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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XI. THE FIRST MIDNIGHT.

David Elginbrod by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XI. THE FIRST MIDNIGHT.

Well, if anything be damned,

It will be twelve o'clock at night; that twelve

Will never scape.

CYRIL TOURNEUR. -- The Revenger's Tragedy.

LETTERS arrived at Arnstead generally while the family was seated at breakfast. One morning, the post-bag having been brought in, Mr. Arnold opened it himself, according to his unvarying custom; and found, amongst other letters, one in an old-fashioned female hand, which, after reading it, he passed to Euphra.

|You remember Mrs. Elton, Euphra?|

|Quite well, uncle -- a dear old lady!|

But the expression which passed across her face, rather belied her words, and seemed to Hugh to mean: |I hope she is not going to bore us again.|

She took care, however, to show no sign with regard to the contents of the letter; but, laying it beside her on the table, waited to hear her uncle's mind first.

|Poor, dear girl!| said he at last. |You must try to make her as comfortable as you can. There is consumption in the family, you see,| he added, with a meditative sigh.

|Of course I will, uncle. Poor girl! I hope there is not much amiss though, after all.|

But, as she spoke, an irrepressible flash of dislike, or displeasure of some sort, broke from her eyes, and vanished. No one but himself seemed to Hugh to have observed it; but he was learned in the lady's eyes, and their weather-signs. Mr. Arnold rose from the table and left the room, apparently to write an answer to the letter. As soon as he was gone, Euphra gave the letter to Hugh. He read as follows: --

|MY DEAR MR. ARNOLD,

|Will you extend the hospitality of your beautiful house to me and my young friend, who has the honour of being your relative, Lady Emily Lake? For some time her health has seemed to be failing, and she is ordered to spend the winter abroad, at Pau, or somewhere in the south of France. It is considered highly desirable that in the meantime she should have as much change as possible; and it occurred to me, remembering the charming month I passed at your seat, and recalling the fact that Lady Emily is cousin only once removed to your late most lovely wife, that there would be no impropriety in writing to ask you whether you could, without inconvenience, receive us as your guests for a short time. I say us; for the dear girl has taken such a fancy to unworthy old me, that she almost refuses to set out without me. Not to be cumbersome either to our friends or ourselves, we shall bring only our two maids, and a steady old man-servant, who has been in my family for many years. -- I trust you will not hesitate to refuse my request, should I happen to have made it at an unsuitable season; assured, as you must be, that we cannot attribute the refusal to any lack of hospitality or friendliness on your part. At all events, I trust you will excuse what seems -- now I have committed it to paper -- a great liberty, I hope not presumption, on mine. I am, my dear Mr. Arnold,

|Yours most sincerely,

|HANNAH ELTON.|

Hugh refolded the letter, and laid it down without remark. Harry had left the room.

|Isn't it a bore?| said Euphra.

Hugh answered only by a look. A pause followed.

|Who is Mrs. Elton?| he said at last.

|Oh, a good-hearted creature enough. Frightfully prosy.|

|But that is a well-written letter?|

|Oh, yes. She is famed for her letter-writing; and, I believe, practises every morning on a slate. It is the only thing that redeems her from absolute stupidity.|

Euphra, with her taper fore-finger, tapped the table-cloth impatiently, and shifted back in her chair, as if struggling with an inward annoyance.

|And what sort of person is Lady Emily?| asked Hugh.

|I have never seen her. Some blue-eyed milk-maid with a title, I suppose. And in a consumption, too! I presume the dear girl is as religious as the old one. -- Good heavens! what shall we do?| she burst out at length; and, rising from her chair, she paced about the room hurriedly, but all the time with a gliding kind of footfall, that would have shaken none but the craziest floor.

|Dear Euphra!| Hugh ventured to say, |never mind. Let us try to make the best of it.|

She stopped in her walk, turned towards him, smiled as if ashamed and delighted at the same moment, and slid out of the room. Had Euphra been the same all through, she could hardly have smiled so without being in love with Hugh.

That morning he sought her again in her room. They talked over their versions of Dante. Hugh's was certainly the best, for he was more practised in such things than Euphra. He showed her many faults, which she at once perceived to be faults, and so rose in his estimation. But at the same time there were individual lines and passages of hers, which he considered not merely better than the corresponding lines and passages, but better than any part of his version. This he was delighted to say; and she seemed as delighted that he should think so. A great part of the morning was spent thus.

|I cannot stay longer,| said Hugh.

|Let us read for an hour, then, after we come up stairs to-night.|

|With more pleasure than I dare to say.|

|But you mean what you do say?|

|You can doubt it no more than myself.|

Yet he did not like Euphra's making the proposal. No more did he like the flippant, almost cruel way in which she referred to Lady Emily's illness. But he put it down to annoyance and haste -- got over it somehow -- anyhow; and began to feel that if she were a devil he could not help loving her, and would not help it if he could. The hope of meeting her alone that night, gave him spirit and energy with Harry; and the poor boy was more cheery and active than he had been for some time. He thought his big brother was going to love him again as at the first. Hugh's treatment of his pupil might still have seemed kind from another, but Harry felt it a great change in him.

In the course of the day, Euphra took an opportunity of whispering to him:

|Not in my room -- in the library.| I presume she thought it would be more prudent, in the case of any interruption.

After dinner that evening, Hugh did not go to the drawingroom with Mr. Arnold, but out into the woods about the house. It was early in the twilight; for now the sun set late. The month was June; and the even a rich, dreamful, rosy even -- the sleep of a gorgeous day. |It is like the soul of a gracious woman,| thought Hugh, charmed into a lucid interval of passion by the loveliness of the nature around him. Strange to tell, at that moment, instead of the hushed gloom of the library, towards which he was hoping and leaning in his soul, there arose before him the bare, stern, leafless pine-wood -- for who can call its foliage leaves? -- with the chilly wind of a northern spring morning blowing through it with a wailing noise of waters; and beneath a weird fir-tree, lofty, gaunt, and huge, with bare goblin arms, contorted sweepily, in a strange mingling of the sublime and the grotesque -- beneath this fir-tree, Margaret sitting on one of its twisted roots, the very image of peace, with a face that seemed stilled by the expected approach of a sacred and unknown gladness; a face that would blossom the more gloriously because its joy delayed its coming. And above it, the tree shone a |still,| almost |awful red,| in the level light of the morning.

The vision came and passed, for he did not invite its stay: it rebuked him to the deepest soul. He strayed in troubled pleasure, restless and dissatisfied. Woods of the richest growth were around him; heaps on heaps of leaves floating above him like clouds, a trackless wilderness of airy green, wherein one might wish to dwell for ever, looking down into the vaults and aisles of the long-ranging boles beneath. But no peace could rest on his face; only, at best, a false mask, put on to hide the trouble of the unresting heart. Had he been doing his duty to Harry, his love for Euphra, however unworthy she might be, would not have troubled him thus.

He came upon an avenue. At the further end the boughs of the old trees, bare of leaves beneath, met in a perfect pointed arch, across which were barred the lingering colours of the sunset, transforming the whole into a rich window full of stained glass and complex tracery, closing up a Gothic aisle in a temple of everlasting worship. A kind of holy calm fell upon him as he regarded the dim, dying colours; and the spirit of the night, a something that is neither silence nor sound, and yet is like both, sank into his soul, and made a moment of summer twilight there. He walked along the avenue for some distance; and then, leaving it, passed on through the woods. -- Suddenly it flashed upon him that he had crossed the Ghost's Walk. A slight but cold shudder passed through the region of his heart. Then he laughed at himself, and, as it were in despite of his own tremor, turned, and crossed yet again the path of the ghost.

A spiritual epicure in his pleasures, he would not spoil the effect of the coming meeting, by seeing Euphra in the drawingroom first: he went to his own study, where he remained till the hour had nearly arrived. He tried to write some verses. But he found that, although the lovely form of its own Naiad lay on the brink of the Well of Song, its waters would not flow: during the sirocco of passion, its springs withdraw into the cool caves of the Life beneath. At length he rose, too much preoccupied to mind his want of success; and, going down the back stair, reached the library. There he seated himself, and tried to read by the light of his chamber-candle. But it was scarcely even an attempt, for every moment he was looking up to the door by which he expected her to enter.

Suddenly an increase of light warned him that she was in the room. How she had entered he could not tell. One hand carried her candle, the light of which fell on her pale face, with its halo of blackness -- her hair, which looked like a well of darkness, that threatened to break from its bonds and overflood the room with a second night, dark enough to blot out that which was now looking in, treeful and deep, at the uncurtained windows. The other hand was busy trying to incarcerate a stray tress which had escaped from its net, and made her olive shoulders look white beside it.

|Let it alone,| said Hugh, |let it be beautiful.|

But she gently repelled the hand he raised to hers, and, though she was forced to put down her candle first, persisted in confining the refractory tress; then seated herself at the table, and taking from her pocket the manuscript which Hugh had been criticising in the morning, unfolded it, and showed him all the passages he had objected to, neatly corrected or altered. It was wonderfully done for the time she had had. He went over it all with her again, seated close to her, their faces almost meeting as they followed the lines. They had just finished it, and were about to commence reading from the original, when Hugh, who missed a sheet of Euphra's translation, stooped under the table to look for it. A few moments were spent in the search, before he discovered that Euphra's foot was upon it. He begged her to move a little, but received no reply either by word or act. Looking up in some alarm, he saw that she was either asleep or in a faint. By an impulse inexplicable to himself at the time, he went at once to the windows, and drew down the green blinds. When he turned towards her again, she was reviving or awaking, he could not tell which.

|How stupid of me to go to sleep!| she said. |Let us go on with our reading.|

They had read for about half an hour, when three taps upon one of the windows, slight, but peculiar, and as if given with the point of a finger, suddenly startled them. Hugh turned at once towards the windows; but, of course, he could see nothing, having just lowered the blinds. He turned again towards Euphra. She had a strange wild look; her lips were slightly parted, and her nostrils wide; her face was rigid, and glimmering pale as death from the cloud of her black hair.

|What was it?| said Hugh, affected by her fear with the horror of the unknown. But she made no answer, and continued staring towards one of the windows. He rose and was about to advance to it, when she caught him by the hand with a grasp of which hers would have been incapable except under the influence of terror. At that moment a clock in the room began to strike. It was a slow clock, and went on deliberately, striking one...two...three...till it had struck twelve. Every stroke was a blow from the hammer of fear, and his heart was the bell. He could not breathe for dread so long as the awful clock was striking. When it had ended, they looked at each other again, and Hugh breathed once.

|Euphra!| he sighed.

But she made no answer; she turned her eyes again to one of the windows. They were both standing. He sought to draw her to him, but she yielded no more than a marble statue.

|I crossed the Ghost's Walk to-night,| said he, in a hard whisper, scarcely knowing that he uttered it, till he heard his own words. They seemed to fall upon his ear as if spoken by some one outside the room. She looked at him once more, and kept looking with a fixed stare. Gradually her face became less rigid, and her eyes less wild. She could move at last.

|Come, come,| she said, in a hurried whisper. |Let us go -- no, no, not that way;| -- as Hugh would have led her towards the private stair -- |let us go the front way, by the oak staircase.|

They went up together. When they reached the door of her room, she said, |Good night,| without even looking at him, and passed in. Hugh went on, in a state of utter bewilderment, to his own apartment; shut the door and locked it -- a thing he had never done before; lighted both the candles on his table; and then walked up and down the room, trying, like one aware that he is dreaming, to come to his real self.

|Pshaw!| he said at last. |It was only a little bird, or a large moth. How odd it is that darkness can make a fool of one! I am ashamed of myself. I wish I had gone out at the window, if only to show Euphra I was not afraid, though of course there was nothing to be seen.|

As he said this in his mind, -- he could not have spoken it aloud, for fear of hearing his own voice in the solitude, -- he went to one of the windows of his sitting-room, which was nearly over the library, and looked into the wood. -- Could it be? -- Yes. -- He did see something white, gliding through the wood, away in the direction of the Ghost's Walk. It vanished; and he saw it no more.

The morning was far advanced before he could go to bed. When the first light of the aurora broke the sky, he looked out again; -- and the first glimmerings of the morning in the wood were more dreadful than the deepest darkness of the past night. Possessed by a new horror, he thought how awful it would be to see a belated ghost, hurrying away in helpless haste. The spectre would be yet more terrible in the grey light of the coming day, and the azure breezes of the morning, which to it would be like a new and more fearful death, than amidst its own homely sepulchral darkness; while the silence all around -- silence in light -- could befit only that dread season of loneliness when men are lost in sleep, and ghosts, if they walk at all, walk in dismay.

But at length fear yielded to sleep, though still he troubled her short reign.

When he awoke, he found it so late, that it was all he could do to get down in time for breakfast. But so anxious was he not to be later than usual, that he was in the room before Mr. Arnold made his appearance. Euphra, however, was there before him. She greeted him in the usual way, quite circumspectly. But she looked troubled. Her face was very pale, and her eyes were red, as if from sleeplessness or weeping. When her uncle entered, she addressed him with more gaiety than usual, and he did not perceive that anything was amiss with her. But the whole of that day she walked as in a reverie, avoiding Hugh two or three times that they chanced to meet without a third person in the neighbourhood. Once in the forenoon -- when she was generally to be found in her room -- he could not refrain from trying to see her. The change and the mystery were insupportable to him. But when he tapped at her door, no answer came; and he walked back to Harry, feeling, as if, by an unknown door in his own soul, he had been shut out of the half of his being. Or rather -- a wall seemed to have been built right before his eyes, which still was there wherever he went.

As to the gliding phantom of the previous night, the day denied it all, telling him it was but the coinage of his own over-wrought brain, weakened by prolonged tension of the intellect, and excited by the presence of Euphra at an hour claimed by phantoms when not yielded to sleep. This was the easiest and most natural way of disposing of the difficulty. The cloud around Euphra hid the ghost in its skirts.

Although fear in some measure returned with the returning shadows, he yet resolved to try to get Euphra to meet him again in the library that night. But she never gave him a chance of even dropping a hint to that purpose. She had not gone out with them in the morning; and when he followed her into the drawing-room, she was already at the piano. He thought he might convey his wish without interrupting the music; but as often as he approached her, she broke, or rather glided, out into song, as if she had been singing in an undertone all the while. He could not help seeing she did not intend to let him speak to her. But, all the time, whatever she sang was something she knew he liked; and as often as she spoke to him in the hearing of her uncle or cousin, it was in a manner peculiarly graceful and simple.

He could not understand her; and was more bewitched, more fascinated than ever, by seeing her through the folds of the incomprehensible, in which element she had wrapped herself from his nearer vision. She had always seemed above him -- now she seemed miles away as well; a region of Paradise, into which he was forbidden to enter. Everything about her, to her handkerchief and her gloves, was haunted by a vague mystery of worshipfulness, and drew him towards it with wonder and trembling. When they parted for the night, she shook hands with him with a cool frankness, that put him nearly beside himself with despair; and when he found himself in his own room, it was some time before he could collect his thoughts. Having succeeded, however, he resolved, in spite of growing fears, to go to the library, and see whether it were not possible she might be there. He took up a candle, and went down the back stair. But when he opened the library door, a gust of wind blew his candle out; all was darkness within; a sudden horror seized him; and, afraid of yielding to the inclination to bound up the stair, lest he should go wild with the terror of pursuit, he crept slowly back, feeling his way to his own room with a determined
deliberateness. -- Could the library window have been left open? Else whence the gust of wind?

Next day, and the next, and the next, he fared no better: her behaviour continued the same; and she allowed him no opportunity of requesting an explanation.

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