Louisa May Alcott.

Kitty's Class Day and Other Stories online

. (page 13 of 18)
Online LibraryLouisa May AlcottKitty's Class Day and Other Stories → online text (page 13 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


of merriment, humility, and anxiety in his tone, -

"Mademoiselle, you are quick to discover my disguise; will you also be
kind in concealing? I have enemies as well as friends, whom I desire
to escape: I would earn my bread unknown; Monsieur le Major keeps my
foolish secret; may I hope for equal goodness from yourself?"

"You may, I do not forget that I owe my life to you, nor that you are
a gentleman. Trust me, I never will betray you."

"Thanks, thanks! there will come a time when I may confess the truth
and be myself, but not yet," and his regretful tone was emphasized by
an impatient gesture, as if concealment was irksome.

"Nell, come down to lunch; uncle is signalling as if he'd gone mad.
No, monsieur, it is quite impossible; you cannot reach the harebells
without risking too much; come away and forget that I wanted them."

Amy led the way, and all went down more quietly than they came up,
especially Helen and Hoffman. An excellent lunch waited on one of the
tables in front of the old gateway, and having done justice to it, the
major made himself comfortable with a cigar, bidding the girls keep
near, for they must be off in half an hour. Hoffman went to see to the
horses, Casimer strolled away with him, and the young ladies went to
gather wild flowers at the foot of the tower.

"Not a harebell here; isn't it provoking, when they grow in tufts up
there, where one can't reach them. Mercy, what's that? Run, Nell, the
old wall is coming down!"

Both had been grubbing in a damp nook, where ferns and mosses grew
luxuriantly; the fall of a bit of stone and a rending sound above made
them fly back to the path and look up.

Amy covered her eyes, and Helen grew pale, for part way down the
crumbling tower, clinging like a bird to the thick ivy stems, hung
Casimer, coolly gathering harebells from the clefts of the wall.

"Hush; don't cry out or speak; it may startle him. Crazy boy! Let us
see what he will do," whispered Helen.

"He can't go back, the vines are so torn and weak; and how will he get
down the lower wall? for you see the ivy grows up from that ledge, and
there is nothing below. How could he do it? I was only joking when I
lamented that there were no knights now, ready to leap into a lion's
den for a lady's glove," returned Amy, half angry.

In breathless silence they watched the climber till his cap was full
of flowers, and taking it between his teeth, he rapidly swung down to
the wide ledge, from which there appeared to be no way of escape but a
reckless leap of many feet on to the turf below.

The girls stood in the shadow of an old gateway, unperceived, and
waited anxiously what should follow.

Lightly folding and fastening the cap together, he dropped it down,
and, leaning forward, tried to catch the top of a young birch rustling
close by the wall. Twice he missed it; the first time he frowned, but
the second he uttered an emphatic, "Deuce take it!"

Helen and Amy looked at each other with a mutual smile and
exclamation, -

"He knows some English, then!"

There was time for no more - a violent rustle, a boyish laugh, and down
swung the slender tree, with the young man clinging to the top.

As he landed safely, Helen cried, "Bravo!" and Amy rushed out,
exclaiming reproachfully, yet admiringly, -

"How could you do it and frighten us so? I shall never express a wish
before you again, for if I wanted the moon you'd rashly try to get it,
I know."

"_Certainement_, mademoiselle," was the smiling reply. Casimer
presented the flowers, as if the exploit was a mere trifle.

"Now I shall go and press them at once in uncle's guide-book. Come and
help me, else you will be in mischief again." And Amy led the way to
the major with her flowers and their giver.

Helen roamed into one of the ruined courts for a last look at a
fountain which pleased her eye. A sort of cloister ran round the
court, open on both sides, and standing in one of these arched nooks,
she saw Hoffman and a young girl talking animatedly. The girl was
pretty, well dressed, and seemed refusing something for which
the other pleaded eagerly. His arm was about her, and she leaned
affectionately upon him, with a white hand now and then caressing his
face, which was full of sparkle and vivacity now. They seemed about to
part as Helen looked, for the maiden standing on tiptoe, laughingly
offered her blooming cheek, and as Karl kissed it warmly, he said in
German, so audibly Helen heard every word, -

"Farewell, my Ludmilla. Keep silent and I shall soon be with you.
Embrace the little one, and do not let him forget me."

Both left the place as they spoke, each going a different way, and
Helen slowly returned to her party, saying to herself in a troubled
tone, -

"'Ludmilla' and 'the little one' are his wife and child, doubtless. I
wonder if uncle knows that."

When Hoffman next appeared she could not resist looking at him; but
the accustomed gravity was resumed, and nothing remained of the glow
and brightness he had worn when with Ludmilla in the cloister.


VI

CHATEAU DE LA TOUR


Helen looked serious and Amy indignant when their uncle joined them,
ready to set out by the afternoon train, all having dined and rested
after the morning's excursion.

"Well, little girls, what's the matter now?" he asked, paternally, for
the excellent man adored his nieces.

"Helen says it's not best to go on with the Pole, and is perfectly
nonsensical, uncle," began Amy, petulantly, and not very coherently.

"Better be silly now than sorry by and by. I only suggested that,
being interesting, and Amy romantic, she might find this young man too
charming, if we see too much of him," said Helen.

"Bless my soul, what an idea!" cried the major. "Why, Nell, he's an
invalid, a Catholic, and a foreigner, any one of which objections are
enough to settle that matter. Little Amy isn't so foolish as to be in
danger of losing her heart to a person so entirely out of the question
as this poor lad, is she?"

"Of course not. _You_ do me justice, uncle. Nell thinks she may pity
and pet any one she likes because she is five years older than I,
and entirely forgets that she is a great deal more attractive than a
feeble thing like me. I should as soon think of losing my heart to
Hoffman as to the Pole, even if he wasn't what he is. One may surely
be kind to a dying man, without being accused of coquetry;" and Amy
sobbed in the most heart-rending manner.

Helen comforted her by withdrawing all objections, and promising
to leave the matter in the major's hands. But she shook her head
privately when she saw the ill-disguised eagerness with which her
cousin glanced up and down the platform after they were in the train,
and she whispered to her uncle, unobserved, -

"Leave future meetings to chance, and don't ask the Pole in, if you
can help it."

"Nonsense, my dear. You are as particular as your aunt. The lad amuses
me, and you can't deny you like to nurse sick heroes," was all the
answer she got, as the major, with true masculine perversity, put his
head out of the window and hailed Casimer as he was passing with a
bow.

"Here, Teblinski, my good fellow, don't desert us. We've always a
spare seat for you, if you haven't pleasanter quarters."

With a flush of pleasure the young man came up, but hesitated to
accept the invitation till Helen seconded it with a smile of welcome.

Amy was in an injured mood, and, shrouded in a great blue veil,
pensively reclined in her corner as if indifferent to everything about
her. But soon the cloud passed, and she emerged in a radiant state of
good humor, which lasted unbroken until the journey ended.

For two days they went on together, a very happy party, for the major
called in Hoffman to see his friend and describe the places through
which they passed. An arrangement very agreeable to all, as Karl was a
favorite, and every one missed him when away.

At Lausanne they waited while he crossed the lake to secure rooms at
Vevay. On his return he reported that all the hotels and _pensions_
were full, but that at La Tour he had secured rooms for a few weeks in
a quaint old chateau on the banks of the lake.

"Count Severin is absent in Egypt, and the housekeeper has permission
to let the apartments to transient visitors. The suite of rooms I
speak of were engaged to a party who are detained by sickness - they
are cheap, pleasant, and comfortable. A _salon_ and four bed-rooms. I
engaged them all, thinking that Teblinski might like a room there till
he finds lodgings at Montreaux. We can enter at once, and I am sure
the ladies will approve of the picturesque place."

"Well done, Hoffman; off we go without delay, for I really long to
rest my old bones in something like a home, after this long trip,"
said the major, who always kept his little troop in light marching
order.

The sail across that loveliest of lakes prepared the new-comers to be
charmed with all they saw; and when, entering by the old stone gate,
they were led into a large saloon, quaintly furnished and opening into
a terrace-garden overhanging the water, with Chillon and the Alps in
sight, Amy declared nothing could be more perfect, and Helen's face
proved her satisfaction.

An English widow and two quiet old German professors on a vacation
were the only inmates besides themselves and the buxom Swiss
housekeeper and her maids.

It was late when our party arrived, and there was only time for a
hasty survey of their rooms and a stroll in the garden before dinner.

The great chamber, with its shadowy bed, dark mirrors, ghostly
wainscot-doors and narrow windows, had not been brightened for a long
time by such a charming little apparition as Amy when she shook out
her airy muslins, smoothed her curls, and assumed all manner of
distracting devices for the captivation of mankind. Even Helen, though
not much given to personal vanity, found herself putting flowers in
her hair, and studying the effect of bracelets on her handsome arms,
as if there was some especial need of looking her best on this
occasion.

Both were certainly great ornaments to the drawing-room that evening,
as the old professors agreed while they sat blinking at them, like a
pair of benign owls. Casimer surprised them by his skill in music,
for, though forbidden to sing on account of his weak lungs, he
played as if inspired. Amy hovered about him like a moth; the major
cultivated the acquaintance of the plump widow; and Helen stood at the
window, enjoying the lovely night and music, till something happened
which destroyed her pleasure in both.

The window was open, and, leaning from it, she was watching the lake,
when the sound of a heavy sigh caught her ear. There was no moon, but
through the starlight she saw a man's figure among the shrubs below,
sitting with bent head and hidden face in the forlorn attitude of one
shut out from the music, light, and gayety that reigned within.

"It is Karl," she thought, and was about to speak, when, as if
startled by some sound she did not hear, he rose and vanished in the
gloom of the garden.

"Poor man! he thought of his wife and child, perhaps, sitting here
alone while all the rest make merry, with no care for him. Uncle must
see to this;" and Helen fell into a reverie till Amy came to propose
retiring.

"I meant to have seen where all these doors led, but was so busy
dressing I had no time, so must leave it for my amusement to-morrow.
Uncle says it's a very Radcliffian place. How like an angel that man
did play!" chattered Amy, and lulled herself to sleep by humming the
last air Casimer had given them.

Helen could not sleep, for the lonely figure in the garden haunted
her, and she wearied herself with conjectures about Hoffman and his
mystery. Hour after hour rung from the cuckoo-clock in the hall, but
still she lay awake, watching the curious shadows in the room, and
exciting herself with recalling the tales of German goblins with which
the courier had amused them the day before.

"It is close and musty here, with all this old tapestry and stuff
about; I'll open the other window," she thought; and, noiselessly
slipping from Amy's side, she threw on wrapper and slippers, lighted
her candle and tried to unbolt the tall, diamond-paned lattice. It was
rusty and would not yield, and, giving it up, she glanced about to see
whence air could be admitted. There were four doors in the room, all
low and arched, with clumsy locks and heavy handles. One opened into
a closet, one into the passage; the third was locked, but the fourth
opened easily, and, lifting her light, she peeped into a small octagon
room, full of all manner of curiosities. What they were she had no
time to see, for her startled eyes were riveted on an object that
turned her faint and cold with terror.

A heavy table stood in the middle of the room, and seated at it,
with some kind of weapon before him, was a man who looked over his
shoulder, with a ghastly face half hidden by hair and beard, and
fierce black eyes as full of malignant menace as was the clinched hand
holding the pistol. One instant Helen looked, the next flung to the
door, bolted it and dropped into a chair, trembling in every limb. The
noise did not wake Amy, and a moment's thought showed Helen the wisdom
of keeping her in ignorance of this affair. She knew the major was
close by, and possessing much courage, she resolved to wait a little
before rousing the house.

Hardly had she collected herself, when steps were heard moving softly
in the octagon room. Her light had gone out as she closed the door,
and sitting close by in the dark, she heard the sound of some one
breathing as he listened at the key-hole. Then a careful hand tried
the door, so noiselessly that no sleeper would have been awakened; and
as if to guard against a second surprise, the unknown person drew two
bolts across the door and stole away.

"Safe for a time; but I'll not pass another night under this roof,
unless this is satisfactorily cleared up," thought Helen, now feeling
more angry than frightened.

The last hour that struck was three, and soon the summer dawn reddened
the sky. Dressing herself, Helen sat by Amy, a sleepless guard, till
she woke, smiling and rosy as a child. Saying nothing of her last
night's alarm, Helen went down to breakfast a little paler than usual,
but otherwise unchanged. The major never liked to be disturbed till
he had broken his fast, and the moment they rose from the table he
exclaimed, -

"Now, girls, come and see the mysteries of Udolpho."

"I'll say nothing, yet," thought Helen, feeling braver by daylight,
yet troubled by her secret, for Hoffman might be a traitor, and this
charming chateau a den of thieves. Such things had been, and she was
in a mood to believe anything.

The upper story was a perfect museum of antique relics, very
entertaining to examine. Having finished these, Hoffman, who acted as
guide, led them into a little gloomy room containing a straw pallet,
a stone table with a loaf and pitcher on it, and, kneeling before a
crucifix, where the light from a single slit in the wall fell on him,
was the figure of a monk. The waxen mask was life-like, the attitude
effective, and the cell excellently arranged. Amy cried out when she
first saw it, but a second glance reassured her, and she patted the
bald head approvingly, as Karl explained. -

"Count Severin is an antiquarian, and amuses himself with things of
this sort. In old times there really was a hermit here, and this is
his effigy. Come down these narrow stairs, if you please, and see the
rest of the mummery."

Down they went, and the instant Helen looked about her, she burst into
a hysterical laugh, for there sat her ruffian, exactly as she saw him,
glaring over his shoulder with threatening eyes, and one hand on the
pistol. They all looked at her, for she was pale, and her merriment
unnatural; so, feeling she had excited curiosity, she gratified it by
narrating her night's adventure. Hoffman looked much concerned.

"Pardon, mademoiselle, the door should have been bolted on this
side. It usually is, but that room being unused, it was forgotten. I
remembered it, and having risen early, crept up to make sure that you
did not come upon this ugly thing unexpectedly. But I was too late, it
seems; you have suffered, to my sorrow."

"Dear Nell, and that was why I found you so pale and cold and quiet,
sitting by me when I woke, guarding me faithfully as you promised you
would. How brave and kind you were!"

"Villain! I should much like to fire your own pistols at you for this
prank of yours."

And Casimer laughingly filliped the image on its absurdly aquiline
nose.

"What in the name of common sense is this goblin here for?" demanded
the major, testily.

"There is a legend that once the owner of the chateau amused himself
by decoying travellers here, putting them to sleep in that room, and
by various devices alluring them thither. Here, one step beyond the
threshold of the door, was a trap, down which the unfortunates were
precipitated to the dungeon at the bottom of the tower, there to die
and be cast into the lake through a water-gate, still to be seen.
Severin keeps this flattering likeness of the rascal, as he does
the monk above, to amuse visitors by daylight, not at night,
mademoiselle."

And Hoffman looked wrathfully at the image, as if he would much enjoy
sending it down the trap.

"How ridiculous! I shall not go about this place alone, for fear of
lighting upon some horror of this sort. I've had enough; come away
into the garden; it's full of roses, and we may have as many as we
like."

As she spoke Amy involuntarily put out her hand for Casimer to lead
her down the steep stone steps, and he pressed the little hand with a
tender look which caused it to be hastily withdrawn.

"Here are your roses. Pretty flower; I know its meaning in English,
for it is the same with us. To give a bud to a lady is to confess
the beginning of love, a half open one tells of its growth, and a
full-blown one is to declare one's passion. Do you have that custom in
your land, mademoiselle?"

He had gathered the three as he spoke, and held the bud separately
while looking at his companion wistfully.

"No, we are not poetical, like your people, but it is a pretty fancy,"
and Amy settled her bouquet with an absorbed expression, though
inwardly wondering what he would do with his flowers.

He stood silent a moment, with a sudden flush sweeping across his
face, then flung all three into the lake with a gesture that made the
girl start, and muttered between his teeth:

"No, no; for me it is too late."

She affected not to hear, but making up a second bouquet, she gave
it to him, with no touch of coquetry in compassionate eyes or gentle
voice.

"Make your room bright with these. When one is ill nothing is so
cheering as the sight of flowers."

Meantime the others had descended and gone their separate ways.

As Karl crossed the courtyard a little child ran to meet him with
outstretched arms and a shout of satisfaction. He caught it up and
carried it away on his shoulder, like one used to caress and be
caressed by children.

Helen, waiting at the door of the tower while the major dusted his
coat, saw this, and said, suddenly, directing his attention to man and
child, -

"He seems fond of little people. I wonder if he has any of his own."

"Hoffman? No, my dear; he's not married; I asked him that when I
engaged him."

"And he said he was not?"

"Yes; he's not more than five or six-and-twenty, and fond of a
wandering life, so what should he want of a wife and a flock of
bantlings?"

"He seems sad and sober sometimes, and I fancied he might have some
domestic trouble to harass him. Don't you think there is something
peculiar about him?" asked Helen, remembering Hoffman's hint that her
uncle knew his wish to travel incognito, and wondering if he would
throw any light upon the matter. But the major's face was impenetrable
and his answer unsatisfactory.

"Well, I don't know. Every one has some worry or other, and as for
being peculiar, all foreigners seem more or less so to us, they are so
unreserved and demonstrative. I like Hoffman more and more every day,
and shall be sorry when I part with him."

"Ludmilla is his sister, then, or he didn't tell uncle the truth. It
is no concern of mine; but I wish I knew," thought Helen anxiously,
and then wondered why she should care.

A feeling of distrust had taken possession of her and she determined
to be on the watch, for the unsuspicious major would be easily duped,
and Helen trusted more to her own quick and keen eye than to his
experience. She tried to show nothing of the change in her manner: but
Hoffman perceived it, and bore it with a proud patience which often
touched her heart, but never altered her purpose.


VII

AT FAULT


Four weeks went by so rapidly that every one refused to believe it
when the major stated the fact at the breakfast-table, for all had
enjoyed themselves so heartily that they had been unconscious of the
lapse of time.

"You are not going away, uncle?" cried Amy, with a panic-stricken
look.

"Next week, my dear; we must be off, for we've much to do yet, and I
promised mamma to bring you back by the end of October."

"Never mind Paris and the rest of it; this is pleasanter. I'd rather
stay here - "

There Amy checked herself and tried to hide her face behind her
coffee-cup, for Casimer looked up in a way that made her heart flutter
and her cheeks burn.

"Sorry for it, Amy; but go we must, so enjoy your last week with all
your might, and come again next year."

"It will never be again what it is now," sighed Amy; and Casimer
echoed the words "next year," as if sadly wondering if the present
year would not be his last.

Helen rose silently and went into the garden, for of late she had
fallen into the way of reading and working in the little pavilion
which stood in an angle of the wall, overlooking lake and mountains.

A seat at the opposite end of the walk was Amy's haunt, for she liked
the sun, and within a week or two something like constraint had
existed between the cousins. Each seemed happier apart, and each was
intent on her own affairs. Helen watched over Amy's health, but no
longer offered advice or asked confidence. She often looked anxious,
and once or twice urged the major to go, as if conscious of some
danger.

But the worthy man seemed to have been bewitched as well as the young
folks, and was quite happy sitting by the plump, placid widow, or
leisurely walking with her to the chapel on the hillside.

All seemed waiting for something to break up the party, and no one had
the courage to do it. The major's decision took every one by surprise,
and Amy and Casimer looked as if they had fallen from the clouds.

The persistency with which the English lessons had gone on was
amazing, for Amy usually tired of everything in a day or two. Now,
however, she was a devoted teacher, and her pupil did her great credit
by the rapidity with which he caught the language. It looked like
pleasant play, sitting among the roses day after day, Amy affecting to
embroider while she taught, Casimer marching to and fro on the wide,
low wall, below which lay the lake, while he learned his lesson; then
standing before her to recite, or lounging on the turf in frequent
fits of idleness, both talking and laughing a great deal, and
generally forgetting everything but the pleasure of being together.
They wrote little notes as exercises - Amy in French, Casimer in
English, and each corrected the other's.

All very well for a time; but as the notes increased the corrections
decreased, and at last nothing was said of ungrammatical French or
comical English and the little notes were exchanged in silence.

As Amy took her place that day she looked forlorn, and when her pupil
came her only welcome was a reproachful -

"You are very late, sir."

"It is fifteen of minutes yet to ten clocks," was Casimer's reply, in
his best English.

"Ten o'clock, and leave out 'of' before minutes. How many times must I
tell you that?" said Amy, severely, to cover her first mistake.

"Ah, not many times; soon all goes to finish, and I have none person
to make this charming English go in my so stupide head."

"What will you do then?"

"I _jeter_ myself into the lake."

"Don't be foolish; I'm dull to-day, and want to be cheered up; suicide
isn't a pleasant subject."

"Good! See here, then - a little _plaisanterie_ - what you call joke.
Can you will to see it?" and he laid a little pink cocked-hat note on
her lap, looking like a mischievous boy as he did so.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryLouisa May AlcottKitty's Class Day and Other Stories → online text (page 13 of 18)