Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

A pause a moan-the clank of fetters-and then, dropping again to prose, followed in a low, dreamy sort of utterance-" Ah, well! And all the time cold, cruel Lucifer was after nothing but the filthy lucre; walking off at last with the white pussy-cat and the dirty pelf; noting little how it fared with poor Molly Bawn!" Several heart-piercing shrieks closed the wild dialogue, at the termination of which ensued a silence unbroken, save by the agitated palpitations of my own heart. It was sufficiently clear that I was in the immediate vicinity of a raving maniac; and of, perhaps, a dangerous one too. A delightful disclosure this, forsooth, wherefor aught I knew to the contrary-any moment might throw me into the clutches of this demented individual; unanswerable for his actions, however savage a form they might take. A second's rereflection; and the somewhat consolatory thought suggested itself that the rattling fetters so much heard gave assurance of the unhappy wretch being in some sort of durance, and consequently unable to roam about at will. But then, again, how near the lair of this unfortunate prisoner I might be complete darkness utterly precluded my ascertaining. One false step-and I shuddered at the possible result. To remain, however, motionless for any length of time where I stood was of course out of the question; so slowly and cautiously I advanced at a snail's creep, endeavouring by the feel to make sure of a clear coast; for what hidden dangers, what stray pitfalls, lay in my way it was impossible to surmise. Risking, perhaps, even in this slow method of progression, a thousand snares, none the less hazardous because impalpable, I steered my course as fate would have it, but whither there was no means of even conjecturing. At last, each moment seeming an hour, there glimmered, as from a far-off distance, the faintest possible ray of light, a gleam so feeble that none but faculties strained to the utmost would ever have caught its lure. Cheered by this discovery, I somewhat hastened my steps, hope taking wings even at so weak and uncertain a promise as the one just descried. Clearer, and clearer, as I now more boldly strode forward, became the gladdening light, when suddenly rounding a corner I espied high up in the wall before me, a small barred aperture admitting both the light and air of heaven. Though but the chilling blast of a wintry wind, and the dying beams of a fast waning day, there was something soothing in their presence, to one situated as I was. The illumination, though poor, and every moment waxing poorer, was still sufficient to enable me to discern the nature of the locality around me. I found it to be, as I had already anticipated, a vast cellar. A vaulted roof was supported by Gothic arches resting on stout blocks or buttresses of solid masonry. On one side stretched away a dark, cavernous expange; while on the other, just under the opening alluded to as my

guiding star through the impenetrable darkness I had emerged from, a small space had been rudely partioned of, by means of rough timber, into a kind of cell, at the open entrance to which I now found myself. In the further corner of this dreary-looking lodgment, half sitting, half crouching on a layer of straw spread over a species of bedstead, or rather a broad wooden settle, I perceived a human form clad in a loose garment of coarse sacking. Chains, of seemingly great weight, connected ankles and wrists, and were also attached to a still more massive-look ing one secured to a staple fixed in the stone flooring, thereby leaving the miserable victim they enthralled but slight scope for locomotion. Cool as the breeze which had first fallen on my throbbing temples, a foetid effluvia seemed now to have usurped its place, and overcame me with the nausea it produced. Mastering, however, my feelings by a strong effort I determined to investigate the position and see what it would lead to. Whether the figure before me represented that of a man or of a woman it was difficult to at once decide, the dark, grizzly hair of the uncovered head being cut about as short as it well could be. The harsh, strongly-marked features, too, that had sharply and eagerly turned themselves upon me the instant I arrived within their ken, stealthy as had been my approach, might well have belonged to either sex. A low brow, overhanging deeply set eyes, whose fierce, yet sadly vacillating gaze, told but too plainly their tale of a wandering intellect, covered with a massive jowl and a repulsive expression of the mouth, gave a ferocious mien to the degraded wretch that called forth a combined feeling of pity and abhorrence. Hardly, however, had I time to note all the harrowing details of the scene, ere the loathsome object before me, with a savage scowl, thus proceeded to address me in an unpleasant, grating voice, wherein mingled both plaintiveness and vituperation:-"So, there thou art at last, archfiend! Ah, woe is me!" Here a deep-drawn sigh and a half howl momentarily interrupted the discourse; then resuming: “The white pussy-cat is dead? Deny it not, Syntax; she is gone, gone, gone, or thou would'st not come back, thou truculent deceiver, to behold thy handiwork. Look, foul fien 1, false perjured man, look at me; and laugh, and triumph if thou canst. Where, hellhound, is the young fond heart I once confided to thy keeping, to cherish and enshrine in thy bosom along with thine own? Where, I say, is it? Why crushed, pouuded to atoms beneath thy ruthless heel. Traitor, I will have vengeance on thee." With menacing gesture the excited maniac here rose; and would, but for being so shortly and strongly tethered, have instantaneously administered a severe, perhaps fatal, chastisement on my unoffending person, when, lo! to my great relief, suddenly assuming an air of calmness and intelligence, as though reason once more reasserted its sway,

Then

the poor creature shrank from me, and implored forgiveness; adding: "Who are you? What do you want? I know you not." Frightfully shocked at the awful picture I beheld, I stood for a little while uncertain as to what course to pursue. bethinking me that conciliation would be the best policy, I hastened to assure my now prostrate companion, that far from being bent on harm, I, myself, was an accidental and unwilling captive in this foul and gloomy haunt of misery. An assurance that evidently gave great satisfaction to the frightened and cowering form that now, again reclined on the hard and filthy pallet I had first seen it Who are you, and why are you thus confined?" I said in as calm and gentle a tone as I could well command.

on.

"Ah! who am I? A question you had need to ask, I'm sure." A response that somewhat took me aback from the sudden haughtiness with which it was pronounced, and the proud elevation of the head and figure that accompanied it. Notwithstanding all the painful surroundings, the growing darkness and the too often pitiably demented air and demeanour of the individual with whom I held converse, a conviction had gradually stolen over me that I was addressing a lady, and one who, however fallen now, must ence, ere overshadowed by an eclipse of intellect, have been possessed of refined feelings and of a highly cultivated mind. There was something in the stately bearing occasionally assumed-natural and unaffected, though abruptly put on-in the suave tones to which she could modulate her otherwise hard, repellant voice, that left no doubt on my mind as to the sex and gentle nurture of the unhappy woman for whose fate my heart bled even despite my own apparently equally deplorable position. Silent and motionless, entranced, 1 suppose, by the evil-eye, as birds are said to be by the wily stare of the serpent, I stood listening to the voluble harangue with which my ears were assailed. With a calm confidence that surprised me, she gave me in rapid accents the following narrative tolerably coherent in its details, and but little interrupted by frenzied outbursts :-"Stranger, you doubtless think I am mad, but I am not. Enough I have gone through, all the same, to make a thousand women mad. Hard have they striven to reduce me to that state. Sit you down, man, and listen to my tale. 'Tis but a sorry tale to tell, I know; but it will do me good to disburden myself of it, and it is not so often that I get the chance of doing so that I should let it slip now I have. Don't stop me-I'm not going to be stopped, I can assure you. Look at me-examine me wellyou think me old and ugly-don't you, now? Well years, and years, and years ago-never mind how long-I was young and handsome, and fair to look at-I see you smile, but it was so, incredulous as you may be on the subject. I had long flowing tresses then of

dark, wavy hair, silky and soft; not the short, stiff crop of bristles you see now. No, they have done that for me-Ah! Ah! Ah! My father, Sir Mildmy Gudeman, lived in this house-not down here, of course. Well, he had three children, all born under this roof. I was the second of them. The eldest was my sister, Juliana, a whitehaired, pert minx, who couldn't live in the country, it wasn't good enough for her-oh! no!" Here the narrator became slightly excited, but quickly calming herself down resumed her story thus: "The youngest of us three was my brother John, whose birth took from us our beloved mother-But, I see you are impatient. Ah! so was I once. Ma l'impazienza, non ostante, non dara velocità all' asino. However, I will proceed as fast as I can, not to weary you. In thus speaking of myself I have an object in view which you don't as yet understand. How should you?" How should you?" A fearful expression, as she uttered these last words, crossed her features; an expression that made me shudder from head to foot, and caused an inexpressible sensation of dread to run through my frame. As if aware of the effect she had produced, she immediately controlled herself, and in a most mellifluous mood continued: "After my mother's death Juliana and I were sent to school in London, and on the completion, at a first-rate seminary, of our education returned here. The country, however, had no charms for my sister; dress and society engrossed her every thought, and the dull life of Bullford Hall drove her distracted. Sir Mildmy cared but little, on the contrary, for town enjoyments, preferring rural sports to all the balls and parties in the world. Being also of very retiring and penurious habits, he led a most unsociable sort of life, with few acquaintances and certainly no friends. It was therefore soon arranged, to the mutual satisfaction of both parties, that my sister should return to town and take up her residence there with an aunt who lived in the very vortex of fashionable dissipation. At this period, I being about nineteen and my brother fourteen, there came into this dwelling from Oxford, to prepare my brother for a public school and university career, one Syntax-that wasn't his right name, but one by which I christened him, first in joke and subsequently in endearment. This fellow, Syntax, young, handsome, gentlemanly, and accomplished, was just the man calculated by his manners and address to win the heart of an unsophisticated country girl, constantly associated with him in a lone bouse, wanting a mother's care, and that other shield female companionship. No company visited us, as my father's eccentric habits and excessive pride had long before then driven them from his door. The natural consequences of such a state of things you may easily imagine. So I gave my young and innocent heart, nothing loath, up to his keeping, little dreaming that one such as he could ever prove false. Ah!

woe is me! His smiles, and his wiles beguiled me to that degree that I reposed in him the confidence that a child might on its parent, and he took advantage of my simplicity, the base wretch to betray me cruelly and shamefully. Fondly would I linger in his presence whenever the opportunity occurred, and often enough - too often, alas-did these opportunities present themselves, no one heeding much what we did. My father, blinded by his absorbing pursuits, trusted entirely to my rectitude of purpose and also probably to my years, which, perhaps, still placed me in his mind too much within the category of childhood. Pressing my cherry lipsas he was ever wont to call them-with his own, Syntax would vow that nothing should ever part us through life and death and eternity. What if my father never consented to our union? He would say, were we not both young and able to wait till a good time came for us? Meanwhile he would work with a will and make for himself both honour and riches to be cast, as soon as acquired, with his own person, at my feet; to be accepted or spurned by me as I listed. Well he knew his "Molly Bawn,"-the epithet by which he always addressed me-would have welcomed him to her arms had penury and dishonour even been his lot. Well he knew I lived but in his presence, basking in the sunshine of his favours, cheered by his smiles, chilled by his frowns. In short, I revelled in a fool's paradise, out of which I little imagined then how soon and how sadly I was to be thrust into gloom and misery everlasting. One fine day there fell, totally unexpected, a thunder-bolt upon us. A pretty hubbub in the hall, its young master's body brought suddenly back into it stone dead. My brother had been seized with cramp and drowned whilst bathing in a neighbouring pond. The bright sunshine and cheering aspect of a hot and lovely summer's day was in an instant changed to the dreary sombreness and piercing cold of mid-winter in the hearts of all then and there assembled in the house of my ancestors. Juliana, now heiress of the broad lands of Cullford, was hastily summoned home; she came. Assuming over me the stern rights of guardianship, my sister from that moment threw over my youthful spirits a dark shadow which the loss of my brother had already deeply affected. Sir Mildmy, sorely stricken by the blow that had befallen him, retired into a greater privacy of existence than ever, and resigned the management of all his affairs in toto to my sister. Syntax, who ought, through the failure of his occupation, to have left us was, on the contrary, retained as companion to my aged father over whom he soon contrived to exercise an unbounded influence. Rare now became the interviews between my lover and myself. He evidently avoided any further intercourse than was absolutely necessary. His manners, when we did meet, gradually became more reserved and less im

« AnteriorContinuar »