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- Dreams and Dream Stories - 20/44 -
"Not particularly as I remember," replied he musingly.
Then, after a moment's pause, he added more briskly, "Ay, ay, though, now I come to think of it, there was a man up here more'n five months back, a Frenchman, who came on purpose to see it and ask me one or two questions, but I on'y jest told him nothin' as I've told you. He was a popish priest, and seemed to take a sight of interest in the place somehow. I think if you want to know about it, sir, you'd better go and see him; he's staying down here in the village, about a mile and a half off, at the Crown Inn."
"And a queer old fellow he is," broke in my host's wife, who was clearing away the breakfast; "no one knows where he comes from, 'cept as he's a Frenchman. I see him about often, prowlin' along with his stick and his snuff-box, always alone, and sometimes he nods at me and says `good-morning' as I go by."
In consequence of this information I resolved to make my way immediately to the old priest's dwelling, and having acquainted myself with the direction in which the house lay, I took leave of my host, shouldered my bag once more, and set out en route. The air was clear and sharp, and the crisp snow crackled pleasantly under my Hessian boots as I strode along the country lanes. All traces of cloud had totally disappeared from the sky, the sun looked cheerfully down on me, and my morning's walk thoroughly refreshed and invigorated me. In due time I arrived at the inn which had been named to me as the abode of the Rev. M. Pierre,--a pretty homely little nest, with an antique gable and portico. Addressing myself to the elderly woman who answered my summons at the housedoor, I inquired if I could see M. Pierre, and, in reply, received a civil invitation to "step inside and wait." My suspense did not last long, for M. Pierre made his appearance very promptly. He was a tall, thin individual with a fried-looking complexion, keen sunken eyes, and sparse hair streaked with grey. He entered the room with a courteous bow and inquiring look. Rising from the chair in which I had rested myself by the fire, I advanced towards him and addressed him by name in my suavest tones. He inclined his head and looked at me more inquiringly than before." I have taken the liberty to request an interview with you this morning," continued I, "because I have been told that you may probably be able to give me some information of which I am in search, with regard to an old mansion in this part of the county, called `Steepside,' and in which I spent last night."
Scarcely had I uttered these last words when the expression of the old priest's face changed from one of courteous indifference to earnest interest:
"Do I understand you rightly, monsieur?" he said. "You say you slept last night in Steepside mansion?"
"I did not say I slept there," I rejoined, with an emphasis; "I said I passed the night there."
"Bien," said he dryly, "I comprehend. And you were not pleased with your night's lodging. That is so, is it not, monsieur,--is it not?" he repeated, eying my face curiously, as though he were seeking to read the expression of my thoughts there.
"You may be sure," said I, "that if something very peculiar had not occurred to me in that house, I should not thus have troubled a gentleman to whom I am, unhappily, a stranger."
He bowed slightly and then stood silent, contemplating me, and, as I think, considering whether or not he should afford me the information I desired. Presently, his scrutiny having apparently proved satisfactory, he withdrew his eyes from my face, and seated himself beside me.
"Monsieur," said he, "before I begin to answer your inquiry, I will ask you to tell me what you saw last night at Steepside."
He drew from his pocket a small, old-fashioned snuff-box and refreshed his little yellow nose with a pinch of rappee, after which ceremonial he leaned back at his ease, resting his chin in his hand and regarding me fixedly during the whole of my strange recital. When I had finished speaking he sat silent a few minutes, and then resumed, in his queer broken manner:
"What I am going to tell you I would not tell to any man who had not done what you have done, and seen what you saw last night. Mon Dieu! it is strange you should have been at that house last night of all nights in the year,--the 22nd of December!"
He seemed to make this reflection rather to himself than to me, and presently continued, taking a small key from a pocket in his vest as he spoke:
"Do you understand French well, monsieur?"
"Excellently well," returned I with alacrity; "a great part of my business correspondence is conducted in French, and I speak and hear it every day of my life."
He smiled pleasantly in reply, rose from his seat, and, unlocking with the key he held a small drawer in a chest that stood beside the chimney-piece, took out of it a roll of manuscript and a cigar.
"Monsieur," said he, offering me the latter, "let me recommend this, if you care to smoke so early in the day. I always prefer rappee, but you, doubtless, have younger tastes."
Having thus provided for my comfort, the old priest reseated himself, unfolded the manuscript, and, without further apology, read the following story in the French language:
Towards the latter part of the last century Steepside became the property of a certain Sir Julian Lorrington. His family consisted only of his wife, Lady Sarah, and their daughter Julia, a girl remarkable alike for her beauty and her expectations.
For a long time Sir Julian had retained in his establishment an old French maitre d'hotel and his wife, who both died in the baronet's service, leaving one child, Virginie, whom Lady Sarah, out of regard for the fidelity of her parents, engaged to educate and protect.
In due time this orphan, brought up in the household of Sir Julian, became the chosen companion of his heiress; and when the family took up their residence at Steepside, Virginie Giraud, who had been associated in Julia's studies and recreations from early childhood, was installed there as maid and confidant to the hope of the house.
Not long after the settlement at Steepside, Sir Julian, in the summary fashion of those days with regard to matrimonial affairs, announced his intention of bestowing his daughter upon a certain Welsh squire of old ancestry and broad acres. Sir Julian was a practical man, thoroughly incapable of regarding wedlock in any other light than as a mere union of wealth and property, the owners of which joined hands and lived together. This was the way in which he had married, and it was the way in which he intended his daughter to marry; love and passion were meaningless, if not vulgar words in his ears, and he conceived it impossible they should be otherwise to his only child. As for Lady Sarah, she was an unsympathetic creature, whose thoughts ran only on the ambition of seeing Julia married to some gentleman of high position, and heading a fine establishment with social success and distinction.
So it was not until all things relative to the contract had been duly arranged between these amiable parents and their intended son- in-law, that the bride elect was informed of the fortune in store for her.
But all the time that the lawyers had been preparing the marriage settlements, a young penniless gentleman named Philip Brian had been finding out for himself the way to Julia's heart, and these two had pledged their faith to each other only a few days before Sir Julian and Lady Lorrington formally announced their plans to their daughter. In consequence of her engagement with Philip, Julia received their intelligence with indignation, and protested that no power on earth should force her to act falsely to the young man whose promised wife she had become. The expression of this determination was received by both parents with high displeasure. Sir Julian indulged in a few angry oaths, and Lady Sarah in a little select satire; Philip Brian was, of course, forbidden the house, all letters and messages between the lovers were interdicted, and Julia was commanded to comport herself like a dutiful and obedient heiress.
Now Virginie Giraud was the friend as well as the attendant of Sir Julian's daughter, and it was Virginie therefore who, after the occurrence of this outbreak, was despatched to Philip with a note of warning from his mistress. Naturally the lover returned an answer by the same means, and from that hour Virginie continued to act as agent between the two, carrying letters to and fro, giving counsel and arranging meetings. Meanwhile the bridal day was fixed by the parent Lorringtons, and elaborate preparations were made for a wedding festival which should be the wonderment and admiration of the county. The breakfast room was decorated with lavish splendour, the richest apparel bespoken for the bride, and all the wealthy and titled relatives of both contracting families were invited to the pageant. Nor were Philip and Julia idle. It was arranged between them that, at eleven o'clock on the night of the day preceding the intended wedding, the young man should present himself beneath Julia's window, Virginie being on the watch and in readiness to accompany the flight of the lovers. All three, under cover of the darkness, should then steal down the avenue of the coach-drive and make their exit by the shrubbery gate, the key of which Virginie already had in keeping. The appointed evening came,--the 22nd of December. Snow lay deep upon the ground, and more threatened to fall before dawn, but Philip had engaged to provide horses equal to any emergency of weather, and the darkness of the night lent favor to the enterprise. Virginie's behavior all that day had somehow seemed unaccountable to her mistress. The maid's face was pallid and wore a strange expression of anxiety and apprehension. She winced and trembled when Julia's glance rested upon her, and her hands quivered violently while she helped the latter to adjust her hood and mantle as the hour of assignation approached. Endeavouring, however, to persuade herself that this strange conduct arose from a feeling of excitement or nervousness natural under the circumstances, Julia used a hundred kind words and tender gestures to reassure and support her companion. But the mote she consoled or admonished, the more agitated Virginie became, and matters stood in this condition when eleven o'clock arrived.
Julia waited at her chamber window, which was not above three feet from the ground without, her hood and mantle donned, listening eagerly for the sound of her lover's voice; and the French girl leant behind her against the closed door, nervously tearing to fragments a piece of paper she had taken from her pocket a minute ago. These torn atoms she flung upon the hearth, where a bright fire was blazing, not observing that, meanwhile, Julia had opened the window-
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