- CHAPTER XI. THE CHILDREN'S PARTY.
|<< chapter 10||< chapter 1||chapter 12 >||chapter 16 >>|
THE CHILDREN'S PARTY.
THE servant's hall was one of the finest rooms in the Manor House. It was at the back of the house, remote from all the reception rooms, and had been part of a much older building than the Carolian mansion to which it now belonged. It was lighted by two square latticed windows with stone mullions, looking into the stable yard. There was also a door opening directly into the same stable yard, and offering a convenient approach for the wandering tribes of tramps, hawkers, and gipsies, who boldly defied the canine guardians of the yard, knowing that the stoutest mastiff that ever thundered forth his abhorrence of rags and beggary is only formidable within the circle described by the length of his chain.
On this Christmas Eve the servants' hall looked as cheerful a room as one could choose | | 177 for a night's revelry. Huge logs flamed and crackled in the wide old fire-place, and shone and sparkled on the whitewashed wall, which was glorified with garlands of holly and ivy, and lighted with numerous candles in tin sconces made for the occasion by the village blacksmith. Two long tables on trestles were spread with such a meal as a rustic child might see in some happy dream, but could scarcely hope to behold in sober reality. Such mountains of plum cake, such mighty piles of buns, such stacks of buttered toast, such crystal jars of ruby jam and amber marmalade! The guests had been invited for the hour of six, and, as the clock struck, they all came trooping in, with shining faces, and cheeks and noses cherry red after their run through the lightly falling snow. It was not often that snow fell in this western world, and a snowstorm at Christmas was considered altogether pleasant and seasonable, an event for the children to rejoice at.
Laura was ready to receive her young visitors, supported by Mr. Sampson, and his sister, Celia Clare, and all the servants. Edward had promised | | 178 to drop in later. He had no objection to distinguish himself by a comic reading, but he had no idea of sharing all the fatigue of the entertainment. Mr. and Mrs. Clare were to come in the course of the evening to see their small parishioners enjoying themselves.
The tea party was a great success. Celia worked nobly. While Mrs. Treverton and Miss Sampson poured out the tea, this vivacious damsel flew hither and thither with plates of cake, spread innumerable slices of bread and jam, tied the strings of a score of pinafores, filled every plate the instant it was empty, and provided at every turn for the pleasure of the revellers, who sat in a happy silence—stolid, emotionless, stuffing automatically.
'You'd hardly think they were enjoying themselves intensely, would you?' whispered Celia, coming to Laura for a fresh supply of tea, 'but I know they are, because they all breathe, so hard. If this was a gathering of the county families you might think it a failure; but silence in this case means ecstasy.'| | 179
At the stroke of seven the tables were being cleared, while Celia, in wild spirits, ran about after the smiling housemaids, crying 'more light, ye knaves, and turn the tables up.' Then came a merry hour at 'Blind Man's Buff' and 'Thread my Needle,' and the silent tea party grew clamorous as a flight of rooks at sunset. At eight Mr. and Mrs. Clare arrived, followed a little later by Edward, who sauntered in with a somewhat languid air, as if he had not quite made up his mind that he ought to be there.
He came straight to Laura, who had just returned from a stolen half hour by her husband's bedside.
'What an uproar,' he said. 'I've come to keep my promise; but do you really think these little animals will care for the Jackdaw of Rheims?'
'I think they will be glad to sit still for a little while after their romp, and I've no doubt they'll laugh at the jackdaw. It's very good of you to come.'
'Is it? If you knew how I detest infant school children you might say so, but if you | | 180 knew how I——.' He left the sentence unfinished. 'How is Treverton?' he asked.
'Much better. Mr. Morton says he will be well in a day or two.'
'I passed a curious-looking fellow in the road just outside your gates, a regular London Bohemian; a man whose very walk recalled the most disreputable quarters of that extraordinary city. I have no idea who the fellow is; but I'll swear he's a Londoner, a swindler, and an adventurer; and I have a lurking idea that I have seen him before.'
'Indeed! Was it that which attracted your notice?'
'No, it was the man's style and manner altogether. He was loitering near the gate, as if with some intention; possibly not the most honourable. You've heard perhaps of a kind of robbery known as the portico dodge?'
'No. I am not learned in such distinctions.'
'It is a common crime now-a-days. A country house with a portico is a fine field for the display of -genius in burglary. One of the gang scales | | 181 the portico after dusk, most likely at the family dinner-hour, gets from the roof of the portico through a convenient window, and then quietly admits his accomplices. In all such robberies there is generally one member of the gang, the cleverest and best educated, who has no active part in the crime. He does all the intellectual work, schemes and directs the whole business; but though the police know him and would give their eyes to catch him tripping, he never tumbles into their trap. The fellow I saw at your gates to-night seemed to me just this sort of man.'
'Laura looked very serious, as if she were alarmed at the idea of robbery.
'Was this man young or old?' she asked thoughtfully.
'Neither. He is middle-aged, perhaps even elderly, but certainly not old. He is as straight as a dart, spare but broad-shouldered, and with something of a military air.'
'What made you fancy he had some evil design upon this house?' asked Laura, her face clouded with anxious thought.| | 182
I did not like the way in which he loitered by the gate. He seemed to be looking for some one or something, watching his opportunity. I don't want to scare you, Laura. I only want to put you on your guard, so that you may have all the doors and shutters looked after with extra care to-night. After all, the man may be perfectly harmless, some seedy acquaintance of your husband, perhaps. A man cannot live in the world of London without that kind of burr sticking to his coat.'
'You do not flatter my husband by such a supposition,' said Laura, with an offended look.
'My dear Laura, do you think a man can live his life without making acquaintance he would not care to exhibit in the glare of noonday. You know the old adage about poverty and strange bedfellows. I hope there is no treason in reminding you that Mr. Treverton was not always rich.'
'No. I am not ashamed of his having been poor; but it would shame me if I thought he had any acquaintance in his poverty whom he would blush to own now he is rich. Will you begin your reading? The children are ready.'| | 183
The infants, flushed and towzled by their sports, had been ranted on benches by the joint efforts of Tom Sampson, his sister, and Celia Clare, and were now being regaled with cake and negus. Celia had placed a small table, with a pair of candles, and a glass of water at the end of the room, for the accommodation of the reader.
'Silence!' commanded Mr. Sampson, as Edward walked to his place, gave a little preparatory cough, and opened his book. 'Silence for "The Jackdaw of Rheims."
Bishop, and abbot, and prior were there;
Many a monk and many a friar,
Many a knight and many a squire,'
A loud peal of the front door bell startled him. He stopped for a moment, and looked at Laura, who was sitting with the Vicar and his wife in a little group near the fireplace at the other end of the room. At the sound of the bell she looked up quickly, and, with an agitated air, kept her eyes fixed on the door, as if she expected some one to enter.
He had no excuse for leaving off reading, | | 184 curious as he felt about that bell, and Laura's evident concern. He went on mechanically, full of wondering speculations as to what was going on in the entrance hall, hating the open-mouthed and open-eyed infants who were hanging on his words; while Celia, seated at the end of the front row, started all the laughter and applause.
'Where did I meet that man?' he asked himself over and over again while he read on.
The answer flashed upon him in the middle of a sentence.
'It is the man I saw with Chicot in Drury Lane; the man I talked to in the public-house.'
The door opened, and the slow and portly Trimmer came in, and softly made his way to the place where his mistress was seated. He whispered to her, and then she whispered to Mrs. Clare—doubtless an apology for leaving her—and anon followed Trimmer out of the room.
'What can that man—if it is that man who rang the bell—want with her,' wondered Edward, so deeply moved that he could scarcely go on reading. 'Is the secret going to be told to-night? Are the cards going to be taken out of my hands?'
|<< chapter 10||< chapter 1||chapter 12 >||chapter 16 >>|