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- St. George and St. Michael Vol. II - 10/34 -
retained no hold.
Although Tom had indeed deserted his post, the organist was mistaken as to the cause and mode of his desertion: oppressed like every one else with the sultriness of the night, he had fallen fast asleep, leaning against the organ. The thunder only waked him sufficiently to render him capable of slipping from the stool on which he had lazily seated himself as he worked the lever of the bellows, and stretching himself at full length upon the floor; while the coolness that by degrees filled the air as the rain kept pouring, made his sleep sweeter and deeper. He lay and snored till midnight.
A bell rang in the marquis's chamber.
It was one of his lordship's smaller economic maxims that in every house, and the larger the house the more necessary its observance, the master thereof should have his private rooms as far apart from each other as might, with due respect to general fitness, be arranged for, in order that, to use his own figure, he might spread his skirts the wider over the place, and chiefly the part occupied by his own family and immediate attendants--thereby to give himself, without paying more attention to such matters than he could afford, a better chance of coming upon the trace of anything that happened to be going amiss. 'For,' he said, 'let a man have ever so many responsible persons about him, the final responsibility of his affairs yet returns upon himself.' Hence, while his bedroom was close to the main entrance, that is the gate to the stone court, the room he chose for retirement and study was over the western gate, that of the fountain-court, nearly a whole side of the double quadrangle away from his bedroom, and still farther from the library, which was on the other side of the main entrance--whence, notwithstanding, he would himself, gout permitting, always fetch any book he wanted. It was, therefore, no wonder that, being now in his study, the marquis, although it rang loud, never heard the bell which Caspar had hung in his bedchamber. He was, however, at the moment, looking from a window which commanded the very spot--namely, the mouth of the archway--towards which the bell would have drawn his attention.
The night was still, the rain was over, and although the moon was clouded, there was light enough to recognise a known figure in any part of the court, except the shadowed recess where the door of the chapel and the archway faced each other, and the door of the hall stood at right angles to both.
Came a great clang that echoed loud through the court, followed by the roar of water. It sounded as if a captive river had broken loose, and grown suddenly frantic with freedom. The marquis could not help starting violently, for his nerves were a good deal shaken. The same instant, ere there was time for a single conjecture, a torrent, visible by the light of its foam, shot from the archway, hurled itself against the chapel door, and vanished. Sad and startled as he was, lord Worcester, requiring no explanation of the phenomenon now that it was completed, laughed aloud and hurried from the room.
When he had screwed his unwieldy form to the bottom of the stair, and came out into the court, there was Tom Fool flying across the turf in mortal terror, his face white as another moon, and his hair standing on end--visibly in the dull moonshine.
His terror had either deafened him, or paralysed the nerves of his obedience, for the first call of his master was insufficient to stop him. At the second, however, he halted, turned mechanically, went to him trembling, and stood before him speechless. But when the marquis, to satisfy himself that he was really as dry as he seemed, laid his hand on his arm, the touch brought him to himself, and, assisted by his master's questions, he was able to tell how he had fallen asleep in the chapel, had waked but a minute ago, had left it by the minstrels' gallery, had reached the floor of the hall, and was approaching the western door, which was open, in order to cross the court to his lodging near the watch-tower, when a hellish explosion, followed by the most frightful roaring, mingled with shrieks and demoniacal laughter, arrested him; and the same instant, through the open door, he saw, as plainly as he now saw his noble master, a torrent rush from the archway, full of dim figures, wallowing and shouting. The same moment they all vanished, and the flood poured into the hall, wetting him to the knees, and almost carrying him off his legs.
Here the marquis professed profound astonishment, remarking that the water must indeed have been thickened with devils to be able to lay hold of Tom's legs.
'Then,' pursued Tom, reviving a little, 'I summoned up all my courage--'
'No great feat,' said the marquis.
But Tom went on unabashed.
'I summoned up the whole of my courage,' he repeated, 'stepped out of the hall, carefully examined the ground, looked through the arch-way, saw nothing, and was walking slowly across the court to my lodging, pondering with myself whether to call my lord governor or sir Toby Mathews, when I heard your lordship call me.'
'Tom! Tom! thou liest,' said the marquis. 'Thou wast running as if all the devils in hell had been at thy heels.'
Tom turned deadly pale, a fresh access of terror overcoming his new-born hardihood.
'Who were they, thinkest thou, whom thou sawest in the water, Tom?' resumed his master. 'For what didst thou take them?'
Tom shook his head with an awful significance, looked behind him, and said nothing.
Perceiving there was no more to be got out of him, the marquis sent him to bed. He went off shivering and shaking. Three times ere he reached the watch-tower his face gleamed white over his shoulder as he went. The next day he did not appear. He thought himself he was doomed, but his illness was only the prostration following upon terror.
In the version of the story which he gave his fellow-servants, he doubtless mingled the after visions of his bed with what he had when half-awake seen and heard through the mists of his startled imagination. His tale was this--that he saw the moat swell and rise, boil over in a mass, and tumble into the court as full of devils as it could hold, swimming in it, floating on it, riding it aloft as if it had been a horse; that in a moment they had all vanished again, and that he had not a doubt the castle was now swarming with them--in fact, he had heard them all the night long.
The marquis walked up to the archway, saw nothing save the grim wall of the keep, impassive as granite crag, and the ground wet a long way towards the white horse; and never doubting he had lost his chance by taking Tom for the culprit, contented himself with the reflection that, whoever the night-walkers were, they had received both a fright and a ducking, and betook himself to bed, where, falling asleep at length, he saw little Molly in the arms of mother Mary, who, presently changing to his own lady Anne that left him about a year before little Molly came, held out a hand to him to help him up beside them, whereupon the bubble sleep, unable to hold the swelling of his gladness, burst, and he woke just as the first rays of the sun smote the gilded cock on the bell-tower.
The noise of the falling drawbridge and the out-rushing water had roused Dorothy also, with most of the lighter sleepers in the castle; but when she and all the rest whose windows were to the fountain court, ran to them and looked out, they saw nothing but the flight of Tom Fool across the turf, its arrest by his master, and their following conference. The moon had broken through the clouds, and there was no mistaking either of their persons.
Meantime, inside the chapel door stood Amanda and Rowland, both dripping, and one of them crying as well. Thither, as into a safe harbour, the sudden flood had cast them; and it indicated no small amount of ready faculty in Scudamore that, half-stunned as he was, he yet had the sense, almost ere he knew where he was, to put up the long bar that secured the door.
All the time that the marquis was drawing his story from Tom, they stood trembling, in great bewilderment yet very sensible misery, bruised, drenched, and horribly frightened, more even at what might be than by what had been. There was only one question, but that was hard to answer: what were they to do next? Amanda could contribute nothing towards its solution, for tears and reproaches resolve no enigmas. There were many ways of issue, whereof Rowland knew several; but their watery trail, if soon enough followed, would be their ruin as certainly as Hop-o'-my-Thumb's pebbles were safety to himself and his brothers. He stood therefore the very bond slave of perplexity, 'and, like a neutral to his will and matter, did nothing.'
Presently they heard the approaching step of the marquis, which every one in the castle knew. It stopped within a few feet of them, and through the thick door they could hear his short asthmatic breathing.
They kept as still as their trembling, and the mad beating of their hearts, would permit. Amanda was nearly out of her senses, and thought her heart was beating against the door, and not against her own ribs. But the marquis never thought of the chapel, having at once concluded that they had fled through the open hall. Had he not, however, been so weary and sad and listless, he would probably have found them, for he would at least have crossed the hall to look into the next court, and, the moon now shining brightly, the absence of all track on the floor where the traces of the brief inundation ceased, would have surely indicated the direction in which they had sought refuge.
The acme of terror happily endured but a moment. The sound of his departing footsteps took the ghoul from their hearts; they began to breathe, and to hope that the danger was gone. But they waited long ere at last they ventured, like wild animals overtaken by the daylight, to creep out of their shelter and steal back like shadows--but separately, Amanda first, and Scudamore some slow minutes after--to their different quarters. The tracks they could not help leaving in-doors were dried up before the morning.
Rowland had greater reason to fear discovery than any one else in the castle, save one, would in like circumstances have had, and that one was his bedfellow in the ante-chamber to his master's bedroom. Through this room his lordship had to pass to reach his own; but so far was he from suspecting Rowland, or indeed any gentleman of his retinue, that he never glanced in the direction of his bed, and so could not discover that he was absent from it. Had Rowland but
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