OPPOSITE Morven House was a building which had at one time been the stables to it, but was now part of a brewery; a high wall shut it off from the street; it was dinner-time with the humbler people of the town, and there was not a soul visible, when Donal put the key in the lock of the front door, opened it, and went in: he had timed his entrance so, desiring to avoid idle curiosity, and bring no gathering feet about the house. Almost on tiptoe he entered the lofty hall, high above the first story. The dust lay thick on a large marble table -- but what was that? -- a streak across it, brushed sharply through the middle of the dust! It was strange! But he would not wait to speculate on the agent! The room to which the earl had directed him was on the first floor, and he ascended to it at once -- by the great oak staircase which went up the sides of the hall.
The house had not been dismantled, although things had at different times been taken from it, and when Donal opened a leaf of shutter, he saw tables and chairs and cabinets inlaid with silver and ivory. The room looked stately, but everything was deep in dust; carpets and curtains were thick with the deserted sepulchres of moths; and the air somehow suggested a tomb: Donal thought of the tombs of the kings of Egypt before ravaging conquerors broke into them, when they were yet full of all such gorgeous furniture as great kings desired, against the time when the souls should return to reanimate the bodies so carefully spiced and stored to welcome them, and the great kings would be themselves again, with the added wisdom of the dead and judged. Conscious of a curious timidity, feeling a kind of awesomeness about every form in the room, he stepped softly to the bureau, applied its key, and following carefully the directions the earl had given him, for the lock was Italian, with more than one quip and crank and wanton wile about it, succeeded in opening it. He had no difficulty in finding its secret place, nor the packet concealed in it; but just as he laid his hands on it, he was aware of a swift passage along the floor without, past the door of the room, and apparently up the next stair. There was nothing he could distinguish as footsteps, or as the rustle of a dress; it seemed as if he had heard but a disembodied motion! He darted to the door, which he had by habit closed behind him, and opened it noiselessly. The stairs above as below were covered with thick carpet: any light human foot might pass without a sound; only haste would murmur the secret to the troubled air.
He turned, replaced the packet, and closed the bureau. If there was any one in the house, he must know it, and who could tell what might follow! It was the merest ghost of a sound he had heard, but he must go after it! Some intruder might be using the earl's house for his own purposes!
Going softly up, he paused at the top of the second stair, and looked around him. An iron-clenched door stood nearly opposite the head of it; and at the farther end of a long passage, on whose sides were several closed doors, was one partly open. From that direction came the sound of a little movement, and then of low voices -- one surely that of a woman! It flashed upon him that this must be the trysting-place of Eppy and Forgue. Fearing discovery before he should have gathered his wits, he stepped quietly across the passage to the door opposite, opened it, not without a little noise, and went in.
It was a strange-looking chamber he had entered -- that, doubtless, once occupied by the ogre -- The Reid Etin. Even in the bewilderment of the moment, the tale he had just heard was so present to him that he cast his eyes around, and noted several things to confirm the conclusion. But the next instant came from below what sounded like a thundering knock at the street door -- a single knock, loud and fierce -- possibly a mere runaway's knock. The start it gave Donal set his heart shaking in his bosom.
Almost with it came a little cry, and the sound of a door pulled open. Then he heard a hurried, yet carefully soft step, which went down the stair.
|Now is my time!| said Donal to himself. |She is alone!|
He came out, and went along the passage. The door at the end of it was open, and Eppy stood in it. She saw him coming, and gazed with widespread eyes of terror, as if it were The Reid Etin himself -- waked, and coming to devour her. As he came, her blue eyes opened wider, and seemed to fix in their orbits; just as her name was on his lips, she dropped with a sharp moan. He caught her up, and hurried with her down the stair.
As he reached the first floor, he heard the sound of swift ascending steps, and the next moment was face to face with Forgue. The youth started back, and for a moment stood staring. His enemy had found him! But rage restored to him his self-possession.
|Put her down, you scoundrel!| he said.
|She can't stand,| Donal answered.
|You've killed her, you damned spy!|
|Then I have been more kind than you!|
|What are you going to do with her?|
|Take her home to her dying grandfather.|
|You've hurt her, you devil! I know you have!|
|She is only frightened. She is coming to herself. I feel her waking!|
|You shall feel me presently!| cried Forgue. |Put her down, I say.|
Neither of them spoke loud, for dread of neighbours.
Eppy began to writhe in Donal's arms. Forgue laid hold of her, and Donal was compelled to put her down. She threw herself into the arms of her lover, and was on the point of fainting again.
|Get out of the house!| said Forgue to Donal.
|I am here on your father's business!| returned Donal.
|A spy and informer!|
|He sent me to fetch him some papers.|
|It is a lie!| said Forgue; |I see it in your face!|
|So long as I speak the truth,| rejoined Donal, |it matters little that you should think me a liar. But, my lord, you must allow me to take Eppy home.|
|A likely thing!| answered Forgue, drawing Eppy closer, and looking at him with contempt.
|Give up the girl,| said Donal sternly, |or I will raise the town, and have a crowd about the house in three minutes.|
|You are the devil!| cried Forgue. |There! take her -- with the consequences! If you had let us alone, I would have done my part. -- Leave us now, and I'll promise to marry her. If you don't, you will have the blame of what may happen -- not I.|
|But you will, dearest?| said Eppy in a tone terrified and beseeching.
Gladly she would have had Donal hear him say he would.
Forgue pushed her from him. She burst into tears. He took her in his arms again, and soothed her like a child, assuring her he meant nothing by what he had said.
|You are my own!| he went on; |you know you are, whatever our enemies may drive us to! Nothing can part us. Go with him, my darling, for the present. The time will come when we shall laugh at them all. If it were not for your sake, and the scandal of the thing, I would send the rascal to the bottom of the stair. But it is better to be patient.|
Sobbing bitterly, Eppy went with Donal. Forgue stood shaking with impotent rage.
When they reached the street, Donal turned to lock the door. Eppy darted from him, and ran down the close, thinking to go in again by the side door. But it was locked, and Donal was with her in a moment.
|You go home alone, Eppy,| he said; |it will be just as well I should not go with you. I must see lord Forgue out of the house.|
|Eh, ye winna hurt him!| pleaded Eppy.
|Not if I can help it. I don't want to hurt him. You go home. It will be better for him as well as you.|
She went slowly away, weeping, but trying to keep what show of calm she could. Donal waited a minute or two, went back to the front door, entered, and hastening to the side door took the key from the lock. Then returning to the hall, he cried from the bottom of the stair,
|My lord, I have both the keys; the side door is locked; I am about to lock the front door, and I do not want to shut you in. Pray, come down.|
Forgue came leaping down the stair, and threw himself upon Donal in a fierce attempt after the key in his hand. The sudden assault staggered him, and he fell on the floor with Forgue above him, who sought to wrest the key from him. But Donal was much the stronger; he threw his assailant off him; and for a moment was tempted to give him a good thrashing. From this the thought of Eppy helped to restrain him, and he contented himself with holding him down till he yielded. When at last he lay quiet,
|Will you promise to walk out if I let you up?| said Donal. |If you will not, I will drag you into the street by the legs.|
|I will,| said Forgue; and getting up, he walked out and away without a word.
Donal locked the door, forgetting all about the papers, and went back to Andrew's. There was Eppy, safe for the moment! She was busy in the outer room, and kept her back to him. With a word or two to the grandmother, he left them, and went home, revolving all the way what he ought to do. Should he tell the earl, or should he not? Had he been a man of rectitude, he would not have hesitated a moment; but knowing he did not care what became of Eppy, so long as his son did not marry her, he felt under no obligation to carry him the evil report. The father might have a right to know, but had he a right to know from him?
A noble nature finds it almost impossible to deal with questions on other than the highest grounds: where those grounds are unrecognized, the relations of responsibility may be difficult indeed to determine. All Donal was able to conclude on his way home, and he did not hurry, was, that, if he were asked any questions, he would speak out what he knew -- be absolutely open. If that should put a weapon in the hand of the enemy, a weapon was not the victory.