"It is late," I heard her whisper. "It will be dark in the plantation." She shook my arm and repeated, "Marian! it will be dark in the plantation."
"Give me a minute longer," I said--"a minute, to get better in."
I was afraid to trust myself to look at her yet, and I kept my eyes fixed on the view.
It WAS late. The dense brown line of trees in the sky had faded in the gathering darkness to the faint resemblance of a long wreath of smoke. The mist over the lake below had stealthily enlarged, and advanced on us. The silence was as breathless as ever, but the horror of it had gone, and the solemn mystery of its stillness was all that remained.
"We are far from the house," she whispered. "Let us go back."
She stopped suddenly, and turned her face from me towards the entrance of the boat-house.
"Marian!" she said, trembling violently. "Do you see nothing? Look!"
"Down there, below us."
She pointed. My eyes followed her hand, and I saw it too.
A living figure was moving over the waste of heath in the distance. It crossed our range of view from the boat-house, and passed darkly along the outer edge of the mist. It stopped far off, in front of us--waited--and passed on; moving slowly, with the white cloud of mist behind it and above it--slowly, slowly, till it glided by the edge of the boat-house, and we saw it no more.
We were both unnerved by what had passed between us that evening. Some minutes elapsed before Laura would venture into the plantation, and before I could make up my mind to lead her back to the house.
"Was it a man or a woman?" she asked in a whisper, as we moved at last into the dark dampness of the outer air.
"I am not certain."
"Which do you think?"
"It looked like a woman."
"I was afraid it was a man in a long cloak."
"It may be a man. In this dim light it is not possible to be certain."
"Wait, Marian! I'm frightened--I don't see the path. Suppose the figure should follow us?"
"Not at all likely, Laura. There is really nothing to be alarmed about. The shores of the lake are not far from the village, and they are free to any one to walk on by day or night. It is only wonderful we have seen no living creature there before."
We were now in the plantation. It was very dark--so dark, that we found some difficulty in keeping the path. I gave Laura my arm, and we walked as fast as we could on our way back.
Before we were half-way through she stopped, and forced me to stop with her. She was listening.
"Hush," she whispered. "I hear something behind us."
"Dead leaves," I said to cheer her, "or a twig blown off the trees."
"It is summer time, Marian, and there is not a breath of wind. Listen!"
I heard the sound too--a sound like a light footstep following us.
"No matter who it is, or what it is," I said, "let us walk on. In another minute, if there is anything to alarm us, we shall be near enough to the house to be heard."
We went on quickly--so quickly, that Laura was breathless by the time we were nearly through the plantation, and within sight of the lighted windows.
I waited a moment to give her breathing-time. Just as we were about to proceed she stopped me again, and signed to me with her hand to listen once more. We both heard distinctly a long, heavy sigh behind us, in the black depths of the trees.
"Who's there?" I called out.
There was no answer.
"Who's there?" I repeated.
An instant of silence followed, and then we heard the light fall of the footsteps again, fainter and fainter--sinking away into the darkness--sinking, sinking, sinking--till they were lost in the silence.
We hurried out from the trees to the open lawn beyond crossed it rapidly; and without another word passing between us, reached the house.
In the light of the hall-lamp Laura looked at me, with white cheeks and startled eyes.
"I am half dead with fear," she said. "Who could it have been?"
"We will try to guess to-morrow," I replied. "In the meantime say nothing to any one of what we have heard and seen."
"Because silence is safe, and we have need of safety in this house."
I sent Laura upstairs immediately, waited a minute to take off my hat and put my hair smooth, and then went at once to make my first investigations in the library, on pretence of searching for a book.
There sat the Count, filling out the largest easy-chair in the house, smoking and reading calmly, with his feet on an ottoman, his cravat across his knees, and his shirt collar wide open. And there sat Madame Fosco, like a quiet child, on a stool by his side, making cigarettes. Neither husband nor wife could, by any possibility, have been out late that evening, and have just got back to the house in a hurry. I felt that my object in visiting the library was answered the moment I set eyes on them.
Count Fosco rose in polite confusion and tied his cravat on when I entered the room.
"Pray don't let me disturb you," I said. "I have only come here to get a book."
"All unfortunate men of my size suffer from the heat," said the Count, refreshing himself gravely with a large green fan. "I wish I could change places with my excellent wife. She is as cool at this moment as a fish in the pond outside."
The Countess allowed herself to thaw under the influence of her husband's quaint comparison. "I am never warm, Miss Halcombe," she remarked, with the modest air of a woman who was confessing to one of her own merits.
"Have you and Lady Glyde been out this evening?" asked the Count, while I was taking a book from the shelves to preserve appearances.
"Yes, we went out to get a little air."
"May I ask in what direction?"
"In the direction of the lake--as far as the boat-house."
"Aha? As far as the boat-house?"
Under other circumstances I might have resented his curiosity. But to-night I hailed it as another proof that neither he nor his wife were connected with the mysterious appearance at the lake.
"No more adventures, I suppose, this evening?" he went on. "No more discoveries, like your discovery of the wounded dog?"
He fixed his unfathomable grey eyes on me, with that cold, clear, irresistible glitter in them which always forces me to look at him, and always makes me uneasy while I do look. An unutterable suspicion that his mind is prying into mine overcomes me at these times, and it overcame me now.
"No," I said shortly; "no adventures--no discoveries."
I tried to look away from him and leave the room. Strange as it seems, I hardly think I should have succeeded in the attempt if Madame Fosco had not helped me by causing him to move and look away first.
"Count, you are keeping Miss Halcombe standing," she said.
The moment he turned round to get me a chair, I seized my opportunity--thanked him--made my excuses--and slipped out.
An hour later, when Laura's maid happened to be in her mistress's room, I took occasion to refer to the closeness of the night, with a view to ascertaining next how the servants had been passing their time.
"Have you been suffering much from the heat downstairs?" I asked.
"No, miss," said the girl, "we have not felt it to speak of."
"You have been out in the woods then, I suppose?"
"Some of us thought of going, miss. But cook said she should take her chair into the cool court-yard, outside the kitchen door, and on second thoughts, all the rest of us took our chairs out there too."
The housekeeper was now the only person who remained to be accounted for.
"Is Mrs. Michelson gone to bed yet?" I inquired.
"I should think not, miss," said the girl, smiling. "Mrs. Michelson is more likely to be getting up just now than going to bed."
"Why? What do you mean? Has Mrs. Michelson been taking to her bed in the daytime?"
"No, miss, not exactly, but the next thing to it. She's been asleep all the evening on the sofa in her own room."
Putting together what I observed for myself in the library, and what I have just heard from Laura's maid, one conclusion seems inevitable. The figure we saw at the lake was not the figure of Madame Fosco, of her husband, or of any of the servants. The footsteps we heard behind us were not the footsteps of any one belonging to the house.
Who could it have been?
It seems useless to inquire. I cannot even decide whether the figure was a man's or a woman's. I can only say that I think it was a woman's.