At the bottom of Mrs. Ramshorn's garden was a deep sunk fence, which allowed a large meadow, a fragment of what had once been the manor-park, to belong, so far as the eye was concerned, to the garden. Nor was this all, for in the sunk fence was a door with a little tunnel, by which they could pass at once from the garden to the meadow. So, the day being wonderfully fine, Bascombe proposed to his cousin a walk in the park, the close-paling of which, with a small door in it, whereto Mrs. Ramshorn had the privilege of a key, was visible on the other side of the meadow. The two keys had but to be fetched from the house, and in a few minutes they were in the park. The turf was dry, the air was still, and although the woods were very silent, and looked mournfully bare, the grass drew nearer to the roots of the trees, and the sunshine filled them with streaks of gold, blending lovelily with the bright green of the moss that patched the older stems. Neither horses nor dogs say to themselves, I suppose, that the sunshine makes them glad, yet both are happier, after the rules of equine and canine existence, on a bright day: neither Helen nor George could have understood a poem of Keats--not to say Wordsworth--(I do not mean they would not have fancied they did)--and yet the soul of nature that dwelt in these common shows did not altogether fail of influence upon them.
"I wonder what the birds do with themselves all the winter," said Helen.
"Eat berries, and make the best of it," answered George.
"I mean what becomes of them all. We see so few of them."
"About as many as you see in summer. Because you hear them you fancy you see them."
"But there is so little to hide them in winter."
"Little is wanted to hide our dusky creatures."
"They must have a hard time of it in frost and snow."
"Oh! I don't know," returned George. "They enjoy life on the whole, I believe. It ain't such a very bad sort of a world as some people would have it. Nature is cruel enough in some of her arrangements, it can't be denied. She don't scruple to carry out her plans. It is nothing to her that for the life of one great monster of a high-priest, millions upon millions of submissive little fishes should be sacrificed; and then if anybody come within the teeth of her machinery, don't she mangle him finely--with her fevers and her agues and her convulsions and consumptions and what not? But still, barring her own necessities, and the consequences of man's ignorance and foolhardiness, she is on the whole rather a good-natured old woman, and scatters a deal of tolerably fair enjoyment around her."
"One WOULD think the birds must be happy in summer, at least, to hear them sing," corroborated Helen.
"Yes, or to see them stripping a hawthorn bush in winter--always provided the cat or the hawk don't get hold of them. With that nature does not trouble herself. Well, it's soon over--with all of us, and that's a comfort. If men would only get rid of their cats and hawks,--such as the fancy for instance, that all their suffering comes of the will of a malignant power! That is the kind of thing that makes the misery of the world!"
"I don't quite see----" began Helen.
"We were talking about the birds in winter," interrupted George, careful not to swell too suddenly any of the air-bags with which he would float Helen's belief. He knew wisely, and he knew how, to leave a hint to work while it was yet not half understood. By the time it was understood, it would have grown a little familiar: the supposed pup when it turned out a cub, would not be so terrible as if it had presented itself at once as leonate.
And so they wandered across the park, talking easily.
"They've got on a good way since I was here last," said George, as they came in sight of the new house the new earl was building. "But they don't seem much in a hurry with it either."
"Aunt says it is twenty years since the foundations were laid by the uncle of the present earl," said Helen; "and then for some reason or other the thing was dropped."
"Was there no house on the place before?"
"Oh! yes--not much of a house, though."
"And they pulled it down, I suppose."
"No; it stands there still."
"Down in the hollow there--over those trees--about the worst place they could have built in. Surely you have seen it! Poldie and I used to run all over it."
"No, I never saw it. Was it empty then?"
"Yes, or almost. I can remember some little attention paid to the garden, but none to the house. It is just falling slowly to pieces. Would you like to see it?"
"That I should," returned Bascombe, who was always ready for any new impression on his sensorium, and away they went to look at the old house of Glaston as it was called, after some greatly older and probably fortified place.
In the hollow all the water of the park gathered to a lake before finding its way to the river Lythe. This lake was at the bottom of the old garden, and the house at the top of it. The garden was walled on the two sides, and the walls ran right down to the lake. There were wonderful legends current amongst the children of Glaston concerning that lake, its depth, and the creatures in it; and one terrible story, which had been made a ballad of, about a lady drowned in a sack, whose ghost might still be seen when the moon was old, haunting the gardens and the house. Hence it came that none of them went near it, except those few whose appetites for adventure now and then grew keen enough to prevent their imaginations from rousing more fear than supplied the proper relish of danger. The house itself even those few never dared to enter.
Not so had it been with Helen and Leopold. The latter had imagination enough to receive everything offered, but Helen was the leader, and she had next to none. In her childhood she had heard the tales alluded to from her nurses, but she had been to school since, and had learned not to believe them; and certainly she was not one to be frightened at what she did not believe. So when Leopold came in the holidays, the place was one of their favoured haunts, and they knew every cubic yard in the house.
"Here," said Helen to her cousin, as she opened the door in a little closet, and showed a dusky room which had no window but a small one high up in the wall of a back staircase, "here is one room into which I never could get Poldie without the greatest trouble. I gave it up at last, he always trembled so till he got out again. I will show you such a curious place at the other end of it."
She led the way to a closet similar to that by which they had entered, and directed Bascombe how to raise a trap which filled all the floor of it so that it did not show. Under the trap was a sort of well, big enough to hold three upon emergency.
"If only they could contrive to breathe," said George. "It looks ugly. If it had but a brain and a tongue it could tell tales."
"Come," said Helen. "I don't know how it is, but I don't like the look of it myself now. Let us get into the open air again."
Ascending from the hollow, and passing through a deep belt of trees that surrounded it, they came again to the open park, and by-and-by reached the road that led from the lodge to the new building, upon which they presently encountered a strange couple.