Shirley HTML version

2. The Wagons
The evening was pitch dark: star and moon were quenched in gray rain-clouds -
gray they would have been by day; by night they looked sable. Malone was not a
man given to close observation of nature; her changes passed, for the most part,
unnoticed by him. He could walk miles on the most varying April day and never
see the beautiful dallying of earth and heaven - never mark when a sunbeam
kissed the hill-tops, making them smile clear in green light, or when a shower
wept over them, hiding their crests With the low-hanging, dishevelled tresses of a
cloud. He did not, therefore, care to contrast the sky as it now appeared - a
muffled, streaming vault, all black, save where, towards the east, the furnaces of
Stilbro' ironworks threw a tremulous lurid shimmer on the horizon - with the same
sky on an unclouded frosty night He did not trouble himself to ask where the
constellations and the planets were gone, or to regret the 'black-blue' serenity of
the air-ocean which those white islets stud, and which another ocean, of heavier
and denser element, now rolled below and concealed. He just doggedly pursued
his way, leaning a little forward as he walked, and wearing his hat on the back of
his head, as his Irish manner was. 'Tramp, tramp,' he went along the causeway,
where the road boasted the privilege of such an accommodation; 'splash, splash,'
through the mire-filled cart ruts, where the flags were exchanged for soft mud. He
looked but for certain landmarks - the spire of Briarfield Church; farther on, the
lights of Redhouse. This was an inn; and when he reached it, the glow of a fire
through a half-curtained window, a vision of glasses on a round table, and of
revellers on an oaken settle, had nearly drawn aside the curate from his course.
He thought longingly of a tumbler of whisky-and-water. In a strange place he
would instantly have realised the dream; but the company assembled in that
kitchen were Mr. Helstone's own parishioners; they all knew him. He sighed, and
passed on.
The highroad was now to be quitted, as the remaining distance to Hollow's Mill
might be considerably reduced by a short cut across fields. These fields were
level and monotonous. Malone took a direct course through them, jumping hedge
and wall. He passed but one building here, and that seemed large and hall-like,
though irregular. You could see a high gable, then a long front, then a low gable,
then a thick, lofty stack of chimneys. There were some trees behind it. It was
dark; not a candle shone from any window. It was absolutely still; the rain running
from the eaves, and the rather wild but very low whistle of the wind round the
chimneys and through the boughs were the sole sounds in its neighbourhood.
This building passed, the fields, hitherto flat, declined in a rapid descent Evidently
a vale lay below, through which you could hear the water run. One light
glimmered in the depth. For that beacon Malone steered.
He came to a little white house - you could see it was white even through this
dense darkness - and knocked at the door. A fresh-faced servant opened it. By
the candle she held was revealed a narrow passage, terminating in a narrow
stair. Two doors covered with crimson baize, a strip of crimson carpet down the