ALL at once came to his ear through the night a strange something. Whence or what it was he could not even conjecture. Was it a moan of the river from below? Was it a lost music-tone that had wandered from afar and grown faint? Was it one of those mysterious sounds he had read of as born in the air itself, and not yet explained of science? Was it the fluttered skirt of some angelic song of lamentation? -- for if the angels rejoice, they surely must lament! Or was it a stilled human moaning? Was any wrong being done far down in the white-gleaming meadows below, by the banks of the river whose platinum-glimmer he could descry through the molten amethystine darkness of the starry night?
Presently came a long-drawn musical moan: it must be the sound of some muffled instrument! Verily night was the time for strange things! Could sounds be begotten in the fir trees by the rays of the hot sun, and born in the stillness of the following dark, as the light which the diamond receives in the day glows out in the gloom? There are parents and their progeny that never exist together!
Again the sound -- hardly to be called sound! It resembled a vibration of organ-pipe too slow and deep to affect the hearing; only this rather seemed too high, as if only his soul heard it. He would steal softly down the dumb stone-stair! Some creature might be in trouble and needing help!
He crept back along the bartizan. The stair was dark as the very heart of the night. He groped his way down. The spiral stair is the safest of all: you cannot tumble far ere brought up by the inclosing cylinder. Arrived at the bottom, and feeling about, he could not find the door to the outer air which the butler had shown him; it was wall wherever his hands fell. He could not find again the stair he had left; he could not tell in what direction it lay.
He had got into a long windowless passage connecting two wings of the house, and in this he was feeling his way, fearful of falling down some stair or trap. He came at last to a door -- low-browed like almost all in the house. Opening it -- was it a thinner darkness or the faintest gleam of light he saw? And was that again the sound he had followed, fainter and farther off than before -- a downy wind-wafted plume from the skirt of some stray harmony? At such a time of the night surely it was strange! It must come from one who could not sleep, and was solacing himself with sweet sounds, breathing a soul into the uncompanionable silence! If so it was, he had no right to search farther! But how was he to return? He dared hardly move, lest he should be found wandering over the house in the dead of night like a thief, or one searching after its secrets. He must sit down and wait for the morning: its earliest light would perhaps enable him to find his way to his quarters!
Feeling about him a little, his foot struck against the step of a stair. Examining it with his hands, he believed it the same he had ascended in the morning: even in a great castle, could there be two such royal stairs? He sat down upon it, and leaning his head on his hands, composed himself to a patient waiting for the light.
Waiting pure is perhaps the hardest thing for flesh and blood to do well. The relations of time to mind are very strange. Some of their phenomena seem to prove that time is only of the mind -- belonging to the intellect as good and evil belong to the spirit. Anyhow, if it were not for the clocks of the universe, one man would live a year, a century, where another would live but a day. But the mere motion of time, not to say the consciousness of empty time, is fearful. It is this empty time that the fool is always trying to kill: his effort should be to fill it. Yet nothing but the living God can fill it -- though it be but the shape our existence takes to us. Only where he is, emptiness is not. Eternity will be but an intense present to the child with whom is the Father.
Such thoughts alighted, flitted, and passed, for the first few moments, through the mind of Donal, as he sat half consciously waiting for the dawn. It was thousands of miles away, over the great round of the sunward-turning earth! His imagination woke, and began to picture the great hunt of the shadows, fleeing before the arrows of the sun, over the broad face of the mighty world -- its mountains, seas, and plains in turn confessing the light, and submitting to him who slays for them the haunting demons of their dark. Then again the moments were the small cogs on the wheels of time, whereby the dark castle in which he sat was rushing ever towards the light: the cogs were caught and the wheels turned swiftly, and the time and the darkness sped. He forgot the labour of waiting. If now and then he fancied a tone through the darkness, it was to his mind the music-march of the morning to his rescue from the dungeon of the night.
But that was no musical tone which made the darkness shudder around him! He sprang to his feet. It was a human groan -- a groan as of one in dire pain, the pain of a soul's agony. It seemed to have descended the stair to him. The next instant Donal was feeling his way up -- cautiously, as if on each succeeding step he might come against the man who had groaned. Tales of haunted houses rushed into his memory. What if he were but pursuing the groan of an actor in the past -- a creature the slave of his own conscious memory -- a mere haunter of the present which he could not influence -- one without physical relation to the embodied, save in the groans he could yet utter! But it was more in awe than in fear that he went. Up and up he felt his way, all about him as still as darkness and the night could make it. A ghostly cold crept through his skin; it was drawn together as by a gently freezing process; and there was a pulling at the muscles of his chest, as if his mouth were being dragged open by a martingale.
As he felt his way along the wall, sweeping its great endless circle round and round in spiral ascent, all at once his hand seemed to go through it; he started and stopped. It was the door of the room into which he had been shown to meet the earl! It stood wide open. A faint glimmer came through the window from the star-filled sky. He stepped just within the doorway. Was not that another glimmer on the floor -- from the back of the room -- through a door he did not remember having seen yesterday? There again was the groan, and nigh at hand! Someone must be in sore need! He approached the door and looked through. A lamp, nearly spent, hung from the ceiling of a small room which might be an office or study, or a place where papers were kept. It had the look of an antechamber, but that it could not be, for there was but the one door! -- In the dim light he descried a vague form leaning up against one of the walls, as if listening to something through it! As he gazed it grew plainer to him, and he saw a face, its eyes staring wide, which yet seemed not to see him. It was the face of the earl. Donal felt as if in the presence of the disembodied; he stood fascinated, nor made attempt to retire or conceal himself. The figure turned its face to the wall, put the palms of its hands against it, and moved them up and down, and this way and that; then looked at them, and began to rub them against each other.
Donal came to himself. He concluded it was a case of sleepwalking. He had read that it was dangerous to wake the sleeper, but that he seldom came to mischief when left alone, and was about to slip away as he had come, when the faint sound of a far-off chord crept through the silence. The earl again laid his ear to the wall. But there was only silence. He went through the same dumb show as before, then turned as if to leave the place. Donal turned also, and hurriedly felt his way to the stair. Then first he was in danger of terror; for in stealing through the darkness from one who could find his way without his eyes, he seemed pursued by a creature not of this world. On the stair he went down a step or two, then lingered, and heard the earl come on it also. He crept close to the newel, leaving the great width of the stair free, but the steps of the earl went upward. Donal descended, sat down again at the bottom of the stair, and began again to wait. No sound came to him through the rest of the night. The slow hours rolled away, and the slow light drew nearer. Now and then he was on the point of falling into a doze, but would suddenly start wide awake, listening through a silence that seemed to fill the whole universe and deepen around the castle.
At length he was aware that the darkness had, unobserved of him, grown weaker -- that the approach of the light was sickening it: the dayspring was about to take hold of the ends of the earth that the wicked might be shaken out of its lap. He sought the long passage by which he had come, and felt his way to the other end: it would be safer to wait there if he could get no farther. But somehow he came to the foot of his own stair, and sped up as if it were the ladder of heaven. He threw himself on his bed, fell fast asleep, and did not wake till the sun was high.