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A STRANGE BED.

{Continued.) My host, who was absorbed in gazing .into the depths of the pot, made no reply ; but the lad kneeling at my feet raised his head with a broad stare, and after a second said : ‘ ’Tain’t nine miles to Beckley ; ’tain’t above five if you ’ Just then his father accidentally dropped the iron pot-lid on the hearth, and the rest of the sentence was lost in the clatter. ‘ Not more than five!’ I echoed, turning to my host. ‘ Why, you told me a moment ago ’ ‘ Not more than five miles if you cut straight across the moor,’ he interrupted —‘ that’s what Sim means, sir—but, if you go by the road, it’s four more, at least. It’s a roundabout road, you see, following the windings of the stream. It isn’t much used in winter, but in summer there’s a good deal of passing —farmers going to market, and suchlike. The supper’s done to a turn now,’ he added, lifting the pot off the fire and letting out a cloud of savoury steam ; ‘ and I make no doubt you’re ready for it, sir.’

His hasty manner of changing the subject confirmed me in a suspicion that my civil smiling host had somewhat exaggerated the length of the road in order, to keep me at “ The Moorfowlfor the night; but, if the supper tasted half as good as it smelt, I would magnanimously forgive him. ‘ What is it ?’ I asked sniffing.

‘ It’s a stew of rabbit, steak, and onions and potatoes,’ he answered, unctuously, smacking his lips— ‘ a supper for a king ! Now, Joyce, where are you ? Light the candles and lay the cloth. Drat the wench, she’s always hiding when she’s wanted ! Joyce, I say !’ At this summons there emerged from the shadow at the end of the room a tall, slender girl of eighteen in a coarse Hnsey petticoat and short white bed-gown —a girl with wild dark eyes and a dead-while face, its pallor rendered still more startling by the frame of heavy, lustreless dark-brown hair which was pushed back from her temples and hung in a neglected tangle about her neck. But it was not the unnatural pallor of the face • which first struck me ; it was the strange expression stamped on the features—a fixed, frozen look, as if the chill of some deadly terror had passed over her, paralysing her mind and driving all the light of life from her face. She- moved mechanically, like a sleep-walker, and

—T toolclS with -cyes that seemed to see nothing. There was nothing coarse or common in her appearance, homely as were her surroundings; her features, though irregular, were delicate. Her neglected hair was wavy and abundant; her eyes, cf a soft brown, would have been beautiful but for their strange fixed look.

‘ What is the matter with the girl ? Is she ill ?’ I asked, in an undertone.

The landlord pushed his lips out.

‘ She has been, but she’s well enough now, for all I know—well enough in body, but a trifle weak here—you understand ’ —he tapped his forehead significantly— ‘ takes odds notions, and so on.’ ‘ Is she a relative of yours?’

‘Not she, sir; she’s a “ fondling.” We had her from Packerton Workhouse to wait on my mother, who is bedridden. We shall have to send her back again, I fancy, for she gets queerer every day.’, ‘Poor lass!’ I said, involuntarily, looking, with the compassion I felt, at the forlorn young creature. The girl, who had hitherto, stood with downcast eyes, raised them suddenly to my face. What a strange look it was — a look that startled and thrilled me ! Not the vacant stare of an idiot. No ; those wonderful dark eyes were full ota significance which I vaguely felt, but, not having the clue to it, could not understand.

‘ Don’t stand staring there, you moonstruck idiot!’ interposed .her master in a coarse, brutal tone, which contrasted strongly with his honeyed accents to myself. ‘Light the candles and lay the cloth.’ Silently and mechanically she obeyed, moving about like an automaton.- I could not keep my eyes from her, but she never looked at me again.

‘ Sapper is quite ready, sir,’ said my host at last rubbing his hands and smiling more than ever. * What, will you please to take with it ? We have good ale, or, if you would prefer a glass of something hot ’ ‘ Ale with my supper and a glass of hot brandy-and-water before I "go to bed,’ I returned, taking my seat at the table.

The ale was a trifle flat, but no(t bad} the stew was superb. I made a thoroughly satisfactory supper, and, when it was finished and I sat in an easy chair on the hearth, with my legs stretched out to the cheerful blaze, I felt in the best of tempers with myself and all the world, not excepting my attentive host, who, seated on the opposite side of the fire, entertained me with tales of the moor, while his son was clinking bottles and glasses at the table behind me. Presently the hot water' and a bottle of spirits were placed on a little round table at my side I filled my glass, stirred and sipped the steaming mixture, and then took about a quarter of it at a draught. As I set the glass down, the girl Joyce emerged from the shadow at the far end of the foom, where I had seen her sitting while I was at supper, her face and jacket two dinci patches of white in the gloom, and came towards the hearth. ‘ Now, then, what is it ?’ her master demanded. She pointed to my boots, which lay between the small table at which I sat and the wall. ' j i ! ‘Very well, take ’em away,’ he ordered. . ' She stooped to pick them up, and, in raising herself, managed to upset the table. Over went jug, bottle, and glass, with a crash on to the stone hearth, and up jumped I with an in*: t voluntary ‘What the deuce—■ —’ for not; a little of the hot water had gone oyer my legs. * ‘ My host, who had been stooping to 1 stir the fire, and had not seen the cause of the mishap, started up with an oath. 1 Who did that ?’ he demanded, with a black look at the girl. ‘ I did it myself,’ I answered promptly, telling the fib without a . moment’s hesitation ; 4 my knee caught in the table, I suppose, and ’ *lt was Joyce as did it, father,! . growled the son’s voice behind me. ‘ Yes ; it was Joyce as did it,’ shrilly echoed the shock-headed boy, who had been squatting like a toad in a warm corner of the hearth. ‘ I see her upset it, I did.’ His father threw down the poker, crossed the hearth at one stride, and, before I knew what he was about, raised his heavy hand and struck the girl on the temple. * Take that for your clumsiness 1” he said, and he raised his hand to repeat the blow, when I struck it up, and, catching him by the arm, swung him away with such force that, not being prepared for it, he staggered and fell heavily to the floor. ‘ Take that for your brutality 1’ I cried out, out of breath with the exertion, and in a white heat of in* dignation and disgust. If I had been less angry, I could not have suppressed a smile at his appearance ; he sat where he had fallen, rubbing his head, which had come into pretty sharp contact with the edge of the table in his descent, and staring about him with an expression of bewilderment irresistibly ludicrous.

‘You might ’a stopped at sorae’at short of knocking a man down, I should think,’ said the son, looking at me with a lowering face as he assisted his father to rise.

‘ I didn’t knock him down then, but I will if he raises his hand against the girl again while I am in the house.’ The landlord slowly raised himself up ; his face was livid, and there was a curious lambent gleam in his pale eyes as he glanced at me after I had uttered those words. But the expression passed in a moment, and he forced his lips into their customary smile, as he said, brushing the sand from his coat — ‘The gentleman is a trifle hastytempered, Reuben. I can excuse that; it is a fault of my own. I bear no malice—no malice.’ ‘ It would be all the same to me if you' did,’ I retorted, contemptuously; and, turning my back on him, I addressed Joyce, who was leaning against the wall, with her thin fingers pressed to her temples. ‘ I fear you are badly hurt, nly poor lass,’ I said in an under-tone, bending over her. ‘ Let me look at the place. Sit down.’ I gently removed her fingers, and could hardly restrain my indignation when I saw the mark on her temple; which in a few minutes would be. a livid, bruise. .1 said nothing more, however, but forced her down on a

T seat, and, seeing that she was .... half stunned, called fora glass rf writer which the son, at his father’s ITuK i procured, and handed to me with a sneer. I put it to her lips, moistened her forehead, and chafed her co'd hands; she sat meanwhile passive, silent, and apparently apathetic, but I could feel her trembling as I touched her, and when she rose to move away her dark eyes were raised to my face with a look which rendered thanks superfluous. What eyes they were! Never had any others so thrilled and haunted me. ‘lf my room is ready, I will go to , bed,’ I said, putting away my chair. My host and his son were busy looking for something in a cupboard—something they could not find, apparently, for I heard them muttering, as if disappointed, and the latter shut the cupboard door with a grunt of vexation. ‘ Won’t you let me get you another glass of brandy-and-water sir 7 asked the landlord. ‘No,’ I answered curtly, * I want nothing more. Show me to my room.’ He muttered something but did not press the matter. ‘Light a bed-candle, Joyce, and ■ carry up the gentleman’s things to the best room. You’ll have a capital bed, sir,’ he added, addressing me, as the girl emerged from the shadow again, in her silent ghostly way— ‘ as good a one as there is anywhere. I never knew anyone who slept in the green bed ' complain of a restless night. Now then, girl, don’t fall asleep; don’t you see the gentleman’s waiting ? ” Joyce, who had been standing like one in a dream, started, roused herself, • and, taking the candle, led the way up a. narrow dark flight of stairs, opening from the kitchen, I following with my . pack, and the landlord bringing up the • rear. - {To be continual.)

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Permanent link to this item

http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AG18810523.2.13

Bibliographic details

A STRANGE BED., Ashburton Guardian, Volume 2, Issue 351, 23 May 1881

Word Count
1,829

A STRANGE BED. Ashburton Guardian, Volume 2, Issue 351, 23 May 1881

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