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The Lark's Last Song.


One evening, when Isabel, according to her custom, had sought her own room to throw herself into the past, to indulge in regret, and gather up what comfort she could for the future, but more than all, perhaps, to be free from the remarks and surmises which fell from others, and often sadly jarred on her,—while sitting at her table, and idly and absently turning over a few stray volumes of Mr. Herbert's, left behind, a slight rustling at the window made her look round. It was dark, and she saw nothing, but she fancied that a branch of the rosebush which grew there, moved, as if touched by something different from wind. The window was near the ground, and very much covered by roses, according to a fancy of Isabel's.

Her thoughts rested not one moment on it, but, unconsciously, her eyes remained turned towards it. In a few moments, the branch was again moved, slowly—carefully—some one certainly was there, looking in! This was not pleasant, but Isabel was not frightened, believing it to be one of the maids. Presently she was aware of a face being pressed close and flat to the glass—a white, strange face. As there was no light within the room, it was of course almost impossible for any one without to see in. In another moment a hand tried the window. It so happened that it was not fastened, Isabel had shut, but not latched it, on coming in; and now a thin and white arm passed in, with an uncertain, slow movement, and pushing the window back, a head and face appeared. Such a face, discoloured, with wild, distended eyes, and long, disordered hair! Isabel

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almost imagined it to be a spectre, and being considerably upset and unnerved, she felt positively glued to her seat, frozen, or rather stiffened with horror. Then the figure leaped straight into the room, and uttered a strange laugh, half pleased, half wild and mischievous.

‘Ellen! Ellen! is that you?’ was all Isabel could manage to say.

Directly she spoke, the girl was aware of her presence, and sprang towards her. Her breathing was short and quick, like one upset with running. She pressed one hand on her bosom.

‘Ah! Miss Isabel! Well—you see—and here I am! Goodness knows I'm tired! They have starved me, miss! Not a bird in the bush would give me a crumb! But,’ and she laughed again, a laugh which made Isabel shudder. ‘I said I'd be up to them all. Give me a piece of meat and bread, do—do—miss! Didn't I beg of your papa as he lay yonder, but sorrow a word he'd answer me! and why? Shall I tell you? Because he couldn't—he was dead—dead! Ain't you glad? I am! I sorry about it? Why, now he's dead, we'll get the ticket, Jack and me. He was bad and wicked, so cross to poor Jack! 'Twas for that I killed him! Ay, with these hands—ay, d'ye see? I believe there's red on them now, for all I tried to get it out. I don't like it—I never could abide blood! For all that I killed him! Shall I tell you how?’

‘For God's sake be still, and don't say such dreadful things, Ellen!’ said Isabel, recoiling from her in fear and terror. ‘Poor girl!’ she said, changing her tone with effort, ‘you don't know what you say. Come, stay quite still here, and I'll fetch you some food. Will you promise?’

‘I can't stay, lady,’ shaking her head gravely; ‘I must go to Jack. He's waiting—waiting! I must tell him how I gave them all the go-bye. Such fun! And then how I went on, and on, and on, till I came up to where Lang lay, so bad and so weak. And then, you see, I killed him! I say it was myself did it, and not Jack. Who dare say it was him? Just like their spite! Bless you, Jack was away—I'm sure I don't know where—miles and miles away! Why, if he'd been there, would I have had to starve—eh? Give me some food, Miss Isabel, do—do!’

‘Keep still here till I get it, then;’ and Isabel hurried out and called to Miss Terry, telling her briefly to keep watch on the girl's movements. Isabel went to the kitchen, and brought back some warm milk and bread, which Nelly seized and swallowed voraciously.

‘Is Mr. Farrant here, or coming here?’ Isabel asked eagerly.

‘He can hardly have left the place yet; he was to speak to Venn for your mother. Shall I fetch him?’

‘If you please, do; he must advise. This is terrible. She is evidently a raving lunatic; but what makes her say that—that—? In fact she declares

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she killed him! Good God, how dreadful!’

‘Hardly possible, when one considers her size and strength. But she may know something—out of her ravings one may gather some clue. But I'll go at once,’ said Miss Terry.

Ellen was sitting back in her chair, having eaten her food, braiding up her disordered hair and crooning a low, dismal ditty to herself. On seeing Isabel by her she looked up with a vague and dim expression; and Isabel saw how worn and haggard she was, and took in the torn and soiled state of her garments.

‘Poor Nelly—poor unfortunate girl,’ she murmured, softly.

‘Yes, wasn't I? But now good luck is come; wasn't I a nice clever lassie, now? 'Twasn't hard at all—so easy! I only just knelt down beside him and looked at him, and he groaned and half opened his eyes, and I touched his hand, and then—and then—La! Miss Isabel, only think, if we'd done the like before, how much trouble it would have spared. Pah!—I didn't like blood! When they beat and shot poor ‘Wasp,’ Jack's little dog, I screamed and I cried till they threatened to serve me the same. Yes, it was very clever of me, wasn't it now? For, you see, I killed him. He was dead as a stone when I left him. Don't you believe me? You look funny. I don't like that dismal dress. See! now I've tied up my hair, if I can but find some shoes, I must be off on my travels again. Couldn't stop here, thank'ee. No, the ticket, the ticket!—Jack must have it by this time. He's a free man, and he's waiting for me!’

‘A free man, as you say. And for all I know waiting for you, too,’ Isabel repeated, in grave sorrow.

‘Wont you come, too, Miss Isabel?—you may; you and me will go on our weary, weary journey—all through thick trees, and trees, and trees—where they can't find us at all at all! 'Tis better than those dismal jolting drays and the bad rogues of men with their cunning eyes, and long whips going ‘smack, smack!’ I like the trees; only when the wind comes it is terrifying, because they all begin to talk and sing and shriek; but that was on account of the wake—the way our folk do for the dead. Mother was there, and lots—some very ugly—ah! shocking!—dead, dead—yes, quite dead and cold. There he lies! He can't be cross to Jack no more. Wasn't I a clever girl? And the wind! how it moaned and whistled and got stark mad, and that big bough just tumbled down—a pity for the poor tree, too.’

Then she broke out into a song, or rather scraps of several songs; the one she most often repeated, with a strange wild thrill and vigorous emphasis, was some odd doggerel rhymes—

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A turning, and turning, and turning,
My mammy she's ever churning,
‘Good day, my lady,’ says she!
And turning, and turning, and turning,
My daddy's always learning,
‘I'm weary of all,’ says he!note

Before Miss Terry had returned, Ellen's head had sunk back on the chair, and she was asleep.

‘She is a mere shadow! She has been starved; and see—here are bruises and cuts!’ said Mr. Farrant when he came in, after having looked at the poor exhausted girl.

‘Her talk is so very wild—she hints at such terrible things—where can she have been?’ said Isabel.

‘I suspect she ran away from the drays which were to have taken her to the place talked of. She, poor girl, suspected wrong and deceit, and, with her usual cunning, she fairly slipped away from them. This much I have gathered from various rumours. Perhaps she has been lost in the mazes of the bush since, or afraid of showing herself to any one. She is very ill indeed, now. Here is every symptom of high fever. Can you get her into bed?’ Mr. Farrant said. And as he left the room, the two ladies tried quietly to remove her to a couch they had hastily made up as a bed. But she awoke, and had quite an access of delirium, screaming and talking, knowing no one, but always insisting that she was going on some weary journey, among trees, with nothing to eat, and a very high wind; and that Jack was free, and was expecting her. Then she looked at her stained arms and hands and shuddered, exclaiming at her horror of blood.

With the help of a stout maid-servant, they at last succeeded in getting her on the bed, and then, after another struggle and great difficulty, she swallowed a soothing draught, and Isabel, by her own request, was left to watch by her. Mr. Farrant said he should make his bed on the drawing-room sofa, in order to be at hand in case she should say anything worth noting down, or should Isabel need any help.

All night the poor girl was delirious, with brief snatches of disturbed sleep. She talked incessantly, and sometimes sang. Sometimes she was again a child, and spoke of childish pains and joys, and appealed to her mother. Then she was speaking to Jack Lynch, or moaning with sad, broken words at some one's cruelty to his little dog. There was a great confusion in her mind about wicked, bad people, meaning harm to

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herself, and others to Jack. Once she raised herself quite up and entreated Isabel to send and liberate Jack Lynch from prison, in such a quiet and composed manner, that Isabel believed her to be in her right mind for an instant. ‘Miss! Jack didn't do that thing! I heard the men say that while Lang lived he could never get married or the ticket. Gentleman Bill said so when he took me away; so when I heard the voice up in the tree tell me, ‘Now was the time,’ why, then I went up to him where he lay, and . . . .’

‘O, Nellie! Poor Nellie, don't talk so, or I cannot sit here with you, alone. It horrifies me! you never did it either. You could not. But it shows me that Lynch did, and that he played on your fancies, till you believed you were the one.’

But already Ellen's mind had gone from that to other things;—all night till dawn it was the same, till apparently worn out, her talking subsided into groaning. It was again night, when softly and anxiously Mr. Farrant and Miss Terry appeared at the door, and made signs for Isabel to come away, and let one of them take her place. But she whispered that she could not stir for a moment, that Ellen slept—a sweet and quiet sleep. Perhaps, if she ever did awake, she might be conscious and clear. She had heard of such cases; and the eager, wistful, questioning of her eye on either countenance, bespoke how deep was her anxiety that this might come to pass.

‘Be ready, be near, to write down—you understand?’ she said, with that deadly calmness which is the very height of passionate excitement. It was impossible not to comply, and she saw that both of them took their seats in the adjoining room, prepared to watch and wait, according to her desire.

But time went on, and there was little sign of any awaking—if at all—to any purpose. The pulse of the poor girl was sinking, and already a grey hue, and a sharpened look, had spread on her weary and emaciated face. Isabel listened for her faint breathing intently, for she began to believe she would die in this sleep. The contrast between the two faces was striking. The one so utterly abandoned to rest—still, and scarcely alive—so pale and wan! The other growing each moment more and more excited and flushed, with her lips set, and her eyes bright with eagerness. A curlew came near, and began his melancholy cry. So eerie, so mournfully it rose amid the intense silence of that dying bed! Again and again it repeated the sad note, till once, when it sounded nearer, Ellen started up, and looking round half wildly, half in pleasure, said:— 'Ah, there's Jack himself! Coming, lad, coming! Bless us, I'm stiff; can't jump up. Miss Isabel, is it yourself sitting anent me? Ah, that's

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very kind, and 'tis my dead mother will thank you, miss, for this and all other favours. Help me—hark again! Jack's impatient. Jack's free, and I must go to him, and we'll get the ticket.’

‘Stay, Nellie, don't; lie still, my dear! You are very ill, and you must stay here with me till you are well. Jack is not waiting now. That is not his whistle, but a real curlew. Can you understand?’

‘Yes, yes; I'm ill, am I? Well, and so I am. That's odd. It's all of wandering in that great, wide bush. So lonely, Miss Isabel, and the wind was really terrifying. I was scared of it! And Miss Isabel, stoop, close—I'm faint like—faint—very——’

Here Miss Terry gave her some nourishing drink which stood ready; she and Mr. Farrant had come in softly, and stood behind the curtain at the head of the couch. They answered a look from Isabel, and she saw that Mr. Farrant was listening to the girl.

‘That's good, good! So I'm ill, very ill? I know it. Don't put me off the notion. I like to go to my mother; and Jack will come soon, I know. Wont you come soon, dear Miss Isabel, where all is peaceful and resting, as you used to tell me? But stop! I had something I wanted to say to you—to you only. What was it, I wonder?’

‘Was it—anything about—what you saw—in the bush? Did you run away, Nellie? and did you see my father, Mr. Lang?’

‘Ah, that's it! Miss Isabel—don't fret, dear, but—I must tell you, for I feel like as if I could tell you right and true. I saw him lying all along the ground—so pitiful! all bad, and eyes shut. They say Jack had given him a blow. That's lies! Jack was not near the place. If he had been, I'd have seen him; and I never could see him, nowhere at all, at all! though I went on and on, all day, and most all night, among the trees. My! that was lonely!’

‘But my father—Mr. Lang——’

‘Yes; he was lying all along, and his horse was looking at him, so saucy like, and I was just hiding behind a clump of bushes, afeared if your father should set eyes on me, he'd scold! But I watched; and the horse took a bite just, and another bite, and then off he went—the cratur! his reins all draggling, and the saddle all on a twist; and so Mr. Lang looks round a bit, and sees the cratur desert him, and then he lies back again and gives a moan, up out of his heart, and I saw him put his hand up to his head, and it was red with blood. Then he shuts his eyes, and I thought, may be . . . .’ Here she seemed too exhausted to go on; but a little pause, and some more arrowroot, revived her. In fainter and more catching accents she went on. ‘I thought he might be sleeping, so I came very softly up to him, and I saw the red blood flowing—flowing—all

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down—shirt and ground. I puts my two hands together, so! and I says, soft like, but as if I was praying to the Blessed Virgin, ‘Please, sir, please, Mr. Lang, wont ye give me the ticket? and I'll fetch you water and wine, and do all I can for you. Please, sir, for the love of Heaven and the Holy Virgin, wont you?’ He just opened one eye a bit like, as if he fancied it was some spirit up in the air, and he fetches a big sigh, and his hand drops down heavy. Then I took notice of a big branch of a tree, broken clean off by the wind, and which had seemingly struck him, for it had broken in his hat like, and I saw the bits of twigs on the hat, and bits of bark and twigs on his breast; and I noticed that the branch was anigh his head, just where the blow and the blood was. So, don't you see, I think, as how—perhaps—the great wind killed him, eh, Miss Isabel? because he ever denied the ticket to Jack, who'd done him no bad turn, but only good. O dear! I think so, I think that is how it was; and I don't like blood, and he looked so white, and so still! I got frighted; so I picks up his hat, seeing 'twas not altogether spoilt, and hangs it on a branch near, and then I went on to find Jack, and tell him, and tell you, and I got tired and hungry—and now—I am ill, you see. But no, I'm ready—quite, quite ready, to go to Jack. Where's Jack? Hark! his whistle again! I must go—good-bye, good-bye!’

In another moment, the curlew still making his moan, though further off, the girl again slowly opened her eyes, and held out her hands as if in ecstasy. ‘O, I'm after coming as quick as I can, Jack. Jack! Jack! the ticket—the blessed ticket.’

‘Let us pray!’ said Mr. Farrant; and kneeling, they followed him in an earnest and solemn petition for this departing soul. Her eyes were fixed on the ceiling, her features were fast becoming rigid, though a smile was on her face. ‘Jack, Jack! My dead mother!’ were the last murmured, faint syllables, and with the last her spirit was breathed away.