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A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters

Chapter III. Christmas Day in England {continued}

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Chapter III. Christmas Day in England {continued}.

All the next day the fair Chatelaine of Delaware moved about among her guests with an air of intense pre-occupation; but even a child could have seen that her thoughts were not sad, for every now and then a bright smile lighted up her face. She avoided the noisy groups as much as possible, and spent a good deal of her time in her own morning-room, giving as a faint excuse, when leaving the breakfast table, that she had letters to write. Mr. Delaware mischievously reminded her that all her principal correspondents were at that moment in the castle; but his wife did not venture page 45to run the risk of a cross-examination, and contented herself with giving him a look of mingled entreaty and reproach as she closed the door of the breakfast-room.

By dinner-time Lady Gertrude had evidently solved the problem which had puzzled her all the morning, for her eyes were as bright as little Nora's here; whilst her glowing cheeks and joyous manner gave an air of triumphant happiness to her whole bearing. Aunt Isabel watched her new niece with affectionate admiration, and said more than once to herself, "I had no idea the child was so pretty. Ah! well, happiness is a great beautifier, and she certainly seems to have everything in the world to make her happy."

When bed-time came, Lady Gertrude pounced upon Aunt Isabel, bore her off to her dressing-room, and installed her in an arm-chair, before which Gerty knelt down and exclaimed, laughing at the old lady's breathless bewilderment at this page 46sudden raid upon her trim little person, "Oh! Aunt Isabel, it's my idea!"

"Bless the child," gasped Aunt Isabel, "is it her idea to smother me outright? Why, there's my cap over one eye like a tipsy cook; and as for my poor lace shawl, I believe a bit of it is hanging on every balustrade all the way upstairs."

"Never mind, Auntie, you shall have two lace shawls, if only you will help me to dress up as Dame Alicia! They were talking about getting up some tableaux next week, but this would be better than anything, wouldn't it?"

"Well, my dear, if you don't mind frightening your guests out of their lives, and shattering the nerves of all the new servants, I daresay you might play them a trick; but for my part I'm rather afraid of practical jokes; they generally end by hurting some one."

"Oh! Aunt Isabel, this isn't a practical joke in the very least; it's only an historical tableau. I'm sure Dame Alicia would like to know she is page 47remembered, and that we are very grateful to her for all her kindness to us. Besides which, Percy says I may do just what I like."

"Poor dear Percy! he does, does he? that seems very weak-minded on his part."

"Oh no, Aunt Isabel, it's quite right, I assure you—why, I do everything I can to please him, so of course he gives me a little amusement now and then."

Aunt Isabel smiled, and stroked her niece's soft hair, for in those days hair was so arranged that it could be smoothed by a caressing hand; now there must be some new substitute for tKat old, loving, lingering touch: the boldest lover would hardly dare to lay a finger on the elaborate curls and puffs of a modern coiffure. However, as ours is not such a very modern story, we can imagine the dear old lady's little withered hand resting on her new niece's glossy braids, and Lady Gertrude looking up in her face with the most coaxing expression as she said this. In Aunt Isabel's heart, Percy page 48already stood excused for bis softness, but she only replied, "How can I help you? Am I to pretend to be dreadfully frightened, and faint away when you appear; or what part am I to take in the performance of Dame Alicia by a wild, naughty girl who is not a bit like her in any way?"

"Now, Aunt Isabel, I am really in earnest, and you can help me a great deal if you will only be nice about it. First of all, I must tell you the idea came into my head when you spoke of assisting Alice Leigh to arrange a dress in which to sit for the picture; tlien I have had a good look at that portrait, and nothing can be simpler than the costume. It could be made in a day, for it's only straight up and down white draperies, and black coif and lappets—something like a nun's dress. The great difficulty would be making myself look old and sad; and that is just where Mr. Thornhill has failed, for you can see Alice is laughing all the time, and doesn't look a bit rapt or dreamy."

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"Alice certainly makes too blooming a Dame Alicia," replied Aunt Isabel, "and yet she is so fond of acting the character. You must not let her know you're going to dress up in her favourite costume, or she would immediately beg you to allow her to play the trick, whatever it is to be. Remember, you have not told me yet what you intend to do as soon as you have made yourself into the likeness of the poor old Dame."

"I'm coming to that, Aunt Isabel, but of course the costume is the first thing to be thought of. I won't go at all by Mr. Thornhill's picture; I will make out something in the same style for myself, and even you shall not see it beforehand. So much will depend on the moonlight and the armour, and the echoes in that old hall, to make me look like a real ghost I am sure not to remind anybody in the least of Dame Alicia whilst only standing before my glass in her dress, with Payne fussing about me."

"My dear Gertrude, I don't want to see you page 50beforehand: I want to try and get up a little surprise and astonishment at the proper time; but supposing that you and Payne between you, manage to turn yourself into the exact image of what the Dame must have been, what is to come next?"

"Next, Aunt Isabel, I will steal softly down the old staircase into the armoury, and hide myself in the Dame's room. By the way, I think I shall take Payne with me to keep me company, and she shall bring down a rug for us to stand on, for stone floors are very cold. Dame Alicia had rushes, you know."

"Yes, I know, my dear. Nasty, uncomfortable things they must have been, always sticking to the skirts of those long, trailing garments old-time people wore. But what is to happen after you and Payne have made yourselves comfortable in the Dame's room?"

"Now, dear, dear Aunt Isabel, this is where you are to help me," said Lady Gertrude, giving a most page 51energetic hug to the old lady: "I want you to make some excuse to bring all the people into the armoury to-morrow night. After the gentlemen come in from dinner will be the best time, I think. I won't be in the dining-room; Percy shall not ask any questions—at least I'll beg him not to do so; but if he or any one else inquires after me, you must just say I have gone to bed."

"I'm to lead off with a tremendous fib, am I, Gerty? We will find a good excuse for you, at all events, but I don't think it will be so difficult to do that as it will be to decoy all your guests away from the bright fire and the warm drawing-room, into that cold draughty old hall. They'll think me mad for suggesting such a thing."

Gerty's piteous expression of face at this unexpected difficulty at the outset was sad to behold. She judged others by her romantic self, and fancied every one could quite as easily be induced to come and look at some old armour by moonlight; this thought, however, fortunately led to the suggestion page 52that Aunt Isabel should use all her eloquence during the next day to get up some enthusiasm among the young people on the subject of armour as seen under the rays of a harvest moon. So the conspirators separated that night, resolved to play into each other's hands during the whole of the following day.

Aunt Isabel and Lady Gertrude looked guiltily at each other next morning, when during breakfast Mr. Delaware commenced a conversation with Miss Leigh about the Castle, which very soon turned upon the beauty of various suits of armour in the old hall. Alice responded enthusiastically, and both the old and young deceivers found their proposed task much lightened before the large party separated for the day's occupations; the last words they uttered were—

'Well, if it be moonlight to-night, we will all come and look at the armour."

"Oh yes," said Alice eagerly, "I know there is a moon, for it was shining splendidly over the park page 53when I came down to dinner yesterday; it is nearly full moon, I fancy."

Aunt Isabel questioned her niece about Mr. Delaware's sudden mania for moonlight and armour, which was so very unlike his usual satirical chaff at anything not strictly practical, but Lady Gertrude denied having asked him to help her in any way, declaring she should have thought it useless trouble; however, she said it was a very fortunate chance, and went off to prepare her Dame's toilette in the most unghostly high spirits. Even Aunt Isabel felt what she called fluttery all day, and longed to know how Gertrude was getting on with the draperies, but the young lady did not show herself until dinner was announced, when she appeared, with so calm and unconcerned an air, that long before the real play began, Aunt Isabel was lost in admiration of her capabilities of acting. It was quite remarkable to notice how smoothly everything seemed arranged for the conspiracy; indeed they afterwards acknowledged that such page 54fatal smoothness ought to have aroused their suspicions. When the ladies came into the drawing-room, Lady Gertrude slipped away, and Aunt Isabel did her best to supply the hostess's place, but she had time for a glance of dismay at Alice Leigh, who said boldly—

"I will run up to my room, and see if there is a good moon."

Aunt Isabel thought to herself, "She will meet Gertrude on the stairs, if she goes the back way;" but the gentlemen appeared much earlier than usual from their wine and walnuts, so the old lady had enough to do in watching that no one slipped away too soon to the armoury. Percy had disappeared after a glance round the room; but before he went he whispered to Aunt Isabel—

"I'm going to see after Gerty; bring them all to the armoury in half an hour's time exactly: that will be eleven o'clock; they'll all come easily enough, I've worked up their feelings."

Aunt Isabel laughed and nodded, and the fun page 55and chatter went on merrily till eleven o'clock struck, when she exclaimed—

"We must really go and see the armour by moonlight; if we don't come now, it will be too late. I daresay Percy has gone to tell the servants to open the shutters, and to put out the lamps. Let us come!"

Nothing could be more unanimous than the expression of the general enthusiasm, and all rose to follow the active old lady. She had made a compromise with her conscience for her duplicity by trying to prevent any evil consequences from it, and there lay piled on a table in the ante-room a large soft heap of shawls, scarves, burnouses, and all sorts of wraps; the elderly ladies blessed her in their hearts as they each selected one, and in high good-humour they followed the little guiding figure through corridors and unused ante-rooms, until at last, with a most effective clang, she flung open a low, vaulted oak door, all studded with iron bosses, and the company entered a rather page 56narrow, high, old hall, lighted from the top by windows which had been pierced in its massive stone walls at a comparatively recent date. Before these had been made, the only light must have struggled in through slits or loopholes, barely sufficient to enable a person to see at all. The Lord of Delaware, therefore, who collected all the suits of family armour with much care and trouble, had been forced to add upper windows to admit light by which to admire the beautiful mail-clad figures. All the guests paused in wonder and delight at the weird, ghost-like appearance of the scene. There stood the motionless effigies of the former warriors of the house, still, as it seemed, keeping watch over its buried past. On the walls hung many a dinted cuirass and battered helmet, all of strange old-time shapes. There were buff coats of the Commonwealth pattern, laced and skirted uniforms of Marlborough's campaigns, and, last of all, the blood-stained regimentals with one epaulet cleft through, which had been taken off the dead page 57body of one of the four Colonel Delawares who had fought at Waterloo. The moonlight streamed broad and strong over these trophies, lighting up all the projecting parts of halbert and crested helm, and casting deep shadows wherever its glinting beams could not penetrate.

No one spoke, but the silence was more expressive than any applause. Aunt Isabel thought nervously to herself, "Where is Gerty? "Young Thornhill said, "By Jove! I could swear I saw that suit of armour move;" but no one attended to him, for the small heavy door of the Dame's room opposite was seen to open, and from behind the shelter of Sir Guy's colossal suit of armour, glided with conventional ghostly step, a tall figure draped almost entirely' in white, with solemn upturned face, and raised right hand: it took two or three steps forward, then wavered and paused. Into the rapt dreamy eyes came suddenly an expression of human agony and fear: the outstretched hand pointed to a dark corner of the page 58hall on the same side as that where the terrified guests stood huddled together, and with a loud sharp cry the actress fell forward on her face. Strange as it may appear, no one stirred to pick her up, not even Aunt Isabel. She felt like the old magician we read of, who only meant to call up one small spirit, and found instead that many others came uninvited; for she followed the direction of the warning finger to see standing full in a broad ray of moonlight another Dame Alicia, motionless as a statue, and pale as if she, too, had risen from her grave. As the frozen spectators crazed in horrified silence, this nun-like form sank slowly down in a formless heap, and lay under the strong moonbeams, as if stricken with a second death. But what were the horrors of a pair of ghosts compared to the alarm caused by three of the suits of armour beginning to move very stiffly and awkwardly towards the prostrate figures? The guests could not stand this any longer; they turned and fled, shrieking wildly as they ran. Few page 59knew their way back to the modern part of the house, so several found themselves in the servants' offices, where their panic was communicated to the kitchen maids, and the uproar swelled by louder cries and exclamations in less refined tones.

Aunt Isabel would fain have run with the rest, but a sense of duty kept her feet from flying, though her pretty lace cap nearly rose from her head with fright when the largest and clumsiest mail-clad figure shuffled rapidly towards the first ghost, saying in choice modern English, "Hullo, this is too bad!" In the middle of her genuine terror and embarrassment, the old lady could not help laughing at the attempt of the friendly effigy to stoop, which resulted in its knocking itself down, as one may say, for it toppled over, and came down on the stone flags with a clash and a clang which made all the suits of armour ring again. Apparently the fate of their comrade acted as a warning to the other two knights, who were cautiously stepping out of their places, for they paused, page 60and as stage directions say, "struck an attitude," whilst a muffled voice issued from a closed visor surmounting a colossal figure in chain armour at the other end of the hall, saying in piteous accents, "Somebody come and take me out." No one, however, attended to his supplications, as the poor ghosts required first to be looked to. Aunt Isabel managed to step quickly across the hall to the Dame's room, where at least she expected to find assistance from Payne; but although Payne was there in the body, she was far too much terrified at the unexpected turn of affairs to be able to help: she shook from head to foot, and murmured constantly, "I did tell my lady as it was best not to meddle with spirits." Aunt Isabel tried to arouse her by saying, "Nonsense, Payne, it's all a joke; come and help me with your lady." Payne tried to obey, but she positively could not stand; and Aunt Isabel, taking her courage in both her hands, as the French say, ventured into the deserted hall again.

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It looked ghostly enough now to satisfy anyone; the pale chill moonlight shining down on the prostrate death-like forms in their respective corners, and on the vacant places from which the grim suits of armour had moved a little way. Poor Percy (for you will have guessed it was he) lay like a knight overthrown near the rigid figure of his wife; but everything put together was not so appalling to the old lady's nerves as the sight of glassy, rolling eyes within a helm belonging to a suit which had not moved at all.' She said afterwards that she could stand everything but the sudden conviction that here was no deceit; certainly no one could have ensconced themselves within this effigy, for was it not well known to represent the only bad Delaware in five hundred years, the black sheep of the family chronicles? "Percy never would have allowed any tricks to have been played with that dreadful Sir Lionel's armour," Aunt Isabel said to herself; "this must really be something not right." The page 62poor lady meant to say that it was probably his Satanic Majesty in person, but even in her distracted thoughts she thus mildly alluded to him. Her first impulse was to gather up her silken skirts, so as to avoid a nearer contact with the Origin of all Evil, and the only word which rose to her lips in answer to a stifled murmur, accompanied by a look of the most piteous entreaty in the supposed Lucifer's eyes, was "Avaunt!" As she shrieked this word aloud Percy began to struggle in his trappings with such goodwill that some of the fastenings gave way, and he managed to disencumber himself of breastplate and helmet, and to get up. Although he confessed afterwards that he was in an awful fright himself, he could not help laughing at Aunt Isabel's terror and indecision.

She did not know which ghost claimed her cares first; the ghost she knew, or the stranger. Her instincts led her to practise the old traditional hospitality for which Delaware Castle was page 63famous even before Dame Alicia's sad plight called it forth so largely." Hesitatingly she turned towards the silent, lonely duplicate of Dame Alicia, and said,—

"Percy, can't you get out of those ridiculous things and pick up Gerty? Just think how bad it is for her lying there on those stones. Oh! how I wish I had stopped her from playing this trick. Who on earth can this be?" cautiously approaching the second ghost "I'll tell you what, Aunt Isabel, you'd better leave it alone, and go and get assistance and lights. If you could only let my man Saunders out of Sir Lionel's iron clothes, he'd help, I'm sure." Percy turned towards the supposed Lucifer, who was shaking visibly, and continued, "Come, Saunders, the play is at an end; get out of that corner and help Miss Delaware. Ask Dr. Kingscote to step this way directly."

Lucifer shook his round iron head, and in hollow tones replied, "My nerves is that shook, page 64Mr. Delaware, as I don't believe I'll ever get over it. I should like to leave, sir, as soon as ever you can suit yourself; as soon as possible, if you please, sir."

"You may go to-morrow for all I care Saurders," replied Mr. Delaware, "but try and be of some use now."

"I don't care about the month's wages, Mr. Delaware, I'd rather leave at once," said the abject Lucifer; "I never engaged for this treatment, and it's what I can't be expected to put up with."

Percy took no further notice of his valet's warnings, but after vainly trying to arouse poor dear Gerty from her profound insensibility, he turned to Aunt Isabel with quite a frightened air, and said, "I can make nothing of her, and the other one seems just as bad; I'd better try and find Mrs. Mathers and Kingscote." Aunt Isabel nodded, for she was too utterly mystified to be able to form a coherent sentence, and page 65"avaunt" rose to her lips again as she saw one of the figures in chain-armour cautiously approaching her with the polite words, "Can't I be of any use, Miss Delaware?"

"Yes, come with me, Bernard," said Percy. "We'll go for some of the women to carry Lady Gertrude upstairs; that's the first thing to do."

Now Percy had not completely got rid of his wrought-steel trappings: therefore when he appeared in the housekeeper's dominions with shining greaves, and a portion of his throatlet and cuirass still fastened over his evening clothes, the maids received him with a series of piercing shrieks; whilst Mrs. Mathers waddled off to her own room, and Percy could hear her bolting and barring the door with all convenient speed.

"Good gracious, Bernard!" he cried, "it's just like a bad dream; what shall we do? Here, wait a moment till I get rid of these things, or they'll all go into fits in the drawing-room, and Kingscote will be running off to his bedroom like a page 66rabbit to its hole." He seized a knife and cut away the leathern lacings of his remaining armour, whilst Bernard followed his example, and unarmed as quickly as possible; but the clang with which each portion fell on the ground as its fastenings were cut, frightened the maids nearly into convulsions. However, neither Bernard nor Percy heeded their "Oh, lawks!" "Susan, did you ever?" but leaving their steel costumes behind them on the floor of the still-room, hastened to the drawing-room, which looked so beautifully bright and warm that Percy's first thought was, " What idiots we have all been to leave this good fire and go and play such tomfool tricks!" for Percy's conscience was by no means clear. He was still quite in the dark about the second ghost, and a good deal mystified, but he had no time for connected thought; he looked pale and rather dishevelled as he beckoned to Dr. Kingscote; then as the latter turned to accompany his host, Bernard Leigh page 67said, "Where's Alice? Has anyone seen my sister? I'm sure she will not be afraid to come and help poor Lady Gertrude." But no Alice answered, and young Thornhill started forward, looking every whit as anxious as Percy, crying, "Depend upon it, Miss Leigh is the other ghost; I've been wondering where she was all the evening."

This clearing up of the character and antecedents of the duplicate Dame Alicia evidently turned the current of popular feeling, which had been ebbing rapidly away from the shore of interference, and, with a sudden revulsion of courage and energy, all the guests cried out together, "Yes, let us go and help. Of course it must be Alice Leigh!"

And so it was—her last performance in the character of Dame Alicia, however, for never again would she consent even to see the nunlike draperies which she had been so fond of wearing. It was a long time before either of the ladies page 68could jest about the double ghosts, for they were both ill for some days, partly from cold and partly from fright. They confessed separately that each had really fancied the other to be the "genuine article;" and that this conviction, succeeding so suddenly to the alternations of hope and fear for the success of their plan, had proved too much for their nerves. In fact, as Bernard said, "It was a regular case of the biter bit; the ladies meant to frighten us, and they only frightened themselves."

Poor dear Aunt Isabel was very much shaken, and considered the chapter of accidents due to her own weakness for story-telling; she was such a darling old lady, however, that she never once said to Lady Gertrude, "I told you so;" whereas Payne contrived to convey that aggravating reproach in a thousand ways to her young mistress.

"Now, dears," said Mrs. Owen, "you must really go to bed—at least the little ones ought to do so, and I shall go upstairs to dress for dinner. page 69No, Cathy, I won't answer any questions—well, only one. Yes, Alice Leigh did marry Mr. Thornhill, but it would have happened just the same even if she had never acted Dame Alicia, though Percy always vowed that she looked so pretty trying to keep her dancing eyes demure and sad, that it really was the Dame who made the match after all. So now you may say you know a ghost story which begins and ends with a wedding."