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A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters

Chapter II. Christmas Day in England {continued}

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Chapter II. Christmas Day in England {continued}.

A Ghost story ought not to begin with a wedding, and yet this must do so, for nothing extraordinary would have happened if Mr. Delaware had not married Lady Gertrude Lawrence one fine autumn morning long ago, and directly after the gay breakfast started for one of his own places in the north. They had made their plans so well that by the time the grouse were ready to be driven, a sufficient number of weeks had passed over the heads of both bride and bridegroom to allow them the sanction of public opinion in summoning their friends and relatives to assist in slaughtering the poor page 26birds; and as Delaware Castle had been famous in the good old times for the hospitality of its interior arrangements, and the abundance of fur and feathered game outside its grey stone walls, everybody came joyfully at its master's invitation.

There was a great bustle of preparations upstairs and downstairs, and beautiful Lady Gertrude thought she was quite oppressed with the cares of such a large establishment, and the worries of married life, when the fat old housekeeper asked to see her ladyship twice in the same day, though it was merely to inform the young bride what arrangements she—Mrs. Mathers—had made for the reception of the guests. The weighty question of the respective merits of the chintz-room and the tapestry-room occupied quite half-an-hour. Lady Gertrude pleaded hard that her invalid mother might have the first-named room, with its bright out-look on the park, and the distant oak-woods all dappled with golden and russet tints, but Mrs. Mathers could not entertain the idea for a moment. The tapestry-room page 27had the grandest furniture and the loftiest walls, and into that the bride's mother must be put. It never would do to show any want of respect to the sick Countess on this, her first visit to her daughter's new home; so when Lady Gertrude sighed, and said, "I'll think about it, Mrs. Mathers," that stately personage knew her arguments had prevailed, and went on to discuss, or rather to state, who were to occupy the pink and blue rooms, the fuchsia rooms, the bird-rooms, and so on.

All this time Mr. Delaware was equally busy downstairs in his gun-room, laying in a-stock of cartridges sufficient to have defended the castle against a troop of Uhlans for a month, and seeing to the polishing and cleaning-up of weapons enough to shoot all the grouse in Northumberland. He made light of his wife's cares when she complained to him how heavily they weighed on her, and said, "Nonsense, Gerty; I'll tire them out so thoroughly after the birds, that they won't care page 28where you put them to sleep or what you give them to eat."

But this seemed very heartless to Lady Gertrude, and, with a dim perception that dear Percy did not understand these things, she went off into her conservatory. Of course when the eventful Monday morning arrived, and the guests began to drop in by fours, and even fives, all through the bright brisk day, everything was in perfect order; and, like the fairy tale of the "White Cat," the visitors seemed to be waited on by invisible attendants, so smoothly did the wheels of daily life run over the well-laid rails. Lady Gertrude felt as if she had done it all herself, whereas there would have been no difference in the comfort or beauty of the domestic arrangements if she had spent her time scampering her pony over the moors. The head keeper's consultations with Mr. Delaware ended by that functionary securing his own way in everything, and reducing his master unconsciously to the most abject submission.

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It must have been about the second evening after the house was thoroughly well filled from attic to basement, that Mr. Delaware sauntered up to his wife after dinner, and said—

"Oh, by the way, Gerty, you used to be always bothering me about the old stories and things belonging to this place when we first came here, and I told you then, if you remember, that Aunt Isabel was the right person to go to for what you wanted to know. Here she is; now I advise you to find out all about it from her. There's nothing she likes better than talking of all the nonsense she picked up from the old servants here in my poor father's time."

Lady Gertrude's face brightened as she rose and said—

"Aunt Isabel only came just before dinner, and I've hardly had a moment to speak to her; take me to her now, and we'll soon 'make friends,' as the children say."

Aunt Isabel did not look at all as if she liked to page 30feast her mind upon ghostly tales, for her appearance was deliriously comfortable; she was rather short and fat, with a trim neat figure, and the sweetest face in the world; a complexion like tissue paper, so clear and delicate, and large soft dark eyes. When you add to this description abundance of beautiful bright silvery hair, you can fancy what a picturesque old lady she must have been. Very softhearted and yet sensible; generous to lavishness, and yet no one could impose upon her easily. We must not forget her dress in our sketch; it was a wonder and a delight to all her own sex, for it was always sufficiently in the fashion not to be remarked for any great peculiarities, and yet she contrived to preserve an artistic individuality all her own. Such was the aunt who received her new niece with the brightest smile on her gentle lips and in her kind eyes, as Lady Gertrude came up to her corner of the sofa, holding her husband's arm.

"Here's Gertrude come to hear some of your page 31old stories, Aunt Isabel," said Mr. Delaware: "she's a dreadful child for ghosts, and you won't have any peace until you have told her every word you know about the Castle's history."

"Very well, my dear, I'll talk to her as long as she likes to listen, and I think it's very proper she should know all about her new home. It's a great pity the stories belonging to a place like this are so soon forgotten, now-a-days, for many of them were very pretty. I know many tales of devotion, and courage, and loyalty which are bound up in the word-of-mouth history of this old house, but you young people don't care a pin for them; you prefer a horrid sensational novel or a nasty French play. I'm sure their scenes are much more improbable than any of my legends, and yet you believe every word as your eyes gallop over the pages; whereas if I were to tell you of one of your ancestors getting out of that window to go for help to the king's army in the time of the troubles, I believe, Percy, that you would send directly page 32for a two-foot rule to measure the height, and then tell me, 'It couldn't be done for the money, Aunt Isabel.'"

Lady Gertrude hastened to soothe the dear old family chronicler by assurances that her ears were open, and her mind a sheet of blank paper to receive all that she could possibly tell her about the Castle, and the two ladies made a solemn appointment to meet in Lady Gertrude's dressing-room and have an old-time chat that very night after everyone had gone to their rooms. The younger lady was quite as impatient for the arrival of the tryst as she had been only a few weeks before for the time when Percy could come for a walk or a ride with her, and the hours had just such leaden feet to her impatient mind.

At last the down-stairs good-nights were kissed and said, Lady Gertrude's maid was dismissed, and the two ladies ensconced themselves in armchairs drawn close to a wood-fire. Lady Gertrude turned down the lamp on pretence of shading page 33her eyes, but really to suit the gloom of what she hoped would prove horrible old legends. Aunt Isabel smiled at all these preparations, and said—

"My dear child, I am afraid you will be sadly disappointed at my stories; there are several very interesting historical ones connected with the old Castle, but I have a shrewd suspicion that you want to hear about something dreadful, and I really don't know anything very bad."

It was a sight to see the way Lady Gertrude's face fell as the cheery old lady said these words. It resembled a child's in its expression of rueful disappointment Here was she prepared to sup full of horrors, and now to be put off with such a dry mouthful as historical reminiscences! She nearly cried, and Aunt Isabel could not help laughing outright as her niece answered, with clasped hands and earnest face—

"Oh, Aunt Isabel, don't you know one little ghost story? Surely there must be a ghost about page 34the Castle; there always is one in old places—only don't let it ring bells or clank chains, please; anything else does not signify."

"Well, Gertrude, the only ghost I ever heard of here, does not indulge in either of those amusements. You see, she always leaves a hundred years or so between her visits, and she only appears when a new queen comes to reign over us at Delaware, so perhaps she has already paid her visit whilst you were fast asleep, and you have probably lost your chance of seeing your solitary ghost."

Lady Gertrude's face brightened considerably as she heard of the traditionary appearance of a friendly ghost, for she had really begun to think that there was no such thing at Delaware. Her spirits rose with her improved prospects, and Aunt Isabel made her quite happy by telling her how, a thousand years or so ago—it is no use being particular to a century in a ghost story—the daughter of a neighbouring border-chieftain had been turned page 35out of her father's castle by her brothers, on the death of the head of the house.

The story did not say why the lady was sent adrift in so summary a way, but it could not have been for the usual reason of a love affair with a handsome squire of low degree, for the dame in question was what we should call in these days strong-minded. Handsome she must have been, and stately, but of a certain age, much given to prophesy, without being at all particular as to hurting other people's feelings. The probabilities are, that she made herself extremely disagreeable at home; but whatever her faults may have been, it was a strong measure to turn the poor spinster out into the dark and cold of a winter's evening. The exposure affected her health and appearance to such a degree, that although she found a shelter from the weather in Delaware Castle before twenty-four hours had passed over her head she was never the same person again. Instead of being voluble, she was silent; her bustling activity page 36gave place to slow and stately movements, which formerly were only assumed on the occasion of high festivals, but now were her only gait Doubtless the poor lady dated her rheumatism from that night's houselsess misery, but she never dreamt of acknowledging her sufferings, and took refuge in these deliberate, slow steps, to conceal her altered health. Almost the first request she made when she came to herself, under the influence of Delaware hospitality, was to be furnished with suitable attire, for her own garments were sadly draggled and torn during her wanderings.

The Baron of Delaware was no niggard, and his dame and her daughters had chests of brave kirtles and wimples and feminine finery stowed away safely. From these hoards, Dame Alicia was arranged in apparel suitable to her rank and upbringing, and she was clad in borrowed plumes during the short remainder of her life. Never was a loan so richly repaid; everything prospered about Delaware from that time forth; all went well, page 37from the alliances of its fair daughters and stalwart sons, down to the increase of the flocks and herds. No unscrupulous neighbour troubled its home; no greedy or needy sovereign pounced upon its hoarded wealth. Dame Alicia blessed it from the weathercock on the tower down to the lowest dungeon; she could not have been a bad old woman, to be so grateful for what, after all, was an act of the commonest charity in taking her in, but grateful she certainly appeared. It was not her way to speak much, unless, indeed, when her temper used to get the better of her; but she never ceased praying for her benefactors.

One unpleasant peculiarity she possessed, and that was of silently gliding out of her room, whenever she heard any of the family passing, and appearing in the hall with upraised hand, signing the holy sign, and murmuring a Latin invocation of all good gifts. Many a time and oft has she startled the burly old Baron, by suddenly, confronting him as he was crossing the corridors, page 38with perhaps rather an unsteady step, and standing before him, signing the cross and muttering rapid prayers. The old gentleman did not quite like this mode of showing gratitude, and indeed it must have been somewhat trying to his nerves. As for the housemaidens, they would not have gone through that hall, except when the bright sunlight was streaming into it through the open door, for all the wealth of the Castle. They came in for blessings too, which the silly wenches dreaded as much as if they had been the most bitter maledictions; and in spite of Dame Alicia's earnest and unceasing prayers for the welfare of all under the roof which had succoured her in her utmost need, it was a relief to everyone when the poor, ill-used' old woman made a most edifying end, and was laid in a vault in the old chapel, with every holy rite and observance.

The robm which she had occupied during her stay in the Castle, was the one that is now called the armoury, but was then used as an en-page 39trance hall. When the poor lady had been borne in there, three years before, by the Baron's strong arms, it was only a sort of withdrawing chamber, and on its rush-strewn floor she had then been laid whilst a pallet was hastily prepared by the women of the household. For three days and three nights the patient had raved and tossed and moaned, but that sickness seemed to have purged her violent temper out of her, for she never alluded to her kinsmen's ill-treatment; and when she recovered a. measure of health and strength, she prayed to be allowed to live and die in the spot where she had so painfully struggled back to existence. In this chamber, called now the Dame's room, she died peacefully, with kind faces and tender pitiful hearts around her at the last.

The day before her death, she whispered to the Baron, "Nor scaith nor harm from fire or water hall ever touch these walls."

"Well you know," said Aunt Isabel, "how often the comparatively modern additions to the Castle page 40have been burned, and yet the fire never reaches that old part! Certainly, the thickness of the stone walls may have something to do with it; but we, in these parts, firmly believe that Dame Alicia's benison is your true fire-annihilator.

"So you see, Gerty," concluded Aunt Isabel, "that your only ghost is a lucky ghost, and has nothing to do with chains and bells. Are you satisfied, child? What makes you look so serious? "

"I am thinking, Aunt Isabel, that we ought really to be more grateful to poor Dame Alicia than we seem to be; I wish there was a portrait of her in the gallery."

"Oh! there is a picture painted by that clever young Thornhill; but it hangs in the large breakfast room, which you so seldom use. I told him the legend a few years ago, and he thought, much as you do, that the barons of Delaware were not half thankful enough to the old lady for her constant benisons, so he got Alice Leigh to put on a costume which was really not very unlike the dress page 41Dame Alicia might have worn, and she sat to him for a portrait. It is a very good picture at all events, and well painted. I helped Alice with her dress; we hunted up the most wonderful stores and copied the old engravings as closely as we could. The costume is in a coffer somewhere still, I have no doubt Alice wore it at a fancy ball here in your father-in-law's time."

Lady Gertude was silent for a moment or two, and then said, "But what is it about her haunting the place? Is she ever seen now?"

"Well, people declare that she has been seen, and quite lately too. When poor dear Mary Delaware came home as a bride, there was a great uproar, I remember, because some person crossing that old armoury one moonlight night about nine or ten o'clock—long before the proper time for ghosts to come out and walk—vowed that they heard, as well as saw, the door of the Dame's room open, and a tall, stately figure come forth, with uplifted right hand and solemn prayerful face; and page 42for weeks afterwards the maids used to scurry-across the armoury, as if all the old suits of armour had goblin knights inside them and were at their heels. Your father-in-law had the position of some of the effigies changed, in order to let more light into the hall; Sir Guy was moved from his old place in front of a window, and he now stands just before the Dame's door."

"Is there room to pass, Aunt Isabel? I mean, can you get in and out of that old room?"

"I daresay you can, dear, but I never tried. Why do you want to know?"

Lady Gertrude had been standing thoughtfully before the fire, holding first one foot and then the other up to its comforting blaze, but she now turned away with a sudden bright smile, and knelt down by the old lady, putting her arms round her neck and whispering—

"Because I have an idea, dear Auntie, but I must see what Percy thinks of it before I tell you what it is."

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"That is a pretty way of letting me know you don't want to hear any more about Dame Alicia to-night. Well, I am quite willing to cease storytelling for the present, and I think you have let me off rather easily, for it is not much past twelve, I fancy—so, good night, dear."