The hall door was opened to the summons of the two gentlemen by no less a personage than Nicholas Blarden himself, who, having carefully locked it again, handed the key to his accomplice, Gordon Chancey.
Here, take it, Gordy, boy, exclaimed he, I make you porter for the term of the honeymoon. Keep the gates well, old boy, and never let the keys out of your pocket unless I tell you. And so, continued he, treating the Reverend Ebenezer Shycock to a stare which took in his whole person, you have caught the doctor and landed him fairly. Doctorwhat's your name? no matterit's a delightful turn-up for a sinner like me to have the heavenly consolation of your pious company. Follow me in here; I dare say your reverence would not object to a short interview with the brandy flask, or something of the kindeven saints must wet their whistles now and again.
So saying, Blarden led the way into the parlour.
Here, guzzle away, old gentleman, there's plenty of the stuff here, said Blarden, only beware how you make a beast of yourself. You mustn't tie up your red rag, do you mind? We'll want you to stand and read; and if you just keep senses enough for that, you may do whatever you like with the rest.
The clergyman nodded, and with a single sweep of his grey eyes, took in the contents of the whole table. His shaking hand quickly grasped the neck of the brandy flask, and he filled out and quaffed a comforting bumper.
Now, take it easy, do, or, by Jove, you'll not keep till evening, said Blarden. Chancey, have an eye on the parson, for his mind's so intent on heaven that he may possibly forget where he is and what he's doing. After dinner, Ashwoode and
p.285I have to go into townsome matters that must be wound up before the evening's entertainment beginswe'll be out, however, at eight o'clock or so. And mind this, he continued, gripping the barrister's shoulder in his hand with an energizing pressure, and speaking into his ear to secure attention, you know that little room upstairs wherein we had the bit of chat with my lady lovethethe boudoir, I think they call itnow, mind me wellwhen the dusk comes on, do you and his reverence there take your pipes and your brandy, or whatever else you're amusing yourselves with at the time, and sit in that same room together, so that not a mouse can cross the floor unknown to you. Don't forget this, for we can't be too sharp. Do you hear me, old Lucifer?
Never fear, never fear, rejoined Mr. Chancey. The Reverend Ebenezer and I will spend the evening thereand, indeed, I declare to God, it's a very neat little room, so it is, for a quiet pipe and a pot of sack.
Well, that's a point settled, rejoined Blarden. And do you mind me, don't let that beastly old sot knock himself up before we come home. Do you hear me, old scarecrow, he continued, poking the reverend doctor somewhere about the region of the abdomen with the hilt of his sword, which he was adjusting at his side, and addressing himself to that gentleman, if I find you drunk when I return this evening, I'll make it your last boutI'll tap the brandy, old tickle pitcher, and stave the cask, and send you to seek your fortune in the other world. Mind my wordsI'm not given to joking when I have real business on hand; and faith, you'll find me as ready to do as to promise.
So saying, he left the room.
A rum cove, that, upon my little word, said the Reverend Ebenezer Shycock, filling out another bumper of his beloved cordial. Take the bottle away at once; lock it up, my fellow-worm, lock it up, or I'll be at it again. Lock it up while I have this glass in my hand, or I must have another, and that might bemight, I saypossibly mightbut dn it, no, it can'tI will have one more. And so saying, with desperate resolution, he quaffed what he had already in his hand and filled out another.
Chancey did not wait till he had repeated his mandate, but quietly removed the seductive flask and placed it beyond the reach and the sight of his clerical friend, who, feeling himself a little pleasant, sat down before the hearth, and in a voice whose tone nearly resembled that of a raven labouring under an affection of the chest, he chaunted through his nose, with many significant winks and grimaces, a ditty at that time in high acceptance among the votaries of vice and license, and whose words were such as even the Old St. Columbkil would
p.286hardly have tolerated. This performance overwhich, by the way, Chancey relished in his own quiet way with intense enjoymentthe reverend gentleman composed himself for a doze for several hours, from which he aroused himself to eat and to drink a little more.
Thus pleasantly the day wore on, until at length the sun descended in glory behind the far-off blue hills, and the pale twilight began to herald the approach of night.
That day Mary Ashwoode appeared to have lost all energy of thought and feeling; she lay pale and silent upon her bed, seeming scarcely conscious even of the presence of her faithful attendant. From the moment of her yesterday's interview with Blarden, and the meeting with her brother, she had been thus despairing and stupefied. Flora Guy sat in the window, sometimes watching the pale face of the wretched lady, and at others looking out upon the old woodlands and the great avenue, darkened among its double rows of huge old limes. As the day wore on she suddenly exclaimed,
Oh, my lady, here's a gentleman coming with Mr. Chancey up the avenue, I see them between the trees, and the coach driving away.
Can itcan it be? exclaimed Mary, starting wildly up in the bedis it he?
It's a little stout gentleman, with a red pimply facethey're talking under the window now, my lady; he has a band on, and a black gown across his armas sure as daylight, my ladyhe isblessed hour; he is a parson.
Mary Ashwoode did not speak, but the momentary flash of hope faded from her face, and was succeeded by a paleness so deadly that lips and cheeks looked bloodless as the marble lineaments of a statue; in dull and silent despair she sank again where she had lain before.
Don't fear them, my lady, said the poor girl, placing herself by the bedside where, more like a corpse than a living being, her hapless mistress lay; I will not leave you, and though they may threaten, they dare not hurt youdon't fear them, my lady.
The blanched cheeks and evident excitement of the honest maiden, however, too clearly belied her words of encouragement.
Twice or thrice the girl, in the course of the day, locking the door of her mistress's chamber, according to the orders of Nicholas Blarden and his confederates, but less in obedience to them than for the sake of her security, ran downstairs to learn whatever could be gathered from the servants of the intended movements of the conspirators; each time, as she descended the stairs, the parlour bell was rung, and a servant
p.287encountered her before she had well reached the hall; and Mr. Chancey, too, with his hands in his pockets, and his cunning eyes glittering suspiciously through their half-closed lids, would meet and question her before she passed: were ever sentinels more vigilantwas ever surveillance more jealous and complete?
During these excursions she picked up whatever was to be learned of the intentions of those in whose power her young mistress now helplessly and despairingly lay.
Sir Henry Ashwoode and Mr. Blarden is gone to town together, my lady, said the maid, in a whisper, for she felt the vigilance of Chancey and his creatures might pursue her even to the chamber where she stood; they'll not be out till about eight o'clock, my lady, at the soonest, maybe not till near nine or ten; at any rate it will be dark long before they come, and God knows what may turn up before thendon't lose heart, my lady don't give up.
In vain, entirely in vain, however, were the words of hope and courage spoken; they fell cold and dead upon the palsied senses and stricken heart of despairing terror. Mary Ashwoode scarcely understood, and seemed not even to have heard them.
As the evening approached the poor girl made another exploring ramble, in the almost desperate speculation that she might possibly hit upon something which might suggest even a hint of some mode of escape. Having encountered Chancey and one of the serving men, as usual, and passed her examination, she crossed the large old hall, and without any definite pre-determination, entered Sir Henry's study, where he and Blarden had been sitting, and carelessly thrown upon the table a large key. For a moment she could scarcely believe her eyes, and her heart bounded high with hope as she grasped it quickly and rolled it in her apron Could it be the key of one of the doors through which alone liberty was to be regained? With a deliberate step, which strangely belied her restless anxiety, she passed the door within which Chancey was sitting, and ascended to the young lady's chamber.
My lady, is this it? exclaimed she. almost breathless with excitement, and holding the key before the lady's face.
Mary Ashwoode with a momentary eagerness glanced at it.
No, no, said she, faintly, I know all the keys of the outer doors; it was I who brought them to my father every night; but this is none of themno, no, no, no. There was a dulness and apathy upon the young lady, and a seeming insensibility to everythingto hope, to dangerto all, in short, which had intensely interested every faculty of mind
p.288and feeling but the day beforewhich frightened and dismayed her humble friend.
Don't, my ladydon't give upoh, sure you won't lose heart entirely; see if I won't think of somethingnever mind, if I don't think of some way or another yet.
The red discoloured tints of evening were now fading from the landscape, and rapidly giving place to the dim twilightthe harbinger of a night of dangers, terrors, and adventures; and as the poor maiden sat by the young lady's side, with a heart full of dark and ominous foreboding, she heard the door of the outer chamberthe little boudoir which we have often had occasion to mentionopened, and two persons entered it.
They are herethey are come. Oh, God! they are here, exclaimed Mary Ashwoode, clasping her small hand in terror round the girl's wrist.
The door's locked, my lady, said the girl, scarcely less terrified than her mistress; they can't come in without letting us know first. So saying, she ran to the door and peeped through the keyhole, to reconnoitre the party, and then stepping on tip-toe to the young lady, who, more dead than alive, was sitting by the bed-side, she said in a whisper,
Who do you think it is, ma'am? blessed hour! my lady, who should it be but that lawyer gentlemanthat Mr. Chancey, and the old parsonthey are settling themselves at the table.
Mr. Gordon Chancey and the Reverend Ebenezer Shycock were determined to make themselves comfortable in their new quarters. Accordingly they heaped wood and turf upon the expiring fire, and compelled the servant to ply the kitchen bellows, until the hearth crackled and roared again; then drawing the table to the fire-sidea pretty little work-table of poor Mary'snow covered with brandy-flasks, pieces of tobacco, pipes, and the other apparatus of their coarse debauchthe two worthies, illuminated by a pair of ponderous wax-candles, and by the blaze of a fire, and having drawn the curtains, sat themselves down and commenced their jolly vigils.
Chancey possessed the rare faculty of preserving his characteristic cunning throughout every phase and stage of intoxication short of absolute insensibility; on the present occasion, however, he was resolved not to put this convenient accomplishment to the test. The good will of Nicholas Blarden was too lucrative a possession to be lightly parted with, and he could not afford to hazard it by too free an indulgence upon the present important occasion; he therefore conducted his assaults upon the bottle with a very laudable abstemiousness. Not so, however,
p.289ever, his clerical companion; he, too, had, in connection with his convivial frailties, a compensating gift of his own; he possessed, in an eminent degree, the power of recovering his intellects upon short notice from the influence of brandy, and of descending almost at a single bound from the loftiest altitude of drunken inspiration to the dull insipid level of ordinary sobriety; all he asked was fifteen minutes to bring himself to. He used to say with becoming pride If I could have done it in ten, I'd have been a bishop by this time; but dis aliter visum; I had not time one forenoon; being wapper-eyed, I was five minutes short of my allowance to get right, consequently officiated oddlyfell on my back on the way out, and couldn't get up; but what signifies it? I'm better off, as matters stand, ten to one; so here goes, my fellow-sinner, to it again; one brimmer more.
The reverend doctor, therefore, was much less cautious than his companion, and soon began to exhibit very unequivocal symptoms of a declension in his intellectual and physical energies, and a more than corresponding elevation in his hilarious spirits.
I say, said Chancey, my good man, you'd better stop; you have too much in as it is; they'll be here before half-an-hour, and if Mr. Blarden finds you this way, I declare to God I think he'll crack your neck down the staircase.
Well, dearly beloved, said the clerical gentleman, I believe you are right; I'll bring myself to. I am a little heavy-eyed or so; all I ask for is a towel and cold water. So saying, with many a screw of the lips, and many a hiccough, he made an effort to rise, but tumbled backwith an expression of the most heavenly benevolenceinto his chair, knocking his head with an audible sound upon the back of it, and at the same time overturning one of the candles.
Pull the bell, dearly beloved, said he, with a smile and a hiccough,a basin of water and a towel.
Devil broil you, for a drunken beast, said Chancey, seriously alarmed at the condition of the couple-beggar; he'll never be fit for his work to-night.
Fifteen minutes, neither more nor less, hiccoughed the divine, with the same celestial smile-towel, basin of cold water, and fifteen minutes.
Chancey did procure the cold water and a napkin, which, being laid before the clergyman, he proceeded with much deliberation, while various expressions of stupendous solemnity and beaming benevolence flitted in beautiful alternations across his expressive countenance, to prepare them for use. He doffed his wig, and first bathing his head, face, and temples completely in the cool liquid, saturated the towel likewise therein, and wound it round his shorn head in
p.290the fashion of a Turkish turban; having accomplished which feat, he leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and became, to all intents and purposes, for the time being, stone dead.
Leaving his reverend companion undisturbed to the operation of his own hydropathic treatment, Gordon Chancey drew his seat near to the fire, and filling his pipe anew with tobacco, leaned back in the chair, crossed his legs, and more than half closing his eyes, prepared himself luxuriously for what he called a raal elegant draw of particular pigtail.