A MIDNIGHT VISITOR

Like a man in a dream, I walked with unsteady footsteps down the
avenue, through the shrubbery, and across the park to the cottage. I
had forgotten my latch-key, and the servant who answered my ring
welcomed me with a little cry of relief.

“John was just a-coming up to the house for you, sir,” she exclaimed,
shutting the door again. “There’s a strange woman wants to see you
most particular. She’s been here more than an hour, a-fretting ever so
because you wasn’t here.”

“Where is she?” I asked.

“In your study, sir. I see’d as there was nothink about as she could
lay ‘er ‘ands on before I let her in.”

I had no doubt but that it was the wife of one of the tenants on the
estate, though why she should choose such a strange time for her visit
I could not imagine. But when I walked into the study I saw at once
that she was a stranger to me. And yet, no. I had seen her face
before somewhere.

She rose nervously when I entered, and pulled her shawl closer around
her.

“You’ll excuse the liberty I’ve taken in coming, sir,” she began,
hurriedly. “I ‘a come to do yer a service. You doan’t seem to
recollect me. I’m John Hilton’s wife; him as you comed to see t’other
week.”

I recognised her at once, and became more interested.

“You see, sir, it’s like this,” she went on. “My Jack, he’s had one o’
his drinking fits on, and he’s always mortal mischievous after one of
’em. He seems to ‘a got a powerful sort o’ a grudge agin’ you, and
there’s that piece o’ paper as you wrote out, and he put ‘is name to.
He says as ‘ow he might get lagged for that if you showed it.”

“Well, has he sent you to try and get it away again?” I asked.

“Not he! If he know’d as I’d come ‘ere at all he’d half kill me.”

“Well, what is it, then?” I asked.

“Well, it’s just like this,” she answered, slowly; “he’s a-coming
himself to try and get it back agin.”

“Indeed! And when may I expect him?” I inquired, becoming suddenly
interested.

“To-night.”

I leaned back in my chair, and laughed dryly. The woman must be mad.

“‘Tain’t no laughing matter, master,” she said, sullenly. “You’d ‘a
laughed t’other side o’ your mouth, I can tell ‘e, if I hadn’ ‘a chosen
ter come and tell ‘e. He ain’t a-coming to ask you for it. He’s
a-coming to take it, and to pay yer back something as yer gave ‘im at
our cottage–him and a mate.”

I began to see what it all meant now, and to understand why the woman
had come.

“And you’ve come here to put me on my guard, is that it?” I remarked.

“Yes. Yer gave me money when I was starving, and I felt sort ‘er
grateful. And when I ‘eard them two blackguards a-planning how they’d
settle you I thought as they just shouldn’t. If you puts a bullet in
that ‘long Jem,’ which is my man’s pal, I shall thank yer for it.
Jack’s bad enough, specially when he’s just getting round from a spell
o’ drinking, which he is now; but he’s a sight worse. Cuss him. He’s
always a-leading my Jack into something.”

“What time are they coming?” I asked, thoughtfully.

“I ‘eerd ’em say as they’d meet at Cop’t Oak, which is a mile from
here, as soon as it were dark, and hide until you was all a-gone to
bed. I’m mortal afeard of their seeing me, although I shall go ‘ome
t’other way.”

I pressed her to stay at the cottage for the night, but she stubbornly
refused. Her Jack would kill her if he found out that she had been
here, she declared. But before she went I made her drink a glass of
wine, and fill her pockets with the bread and food which I had ordered
in.

This promised to be an exciting night for me altogether, I thought, as
I drew out my revolver from the cupboard and carefully loaded it. I
was not inclined altogether to believe or altogether to disbelieve this
woman’s story, but at any rate there was no harm in being prepared. If
I had gone to bed, there would have been little sleep for me with my
head still throbbing with the vivid recollection of that terrible scene
in the picture gallery. I dared not think of it, I dared not let my
thoughts dwell for an instant on the inevitable consequences of what
had happened. The excitement of what might shortly take place kept me
from the full sickening realisation of the change which that evening’s
events must make in my life, but underneath it all there was a dull
aching pain in my heart, for had I not lost Maud?

Presently Marian and Mr. Holdern arrived. I had forgotten their very
existence, and directly the latter had taken his leave, Marian was full
of eager, agitated questions. Why had I left so suddenly? Had I
quarrelled with Sir Francis Devereux? What did it all mean? Maud had
gone to her room with white face and looking like a ghost, and Lady
Olive had not again entered the dancing-room. Sir Francis had
apologised to his guests with the agitation of one who had received a
great shock, and Rupert Devereux none of them had seen again; and I was
mixed up in it. What did it all mean?

She threw herself into my arms, and when I saw the gathering tears in
her soft grey eyes, and her anxious, troubled look, I shrunk from the
task before me.

“Not now, Marian; I will tell you to-morrow; wait until then,” I
begged. But she would not wait.

Then, with a great effort, I braced myself up, and told her everything.
She listened with ever-growing astonishment, and when I had finished
she slipped down from my knee and sank upon the hearthrug.

“Poor papa!” she sobbed. “No wonder you hate that Rupert! Beast! Oh,
Hugh, Hugh, why could you not tell me before? I ought to have known,”
she added, reproachfully.

“It could have done no good,” I answered.

A wave of sudden anxiety passed across her face.

“Oh, Hugh!” she sobbed. “Char—- Mr. Hold—-”

“Mr. Holdern knows all about it,” I interrupted. “I thought it right
to tell him when he asked me for you.”

A great relief brightened her face, and she smiled through her tears.
Even a woman is selfish when she is in love.

“I am glad he knows,” she whispered, looking into the fire. “How
strange it all seems! Why our name is Devereux; you will be Sir Hugh
Devereux. Why, Hugh, Devereux Court will be yours some day!”

“Never!” I answered, firmly; “until Sir Francis asks my father’s
pardon, and receives him as a son, I shall never take the name of
Devereux or enter the Court. I have sworn it, Marian.”

“And it was noble of you to swear it, Hugh,” she whispered, coming over
and kissing me. “They say truth always comes out some time or other.
Perhaps this will all come right some day.”

“For our father’s sake, pray that it may do, Marian dear,” I answered,
gravely. “And now run along to bed, I have some writing to do.”

She lingered by my side.

“Hugh, what are you going to do now? You will leave here, I suppose?”

“I must, Marian. Unless Sir Francis desires otherwise, I shall remain
here until he has found some one else to take my place, though it will
be as Hugh Arbuthnot, his agent, only, and into Devereux Court I will
not go again. It will be well for Rupert Devereux, too, that he keeps
out of my way,” I added to myself. “When does Mr. Holdern want to
marry you, Marian?” I asked her suddenly, changing the subject.

She blushed up to her eyes, and looked at me half pleased, half
reproachfully.

“Hugh! How could you ask me like that? I–I don’t quite know.”

“Because you’ll have to go away with me, you know,” I continued. “I
can’t leave you behind.”

She looked serious enough now.

“Of course you can’t, Hugh. I don’t think I ought to leave you at all.
You’ll be alone if I do, with no one to look after you.”

I pretended to look serious, as though considering the matter, but her
piteous expression and quivering lips were irresistible, and I broke
into a reassuring laugh.

“Not I, Marian! It is the best thing that could possibly have
happened. When I have no longer you to look after I shall go abroad,
wherever our father is, and share his lot. Country life is beginning
to get wearisome to me. I was meant to be a soldier, I think. Now,
Marian, you must really go to bed. I want to be alone.”

It was past twelve, and I was beginning to get anxious. But she still
lingered for a moment.

“Hugh, I had almost forgotten, I have something for you, and a message.”

I bent over my desk, lest she should see the light which sprung into my
face. I did not wish even Marian to know my secret.

“What is it?” I asked. “Be quick.”

“Why, she came to me like I’ve never seen her before, as lifeless and
sorrowful as anything, and said–‘Tell your brother that I think he is
behaving nobly, and that I hope we shall always be friends.'”

“She said that!” I exclaimed, starting round, “Maud said that!”

My sister looked at me amazed.

“Maud! I didn’t say anything about Maud! She didn’t even speak to me.
It was Lady Olive, and she sent you this.”

I stretched out my hand for the gold-topped cut-glass little
smelling-salts, which Marian was holding out for me and laid it down
before me. Disappointed though I was, it was a kindly act of Lady
Olive’s, and I was just in that mood when a man appreciates such a one.
For a moment or two I felt very tenderly towards Lady Olive; for,
reckless little flirt though she was, she was generous and
warm-hearted, or she would never have done this.

“It is very kind of her,” I said, huskily. “Good-night, Marian!”

“Good-night, Hughie. Don’t sit up late, dear, and don’t fret. It
makes me feel so selfish, Hugh, to think that I can’t help being happy
because–because of Charlie, but I can’t help it. I do love him so,
and he is so good to me.”

Then at last she went, and I was left alone. First of all I put a
heavy shade upon the lamp and placed it so that no one could possibly
see it from outside. Then I finished loading my revolver, and put a
life-preserver in my breast pocket. Going out on tip-toe into the
hall, I opened the passage door, and also left my own wide open, so
that if any one should attempt to enter the house from any room I must
hear them. This seemed to me to be all that I could do, and drawing my
easy chair into the corner of the room which faced both door and
windows, I sat down and waited patiently with my revolver on my knee.

At first the time did not seem long. I had come to a crisis in my
life, and there was much for me to think about. In the twenties,
however dark and doubtful the future may be, there is always a certain
fascination connected with it–possibilities, however remote, which the
sanguine spirit of youth loves to peer into and investigate. And so I
sat and thought, and considered, and longed, without ever getting
sleepy, or feeling the spell of weariness.

Two o’clock struck, and of a sudden a curious change came over me. I
became so violently restless that I could sit no longer in my chair.
Sober-minded people may scoff at such a statement, but I declare that
some irresistible impulse compelled me to go to the nearest window and
look cautiously out.

The window was not one of the front ones, but was one which looked
sideways over a strip of garden, a thick privet hedge, into a dark
black fir plantation, through which ran a private pathway into the
gardens of the Court. At first I could see nothing; then suddenly the
blood died out from my cheeks, even from my lips, and I stood
transfixed, rooted to the spot–my limbs numbed and helpless as though
under the spell of some hideous nightmare.

What my eyes looked upon my reason refused to credit. Turning from the
hand-gate of the plantation, without a hat, and with a wealth of golden
hair streaming down upon a swan’s-down cloak, was–Maud! It was
impossible–it was ridiculous–it was beyond all credence. And yet my
straining, riveted eyes watched her walk slowly, with her usual
stately, even tread, down the grass-grown path between the plantation
and the hedge of the cottage garden, and disappear from sight.

Though an earthquake had yawned at my feet I could not have moved.
Nothing but sound can break up such a spell as this sudden shock had
laid upon me. And the sound came, for suddenly there broke upon the
stillness of the night such a cry as I had never heard before–the
thrilling, agonised shriek of a woman in mortal fear.

Like the shock from a galvanic battery did that sound breathe life into
my frozen limbs. Holding a chair before my face I literally burst
through the high French windows, crashing the glass and splintering the
framework into a thousand pieces. With the cry of a wild beast I
dashed across the lawn and leaped over the privet hedge. Maud, my
Maud, was scarcely a dozen yards from me, struggling in the grasp of
the man who had come to rob me of his confession, with his great hand
pressed against her wild, beautiful face to stop her cries.

They heard me coming, and he half released her, and with his other hand
pointed a revolver at me. But passion must have lent me wings, for
before he could pull the trigger I had dashed it into the air, where it
exploded harmlessly, and with my clenched fist I struck him such a blow
as I had never struck before or since. He was a powerful man, with a
thick, bullet-shaped head, but he went down like a log, and well-nigh
never rose again. His companion, without a word, turned and ran across
the park like a hare, and I let him go.

Maud was in my arms, sobbing hysterically, Maud with the moon shining
down on her blanched but exquisite face, and her white arms thrown
around my neck. If she were the daughter of a prince of hell she was
still the woman I loved; and I stooped and covered her cold face and
lips with passionate kisses. Then I caught her up in my arms, for she
was shivering, and ran with her to the house.

Every one had been roused by the sound of my exit, and the report of
the revolver. Marian, with her dressing-gown loosely wrapped around
her, was standing trembling at the head of the stairs, and behind her
were the servants more frightened even than she. When she saw me cross
the hall with Maud’s lifeless form (for her faint seemed almost the
faint of death) in my arms, she gave vent to one cry of blank amazement
and horror, and then hurried down to us.

“Hugh, Hugh,” she whispered, clinging to me as I laid my burden down on
the sofa, and fell on my knees by its side. “Maud here! Maud out in
the park at this time of night! What has happened, Hugh? What does it
all mean?”

“Can’t you see?” I muttered hoarsely, never withdrawing my eyes from
the white, cold face. “She has had a fright, and has fainted!”

“But what on earth has brought her here–out at this time of night?
And in her slippers, too!”

I was on the point of saying that I knew no more than she, but suddenly
the truth flashed into my mind. Maud had walked out in her sleep! I
had heard her say that for a long time she had been obliged to have her
maid in her room at night, and sleep with locked doors; and that when
Sir Francis lay dangerously ill not many years ago, nearly every night
when she had gone to bed thinking of him, she had risen in her sleep
and tried to make her way to his room. Then she must have been
thinking of me! A sudden thrill of joy passed through me at the
thought, and Marian looked at me in stupefied bewilderment to see the
smile which for a moment parted my lips.

“She must have come out in her sleep, Marian,” I whispered. “There
were some men hanging about outside–poachers I suppose–and they have
frightened her. Get some brandy, quick! and tell one of the girls to
light a fire. We must have some hot water.”

She hurried away, and the door had scarcely closed when Maud changed
her position slightly, and her lips moved. I bent my ear close over
her, and this is what I heard:

“Hugh! Hugh!”

My heart throbbed with a great joy. Suddenly I stooped down and kissed
her half-open lips passionately. Then I drew back and stood upright,
for I saw that she was fast recovering consciousness.

First her breathing became deeper and less fitful. Then, with a little
sigh, she opened her eyes and raised herself a little on her elbow.

She looked around in blank bewilderment. Then her eyes fell upon me,
and the hot colour rushed into her cheeks.

“Mr. Arbuthnot! Why, where am I? How did I come here? and those men,”
she added, with a shudder, “those fearful men; was it all a dream?”
She raised her hand to her forehead and looked at me appealingly. I
hardened my voice as much as possible, and avoided meeting her eyes.

“I think I can explain to you what has happened,” I said. “You must
have got up in your sleep, and walked down through the copse. There
were some men outside; I believe they were going to try and break in
here, and one of them must have caught hold of you, for when I heard
your scream and ran out, you were struggling in his grasp. I knocked
him down, and the other one ran away. Then I carried you here, and
here you are. Marian has just gone out to fetch some brandy.”

Womanlike, her first thought was of her appearance, and she sat up and
looked at herself eagerly. Evidently she had fallen asleep before
preparing to retire, for the only change in her dress since the evening
was that she had exchanged her dinner-gown for a long white
dressing-robe, and let down her hair. Nevertheless, she blushed as she
sat up, and looked at me, pushing back the waves of hair from her face.

“I remember falling asleep in the easy chair,” she said, slowly, “and
after that everything seems like a horrid dream. Those men’s fearful
faces, and you–oh, how fierce you looked! But it all seems very
indistinct.”

Then Marian came in, and she turned to her smiling.

“Miss Arbuthnot, I’m afraid you’ll think this a very unceremonious
morning call. You didn’t know I was a sleep-walker, did you?”

Marian put down the decanter she was carrying with a little cry of
relief.

“Oh, dear, I’m so glad to see you all right again. What an awful
adventure you’ve had!”

Maud smiled placidly. She was her old self again, stately and composed.

“It might have been a great deal worse but for your brother,” she
acknowledged; “I wonder if they’ve found out at the Court. They’ll be
getting a little anxious if they have.”

“Unless I’m very much mistaken they’ve found out,” I answered.
“Listen.”

I went out and threw open the hall door. Clearly enough we could hear
the alarm bell at the Court clanging out with shrill, quick strokes,
and the whole of the park seemed dotted with men carrying lanterns,
looking like will-o’-the-wisps, and making the soft night air echo with
their hoarse shouts. Two figures were rapidly approaching the cottage,
and I hailed them.

“Have you seen anything of Miss Devereux?” called out Groves, the head
butler. “She’s out in the park somewhere a-walking in her sleep.”

“She is here,” I answered, and then I went in and told Maud that they
had come for her.

Marian left us to find a warmer cloak and thicker shoes, and for a
moment we were together. She turned to me at once with a sweet, sad
smile on her lips, and a look of regret shining out of the azure depths
of her dim eyes.

“Mr. Arbuthnot, I had quite forgotten, in all this excitement, what
happened in the picture gallery. We are cousins, are we not?”

I shook my head.

“It is not a relationship which I shall claim,” I answered, slowly.
“If I should see you again before I go, Miss Devereux, it will be as
Mr. Arbuthnot.”

Her eyes were speaking to me–speaking words which her lips could not
utter, but I avoided them.

Eager voices were hurrying through the garden, and Maud held out her
hand with a hurried gesture.

“At any rate, you will let me thank you for your timely aid this
evening. But for you I don’t know what might not have happened.”

I took her hand and raised it to my lips. Then I let it drop, and
moved towards the door.

“I think I ought to thank you rather,” I answered, with a pretence at a
laugh, “for giving me the alarm. If those fellows had got into the
house and taken me by surprise, things might have been worse for me, at
any rate.”

I opened the door and admitted Groves and several of the other
servants. Francis Devereux was there, too, but he stood on the pathway
outside, without offering to enter, neither did I invite him. Maud
went out to him at once, and then I explained to the gaping little
crowd what had happened.

“What became of the one you knocked over, sir?” asked Groves, after the
little chorus of wondering exclamations had subsided.

“There now, most likely,” I answered, with a start. “I’d forgotten all
about him.”

We all trooped over to the spot, and there he lay, doubled up in the
underwood, his face drawn with pain, and still unconscious. To say
that I was sorry for him would have been a lie; nay, if Rupert Devereux
had lain by his side I should have been only the better pleased. But
he lay so still and motionless that I stooped over him anxiously, and
felt his heart. It was beating, though faintly, and I felt distinctly
relieved when I looked up again.

“He’s alive,” I declared, “but only just. Better get him some brandy.”

They brought him some from the house, and I poured it between his lips.
He revived at once.

“We’d a best take him up to the Court, sir,” remarked Groves. “You
won’t want him down here with only yourself in the house.”

So they took him away, and as the long streaks of red light in the east
slowly deepened until the autumn sun rose up from behind the pine-trees
like a ball of glowing fire, I threw myself down on the couch and slept.

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