THERE came a great burst of thunder. It was the last of the storm. It bellowed and shuddered, went, and came rolling up again. It died away at last in the great distance, with a low continuous rumbling as if it would never cease. The silence that followed was like the Egyptian darkness; it might be felt.
Out of the tense heart of the silence came a faint sound. It came again and again, at regular intervals.
|That is my uncle's step!| said Arctura in a scared whisper through the dark.
It was plainly a slow step -- far off, but approaching.
|I wonder if he has a light!| she added hurriedly. |He often goes in the dark without one. If he has you must get behind the altar.|
|Do not speak a word,| said Donal; let him think you are asleep. If he has no light, I will stand so that he cannot come near the bed without coming against me. Do not be afraid; he shall not touch you.|
The steps were coming nearer all the time. A door opened and shut. Then they were loud -- they were coming along the gallery! They ceased. He was standing up there in the thick darkness!
|Arctura,| said a deep, awful voice.
It was that of the earl. Arctura made no answer.
|Dead of fright!| muttered the voice. |All goes well. I will go down and see. She might have proved as obstinate as the boys' mother!|
Again the steps began. They were coming down the stair. The door at the foot of it opened. The earl entered a step or two, then stopped. Through the darkness Donal seemed to know exactly where he stood. He knew also that he was fumbling for a match, and watched intently for the first spark. There came a sputter and a gleam, and the match failed. Ere he could try another, Donal made a swift blow at his arm. It knocked the box from his hand.
|Ha!| he cried, and there was terror in the cry, |she strikes at me through the dark!|
Donal kept very still. Arctura kept as still as he. The earl turned and went away.
|I will bring a candle!| he muttered.
|Now, my lady, we must make haste,| said Donal. |Do you mind being left while I fetch my tools?|
|No -- but make haste,| she answered.
|I shall be back before him,| he returned.
|Be careful you do not meet him,| said Arctura.
There was no difficulty now, either in going or returning. He sped, and in a space that even to Arctura seemed short, was back. There was no time to use the file: he attacked the staple, and drew it from the bed-post, then wound the chain about her arm, and tied it there.
He had already made up his mind what to do with her. He had been inclined to carry her away from the house: Doory would take care of her! But he saw that to leave the enemy in possession would be to yield him an advantage. Awkward things might result from it! the tongues of inventive ignorance and stupidity would wag wildly! He would take her to her room, and there watch her as he would the pearl of price!
|There! you are free, my lady,| he said. |Now come.|
He took her hands, and she raised herself wearily.
|The air is so stifling!| she said.
|We shall soon have better!| answered Donal.
|Shall we go on the roof?| she said, like one talking in her sleep.
|I will take you to your own room,| replied Donal. | -- But I will not leave you,| he added quickly, seeing a look of anxiety cloud her face, | -- so long as your uncle is in the house.|
|Take me where you will,| rejoined Arctura.
There was no way but through the crypt: she followed him without hesitation. They crept through the little closet under the stair, and were in the hall of the castle.
As they went softly up the stair, Donal had an idea.
|He is not back yet!| he said: |we will take the key from the oak door; he will think he has mislaid it, and will not find out that you are gone. I wonder what he will do!|
Cautiously listening to be sure the earl was not there, he ran to the oak door, locked it, and brought away the key. Then they went to the room Arctura had last occupied.
The door was ajar; there was a light in the room. They went softly, and peeped in. The earl was there, turning over the contents of her writing-desk.
|He will find nothing,| she whispered with a smile.
Donal led her away.
|We will go to your old room,| he said. |The whole recess is built up with stone and lime: he cannot come near you that way!|
She made no objection. Donal secured the doors, lighted a fire, and went to look for food. They had agreed upon a certain knock, without which she was to open to none.
While she was yet changing the garments in which she had lain on the terrible bed, she heard the earl go by, and the door of his room close. Apparently he had concluded to let her pass the night without another visit: he had himself had a bad fright, and had probably not got over it. A little longer and she heard Donal's gentle signal at the door of the sitting-room. He had brought some biscuits and a little wine in the bottom of a decanter from the housekeeper's room: there was literally nothing in the larder, he said.
They sat down and ate the biscuits. Donal told his adventures. They agreed that she must write to the factor to come home at once, and bring his sister. Then Donal set to with his file upon the ring: her hand was much too swollen to admit of its being removed as it had been put on. It was not easy to cut it, partly from the constant danger of hurting her swollen hand, partly that the rust filled and blunted the file.
|There!| he said at last, |you are free! And now, my lady, you must take some rest. The door to the passage is secure. Lock this one inside, and I will draw the sofa across it outside: if he come wandering in the night, and get into this room, he will not reach your door.|
Weary as he was, Donal could not sleep much. In the middle of the night he heard the earl's door open, and watched and followed him. He went to the oak door, and tried in vain to open it.
|She has taken it!| he muttered, in what seemed to Donal an awe-struck voice.
All night long he roamed the house a spirit grievously tormented. In the gray of the morning, having perhaps persuaded himself that the whole affair was a trick of his imagination, he went back to his room.
In the morning Donal left the house, having first called to Arctura and warned her to lock the door of the sitting-room the moment he was gone. He ran all the way down to the inn, paid his bill, bought some things in the town for their breakfast, and taking the mare, rode up to the castle, and rang the bell. No notice was taken. He went and put up his animal, then let himself into the house by Baliol's tower, and began to sing. So singing he went up the great stair, and into and along the corridor where the earl lay.
The singing roused him, and brought him to his door in a rage. But the moment he saw Donal his countenance fell.
|What the devil are you doing here?| he said.
|They told me in the town you were in England, my lord!|
|I wrote to you,| said the earl, |that we were gone to London, and that you need be in no haste to return. I trust you have not brought Davie with you?|
|I have not, my lord.|
|Then make what haste back to him you can. He must not be alone with bumpkins! You may stay there with him till I send for you -- only mind you go on with your studies. Now be off. I am at home but for a few hours on business, and leave again by the afternoon coach!|
|I do not go, my lord, until I have seen my mistress.|
|Your mistress! Who, pray, is your mistress!|
|I am no longer in your service, my lord.|
|Then what, in the name of God, have you done with my son?|
|In good time, my lord, when you have told me where my mistress is! I am in this house as lady Arctura's servant; and I desire to know where I shall find her.|
|What address, please your lordship? I will wait her orders here.|
|You will leave this house at once,| said the earl. |I will not have you here in both her ladyship's absence and my own.|
|My lord, I am not ignorant how things stand: I am in lady Arctura's house; and here I remain till I receive her commands.|
|Very well! By all means!|
|I ask you again for her address, my lord.|
|Find it for yourself. You will not obey my orders: am I to obey yours?|
He turned on his heel, and flung to his door.
Donal went to lady Arctura. She was in the sitting-room, anxiously waiting his return. She had heard their voices, but nothing that passed. He told her what he had done; then produced his provisions, and together they prepared their breakfast. By and by they heard the earl come from his room, go here and there through the still house, and return to his apartment.
In the afternoon he left the house. They watched him away -- ill able, apparently, even to crawl along. He went down the hill, nor once lifted his head. They turned and looked at each other. Profound pity for the wretched old man was the feeling of both. It was followed by one of intense relief and liberty.
|You would like to be rid of me now, my lady,| said Donal; |but I don't see how I can leave you. Shall I go and fetch Miss Carmichael?|
|No, certainly,| answered Arctura. |I cannot apply to her.|
|It would be a pity to lose the advantage of your uncle's not knowing what has become of you.|
|I wonder what he will do next! If I were to die now, the property would be his, and then Forgue's!|
|You can will it away, I suppose, my lady!| answered Donal.
Arctura stood thoughtful.
|Is Forgue a bad man, Mr. Grant?|
|I dare not trust him,| answered Donal.
|Do you think he had any knowledge of this plot of his father's?|
|I cannot tell. I do not believe he would have left you to die in the chapel.|