Thomas Wingfold, Curate - vol.2

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"Mr. Wingfold," said Polwarth one evening, the usual salutations over, taking what he commonly left to his friend--the initiative,--"I want to tell you something I don't wish even Rachel to hear."

He led the way to his room, and the curate followed. Seated there, in the shadowy old attic, through the very walls of which the ivy grew, and into which, by the open window in the gable, from the infinite west, blew the evening air, carrying with it the precious scent of honeysuckle, to mingle with that of old books, Polwarth recounted and Wingfold listened to a strange adventure. The trees hid the sky, and the little human nest was dark around them.

"I am going to make a confidant of you, Mr. Wingfold," said the dwarf, with troubled face, and almost whispered word. "You will know how much I have already learned to trust you when I say that what I am about to confide to you plainly involves the secret of another."

His large face grew paler as he spoke, and something almost like fear grew in his eyes, but they looked straight into those of the curate, and his voice did not tremble.

"One night, some weeks ago--I can, if necessary, make myself certain of the date,--I was--no uncommon thing with me--unable to sleep. Sometimes, when such is my case, I lie as still and happy as any bird under the wing of its mother; at other times I must get up and go out, for I take longings for air almost as a drunkard for wine, and that night nothing would serve my poor prisoned soul but more air through the bars of its lungs. I rose, dressed, and went out.

"It was a still, warm night, no moon, but plenty of star-light, the wind blowing as now, gentle and sweet and cool--just the wind my lungs sighed for. I got into the open park, avoiding the trees, and wandered on and on, without thinking where I was going. The turf was soft under my feet, the dusk soft to my eyes, and the wind to my soul; I had breath and room and leisure and silence and loneliness, and everything to make me more than usually happy; and so I wandered on and on, neither caring nor looking whither I went: so long as the stars remained unclouded, I could find my way back when I pleased.

"I had been out perhaps an hour, when through the soft air came a cry, apparently from far off. There was something in the tone that seemed to me unusually frightful. The bare sound made me shudder before I had time to say to myself it was a cry. I turned my face in the direction of it, so far as I could judge, and went on. I cannot run, for, if I attempt it, I am in a moment unable even to walk--from palpitation and choking.

"I had not gone very far before I found myself approaching the hollow where stands the old house of Glaston, uninhabited for twenty years. Was it possible, I thought, that the cry came from the house, and had therefore sounded farther off than it was? I stood and listened for a moment, but all seemed still as the grave. I must go in, and see whether anyone was there in want of help. You may well smile at the idea of my helping anyone, for what could I do if it came to a struggle?"

"On the contrary," interrupted Wingfold, "I was smiling with admiration of your pluck."

"At least," resumed Polwarth, "I have this advantage over some, that I cannot be fooled with the fancy that this poor miserable body of mine is worth thinking of beside the smallest suspicion of duty. What is it but a cracked jug? So down the slope I went, got into the garden, and made my way through the tangled bushes to the house. I knew the place perfectly, for I had often wandered all over it, sometimes spending hours there.

"Before I reached the door, however, I heard some one behind me in the garden, and instantly stepped into a thicket of gooseberry and currant bushes. It is sometimes an advantage to be little--the moment I stepped aside I was hidden. That same moment the night seemed rent in twain by a most hideous cry from the house. Ere I could breathe again after it, the tall figure of a woman rushed past me, tearing its way through the bushes towards the door. I followed instantly, saw her run up the steps, and heard her open and shut the door. I opened it as quietly as I could, but just as I stepped into the dark hall, came a third fearful cry, through the echoes of which in the empty house I heard the rush of hurried feet and trailing garments on the stair. As I say I knew the house quite well, but my perturbation had so muddled the idea of it in my brain, that for a few seconds I had to consider how it lay. The moment I recalled its plan, I made what haste I could, reached the top of the stair, and was hesitating which way to turn, when once more came the fearful cry, and set me trembling from head to foot. I cannot describe the horror of it. It was as the cry of a soul in torture--unlike any sound of the human voice I had ever before heard. I shudder now at the recollection of it as it echoed through the house, clinging to the walls and driven along. I was hurrying I knew not whither, for I had again lost all notion of the house, when I caught a glimpse of a light shining from under a door. I approached it softly, and finding that door inside a small closet, knew at once where I was. As I was in office on the ground, and it could hardly be any thing righteous that led to such an outcry in the house, which, although deserted, was still my master's, I felt justified in searching further into the matter. Laying my ear therefore against the door, I heard what was plainly a lady's voice. Right sweet and womanly it was, though full of pain--even agony, I thought, but heroically suppressed. She soothed, she expostulated, she condoled, she coaxed. Mingled with hers was the voice of a youth, as it seemed. It was wild, yet so low as sometimes to be all but inaudible, and not a word from either could I distinguish. Hardly the less plain was it, however, that the youth spoke either in delirium or with something terrible on his mind, for his tones were those of one in despair. I stood for a time bewildered, fascinated, terrified. At length I grew convinced somehow that I had no right to be there. Doubtless the man was in hiding, and where a man hides there must he reason, but was it any business of mine? I crept out of the house, and up to the higher ground. There I drew deep breaths of the sweet night air--so pure that it seemed to be washing the world clean for another day's uses. But I had no longer any pleasure in the world. I went straight home, and to bed again--but had brought little repose with me: I must do something--but what? The only result certain to follow, was more trouble to the troubled already. Might there not be innocent reasons for the questionable situation?--Might not the man have been taken ill, and so suddenly that he could reach no other shelter? And the lady might be his wife, who had gone as soon as she could leave him to find help, but had failed. There MUST be some simple explanation of the matter, however strange it showed! I might, in the morning, be of service to them. And partly comforted by the temporary conclusion, I got a little troubled sleep.

"As soon as I had had a cup of tea, I set out for the old house. I heard the sounds of the workmen's hammers on the new one as I went. All else was silence. The day looked so honest and so clear of conscience that it was difficult to believe the night had shrouded such an awful meeting. Yet, in the broad light of the forenoon, a cold shudder seized me when first I looked down on the slack ridges and broken roofs of the old house. When I got into the garden I began to sing and knock the bushes about, then opened the door noisily, and clattered about in the hall and the lower rooms before going up the stair. Along every passage and into every room I went, to give good warning ere I approached that in which I had heard the voices. At length I stood at the door of it and knocked. There was no answer. I knocked again. Still no answer. I opened it and peeped in. There was no one there! An old bedstead was all I saw. I searched every corner, but not one trace could I discover of human being having been there, except this behind the bed--and it may have lain there as long as the mattress, which I remember since the first time I ever went into the house."

As he spoke Polwarth handed to the curate a small leather sheath, which, from its shape, could not have belonged to a pair of scissors, although neither of the men knew any sort of knife it would have fitted.

"Would you mind taking care of it, Mr. Wingfold?" the gate-keeper continued as the curate examined it; "I don't like having it. I can't even bear to think of it even in the house, and yet I don't quite care to destroy it."

"I don't in the least mind taking charge of it," answered Wingfold.

Why was it that, as he said so, the face of Helen Lingard rose before his mind's eye as he had now seen it twice in the congregation at the Abbey--pale with an inward trouble as it seemed, large-eyed and worn--so changed, yet so ennobled? Even then he had felt the deadening effect of its listlessness, and had had to turn away lest it should compel him to feel that he was but talking to the winds, or into a desert where dwelt no voice of human response. Why should he think of her now? Was it that her troubled pallid face had touched him--had set something near his heart a trembling, whether with merely human sympathy or with the tenderness of man for suffering woman? Certainly he had never till then thought of her with the slightest interest, and why should she come up to him now? Could it be that--? Good heavens! There was her brother ill! And had not Faber said there seemed something unusual about the character of his illness?--What could it mean?--It was impossible of course--but yet--and yet--

"Do you think," he said, "we are in any way bound to inquire further into the affair?"

"If I had thought so, I should not have left it unmentioned till now," answered Polwarth. "But without being busybodies, we might be prepared in case the thing should unfold itself, and put it in our power to be useful. Meantime I have the relief of the confessional."

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