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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XXIII. THE WAGER.

David Elginbrod by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XXIII. THE WAGER.

He...stakes this ring;

And would so, had it been a carbuncle

Of Phoebus' wheel; and might so safely, had it

Been all the worth of his car.

Cymbeline.

HUGH, of course, had an immediate attack of jealousy. Wishing to show it in one quarter, and hide it in every other, he carefully abstained from looking once in the direction of Euphra; while, throughout the dinner, he spoke to every one else as often as there was the smallest pretext for doing so. To enable himself to keep this up, he drank wine freely. As he was in general very moderate, by the time the ladies rose, it had begun to affect his brain. It was not half so potent, however, in its influences, as the parting glance which Euphra succeeded at last, as she left the room, in sending through his eyes to his heart.

Hugh sat down to the table again, with a quieter tongue, but a busier brain. He drank still, without thinking of the consequences. A strong will kept him from showing any signs of intoxication, but he was certainly nearer to that state than he had ever been in his life before.

The Bohemian started the new subject which generally follows the ladies' departure.

|How long is it since Arnstead was first said to be haunted, Mr. Arnold?|

|Haunted! Herr von Funkelstein? I am at a loss to understand you,| replied Mr. Arnold, who resented any such allusion, being subversive of the honour of his house, almost as much as if it had been depreciative of his own.

|I beg your pardon, Mr. Arnold. I thought it was an open subject of remark.|

|So it is,| said Hugh; |every one knows that.|

Mr. Arnold was struck dumb with indignation. Before he had recovered himself sufficiently to know what to say, the conversation between the other two had assumed a form to which his late experiences inclined him to listen with some degree of interest. But, his pride sternly forbidding him to join in it, he sat sipping his wine in careless sublimity.

|You have seen it yourself, then?| said the Bohemian.

|I did not say that,| answered Hugh. |But I heard one of the maids say once -- when -- |

He paused.

This hesitation of his witnessed against him afterwards, in Mr. Arnold's judgment. But he took no notice now. -- Hugh ended tamely enough:

|Why, it is commonly reported amongst the servants.|

|With a blue light? -- Such as we saw that night from the library window, I suppose.|

|I did not say that,| answered Hugh. |Besides, it was nothing of the sort you saw from the library. It was only the moon. But -- |

He paused again. Von Funkelstein saw the condition he was in, and pressed him.

|You know something more, Mr. Sutherland.|

Hugh hesitated again, but only for a moment.

|Well, then,| he said, |I have seen the spectre myself, walking in her white grave-clothes, in the Ghost's Avenue -- ha! ha!|

Funkelstein looked anxious.

|Were you frightened?| said he.

|Frightened!| repeated Hugh, in a tone of the greatest contempt. |I am of Don Juan's opinion with regard to such gentry.|

|What is that?|

|'That soul and body, on the whole,

Are odds against a disembodied soul.'|

|Bravo!| cried the count. |You despise all these tales about Lady Euphrasia, wandering about the house with a death-candle in her hand, looking everywhere about as if she had lost something, and couldn't find it?|

|Pooh! pooh! I wish I could meet her!|

|Then you don't believe a word of it?|

|I don't say that. There would be less of courage than boasting in talking so, if I did not believe a word of it.|

|Then you do believe it?|

But Hugh was too much of a Scotchman to give a hasty opinion, or rather a direct answer -- even when half-tipsy; especially when such was evidently desired. He only shook and nodded his head at the same moment.

|Do you really mean you would meet her if you could?|

|I do.|

|Then, if all tales are true, you may, without much difficulty. For the coachman told me only to-day, that you may see her light in the window of that room almost any night, towards midnight. He told me, too (for I made quite a friend of him to-day, on purpose to hear his tales), that one of the maids, who left the other day, told the groom -- and he told the coachman -- that she had once heard talking; and, peeping through the key-hole of a door that led into that part of the old house, saw a figure, dressed exactly like the picture of Lady Euphrasia, wandering up and down, wringing her hands and beating her breast, as if she were in terrible trouble. She had a light in her hand which burned awfully blue, and her face was the face of a corpse, with pale-green spots.|

|You think to frighten me, Funkelstein, and make me tremble at what I said a minute ago. Instead of repeating that. I say now: I will sleep in Lady Euphrasia's room this night, if you like.|

|I lay you a hundred guineas you won't!| cried the Bohemian.

|Done!| said Hugh, offering him his hand. Funkelstein took it; and so the bet was committed to the decision of courage.

|Well, gentlemen,| interposed Mr. Arnold at last, |you might have left a corner for me somewhere. Without my permission you will hardly settle your wager.|

|I beg your pardon, Mr. Arnold,| said Funkelstein. |We got rather excited over it, and forgot our manners. But I am quite willing to give it up, if Mr. Sutherland will.|

|Not I,| said Hugh; -- |that is, of course, if Mr. Arnold has no objection.|

|Of course not. My house, ghost and all, is at your service, gentlemen,| responded Mr. Arnold, rising.

They went to the drawing-room. Mr. Arnold, strange to say, was in a good humour. He walked up to Mrs. Elton, and said:

|These wicked men have been betting, Mrs. Elton.|

|I am surprised they should be so silly,| said she, with a smile, taking it as a joke.

|What have they been betting about?| said Euphra, coming up to her uncle.

|Herr von Funkelstein has laid a hundred guineas that Mr. Sutherland will not sleep in Lady Euphrasia's room to-night.|

Euphra turned pale.

|By sleep I suppose you mean spend the night?| said Hugh to Funkelstein. |I cannot be certain of sleeping, you know.|

|Of course, I mean that,| answered the other; and, turning to Euphrasia, continued:

|I must say I consider it rather courageous of him to dare the spectre as he does, for he cannot say he disbelieves in her. But come and sing me one of the old songs,| he added, in an under tone.

Euphra allowed him to lead her to the piano; but instead of singing a song to him, she played some noisy music, through which he and she contrived to talk for some time, without being overheard; after which he left the room. Euphra then looked round to Hugh, and begged him with her eyes to come to her. He could not resist, burning with jealousy as he was.

|Are you sure you have nerve enough for this, Hugh?| she said, still playing.

|I have had nerve enough to sit still and look at you for the last half hour,| answered Hugh, rudely.

She turned pale, and glanced up at him with a troubled look. Then, without responding to his answer, said:

|I daresay the count is not over-anxious to hold you to your bet.|

|Pray intercede for me with the count, madam,| answered Hugh, sarcastically. |He would not wish the young fool to be frightened, I daresay. But perhaps he wishes to have an interview with the ghost himself, and grudges me the privilege.|

She turned deadly pale this time, and gave him one terrified glance, but made no other reply to his words. Still she played on.

|You will arm yourself?|

|Against a ghost? Yes, with a stout heart.|

|But don't forget the secret door through which we came that night, Hugh. I distrust the count.|

The last words were spoken in a whisper, emphasized into almost a hiss.

|Tell him I shall be armed. I tell you I shall meet him bare-handed. Betray me if you like.|

Hugh had taken his revenge, and now came the reaction. He gazed at Euphra; but instead of the injured look, which was the best he could hope to see, an expression of |pity and ruth| grew slowly in her face, making it more lovely than ever in his eyes. At last she seemed on the point of bursting into tears; and, suddenly changing the music, she began playing a dead-march. She kept her eyes on the keys. Once more, only, she glanced round, to see whether Hugh was still by her side; and he saw that her face was pale as death, and wet with silent tears. He had never seen her weep before. He would have fallen at her feet, had he been alone with her. To hide his feelings, he left the room, and then the house.

He wandered into the Ghost's Walk; and, finding himself there, walked up and down in it. This was certainly throwing the lady a bold challenge, seeing he was going to spend the night in her room.

The excitement into which jealousy had thrown him, had been suddenly checked by the sight of Euphra's tears. The reaction, too, after his partial intoxication, had already begun to set in; to be accounted for partly by the fact that its source had been chiefly champagne, and partly by the other fact, that he had bound himself in honour, to dare a spectre in her own favourite haunt.

On the other hand, the sight of Euphra's emotion had given him a far better courage than jealousy or wine could afford. Yet, after ten minutes passed in the shadows of the Ghost's Walk, he would not have taken the bet at ten times its amount.

But to lose it now would have been a serious affair for him, the disgrace of failure unconsidered. If he could have lost a hundred guineas, it would have been comparatively a slight matter; but to lose a bet, and be utterly unable to pay it, would be disgraceful -- no better than positive cheating. He had not thought of this at the time. Nor, even now, was it more than a passing thought; for he had not the smallest desire to recede. The ambition of proving his courage to Euphra, and, far more, the strength just afforded him by the sight of her tears, were quite sufficient to carry him on to the ordeal. Whether they would carry him through it with dignity, he did not ask himself.

And, after all, would the ghost appear? At the best, she might not come; at the very worst, she would be but a ghost; and he could say with Hamlet --

|for my soul, what can it do to that,

Being a thing as immortal as itself?|

But then, his jealousy having for the moment intermitted, Hugh was not able to say with Hamlet --

|I do not set my life at a pin's fee;|

and that had much to do with Hamlet's courage in the affair of the ghost.

He walked up and down the avenue, till, beginning to feel the night chilly, he began to feel the avenue eerie; for cold is very antagonistic to physical courage. But what refuge would he find in the ghost's room?

He returned to the drawing-room. Von Funkelstein and Euphra were there alone, but in no proximity. Mr. Arnold soon entered.

|Shall I have the bed prepared for you, Mr. Sutherland?| said Euphra.

|Which of your maids will you persuade to that office?| said Mr. Arnold, with a facetious expression.

|I must do it myself,| answered Euphra, |if Mr. Sutherland persists.|

Hugh saw, or thought he saw, the Bohemian dart an angry glance at Euphra, who shrank under it. But before he could speak, Mr. Arnold rejoined:

|You can make a bed, then? That is the housemaid's phrase, is it not?|

|I can do anything another can, uncle.|

|Bravo! Can you see the ghost?|

|Yes,| she answered, with a low lingering on the sibilant; looking round, at the same time, with an expression that implied a hope that Hugh had heard it; as indeed he had.

|What! Euphra too?| said Mr. Arnold, in a tone of gentle contempt.

|Do not disturb the ghost's bed for me,| said Hugh. |It would be a pity to disarrange it, after it has lain so for an age. Besides, I need not rouse the wrath of the poor spectre more than can't be helped. If I must sleep in her room, I need not sleep in her bed. I will lie on the old couch. Herr von Funkelstein, what proof shall I give you?|

|Your word, Mr. Sutherland,| replied Funkelstein, with a bow.

|Thank you. At what hour must I be there.|

|Oh! I don't know. By eleven I should think. Oh! any time before midnight. That's the ghost's own, is it not? It is now -- let me see -- almost ten.|

|Then I will go at once,| said Hugh, thinking it better to meet the gradual approach of the phantom-hour in the room itself, than to walk there through the desolate house, and enter the room just as the fear would be gathering thickest within it. Besides, he was afraid that his courage might have broken down a little by that time, and that he would not be able to conceal entirely the anticipative dread, whose inroad he had reason to apprehend.

|I have one good cup of tea yet, Mr. Sutherland,| said Euphra. |Will you not strengthen your nerves with that, before we lead you to the tomb?|

|Then she will go with me,| thought Hugh. |I will, thank you, Miss Cameron.|

He approached the table at which she stood pouring out the cup of tea. She said, low and hurriedly, without raising her head:

|Don't go, dear Hugh. You don't know what may happen.|

|I will go, Euphra. Not even you shall prevent me.|

|I will pay the wager for you -- lend you the money.|

|Euphra!| -- The tone implied many things.

Mr. Arnold approached. Other conversation followed. As half-past ten chimed from the clock on the chimney-piece, Hugh rose to go.

|I will just get a book from my room,| he said; |and then perhaps Herr von Funkelstein will be kind enough to see me make a beginning at least.|

|Certainly I will. And I advise you to let the book be Edgar Poe's Tales.|

|No. I shall need all the courage I have, I assure you. I shall find you here?|

|Yes.|

Hugh went to his room, and washed his face and hands. Before doing so, he pulled off his finger a ring of considerable value, which had belonged to his father. As he was leaving the room to return to the company, he remembered that he had left the ring on the washhand-stand. He generally left it there at night; but now he bethought himself that, as he was not going to sleep in the room, it might be as well to place it in the escritoire. He opened the secret place, and laid the diamond beside his poems and the crystal ring belonging to Mr. Arnold. This done, he took up his book again, and, returning to the drawing-room, found the whole party prepared to accompany him. Mr. Arnold had the keys. Von Funkelstein and he went first, and Hugh followed with Euphra.

|We will not contribute to your discomfiture by locking the doors on the way, Mr. Sutherland,| said Mr. Arnold.

|That is, you will not compel me to win the wager in spite of my fears,| said Hugh.

|But you will let the ghost loose on the household,| said the Bohemian, laughing.

|I will be responsible for that,| replied Mr. Arnold.

Euphra dropped a little behind with Hugh.

|Remember the secret passage,| said she. |You can get out when you will, whether they lock the door, or not. Don't carry it too far, Hugh.|

|The ghost you mean, Euphra. -- I don't think I shall,| said Hugh, laughing. But as he laughed, an involuntary shudder passed through him.

|Have I stepped over my own grave?| thought he.

They reached the room, and entered. Hugh would have begged them to lock him in, had he not felt that his knowledge of the secret door, would, although he intended no use of it, render such a proposal dishonourable. They gave him the key of the door, to lock it on the inside, and bade him good night. They were just leaving him, when Hugh on whom a new light had broken at last, in the gradual restoration of his faculties, said to the Bohemian:

|One word with you, Herr von Funkelstein, if you please.|

Funkelstein followed him into the room; when Hugh half-closing the door, said:

|I trust to your sympathy, as gentleman, not to misunderstand me. I wagered a hundred guineas with you in the heat of after-dinner talk. I am not at present worth a hundred shillings.|

|Oh!| began Funkelstein, with a sneer, |if you wish to get off on that ground -- |

|Herr von Funkelstein,| interrupted Hugh, in a very decided tone, |I pointed to your sympathy as a gentleman, as the ground on which I had hoped to meet you now. If you have difficulty in finding that ground, another may be found to-morrow without much seeking.|

Hugh paused for a moment after making this grand speech; but Funkelstein did not seem to understand him: he stood in a waiting attitude. Hugh therefore went on:

|Meantime, what I wanted to say is this: -- I have just left a ring in my room, which, though in value considerably below the sum mentioned between us, may yet be a pledge of my good faith, in as far as it is of infinitely more value to me than can be reckoned in money. It was the property of one who by birth, and perhaps by social position as well, was Herr von Funkelstein's equal. The ring is a diamond, and belonged to my father.|

Von Funkelstein merely replied:

|I beg your pardon, Mr. Sutherland, for misunderstanding you. The ring is quite an equivalent.| And making him a respectful bow, he turned and left him.

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