THE PADLOCKED DOOR AT WYNCOMB.
The countenance of the new year was harsh, rugged, and gloomy—as of a stony-hearted, strong-minded new year, that had no idea of making his wintry aspect pleasant, or brightening the gloom of his infancy with any deceptive gleams of January sunshine. A bitter north wind made a dreary howling among the leafless trees, and swept across the broad bare fields with merciless force—a bleak cruel new-year’s-day, on which to go out a-pleasuring; but it was more in harmony with Ellen Carley’s thoughts than brighter weather could have been; and she went to and fro about her morning’s work, up and down cold windy passages, and in and out of the frozen dairy, unmoved by the bitter wind which swept the crisp waves of dark brown hair from her low brows, and tinged the tip of her impertinent little nose with a faint wintry bloom.
The bailiff was in very high spirits this first morning of the new year—almost uproarious spirits indeed, which vented themselves in snatches of boisterous song, as he bustled backwards and forwards from house to stables, dressed in his best blue coat and bright buttons and a capacious buff waistcoat; with his ponderous nether limbs clothed in knee-cords, and boots with vinegar tops; looking altogether the typical British farmer.
Those riotous bursts of song made his daughter shudder. Somehow, his gaiety was more alarming to her than his customary morose humour. It was all the more singular, too, because of late William Carley had been especially silent and moody, with the air of a man whose mind is weighed down by some heavy burden—so gloomy indeed, that his daughter had questioned him more than once, entreating to know if he were distressed by any secret trouble, anything going wrong about the farm, and so on. The girl had only brought upon herself harsh angry answers by these considerate inquiries, and had been told to mind her own business, and not pry into matters that in no way concerned her.
“But it does concern me to see you downhearted, father,” she answered gently.
“Does it really, my girl? What! your father’s something more than a stranger to you, is he? I shouldn’t have thought it, seeing how you’ve gone again me in some things lately. Howsomedever, when I want your help, I shall know how to ask for it, and I hope you’ll give it freely. I don’t want fine words; they never pulled anybody out of the ditch that I’ve heard tell of.”
Whatever the bailiff’s trouble had been, it seemed to be lightened to-day, Ellen thought; and yet that unusual noisy gaiety of his gave her an uncomfortable feeling: it did not seem natural or easy.
Her household work was done by noon, and she dressed hurriedly, while her father called for her impatiently from below—standing at the foot of the wide bare old staircase, and bawling up to her that they should be late at Wyncomb. She looked very pretty in her neat dark-blue merino dress and plain linen collar, when she came tripping downstairs at last, flushed with the hurry of her toilet, and altogether so bright a creature that it seemed a hard thing she should not be setting out upon some real pleasure trip, instead of that most obnoxious festival to which she was summoned.