A long time, miss. J was a slip of a girl when it last happened. It was in the winter-time - this very night - the night Squire Meredith's son was killed; and the house was full of company, just as it is now. There was a wild young Oxford gentleman sleeping in your room at that time, and he saw the hunting-party come into the quadrangle; and what did he do but throw his window wide open, and give them the view-hallo as loud as ever he could. He had only arrived the day before, and knew nothing about the neighbourhood; so at dinner he began to ask where were his friends the sportsmen, and to hope he should be allowed to have a run with the Abbey hounds next day. It was in the time of our master's father; and his lady at the head of the table turned as white as a sheet when she heard this talk. She had good reason, poor soul. Before the week was out her husband was lying dead. He was struck with a fit of apoplexy, and never spoke or knew any one afterwards.'
'An awful coincidence,' I said; 'but it may have been only a coincidence.'
'I've heard other stories, miss - heard them from those that wouldn't deceive - all proving the same thing: that the appearance of the old Squire and his pack is a warning of death to this house.'
'I cannot believe these things,' I exclaimed; 'I cannot believe them. Does Mr Edward know anything about this?'
'No, miss. His father and mother have been most careful that it should be kept from him.'
'I think he is, too strong-minded to be much affected by the fact,' I said.
'And you'll not say anything about what you've seen to my master or my mistress, will you, Miss Sarah?' pleaded the faithful old servant. 'The knowledge of it would be sure to make them nervous and un happy. And if evil is to come upon this house, it isn't in human power to prevent its coming.'
'God forbid that there is any evil at hand!' I answered. 'I am no believer in visions or omens. After all, I would sooner fancy that I was dreaming - dreaming with my eyes open as I stood at the window - than that I beheld the shadows of the dead.'
Mrs Marjorum sighed, and said nothing. I could see that she believed firmly in the phantom hunt.
I went back to my room to dress for dinner. However rationally I might try to think of what I had seen, its effect upon my mind and nerves was not the less powerful. I could think of nothing else; and a strange morbid dread of coming misery weighted me down like an actual burden.
There was a very cheerful party in the drawing-room when I went downstairs, and at dinner the talk and laughter were unceasing - but I could see that my cousin Fanny's face was a little graver than usual, and I had no doubt she was thinking of her son's intended visit to Wycherly.
At the thought of this a sudden terror flashed upon me. How if the shadows I had seen that evening were ominous of danger to him - to Edward, the heir and only son of the house? My heart grew cold as I thought of this, and yet in the next moment I despised myself for such weakness.
'It is natural enough for an old servant to believe in such things,' I said to myself; 'but for me - an educated woman of the world - preposterous folly.'
And yet from that moment I began to puzzle myself in the endeavour to devise some means by which Edward's journey might be prevented. Of my own influence I knew that I was powerless to hinder his departure by so much as an hour; but I fancied that Julia Tremaine could persuade him to any sacrifice of his inclination, if she could only humble her pride so far as to entreat it. I determined to appeal to her in the course of the evening.
We were very merry all that evening. The servants and their guests danced in the great hall, while we sat in the gallery above, and in little groups upon the staircase, watching their diversions. I think this arrangement afforded excellent opportunities for flirtation, and that the younger members of our party made good use of their chances - with one exception: Edward Chrighton and his affianced contrived to keep far away from each other all the evening.
While all was going on noisily in the hall below, I managed to get Miss Tremaine apart from the others in the embrasure of a painted window on the stairs, where there was a wide oaken seat. Seated here side by side, I described to her, under a promise of secrecy, the scene which I had witnessed that afternoon, and my conversation with Mrs Marjorum.
'But, good gracious me, Miss Chrighton!' the young lady exclaimed, lifting her pencilled eyebrows with unconcealed disdain, 'you don't mean to tell me that you believe in such nonsense - ghosts and omens, and old woman's folly like that!'
'I assure you, Miss Tremaine, it is most difficult for me to believe in the supernatural,' I answered earnestly; 'but that which I saw this evening was something more than human. The thought of it has made me very unhappy; and I cannot help connecting it somehow with my cousin Edward's visit to Wycherly. If I had the power to prevent his going, I would do it at any cost; but I have not. You alone have influence enough for that. For heaven's sake use it! do anything to hinder his hunting with the Daleborough hounds.'