« PreviousContinue »
county gaol. On one side of the Castle-yard was a broad green, with a double row of elms down one side of it, then a palisade fence, and then the street, or terrace, which went by the name of Castle Green.
Castle Green, however, consisted apparently of only four houses ; but these were mansions-or, rather, they had been mansions, for, with the exception of one, they presented a rather forlorn and dilapidated appearance; that one, large, antiquated, and gloomy, was my aunt's house. I looked up at the many windows, high and narrow, and smallpaned ; at the imposing front door with its wonderful architrave; at the grey parapet on the roof, which took the shape of battlements; and my heart failed me, so chill, and dark, and dead, looked the home which was henceforth to be mine.
But there was little time to indulge in dreary presentiments; the carriage drew up, the front door flew open with a. flourish, and a footman, whose modern aspect scarcely accorded with the old Plantagenet Castle, and the venerable air of the Castle Green, hastened to let down the steps of the carriage with a rapidity, a dash, and an air, quite worthy of the precincts of Belgravia.
The servants busied themselves with my luggage, and I slowly passed into the house. I found myself in a spacious hall, paved with black and white marble, and a ceiling all carved and groined like the roof of a church. In the sober evening lightthe windows of coloured glass, all, but one towards the north-it looked and felt a little like a crypt. Many doors opened into this wide, stately hall, but at the opposite side from the entrance rose a broad flight of oaken stairs, with heavy carved balustrades -all the oak about the house was nearly black with age. The stairs, however, were thickly covered with rich carpeting, and on the first landing was a beautiful stained window, evidently of very recent date. But I was led across the hall into an antechamber, and thence into a drawing-room, luxuriously furnished, where sat my aunt, Mrs. Ryland.
She rose as I entered, and there stood before me a tall majestic woman, whose faded beauty and haughty bearing were quite in keeping with the grand old mansion over which she presided. I accosted her with a beating heart, and then she drew me towards her, and saying, in peculiarly quiet tones, “My niece, Millicent,” kissed me gravely on my forehead. Her manner
was rather proud than cold; rather stately than reserved; she was, as the Honourable Mrs. Norton graphically says, “cordial, yet unfamiliar.” One glance at Mrs. Ryland was quite sufficient to convince the most audacious person in existence that it would be quite impossible to take a liberty with her. And how unlike my father! Was this queenlike lady really his own and only sister—the Alice of past years, the companion and playmate of his boyish days?
I felt like one in a dream, as she kindly placed me in a softly-cushioned chair, and asked if I were very much fatigued after my long journey, and how
I had left my father and mother and the rest of the family. I simply answered her questions, for I felt an instinctive assurance that she had no desire, just then, to listen to circumstantial detail, and the less said about our family misfortunes the better she would be pleased. Presently Mrs. Susannah again made her appearance, and my aunt, with the air of an empress, desired her to “show Miss Kendrick to her apartment.”
Mrs. Susannah led the way, and I followed up the broad staircase, and along more passages than I could count, to a room that seemed to me about a quarter of a mile from the drawing-room. And what a room ! it was enough to tire a weak person to walk from the fireplace, at one end, to the ghostlylooking cabinet at the other. The bed was large and lofty, and the drapery was dark, heavy, and imposing; but it was lost in the midst of that wide, aerie-looking room; it was like an island in a vast lake, like an oasis in a boundless desert. If it had only been winter, that I might have had a fire to exorcise the gloom and the awful stillness—if only there had been gas at the Castle House ! One cannot imagine ghosts and gas in connection with each other.
But there was neither fire nor gas, only the fading summer twilight: I wondered what kind of a light I should be allowed at bed-time; half a dozen mould candles woul not do much more than render darkness visible. I felt hundreds and hundreds of miles away from Radenham ; it seemed years upon years since I slept with my sisters in our comfortable, cozy bed-room at Ferndown. The old life seemed separated from the new, by an immeasurable distance. I had commenced, as it were, a totally fresh phase of existence. Would it be a happy one ?
It might be. I was evidently in the abode of wealth, and a certain kind of luxury; and things would be different when I began to feel myself at home, and to know the good people who were on my aunt's visiting list; but then, could I ever feel at home in that wide, dark, silent house?
I was roused from these cogitations by Mrs. Susannah, who, seeing the state of abstraction in which I sat, grimly came forward to assist me in unrobing. I hastily rose, and began to unfasten my cloak myself. I could not bear her thin, skeleton fingers about my throat; and in a few minutes I was again ready to descend.
The drawing-room looked a little more life-like, when I entered it the second time; for tea was on the table, and there was an appetizing odour of ham and broiled fowl pervading the spacious apartment. I had time now thoroughly to examine Mrs. Ryland. She was very tall; her hair, though streaked with grey, was still dark and abundant; it had once been raven black, and marvellously profuse; her features were stern, but regular, even perfect; her eyes were large and dark, and their expression was at once proud and sad; her complexion was clear though colourless. Added to this, she had hands of perfect beauty; I have never seen such since, except in some exquisite masterpiece of sculpture; and her feet were small and slender. I never think of my Aunt Ryland, as she stood before me that night in her soft robes of thick, lustrous black satin, and a square of priceless black lace tied over her head instead of a cap, without associating her with one of Tennyson's glorious versepictures, in his “ Dream of Fair Women:"
“At length I saw a lady within call,
Stiller than chisell’d marble standing there;
And most divinely fair.
Her loveliness with shame and with surprise
Froze my swift speech: she, turning on my face
Spoke slowly in her place."
I know the poet dreamed only, in these lines, of Helen of Troy, the faithless, beautiful Queen of Sparta; but, in reading them again and again, I cannot help connecting them with the image of that stately woman I called my aunt. Unhappy Helen! scarcely less unhappy Alice Ryland! But on one side of the room was the portrait of what she had been when she was Alice Kendrick: the perfect features were the same; the figure in its queenly height and grace was the same; but the eyes, though proud, were shy, and full of a happy light, and the cheeks were rounded to a beauteous curve, and they rivalled the pure pink glow we sometimes see inside foreign shells. I had heard my father say his sister Alice was the finest girl he had ever seen; and his general account of her was, that she was