On the following evening, Mary Ashwoode, in the happy conviction that Nicholas Blarden was far away, and for ever removed from her neighbourhood, walked forth at the fall of the evening unattended, to ramble among the sequestered, but now almost leafless woods, which richly ornamented the old place. Through sloping woodlands, among the stately trees and wild straggling brushwood, now densely crowded together, and again opening in broad vistas and showing the level sward, and then again enclosing her amid the gnarled and hoary trunks and fantastic boughs, all touched with the mellow golden hue of the rich lingering light of evening, she wandered on, now treading the smooth sod among the branching roots, now stepping from mossy stone to stone across the wayward brooknow pausing on a gentle eminence to admire the glowing
p.263sky and the thin haze of evening, mellowing all the distant shadowy outlines of the landscape; and by all she saw at every step beguiled into forgetfulness of the distance to which she had wandered.
She now approached what had been once a favourite spot with her. In a gentle slope, and almost enclosed by wooded banks, was a small clear well, an ancient lichen-covered arch enclosed it; and all around in untended wildness grew the rugged thorn and dwarf oak, crowding around it with a friendly pressure, and embowering its dark clear waters with their ivy-clothed limbs; close by it stood a tall and graceful ash, and among its roots was placed a little rustic bench where, in happier times, Mary had often sat and read through the pleasant summer hours; and now, alas! there was the little seat and there the gnarled roots and the hoary stems of the wild trees, and the graceful ivy clusters, and the time-worn mossy arch that vaulted the clear waters bubbling so joyously beneath; how could she look on these old familiar friends, and not feel what all who with changed hearts and altered fortunes revisit the scenes of happier times are doomed to feel?
For a moment she paused and stood lost in vain and bitter regrets by the old well-side. Her reverie was, however, soon and suddenly interrupted by the sound of something moving among the brittle brushwood close by; she looked quickly in the direction of the noise, and though the light had now almost entirely failed, she yet discovered, too clearly to be mistaken, the head and shoulders of Nicholas Blarden, as he pushed his way among the bushes toward the very spot where she stood. With an involuntary cry of terror she turned, and running at her utmost speed, retraced her steps toward the old mansion; not daring even to look behind her, she pursued her way among the deepening shadows of the old trees with the swiftness of terror; and, as she ran, her fears were momentarily enhanced by the sound of heavy foot-falls in pursuit, accompanied by the loud short breathing of one exerting his utmost speed. Onon she flew with dizzy haste; the distance seemed interminable, and her exhaustion was such that she felt momentarily tempted to forego the hopeless effort, and surrender herself to the mercy of her pursuer. At length she approached the old housethe sounds behind her abated; she thought she heard hoarse volleys of muttered imprecations, but not hazarding even a look behind, she still held on her way, and at length, almost wild with fear, entered the hall and threw herself sobbing into her brother's arms.
Oh God! brother; he's here; am I safe? and she burst into hysterical sobs.
As soon as she was a little calmed, he asked her,
p.264What has alarmed you, Mary; what have you seen to agitate you so?
No; I tell you no, replied Ashwoode, he's gone; his visit ended with yesterday evening; he's fifty miles away by this time; tuttutfolly, child; you must not be so fanciful.
Well, brother, he has deceived you she rejoined, with the earnestness of terror; he is not gone; he is about this place; so surely as you stand there, I saw him; and, O God! he pursued me, and had my strength faltered for a moment, or my foot slipped, I should have been in his power; she leaned down her head and clasped her hands across her eyes, as if to exclude some image of horror.
This is mere raving, child, said Ashwoode, the veriest folly; I tell you the man is gone; you heard, if anything at all, a dog or a hare springing through the leaves, and your imagination supplied the rest. I tell you, once for all, that Blarden is threescore good miles away.
Brother, as surely as I see you, I saw him this night, she replied. I could not be mistaken; I saw him, and for several seconds before I could move, such was the palsy of terror that struck me. I saw him, and watched him advancing towards megracious heaven! for while I could reckon ten; and then, as I fled, he still pursued; he was so near that I actually heard his panting, as well as the tread of his feet;brotherbrotherthere was no mistake; there could be none in this.
Well, be it so, since you will have it, replied Ashwoode, trying to laugh it off; you have seen his fetchI think they call it so. I'll not dispute the matter with you; but this I will aver, that his corporeal presence is removed some fifty miles from hence at this moment; take some tea and get you to bed, child; you have got a fit of the vapours; you'll laugh at your own foolish fancies to-morrow morning.
That night Sir Henry Ashwoode, Nicholas Blarden, and their worthy confederate, Gordon Chancey, were closeted together in earnest and secret consultation in the parlour.
Why did you act so rashlywhat could have possessed you to follow the girl? asked Ashwoode, you have managed one way or another so thoroughly to frighten the girl, to make her so fear and avoid you, that I entirely despair, by fair means, of ever inducing her to listen to your proposals.
Well, that does not take me altogether by surprise, said Blarden, for I have been suspecting so much this many a day; we must then go to work in right earnest at once.
What measures shall we take? said Ashwoode.
What measures! echoed Blarden; well, confound me if I know what to begin with, there's such a lot of them, and all goodwhat do you say, Gordy?
You ought to ask her to marry you off-hand, said Chancey, demurely, but promptly; and if she refuses, let her be locked up, and treat her as if she was maddo you mind; and I'll go to Patrick's-close, and bring out old Shycock, the clergyman; and the minute she strikes, you can be coupled; she'll give in very soon, you'll find; little Ebenezer will do whatever we bid him, and swear whatever we like; we'll all swear that you and she are man and wife already; and when she denies it, threaten her with the mad-house; and then we'll see if she won't come round; and you must first send away the old servantsevery mother's skin of themand get new ones instead; and that's my advice.
It's not bad, either, said Blarden, knitting his brows twice or thrice, and setting his teeth. I like that notion of threatening her with Bedlam; it's a devilish good idea; and I'll give long odds it will work wonders; what do you say, Ashwoode?
Choose your own measures, replied the baronet. I'm incapable of advising you.
Well, then, Gordy, that's the go, said Blarden; bring out his reverence whenever I tip you the signal; and he shall have board and lodging until the job's done; he'll make a tiptop domestic chaplain; I suppose we'll have family prayers while he stayseh?ho, ho!devilish good idea, that; and Chancey 'ill act clerkeh? won't you, Gordy?and, tickled beyond measure at the facetious suggestion, Mr. Blarden laughed long and lustily.
I suppose I may as well keep close until our private chaplain arrives, and the new waiting-maid, said Blarden; and as soon as all is ready, I'll blaze out in style, and I'll tell you what, Ashwoode, a precious good thought strikes me; turn about you know is fair play; and as I'm fifty miles away to-day, it occurs to me it would be a deuced good plan to have you fifty miles away to-morroweh?we could manage matters better if you were supposed out of the way, and that she knew I had the whole command of the house, and everything in it; she'd be a cursed deal more frightened; what do you think?
Yes, I entirely agree with you, said Ashwoode, eagerly catching at a scheme which would relieve him of all prominent participation in the infamous proceedingsan exemption which, spite of his utter selfishness, he gladly snatched at. I will do so. I will leave the house in reality.
Nono; my tight chap, not so fast, rejoined Blarden,
p.266with a savage chuckle. I'd rather have my eye on you, if you please; just write her a letter, dated from Dublin, and say you're obliged to go anywhere you please for a month or so; she'll not find you out, for we'll not let her out of her room; and now I think everything is settled to a turn, and we may as well get under the blankets at once, and be stirring betimes in the morning.