ST. Ives

Page 34

Whatever may have been the cause, at least, I had scarce finished my compliment before we were aware of a thump upon the ceiling overhead. It was to be thought some very solid body had descended to the floor from the level (possibly) of a bed. I have never seen consternation painted in more lively colours than on the faces of my hosts. It was proposed to smuggle me forth into the garden, or to conceal my form under a horsehair sofa which stood against the wall. For the first expedient, as was now plain by the approaching footsteps, there was no longer time; from the second I recoiled with indignation.

'My dear creatures,' said I, 'let us die, but do not let us be ridiculous.'

The words were still upon my lips when the door opened and my friend of the gold eyeglass appeared, a memorable figure, on the threshold. In one hand she bore a bedroom candlestick; in the other, with the steadiness of a dragoon, a horse-pistol. She was wound about in shawls which did not wholly conceal the candid fabric of her nightdress, and surmounted by a nightcap of portentous architecture. Thus accoutred, she made her entrance; laid down the candle and pistol, as no longer called for; looked about the room with a silence more eloquent than oaths; and then, in a thrilling voice--'To whom have I the pleasure?' she said, addressing me with a ghost of a bow.

'Madam, I am charmed, I am sure,' said I. 'The story is a little long; and our meeting, however welcome, was for the moment entirely unexpected by myself. I am sure--' but here I found I was quite sure of nothing, and tried again. 'I have the honour,' I began, and found I had the honour to be only exceedingly confused. With that, I threw myself outright upon her mercy. 'Madam, I must be more frank with you,' I resumed. 'You have already proved your charity and compassion for the French prisoners, I am one of these; and if my appearance be not too much changed, you may even yet recognise in me that ODDITY who had the good fortune more than once to make you smile.'

Still gazing upon me through her glass, she uttered an uncompromising grunt; and then, turning to her niece--'Flora,' said she, 'how comes he here?'

The culprits poured out for a while an antiphony of explanations, which died out at last in a miserable silence.

'I think at least you might have told your aunt,' she snorted.

'Madam,' I interposed, 'they were about to do so. It is my fault if it be not done already. But I made it my prayer that your slumbers might be respected, and this necessary formula of my presentation should be delayed until to-morrow in the morning.'

The old lady regarded me with undissembled incredulity, to which I was able to find no better repartee than a profound and I trust graceful reverence.

'French prisoners are very well in their place,' she said, 'but I cannot see that their place is in my private dining-room.'

'Madam,' said I, 'I hope it may be said without offence, but (except the Castle of Edinburgh) I cannot think upon the spot from which I would so readily be absent.'

At this, to my relief, I thought I could perceive a vestige of a smile to steal upon that iron countenance and to be bitten immediately in.

'And if it is a fair question, what do they call ye?' she asked.

'At your service, the Vicomte Anne de St.-Yves,' said I.

'Mosha the Viscount,' said she, 'I am afraid you do us plain people a great deal too much honour.'

'My dear lady,' said I, 'let us be serious for a moment. What was I to do? Where was I to go? And how can you be angry with these benevolent children who took pity on one so unfortunate as myself? Your humble servant is no such terrific adventurer that you should come out against him with horse-pistol and'--smiling--'bedroom candlesticks. It is but a young gentleman in extreme distress, hunted upon every side, and asking no more than to escape from his pursuers. I know your character, I read it in your face'--the heart trembled in my body as I said these daring words. 'There are unhappy English prisoners in France at this day, perhaps at this hour.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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