. I was convinced, however, from what I had heard fro_er, that she had for some time back been making her own observations upon ou_eighbours, and that in doing so she had put a considerable strain upon he_erves.
I could see that the mere fact of the Hall being illuminated at night was no_nough to account for her extreme agitation, and that it must have derived it_mportance in her eyes from being one in a chain of incidents, all of whic_ad left a weird or unpleasant impression upon her mind.
That was the conclusion which I came to at the time, and I have reason to kno_ow that I was right, and that my sister had even more cause than I had mysel_or believing that there was something uncanny about the tenants of Cloomber.
Our interest in the matter may have arisen at first from nothing higher tha_uriosity, but events soon look a turn which associated us more closely wit_he fortunes of the Heatherstone family.
Mordaunt had taken advantage of my invitation to come down to the laird'_ouse, and on several occasions he brought with him his beautiful sister. Th_our of us would wander over the moors together, or perhaps if the day wer_ine set sail upon our little skiff and stand off into the Irish Sea.
On such excursions the brother and sister would be as merry and as happy a_wo children. It was a keen pleasure to them to escape from their dul_ortress, and to see, if only for a few hours, friendly and sympathetic face_ound them.
There could be but one result when four young people were brought together i_weet, forbidden intercourse. Acquaintance-ship warmed into friendship, an_riendship flamed suddenly into love.
Gabriel sits beside me now as I write, and she agrees with me that, dear as i_he subject to ourselves, the whole story of our mutual affection is of to_ersonal a nature to be more than touched upon in this statement. Suffice i_o say that, within a few weeks of our first meeting Mordaunt Heatherstone ha_on the heart of my clear sister, and Gabriel had given me that pledge whic_eath itself will not be able to break.
I have alluded in this brief way to the double tie which sprang up between th_wo families, because I have no wish that this narrative should degenerat_nto anything approaching to romance, or that I should lose the thread of th_acts which I have set myself to chronicle. These are connected with Genera_eatherstone, and only indirectly with my own personal history.
It is enough if I say that after our engagement the visits to Branksome becam_ore frequent, and that our friends were able sometimes to spend a whole da_ith us when business had called the general to Wigtown, or when his gou_onfined him to his room.
As to our good father, he was ever ready to greet us with many small jests an_ags of Oriental poems appropriate to the occasion, for we had no secrets fro_im, and he already looked upon us all as his children.
There were times when on account of some peculiarly dark or restless fit o_he general's it was impossible for weeks on end for either Gabriel o_ordaunt to get away from the grounds. The old man would even stand on guard, a gloomy and silent sentinel, at the avenue gate, or pace up and down th_rive as though he suspected that attempts had been made to penetrate hi_eclusion.
Passing of an evening I have seen his dark, grim figure flitting about in th_hadow of the trees, or caught a glimpse of his hard, angular, swarthy fac_eering out suspiciously at me from behind the bars.
My heart would often sadden for him as I noticed his uncouth, nervou_ovements, his furtive glances and twitching features. Who would have believe_hat this slinking, cowering creature had once been a dashing officer, who ha_ought the battles of his country and had won the palm of bravery among th_ost of brave men around him?
In spite of the old soldier's vigilance, we managed to hold communication wit_ur friends.
Immediately behind the Hall there was a spot where the fencing had been s_arelessly erected that two of the rails could be removed without difficulty, leaving a broad gap, which gave us the opportunity for many a stole_nterview, though they were necessarily short, for the general's movement_ere erratic, and no part of the grounds was secure from his visitations.
How vividly one of these hurried meetings rises before me! It stands ou_lear, peaceful, and distinct amid the wild, mysterious incidents which wer_estined to lead up to the terrible catastrophe which has cast a shade ove_ur lives.
I can remember that as I walked through the fields the grass was damp with th_ain of the morning, and the air was heavy with the smell of the fresh-turne_arth. Gabriel was waiting for me under the hawthorn tree outside the gap, an_e stood hand-in-hand looking down at the long sweep of moorland and at th_road blue channel which encircled it with its fringe of foam.
Far away in the north-west the sun glinted upon the high peak of Moun_hroston. From where we stood we could see the smoke of the steamers as the_loughed along the busy water-way which leads to Belfast.
"Is it not magnificent?" Gabriel cried, clasping her hands round my arm. "Ah, John, why are we not free to sail away over these waves together, and leav_ll our troubles behind us on the shore?"
"And what are the troubles which you would leave behind you, dear one?" _sked. "May I not know them, and help you to bear them?"
"I have no secrets from you, John," she answered, "Our chief trouble is, a_ou may guess, our poor father's strange behaviour. Is it not a sad thing fo_ll of us that a man who has played such a distinguished part in the worl_hould skulk from one obscure corner of the country to another, and shoul_efend himself with locks and barriers as though he were a common thief flyin_rom justice? This is a trouble, John, which it is out of your power t_lleviate."
"But why does he do it, Gabriel?" I asked.
"I cannot tell," she answered frankly. "I only know that he imagines som_eadly danger to be hanging over his head, and that this danger was incurre_y him during his stay in India. What its nature may be I have no more ide_han you have."
"Then your brother has," I remarked. "I am sure from the way in which he spok_o me about it one day that he knows what it is, and that he looks upon it a_eal."
"Yes, he knows, and so does my mother," she answered, "but they have alway_ept it secret from me. My poor father is very excited at present. Day an_ight he is in an agony of apprehension, but it will soon be the fifth o_ctober, and after that he will be at peace."
"How do you know that?" I asked in surprise.
"By experience," she answered gravely. "On the fifth of October these fears o_is come to a crisis. For years back he has been in the habit of lockin_ordaunt and myself up in our rooms on that date, so that we have no idea wha_ccurs, but we have always found that he has been much relieved afterwards, and has continued to be comparatively in peace until that day begins to dra_ound again."
"Then you have only ten days or so to wait," I remarked, for September wa_rawing to a close. "By the way, dearest, why is it that you light up all you_ooms at night?"
"You have noticed it, then?" she said. "It comes also from my father's fears.
He does not like to have one dark corner in the whole house. He walks about _ood deal at night, and inspects everything, from the attics right down to th_ellars. He has large lamps in every room and corridor, even the empty ones, and he orders the servants to light them all at dusk."
"I am rather surprised that you manage to keep your servants," I said, laughing. "The maids in these parts are a superstitious class, and thei_maginations are easily excited by anything which they don't understand."
"The cook and both housemaids are from London, and are used to our ways. W_ay them on a very high scale to make up for any inconvenience to which the_ay be put. Israel Stakes, the coachman, is the only one who comes from thi_art of the country, and he seems to be a stolid, honest fellow, who is no_asily scared."
"Poor little girl," I exclaimed, looking down at the slim, graceful
figure by my side. "This is no atmosphere for you to live in. Why will you no_et me rescue you from it? Why won't you allow me to go straight and ask th_eneral for your hand? At the worst he could only refuse."
She turned quite haggard and pale at the very thought.
"For Heaven's sake, John," she cried earnestly, "do nothing of the kind. H_ould whip us all away in the dead of the night, and within a week we shoul_e settling down again in some wilderness where we might never have a chanc_f seeing or hearing from you again. Besides, he never would forgive us fo_enturing out of the grounds."
"I don't think that he is a hard-hearted man," I remarked. "I have seen _indly look in his eyes, for all his stern face."
"He can be the kindest of fathers," she answered. "But he is terrible whe_pposed or thwarted. You have never seen him so, and I trust you never will.
It was that strength of will and impatience of opposition which made him suc_ splendid officer. I assure you that in India every one thought a great dea_f him. The soldiers were afraid of him, but they would have followed hi_nywhere."
"And had he these nervous attacks then?"
"Occasionally, but not nearly so acutely. He seems to think that th_anger—whatever it may be—becomes more imminent every year. Oh, John, it i_errible to be waiting like this with a sword over our heads—and all the mor_errible to me since I have no idea where the blow is to come from."
"Dear Gabriel," I said, taking her hand and drawing her to my side, "look ove_ll this pleasant countryside and the broad blue sea. Is it not all peacefu_nd beautiful? In these cottages, with their red-tiled roofs peeping out fro_he grey moor, there live none but simple, God-fearing men, who toil hard a_heir crafts and bear enmity to no man. Within seven miles of us is a larg_own, with every civilised appliance for the preservation of order. Ten mile_arther there is a garrison quartered, and a telegram would at any time brin_own a company of soldiers. Now, I ask you, dear, in the name of common-sense, what conceivable danger could threaten you in this secluded neighbourhood, with the means of help so near? You assure me that the peril is not connecte_ith your father's health?"
"No, I am sure of that. It is true that Dr. Easterling, of Stranraer. has bee_ver to see him once or twice, but that was merely for some smal_ndisposition. I can assure you that the danger is not to be looked for i_hat direction."
"Then I can assure you," said I, laughing, "that there is no danger at all. I_ust be some strange monomania or hallucination. No other hypothesis wil_over the facts."
"Would my father's monomania account for the fact of my brother's hair turnin_rey and my mother wasting away to a mere shadow?"
"Undoubtedly," I answered, "The long continued worry of the general'_estlessness and irritability would produce those effects on sensitiv_atures."
"No, no!" said she, shaking her head sadly, "I have been exposed to hi_estlessness and irritability, but they have had no such effect upon me. Th_ifference between us lies in the fact that they know this awful secret and _o not."
"My dear girl," said I, "the days of family apparitions and that kind of thin_re gone. Nobody is haunted nowadays, so we can put that supposition out o_he question. Having done so, what remains? There is absolutely no othe_heory which could even be suggested. Believe me, the whole mystery is tha_he heat of India has been too much for your poor father's brain."
What she would have answered I cannot tell, for at that moment she gave _tart as if some sound had fallen upon her ear. As she looked roun_pprehensively, I suddenly saw her features become rigid and her eyes fixe_nd dilated.
Following the direction of her gaze, I felt a sudden thrill of fear pas_hrough me as I perceived a human face surveying us from behind one of th_rees—a man's face, every feature of which was distorted by the most malignan_atred and anger. Finding himself observed, he stepped out and advance_owards us, when I saw that it was none other than the general himself. Hi_eard was all a-bristle with fury, and his deepset eyes glowed from unde_heir heavily veined lids with a most sinister and demoniacal brightness.