"MISS NOLAN, can you see Miss Bryansfort for a few minutes?"
"Certainly, Rachel," I replied, wondering at this sudden accession of ceremony on the part of my ex-pupil, who generally went in and out of the schoolroom with the freedom of her childish days.
I had scarcely time, however, to stir the fire, so as to have a little cheerful light, when the door opened again, and Marjory Bryansfort, in her white dressing-wrapper, and with her hair loose. upon her shoulders, came in, and knelt down on the hearthrug beside me.
"You dear old Noley!" she began, caressing my hands and face. "So good of you to be all alone and quiet in the half-dark, just when I wanted you. I thought some of the little pitchers might be in, so I just sent Rachel for a scout. They'll all know it to-night, but I wanted to tell you myself. Whisper now, dear Noley; I have a piece of news for you. At last I am going to be married!"
"At last?" I repeated, laughing. "When a veteran flirt of twenty one makes such a revelation, one has a right to be surprised. I congratulate you, my dear, with all my heart. That is, I should like to hear something about the gentleman. What is he like? Do I know him?"
"As to what he is like," answered Marjory, "he exactly comes up to our standard of beauty, being an albino, with a wooden leg and a hump. As to his name, you have heard it often enough this last week. And as to himself, that was one reason why I wanted to tell you to-night, because you must be sure to come down, as perhaps he may arrive by the last train, and I wish you to know about him as soon as you see him."
"Well, I scarcely expect to recognise him by your description," I replied. "But what is his name?"
"O, didn't I tell you? It is uncle Allen's stepnephew, Archie Bellew. You have heard Tom raving about him ever since he came home from uncle's. When I was at Larch Grove last summer, do you known, I met Archie staying in the house. At first we treated each other like a sort of cousins, but by degrees we grew to like one another very much, and at last we parted with what novels call 'an understanding.' Archie wa poor, you know; but you have heard uncle Allen say that he was trying hard to get an engineering appointment in North America; and now that he has got the post—a very good one too—he wrote at once to papa, and papa spoke to me; and I was dreadfully afraid to tell him about the 'understanding,' for I knew he would not approve. I did summon up courage, however, and though I don't think he was at all pleased, he said very little; and it ended by his giving his full consent, and writing off to say so. You know he knows Archie this long time, and likes him; and Archie is to be here either to-night or in the morning; and O, Noley, I am so happy!"
"My dear child, so we are really going to lose you?" was all I could say; when Marjory rattled on afresh.
"Fancy what papa says! It will be an economical wedding, because, if you please, I sha'n't want any trousseau when I don't change my initial! What an idea! Whereas I intend to set all the dressmaking world of Bryansfort mad, besides turning the heads of one or two London milliners, with what old nurse would call my contarydictory orders. Sha'n't I just want a wardrobe to amaze the Yankees! But stay; there's the dressing-bell, and as seeing people dropping in late to meals is the only thing that disturbs the dear father's placidity, I must run and get ready. I'm afraid he might put his awful threat into execution if I displeased him. How think you, madam? Would it be a marriage at all without a trousseau? Ponder that, and give me your opinion when we meet again. One kiss, dear old second mother, for good luck. Yes, Rachel, coming—coming."
The maid had knocked more than once to see if Miss Bryansfort was ready to be dressed.
When Marjory was gone, I sat long by the flickering fire, revolving in my own mind the events of the last eighteen years. Yes, all that time had elapsed since I had answered an advertisement for a governess in a clergyman's family at the East-end. Mr. Bryansfort was then a hard-working parish priest, with a delicate wife and a small income. He had four children; Marjory, the youngest, scarcely three years old. During the eighteen years the two boys had gone out into life; one was now in India, the other in New Zealand; while Amy, the elder girl, slept with her mother in a city cemetery.
I had been about three years at St. George's vicarage when Mrs. Bryansfort died. A year or so afterwards the widower heard that, by the death of two or three rather distant relations, he was heir to the family place-Bryansfort Manor, then in possession of a feeble sickly old man. Mr. Bryansfort had expected little of his rich re lations, except the possible chance of Church preferment, as the head of the family had three or four livings in his gift. Now, however, things had so turned out, that the estate and a great deal of accumulated wealth fell to him, the late owner having spent but little either on himself or others.
I had stayed with the children after the death of their mother, and when, soon after entering upon his inheritance, Mr. Bryansfort married again, the second wife cordially pressed me to remain still. As the first family passed from the schoolroom, little ones were growing up in the nursery to take their place; and so it came to pass that I had been eighteen years with the Bryansforts; and now little Marjory, whom I had first seen in her small white crib in the nursery at St. George's, was actually going to be married!
What a foolish old woman I thought myself that night! I scarcely knew whether to laugh or cry; and why would a silly jingle of words keep perpetually haunting me?—a piece of nonsense I had seen in Poor Richard's Almanac, or some book of that sort. It ran thus:
"Who changes the name and not the letter
Changes for worse and not for better."
Such folly to be influenced by a senseless rhyme like that! I called myself plenty of hard names, and tried to reason myself back into common sense, but all to no purpose.
The dinner-bell had rung some time, and the shades of a murky December evening had long deepened into a dark winter's night. When we were fashionable and dined late, I seldom appeared until tea-time, rather to Mrs. Bryansfort's displeasure, for indeed she always treated me more like a guest and friend than the traditional governess. However, the governess herself, being neither young nor pretty, nor addicted to small talk, preferred staying as much as possible out of the way of the fashionable guests, who were assembled for the purpose of keeping an "old-fashioned Christmas" at Bryansfort Manor.
I sat long by the dying embers, dreaming of my Marjory's future in a foreign land—for this Mr. Bellew's going to America had been discussed in all innocence by Marjory's half-brother, Tom, and uncle Allen, who was now staying in the house—my mind was full of Marjory, as I said, when the schoolroom door was suddenly flung open, and Mrs. Bryansfort's eldest girl, Eva, rushed in.
"O Miss Nolan, Miss Nolan, what shall I do? I've seen her! I've seen her! What shall I do? O Miss Nolan!"
"My dear Eva," I said terrified by the child's agitation, "what is it? Whom have you seen? What's the matter?"
"The Bryansfort spectre!" sobbed out the child, hiding her face in my lap again, while her whole frame quivered with excitement and terror.
"Who on earth has been telling you any such nonsense?" said I, half crossly I am afraid; for there was an apparition story connected with Bryansfort Manor, but it had been carefully withheld from the children. However, when I had given the sobbing girl a sedative, and had lighted the lamp and stirred up the fire to make the room bright and cheerful, I told her to sit by me and tell me what she had seen, and who had said anything to her about the Bryansfort spectre.
It seemed that the child had overheard a conversation between the nurse and an old village crone, and that they had spoken of the figure of a woman which was seen in the Manor House "whenever anything was going to happen to the family." She came three times within the year, said the old women, and appeared to different persons. She generally pointed to the door of the room where the destined victim slept, or she had been known to wave her hand towards the doomed person himself as he passed, all unconscious of her presence. This was substantially the same as the legend which we had all heard on first coming to Bryansfort, there being no tale that we could make out to account for the origin of the superstition. And now for little Eva's account of the spectre as it appeared to her.
"It was just along the gallery," she said; "between the little study and the chintz room. She was standing there as I turned into the passage. The lamp was lighted, but it was only dim. I thought first it was Mrs. Stubbs, and then I began to tremble, and all of a sudden I felt what it was; and O, Miss Nolan, I turned and ran, and I never dare go about the house by myself after dark again!"
"Nonsense, Eva," I said. "I don't mean to say that your fright is all nonsense, for (more shame for your superstitious Irish nurse) you had heard a story which took hold of your imagination and made you ready to fancy things. I daresay it was Mrs. Stubbs all the time. I only wish you had gone up and spoken to her, even if you found that no one was there. I remember reading a story of a gentleman who fancied he saw his servant in his room at night, when he knew she was not really there. He was a doctor, and a wise man; and he got a lancet and a basin and bled himself, and the ghost disappeared. He knew he was feverish and unwell; and sometimes when little girls eat too much mince-pie—"
"Miss Nolan, I'm not greedy," said Eva earnestly.
And I knew this was perfectly true. So half apologetically I said, "No, dear;" and then I added, "Well, Evie, you know, if the legend is true this spectre is to appear to three people before anything it foretells can take place. You had better not speak of it to any one but me, particularly just now. I should not like anything sad or likely to frighten people to be said to-night, as something you will think very pleasant is going to happen, and we ought all to be cheerful."
"What is it?" asked Eva, with a sudden show of interest.
"I suppose I may tell you," I replied. "Marjory is going to be married to Mr. Archie Bellew."
This new idea at once took possession of the child's mind, and she chatted away of lace and flowers, bridesmaids and wedding-cake, until nurse came to call her to be dressed to go down-stairs after dinner. Before she went, she promised to say no more about the phantom, and by the time the dessert-bell rang I was again deep in thought about my Marjory's future.
I did not like it. No, certainly; what a silly superstitious old fool I was! But I did not like to hear that child's story of the apparition. The more I tried to shake it off, the more the idea clung to me; I could not get rid of it. Would nothing happen to prevent this marriage, which I felt was destined in some way to end in unhappiness? Perhaps it would be well to tell Mr. Bryansfort; but after all, what was there to tell? A foolish bit of "folk-lore" and the wild imaginings of a child!
Mr. Bellew arrived that night. I need scarcely say that one could not have recognised him by Marjory's description. His appearance and manner were decidedly in his favour, and every day deepened the first pleasant impression. He stayed in the house over the "old-fashioned Christmas," though I daresay he and Marjory would have preferred a quieter season for his visit. He was the last guest to leave, but he had to be in America before the end of January about his affairs. He thought, including the two voyages, he would be between two and three months away; and he was very anxious to fix the wedding for the end of March. Mr. Bryansfort, however, would not hear of anything so uncanonical as a Lenten marriage; and Marjory—cunning little dissembler!—after some pleading and pouting, came round to his side. At last Easter Tuesday, the 8th of April, was appointed for the ceremony.
Then Archie left us, bearing the good wishes of all across the waves of the Western sea.
The guests were gone, and the formal eight-o'clock dinner at Bryansfort Manor had given place to the sociable seven-o'clock tea. We were all gathered round the table one cold January evening, and the gloom of the weather without seemed to have ex tended itself to the company within. Mr. Bryansfort's face, usually bright and cheerful, was over-clouded with annoyance.
"That boy Tom,' he said, at last—"this is the third time this week that he has been late for tea. Couldn't he try to please me in that one matter? I must find some means—"
"Here he is, papa," interrupted Eva.
A rushing sound which we heard, with a sudden thud at the end, apprised us that master Tom was "coming down" schoolboy fashion, with more regard to speed than grace.
"Really Tom," said his father, as the culprit made his appearance and took his usual place at the tea-table, "this sort of thing must not continue; you must be punctual in the future, or take your meals alone when everybody else has gone."
Tom nodded, rather impudently as I thought, and turned to help himself to some hot muffins which a servant was just placing on the table.
"Another time," said Mr. Bryansfort, "any one who is late shall have nothing but bread-and-butter."
"Pleas'm," said the maid who had brought the muffins, "could you speak with Mrs. Stubbs for a minute?"
"Really, Evangeline—" began Mr. Bryansfort, despairing of a quiet tea-table; but Mrs. Bryansfort was gone, with a promise to be back directly.
"What a jolly row! I'm sure I know what 'faithful Stubbs' wants," muttered the irrepressible Tom, who did not seem to feel his disgrace at all keenly. I passed her up in the schoolroom passage just now, and the old hag began to stretch out her hands as if she was going to catch hold of me; so as soon as I had washed my hands I jumped on the balusters, and was down before you could say "Jack Robinson." By the bye, how did the old duffer get down so fast? She must have mounted after me, I expect; for at her usual rate of locomotion she would be till this time to-morrow getting along the gallery and down the three flights. What wouldn't I have given to have seen her mount!"
This speech was chiefly addressed to the children and me, and was only partially overheard by Mr. Bryansfort, who had turned to answer some question put by his eldest daughter. However, he caught the drift of the words, and spoke sternly to Tom.
"Mrs. Stubbs, sir, has served this family as housekeeper faith fully for fifty years; and I will not have her insulted in her old age by schoolboy impertinence. If you annoy her in any way, you shall suffer for it, that's all."
It was not often that Mr. Bryansfort made a speech of this kind; but when he did, it was not without its effect. However, when on his wife's return it transpired that Mrs. Stubbs had made no mention of Tom, but merely wanted to consult her mistress about some urgent household business, the matter was let drop.
I was sorry for this, as there was nothing now to divert the general attention from Eva. She, poor child, I could perceive, in her nervous fear had at once come to the conclusion that Tom had seen, not Mrs. Stubbs, but the Bryansfort spectre. She was rather in awe of her father, and I hoped this would enable her to suppress her emotion until I could find a pretext to take her up stairs quietly. In vain. I could see that she made two or three choking efforts to restrain herself, and then dropping her spoon with a loud clatter, burst into a fit of crying.
"Eva!" exclaimed the poor father in despair. Really these interruptions were very hard on a man who was always particular about order and regularity at meal-times. "What nonsense is this," he continued, "in a girl of your age? Go up to bed directly, cry there if you want to cry."
"Let me take her, Mr. Bryansfort," said I, dreading the effect of darkness and solitude upon the child in her excited state.
"Sit down, I beg, Miss Nolan," said the father. "Eva, are you going to stop, or are you going to bed?" he added, in a tone little calculated to allay agitation.
"Oh-h-h, I'm afraid!" sobbed the child, while the three younger girls looked wonderingly at the "big" twelve-year-old sister getting into disgrace.
"Poor little mite!" said Marjory compassionately. I remember when we came here first how I used to dread those long half dark passages, though I was ashamed to confess what an arrant little coward I was, for fear the boys should laugh at me. I'll take you up to nurse, little lassie, or you may sleep with me if you like, and have the nice bright fire to keep you company. Mayn't we, papa? We're going to be good."
"Well, among you you'll spoil that child," said the father, as usual, however, acquiescing in anything proposed by Marjory.
"She really had a shock to her nerves a little while ago," said I, after the sisters were gone; "and I don't think she has been the same ever since."
"Indeed?" said Mr. Bryansfort. "I thought, Miss Nolan, you would have been more judicious. Girls get an idea that nerves are interesting, and so forth. Once impress even a child with the idea that she is nervous, and you may get no good of her. I hope Flory and Grace and Carrie will keep their nerves better under control."
"You are too hard, Thomas," interposed the mother; but I heard no more of the discussion, as Marjory returned, saying that Evie was quieter now, and would like to see me. At the mother's request I went up-stairs, and found the child still very nervous and restless.
"O Miss Nolan," she said, "I'm so sorry, but I couldn't help it. Did you hear what Tom said?"
"Yes, dear, I know what you think, but I daresay you are mistaken. It probably was Mrs. Stubbs; you know he said so."
"Yes—but—she got down so quick!"
"Well, but you know Tom said he stayed to wash his hands; and knowing their usual state of blackness, you may be sure he took longer than he thought to get them clean."
"Perhaps; but-Miss Nolan, do you think there can be no such thing as ghosts?"
"I don't know, Evie,'I replied. I certainly never saw one, and I don't myself think you or Tom did so either, though I am sure you saw something, or thought you did, which comes to the same thing for yourself. I cannot say there surely are no such things, though I never expect to see any." I answered thus cautiously, as I had just been reading the Water Babies, and had taken to heart the lesson therein given about dogmatising on subjects which we cannot understand. Indeed, account for them as you will, there are many well-authenticated "ghost stories" afloat, supported by credible witnesses; and I do not see how any thinking person can discard the idea of apparitions altogether. True, they may arise from fevered blood or from an over-wrought imagination, and practical sensible people, free from fever or excitement, may be able to afford to laugh at them, and despise the timid credulity of the ghost seers; but let these strong-minded people beware how they impugn the truthfulness of their weaker brethren. There are many unaccountable wonders in the tangible world of men; and what are we that we should pronounce upon the mysteries of the spirit world?—that world which lies unseen, yet close at hand, and must one day be entered by each disembodied soul.
"Perhaps," said Eva hesitatingly, after a pause, as if following my train of thought, "the room is full of—things."
I sat long by the child trying to calm her by speaking of the Divine Father who rules the spiritual and the material world alike, and cares for the lowest and weakest of His creatures. I spoke to her of the blessed security of the little lambs of the Saviour's flock; and thus she was soothed and quiet when her mother came up at half-past eight to hear her evening hymn. Before Mrs. Bryansfort and I left the room she had sunk into a peaceful slumber.
"Lent is a time for repentance and self-examination, not for feasting and merriment," said Mr. Bryansfort when Archie had suggested Marjory's birthday, the 20th March, for the wedding. However, though there was but little outward show of festivity at the Manor House that Lent, I am afraid there was but little private meditation, most of our time and attention being absorbed in our busy preparations for Easter Tuesday. The church, too, was to be decorated with extra splendour that Easter, and most of the wreaths and emblems were to be left up for the wedding. Besides, there was to be a treat for the school-children in honour of the bride, as well as a dinner to the tenantry; and every one looked eagerly forward to the important day.
Every week brought a letter from Archie, and each time he expressed himself greatly pleased with his work, his colleagues, and his men. The only thing he regretted was that the lateness of his marriage enforced a short honeymoon, as it was necessary for him to be back in America about the middle of May.
Easter Tuesday came at last, a day of unclouded sunshine, and "the auspicious event," as the local newspaper expressed it, "was brilliantly consummated." We all figured in a special paragraph, down to little Carrie. "The numerous and costly presents'were duly described. The bride's dress and the wreaths of the bridesmaids received commendatory notice, and, finally, the public were informed that the happy pair took their departure for the Isle of Wight, amid a shower of slippers."
They were gone; all was over; and reaction followed excitement. The vague feeling of distrust which had come upon me at the beginning of the engagement had subsided during the fuss of preparation; but it now returned with double force. I could not get rid of it. I thought I was ill and feverish, and resolved as soon as Marjory was really gone to ask permission from Mrs. Bryansfort to go and pay a visit to my only sister, who was then living in London. I thought total change of air and scene would probably dispel the gloomy ideas which had taken possession of my mind.
As soon as Marjory was fairly gone, I said; for the trip to the Isle of Wight was only to last a week; and then the bride and bridegroom were to return to Bryansfort before starting for America. The modern custom of keeping friends in ignorance of the proceed ings of the newly-married pair had not then come into fashion; and scarcely a day passed without a letter from Marjory. She seemed so full of her new-found happiness that she must seek to impart it to others; and truly Archie was a fine young man, and well worthy of my dear girl.
The bustle of preparation for the wedding was scarcely over when another bustle bega—preparing for the reception of Mr. and Mrs. Bellew on their return. With what fond pride did Mrs. Bryansfort linger over the pretty "chintz room," appropriated to the most honoured guests. How carefully she stocked it with every ornament and luxury loving care and taste could suggest; and with what pleasure did she look at it when all was done, and the well furnished room was pronounced fit for the reception of a stepdaughter loved with truly maternal love!
The carriage-wheels on the gravel, a shout from the children, a confused murmur of greetings and laughter, apprised me, as I sat alone in the schoolroom, that the travellers had arrived. That pleasant fortnight, how gaily it went by, and how long it will be remembered at Bryansfort Manor! But, like all good things of earth, it soon mingled with the past. It was the last evening, and we had all been busy helping to pack the wonderful trousseau, which quite equalled Marjory's highest wishes. Other things, too, were collected for exportation to the American home; and, indeed, it was a service of danger to thread one's way through the chintz room, owing to the multitude of chests and bullock-trunks congregated there. I was thoroughly weary with packing all day, and thoroughly dispirited at the idea of losing the bright young sunbeam of the house, my dear girl, dear to me as a daughter. I had gone up to the chintz room with a packet of labels for the luggage, and coming along the passage my candle blew out. I stopped to gaze from the window at the glorious moonlight, silvering the broad park and noble trees, when a sudden shivering seized me, and turning round by some irresistible impulse, I beheld the Bryansfort spectre.
Yes, I could not doubt it. I strove to speak or cry out, but my parched tongue refused to obey my bidding. Hist! she is making a gesture. It is her last appearance, and she will declare her fell errand. She raises her hand. Where is she going to point?
O doom-portending spectre, any door but that! Indicate any place but the chintz room, prepared by loving hands for the noble bridegroom and the gentle bride, who but to-morrow leave these haunted walls for ever!
For ever! Ay, truly. I cannot say how long I remained transfixed in the passage. The first voice from the outer world which I heard was that of nurse O'Grady.
"Well, to be sure, Miss Nolan. It's a cold place you chose this bitter night. Miss Eva was asking for you, ma'am, to say her hymn."
I went and heard the child, and bade her good-night as calmly as I could; then going to my own room, I tried to think quietly over the event of the evening. I could make nothing of it. The more I meditated upon it, the more puzzled I became. O, for faith in the lancet and basin! I was not well, that was certain; and at all events I determined to say nothing of my adventure for the present.
Off went the bride and bridegroom in the bright sunshine of early May. I sought and obtained my holiday. We had our summer excursion to the seaside, our autumn return to the fine old Manor House; and somehow the weekly letters seemed to have crept into Marjory's place, and we learned to do without her.
A year had nearly revolved since the evening when my story opens. Still every week brought us news from the happy home at the other side of the broad Atlantic. Archie was seeking some good appointment which would cause them to remove to New York, and to this change Marjory looked forward with eager anticipation.
Christmas was coming again; and a box of sundry home-gifts had been despatched across the Atlantic. The "old-fashioned Christ mas" of last year was to be kept at the Manor House on a smaller scale on this occasion—quite a juvenile party; and the children were much excited at the idea.
Some young friends had accepted the invitation, others had been obliged reluctantly to decline. We were sitting round the fire after tea, counting over our probable guests, and debating on ways and means as to their accommodation, when there was a sound of horses'feet on the gravel and a sharp ring at the door.
"Please, sir, a telegraph," said the servant, coming in.
"Not to send to meet the Grays in the morning, I suppose," said Mr. Bryansfort, tearing open the cover. But in a moment, with a sharp cry of pain, the paper dropped from his hands.
"What is it, Thomas? American? The baby? The appointment?"
Mrs. Bryansfort sprang forward eagerly to read, but her husband made no reply. Was he fainting?
The paper, when Mr. Bryansfort had dropped it, fluttered open to my feet. I felt, before I looked, that my worst forebodings were realised. These were the fatal words:
"Accident at Staten Island ferry. Bursting of boiler. Mr. and Mrs. Bellew killed. Letter by mail."
There are certain scenes vividly imprinted on the memory which no words can reproduce; and it would be vain for me to attempt a description of that evening at Bryansfort Manor. I remember that little Eva kept close to me throughout that miserable night; the same unspoken thought was long in both our minds; but at length, as she was sinking into the sleep of exhausted childhood, she said:
"Miss Nolan, I thought it would be no harm, so I marked it in my prayer-book; and to-morrow it will be just a year since I saw the Bryansfort spectre."
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