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dressing for dinner; but her somewhat acid Hebe, who thought it the duty of grown persons in their intercourse with children to be always improving the occasion, stopped when she saw the boy, and shook her head at him with portentous solemnity. “So you have come in at last, Master Irvine," she said ; "and time enough, I should think. I do only hope that your poor dear aunt Ellen has not been made dangerously ill by your humours. I hope so, I am sure.” And she shook her head again, till the spoon jingled in the tumbler. The child looked at her speechless, with horror in his eyes.
A NIGHT IN THE LIFE OF MASTER IRVIE.
MASTER IRVINE gained little information that evening. His uncle, Sir Joseph, was at dinner in the big dining-room, with a fine air of filling the apartment. “I don't know what to make of the boy," he observed to his sister Susan, as if candour could go no farther. The lady drooped over her soupplate; and the young delinquent entered.
“So, sir,” said Sir Joseph, swallowing his spoonful hastily.
“Is aunt Ellen very ill ?” asked the small boy, standing by his large uncle's elbow.
“Ill! of course she is. You are a nice young fellow. Come, be off to bed.” And he finished his soup.
"Is she really ill ?” whispered Irvine, as his aunt kissed his forehead; but she was thinking of a passage in her former life, and only answered with a sigh. Little Katharine had gone home long ago, and Ned was fast asleep. Mrs Parley, whose duties as nurse were now almost nominal, took pains to get something nice for the supper of the infant prodigal, and scolded him while he ate it. When he asked about his aunt's health, she bade him not worry, and went off mumbling. So the child went to bed, tired in body but restless in mind. He had not long enjoyed the privacy of a room to himself, and the enjoyment was not unmixed. The room was at the end of a passage, and close to the door was an old flight of wooden steps, which climbed to a mysterious chamber above. This was a pleasant haunt by day, a great place for desert islands and adventures by land and sea, a home of old boxes and moth-eaten tapestries, where the sunlight blinked through a dusty window and winked at a torn picture of Sir Randolph, second baronet, and boon companion of that most dolorous of debauchees, the second Charles. By night this lumber-room was somewhat less exhilarating.
As Irvine went down the passage, he kept his eye on the highest visible steps of the wooden staircase before him. He slipped quickly into his room, and shut the door tight. He glanced all round, before he placed his candle on the table. He looked fearfully under the bed, and got up ashamed of himself. What would uncle Joseph say if he knew? When he had jumped into bed, then came the worst moment. He had to make a long arm to the candle, and the few seconds between putting out the light and drawing back among the sheets were full of possibilities. That night the darkness was unusually rich in little noises. The old stairs outside creaked, as if strange folk were coming down. Sir Randolph in his torn laces had come out of his frame. Gnomes were playing cards on an old chest, and might not one pop down for an umpire ? Wherever the moon glimmered, there was something. If he looked, he might see something; if he moved, he might feel something. He heard a great deal already. He drew the bedclothes over his ear, and shut his eyes tight, eager for sleep. His window rattled, and his door seemed to shake. He held his breath to listen, not daring to open his eyes. He tried hard to think of everything and everybody, whom he liked best. At last he slept. He had not been asleep long, when he woke with a start, and sat up in bed. Had he been dreaming or had he heard voices ? All was
dark save the dull square of the window-blind, and yet he thought that in the moment of waking he had seen through the crack of the door a line of light. Suddenly he remembered his aunt Ellen, and he was sure that somebody had said that she was very ill. He slipped out of bed, and stood cold and breathless on the floor. What if she should die that night? He fell on his knees, a small slip of white in the darkness, and prayed. Perhaps she would die without forgiving him. He felt for a shirt and trousers ; then, after a moment's pause, opened the door. He shuddered as he turned his back on the old stairs, and crept down the passage feeling the wall. At last he stood at Lady Harefel's door, and bent his head towards it. In the dead silence he heard his uncle Joseph snore. He did not laugh, but a sudden strong feeling of relief absorbed him, and he dropped on the mat with his eyes full of tears. It was clear that Sir Joseph would not breathe with such tremendous regularity if his wife were dying or dead. Yet the boy did not go back to his bed. It was so far away. It was so good to be near human beings and to hear his comfortable uncle. Besides, his aunt might yet grow worse; and if she did, he should hear the disturbance in the room, and be able to go in.