LADY ARCTURA opened the door of her bedroom. Donal glanced round it. It was as old-fashioned as the other.
|What is behind that press there -- wardrobe, I think you call it?| he asked.
|Only a recess,| answered lady Arctura. |The press, I am sorry to say, is too high to get into it.|
Possibly had the press stood in the recess, the latter would have suggested nothing; but having caught sight of the opening behind the press, Donal was attracted by it. It was in the same wall with the fireplace, but did not seem formed by the projection of the chimney, for it did not go to the ceiling.
|Would you mind if I moved the wardrobe a little on one side?| he asked.
|Do what you like,| she answered.
Donal moved it, and found the recess rather deep for its size. The walls of the room were wainscotted to the height of four feet or so, but the recess was bare. There were signs of hinges on one, and of a bolt on the other of the front edges: it had seemingly been once a closet, whose door continued the wainscot. There were no signs of shelves in it; the plaster was smooth.
But Donal was not satisfied. He took a big knife from his pocket, and began tapping all round. The moment he came to the right-hand side, there was a change in the sound.
|You don't mind if I make a little dust, my lady?| he said.
|Do anything you please,| answered Arctura.
He sought in several places to drive the point of his knife into the plaster; it would nowhere enter it more than a quarter of an inch: here was no built wall, he believed, but one smooth stone. He found nothing like a joint till he came near the edge of the recess: there was a limit of the stone, and he began at once to clear it. It gave him a straight line from the bottom to the top of the recess, where it met another at right angles.
|There does seem, my lady,| he said, |to be some kind of closing up here, though it may of course turn out of no interest to us! Shall I go on, and see what it is?|
|By all means,| she answered, but turned pale as she spoke.
Donal looked at her anxiously. She understood his look.
|You must not mind my feeling a little silly,| she said. |I am not silly enough to give way to it.|
He went on again with his knife, and had presently cleared the outlines of a stone that filled nearly all the side of the recess. He paused.
|Go on! go on!| said Arctura.
|I must first get a better tool or two,| answered Donal. |Will you mind being left?|
|I can bear it. But do not be long. A few minutes may evaporate my courage.|
Donal hurried away to get a hammer and chisel, and a pail to put the broken plaster in. Lady Arctura stood and waited. The silence closed in upon her. She began to feel eerie. She felt as if she had but to will and see through the wall to what lay beyond it. To keep herself from so willing, she had all but reduced herself to mental inaction, when she started to her feet with a smothered cry: a knock not over gentle sounded on the door of the outer room. She darted to the bedroom-door and flung it to -- next to the press, and with one push had it nearly in its place. Then she opened again the door, thinking to wait for a second knock on the other before she answered. But as she opened the inner, the outer door also opened -- slowly -- and a face looked in. She would rather have had a visitor from behind the press! It was her uncle; his face cadaverous; his eyes dull, but with a kind of glitter in them; his look like that of a housebreaker. In terror of himself, in terror lest he should discover what they had been about, in terror lest Donal should appear, wishing to warn the latter, and certain that, early as it was, her uncle was not himself, with intuitive impulse, the moment she saw him, she cried out,
|Uncle! what is that behind you?|
She felt afterwards, and was very sorry, that it was both a deceitful and cruel thing to do; but she did it, as I have said, by a swift, unreflecting instinct -- which she concluded, in thinking about it, came from the ready craft of some ancestor, and illustrated what Donal had been saying.
The earl turned like one struck on the back, imagined something of which Arctura knew nothing, cowered to two-thirds of his height, and crept away. Though herself trembling from head to foot, Arctura was seized with such a pity, that she followed him to his room; but she dared not go in. She stood a moment in the passage within sight of his door, and thought she heard his bell ring. Now Simmons might meet Donal! In a moment or two, however, she was relieved. Donal came round a turn, carrying his implements. She signed to him to make haste, and he was just safe inside her room when Simmons came along on his way to his master's. She drew the door to, as if she had been just coming out, and said,
|Knock at my door as you return, and tell me how your master is: I heard his bell.|
She then begged Donal to go on with his work, but stop it the moment she made a noise with the handle of the door, and resumed her place outside till Simmons should re-appear. Full ten minutes she stood waiting: it seemed an hour. Though she heard Donal at work within, and knew Simmons must soon come, though the room behind her was her own, and familiar to her from childhood, the long empty passage in front of her appeared frightful. What might not come pacing along towards her! At last she heard her uncle's door -- steps -- and the butler approached. She shook the handle of the door, and Donal's blows ceased.
|I can't make him out, my lady!| said Simmons. |It is nothing very bad, I think, this time; but he gets worse and worse -- always taking more and more o' them horrid drugs. It's no use trying to hide it: he'll drop off sudden one o' these days! I've heard say laudanum don't shorten life; but it's not one nor two, nor half a dozen sorts o' laudanums he keeps mixing in that poor inside o' his! The end must come, and what will it be? It's better you should be prepared for it when it do come, my lady. I've just been a giving of him some into his skin -- with a little sharp-pointed thing, a syringe, you know, my lady: he says it's the only way to take some medicines. He's just a slave to his medicines, my lady!|
As soon as he was gone, Arctura returned to Donal. He had knocked the plaster away, and uncovered a slab, very like one of the great stones on some of the roofs. The next thing was to prize it from the mortar, and that was not difficult. The instant he drew the stone away, a dank chill assailed them, accompanied by a humid smell, as from a long-closed cellar. They stood and looked, now at each other, now at the opening in the wall, where was nothing but darkness. The room grew cold and colder. Donal was anxious as to how Arctura might stand what discovery lay before them, and she was anxious to read his sensations. For her sake he tried to hide all expression of the awe that was creeping over him, and it gave him enough to do.
|We are not far from something, my lady!| he said. |It makes one think of what He said who carries the light everywhere -- that there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed, neither hid that shall not be known. Shall we leave it for the present?|
|Anything but that!| said Arctura with a shiver; | -- anything but an unknown terrible something!|
|But what can you do with it?|
|Let the daylight in upon it.|
Her colour returned as she spoke, and a look of determination came into her eyes.
|You will not be afraid to be left then when I go down?|
|I am cowardly enough to be afraid, but not cowardly enough to let you go alone. I will share with you. I shall not be afraid -- not much -- not too much, I mean -- if I am with you.|
|See!| she went on, |I am going to light a candle, and ask you to come down with me -- if down it be: it may be up!|
|I am ready, my lady,| said Donal.
She lighted the candle.
|Had we not better lock the door, my lady?|
|That might set them wondering,| she answered. |We should have to lock both the doors of this room, or else both the passage-doors! The better way will be to pull the press after us when we are behind it.|
|You are right, my lady. Please take some matches with you.|
|To be sure.|
|You will carry the candle, please. I must have my hands free. Try to let the light shine past me as much as you can, that I may see where I am going. But I shall depend most on my hands and feet.|