Flora Guy peeped eagerly through the keyhole of her lady's chamber into the little apartment in which the two boon companions were seated. After reconnoitring for a very long time, she moved lightly to her mistress's side, and said, in a low but distinct tone,
Now, my lady, you must get up and rouse yourselffor God's sake, mistress dear, shake off the heaviness that's over you, and we have a chance left still.
Are they not in the next room to us? inquired Mary.
Yes, my lady, replied the maid, but the parson gentleman is drunk or asleep, and Mr. Chancey is there aloneandand has the four keys beside him on the table; don't be frightened, my lady, do you stay quite quiet, and I'll go into the room.
Mary Ashwoode made no answer, but pressed the poor girl's hand in her cold fingers, and without moving, almost without breathing, awaited the result. Flora Guy, meanwhile, opened the door, and passed into the outer apartment, assuming, as she did so, an air of easy and careless indifference. Chancey turned as she entered the room, fanning the smoke of his tobacco pipe aside with his hand, and eying her with a jealous glance.
Well, my little girl, said he, and what makes you leave your young lady, my dear?
An' is a body never to get an instant minute to themselves? rejoined she, with an indignant toss of her head; why then, I tell you what it is, Mr. Chancey, I'm tired to death, so I am, sitting in that little room the whole blessed day, and not a word, good or bad, will the young lady sayhe's gone stupid like.
Is the door locked? said Chancey, suspiciously, and at the same time rising and approaching the young lady's chamber.
As he did so, Flora Guy, availing herself instantly of this averted position, snatched up, without waiting to choose, one of the four great keys which lay upon the table, and replaced it dexterously with that which she had but a short time before shown to her mistress; in doing so, however, spite of all her caution, a slight clank was audible.
Well, is it locked? inquired the damsel, hoping by the loud tone in which she uttered the question to drown the suspicious sounds which threatened her schemes with instant detection.
Yes, it is locked, rejoined Chancey, glancing quickly at the keys; but what do you want there? move off from my place, will you? and shambling to the table he hastily gathered the four keys in his grasp, and thrust them into his deep coat pocket.
You're in a mighty quare humour, so you are, Mr. Chancey, said the girl, affecting a saucy tone, through which, had his ear been listening for the sound, he might have detected the quaver of extreme agitation, you usedn't to be so cross by no means at the Columbkil, but mighty pleasant, so you used.
Well, my little girl, said Chancey, whose suspicions were now effectually quieted, I declare to God you're the first that ever said I was bad tempered, so you arewill you have something to drink?
What have you there, Mr. Chancey? inquired she.
This is brandy, my little girl, and this is sack, dear, rejoined Chancey, both of them elegant; you must have whichever you likewhich will you choose, dear?
Well, then, I'll have a little drop of the sack, mulled, I thank you, Mr. Chancey, replied she.
There's nothing to mull it in here, my little girl, objected the barrister.
Oh, but I'll get it in a minute though, replied she, I'll run down for a saucepan.
Well, dear, run away, replied he, but don't be long, for Miss Ashwoode might want you, my little girl, and it wouldn't do if you were out of the way, you know.
Without waiting to hear the end of this charge, Flora Guy ran down the staircase, and speedily returned with the utensil required.
Maybe I'd better go in for a minute first, and see if she wants me, suggested the girl.
Very well, my dear, replied Chancey.
And accordingly, she turned the key in the chamber door,
p.292closed it again, and stood by the young lady's side; such was her agitation that for three or four seconds she could not speak.
My lady, at length she said, I have one of the keyswhen I go in next I'll leave your room door unlocked, only closed just, and no morethe lobby door is ajarI left it that way this very minute; and when you hear me saying the sack's upset!do you open your door, and cross the room as quick as light, and out on the lobby, and stop by the stairs, my lady, and I'll follow you as fast as I can. Here, my lady, continued the poor girl, bringing a small box from her mistress's toilet; your rings, my ladythey'll be wantedmind, your rings, my ladythere is the little case, keep it in your pocket; if we escape, my lady, they'll be wantedmind, Mr. Chancey has ears like needle points. Keep up your heart, my lady, and in the name of God we'll try this chance.
Into His hands I commit myself, said the young lady, with a tone and air of more firmness and energy than she had shown for days; my heart is strengthened, my courage comes againoh, thank God, I am equal to this dreadful hour.
Flora Guy made a gesture of silence, and then, opening the door briskly, and shutting it again with an ostentatious noise, and drawing the key from the lock, she crossed the room to where Chancey, who had watched her entrance, was sitting.
Well, my dear, said he, how is that delicate young lady in there?
Why, she's raythur bad, I'm afraid, rejoined the girl; she's the whole day long in a sort of a heavy dulness likeshe don't seem to mind anything.
So much the better, my dear, said Chancey, she'll be the less inclined to gad, or to be troublesomecome, mix the spices and the sugar, dear, and settle the liquor in the saucepanyou want some refreshment, so you do, for I declare to God, I never saw anyone so pale in all my life as you are this minute.
I'll not be long so, said the girl, affecting a tone of briskness, and proceeding to mingle the ingredients in the little saucepan, for I think if I was dead itself, let alone a little bit tired, a cup of mulled sack would cheer me up again.
So saying, she placed the little saucepan on the bar.
Is the parson asleep? inquired she.
Indeed, my dear, I'm very much afraid it's tipsy he is, drawled Chancey, demurely, take care of that clergyman, my dear, for indeed I'm afraid he has very loose conduct.
Will I blacken his nose with a burned cork? inquired she.
Oh! no, my little girl, replied Chancey, with a tranquil chuckle, and turning his sleepy grey eyes upon the apoplectic
p.293visage of the stupefied drunkard who sat bolt upright before him; no, no, we don't know the minute he may be wanted; he'll have to perform the ceremony very soon, my dear; and Mr. Blarden, if he took the fancy, would think nothing of braining half a dozen of us. I declare to God he wouldn't.
Well, Mr. Chancey, will you mind the little saucepan for one minute, said she, while I'm putting a bit of turf or a few sticks under it.
Indeed I will, said he, turning his eyes lazily upon the utensil, but doing nothing more to secure it. Flora Guy accordingly took some wood, and, pretending to arrange the fire, overturned the wine; the loud hiss of the boiling liquid, and the sudden cloud of whirling steam and ashes, ascending toward the ceiling, and puffing into his face, half confounded the barrister, and at the same instant, Flora Guy, clapping her hands, and exclaimed with a shrill cry,
The sack's upset! the sack's upset! lend a hand, Mr. ChanceyMr. Chancey, do you hear? and, while thus conjured, the barrister, in obedience to her vociferous appeal, made some indistinct passes at the saucepan with the poker, which he had grasped at the first alarm; the damsel, without daring to look directly where every feeling would have riveted her eyes, beheld a dark form glide noiselessly behind Chancey, and pass from the room. For the moment, so intense was her agony of anxiety, she felt upon the very point of fainting; in an instant more, however, she had recovered all her energies, and was bold and quick-witted as ever; one glance in the direction of the lady's chamber showed her the door slowly swinging open; fortunately the barrister was at the moment too much occupied with the extraction of the remainder of the saucepan from the fire, to have yet perceived the treacherous accident, one glance at which would have sealed their ruin, and Flora Guy, running noiselessly to the door, remedied the perilous disclosure by shutting it softly and quickly; and then, with much clattering of the key, and a good deal of pushing beside, forcing it open again, she passed into the room and spoke a little in a low tone, as if to her mistress; and then, returning, she locked the door of the then untenanted chamber in real earnest, and, crossing to Chancey, said:I wonder at you, so I do, Mr. Chancey; you frightened the young mistress half out of her wits; and I'm all over dust and ashes; I must run down and wash every inch of my face and hands, so I must; and here, Mr. Chancey, will you keep the key of the bed-room till I come back? afraid I might drop it; and don't let it out of your hands.
I will indeed, dear; but don't be long away, rejoined the barrister, extending his hand to receive the key of the now vacant chamber.
So Flora Guy boldly walked forth upon the lobby, and closing the chamber door behind her, found herself in the vast old gallery, hung round with grim and antique portraits, and lighted only by the fitful beams of a clouded moon shining doubtfully through the stained glass of a solitary window.
Mary Ashwoode awaited her approach, concealed in a small recess or niche in the wall, shrined like an image in the narrow enclosure of carved oak, not daring to stir, and with a heart throbbing as though it would burst.
My lady, are you there? whispered the maid, scarce audibly; great nervous excitement renders the sense morbidly acute, and Mary Ashwoode heard the sound distinctly, faint though it was, and at some distance from her; she stepped falteringly from her place of concealment, and took the hand of her conductress in a grasp cold as that of death itself, and side by side they proceeded down the broad staircase. They had descended about half-way when a loud and violent ringing from the bell of the chamber where Chancey was seated made their very hearts bound with terror; they stood fixed and breathless on the stair where the fearful peal had first reached their ears. Again the summons came louder still, and at the same moment the sounds of steps approached from below, and the gleam of a candle quickly followed; Mary Ashwoode felt her ears tingle and her head swim with terror; she was on the point of sinking upon the floor. In this dreadful extremity her presence of mind did not forsake Flora Guy: disengaging her hand from that of her terrified mistress, she tripped lightly down the stairs to meet the person who was approachinga turn in the staircase confronted them, and she saw before her the serving man whose treachery had already defeated Mary Ashwoode' s hopes of deliverance.
What keeps you such a time answering the bell? inquired she, saucily, you needn't go up now, for I've got your message; bring up clean cups and a clean saucepan, for everything's destroyed with the dust and dirt Mr. Chancey's after kicking up; what did he do, do you think, but upsets the sack into the fire. Now be quick with the things, will you? the bell won't be easy one minute till they're done.
Give me a kiss, sweet lips, exclaimed the man, setting down his candle, and I'll not be a brace of shakes about the message; come, you must, he continued, playfully struggling with the affrighted girl.
Well, do the message first, at any rate, said she, forcing herself, with some difficulty, from his grasp, as the bell rang a third time; it will be a nice piece of business, so it will, if Mr. Chancey comes down and catches you here, pulling me about, so it will, you'll look well, won't you, when he's telling it to Mr. Blarden?don't be a fool.
The reiterated application to the bell had more effect upon the serving man than all her oratory, and muttering a curse or two, he ran down, determined, vindictively, to bring up soiled cups, and a dirty saucepan. The man had hardly departed, when the maid exclaimed, in a hurried whisper, Comecomequickquick, for your life! and with scarcely the interval of three seconds, they found themselves in the hall.
Here's the key, my lady; see which of the doors does it open, whispered she, exhibiting the key in the dusky and imperfect light.
Hereherethis way, said Mary Ashwoode, moving with weak and stumbling steps through a tiled lobby which opened upon the great hall, and thence along a narrow passage upon which several doors opened. Here, here, she exclaimed, this doorthisI cannot open itmy strength is gonethis is it for God's sake, quickly.
After two or three trials, Flora Guy succeeded in getting the key into the lock, and then exerting the whole strength of her two hands, with a hoarse jarring clang the bolt revolved, the door opened, and they stood upon the fresh and dewy sward, beneath the shadow of the old ivy-mantled walls. The girl locked the door upon the outside, fearful that its lying open should excite suspicion, and flung the key away into the thick weeds and brushwood.
Now, my lady, the shortest way to the high road? inquired Flora in a hurried whisper, and supporting, as well as she could, the tottering steps of her mistress, how do you feel, my lady? Don't lose heart now, a few minutes more and you will be safecouragecourage, my lady.
I am better now, Flora, said Mary faintly, much betterthe cool air refreshes me. As she thus spoke, her strength returned, her step grew fleeter and firmer, and she led the way round the irregular ivy-clothed masses of the dark old building and through the stately trees that stood gathered round it. Over the unequal sward they ran with the light steps of fear, and under the darksome canopy of the vast and ancient linden trees, gliding upon the smooth grass like two ghosts among the chequered shade and dusky light. On, on they sped, scarcely feeling the ground beneath their feet as they pursued their terrified flight; they had now gained the midway distance in the ancient avenue between the mansion and great gate, and still ran noiselessly and fleetly along, when the quick ear of Mary Ashwoode caught the distant sounds of pursuit.
Flora Floraoh, God! we are followed, gasped the young lady.
Stop an instant, my lady, rejoined the maid, let us listen for a second.
They did pause, and distinctly, between them and the old mansion, they heard, among the dry leaves with which in places the ground was strewn, the tread of steps pursuing at headlong speed.
It isit is, I hear them, said Mary distractedly.
Now, my lady, we must runrun for our lives; if we but reach the road before them, we may yet be saved; now, my lady, for God's sake don't falterdon't give up.
And while the sounds of pursuit grew momentarily louder and more loud, they still held their onward way with throbbing hearts, and eyes almost sightless with fatigue and terror.