The slave of the lamp, p.15
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       The Slave of the Lamp, p.15

           Henry Seton Merriman
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  Cheerfulness is, thank goodness, infectious. The watchers at the Hallthat night made a great show of light-heartedness. Sidney had risen tothe occasion. He laughed at the idea of anything serious having happenedto Christian, and his confidence gradually spread and gained newstrength. Molly, however, was apparently beyond its influence. With herperpetual needle-work in her hands she sat beneath the lamp and workedrapidly. Occasionally she glanced towards Hilda, but contributed nothingto the explanations forthcoming from all quarters.

  Hilda was also working; slowly, however, and with marvellous care. Shewas engaged upon a more artistic production than ever came from Molly'swork-basket. Once she consulted Mrs. Carew about the colour of a skeinof wool, but otherwise showed no inclination to avoid topics in anymanner connected with Christian, despite the fact that these wereobviously distasteful to her family. In all that she said, indifferencewas blended in a singular way with imperturbable cheerfulness.

  Thus they waited until after midnight, pretending bravely to work andread as if there were no such feeling as suspense in the human heart.Then Mrs. Carew persuaded the young people to go to bed. She had lettersto write, and would not be ready for hours. If Christian did not appearby the time that she was sleepy, she would wake Sidney. After all, sheacted her part better than they. She was old at it--they were new. Shewas experienced in stage-craft and made her points skilfully; above all,she did not over-act.

  The three young people kissed their mother and left the room, assuringeach other of their conviction that they would find Christian at thebreakfast table next morning. Molly's room was at the head of thestairs. With a smile and a nod she closed her door while Hilda andSidney walked slowly down the long passage together. Arrived at the end,Sidney kissed his sister. She turned the handle of her door and stoodwith her back to him for a few moments without entering the room, as ifto give him an opportunity of speaking if he had aught to say. He stoodawkwardly behind her, gazing mechanically at her hair, which reflectedthe light from the candle that he was holding all awry, while the waxdripped upon the carpet.

  "It will be all right, Hilda," he said unevenly, "never fear!"

  "Yes, dear, I know it will," she replied.

  And then she passed into the room without closing the door, and hewalked on with loudly-creaking shoes.

  Hilda crossed her room and set the candle upon the dressing-table. Shewaited there till Sidney's footsteps had ceased, and then she turned andwalked uprightly to the door, which she closed. She looked round theroom with a strange, vacant look in her eyes, and then she made her wayunsteadily towards the bed, where she lay staring at the wavering candleand its reflection in the mirror behind until daylight came to make itsflame grow pale and yellow.

  There were four watchers in the house that night. Downstairs, Mrs. Carewsat by the shaded lamp in her upright armchair. She was not writing, buthad re-opened the large black Bible. Molly was courting sleep in vain,having resolutely blown out her candle. Sidney made no pretence. He wasfully dressed, and seated at his rarely-used writing-table. Before himlay a telegraph-form bearing nothing but the address--

  C.C. BODERY, _Beacon_ Office, Fleet St., London.

  He was gazing mechanically at the blank spaces waiting to be filled in,and through his mind was passing and repassing the same question thatoccupied the thoughts of his mother and sisters. What could be theexplanation of the whistle heard by Molly? The want of this alonesufficed to overthrow the most ingenious of consolatory explanations.All four looked at it from different points of view, and to each thesignal-whistle calling Christian into the garden was an insurmountablebarrier to every explanation.

  Before it was wholly light Hilda moved wearily to the window. She threwit open, and sat with arms resting on the sill and her chin upon herhands, mechanically noting the wonders of the sunrise. A soft white mistwas rising from the thick pasture, wholly obscuring the sea and fillingthe atmosphere with a damp chill. Seated there in her thin eveningdress, she showed no sign of feeling the cold. At times physical pain isalmost a pleasure. The glistening damp rested on every blade of grass,on every leaf and twig, while the many webs stood whitely against theshadows, some hanging like festoons from tree to tree, others floatingout in mid-air without apparent reason or support. In and among thebranches lingered little secret deposits of mist waiting the sun'swarmth to melt them all away.

  The suppressed creak of Sidney's door attracted Hilda's attention, butshe did not move, merely turning to look at her own door as her brotherpassed it with awkward caution. A dull instinct told her that he wasgoing to the moat again. Presently he passed beneath her window andacross the dewy lawn, leaving a trailing mark upon the grass. The wholepicture seemed suddenly to be familiar to her. She had lived through itall before--not in another life, not in years gone by, not in a dream,but during the last few hours.

  The air was very still, and she could hear the clank of the chain asSidney unmoored the old punt, rarely used except by the gardener toclean the moat when the weeds died down in autumn. The quiet wasrendered more remarkable by the suddenness of its advent. All night ithad been blowing a wild gale, which dropped at dawn, and from the softland the mist rose instantly.

  Prompted by a vague desire to be doing something, Hilda presently turnedfrom the window, and, after a moment's indecision, chose from the shelfa novel fresh from the brain of the king of writers. With it shereturned to her low chair and listlessly turned over the leaves for somemoments. She raised her head and sought in vain the tiny form of a larktrilling out his morning hymn far up in the blue sky. Then sheresolutely commenced to read uninterruptedly.

  She read on until Sidney's firm step upon the gravel beneath the windowroused her. A minute later he knocked softly at her door. The water wasglistening on his rough shooting-boots as he entered the room, and uponthe brown leather gaiters there was a deeper shade showing where the wetgrass had brushed against his legs. His honest, immobile face showed butlittle surprise at the sight of Hilda still in evening dress, but shesaw that he noticed it.

  She rose from her low chair and laid aside the book, but no sort ofgreeting passed between them.

  "I have been all round again," he said quietly, "by daylight, and--andof course there is no sign."

  She nodded her head, but did not speak.

  "I have been thinking," he continued somewhat shyly, "as to what is tobe done. First of all, no one must be told. Mother, Molly, you, and Iknow it, and we must keep it to ourselves. We will tell Stanley thatChristian has gone off suddenly in connection with his work, and thesame excuse will do for the neighbours and servants. I will telegraphthis morning to Mr. Bodery, the editor of the _Beacon_, and await hisinstructions. I think that is all that we can do in the meantime."

  She was standing close to him, with one hand on the table, resting uponthe closed volume of "Vanity Fair," but instead of looking at herbrother she was gazing calmly out of the window.

  "Yes," she murmured, "I think that is all that we can do in themeantime."

  Sidney moved awkwardly as if about to leave the room, but hesitatedstill.

  "Have you nothing to suggest?" he asked. "Do you think I am actingrightly?"

  She was still looking out of the window--still standing motionless nearthe table with her hand upon Thackeray's "Vanity Fair."

  "Yes," she replied; "everything you suggest seems wise and prudent."

  "Then will you see mother and Molly in their rooms and forewarn them tosay nothing--nothing that may betray our anxiety?"

  "Yes, I will see them."

  Sidney walked heavily to the door. Grasping the handle, he turned roundonce more.

  "It is nearly half-past seven," he said, with more confidence in histone, "and Mary will soon be coming to awake you. It would not do forher to see you in that dress."

  Hilda turned and raised her eyes to his face.

  "No," she said, with a sudden smile; "I will change it at once."

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