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THE hands on the hall-clock pointed to half-past six in the morning. The house
was a country residence in West Somersetshire, called Combe-Raven. The day
was the fourth of March, and the year was eighteen hundred and forty-six.
No sounds but the steady ticking of the clock, and the lumpish snoring of a large
dog stretched on a mat outside the dining-room door, disturbed the mysterious
morning stillness of hall and staircase. Who were the sleepers hidden in the
upper regions? Let the house reveal its own secrets; and, one by one, as they
descend the stairs from their beds, let the sleepers disclose themselves.
As the clock pointed to a quarter to seven, the dog woke and shook himself. After
waiting in vain for the footman, who was accustomed to let him out, the animal
wandered restlessly from one closed door to another on the ground-floor; and,
returning to his mat in great perplexity, appealed to the sleeping family with a
long and melancholy howl.
Before the last notes of the dog's remonstrance had died away, the oaken stairs
in the higher regions of the house creaked under slowly-descending footsteps. In
a minute more the first of the female servants made her appearance, with a dingy
woolen shawl over her shoulders -- for the March morning was bleak; and
rheumatism and the cook were old acquaintances.
Receiving the dog's first cordial advances with the worst possible grace, the cook
slowly opened the hall door and let the animal out. It was a wild morning. Over a
spacious lawn, and behind a black plantation of firs, the rising sun rent its way
upward through piles of ragged gray cloud; heavy drops of rain fell few and far
between; the March wind shuddered round the corners of the house, and the wet
trees swayed wearily.