DONAL then took the light from her hand, and looked in. The opening went into the further wall and turned immediately to the left. He gave her back the candle, and went in. Arctura followed close.
There was a stair in the thickness of the wall, going down steep and straight. It was not wide enough to let them go abreast. |Put your hand on my shoulder, my lady,| said Donal. |That will keep us together. If I fall, you must stand stock-still.|
She put her hand on his shoulder, and they began their descent. The steps were narrow and high, therefore the stair was steep They had gone down from thirty to thirty-five steps, when they came to a level passage, turning again at right angles to the left. It was twice the width of the stair. Its sides, like those of the stair, were of roughly dressed stones, and unplastered. It led them straight to a strong door. It was locked, and in the rusty lock they could see the key from within. To the right was another door, a smaller one, which stood wide open. They went through, and by a short passage entered an opener space. Here on one side there seemed to be no wall, and they stood for a moment afraid to move lest they should tumble into darkness. But sending the light about, and feeling with hands and feet, they soon came to an idea of the place they were in. It was a little gallery, with arches on one side opening into a larger place, the character of which they could only conjecture, for nearly all they could determine was, that it went below and rose above where they stood. On the other side was a plain wall, such as they had had on both sides of them.
They had been speaking in awe-filled whispers, and were now in silence endeavouring to send their sight through the darkness beyond the arches.
|Listen, my lady,| said Donal.
From above their heads came a chord of the aerial music, soft and faint and wild! A strange effect it had! it was like news of the still airy night and the keen stars, come down through secret ways into the dark places of the earth, from spaces so wide that they seem the most awful of prisons! It sweetly fostered Arctura's courage.
|That must be how the songs of angels sounded, with news of high heaven, to the people of old!| she said.
Donal was not in so high a mood. He was occupied at the moment with the material side of things.
|We can't be far,| he said, |from the place where our plummet came down! But let us try a little further.|
The next moment they came against a cord, and at their feet was the weight of the clock.
At the other end of the little gallery they came again to a door and again to a stair, turning to the right; and again they went down. Arctura kept up bravely. The air was not so bad as might have been feared, though it was cold and damp. This time they descended but a little way, and came to a landing place, on the right of which was a door. Donal raised a rusty latch and pushed; the door swung open against the wall, dropping from one hinge with the slight shock. Two steps more they descended, and stood on a stone floor.
Donal thought at first they must be in one of the dungeons, but soon bethought himself that they had not descended far enough for that.
A halo of damp surrounded their candle; its weak light seemed scarcely to spread beyond it; for some moments they took in nothing of what was around them. The floor first began to reveal itself to Donal's eye: in the circle of the light he saw, covered with dust as it was, its squares of black and white marble. Then came to him a gleam of white from the wall; it was a tablet; and at the other end was something like an altar, or a tomb.
|We are in the old chapel of the castle!| he said. | -- But what is that?| he added instantly with an involuntary change of voice, and a shudder through his whole nervous being.
Arctura turned; her hand sought his and clasped it convulsively. They stood close to something which the light itself had concealed from them. Ere they were conscious of an idea concerning it, each felt the muscles of neck and face drawn, as if another power than their own invaded their persons. But they were live wills, and would not be overcome. They forced their gaze; perception cleared itself; and slowly they saw and understood.
With strangest dream-like incongruity and unfitness, the thing beside them was a dark bedstead, with carved posts and low wooden tester, richly carved! -- This in the middle of a chapel! -- But there was no speculation in them; they could only see, not think. Donal took the candle. From the tester hung large pieces of stuff that had once made heavy curtains, but seemed hardly now to have as much cohesion as the dust on a cobweb; it held together only in virtue of the lightness to which decay had reduced it. On the bed lay a dark mass, like bed clothes and bedding not quite turned to dust -- they could yet see something like embroidery in one or two places -- dark like burnt paper or half-burnt flaky rags, horrid as a dream of dead love!
Heavens! what was that shape in the middle? -- what was that on the black pillow? -- what was that thick line stretching towards one of the head-posts? They stared speechless. Arctura pressed close to Donal. His arm went round her to protect her from what threatened almost to overwhelm himself -- the inroad of an unearthly horror. Plain to the eyes of both, the form in the middle of the bed was that of a human body, slowly crumbling where it lay. Bed and blankets and quilt, sheets and pillows had crumbled with it through the long wasting years, but something of its old shape yet lingered with the dust: that was a head that lay on the pillow; that was the line of a long arm that pointed across the pillow to the post. -- What was that hanging from the bedpost and meeting the arm? God in heaven! there was a staple in the post, and from the staple came a chain! -- and there at its other end a ring, lying on the pillow! -- and through it -- yes through it, the dust-arm passed! -- This was no mere death-bed; it was a torture bed -- most likely a murder-bed; and on it yet lay the body that died on it -- had lain for hundreds of years, unlifted for kindly burial: the place of its decease had been made its tomb -- closed up and hidden away!
A bed in a chapel, and one dead thereon! -- how could it be? Had the woman -- for Donal imagined the form yet showed it the body of a woman -- been carried thither of her own desire, to die in a holy place? That could not be: there was the chain! Had she sought refuge there from some persecutor? If so, he has found her! She was a captive -- mad perhaps, more likely hated and the victim of a terrible revenge; left, probably enough, to die of hunger, or disease -- neglected or tended, who could tell? One thing, only was clear -- that there she died, and there she was buried!
Arctura was trembling. Donal drew her closer, and would have taken her away. But she said in his ear, as if in dread of disturbing the dust,
|I am not frightened -- not very. It is only the cold, I think.|
They went softly to the other end of the chapel, almost clinging together as they went. They saw three narrow lancet windows on their right, but no glimmer came through them.
They came to what had seemed an altar, and such it still seemed. But on its marble-top lay the dust plainly of an infant -- sight sad as fearful, and full of agonizing suggestion! They turned away, nor either looked at the other. The awful silence of the place seemed settling on them like a weight. Donal made haste, nor did Arctura seem less anxious to leave it.
When they reached the stair, he made her go first: he must be between her and the terror! As they passed the door on the other side of the little gallery -- down whose spiracle had come no second breath -- Donal said to himself he must question that door, but to Arctura he said nothing: she had had enough of inquiry for the moment!
Slowly they ascended to Arctura's chamber. Donal replaced the slab, and propped it in its position; gathered the plaster into the pail; replaced the press, and put a screw through the bottom of it into the floor. Arctura stood and watched him all the time.
|You must leave your room again, my lady!| said Donal.
|I will. I shall speak to mistress Brookes at once.|
|Will you tell her all about it?|
|We must talk about that!|
|How will she bear it,| thought Donal; |how after such an experience, can she spend the rest of the day alone? There is all the long afternoon and evening to be met!|
He gave the last turn to the screw in the floor, and rose. Then first he saw that Arctura had turned very white.
|Do sit down, my lady!| he said. |I would run for mistress Brookes, but I dare not leave you.|
|No, no; we will go down together! Give me that bottle of eau de Cologne, please.|
Donal did not know either eau de Cologne or its bottle, but he darted to the dressing-table and guessed correctly. It revived her, and she began to take deep breaths. Then with a strong effort she rose to go down.
The time for speech concerning what they had seen, was not come!
|Would you not like, my lady,| said Donal, |to come to the schoolroom this afternoon? You could sit beside while I give Davie his lessons!|
|Yes,| she answered at once; |I should like it much! -- Is there not something you could give me to do? -- Will you not teach me something?|
|I should like to begin you with Greek, and teach you a little mathematics -- geometry first of all.|
|You frighten me!|
|Your fright wouldn't outlast the beginning,| said Donal. |Anyhow, you will have Davie and me for company! You must be lonely sometimes! You see little of Miss Carmichael now, I fancy.|
|She has not been near me since that day in the avenue! We salute now and then coming out of church. She will not come again except I ask her; and I shall be in no haste: she would only assume I was sorry, and could not do without her!|
|I should let her wait, my lady!| said Donal. |She sorely wants humbling!|
|You do not know her, Mr. Grant, if you think anything I could do would have that effect on her.|
|Pardon me, my lady; I did not imagine it your task to humble her! But you need not let her ride over you as she used to do; she knows nothing really, and a great many things unreally. Unreal knowledge is worse than ignorance. -- Would not Miss Graeme be a better friend?|
|She is much more lovable; but she does not trouble her head about the things I care for. -- I mean religion,| she added hesitatingly.
|So much the better, -- |
|You did not let me finish, my lady! -- So much the better, I was going to say, till she begins to trouble her heart about it -- or rather to untrouble her heart with it! The pharisee troubled his head, and no doubt his conscience too, and did not go away justified; but the poor publican, as we with our stupid pity would call him, troubled his heart about it; and that trouble once set a going, there is no fear. Head and all must soon follow. -- But how am I to get rid of this plaster without being seen?|
|I will show you the way to your own stair without going down -- the way we came once, you may remember. You can take it to the top of the house till it is dark. -- But I do not feel comfortable about my uncle's visit. Can it be that he suspects something? Perhaps he knows all about the chapel -- and that stair too!|
|He is a man to enjoy having a secret! -- But our discovery bears out what we were saying as to the likeness of house and man -- does it not?|
|You don't mean there is anything like that in me?| rejoined Arctura, looking frightened.
|You!| he exclaimed. | -- But I mean no individual application,| he added, |except as reflected from the general truth. This house is like every human soul, and so, like me and you and all of us. We have found the chapel of the house, the place they used to pray to God in, built up, lost, forgotten, filled with dust and damp -- and the mouldering dead lying there before the Lord, waiting to be made live again and praise him!|
|I said you meant me!| murmured Arctura, with a faint, sad smile.
|No; the time is past for that. It is long since first you were aware of the dead self in the lost chapel; a hungry soul soon misses both, and knows, without being sure of it, that they are somewhere. You have kept searching for them in spite of all persuasion that the quest was foolish.|
Arctura's eyes shone in her pale face; but they shone with gathering tears. Donal turned away, and took up the pail. She rose, and guided him to his tower-stair, where he went up and she went down.