by Mrs Bustleton
“What an horrific night!” said Dame Ursuline to her protegée Starchissa as they sat in the oriel window of the still-room in Craggycliff Castle.
“Do you not hear a groan from the south turret?” replied Starchissa, lifting up her mild blue eyes.
“It is the wind,” responded the dame, and, having snuffed the candle, she departed. Starchissa listened to the echo of her footsteps as they receded thro’ the long galleries, and again cast her eyes round the still chamber. One foot, decorated with a grey jean slipper,1 rested on the hearthrug: the other was thrice applied, in musical time, to the polished fender. There was so much of the “lustre of youth”, the freshness of beauty, the charm of sentiment, the mystery of devotion, and “the spell of grace” in her attitude, that her form “seemed but a transient incorporation of the brilliant mists of the morning!”
The interesting orphan reclined on a basket filled with Lady Craggycliff’s drapery and a few tears glittered on her eyelashes as she viewed the yet unrolled ells of cotton-twine “mathematically manufactured”. Her solitary taper cast a feeble glare on the dark oak panels of the gothic door which led to the butler’s pantry. Starchissa raised her soul-dissolving eyes to heaven, and taking her lute, leaned out of the window.
Castle Craggycliff stood on the brow of a precipice almost excavated by the incessant siege of waves which washed on its base. The moon now shone over the ivied battlements of the north turret, and touched with yellow light the dark masses of cork, fir, mango and juniper trees which fringed the park, contrasted by the silvery whiteness of the bleaching-ground. Only the distant sound of a sheep-bell broke upon the silence, except when a few tones of mysterious melody arose from the farm-yard, and Starchissa resigned her soul to that soft trance, that delicious meditation on unknown miseries which peculiarly distinguishes a heroine. But the clock suddenly told the eleventh hour, and as its heavy strokes reverberated on the breeze, she remembered that Lady Craggycliff’s lace-veil required her aid, and therefore determined to explore the south turret. The door was open, but having found a sliding panel and a large hole in the tapestry she forced herself through both, and entered the deserted chamber of the Dowager Countess. Here she paused and listened. The torn letters scattered on the floor, the half-open jewel case, the drops of noyau yet fresh upon the toilette proved that all remained as when its occupier quitted it. A superstitious awe seized Starchissa as she watched the waving curtains and saw the print of five large fingers (including a thumb) upon the door. Ineffable sensations tempted her to raise the lid of the mysterious casket which contained two diamond necklaces and a pearl broach. She raised it and beheld — a miniature medallion of Lord Craggycliff! It was impossible to avoid observing its peculiar resemblance to her own face which she gazed at in the toilet-mirror. Her affinity to the possessor of this ancient castle no longer admitted a doubt, and perceiving that the gold clasp of her bead bracelets exactly tallied with the diamond necklaces, she placed the latter carefully in the folds of her robe, as future identification of her birth.
“It is enough!” said a voice.
Starchissa dropped her taper. This portentous night seemed destined to her mysterious right to those treasures for which she felt an intuitive aspiration and an incomprehensible longing. A thousand vague fears and hoped entered her heart as she collected every fragment of paper, till the touch of chicken-bone left by Lady Craggycliff’s spaniel iced her blood with horror. Perhaps the skeleton of her unknown mother lay in this closet! This petrifying thought and the profound darkness which enveloped her would have shaken the sublimest soul! She glided along the wall till a large coat fell from its peg upon her head, and a sudden gleam of light thro’ a crevice in the door showed crimson stains upon the sleeve. Her soul conglomerated itself in a climax of expectation as she placed her eye and ear to the aperture and beheld — the Earl and Countess of Craggycliff seated at supper. “I killed her myself,” said the Earl in a hollow voice, and he struck — his fork into the hare before him.
* * *
Lady Craggycliff rested her head in her hand in a Madonna-like attitude of sweet seraphic composure, and her lord, with an ineffable scowl, suddenly turned his chair from the supper-table.
A gleam of vivacity irradiated her meek countenance; “My dear lord!” she ejaculated in the softest tone, “when you find yourself in these agreeable humours, condescend to wear a red cap that I may know what to expect!”
“As your ladyship never changes your teasing humours,” replied he sternly, “I need not desire you to wear any distinction.
“How vivaciously said! Is there any college for wit, my lord? I would advise you to take a degree in it.”
“I know no college for wits, but I am in an admirable school for patience.”
“So am I, Lord Craggycliff; I have yawned horrible the whole day. Lady Seraphina Qallal’s breakfast-party spoiled my first sleep — but, would you believe it? — I was dreaming of you.”
“Of me, madam!” said his Lordship half-unclosing his eyes. “Probably because you choose to see me very seldom.”
“O my lord, one always dreams of the silliest things. If you are not engaged at the opera-office or Sir Humphrey Blinkensop’s lectures tomorrow, you may call upon me.”
“Impossible!” ejaculated my lord. “I am engaged to attend King Henry on his march to Shrewsbury. The barons of the north are all in arms, and your ladyship’s last rout was so expensive that I can’t afford to resign my commission.”
Lady Craggycliff folded her hands with elegant fervour. “Heaven forbid, my dear lord, that your honour should be endangered, tho’ I foresee all the hazards of widowhood! But as my languid health forbids me to expect the felicity of seeing you again, I wish to disburthen my heart.”
Her voice sunk in a tremulous sigh, and Lord Craggycliff looked suspicious.
“If the last request, the only secret wish of a dying wife, can claim your attention, my lord, I have an orphan dependent.”
Starchissa’s heart swelled with indefinable incomprehensibilities.
“Permit me, Lord Craggycliff, to recommend this dear claimant to your protection! She has the finest doe-like eyes and the most silky hair imaginable. I have fostered her since the very moment of her birth, and educated the dear pet completely!”
“Educated her,” muttered Lord Craggycliff, “have you left her a legacy in the three percents?”
“Surely, my dear lord, I may depend on your kindness for her provision. She is the living image of your favorite companion, and my beautiful Cleora whom you drowned in a fit of jealous rage. Cleora, you know, had the noblest pedigree in England!”
The veins of Starchissa underwent a sudden congelation, but rushing from her concealment she threw open the dressing-room door, and threw herself at Lady Craggycliff’s feet.
“Behold,” she exclaimed in an ear-piercing tone, “behold the miserable relic of a murdered mother! She claims her birthright but forgives her injuries!”
The Countess dropped her netting-needles, pushed back her ottoman and opened her mouth. Her lord stood in a fine attitude of unutterable stupefaction, while Starchissa remained kneeling with her arms stretched to the skies, and her face illuminated by an argand lamp.
“Is this,” said the Earl after a long and awful pause, “is this your laundry-maid?”
“This is my Cleora’s offspring!” exclaimed the mysterious Countess, and rising with emphatic dignity, she moved towards the sofa. It was a pause even of pulsation! She raised the curtain and discovered — her lap-dog!
The Battle of Shrewsbury. Lord Craggycliff commands the 11th Hussars and is slain by the wind of a bullet.
King Henry sups with Lady Craggycliff at her rout in Grosvenor Square on his return from Shropshire. Waud and Frescati arrange the pastry and orange-trees. Lady C barbarously dismisses Starchissa because she asked Prince John of Lancaster for an ice-cream.
The Heroine writes a sonnet to an owl in the ruins of Twenty-Ghosts’ Abbey and sees a knight with fair hair and large eyes, carrying mousetraps. They fall in love of course.
Owen Glendower, the famous astrologer, assures Starchissa that her mousetrap-knight is Hotspur’s son and heir in disguise.
Sire Eglamour de Mousetraps informs his beloved that Lord Craggycliff’s last codicil to his will provides and annuity for the Countess’s protegée, and advises her to claim it.
Starchissa, in her way to London, sees Prince John of Lancaster driving the mail-coach, and to conceal herself, takes a place in the inside.
A sentimental journey by moonlight, a picturesque accident, and a scientific proposal to guide mail-coaches safely without horses or driver, by constructing them of steel and fixing proportionable lodestones at ev’ry turnpike.
Lord Craggycliff’s ghost appears in the shape of Proctor, and denounces that the annuity is bequeather to Lady Craggycliff’s orphan lap-dog.
Sir Eglamour de Mousetraps declares himself married to the Queen of Ouranoutanglon, and Starchissa, having written an ode in a damp grotto, expires.
Cemented by Vancouver’s iron glue. ↩