We followed the cortege with our eyes until it was swiftly lost to sight in the misty wood; and the very sound of the hoofs and the wheels died away in the silent night air.
Nothing remained to assure us that the adventure had not been an illusion of a moment but the young lady, who just at that moment opened her eyes. I could not see, for her face was turned from me, but she raised her head, evidently looking about her, and I heard a very sweet voice ask complainingly, “Where is mamma?”
Our good Madame Perrodon answered tenderly, and added some comfortable assurances.
I then heard her ask:
“Where am I? What is this place?” and after that she said, “I don’t see the carriage; and Matska, where is she?”
Madame answered all her questions in so far as she understood them; and gradually the young lady remembered how the misadventure came about, and was glad to hear that no one in, or in attendance on, the carriage was hurt; and on learning that her mamma had left her here, till her return in about three months, she wept.
I was going to add my consolations to those of Madame Perrodon when Mademoiselle De Lafontaine placed her hand upon my arm, saying:
“Don’t approach, one at a time is as much as she can at present converse with; a very little excitement would possibly overpower her now.”
As soon as she is comfortably in bed, I thought, I will run up to her room and see her.
My father in the meantime had sent a servant on horseback for the physician, who lived about two leagues away; and a bedroom was being prepared for the young lady’s reception.
The stranger now rose, and leaning on Madame’s arm, walked slowly over the drawbridge and into the castle gate.
In the hall, servants waited to receive her, and she was conducted forthwith to her room. The room we usually sat in as our drawing-room is long, having four windows, that looked over the moat and drawbridge, upon the forest scene I have just described.
It is furnished in old carved oak, with large carved cabinets, and the chairs are cushioned with crimson Utrecht velvet. The walls are covered with tapestry, and surrounded with great gold frames, the figures being as large as life, in ancient and very curious costume, and the subjects represented are hunting, hawking, and generally festive. It is not too stately to be extremely comfortable; and here we had our tea, for with his usual patriotic leanings he insisted that the national beverage should make its appearance regularly with our coffee and chocolate.
We sat here this night, and with candles lighted, were talking over the adventure of the evening.
Madame Perrodon and Mademoiselle De Lafontaine were both of our party. The young stranger had hardly lain down in her bed when she sank into a deep sleep; and those ladies had left her in the care of a servant.
“How do you like our guest?” I asked, as soon as Madame entered. “Tell me all about her?”
“I like her extremely,” answered Madame, “she is, I almost think, the prettiest creature I ever saw; about your age, and so gentle and nice.”
“She is absolutely beautiful,” threw in Mademoiselle, who had peeped for a moment into the stranger’s room.
“And such a sweet voice!” added Madame Perrodon.
“Did you remark a woman in the carriage, after it was set up again, who did not get out,” inquired Mademoiselle, “but only looked from the window?”
“No, we had not seen her.”
Then she described a hideous black woman, with a sort of coloured turban on her head. and who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively towards the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eye-balls, and her teeth set as if in fury.
“Did you remark what an ill-looking pack of men the servants were?” asked Madame.
“Yes,” said my father, who had just come in, “ugly, hang-dog looking fellows. as ever I beheld in my life. I hope they mayn’t rob the poor lady in the forest. They are clever rogues, however; they got everything to rights in a minute.”
“I dare say they are worn out with too long travelling— said Madame. ”Besides looking wicked, their faces were so strangely lean, and dark, and sullen. I am very curious, I own; but I dare say the young lady will tell you all about it to-morrow, if she is sufficiently recovered.“
“I don’t think she will,” said my father, with a mysterious smile, and a little nod of his head, as if he knew more about it than he cared to tell us.
This made us all the more inquisitive as to what had passed between him and the lady in the black velvet, in the brief but earnest interview that had immediately preceded her departure.
We were scarcely alone, when I entreated him to tell me. He did not need much pressing.
“There is no particular reason why I should not tell you. She expressed a reluctance to trouble us with the care of her daughter, saying she was in delicate health, and nervous, but not subject to any kind of seizure—she volunteered that— nor to any illusion; being, in fact, perfectly sane.”
“How very odd to say all that!” I interpolated. “It was so unnecessary.”
“At all events it was said,” he laughed, “and as you wish to know all that passed, which was indeed very little, I tell you. She then said, ‘I am making a long journey of vital importance—she emphasized the word—rapid and secret; I shall return for my child in three months; in the meantime, she will be silent as to who we are, whence we come, and whither we are travelling.’ That is all she said. She spoke very pure French. When she said the word ‘secret,’ she paused for a few seconds, looking sternly, her eyes fixed on mine. I fancy she makes a great point of that. You saw how quickly she was gone. I hope I have not done a very foolish thing, in taking charge of the young lady.”
For my part, I was delighted. I was longing to see and talk to her; and only waiting till the doctor should give me leave. You, who live in towns, can have no idea how great an event the introduction of a new friend is, in such a solitude as surrounded us.
The doctor did not arrive till nearly one o’clock; but I could no more have gone to my bed and slept, than I could have overtaken, on foot, the carriage in which the princess in black velvet had driven away.
When the physician came down to the drawing-room, it was to report very favourably upon his patient. She was now sitting up, her pulse quite regular, apparently perfectly well. She had sustained no injury, and the little shock to her nerves had passed away quite harmlessly. There could be no harm certainly in my seeing her, if we both wished it; and, with this permission I sent, forthwith, to know whether she would allow me to visit her for a few minutes in her room.
The servant returned immediately to say that she desired nothing more.
You may be sure I was not long in availing myself of this permission.
Our visitor lay in one of the handsomest rooms in the schloss. It was, perhaps, a little stately. There was a sombre piece of tapestry opposite the foot of the bed, representing Cleopatra with the asps to her bosom; and other solemn classic scenes were displayed, a little faded, upon the other walls. But there was gold carving, and rich and varied colour enough in the other decorations of the room, to more than redeem the gloom of the old tapestry.
There were candles at the bed-side. She was sitting up; her slender pretty figure enveloped in the soft silk dressing-gown, embroidered with flowers, and lined with thick quilted silk, which her mother had thrown over her feet as she lay upon the ground.
What was it that, as I reached the bed-side and had just begun my little greeting, struck me dumb in a moment, and made me recoil a step or two from before her? I will tell you.
I saw the very face which had visited me in my childhood at night, which remained so fixed in my memory, and on which I had for so many years so often ruminated with horror, when no one suspected of what I was thinking.
It was pretty, even beautiful; and when I first beheld it, wore the same melancholy expression.
But this almost instantly lighted into a strange fixed smile of recognition.
There was a silence of fully a minute, and then at length she spoke; I could not.
“How wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Twelve years ago, I saw your face in a dream, and it has haunted me ever since.”
“Wonderful indeed!” I repeated, overcoming with an effort the horror that had for a time suspended my utterances. “Twelve years ago, in vision or reality, I certainly saw you. I could not forget your face. It has remained before my eyes ever since.”
Her smile had softened. Whatever I had fancied strange in it, was gone, and it and her dimpling cheeks were now delightfully pretty and intelligent.
I felt reassured, and continued more in the vein which hospitality indicated, to bid her welcome, and to tell her how much pleasure her accidental arrival had given us all, and especially what a happiness it was to me.
I took her hand as I spoke. I was a little shy, as lonely people are, but the situation made me eloquent, and even bold. She pressed my hand, she laid hers upon it, and her eyes glowed, as, looking hastily into mine, she smiled again, and blushed.
She answered my welcome very prettily. I sat down beside her, still wondering; and she said:
“I must tell you my vision about you; it is so very strange that you and I should have had, each of the other so vivid a dream, that each should have seen, I you and you me, looking as we do now, when of course we both were mere children. I was a child, about six years old, and I awoke from a confused and troubled dream, and found myself in a room, unlike my nursery, wainscoted clumsily in some dark wood, and with cupboards and bedsteads, and chairs, and benches placed about it. The beds were, I thought, all empty, and the room itself without anyone but myself in it; and I, after looking about me for some time, and admiring especially an iron candlestick with two branches, which I should certainly know again, crept under one of the beds to reach the window; but as I got from under the bed, I heard someone crying; and looking up, while I was still upon my knees, I saw you—most assuredly you—as I see you now; a beautiful young lady, with golden hair and large blue eyes, and lips— your lips—you as you are here. Your looks won me; I climbed on the bed and put my arms about you, and I think we both fell asleep. I was aroused by a scream; you were sitting up screaming. I was frightened, and slipped down upon the ground, and, it seemed to me, lost consciousness for a moment; and when I came to myself, I was again in my nursery at home. Your face I have never forgotten since. I could not be misled by mere resemblance. You are the lady whom I saw then.”
It was now my turn to relate my corresponding vision, which I did, to the undisguised wonder of my new acquaintance.
“I don’t know which should be most afraid of the other,” she said, again smiling—“If you were less pretty I think I should be very much afraid of you, but being as you are, and you and I both so young, I feel only that I have made your acquaintance twelve years ago, and have already a right to your intimacy; at all events it does seem as if we were destined, from our earliest childhood, to be friends. I wonder whether you feel as strangely drawn towards me as I do to you; I have never had a friend—shall I find one now?” She sighed, and her fine dark eyes gazed passionately on me.
Now the truth is, I felt rather unaccountably towards the the beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, “drawn towards her,” but there was also something of repulsion. In this ambiguous feeling, however, the sense of attraction immensely prevailed. She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging.
I perceived now something of languor and exhaustion stealing over her, and hastened to bid her good night.
“The doctor thinks,” I added, “that you ought to have a maid to sit up with you to-night; one of ours is waiting, and you will find her a very useful and quiet creature.”
“How kind of you, but I could not sleep, I never could with an attendant in the room. I shan’t require any assistance— and, shall I confess my weakness, I am haunted with a terror of robbers. Our house was robbed once, and two servants murdered, so I always lock my door. It has become a habit—and you look so kind I know you will forgive me. I see there is a key in the lock.”
She held me close in her pretty arms for a moment and whispered in my ear, “Good night, darling, it is very hard to part with you, but good night; to-morrow, but not early, I shall see you again.”
She sank back on the pillow with a sigh, and her fine eyes followed me with a fond and melancholy gaze, and she murmured again “Good night, dear friend.”
Young people like, and even love, on impulse. I was flattered by the evident, though as yet undeserved, fondness she showed me. I liked the confidence with which she at once received me. She was determined that we should be very near friends.
Next day came and we met again. I was delighted with my companion; that is to say, in many respects.
Her looks lost nothing in daylight—she was certainly the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, and the unpleasant remembrance of the face presented in my early dream, had lost the effect of the first unexpected recognition.
She confessed that she had experienced a similar shock on seeing me, and precisely the same faint antipathy that had mingled with my admiration of her. We now laughed together over our momentary horrors.