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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.