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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPortent - Chapter 21. Hilton
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Portent - Chapter 21. Hilton Post by :Mario Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :3355

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Portent - Chapter 21. Hilton

CHAPTER XXI. Hilton

It was a dark, drizzling night when I arrived at the little village of Hilton, within a mile of the Hall. I knew a respectable second-rate inn on the side next the Hall, to which the gardener and other servants had been in the habit of repairing of an evening; and I thought I might there stumble upon some information, especially as the old-fashioned place had a large kitchen in which all sorts of guests met. When I reflected on the utter change which time, weather, and a great scar must have made upon me, I feared no recognition. But what was my surprise when, by one of those coincidences which have so often happened to me, I found in the ostler one of my own troop at Waterloo! His countenance and salute convinced me that he recognised me. I said to him:

"I know you perfectly, Wood; but you must not know me. I will go with you to the stable."

He led the way instantly.

"Wood," I said, when we had reached the shelter of the stable, "I don't want to be known here, for reasons which I will explain to you another time."

"Very well, sir. You may depend on me, sir."

"I know I may, and I shall. Do you know anybody about the Hall?"

"Yes, sir. The gardener comes here sometimes, sir. I believe he's in the house now. Shall I ask him to step this way, sir?"

"No. All I want is to learn who is at the Hall now. Will you get him talking? I shall be by, having something to drink."

"Yes, sir. As soon as I have rubbed down the old horse, sir--bless him!"

"You'll find me there."

I went in, and, with my condition for an excuse, ordered something hot by the kitchen-fire. Several country people were sitting about it. They made room for me, and I took my place at a table on one side. I soon discovered the gardener, although time had done what he could to disguise him. Wood came in presently, and, loitering about, began to talk to him.

"What's the last news at the Hall, William?" he said.

"News!" answered the old man, somewhat querulously. "There's never nothing but news up there, and very new-fangled news, too. What do you think, now, John? They do talk of turning all them greenhouses into hothouses; for, to be sure, there's nothing the new missus cares about but just the finest grapes in the country; and the flowers, purty creatures, may go to the devil for her. There's a lady for ye!"

"But you'll be glad to have her home, and see what she's like, won't you? It's rather dull up there now, isn't it?"

"I don't know what you call dull," replied the old man, as if half offended at the suggestion. "I don't believe a soul missed his lordship when he died; and there's always Mrs. Blakesley and me, as is the best friends in the world, besides the three maids and the stableman, who helps me in the garden, now there's no horses. And then there's Jacob and--"

"But you don't mean," said Wood, interrupting him, "that there's _none o' the family at home now?"

"No. Who should there be? Least ways, only the poor lady. And she hardly counts now--bless her sweet face!"

"Do you ever see her?" interposed one of the by-sitters.

"Sometimes."

"Is she quite crazy?"

"Al-to-gether; but that quiet _and gentle, you would think she was an angel instead of a mad woman. But not a notion has she in _her head, no more than the babe unborn."

It was a dreadful shock to me. Was this to be the end of all? Were it not better she had died? For me, life was worthless now. And there were no wars, with the chance of losing it honestly.

I rose, and went to my own room. As I sat in dull misery by the fire, it struck me that it might not have been Lady Alice after all that the old man spoke about. That moment a tap came to my door, and Wood entered. After a few words, I asked him who was the lady the gardener had said was crazy.

"Lady Alice," he answered, and added: "A love story, that came to a bad end up at the Hall years ago. A tutor was in it, they say. But I don't know the rights of it."

When he left me, I sat in a cold stupor, in which the thoughts--if thoughts they could be called--came and went of themselves. Overcome by the appearances of things--as what man the strongest may not sometimes be?--I felt as if I had lost her utterly, as if there was no Lady Alice anywhere, and as if, to add to the vacant horror of the world without her, a shadow of her, a goblin _simulacrum_, soul-less, unreal, yet awfully like her, went wandering about the place which had once been glorified by her presence--as to the eyes of seers the phantoms of events which have happened years before are still visible, clinging to the room in which they have indeed _taken place_. But, in a little while, something warm began to throb and flow in my being; and I thought that if she were dead, I should love her still; that now she was not worse than dead; it was only that her soul was out of sight. Who could tell but it might be wandering in worlds of too noble shapes and too high a speech, to permit of representation in the language of the world in which her bodily presentation remained, and therefore her speech and behaviour seemed to men to be mad? Nay, was it not in some sense better for me that it should be so? To see once the pictured likeness of her of whom I had no such memorial, would I not give years of my poverty-stricken life? And here was such a statue of her, as that of his wife which the widowed king was bending before, when he said:--

"What fine chisel
Could ever yet cut breath?"


This statue I might see, "looking like an angel," as the gardener had said. And, while the bond of visibility remained, must not the soul be, somehow, nearer to the earth, than if the form lay decaying beneath it? Was there not some possibility that the love for whose sake the reason had departed, might be able to recall that reason once more to the windows of sense,--make it look forth at those eyes, and lie listening in the recesses of those ears? In her somnambulic sleeps, the present body was the sign that the soul was within reach: so it might be still.

Mrs. Blakesley was still at the lodge, then: I would call upon her to-morrow. I went to bed, and dreamed all night that Alice was sitting somewhere in a land "full of dark mountains," and that I was wandering about in the darkness, alternately calling and listening; sometimes fancying I heard a faint reply, which might be her voice or an echo of my own; but never finding her. I woke in an outburst of despairing tears, and my despair was not comforted by my waking.

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