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Mr. Coventry responded, "It's awfully tempting; but I suspect the traditional part of my story is SLIGHTLY EMBELLISHED, so the historical part must be accurate. What the box did really contain, to my knowledge, was a rush-wick, much thicker than they are made nowadays: and this rush-wick was impregnated with grease, and even lightly coated with a sort of brown wafer-like paste. The rector thinks it was a combination of fine dust from the box with the original grease. He shall show it you, if you are curious to see it."
"Of course we are curious. Oh, Mr. Raby, what a strange story. And how well he told it."
"Admirably. We must drink his health."
"I'll wish it him instead, because I require all my reason just now to understand his story. And I don't understand it, after all. There: you found the candle, and so it is all true. But what does the rector think?"
"Well, he says there is no connection whatever between the rush-wick and--"
"Don't tell her what HE says," cried Raby, with a sudden fury that made Grace start and open her eyes. "I know the puppy. He is what is called a divine nowadays; but used to be called a skeptic. There never was so infidel an age. Socinus was content to prove Jesus Christ a man; but Renan has gone and proved him a Frenchman. Nothing is so gullible as an unbeliever. The right reverend father in G.o.d, c.o.c.ker, has gnawed away the Old Testament: the Oxford doctors are nibbling away the New: nothing escapes but the apocrypha: yet these same skeptics believe the impudent lies, and monstrous arithmetic of geology, which babbles about a million years, a period actually beyond the comprehension of the human intellect; and takes up a jaw-bone, that some sly navvy has transplanted over-night from the churchyard into Lord knows what stratum, fees the navvy, gloats over the bone, and knocks the Bible down with it. No, Mr.
Coventry, your story is a good one, and well told; don't let us defile it with the comments of a skeptical credulous pedant. Fill your gla.s.s, sir. Here's to old religion, old stories, old songs, old houses, old wine, old friends, or" (recovering himself with admirable grace) "to new friends that are to be old ones ere we die. Come, let the stronger vessel drink, and the weaker vessel sip, and all say together, after me--
"Well may we all be, Ill may we never see, That make good company, Beneath the roof of Raby."
When this rude rhyme had been repeated in chorus, there was a little silence, and the conversation took a somewhat deeper tone. It began through Grace asking Mr. Raby, with all the simplicity of youth, whether he had ever seen anything supernatural with his own eyes. "For instance," said she, "this deserted church of yours, that you say the shepherd said he saw on fire--did YOU see that?"
"Not I. Indeed, the church is not in sight from here. No, Grace, I never saw any thing supernatural: and I am sorry for it, for I laugh at people's notion that a dead man has any power to injure the living; how can a cold wind come from a disembodied spirit? I am all that a ghost is, and something more; and I only wish I COULD call the dead from their graves; I'd soon have a dozen gentlemen and ladies out of that old church-yard into this very room. And, if they would only come, you would see me converse with them as civilly and as calmly as I am doing with you. The fact is, I have some questions to put, which only the dead can answer--pa.s.sages in the family correspondence, referring to things I can't make out for the life of me."
"Oh, Mr. Raby, pray don't talk in this dreadful way, for fear they should be angry and come." And Grace looked fearfully round over her shoulder.
Mr. Raby shook his head; and there was a dead silence.
Mr. Raby broke it rather unexpectedly. "But," said he, gravely, "if I have seen nothing, I've heard something. Whether it was supernatural, I can't say; but, at least, it was unaccountable and terrible. I have heard THE GABRIEL HOUNDS."
Mr. Coventry and Grace looked at one another, and then inquired, almost in a breath, what the Gabriel hounds were.
"A strange thing in the air that is said, in these parts, to foretell calamity."
"Oh dear!" said Grace, "this is thrilling again; pray tell us."
"Well, one night I was at Hillsborough on business, and, as I walked by the old parish church, a great pack of beagles, in full cry, pa.s.sed close over my head."
"Yes; they startled me, as I never was startled in my life before. I had never heard of the Gabriel hounds then, and I was stupefied. I think I leaned against the wall there full five minutes, before I recovered myself, and went on."
"Oh dear! But did any thing come of it?"
"You shall judge for yourself. I had left a certain house about an hour and a half: there was trouble in that house, but only of a pecuniary kind. To tell the truth, I came back with some money for them, or rather, I should say, with the promise of it. I found the wife in a swoon: and, upstairs, her husband lay dead by his own hand."
"Oh, my poor G.o.dpapa!" cried Grace, flinging her arm tenderly round his neck.
"Ay, my child, and the trouble did not end there. Insult followed; ingrat.i.tude; and a family feud, which is not healed yet, and never will be--till she and her brat come on their knees to me."
Mr. Raby had no sooner uttered these last words with great heat, than he was angry with himself. "Ah!" said he, "the older a man gets, the weaker. To think of my mentioning that to you young people!" And he rose and walked about the room in considerable agitation and vexation. "Curse the Gabriel hounds! It is the first time I have spoken of them since that awful night; it is the last I ever will speak of them. What they are, G.o.d, who made them, knows. Only I pray I may never hear them again, nor any friend of mine."
Next morning Jael Dence came up to the hall, and almost the first question Grace asked her was, whether she had ever heard of the Gabriel hounds.
Jael looked rather puzzled. Grace described them after Mr. Raby.
"Why, that will be Gabble Retchet," said Jael. "I wouldn't talk much about the like, if I was you, miss."
But Grace persisted, and, at last, extracted from her that sounds had repeatedly been heard in the air at night, as of a pack of hounds in full cry, and that these hounds ran before trouble. "But," said Jael, solemnly, "they are not hounds at all; they are the souls of unbaptized children, wandering in the air till the day of judgment."
This description, however probable, had the effect of making Grace disbelieve the phenomenon altogether, and she showed her incredulity by humming a little air.
But Jael soon stopped that. "Oh, miss, pray don't do so. If you sing before breakfast, you'll cry before supper."
At breakfast, Mr. Coventry invited Miss Carden to go to the top of Cairnhope Peak, and look over four counties. He also told her she could see Bollinghope house, his own place, very well from the Peak.
Grace a.s.sented: and, immediately after breakfast, begged Jael to be in the way to accompany her. She divined, with feminine quickness, that Mr.
Coventry would be very apt, if he pointed out Bollinghope House to her from the top of a mountain, to say, "Will you be its mistress?" but, possibly, she did not wish to be hurried, or it may have been only a mere instinct, an irrational impulse of self-defense, with which the judgment had nothing to do; or perhaps it was simple modesty. Any way, she engaged Jael to be of the party.
It was talked of again at luncheon, and then Mr. Raby put in a word. "I have one stipulation to make, young people, and that is that you go up the east side, and down the same way. It is all safe walking on that side. I shall send you in my four-wheel to the foot of the hill, and George will wait for you there at the 'Colley Dog' public-house, and bring you home again."
This was, of course, accepted with thanks, and the four-wheel came round at two o'clock. Jael was seated in front by the side of George, who drove; Mr. Coventry and Grace, behind. He had his fur-cloak to keep his companion warm on returning from the hill; but Mr. Raby, who did nothing by halves, threw in some more wraps, and gave a warm one to Jael; she was a favorite with him, as indeed were all the Dences.
They started gayly, and rattled off at a good pace. Before they had got many yards on the high-road, they pa.s.sed a fir-plantation, belonging to Mr. Raby, and a magpie fluttered out of this, and flew across the road before them.
Jael seized the reins, and pulled them so powerfully, she stopped the pony directly. "Oh, the foul bird!" she cried, "turn back! turn back!"
"What for?" inquired Mr. Coventry.
"We shall meet with trouble else. One magpie! and right athwart us too."
"What nonsense!" said Grace.
"Nay, nay, it is not; Squire knows better. Wait just one minute, till I speak to Squire." She sprang from the carriage with one bound, and, holding up her dress with one hand, ran into the house like a lapwing.
"The good, kind, silly thing!" said Grace Carden.
Jael soon found Mr. Raby, and told him about the magpie, and begged him to come out and order them back.
But Mr. Raby smiled, and shook his head. "That won't do. Young ladies and gentlemen of the present day don't believe in omens."
"But you do know better, sir. I have heard father say you were going into Hillsborough with him one day, and a magpie flew across, and father persuaded you to turn back."
"That is true; he was going in to buy some merino sheep, and I to deposit my rents in Carrington's bank. Next day the bank broke. And the merino sheep all died within the year. But how many thousand times does a magpie cross us and nothing come of it? Come, run away, my good girl, and don't keep them waiting."
Jael obeyed, with a sigh. She went back to her party--they were gone.
The carriage was just disappearing round a turn in the road. She looked at it with amazement, and even with anger. It seemed to her a brazen act of bad faith.
"I wouldn't have believed it of her," said she, and went back to the house, mortified and grieved. She did not go to Mr. Raby again; but he happened to catch sight of her about an hour afterward, and called to her--"How is this, Jael? Have you let them go alone, because of a magpie?" And he looked displeased.
"Nay, sir: she gave me the slip, while I went to speak to you for her good; and I call it a dirty trick, saving your presence. I told her I'd be back in a moment."
"Oh, it is not her doing, you may be sure; it is the young gentleman. He saw a chance to get her alone, and of course he took it. I am not very well pleased; but I suppose she knows her own mind. It is to be a marriage, no doubt." He smoothed it over, but was a little put out, and stalked away without another word: he had said enough to put Jael's bosom in a flutter, and open a bright prospect to her heart; Miss Carden once disposed of in marriage, what might she not hope? She now reflected, with honest pride, that she had merited Henry's love by rare unselfishness. She had advised him loyally, had even co-operated with him as far as any poor girl, with her feelings for him, could do; and now Mr. Coventry was going to propose marriage to her rival, and she believed Miss Carden would say "yes," though she could not in her heart believe that even Miss Carden did not prefer the other. "Ay, lad," said she, "if I am to win thee, I'll be able to say I won thee fair."