FROM OUT THE VASTY DEEP
MRS. BELLOC LOWNDES
The owner of the real "Wyndfell Hall"
in memory of many happy hours spent there by his friend the writer
"I can call spirits from the vasty deep."
"Why, so can I; or so can any man: But will they come, when you do call for them?"
FROM OUT THE VASTY DEEP
"I always thought that you, Pegler, were such a very sensible woman."
The words were said in a good-natured, though slightly vexed tone; and a curious kind of smile flitted over the rather grim face of the person to whom they were addressed.
"I've never troubled you before in this exact way, have I, ma'am?"
"No, Pegler. That you certainly have not."
Miss Farrow looked up from the very comfortable armchair where she was sitting—leaning back, with her neatly shod, beautifully shaped feet stretched out to the log fire. Her maid was standing a little to the right, her spare figure and sallow face lit up by the flickering, shooting flames, for the reading-lamp at Miss Farrow's elbow was heavily shaded.
"D'you really mean that you won't sleep next door to-night, Pegler?"
"I wouldn't be fit to do my work to-morrow if I did, ma'am." And Miss Farrow quite understood that that was Pegler's polite way of saying that she most definitely did refuse to sleep in the room next door.
"I wish the ghost had come in here, instead of worrying you!" As the maid made no answer to this observation, her mistress went on, turning round so that she could look up into the woman's face: "What was it exactly you did see, Pegler?" And as the other still remained silent, Miss Farrow added: "I really do want to know! You see, Pegler—well, I need hardly tell you that I have a very great opinion of you."
And then, to the speaker's extreme surprise, there came a sudden change over Pegler's face. Her pale countenance flushed, it became discomposed, and she turned her head away to hide the springing tears.
Miss Farrow was touched; as much touched as her rather hard nature would allow her to be. This woman had been her good and faithful friend, as well as servant, for over twelve years.
She sprang up from her deep chair with the lightness of a girl, though she was over forty; and went and took the other's hand. "Pegler!" she exclaimed. "What's the matter, you dear old thing?"
But Pegler wrenched away her hand, rather ungraciously. "After two such nights as I've had," she muttered, "it's no wonder I'm a bit upset."
Excellent maid though she was—Miss Farrow had never known anyone who could do hair as Pegler could—the woman was in some ways very unconventional, very unlike an ordinary lady's maid.
"Now do tell me exactly what happened?" Miss Farrow spoke with a mixture of coaxing and kindly authority. "What do you think you saw? I need hardly tell you that I don't believe in ghosts." As the maid well knew, the speaker might have finished the sentence with "or in anything else." But that fact, Pegler being the manner of woman she was, did not detract from the affection and esteem in which she held her lady. You can't have everything—such was her simple philosophy—and religious people do not always act up to their profession. Miss Farrow, at any rate in her dealings with Pegler, was always better than her word. She was a kind, a considerate, and an intelligent mistress.
So it was that, reluctantly, Pegler made up her mind to speak. "I'd like to say, ma'am," she began, "that no one said nothing to me about that room being haunted. You was the first that mentioned it to me, after I'd spoken to you yesterday. As you know, ma'am, the servants here are a job lot; they don't know nothing about the house. 'Twasn't till to-day that one of the village people, the woman at the general shop and post office, let on that Wyndfell Hall was well known to be a ghosty place."
There was a pause, and then Pegler added: "Still, as you and I well know, ma'am, tales don't lose nothing in the telling."
"Indeed they don't! Never mind what the people in the village say. This kind of strange, lonely, beautiful old house is sure to be said to be haunted. What I want to know is what you think you saw, Pegler—" The speaker looked sharply into the woman's face.
"I don't like to see you standing, ma'am," said Pegler inconsequently. "If you'll sit down in your chair again I'll tell you what happened to me."
Miss Farrow sank gracefully down into her deep, comfortable chair. Again she put out her feet to the fire, for it was very cold on this 23rd of December, and she knew she had a tiring, probably a boring, evening before her. Some strangers of whom she knew nothing, and cared less, excepting that they were the friends of her friend and host, Lionel Varick, were to arrive at Wyndfell Hall in time for dinner. It was now six o'clock.
"Well," she said patiently, "begin at the beginning, Pegler. I wish you'd sit down too—somehow it worries me to see you standing there. You'll be tempted to cut your story short."
Pegler smiled a thin little smile. In the last twelve years Miss Farrow had several times invited her to sit down, but of course she had always refused, being one that knew her place. She had only sat in Miss Farrow's presence during the days and nights when she had nursed her mistress through a serious illness—then, of course, everything had been different, and she had had to sit down sometimes.
"The day before yesterday—that is the evening Miss Bubbles arrived, ma'am—after I'd dressed you and you'd gone downstairs, and I'd unpacked for Miss Bubbles, I went into my room and thought how pleasant it looked. The curtains was drawn, and there was a nice fire, as you know, ma'am, which Mr. Varick so kindly ordered for me, and which I've had the whole week. Also, I will say for Annie that even if she is a temporary, she is a good housemaid, making the girls under her do their work properly."
Pegler drew a long breath. Then she went on again: "I sat down just for a minute or two, and I turned over queer—so queer, ma'am, that I went and drew the curtains of one of the windows. Of course it's a much bigger room than I'm generally accustomed to occupy, as you know, ma'am. And I just threw up the window—it's what they call a guillotine window—and there I saw the water, you know, ma'am, in what they call the moat—"
"Yes," said Miss Farrow languidly. "Yes, Pegler, go on."
"As I looked down, ma'am, I had an awful turn. There seemed to me to be something floating about in the water, a little narrow thing like a child's body—and—and all on a sudden a small white face seemed to look up into mine! Oh, it was 'orrible!" Pegler did not often drop an aitch, but when she did so forget herself, she did it thoroughly.
"As I went on looking, fascinated-like"—she was speaking very slowly now—"whatever was down there seemed to melt away. I didn't say nothing that evening of what had happened to me, but I couldn't keep myself from thinking of it. Well, then, ma'am, as you know, I came and undressed you, and I asked you if you'd like the door kept open between our two rooms. But you said no, ma'am, you'd rather it was shut. So then I went to bed."
"And you say—you admit, Pegler—that nothing did happen the night before last?"
Pegler hesitated. "Nothing happened exactly," she said. "But I had the most awful feeling, ma'am. And yes—well, something did happen! I heard a kind of rustling in the room. It would leave off for a time, and, then begin again. I tried to put it down to a mouse or a rat—or something of that sort."
"That," said Miss Farrow quietly, "was probably what it was, Pegler."
As if she had not heard her lady's remark, the maid went on: "I'd go off to sleep, and then suddenly, I'd awake and hear this peculiar rustle, ma'am, like a dress swishing along—an old-fashioned, rich, soft silk, such as ladies wore in the old days, when I was a child. But that dress, the dress I heard rustling, ma'am, was a bit older than that."
"What do you mean, Pegler?"
The maid remained silent, her eyes were fixed; it was as if she had forgotten where she was.
"And what exactly happened last night?"
"Last night," said Pegler, drawing a long breath, "last night, ma'am—I know you won't believe me—but I saw the spirit!"
Miss Farrow looked up into the woman's face with an anxious, searching glance.
She felt disturbed and worried. A great deal of her material comfort—almost, she might have truly said, much of her happiness in life—depended on Jane Pegler. In a sense Blanche Farrow had but two close friends in the world—her host, Lionel Varick, the new owner of Wyndfell Hall; and the plain, spare, elderly woman standing now before her. She realized with a sharp pang of concern what Pegler's mental defection would mean to her. It would be dreadful, dreadful, if Pegler began seeing ghosts, and turning hysterical.
"What was the spirit like?" she asked quietly.
And then, all at once, she had to suppress a violent inclination to burst out laughing. For Pegler answered with a kind of cry, "A 'orrible happarition, ma'am!"
Miss Farrow could not help observing a trifle satirically: "That certainly sounds most unpleasant."
But Pegler went on, speaking with a touch of excitement very unusual with her: "It was a woman—a woman with a dreadful, wicked, spiteful face! Once she came up close to my bed, and I wanted to scream out, but I couldn't—my throat seemed shut up."
"D'you mean you actually saw what you took to be a ghost?"
"I did see a ghost, ma'am; not a doubt of it! She walked up and down that room in there, wringing her hands all the time—I'd heard the expression, ma'am, but I'd never seen anyone do it."
"Did anything else happen?"
"At last she went over to the window, and—and I'm afraid you won't believe me, ma'am—but there seemed no curtains there any more, nothing but just an opening into the darkness. I saw her bend over—" An expression of terror came over the woman's face.
"But how could you see her," asked Miss Farrow quickly, "if there was no light in the room?"
"In a sort of way," said Pegler somberly, "the spirit was supplying the light, as it were. I could see her in the darkness, as if she was a lamp moving about."
"Oh, Pegler, Pegler!" exclaimed Miss Farrow deprecatingly.
"It's true, ma'am! It's true as I'm standing here." Pegler would have liked to add the words "So help me God!" but somehow she felt that these words would not carry any added conviction to her mistress. And, indeed, they would not have done so, for Miss Farrow, though she was much too polite and too well-bred ever to have said so, even to herself, did not believe in a Supreme Being. She was a complete materialist.
"And then, ma'am, after a bit, there it would begin, constant-like, all over again."
"I don't understand...."
"I'd go to sleep, and tell myself maybe that it was all a dream—argue with myself, ma'am, for I'm a sensible woman. And then all at once I'd hear that rustle again! I'd try not to open my eyes, but somehow I felt I must see what was happening. So I'd look at last—and there she'd be! Walking up and down, walking up and down, her face—oh, ma'am, her face staring-like most 'orrible—and wringing her hands. Then she'd go over to the window, lean out, and disappear, down into the black water!"
In a calmer tone Pegler added: "The moat used to be much bigger and deeper than it is now, ma'am—so they all say."
"All?" said Miss Farrow sharply. "Who do you mean by 'all'?"
"The people about the place, ma'am."
"I can't help wishing, Pegler, that you hadn't told this strange story to the servants. You see it makes it so awkward for Mr. Varick."
Pegler flushed uncomfortably. "I was that scared," she murmured, "that I felt I must tell somebody, and if you tell one, as I did, you tell all. I'm sorry I did it, ma'am, for I'm afraid I've inconvenienced you."
"It can't be helped," said Miss Farrow good-naturedly. "I know you wouldn't have done it if you could have helped it, Pegler. But of course in a way it's unlucky."
"I've pointed out to them all that there never is but one room haunted in a house as a rule," said the maid eagerly, "and I think they all quite sees that, ma'am. Besides, they're very pleased with Mr. Varick. You know what he did to-day, ma'am?"
"No," said Miss Farrow, looking up and smiling, "what did he do?"
"He called them all together, without distinction of class, so to speak, ma'am, and he told them that if he was pleased with the way in which his Christmas party went off, he'd give them each a five-pound note at the end of the month. It made them forget the haunted room, I can tell you, ma'am!" She added grudgingly, "He is a kind gentleman, and no mistake."
"Indeed he is! I'm glad that you see that now, Pegler." Miss Farrow spoke with a touch of meaning in her voice. "I did a very good turn for myself when I got him out of that queer scrape years ago."
"Why yes, ma'am, I suppose you did." But Pegler's tone was not as hearty as that of her lady.
There was a pause. "Then what have you settled to do about to-night?"
"If you don't mind, ma'am—I'm arranging to sleep in what they call the second maid's room. There is a bell through, ma'am, but you'll have to go into the next room to ring it, for you know, ma'am, that it's the next room that ought to have been your room by rights."
"I wish now that I'd taken it and put you in here," said Miss Farrow ruefully.
"They're going to keep up a good fire there. So when you go in you won't get a chill."
"That does seem luxurious," said Miss Farrow, smiling. She loved luxury, and it was pleasant to think that there should be a fire kept up in an empty room just so that she shouldn't feel a chill when she went in for a moment to ring for her maid!
"By the way, I hope there's a fireplace in your room, Pegler"—the words were uttered solicitously.
"No, there isn't, ma'am. But I don't mind that. I don't much care about a fire."
"There's no accounting for taste!"
Miss Farrow took up her book again, and Pegler, as was her way, slid noiselessly from the room—not through the door leading into the haunted chamber, but out on to the beautiful panelled landing, now gay with bowls of hothouse flowers which had come down from London that morning by passenger train, and been brought by car all the way from Newmarket.
The book Miss Farrow held in her hand was an amusing book, the latest volume of some rather lively French memoirs, but she put it down after a very few moments, and, leaning forward, held out her hands to the fire. They were not pretty hands: though small and well-shaped, there was something just a little claw-like about them; but they were very white, and her almond-shaped nails, admirably manicured, gleamed in the soft red light.
Yes, in spite of this stupid little contretemps about Pegler, she was glad indeed that circumstances over which she had had rather more control than she liked to think had made it impossible for her to go out to Monte Carlo this winter. She had been sharply vexed, beside herself with annoyance, almost tempted to do what she had never yet done—that is, to ask Lionel Varick, now so delightfully prosperous, to lend her a couple of hundred pounds. But she had resisted the impulse, and she was now glad of it.
After all, there's no place like dear old England at Christmas time. How much nicer, too, is a bachelor host than a hostess! A bachelor host? No, not exactly a bachelor host, for Lionel Varick was a widower. Twice a widower, if the truth were known. But the truth, fortunately, is not always known, and Blanche Farrow doubted if any other member of the circle of friends and acquaintances he had picked up in his adventurous, curious life knew of that first—now evidently by him almost forgotten—marriage. It had taken place years ago, when Varick was still a very young man, and to a woman not of his own class. They had separated, and then, rather oddly, come together again. Even so, her premature death had been for him a fortunate circumstance.
It was not Varick who had told Blanche Farrow of that painful episode of his past life. The story had come to her knowledge in a curious, accidental fashion, and she had thought it only fair to tell him what she had learned—and then, half reluctantly, he had revealed something of what he had suffered through that early act of folly. But they had only spoken of it once.
Varick's second marriage, Miss Farrow was almost tempted to call it his real marriage, the news of which he had conveyed to his good friend in a laconic note, had surprised her very much.
The news had found her far away, in Portugal, where, as just a few English people know, there is more than one Casino where mild gambling can be pursued under pleasant conditions. Blanche Farrow would have been hurt if someone had told her that in far-away Portugal Lionel Varick and his affairs had not meant quite so much to her as they would have done if she had been nearer home. Still, she had felt a pang. A man-friend married is often a man-friend marred. But she had been very glad to gather, reading between the lines of his note, that the lady in question was well off. Varick was one of those men to whom the possession of money is as essential to life as the air they breathe is to most human beings. Till this unexpected second marriage of his he had often been obliged to live on, and by, his wits.
Then, some months later—for she and Varick were not given to writing to one another when apart, their friendship had never been of that texture—she had received a sad letter from him saying that his wife was seriously ill. The letter had implied, too, that he ought to have been told, before the marriage had taken place, that his wife's family had been one riddled with consumption. Blanche had written back at once—by that time she was a good deal nearer home than Portugal, though still abroad—asking if she could "do anything?" And he had answered that no, there was nothing to be done. "Poor Milly" had a horror of sanatoriums, so he was going to take her to some quiet place on the south coast. He had ended his note with the words: "I do not think it can last long now, and I rather hope it won't. It is very painful for her, as well as for me." And it had not lasted very long. Seven weeks later Miss Farrow had read in the first column of the Times the announcement: "Millicent, only daughter of the late George Fauncey, of Wyndfell Hall, Suffolk, and the beloved wife of Lionel Varick."
She had been surprised at the addition of the word "beloved." Somehow it was not like the man she thought she knew so well to put that word in.
That was just over a year ago. But when she had met Varick again she had seen with real relief that he was quite unchanged—those brief months of wedded life had not apparently altered him at all. There was, however, one great difference—he was quite at ease about money. That was all—but that was a great deal! Blanche Farrow and Lionel Varick had at any rate one thing in common—they both felt a horror of poverty, and all that poverty implies.
Gradually Miss Farrow had discovered a few particulars about her friend's dead wife. Millicent Fauncey had been the only child of a rather eccentric Suffolk squire, a man of great taste, known in the art world of London as a collector of fine Jacobean furniture, long before Jacobean furniture had become the rage. After her father's death his daughter, having let Wyndfell Hall, had wandered about the world with a companion till she had drifted across her future husband's path at an hotel in Florence.
"What attracted me," Lionel Varick had explained rather awkwardly on the only occasion when he had really talked of his late wife to Blanche Farrow, "was her helplessness, and, yes, a kind of simplicity."
Blanche had looked at him a little sharply. She had never known Lionel attracted by weakness or simplicity before. All women seemed attracted by him—but he was by no means attracted by all women.
"Poor Milly didn't care for Wyndfell Hall," he had gone on, "for she spent a very lonely, dull girlhood there. But it's a delightful place, and I hope to live there as soon as I can get the people out to whom it is now let. 'Twon't be an easy job, for they're devoted to it."
Of course he had got them out very soon, for, as Blanche Farrow now reminded herself, Lionel Varick had an extraordinary power of getting his own way, in little and big things alike.
It was uncommonly nice of Lionel to have asked her to be informal hostess of his first house party! Unluckily it was an oddly composed party, not so happily chosen as it might have been, and she wondered uneasily whether it would be a success. She had never met three of the people who were coming to-night—a Mr. and Miss Burnaby, an old-fashioned and, she gathered, well-to-do brother and sister, and their niece, Helen Brabazon. Miss Brabazon had been an intimate friend, Miss Farrow understood the only really intimate friend, of Lionel Varick's late wife. He had spoken of this girl, Helen Brabazon, with great regard and liking—with rather more regard and liking than he generally spoke of any woman.
"She was most awfully kind to me during that dreadful time at Redsands," he had said only yesterday. And Blanche had understood the "dreadful time" referred to the last weeks of his wife's life. "I've been to the Burnabys' house a few times, and I've dined there twice—an infamously bad cook, but very good wine—you know the sort of thing?"
Remembering that remark, Blanche now asked herself why Lionel had included these tiresome, old-fashioned people in his party. Then she told herself that it was doubtless because the niece, who lived with them, couldn't leave them to a solitary Christmas.
Another guest who was not likely to add much in the way of entertainment to the party was an enormously rich man called James Tapster. Tapster was a cynical, rather unpleasant person, yet on one occasion he had helped Varick out of a disagreeable scrape.
If the host had had his way there would also have been in the party a certain Dr. Panton. But at the last moment he had had to "chuck." There was a hope, however, that he might be able to come after Christmas. Dr. Panton was also associated with the late Mrs. Varick. He had attended her during the last long weeks of her life.
Blanche Farrow's face unconsciously brightened as she remembered Sir Lyon Dilsford. He was an intelligent, impecunious, pleasant kind of man, still, like his host, on the sunny side of forty. Sir Lyon was "in the City," as are now so many men of his class and kind. He took his work seriously, and spent many hours of each day east of Temple Bar. By way of relaxation he helped to run an Oxford College East-End Settlement. "A good chap,"—that was how Blanche summed him up to herself.
Lionel had asked her if she could think of any young people to ask, and she had suggested, with some hesitation, her own niece, Bubbles Dunster, and Bubbles' favourite dancing partner, a young man called Bill Donnington. Bubbles had arrived at Wyndfell Hall two days ago. Donnington had not been able to leave London till to-day.
Bubbles? Blanche Farrow's brows knit themselves as she thought of her niece, namesake, and godchild.
Bubbles was a strange girl, but then so many girls are strange nowadays! Though an only child, and the apple of her widowed father's eyes, she had deliberately left her home two years ago, and set up for herself in London, nominally to study art. At once she had become a great success—the kind of success that counts nowadays. Bubbles' photograph was always appearing in the Sketch and in the Daily Mirror. She was constantly roped in to help in any smart charity affair, and she could dance, act, and sell, with the best. She was as popular with women as with men, for there was something disarming, attaching, almost elfish, in Bubbles Dunster's charm. For one thing, she was so good-natured, so kindly, so always eager to do someone a good turn—and last, not least, she had inherited her aunt's cleverness about clothes! She dressed in a way which Blanche Farrow thought ridiculously outre and queer, but still, somehow, she always looked well-dressed. And though she had never been taught dressmaking, she could make her own clothes when put to it, and was always willing to help other people with theirs.
Hugh Dunster, Bubbles' father, did not often favour his sister-in-law with a letter, but she had had a letter from him three days ago, of which the most important passage ran: "I understand that Bubbles is going to spend Christmas with you. I wish you'd say a word to her about all this spiritualistic rot. She seems to be getting deeper and deeper into it. It's impairing her looks, making her nervous and almost hysterical—in a word, quite unlike herself. I spoke to her some time ago, and desired her most earnestly to desist from it. But a father has no power nowadays! I have talked the matter over with young Donnington (of whom I sometimes suspect she is fonder than she knows), and he quite agrees with me. After all, she's a child still, and doesn't realize what vieux jeu all that sort of thing is. I insisted on reading to her 'Sludge, the Medium,' but it made no impression on her! In a sense I've only myself to thank, for I used to amuse myself in testing her amazing thought-reading powers when she was a little girl."
Bubbles had now been at Wyndfell Hall two whole days, and so far her aunt had said nothing to her. Somehow she felt a certain shyness of approaching the subject. In so far as she had ever thought about it—and she had never really thought about it at all—Miss Farrow regarded all that she knew of spiritualism as a gigantic fraud. It annoyed her fastidiousness to think that her own niece should be in any way associated with that kind of thing. She realized the temptation it must offer to a clever girl who, as her father truly said, had had as a child an uncanny power of thought-reading, and of "willing" people to do what she liked.
Blanche Farrow smiled and sighed as she stared into the fire. How the world had changed! She could not imagine her own father, though he had been far less conventional than was Hugh Dunster, talking her over with a young man.
Poor Bill Donnington! Of course he was devoted to Bubbles—her slave, in fact. Blanche had only seen him once; she had thought him sensible, undistinguished, commonplace. She knew that he was the third or fourth son of a worthy North-country parson—in other words, he "hadn't a bob." He was, of course, the last man Bubbles would ever think of marrying. Bubbles, like most of her set, was keenly alive to the value of money. Bubbles, as likely as not, would make a set, half in fun, half in earnest, at James Tapster!
To tell the truth, Miss Farrow had not forgotten Bubbles when she had assented to Lionel Varick's suggestion that rich, if dull-witted, James Tapster should be included in the party.
* * * * *
In what was called the moat garden of Wyndfell Hall, twilight was deepening into night. But Lionel Varick, who was now pacing up and down the broad path which followed the course of the moat, could still see, sharply outlined against the pale winter sky, the vision of tranquil beauty and the storehouse of archaeological and antiquarian interest which was now his home.
By his special orders the windows had been left uncurtained. There were lights in a great number of the rooms—indeed, the lower part of the house was brilliantly illuminated. But as the windows in the beautiful linen-panelled hall were diamond-paned, the brilliance was softened, and there was something deliriously welcoming, almost fairy-like, in the picture the old house presented to its new owner's eager gaze.
After a while he stayed his steps near the narrow brick bridge which spanned the moat where a carriage road connected the domain of Wyndfell Hall with the outside world, and, as he stood there in the gathering twilight, he looked a romantic figure. Tall and well-built, he took, perhaps, an almost excessive care over his dress. Yet there was nothing effeminate or foppish about his appearance.
A follower of that now forgotten science, phrenology, would have been impressed by Lionel Varick's head. It was large and well-shaped, with a great deal of almost golden hair, now showing a white thread or two, which did not, however, detract from his look of youth. He had a fine broad forehead; deep, well-set grey eyes; and a beautiful, sensitive mouth, which he took care not to conceal with a moustache. Thus in almost any company he would have looked striking and distinguished—the sort of man of whom people ask, "Who is that standing over there?"
Varick was a man of moods—subject, that is, to fits of exultation and of depression—and yet with an amazing power of self-control, and of entirely hiding what he felt from those about him.
To-night his mood was one of exultation. He almost felt what Scots call "fey." Something seemed to tell him that he was within reach of the fruition of desires which, even in his most confident moments, had appeared till now wildly out of any possibility of attainment. He came, on both his father's and his mother's side, of people who had lived for centuries the secure, pleasant life of the English county gentry. But instead of taking advantage of their opportunities, the Varicks had gone not upwards, but steadily downwards—the final crash having been owing to the folly, indeed the far more than folly, as Lionel Varick had come to know when still a child, of his own father.
Lionel's father had not lived long after his disgraceful bankruptcy. But he had had time to imbue his boy with an intense pride in the past glories of the Varick family. So it was that the shabby, ugly little villa where his boyhood had been spent on the outskirts of a town famous for its grammar-school, and where his mother settled for her boy's sake after her husband's death, had been peopled to young Varick with visions of just such a country home as was this wonderful old house now before him.
No wonder he felt "fey" to-night. Everything was falling out as he had hoped it would do. He had staked very high—staked, indeed, all that a man can stake in our complex civilization, and he had won! In the whole wide world there was only one human being who wished him ill. This was an elderly woman, named Julia Pigchalke, who had been his late wife's one-time governess and companion. She had been his enemy from the first day they had met, and she had done her utmost to prevent his marriage to her employer. Even now, in spite of what poor Milly's own solicitor called his "thoughtful generosity" to Miss Pigchalke, the woman was pursuing Varick with an almost insane hatred. About six months ago she had called on Dr. Panton, the clever young medical man who had attended poor Mrs. Varick during her last illness. She had formulated vague accusations against Varick—accusations of cruelty and neglect of so absurd a nature that they refuted themselves. Miss Pigchalke's behaviour was the more monstrous that she had already received the first fifty pounds of the hundred-pound pension her friend's widower had arranged to give her.
In a will made before her marriage, the late Mrs. Varick had left her companion two thousand pounds, and though the legacy had been omitted from her final will, Varick had of his own accord suggested that he should allow Miss Pigchalke a hundred a year. She had begun by sending back the first half-yearly cheque; but she had finally accepted it! To-night he reminded himself with satisfaction that the second fifty pounds had already been sent her, and that this time she would evidently make no bones about keeping the money.
Making a determined effort, he chased her sinister image from his thoughts, and turned his mind to the still attractive woman who was about to act as hostess to his Christmas party.
His keen face softened as he thought of Blanche Farrow. Poor, proud, well-bred and pleasant, poor only in a relative sense, for she was the only unmarried daughter of an Irish peer whose title had passed away to a distant cousin. Miss Farrow could have lived in comfort and in dignity on what income she had, but for one inexplicable failing—the more old-fashioned and severe of her friends and relatives called it a vice.
Soon after she had come into the enjoyment of her few hundreds a year, some rich, idle acquaintance had taken Blanche to Monte Carlo, and there, like a duck to water, she had taken to play! Henceforth gambling—any kind of gambling—had become her absorbing interest in life. It was well indeed that what fortune she had was strictly settled on her sisters' children, her two brothers-in-law being her trustees. With one of them, who was really wealthy, she had long ago quarrelled. With the other, now a widower, with only a life interest in his estate, she was on coldly cordial terms, and sometimes, as was the case now, acted as chaperon to his only child, her niece and namesake, Bubbles Dunster.
Blanche Farrow never begged or borrowed. When more hard hit than usual, she retired, alone with her faithful maid, to some cheap corner of the Continent; and as she kept her money worries to herself, she was well liked and popular with a considerable circle.
Such was the human being who in a sense was Lionel Varick's only close friend. They had met in a strange way, some ten years ago, in what Miss Farrow's sterner brother-in-law had called a gambling hell. And, just as we know that sometimes Satan will be found rebuking sin, so Blanche Farrow had set herself to stop the then young Lionel Varick on the brink. He had been in love with her at that time, and on the most unpleasant evening when a cosy flat in Jermyn Street had been raided by the police, he had given Blanche Farrow his word that he would never play again; and he had kept his word. He alone knew how grateful he had cause to be to the woman who had saved him from joining the doomed throng who only live for play.
And now there was still to their friendship just that delightful little touch of sentiment which adds salt and savour to almost every relation between a man and a woman. Though Blanche was some years older than Lionel, she looked, if anything, younger than he did, for she had the slim, upright figure, the pretty soft brown hair, and the delicate, finely modelled features which keep so many an Englishwoman of her type and class young—young, if not in years, yet young in everything else that counts. Even what she sometimes playfully called her petit vice had not made her haggard or worn, and she had never lost interest in becoming, well-made clothes.
Blanche Farrow thought she knew everything there was to know about Lionel Varick, and, as a matter of fact, she did know a great deal no one else knew, though not quite as much as she believed. She knew him to be a hedonist, a materialist, a man who had very few scruples. But not even to herself would she have allowed him to be called by the ugly name of adventurer. Perhaps it would be truer to say—for she was a very clever woman—that even if, deep in her heart, she must have admitted that such a name would have once suited him, she could now gladly tell herself that "all that" lay far behind him. As we have seen, he owed this change in his circumstances to a happy draw in the lottery of marriage, a draw which has so often turned an adventurer of sorts into a man of substance and integrity.
There is generally something a little dull and formal during the first evening of a country house party; and if this is true when most of the people know each other, how far more so is it the case with such a party as that which was now gathered together at Wyndfell Hall!
Lionel Varick sat at one end of the long oak refectory table, Blanche Farrow at the other. But though the table was far wider than are most refectory tables (it was believed to be, because of its width, a unique specimen), yet Blanche, very soon after they had sat down, told herself that there was something to be said, after all, for the old-fashioned, Victorian mahogany. Such a party as was this party would have sorted themselves out, and really enjoyed themselves much more, sitting in couples round an ordinary dining-table, than at this narrow, erstwhile monastic board. Here they were just a little bit too near together—too much vis-a-vis, so Blanche put it to herself with a dissatisfied feeling.
But soon things began going a little better. It had been her suggestion that champagne should be offered with the soup, and already it was having an effect. She was relieved to see that the oddly assorted men and women about her were brisking up, and beginning to talk, even to laugh, with one another.
On the host's right sat Miss Burnaby. She was at once quaint and commonplace looking, the most noticeable thing about her being the fact that she wore a cap. It was made of fine Mechlin lace threaded with pale-blue ribbon, and, to the woman now looking at her, suggested an interesting survival of the Victorian age. Quite old ladies had worn such caps when she, Blanche Farrow, was a child!
The rest of Miss Burnaby's costume consisted of a high black silk dress, trimmed with splendid point lace.
Miss Burnaby was evidently enjoying herself. She had taken a glass of sherry, was showing no fear of her champagne, and had just helped herself substantially to the delicious sole which was one of the special triumphs of the French chef who had come down for a month to Wyndfell Hall. He and Miss Farrow had discussed to-night's menu together that morning, and he had spoken with modest enthusiasm of this Sole a la Cardinal....
On the other side of the host sat Helen Brabazon.
Blanche looked at the late Mrs. Varick's one intimate friend with critical interest. Yes, Miss Brabazon looked Somebody, though a somewhat old-fashioned Somebody, considering that she was still quite a young woman. She had good hair, a good complexion, and clear, honest-looking hazel eyes; but not her kindest friends would have called her pretty. What charm she had depended on her look of perfect health, and her alert, intelligent expression of face. Miss Farrow, who was well read, and, indeed, had a fine taste in literature, told herself suddenly that Miss Brabazon was rather her idea of Jane Austen's Emma! Her dark-blue velvet dress, though it set off her pretty skin, and the complexion which was one of her best points, yet was absurdly old, for a girl. Doubtless Miss Brabazon's gown had been designed by the same dressmaker who had made her mother's presentation dress some thirty years before. Such dressmakers are a quaint survival of the Victorian age, and to them old-fashioned people keep on going from a sense of loyalty, or perhaps because they are honestly ignorant of what strides in beauty and elegance other dressmakers have made in the last quarter of a century.
The hostess's eye travelled slowly round the table. How ludicrous the contrast between Helen Brabazon and Bubbles Dunster! Yet they were probably very much of an age. Bubbles, who looked such a child, must now be—yes, not far from two-and-twenty.
Miss Farrow checked a sigh. She had been twenty-one herself—but what a charming, distinguished, delightful twenty-one—when she had formed one of a little group round the font of St. Peter's, Eaton Square. She remembered what an ugly baby she had thought Bubbles, and how she had been anything but pleased when someone present facetiously observed that god-mother and godchild had very much the same type of nose and ears and mouth!
To-night Bubbles was wearing an eccentric, and yet very becoming garment. To the uninitiated it might have appeared fashioned out of an old-fashioned chintz curtain. As a matter of fact, the intricate flower pattern with which it was covered had been copied on a Lyons loom from one of those eighteenth century embroidered waistcoats which are rightly prized by connoisseurs. The dress was cut daringly low, back and front, especially back, and the girl wore no jewels. But through her "bobbed" hair was tucked a brilliant little silk flag, which carried out and emphasized the colouring of the flowers scattered over the pale pink silk of which its wearer's gown was made.
Bubbles, in that staid and decorous company, looked as if she had wandered in from some gay Venetian masquerade.
She was now sitting between the millionaire, James Tapster, and her own friend, Bill Donnington. When she had heard that she had been placed next Donnington, Bubbles had pouted. "I'd rather have had Sir Lyon," she exclaimed, "or even the old 'un!"—for so she irreverently designated Helen Brabazon's uncle, Mr. Burnaby.
But Blanche Farrow had been firm. Sir Lyon must of course be on her own right hand, Mr. Burnaby on her left. It is always difficult to arrange a party of four ladies and five men. She had suggested more than one other pleasant woman to make up the party to ten, but Varick had had some objection to each—the objection usually taking the line that the person proposed would not "get on" with the Burnabys.
Blanche again wondered why their host had been so determined to have Helen Brabazon at his first house-party, if her coming meant the inclusion of her tiresome uncle and aunt? And then she felt a little ashamed of herself. One of the best points about Lionel Varick was his sense of gratitude to anyone who had done him a good turn. Gratitude had been the foundation of their own now many-year-long friendship.
The food was so very good, there was so much of it, and doubtless those who had journeyed down to Wyndfell Hall to-night were all so hungry, that there was rather less talk going on round the table than might have been expected. But now and again the hostess caught a fleeting interchange of words. She heard, for instance, old Miss Burnaby informing young Donnington that she had been a good deal on the Continent as a young woman, and had actually spent a year in Austria a matter of forty years ago.
As the meal went on, Miss Farrow gradually became aware that Bubbles provided what life and soul there was in the dull party. But for Bubbles, but for her infectious high spirits and vitality, how very heavy and stupid the meal they were now ending would have been! She asked herself, for perhaps the twentieth time in the last three-quarters of an hour, why her friend had brought together such a curious and ill-assorted set of people.
At last she looked across at Miss Burnaby, and gradually everyone got up.
Varick was at the door in a moment, holding it open, and, as they filed by him, managing to say a word to each of the four ladies. "Bravo, Bubbles!" Blanche heard him whisper. "You're earning your Christmas present right royally!" and the girl's eyes flashed up into her host's with a mischievous, not over-friendly glance. Miss Farrow was aware that Bubbles did not much care for Lionel Varick. She rather wondered why. But she was far too shrewd not to know that there's no accounting either for likings or dislikings where a man and a woman are concerned.
As she shepherded her little party across the staircase lobby, she managed to mutter into her niece's ear: "I want you to take on Miss Burnaby for me, Bubbles—I'm anxious to make friends with Helen Brabazon."
There are times when what one must call for want of a better term the social rites of existence interfere most unwarrantably with the elemental happenings of life. But on this first evening at Wyndfell Hall the coming of coffee and of liqueurs proved a welcome diversion. Miss Burnaby smiled a pleased smile as she sipped the Benedictine which a footman had poured into a tall green-and-gold Bohemian liqueur-glass for her. She, at any rate, was enjoying her visit. And so, Blanche Farrow decided, was the old lady's niece, for "How beautiful and perfect everything is!" exclaimed the girl; and indeed the room in which they now found themselves was singularly charming.
But somehow Miss Farrow felt that the speaker was not alluding so much to the room, as to the way everything was being done, and her heart warmed to the girl, for she was really anxious that Lionel's first party should be a success.
When they had settled themselves in the lovely, delicately austere-looking white parlour, as it was called, which again suggested to Blanche Farrow the atmosphere of Jane Austen's "Emma," Bubbles dutifully sat herself down by Miss Burnaby. Soon she was talking to that lady in a way which at once fascinated and rather frightened her listener. Bubbles had a very pretty manner to old people. It was caressing, deferential, half-humorously protecting. She liked to shock and soothe them by turns; and they generally yielded themselves gladly, after a little struggle, both to the shocking and to the soothing.
Miss Farrow and Helen Brabazon sat down at the further end of the delightful, gladsome-looking room. It was hung with a delicate, faded Chinese paper; and against the walls stood a few pieces of fine white lacquer furniture. The chairs were painted—some French, some Heppelwhite. Over the low mantelpiece was framed a long, narrow piece of exquisite embroidery.
"I suppose you have often stayed here?" began Miss Farrow civilly.
Helen Brabazon looked at her, surprised. "I've never been here before!" she exclaimed. "How could I have been? I've only known Mr. Varick for, let me see,"—she hesitated—"a very little over a year."
"But you were a great friend of his wife's—at least so I understood?"
Blanche concealed, successfully, her very real astonishment. She had certainly been told by Lionel that Miss Brabazon and "poor Milly" had been intimate friends; that this fact was, indeed, the only link between Miss Brabazon and her host.
The girl now sitting opposite to her flushed deeply, and suddenly Blanche Farrow realized that there was a good deal of character and feeling in the open, ingenuous face.
"Yes, that's true. We became great friends"—a note of emotion broke into the steady, well-modulated voice—"but our friendship was not an old friendship, Miss Farrow. I only knew Milly—well, I suppose I knew her about ten weeks in all."
"Ten weeks in all?" This time Blanche Farrow could not keep the surprise she felt out of her voice. "What an extraordinary mistake for me to have made! I thought you had been life-long friends."
Helen shook her head. "What happened was this. A friend of mine—I mean a really old friend—had a bad illness, and I took her down to Redsands—you may know it, a delightful little village not far from Walmer. I took a house there, and Mr. and Mrs. Varick had the house next door. We made friends, I mean Mr. Varick and myself, over the garden wall, and he asked me if I would mind coming in some day and seeing his wife. I had a great deal of idle time on my hands, so very soon I spent even more time with the Varicks than I did with my friend, and she—I mean poor Milly—became very, very fond of me."
There was a pause. And then the younger woman went on: "And if we knew each other for such a short time, as one measures time, I on my side soon got very fond of Milly. Though she was a good deal over thirty"—again the listener felt a thrill of unreasoning surprise—"there was something very simple and young about poor Milly."
The speaker stopped, and Blanche, leaning forward, exclaimed: "I am deeply interested in what you tell me, Miss Brabazon! I have never liked to say much to Lionel about his wife; but I have always so wondered what she was really like?"
"She simply adored Mr. Varick," Helen answered eagerly. "She worshipped him! She was always making plans as to what she and 'Lionel' would do when she got better. I myself thought it very wrong that all of them, including Dr. Panton, entered into a kind of conspiracy not to let her know how ill she was."
"I think that was right," said Blanche Farrow shortly. "Why disturb her happiness—if indeed she was happy?"
"She was indeed!—very, very happy!" cried Helen. "She had had a miserable life as a girl, and even after she was grown up. When she met Mr. Varick, and they fell in love at first sight, she'd hardly ever seen a man to speak to, excepting some of her father's tiresome old cronies—"
"Was she pretty?" asked Blanche abruptly.
"Oh, no,"—the other shook her head decidedly. "Not at all pretty—in fact I suppose most people would have called her very plain. Poor Milly was sallow, and, when I knew her, very thin; but I believe she'd never been really strong, never really healthy." She hesitated, and then said in a low voice: "That made Mr. Varick's wonderful devotion to her all the more touching."
Blanche Farrow hardly knew what to say. "Yes, indeed," she murmured mechanically.
Lionel devoted to a plain, unhealthy woman? Somehow she found it quite impossible to believe that he could ever have been that. And yet there was no doubting the sincerity of the girl's accents.
"Both Dr. Panton and I used to agree," Helen went on, "that he didn't give himself enough air and exercise. I hired a car for part of the time, and used to take him out for a good blow, now and again."
"And what did Mrs. Varick really die of?" asked Blanche Farrow.
"Pernicious anaemia," answered Helen promptly. "It's a curious, little-known disease, from what I can make out. The doctor told me he thought she had had it for a long time—or, at any rate, that she had had it for some years before she married Mr. Varick."
There was a pause.
"I wonder why they didn't come and live here?" said Miss Farrow thoughtfully.
"Oh, but she hated Wyndfell Hall! You see, her father's whole mind had been set on nothing but this house, and making it as perfect as possible. It was in a dreadful state when he inherited it from an old cousin; yet he was offered, even so, an enormous sum for some of the wonderful oak ceilings. But he refused the offer—indignantly, and he set himself to make it what it must have been hundreds of years ago."
"He hardly succeeded in doing that," observed Blanche Farrow dryly. "Our ancestors lived less comfortably than we do now, Miss Brabazon. Instead of beautiful old Persian carpets, there must have been rushes on all the floors. And as for the furniture of those days—it was probably all made of plain, hard, unpolished wood."
"Well, at any rate,"—the girl spoke with a touch of impatience—"Milly hated this place. She told me once she had never known a day's real happiness till her marriage. That's what made it seem so infinitely sad that it lasted such a short time."
"I suppose," said the other slowly, "that they were married altogether about seven months?"
"I fancy rather longer than that. She was quite well, or so she thought, when she married. They travelled about for a while on the Continent, and she told me once she enjoyed every minute of it! And then her health began to give way, and they took this house at Redsands. They chose it because Mr. Varick knew something of the doctor there—he didn't know him very well, but they became very great friends, in fact such friends that poor Milly left him a legacy—I think it was five hundred pounds. Dr. Panton was most awfully good to her, but of course he hadn't the slightest idea that she was leaving him anything. I never saw a man more surprised than he was when I told him about it the day of her death. Mr. Varick asked me to do so, and he was quite overcome."
She smiled. Five hundred pounds evidently did not seem very much to Miss Brabazon.
"I suppose she had a good deal of money?"
The late Mrs. Varick's friend hesitated a moment, then answered at last, "I think she had about twenty thousand pounds—at least I know that that sum was mentioned in the Times list of wills."
The other was startled—disagreeably startled. She had understood, from something Lionel had said to her, that he now had five thousand a year. "This place must be worth a good deal," she observed. She told herself that perhaps the late Mrs. Varick had left twenty thousand pounds in money, and that the bulk of her income had come from land.
"Yes, but unfortunately poor Milly couldn't leave Wyndfell Hall to Mr. Varick. He only has a life interest in it."
Helen Brabazon spoke in a curiously decided way, as if she were used to business.
Blanche was again very much surprised. She had certainly understood that this wonderful old house and its very valuable contents belonged to Lionel Varick absolutely. "Are you sure of that?" she began—and then she stopped speaking, for her quick ears had detected the sound of an opening and shutting door.
After a few moments the five men sorted themselves among the ladies. Old Mr. Burnaby and young Donnington went and sat by Bubbles, the gloomy-looking James Tapster also finally sidling uncertainly towards her. Sir Lyon civilly devoted himself to Miss Burnaby; and Lionel Varick came over to where Blanche Farrow was sitting, and said something to her in a low voice.
Thus was Helen Brabazon for the moment left out in the cold. She turned, and opening a prettily bound book which was on a table close to her elbow, began to read it.
Varick looked dubiously at his silent guest. Leaning again towards Miss Farrow he whispered: "I don't know what one does on such occasions, Blanche. Ought not we to have a round game or something?"
She smiled into his keen, good-looking face. "You are a baby! Or are you only pretending, Lionel? Everyone's quite happy; why should we do anything?"
"As a matter of fact, both Mr. Burnaby and Miss Burnaby spoke before dinner as if they expected to be entertained in some way."
"I'll think something out," she said a little wearily. "Now go and do your duty—talk to Miss Brabazon!"
She got up and moved slowly towards the fireplace, telling herself the while, with a certain irritation, that Lionel was not showing his usual alert intelligence. It was all very well to invite this young woman who had been so kind to poor Milly; and the fact that she and her tiresome old uncle and aunt were, if Lionel was right, very wealthy, was not without a certain interest. But still—!
Blanche, with a certain grim, inward smile, remembered a story she had thought at the time rather funny. That of a lady who had said to her husband, "Oh, do come and see them, they are so very rich." And he had answered, "My dear, I would if it were catching!"
Unfortunately, Blanche Farrow had only too much reason to know that wealth is not catching. Also, to one with her brilliant, acute mind, there was something peculiarly irritating in the sight of very rich people who didn't know how to use their wealth, either to give themselves, or others, pleasure. Such people, she felt sure, were Mr. and Miss Burnaby—and doubtless, also, their heiress, Helen Brabazon.
"Bubbles!" she exclaimed imperiously, under her breath. "Come here for a minute." And Bubbles, with a touch of reluctance, got up and left the three men to whom she was talking.
As she came towards her, her aunt was struck by the girl's look of ill-health and unease.
"I wish you could think of something that would stir us all up," she said in a low voice. And then, in a lower voice still, for her niece was now close to her, "The Burnabys look the sort of people who would enjoy a parlour game," she said rather crossly.
And then, all of a sudden, Bubbles gave a queer little leap into the air. "I've got it!" she exclaimed. "Let's hold a seance!"
"A seance?" repeated Blanche Farrow in a dubious tone. "I don't think Miss Burnaby would enjoy that at all."
"Oh, but she would!"—Bubbles spoke confidently. "Didn't you hear her at dinner? She was telling Sir Lyon about some friend of hers who's become tremendously keen about that sort of thing. To tell you the truth, Blanche" (these two had never been on very formal terms together, and in a way Bubbles was much fonder of her aunt than her aunt was of her)—"To tell you the truth, Blanche," she repeated, "ever since I arrived here I've told myself that it would be rather amusing to try something of the kind. It's a strange old house; there's a funny kind of atmosphere about it; I felt it the moment I arrived."
The other looked at her sharply. "I've always avoided that sort of thing, and I don't see it doing you much good, Bubbles! You know how your father feels about it?"
Miss Farrow did not often interfere in other people's affairs, but she had suddenly remembered certain phrases in her brother-in-law's letter.
"Daddy has been put up to making a fuss by a goody-goody widow who's making up to him just now." Bubbles spoke lightly, but she looked vexed.
Blanche Farrow felt sorry she had said anything. Bubbles was behaving very nicely just now. It was the greatest comfort to have her here. So she said, smiling, "Oh, well, I shan't regret your trying something of the kind if you can galvanize these dull folk into life."
"I'll do more than that," said Bubbles easily. "I'll give them creeps! But, Blanche? I want you to back me up if I say I'm tired, or don't want to go on with it."
Blanche Farrow felt surprised. "I don't quite understand," she exclaimed. "Aren't we going to do table-turning?"
"No," said the girl deliberately. "We're going to have a seance—a sitting. And I'm going to be the medium."
"Oh, Bubbles! Is that wise?" She looked uncomfortably into the girl's now eager, flushed face. "D'you think you know enough about these people to be a success at it this very first evening?"
Bubbles' gift of thought reading would of course come in; also the girl was a clever actress; still, that surely wouldn't take her very far with a set of people of whom she knew nothing.
"The only one I'm afraid of," said Bubbles thoughtfully, "is Mr. Burnaby. He's such a proper old thing! He might really object—object on the same ground as Daddy's tiresome widow does. However, I can but try."
She pirouetted round, and quickly drew with her foot a gilt footstool from under an Empire settee. She stood upon it and clapped her hands. "Ladies and gentlemen!" she cried. "This is a time of year when ghosts are said to walk. Why shouldn't we hold a seance, here and now, and call up spirits from the vasty deep?"
"But will they come?" quoted Sir Lyon, smiling up into her eager, sensitive little face.
Sir Lyon was quite enjoying Lionel Varick's Christmas house-party. For one thing, he was interested in his host's personality. In a small way he had long made a study of Lionel Varick, and it amused him to see Varick in a new role—that of a prosperous country gentleman.
Suddenly Bubbles found an ally in a most unexpected quarter. Helen Brabazon called out: "I've always longed to attend a seance! I did once go to a fortune-teller, and it was thrilling—."
Bubbles stepped down off her footstool. She had the gift—which her aunt also possessed—of allowing another to take the field.
"If it was so exciting," said Lionel Varick dryly, "I wonder that you only went once, Miss Brabazon."
Helen's face grew grave. "I'll tell you about it some day," she said in a low voice; "as a matter of fact, it was just before you and I first met."
"Yes," said Varick lightly. "And what happened? Do tell me!"
Helen turned to him, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "She described Milly—I mean the fortune-teller described Milly, almost exactly. She told me that Milly was going to play a great part in my life."
And then she felt sharply sorry she had said as much or as little as she had said, for her host's face altered; it became, from a healthy pallor, a deep red.
"Forgive me!" she exclaimed. "Forgive me! I oughtn't to have told you—"
"Don't say that. You can tell me anything!"
Blanche Farrow, who had now moved forward to the fireplace, would again have been very much surprised had she heard the intense, intimate tone in which Lionel Varick uttered those few words to his late wife's friend.
Helen blushed—a deep, sudden blush—and Sir Lyon, looking at her across the room, told himself that she was a remarkable-looking girl, and that he would like to make friends with her. He liked the earnest, old-fashioned type of girl—but fate rarely threw him into the company of such a one.
"It is quite unnecessary for any of you to move," observed Bubbles in a business-like tone; "but we are likely to obtain much better results if we blow out the candles. The firelight will be quite enough."
And then, to everyone's surprise, Miss Burnaby spoke. Her voice was gentle and fretful. "I thought that there always had to be a medium at a seance," she observed; "when I went with a friend of mine to what she called a Circle, there was a medium there, and we each paid her half-a-crown."
"Of course there must be a medium," said Bubbles quickly. "And I am going to be the medium this time, Miss Burnaby; but it will be all free and for nothing—I always do it for love!"
Varick looked at his young guest with a good deal of gratitude. He had never numbered himself among the girl's admirers. To him Bubbles was like a caricature of her aunt. But now he told himself that there was something to say, after all, for this queer younger generation who dare everything! He supposed that Bubbles was going to entertain them with a clever exhibition of brilliant acting. Lionel Varick was no mean actor himself, and it was as connoisseur, as well as expert, that he admired the gift when it was practised by others.
Spiritualism, table-turning, and fortune-telling—he bracketed them all together in his own mind—had never interested him in the least. But he realized dimly what a wonderful chance this new fashionable craze—for so he regarded it—gives to the charlatan. He had always felt an attraction to that extraordinary eighteenth century adventurer, Cagliostro, and to-night he suddenly remembered a certain passage in Casanova's memoirs.... He felt rather sorry that they hadn't planned out this—this seance, before the rest of the party had arrived. He could have given Bubbles a few "tips" which would have made her task easy, and the coming seance much more thrilling.
The company ranged themselves four on each side.
Miss Burnaby sat on one side of the fireplace, her brother on the other. Next to the old lady was Sir Lyon; then Helen Brabazon; last their host.
On the opposite side, next to Mr. Burnaby, sat the fat-visaged James Tapster; by him was Blanche Farrow, looking on the proceedings with a certain cynical amusement and interest, and next to Blanche, and nearest to where Bubbles had now established herself on one of those low chairs which in England is called a nursery chair, and in France a prie-dieu, was young Donnington. He, alone of the people there, looked uncomfortable and disapproving.
After they had all been seated, waiting they hardly knew for what, for a few moments, Bubbles leapt from her low chair and blew out all the candles, a somewhat lengthy task, and one which plunged the room into almost darkness. But she threw a big log of wood on the fire, and the flames shot up, filling the room with shafts of rosy, fitful light.
There was a pause. Varick said something in a rather cheerful, matter-of-fact voice to Miss Brabazon, and Bubbles turned round sharply: "I'm afraid we ought to have complete silence—even silence of thought," she said solemnly.
Blanche Farrow looked at the girl. What queer jargon was this? In the wavering light thrown by the fire Bubbles' face looked tense and rather strained.
Was it possible, Blanche asked herself with a touch of uneasiness, that the child was taking this seriously—that she believed in it at all? Her father thought so, but then Hugh Dunster was such an old fool!
The moments ran by. One or two of the chairs creaked. James Tapster yawned, and he put up his hand rather unwillingly to hide his yawn. He thought all this sort of thing very stupid, and so absolutely unnecessary. He had enjoyed listening to Miss Bubbles' cheerful, inconsequent chatter. It irritated him that she should have been dragged away from him—for so he put it to himself—by that unpleasant, supercilious woman, Blanche Farrow. It was a pity that a nice girl like Miss Bubbles had such an aunt. Only the other day he had heard a queer story about Miss Farrow. The story ran that she had once been caught in a gambling raid, and her name kept out of the papers by the influence of a man in the Home Office who had been in love with her at the time.
And then he looked up, startled for once—for strange, untoward sounds were issuing from the lips of Bubbles Dunster. The girl was leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, crouched upon the low chair, her slight, sinuous little figure bathed in red light. She was groaning, rocking herself backwards and forwards convulsively. To most of those present it was a strange, painful exhibition—painful, yet certainly thrilling!
Suddenly she began to speak, and the words poured from her lips with a kind of breathless quickness. But the strange, uncanny, startling thing about it was that the voice which uttered these staccato sentences was not Bubbles' well modulated, drawling voice. It was the high, peevish voice of a child—a child speaking queer, broken English. Everyone present, even including Varick and Blanche Farrow, who both believed it to be a clever and impudent piece of impersonation, was startled and taken aback by the extraordinary phenomena the girl now presented. Her eyes were closed, and yet her head was thrust forward as if she was staring at the big, now roaring, wood fire before her.
Rushing out through her scarcely open lips, came the sing-song words: "Why bring Laughing Water here? Laughing Water frightened. Laughing Water want to go away. Laughing Water hates this house. Please, Miss Bubbles, let Laughing Water go away!" And Bubbles—if it was Bubbles—twisted and turned and groaned, as if in agony.
And then, to the amazement of all those who were there, young Donnington, his face set in grim lines, suddenly addressed Bubbles, or the little pleading creature that appeared to possess the girl: "Don't be frightened," he said soothingly. "No one's going to hurt Laughing Water. Everyone in this room is good and kind."
In answer, there broke from Bubbles' lips a loud cry: "No, no, no! Bad people—cruel people—here! Bad spirits, too. Bad chair. Laughing Water sitting on torture chair! Miss Bubbles change chair. Then Laughing Water feel better."
Bubbles got up as an automaton might have got up, and Donnington, pushing forward one of the painted chairs, drew the low, tapestry covered prie-dieu from under her.
She gave a deep, deep sigh as she sat down again. Then she turned herself and the chair round till she was exactly facing Varick. In a voice which had suddenly become much more her own voice she addressed him, speaking slowly, earnestly: "I see a lady standing behind you. She is very stern-looking. She has a pale, worn face, and dark blue eyes. They are very like your eyes. Her hair is parted in the middle; it is slightly grey. She must have passed over about fifteen to twenty years ago. I think it is your mother. She wants to, she wants to—" Bubbles hesitated, and then, speaking now entirely in her own voice, she exclaimed with a kind of gasp—"to warn you of danger."
Varick opened his lips, and then he closed them. He felt shaken with an over-mastering emotion, as well as intense surprise, and, yes, of fierce anger with the girl for daring to do this—to him.
But Bubbles began again, staring as if at something beyond and behind him. "Now there's another figure, standing to your left. She is still near the earth plane. I cannot place her at all. She is short and stout; her grey hair is brushed back from her forehead. I do not feel as if you had known her very long."
Her voice died away, then suddenly became stronger, more confident: "Your mother—if it is your mother—is trying to shield you from her."
She remained silent for a while. She seemed to be listening. Then she spoke again: "I get a word—what is it?—not Ardour? Aboard? No, I think it's Arbour!"
She gazed anxiously into Varick's pale, set face. "She says, 'Remember the Arbour.' D'you follow me?"
She asked the question with a certain urgency, and Bubbles' host nodded, imperceptibly.
Then she left him, dragging her chair along till she was just opposite Helen Brabazon.
"I see a man standing behind you," she began; "he is dressed in rather curious, old-fashioned cricketing clothes."
A look of amazement and understanding passed over Helen's face.
Bubbles went on, confidently: "He is a tall, well-set-up man. He has light brown hair and grey eyes. He is smiling. I think it is your father. Now he looks grave. He is uneasy about you. He is sorry you came here, to Wyndfell Hall. Do you follow me?"
But Helen shook her head. She felt bewildered and oppressed. "I wonder," she said falteringly, "if he could give me a sign? I do so long to know if it is really my dear, dear father."
Blanche Farrow turned a little hot. It was too bad of Bubbles to do the thing in this way!
"He says—he says—I hear him say a word—" Bubbles stopped and knit her brows. "'Girl, girl'—no, it isn't 'girl'—"
"Girlie?" murmured Helen under her breath.
"Yes, that's it! 'Girlie'—he says 'girlie.'"
Helen Brabazon covered her face with her hands. She was deeply moved. What wonderful thing was this? She told herself that never, never would she allow herself to speak lightly or slightingly of spiritualism again! As far as she knew, no one in that room, not even her uncle or aunt, was aware that "girlie" had been her long dead father's pet name for his only child.
And then, quite suddenly, Bubbles' voice broke into a kind of cry. "Take care!" she said. "Take care! I see another form. It has taken the place of your father. I think it is the form of a woman who has passed over, and who loved you once, but whose heart is now full of hatred. D'you follow me? Quick! quick! She's fading away!"
Helen shook her head. "No," she said in a dull voice, "I don't follow you at all."
She felt acutely, unreasonably disappointed. There was no one in the world who had first loved and then hated her, or who could hate her. She cast her mind back to some of her schoolfellows; but no, as far as she knew they were all still alive, and there was not one of them to whom these exaggerated terms of love and hatred could be applied.
Bubbles dragged her chair on till she was just opposite Sir Lyon Dilsford.
He put up his hand: "Will you kindly pass me by, Laughing Water?" he said, in his full, pleasant voice. "I'm an adept, and I don't care for open Circles. If you don't mind, will you pass on?"
And Bubbles dragged on her chair again over the Aubusson carpet.
She was now opposite Miss Burnaby, and the old lady was looking at her with an air of fear and curiosity which strangely altered her round, usually placid face.
"I see a tall young man standing behind you," began Bubbles in a monotonous voice. "He has such a funny-looking long coat on; a queer-shaped cap, too. Why, he's dripping with water!"
And then, almost as if in spite of herself, Miss Burnaby muttered: "Our brother John, who was drowned."
"He wants me to tell you that he's very happy, and that he sends you your father's and mother's love."
Bubbles waited for what seemed quite a long time, then she went on again: "I see another man. He is a very good-looking man. He has a high forehead, blue eyes, and a golden mustache. He is in uniform. Is it an English uniform?"
Miss Burnaby shook her head.
"I think it's an Austrian uniform," said Bubbles hesitatingly; then she continued, in that voice which was hers and yet not hers, for it seemed instinct with another mind: "He says, 'My love! My love, why did you lack courage?'"
The old lady covered her face with her hands. "Stop! Please stop," she said pitifully.
Bubbles dragged her chair across the front of the fire till she was exactly opposite Mr. Burnaby.
For a few moments nothing happened. The fire had died down. There was only a flicker of light in the room. Then all at once the girl gave a convulsive shudder. "I can't help it," she muttered in a frightened tone. "Someone's coming through!"
All the colour went out of the healthy old man's face. "Eh, what?" he exclaimed uneasily.
Like Mr. Tapster, he had thought all this tomfoolery, but while Bubbles had been speaking to, or at, his sister, he had felt amazed, as well as acutely uncomfortable.
And then there burst from Bubbles' lips words uttered in a broken, lamenting voice—a young, uncultivated woman's voice: "I did forgive you—for sure. But oh, how I've longed to come through to you all these years! You was cruel, cruel to me, Ted—and I was kind to you."
Then followed a very odd, untoward thing. Mr. Burnaby jumped up from his chair, and he bolted—literally bolted—from the room, slamming the door behind him.
Bubbles gave a long, long sigh, and then she said feebly: "I'm tired. I can't go on any longer now." She spoke in her natural voice, but all the lilt and confidence were as if drained out of it.
Someone—perhaps it was Donnington, who had got up—began re-lighting the candles.
No one spoke for what seemed a long time. And then, to the infinite relief of Varick and Miss Farrow, the door opened, and the butler appeared, followed by the footmen. They were bringing in various kinds of drinks.
The host poured out and mixed a rather stiff brandy and soda, and took it over to Miss Burnaby. "Do drink this," he said solicitously. "And forgive me, Miss Burnaby—I'm afraid I was wrong to allow this—this—" he did not know quite what to say, so he ended lamely, "this seance to take place."
Then he poured out another stiff brandy and plain water and drank it himself.
Donnington turned to Miss Farrow. "I have never known Bubbles so—so wonderful!" he exclaimed in a low voice. "There must be something in the atmosphere of this place which made it easier than usual."
Blanche Farrow looked at him searchingly. "Surely you don't believe in it?" she whispered incredulously. "Of course it was a mixture of thought-reading and Bubbles' usual quickness!"
"I don't agree with you—I wish I could." The young man looked very pale in the now bright light. "I thoroughly disapprove of it all, Miss Farrow. I wish to God I could stop Bubbles going in for it!"
"I agree with you that it's very bad for her."
The girl had gone away, right out of the circle. She was sitting on a chair in the far corner of the room; her head, bent over a table, rested on her arms.
"She'll be worn out—good for nothing to-morrow," went on Donnington crossly. "She'll have an awful night too. I might have thought she'd be up to something of the sort! One of the servants told her to-night that this house is haunted. She'll be trying all sorts of experiments if we can't manage to stop her. It's the only thing Bubbles really lives for now, Miss Farrow."
"I'm afraid it is"—Blanche felt really concerned. What had just taken place was utterly unlike anything she had ever imagined. And yet—and yet it didn't amount to very much, after all! The most extraordinary thing which had happened, to her mind, was what had been told to old Miss Burnaby.
And then all at once she remembered—and smiled an inward, derisive little smile. Why, of course! She had overheard Miss Burnaby tell her neighbour at dinner that as a girl she had stayed a winter in Austria. How quick, how clever Bubbles had been—how daring, too! Still, deep in her heart, she was glad that her niece had not had time to come round to where she, herself, had been sitting. Bubbles knew a good deal about her Aunt Blanche, and it certainly would not have been very pleasant had the child made use of her knowledge—even to a slight degree.... Miss Farrow went up to the table on which now stood a large lacquer tray, and poured herself out a glass of cold water. She was an abstemious woman.
"I think some of us ought to go up to bed now" she said, turning round. "It isn't late yet, but I'm sure we're all tired. And we've had rather an exciting evening."
There was a good deal of hand-shaking, and a little talk of plans for the morrow. Bubbles had come over, and joined the others, but she was still curiously abstracted.
"Where's Mr. Burnaby?" she asked suddenly. "Wasn't he at the seance?"
"He's gone to bed," said his sister shortly.
Her host was handing the old lady a bedroom candle, and she was looking up at him with a kind of appeal in her now troubled and bewildered face.
"I feel I owe you an apology," he said in a low voice. "Bubbles Dunster has always possessed extraordinary powers of thought-reading. I remember hearing that years ago, when she was a child. But of course I had no idea she had developed the gift to the extent she now has—or I should have forbidden her to exercise it to-night."
After the three other women had all gone upstairs, Blanche Farrow lingered a moment at the bottom of the staircase; and Varick, having shepherded Sir Lyon, young Donnington, and James Tapster into the hall, joined her for a few moments.
"Bubbles is an extraordinary young creature," he said thoughtfully. "I shouldn't have thought it within the power of any human being to impress me as she impressed me to-night. What a singular gift the girl has!"
Somehow Blanche felt irritated. "She has a remarkable memory," she said dryly. "And also the devil's own impudence, Lionel." And then she told him of the few words she had overheard at dinner of the winter Miss Burnaby had spent in Austria a matter of forty years ago.
"Yes, that's all very well! But it doesn't account for her absolutely correct description of my mother, or—or—"
"Yes?" said his companion sharply.
"Well—of her mention of the word 'arbour.' The last time I saw my mother alive was in the arbour of our horrible little garden at Bedford."
"That," said Blanche thoughtfully, "was, I admit, pure thought-reading. Good-night, Lionel."
Varick remained standing at the foot of the staircase for quite a long while.
Yes, it had been thought-reading, of course. But very remarkable, even so. It was years since he had thought of that last painful talk with his mother. She had warned him very seriously of certain—well, peculiarities of his character. The long-forgotten words she had used suddenly leapt into his mind as if written in letters of fire: "Your father's unscrupulousness, matched with my courage, make a dangerous combination, my boy."
As he lit a cigarette, his hand shook a little, but the more he thought of it, the more he told himself that for all that had occurred with relation to himself to-night there was an absolutely natural explanation.
Take the second figure Bubbles had described? It was obviously that of the woman on whom he had allowed his mind to dwell uneasily, intensely, this afternoon. She was his only enemy—if you could call the crazy creature who had been poor Milly's companion an enemy.
The odious personality of the absurdly named Julia Pigchalke was still very present to him as he turned and joined his men guests in the beautiful camber-roofed and linen-panelled room known as the hall. She was the one fly, albeit a very small fly, in the ointment of his deep content.
It was a good deal more than an hour later—in fact nearer twelve than eleven o'clock—when young Donnington got up from the comfortable chair where he had been ensconced, and put down the book which he had been reading.
All the other men of the party, with the exception of old Mr. Burnaby—who had gone to bed for good after his dramatic bolt from the drawing-room—had disappeared some time ago. But Donnington had stayed on downstairs, absorbed in a curious, privately printed book containing the history of Wyndfell Hall.
Suddenly his eyes fell on the following passage:
"Every piece of the furniture in 'the White Parlour,' as it is still called, is of historic value and interest. To take but one example. A low, high-backed chair, covered with petit point embroidery, is believed to have been the prie-dieu on which the Princesse de Lamballe knelt during the whole of the night preceding her terrible death. In a document which was sold with the chair in 1830, her servant—who, it appears, had smuggled the chair into the prison—recounts the curious fact that the poor Princess had a prevision that she was to be torn in pieces. She spent the last night praying for strength to bear the awful ordeal she knew lay before her."
Donnington shut the book. "That's strange!" he muttered to himself as he got up.
After putting the book back in the bookcase where he had found it, he stood and looked round the splendid apartment with a mixture of interest and delighted attention.
Yes, this wonderful old "post and panel" dwelling was the most beautiful of the many beautiful old country houses with which he had made acquaintance in the last two or three years; and it was awfully good of Bubbles to have got him asked here! Even if she hadn't actually suggested he should come, he knew that of course he owed his being here to her.
The queer, enigmatic, clever girl had the whole of Donnington's steadfast heart. Since he had first met Bubbles—only some eighteen months ago, but it now seemed an eternity—all life had been different.
At first she had at once repelled, attracted, and shocked him. He had been much taken aback when she had first proposed coming to see him, unchaperoned, in the modest rooms he occupied in Gray's Inn. Then, after she had twice invited herself to tea, her constant comings seemed quite natural. Sometimes she would be accompanied by a friend, either another girl or a man, and they would form a merry, happy little party of three or four. But of course he was far, far happiest when she came alone. Almost from the first moment there had been a kind of instinctive intimacy between them, and very soon she had learnt to rely on him—even to take his advice about little things—and to come to him with all her troubles.
Bubbles Dunster had already been what Donnington in his own mind called "deeply bitten" with spiritualism before they had met; yet he had known her for some considerable time before she had allowed him to know it. Even now she tried, ineffectually, to keep him outside all that concerned that part of her life. But, as he once had told her with more emotion than he generally betrayed, he would have followed her down to hell itself.
There came a cloud over his honest face as he thought of what had happened this very evening. And yet, and yet he had to admit that even now he could never make up his mind—he never knew, that is, how far what took place was due to a supernatural agency, or how much to Bubbles' uncanny quickness and cleverness.
What was more strange, considering how well he knew her, Donnington did not really know how much she herself believed in it all. As a rule—probably because she knew how anxious and troubled he felt about the matter—Bubbles would very seldom discuss with him any of the strange happenings in which she was so absorbed. And yet, now and again, almost as if in spite of herself, she would ask him if he would care to come to a seance, or invite him to witness an exceptionally remarkable manifestation at some psychic friend's house.
It had early become impossible for him, apart from everything else, to accept the easy "all rot" theory, for Bubbles' occult gifts were really very remarkable and striking. They had become known to the now large circle of intelligent people who make a study of psychic phenomena, and among them, just because she was an "amateur," she was much in request.
But it had never occurred to him, from what he had been told of the party now gathered together, that there would be the slightest attempt at the sort of thing which had happened to-night. He felt sharply irritated with Miss Farrow, whom he had never liked, and also with Lionel Varick. He knew that Bubbles' father had written to her aunt; he had himself advised it, knowing, with that shrewd, rather pathetic instinct which love gives to some natures, that Bubbles thought a great deal of her aunt—far more, indeed, than her aunt did of her. He told himself that he would speak to Miss Farrow to-morrow—have it out with her.
Rather slowly and deliberately, for he was a rather slow and deliberate young man, he put out the lights of the three seven-branched candlesticks which illumined the beautiful old room; and, as he moved about, he suddenly became aware that nearly opposite the door giving into the staircase lobby was a finely-carved, oak, confessional-box. What an odd, incongruous ornament to have in a living-room!
The last bedroom candlestick had gone, and temporarily blinded by the sudden darkness, he groped his way up the broad, shallow stairs to the corridor which he knew ultimately led to his room.
He was setting his feet cautiously one before the other on the landing, his eyes by now accustomed to the grey dimness of a winter night, for the great window above the staircase was uncurtained, when Something suddenly loomed up before him, and he felt his right arm gripped.
He gave a stifled cry. And then, all at once, he knew that it was Bubbles—only Bubbles! He felt her dear nearness rushing, as it were, all over him. It was all he could do to prevent himself from taking her in his arms.
"Bill? That is you, isn't it?" she asked in a low whisper. "I'm so frightened—so frightened! I should have come down long ago—but I thought some of the others were still there. Oh! I wish I'd come down! I've been waiting up here so long—and oh, Bill, I'm very cold!" She was pressing up close to him, and he put his arm round her—in a protecting, impersonal way.
"I wish we could go and sit down somewhere," she went on plaintively. "It's horrible talking out here, on the landing. I suppose it wouldn't do, Bill, for you to come into my room?"
"No, that wouldn't do at all," he said simply. "But look here, Bubbles—would you like to go downstairs again, into the hall? It's quite warm there,"—he felt that she was really shivering.
"I'm cold—I'm cold!"
"Put on something warmer," he said—or rather ordered. "Put on your fur coat. Is it downstairs? Shall I go and fetch it?"
She whispered, "It's in my room—I know where it is. I know exactly where Pegler put it."
She left him standing in the corridor, and went back into her room. The door was wide open, and he could see that she was wearing a white wrapper covered with large red flowers—some kind of Eastern, wadded dressing-gown. He heard a cupboard door creak, and then she came out of the room dragging her big fur coat over her dressing-gown; but he saw that her feet were bare—she had not troubled to put on slippers.
"Go back," he said imperiously, "and put some shoes on, Bubbles—you'll catch your death of cold."
How amazing, how incredible, this adventure would have appeared to him even a year ago! But it seemed quite natural now—simply wilful Bubbles' way. There was nothing Bubbles could do which would surprise Donnington now.
"Don't shut your door," he muttered. "It might wake someone up. Just blow out the candles, and leave the door open."
She obeyed him; and then he took her arm—again blinded by the sudden obscurity in which they were now plunged.
"I hate going downstairs," she said fretfully. "Somehow I feel as if downstairs were full of Them!"
"Full of them?" he repeated. "What on earth do you mean, Bubbles?"
And Bubbles murmured fearfully: "You know perfectly well what I mean. And it's all my fault—all my fault!"
He whispered rather sternly back: "Yes, Bubbles, it is your fault. Why couldn't you leave the thing alone just for a little while—just through the Christmas holidays?"
"I felt so tempted," she muttered. "I forget who it was who said 'Temptation is so pleasing because it need never be resisted.'"
He uttered an impatient exclamation under his breath.
"Let's sit down on the staircase," she pleaded, "I'm warmer now. I think this would be a nice place to sit down."
She sank down on one of the broad, low steps just below the landing, and pulled him down, nestling up close to him. "Oh, Bill," she whispered, "it is a comfort to be with you—a real comfort. You don't know what I've gone through since I came up to bed. I felt all the time as if Something was trying to get at me—something cruel, revengeful, miserable!"
"You ate too much at dinner," he said shortly. "You oughtn't to have taken that brandy-cherries ice."
They had very soon got past the stage during which Donnington had tried to say pretty things to Bubbles.
"Perhaps I did"—he felt the gurgle of amusement in her voice. "I was very hungry, and the food here is very good. It must be costing a lot of money—all this sort of thing. How nice to be rich! Oh, Bill, how very nice to be rich!"
"I don't agree," he said sharply. "Varick doesn't look particularly happy, that I can see."
"I wonder if Aunt Blanche would marry him now?"
"I don't suppose he'd give her the chance—now."
It wasn't a very chivalrous thing to say, or hear said, and Bubbles pinched him so viciously that he nearly cried out.
"You're not to talk like that of my Aunt Blanche. Quite lately—not three months ago—someone asked her to marry him for the thousandth time! But of course she said no—as I shall do to you, a thousand times too, if we live long enough."
She waited a moment, then said slowly: "Her man's rather like you. He's very much what you will be, Bill, in about thirty years from now—a plain, good, priggish old fellow. Of course you know who it is? Mark Gifford, of the Home Office. Aunt Blanche only keeps in with him because he's very useful to her sometimes."
And then she added, with a touch of strange cruelty, "Just as I shall always keep in with you, Bill, however tiresome and disagreeable you may be! Just because I find you so useful. You're being useful now; I don't feel frightened any more."
She drew herself from the shelter of his strong, protecting arm, and slid along the polished step till she leant against the banister. He could just see the whiteness of her little face shining out of the big fur collar.
"If you're feeling all right again," he said rather coolly, "I think we'd both better go to bed. Speaking for myself, I feel sleepy!"
But she was sliding towards him again, and again she clutched his arm. "No, no," she whispered. "Let's wait just a little longer, Bill. I—I don't feel quite comfortable in that room. I wonder if they'd give me a new room to-morrow? It's funny, I'm not a bit frightened at what they call the haunted room here—the room that's next to Aunt Blanche's, in the other wing of the house. A woman who killed her little stepson is supposed to haunt that room."
"I know," said Donnington shortly. "I've been reading about it in a book downstairs. I shouldn't care to sleep in a room where such a thing had been done—ghost or no ghost!"
And then Bubbles said something which rather startled him. "Bill," she whispered, leaning yet closer to him, "I raised that ghost two nights ago."
"What do you mean?" he asked sternly.
"I mean that Aunt Blanche and that tiresome Pegler of hers had already been here a week and nothing had happened. And then—the first night I was in the house the ghost appeared!"
She was shivering now, and, almost unwillingly, he put his arm round her again. "Rot!" he exclaimed. "Don't let yourself think such things, Bubbles—"
"I know you don't believe it, Bill, but I have got the power of raising Them."
"I don't know whether I believe it or not," he said slowly. "And I—I sometimes wonder if you believe it, Bubbles, or if you're only pretending?"
There was a pause. And then Bubbles said in a strange tone: "'Tisn't a question of believing it now, Bill. I know it's true! I wish it wasn't."
"If it's true," he said, "or even if you only believe it's true, what on earth made you do what you did to-night?"
"It was so deadly," she exclaimed, "so deadly dull!" She yawned. "You see, I can't help yawning even at the recollection of it!"
And in the darkness her companion smiled.
"I felt as if I wanted to wake them all up! Also I felt as if I wanted to know something more about them than I did. Also"—she hesitated.
"Yes?" he said questioningly.
"I rather wanted to impress Aunt Blanche." The words came slowly, reluctantly.
"I wonder what made you want to do that?" asked Donnington dryly.
"Somehow—well, you know, Bill, that sort of cool unbelief of hers stings me. She's always thought I make it all up as I go along."
"You do sometimes," he said in a low voice.
"I used to, Bill—but I don't now: it isn't necessary."
He turned rather quickly. "Honest Injun, Bubbles?"
"Yes. Honest Injun!" There was a pause. "What do you think of Varick?" she suddenly whispered.
"I think Mr. Varick," answered Donnington coldly, "is a thoroughly nice sort of chap. I like his rather elaborate, old-fashioned manners."
"He's a queer card for all his pretty manners," muttered Bubbles; and somehow Donnington felt that something else was on the tip of her tongue to say, but that she had checked herself, just in time.
"I wish," he said earnestly, "I do wish, Bubbles, that you and I could have a nice, old-fashioned Christmas. They sent up to-night to know if Mr. Varick would allow some of his holly to be cut for decorating the church—why shouldn't we go down to-morrow and help? Do, Bubbles—to please me!"
"I will," she said penitently. "I will, dearest."
Donnington sighed—a short, quick sigh. He could remember the exquisite thrill it had given him when she had first uttered the word—in a crowd of careless people. Now, when Bubbles called him "dearest" it did not thrill him at all, for he knew she said it to a great many people—and yet it always gave him pleasure to hear her utter the dear, intimate little word to him.
"Get up and go to bed, you naughty girl!" he said good-humouredly, but there was a great deal of tenderness in his low, level tone.
She rose quickly to her feet. All her movements were quick and lightsome and free. There was a touch of Ariel about Bubbles, so Bill Donnington sometimes told himself.
They walked up the few shallow steps together, she still very close to him. And then, when they were opposite her door, she exclaimed, but in a very low whisper: "Now you must say the prayer with me—for me!"
"The prayer? What do you mean, Bubbles?"
"You know," she muttered:
"Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Bless the bed that I lie on—
"What's after that?" she asked.
He went on, uttering the quaint words very seriously, very reverently:
"Four corners to my bed, Four Angels round my head; One to watch and one to pray, One to keep all fears away"—
"No," she exclaimed fretfully. "'One to keep my soul in bed.' That's what I say. I don't want my poor little soul to go wandering about this beautiful, terrible old house when I'm asleep. Good-night, Goody goody!"
She put up her face as a child might have done, and he bent down and kissed her, as he might have kissed a wilful, naughty child who had just told him she was sorry for something she had done.
"God bless you," he said huskily. "God bless and keep you from any real harm, Bubbles my darling."
As regarded Lionel Varick, the second day of his house-party at Wyndfell Hall opened most inauspiciously, for, when approaching the dining-room, he became aware that the door was not really closed, and that Mr. Burnaby and his niece were having what seemed to be an animated and even angry discussion.
"I don't like this place, and I don't care for your fine friend, Mr. Varick—" Such was the very unpleasant observation which the speaker's unlucky host overheard.
There came instant silence when he pushed open the door, and Helen with heightened colour looked up, and exclaimed: "My uncle has to go back to London this morning. Isn't it unfortunate? He's had a letter from an old friend who hasn't been in England for some years, and he feels he must go up and spend Christmas with him, instead of staying with us here."
Varick was much taken aback. He didn't believe in the old friend. His mind at once reverted to what had happened the night before. It was the seance which had upset Mr. Burnaby—not a doubt of it! Without being exactly unpleasant, the guest's manner this morning was cold, very cold—and Varick himself was hard put to it to hide his annoyance.
He had taken a great deal of trouble in the last few months to conciliate this queer, disagreeable, rather suspicious old gentleman, and he had thought he had succeeded. The words he had overheard when approaching the dining-room showed how completely he had failed. And now Bubbles Dunster, with her stupid tomfoolery, was actually driving Mr. Burnaby away!
But Mr. Burnaby's host was far too well used to conceal his thoughts, and to command his emotions, to do more than gravely assent, with an expression of regret. Nay more, as some of the others gradually lounged in, and as the meal became a trifle more animated, he told himself that after all Mr. Burnaby might have turned out a spoil-sport, especially with regard to a secret, all-important matter which he, the convener of this curiously assorted Christmas party, had very much at heart.
Even so, for the first time in their long friendship, he felt at odds with Blanche Farrow. She ought to have stopped the seance the moment she saw whither it was tending! His own experience of Bubbles' peculiar gift had been very far from agreeable, and had given him a thoroughly bad night. That strange, sinister evocation of his long-dead mother had stirred embers Varick had believed to be long dead—embers he had done his best, as it were, to stamp out from his memory.
Another thing which added to his ill-humour was the fact that Bubbles, alone of the party, had not come down to breakfast. In such matters she was an absolute law unto herself; but whereas during the first two days of the girl's stay at Wyndfell Hall her host had been rather glad to miss her at breakfast—it had been a cosy little meal shared by him and Blanche—he now resented her absence. He told himself angrily that she ought to have been there to help to entertain everybody, and to cheer up sulky James Tapster. The latter had asked: "Where's Miss Bubbles?" with an injured air—as if he thought she ought to be forming part of the excellent breakfast.
Mr. Burnaby was determined to get away from Wyndfell Hall as soon as possible, and by eleven o'clock the whole party, excepting Bubbles, was in the hall, bidding him good-bye. And then it was that Varick suddenly realized with satisfaction that both Miss Burnaby and Helen regarded the departure of their kinsman with perfect equanimity. Was it possible that Helen was glad her uncle and guardian was leaving her alone—for once? The thought was a very pleasant one to her present entertainer and host.