The days passed quickly by; and the last evening that Hugh was to spend at Arnstead arrived. He wandered out alone. He had been with Harry all day, and now he wished for a few moments of solitude. It was a lovely autumn evening. He went into the woods behind the house. The leaves were still thick upon the trees, but most of them had changed to gold, and brown, and red; and the sweet faint odours of those that had fallen, and lay thick underfoot, ascended like a voice from the grave, saying: "Here dwelleth some sadness, but no despair." As he strolled about among them, the whole history of his past life arose before him. This often happens before any change in our history, and is surest to take place at the approach of the greatest change of all, when we are about to pass into the unknown, whence we came.
In this mood, it was natural that his sins should rise before him. They came as the shadows of his best pleasures. For now, in looking back, he could fix on no period of his history, around which the aureole, which glorifies the sacred things of the past, had gathered in so golden a hue, as around the memory of the holy cottage, the temple in which abode David, and Janet, and Margaret. All the story glided past, as the necromantic Will called up the sleeping dead in the mausoleum of the brain. And that solemn, kingly, gracious old man, who had been to him a father, he had forgotten; the homely tenderness which, from fear of its own force, concealed itself behind a humorous roughness of manner, he had -- no, not despised -- but forgotten, too; and if the dim pearly loveliness of the trustful, grateful maiden had not been quite forgotten, yet she too had been neglected, had died, as it were, and been buried in the churchyard of the past, where the grass grows long over the graves, and the moss soon begins to fill up the chiselled records. He was ungrateful. He dared not allow to himself that he was unloving; but he must confess himself ungrateful.
Musing sorrowfully and self-reproachfully, he came to the Ghost's Avenue. Up and down its aisle he walked, a fit place for remembering the past, and the sins of the present. Yielding himself to what thoughts might arise, the strange sight he had seen here on that moonlit night, of two silent wandering figures -- or could it be that they were one and the same, suddenly changed in hue? -- returned upon him. This vision had been so speedily followed by the second and more alarming apparition of Lady Euphrasia, that he had hardly had time to speculate on what the former could have been. He was meditating upon all these strange events, and remarking to himself that, since his midnight encounter with Lady Euphrasia, the house had been as quiet as a church-yard at noon, when all suddenly, he saw before him, at some little distance, a dark figure approaching him. His heart seemed to bound into his throat and choke him, as he said to himself: "It is the nun again!" But the next moment he saw that it was Euphra. I do not know which he would have preferred not meeting alone, and in the deepening twilight: Euphra, too, had become like a ghost to him. His first impulse was to turn aside into the wood, but she had seen him, and was evidently going to address him. He therefore advanced to meet her. She spoke first, approaching him with painful steps.
"I have been looking for you, Mr. Sutherland. I wanted very much to have a little conversation with you before you go. Will you allow me?"
Hugh felt like a culprit directly. Euphra's manner was quite collected and kind; yet through it all a consciousness showed itself, that the relation which had once existed between them had passed away for ever. In her voice there was something like the tone of wind blowing through a ruin.
"I shall be most happy," said he.
She smiled sadly. A great change had passed upon her.
"I am going to be quite open with you," she said. "I am perfectly aware, as well as you are, that the boyish fancy you had for me is gone. Do not be offended. You are manly enough, but your love for me was boyish. Most first loves are childish, quite irrespective of age. I do not blame you in the least."
This seemed to Hugh rather a strange style to assume, if all was true that his own eyes had reported. She went on:
"Nor must you think it has cost me much to lose it."
Hugh felt hurt, at which no one who understands will be surprised.
"But I cannot afford to lose you, the only friend I have," she added.
Hugh turned towards her with a face full of manhood and truth.
"You shall not lose me, Euphra, if you will be honest to yourself and to me."
"Thank you. I can trust you. I will be honest."
At that moment, without the revival of a trace of his former feelings, Hugh felt nearer to her than he had ever felt before. Now there seemed to be truth between them, the only medium through which beings can unite.
"I fear I have wronged you much," she went on. "I do not mean some time ago." Here she hesitated. -- "I fear I am the cause of your leaving Arnstead."
"You, Euphra? No. You must be mistaken."
"I think not. But I am compelled to make an unwilling disclosure of a secret -- a sad secret about myself. Do not hate me quite -- I am a somnambulist."
She hid her face in her hands, as if the night which had now closed around them did not hide her enough. Hugh did not reply. Absorbed in the interest which both herself and her confession aroused in him, he could only listen eagerly. She went on, after a moment's pause:
"I did not think at first that I had taken the ring. I thought another had. But last night, and not till then, I discovered that I was the culprit."
"That requires explanation. I have no recollection of the events of the previous night when I have been walking in my sleep. Indeed, the utter absence of a sense of dreaming always makes me suspect that I have been wandering. But sometimes I have a vivid dream, which I know, though I can give no proof of it, to be a reproduction of some previous somnambulic experience. Do not ask me to recall the horrors I dreamed last night. I am sure I took the ring."
"Then you dreamed what you did with it?"
"Yes, I gave it to --"
Here her voice sank and ceased. Hugh would not urge her.
"Have you mentioned this to Mr. Arnold?"
"No. I do not think it would do any good. But I will, if you wish it," she added submissively.
"Not at all. Just as you think best."
"I could not tell him everything. I cannot tell you everything. If I did, Mr. Arnold would turn me out of the house. I am a very unhappy girl, Mr. Sutherland."
From the tone of these words, Hugh could not for a moment suppose that Euphra had any remaining design of fascination in them.
"Perhaps he might want to keep you, if I told him all; but I do not think, after the way he has behaved to you, that you could stay with him, for he would never apologize. It is very selfish of me; but indeed I have not the courage to confess to him."
"I assure you nothing could make me remain now. But what can I do for you?"
"Only let me depend upon you, in case I should need your help; or --"
Here Euphra stopped suddenly, and caught hold of Hugh's left hand, which he had lifted to brush an insect from his face.
"Where is your ring?" she said, in a tone of suppressed anxiety.
"Gone, Euphra. My father's ring! It was lying beside Lady Euphrasia's."
Euphra's face was again hidden in her hands. She sobbed and moaned like one in despair. When she grew a little calmer, she said:
"I am sure I did not take your ring, dear Hugh -- I am not a thief. I had a kind of right to the other, and he said it ought to have been his, for his real name was Count von Halkar -- the same name as Lady Euphrasia's before she was married. He took it, I am sure."
"It was he that knocked me down in the dark that night then, Euphra."
"Did he? Oh! I shall have to tell you all. -- That wretch has a terrible power over me. I loved him once. But I refused to take the ring from your desk, because I knew it would get you into trouble. He threw me into a somnambulic sleep, and sent me for the ring. But I should have remembered if I had taken yours. Even in my sleep, I don't think he could have made me do that. You may know I speak the truth, when I am telling my own disgrace. He promised to set me free if I would get the ring; but he has not done it; and he will not."
Sobs again interrupted her.
"I was afraid your ring was gone. I don't know why I thought so, except that you hadn't it on, when you came to see me. Or perhaps it was because I am sometimes forced to think what that wretch is thinking. He made me go to him that night you saw me, Hugh. But I was so ill, I don't think I should have been able, but that I could not rest till I had asked him about your ring. He said he knew nothing about it."
"I am sure be has it," said Hugh. And he related to Euphra the struggle he had had with Funkelstein and its result. She shuddered.
"I have been a devil to you, Hugh; I have betrayed you to him. You will never see your ring again. Here, take mine. It is not so good as yours, but for the sake of the old way you thought of me, take it."
"No, no, Euphra; Mr. Arnold would miss it. Besides, you know it would not be my father's ring, and it was not for the value of the diamond I cared most about it. And I am not sure that I shall not find it again. I am going up to London, where I shall fall in with him, I hope."
"But do take care of yourself. He has no conscience. God knows, I have had little, but he has none."
"I know he has none; but a conscience is not a bad auxiliary, and there I shall have some advantage of him. But what could he want that ring of Lady Euphrasia's for?"
"I don't know. He never told me."
"It was not worth much."
"Next to nothing."
"I shall be surer to find that than my own. And I will find it, if I can, that Mr. Arnold may believe I was not to blame."
"Do. But be careful."
"Don't fear. I will be careful."
She held out her hand, as if to take leave of him, but withdrew it again with the sudden cry:
"What shall I do? I thought he had left me to myself, till that night in the library."
She held down her head in silence. Then she said, slowly, in a tone of agony:
"I am a slave, body and soul. -- Hugh!" she added, passionately, and looking up in his face, "do you think there is a God?"
Her eyes glimmered with the faint reflex from gathered tears, that silently overflowed.
And now Hugh's own poverty struck him with grief and humiliation. Here was a soul seeking God, and he had no right to say that there was a God, for he knew nothing about him. He had been told so; but what could that far-off witness do for the need of a desolate heart? She had been told so a million of times. He could not say that he knew it. That was what she wanted and needed.
He was honest, and so replied:
"I do not know. I hope so."
He felt that she was already beyond him; for she had begun to cry into the vague, seemingly heartless void, and say:
"Is there a God somewhere to hear me when I cry?"
And with all the teaching he had had, he had no word of comfort to give. Yes, he had: he had known David Elginbrod.
Before he had shaped his thought, she said:
"I think, if there were a God, he would help me; for I am nothing but a poor slave now. I have hardly a will of my own."
The sigh she heaved told of a hopeless oppression.
"The best man, and the wisest, and the noblest I ever knew," said Hugh, "believed in God with his whole heart and soul and strength and mind. In fact, he cared for nothing but God; or rather, he cared for everything because it belonged to God. He was never afraid of anything, never vexed at anything, never troubled about anything. He was a good man."
Hugh was surprised at the light which broke upon the character of David, as he held it before his mind's eye, in order to describe it to Euphra. He seemed never to have understood him before.
"Ah! I wish I knew him. I would go to that man, and ask him to save me. Where does he live?"
"Alas! I do not know whether he is alive or dead -- the more to my shame. But he lives, if he lives, far away in the north of Scotland."
"No. I could not go there. I will write to him."
Hugh could not discourage her, though he doubted whether a real communication could be established between them.
"I will write down his address for you, when I go in," said he. "But what can he save you from?"
"From no God," she answered, solemnly. "If there is no God, then I am sure that there is a devil, and that he has got me in his power."
Hugh felt her shudder, for she was leaning on his arm, she was still so lame. She continued:
"Oh! if I had a God, he would right me, I know."
Hugh could not reply. A pause followed.
"Good-bye. I feel pretty sure we shall meet again. My presentiments are generally true," said Euphra, at length.
Hugh kissed her hand with far more real devotion than he had ever kissed it with before.
She left him, and hastened to the house 'with feeble speed.' He was sorry she was gone. He walked up and down for some time, meditating on the strange girl and her strange words; till, hearing the dinner bell, he too must hasten in to dress.
Euphra met him at the dinner-table without any change of her late manner. Mr. Arnold wished him good night more kindly than usual. When he went up to his room, he found that Harry had already cried himself to sleep.