Mr. Audley, preceded by his little ragged guide, walked thoughtfully on his way to visit the old gentleman, of whose oddities and strange and wayward temper the keeper of the place where they had last obtained a relay of horses had given a marvellous and perhaps somewhat exaggerated account. Now that he had reached the spot, and that the moment approached which was to be the crisis of the adventure, he began to feel far less confident of success than he had been while the issue of his project was comparatively remote.
They passed down the irregular street of the village, and beneath the trees which arched overhead like the vast and airy aisles of some huge Gothic pile, and after a short walk of some two or three hundred yards, during which they furnished matter of interesting speculation to half the village idlers, they reached a rude gate of great dimensions, but which had obviously seen better days. There was no lodge or gatehouse, and Mr. Audley followed the little conductor over a stile, which occupied the side of one of the great ivy-mantled stone piers; crossing this, he found himself in the demesne. A broken and irregular avenue or bridle trackfor in most places it was little moreled onward over hill and through hollow, along the undulations of the soft green sward, and under the fantastic boughs of gnarled thorns and oaks and sylvan birches, which in thick groups, wild and graceful as nature had placed them, clothed the varied slopes. The rude approach which they followed led them a wayward course over every variety of groundnow flat and boggy, again up hill, and over the grey surface of lichen-covered rocksagain down into deep fern-clothed hollows, and then across the shallow, brawling stream, without bridge or appliance of any kind, but
p.316simply through its waters, forced, as best they might, to pick their steps upon the moss-grown stones that peeped above the clear devious current. Thus they passed along through this wild and extensive demesne, varied by a thousand inequalities of ground and by the irregular grouping of the woods, which owed their picturesque arrangement to the untutored fancies of nature herself, whose dominion had there never known the intrusions of the axe, or the spade, or the pruning-hook, but exulted in the unshackled indulgence of all her wildest revelry. After a walk of more than half-an-hour's duration, through a long vista among the trees, the grey gable of the old mansion of Ardgillagh, with its small windows and high and massive chimney stacks, presented itself.
There was a depressing air of neglect and desertion about the old place, which even the unimaginative temperament of Mr. Audley was obliged to acknowledge. Rank weeds and grass had forced their way through the pavement of the courtyard, and crowded in patches of vegetation, even to the very door of the house. The same was observable, in no less a degree, in the great stable-yard, the gate of which, unhinged, lay wide open, exhibiting a range of out-houses and stables, which would have afforded lodging for horse and man to a whole regiment of dragoons. Two men, one of them in livery, were loitering through the courtyard, apparently not very well knowing what to do with themselves; and as the visitors approached, a whole squadron of dogs, the little ones bouncing in front with shrill alarm, and the more formidable, at a majestic canter and with deep-mouthed note of menace, bringing up the rear, came snarling, barking, and growling, towards the intruders at startling speed.
Piper, Piper, Toby, Fan, Motheradauna, Boxer, Boxer, Toby! screamed the little guide, advancing a few yards before Mr. Audley, who, in considerable uneasiness, grasped his walking cane with no small energy. The interposition of the urchin was successful, the dogs recognized their young friend, the angry clangour was hushed and their pace abated, and when they reached Mr. Audley and his guide, in compliment to the latter they suffered the little gentleman to pass on, with no further question than a few suspicious sniffs, as they applied their noses to the calves of that gentleman's legs. As they continued to approach, the men in the court, now alarmed by the vociferous challenge of the dogs, eyed the little gentleman inquisitively, for a visitor at Ardgillagh was a thing that had not been heard of for years. As Mr. Audley's intention became more determinate, and his design appeared more unequivocally to apply for admission, the servant, who watched his progress, ran by some hidden passage in the stable-yard into the mansion and was ready to gratify his curiosity legitimately, by
p.317taking his post in the hall in readiness to answer Mr. Audley's summons, and to hold parley with him at the door.
Is Mr. French at home? inquired Mr. Audley.
Ay, sir, he is at home, rejoined the man, deliberately, to allow himself time fully to scrutinize the visitor's outward man.
Can I see him, pray? asked the little gentleman.
Why, raly, sir, I can't exactly say, observed the man, scratching his head. He's upstairs in his own chamberindeed, for that matter, he's seldom out of it. If you'll walk into the room there, sir, I'll inquire.
Accordingly, Mr. Audley entered the apartment indicated and sat himself down in the deep recess of the window to take breath. He well knew the kind of person with whom he had to deal, previously to encountering Oliver French in person. He had heard quite enough of Mistress Martha and of Black M'Guinness already, to put him upon his guard, and fill him with just suspicions as to their character and designs; he therefore availed himself of the little interval to arrange his plans of operation in his own mind. He had not waited long, when the door opened, and a tall, elderly woman, with a bunch of keys at her side, and arrayed in a rich satin dress, walked demurely into the room. There was something unpleasant and deceitful in the expression of the half-closed eyes and thin lips of this lady which inspired Mr. Audley with
instinctive dislike of heran impression which was rather heightened than otherwise by the obvious profusion with which her sunken and sallow cheeks were tinged with rouge. This demure and painted lady made a courtesy on seeing Mr. Audley,
and in a low and subdued tone which well accorded with her meek exterior, inquired,
You were asking for Mr. Oliver French, sir?
Yes, madam, replied Mr. Audley, returning the salute with a bow as formal; I wish much to see him, if he could afford me half an hour's chat.
Mr. French is very illveryvery poorly, indeed, said Mistress Martha, closing her eyes, and shaking her head. He dislikes talking to strangers. Are you a relative, pray, sir?
Not I, madamnot at all, madam, rejoined Mr. Audley.
A silence ensued, during which he looked out for a minute at the view commanded by the window; and as he did so, he observed with the corner of his eyes that the lady was studying him with a severe and searching scrutiny. She was the first to break the silence.
I suppose it's about business you want to see him? inquired she, still looking at him with the same sharp glance.
Just so, rejoined Mr. Audley; it is indeed upon business.
He dislikes transacting business or speaking of it himself, said she. He always employs his own man, Mr. M'Guinness. I'll call Mr. M'Guinness, that you may communicate the matter to him.
You must excuse me, said Mr. Audley. My instructions are to give my message to Mr. Oliver French in personthough indeed there's no secret in the matter. The fact is, Madam, my mission is of a kind which ought to make me welcome. You understand me? I come here to announce aaan acquisition, in short a sudden and, I believe, a most unexpected acquisition. But perhaps I've said too much; the facts are for his own ear solely. Such are my instructions; and you know I have no choice. I've posted all the way from Dublin to execute the message; and between ourselves, should he suffer this occasion to escape him, he may never again have an opportunity of making such an addition to but I must hold my tongueI'm prating against orders. In a word, madam, I'm greatly mistaken, or it will prove the best news that has been told in this house since its master was christened.
He accompanied his announcement with a prodigious number of nods and winks of huge significance, and all designed to beget the belief that he carried in his pocket the copy of a will, or other instrument, conveying to the said Oliver French of Ardgillagh the gold mines of Peru, or some such trifle.
Mistress Martha paused, looked hard at him, then reflected again. At length she said, with the air of a woman who has made up her mind,
I dare to say, sir, it is possible for you to see Mr. French. He is a little better to-day. You'll promise not to fatigue himbut you must first see Mr. M'Guinness. He can tell better than I whether his master is sufficiently well to-day for an interview of the kind.
So saying, Mrs. Martha sailed, with saint-like dignity, from the room.
She rules the roast, I believe, said Mr. Audley within himself. If so, all's smooth from this forth. Here comes the gentleman, howeverand, by the laws, a very suitable co-mate for that painted Jezebel.
As Mr. Audley concluded this criticism, a small man, with a greasy and dingy complexion, and in a rusty suit of black, made his appearance.
This individual was, if possible, more subdued, meek, and Christian-like than the lady who had just evacuated the room in his favour. His eyes were, if possible, habitually more
p.319nearly closed; his step was as soft and cat-like to the full; and, in a word, he was in air, manner, gait, and expression as like his accomplice as a man can well be to one of the other sex.
A short explanation having passed between this person and Mr. Audley, he retired for a few minutes to prepare his master for the visit, and then returning, conducted the little bachelor upstairs.