FictionForest

Chapter 3 – Secret Service

Louisa May AlcottNov 04, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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In a week Paul was a favorite with the household; even prudent Hester
felt the charm of his presence, and owned that Lillian was happier for a
young companion in her walks. Hitherto the child had led a solitary
life, with no playmates of her own age, such being the will of my lady;
therefore she welcomed Paul as a new and delightful amusement,
considering him her private property and soon transferring his duties
from the garden to the house. Satisfied of his merits, my lady yielded
to Lillian’s demands, and Paul was installed as page to the young lady.
Always respectful and obedient, he never forgot his place, yet seemed
unconsciously to influence all who approached him, and win the goodwill
of everyone.

My lady showed unusual interest in the lad, and Lillian openly displayed
her admiration for his accomplishments and her affection for her devoted
young servitor. Hester was much flattered by the confidence he reposed
in her, for to her alone did he tell his story, and of her alone asked
advice and comfort in his various small straits. It was as she
suspected: Paul was a gentleman’s son, but misfortune had robbed him of
home, friends, and parents, and thrown him upon the world to shift for
himself. This sad story touched the woman’s heart, and the boy’s manly
spirit won respect. She had lost a son years ago, and her empty heart
yearned over the motherless lad. Ashamed to confess the tender feeling,
she wore her usual severe manner to him in public, but in private
softened wonderfully and enjoyed the boy’s regard heartily.

"Paul, come in. I want to speak with you a moment," said my lady, from
the long window of the library to the boy who was training vines
outside.

Dropping his tools and pulling off his hat, Paul obeyed, looking a
little anxious, for the month of trial expired that day. Lady Trevlyn
saw and answered the look with a gracious smile.

"Have no fears. You are to stay if you will, for Lillian is happy and I
am satisfied with you."

"Thank you, my lady." And an odd glance of mingled pride and pain shone
in the boy’s downcast eyes.

"That is settled, then. Now let me say what I called you in for. You
spoke of being able to illuminate on parchment. Can you restore this old
book for me?"

She put into his hand the ancient volume Sir Richard had been reading
the day he died. It had lain neglected in a damp nook for years till my
lady discovered it, and, sad as were the associations connected with it,
she desired to preserve it for the sake of the weird prophecy if nothing
else. Paul examined it, and as he turned it to and fro in his hands it
opened at the page oftenest read by its late master. His eye kindled as
he looked, and with a quick gesture he turned as if toward the light, in
truth to hide the flash of triumph that passed across his face.
Carefully controlling his voice, he answered in a moment, as he looked
up, quite composed, "Yes, my lady, I can retouch the faded colors on
these margins and darken the pale ink of the Old English text. I like
the work, and will gladly do it if you like."

"Do it, then, but be very careful of the book while in your hands.
Provide what is needful, and name your own price for the work," said his
mistress.

"Nay, my lady, I am already paid – "

"How so?" she asked, surprised.

Paul had spoken hastily, and for an instant looked embarrassed, but
answered with a sudden flush on his dark cheeks, "You have been kind to
me, and I am glad to show my, gratitude in any way, my lady."

"Let that pass, my boy. Do this little service for me and we will see
about the recompense afterward." And with a smile Lady Trevlyn left him
to begin his work.

The moment the door closed behind her a total change passed over Paul.
He shook his clenched hand after her with a gesture of menace, then
tossed up the old book and caught it with an exclamation of delight, as
he reopened it at the worn page and reread the inexplicable verse.

"Another proof, another proof! The work goes bravely on, Father Cosmo;
and boy as I am, I’ll keep my word in spite of everything," he muttered.

"What is that you’ll keep, lad?" said a voice behind him.

"I’ll keep my word to my lady, and do my best to restore this book, Mrs.
Hester," he answered, quickly recovering himself.

"Ah, that’s the last book poor Master read. I hid it away, but my lady
found it in spite of me," said Hester, with a doleful sigh.

"Did he die suddenly, then?" asked the boy.

"Dear heart, yes; I found him dying in this room with the ink scarce dry
on the letter he left for my lady. A mysterious business and a sad one."

"Tell me about it. I like sad stories, and I already feel as if I
belonged to the family, a loyal retainer as in the old times. While you
dust the books and I rub the mold off this old cover, tell me the tale,
please, Mrs. Hester."

She shook her head, but yielded to the persuasive look and tone of the
boy, telling the story more fully than she intended, for she loved
talking and had come to regard Paul as her own, almost.

"And the letter? What was in it?" asked the boy, as she paused at the
catastrophe.

"No one ever knew but my lady."

"She destroyed it, then?"

"I thought so, till a long time afterward, one of the lawyers came
pestering me with questions, and made me ask her. She was ill at the
time, but answered with a look I shall never forget, ‘No, it’s not
burnt, but no one shall ever see it.’ I dared ask no more, but I fancy
she has it safe somewhere and if it’s ever needed she’ll bring it out.
It was only some private matters, I fancy."

"And the stranger?"

"Oh, he vanished as oddly as he came, and has never been found. A
strange story, lad. Keep silent, and let it rest."

"No fear of my tattling," and the boy smiled curiously to himself as he
bent over the book, polishing the brassbound cover.

"What are you doing with that pretty white wax?" asked Lillian the next
day, as she came upon Paul in a quiet corner of the garden and found him
absorbed in some mysterious occupation.

With a quick gesture he destroyed his work, and, banishing a momentary
expression of annoyance, he answered in his accustomed tone as he began
to work anew, "I am molding a little deer for you, Miss Lillian. See,
here is a rabbit already done, and I’ll soon have a stag also."

"It’s very pretty! How many nice things you can do, and how kind you are
to think of my liking something new. Was this wax what you went to get
this morning when you rode away so early?" asked the child.

"Yes, Miss Lillian. I was ordered to exercise your pony and I made him
useful as well. Would you like to try this? It’s very easy."

Lillian was charmed, and for several days wax modeling was her favorite
play. Then she tired of it, and Paul invented a new amusement, smiling
his inexplicable smile as he threw away the broken toys of wax.

"You are getting pale and thin, keeping such late hours, Paul. Go to
bed, boy, go to bed, and get your sleep early," said Hester a week
afterward, with a motherly air, as Paul passed her one morning.

"And how do you know I don’t go to bed?" he asked, wheeling about.

"My lady has been restless lately, and I sit up with her till she
sleeps. As I go to my room, I see your lamp burning, and last night I
got as far as your door, meaning to speak to you, but didn’t, thinking
you’d take it amiss. But really you are the worse for late hours,
child."

"I shall soon finish restoring the book, and then I’ll sleep. I hope I
don’t disturb you. I have to grind my colors, and often make more noise
than I mean to."

Paul fixed his eyes sharply on the woman as he spoke, but she seemed
unconscious of it, and turned to go on, saying indifferently, "Oh,
that’s the odd sound, is it? No, it doesn’t trouble me, so grind away,
and make an end of it as soon as may be."

An anxious fold in the boy’s forehead smoothed itself away as he left
her, saying to himself with a sigh of relief, "A narrow escape; it’s
well I keep the door locked."

The boy’s light burned no more after that, and Hester was content till a
new worry came to trouble her. On her way to her room late one night,
she saw a tall shadow flit down one of the side corridors that branched
from the main one. For a moment she was startled, but, being a woman of
courage, she followed noiselessly, till the shadow seemed to vanish in
the gloom of the great hall.

"If the house ever owned a ghost I’d say that’s it, but it never did, so
I suspect some deviltry. I’ll step to Paul. He’s not asleep, I dare say.
He’s a brave and a sensible lad, and with him I’ll quietly search the
house."

Away she went, more nervous than she would own, and tapped at the boy’s
door. No one answered, and, seeing that it was ajar, Hester whisked in
so hurriedly that her candle went out. With an impatient exclamation at
her carelessness she glided to the bed, drew the curtain, and put forth
her hand to touch the sleeper. The bed was empty. A disagreeable thrill
shot through her, as she assured herself of the fact by groping along
the narrow bed. Standing in the shadow of the curtain, she stared about
the dusky room, in which objects were visible by the light of a new
moon.

"Lord bless me, what is the boy about! I do believe it was him I saw in
the – " She got no further in her mental exclamation for the sound of
light approaching footsteps neared her. Slipping around the bed she
waited in the shadow, and a moment after Paul appeared, looking pale and
ghostly, with dark, disheveled hair, wide-open eyes, and a cloak thrown
over his shoulders. Without a pause he flung it off, laid himself in
bed, and seemed to sleep at once.

"Paul! Paul!" whispered Hester, shaking him, after a pause of
astonishment at the whole proceeding.

"Hey, what is it?" And he sat up, looking drowsily about him.

"Come, come, no tricks, boy. What are you doing, trailing about the
house at this hour and in such trim?"

"Why, Hester, is it you?" he exclaimed with a laugh, as he shook off her
grip and looked up at her in surprise.

"Yes, and well it is me. If it had been any of those silly girls, the
house would have been roused by this time. What mischief is afoot that
you leave your bed and play ghost in this wild fashion?"

"Leave my bed! Why, my good soul, I haven’t stirred, but have been
dreaming with all my might these two hours. What do you mean, Hester?"

She told him as she relit her lamp, and stood eyeing him sharply the
while. When she finished he was silent a minute, then said, looking half
vexed and half ashamed, "I see how it is, and I’m glad you alone have
found me out. I walk in my sleep sometimes, Hester, that’s the truth. I
thought I’d got over it, but it’s come back, you see, and I’m sorry for
it. Don’t be troubled. I never do any mischief or come to any harm. I
just take a quiet promenade and march back to bed again. Did I frighten
you?"

"Just a trifle, but it’s nothing. Poor lad, you’ll have to have a
bedfellow or be locked up; it’s dangerous to go roaming about in this
way," said Hester anxiously.

"It won’t last long, for I’ll get more tired and then I shall sleep
sounder. Don’t tell anyone, please, else they’ll laugh at me, and that’s
not pleasant. I don’t mind your knowing for you seem almost like a
mother, and I thank you for it with all my heart."

He held out his hand with the look that was irresistible to Hester.
Remembering only that he was a motherless boy, she stroked the curly
hair off his forehead, and kissed him, with the thought of her own son
warm at her heart.

"Good night, dear. I’ll say nothing, but give you something that will
ensure quiet sleep hereafter."

With that she left him, but would have been annoyed could she have seen
the convulsion of boyish merriment which took possession of him when
alone, for he laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks.

 

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