One midnight of a winter month the sleepers in Riversley Grange were awakened by a ringing of the outer bell and blows upon the great hall-doors. Squire Beltham was master there: the other members of the household were, his daughter Dorothy Beltham; a married daughter Mrs. Richmond; Benjamin Sewis, an old half-caste butler; various domestic servants; and a little boy, christened Harry Lepel Richmond, the squire’s grandson. Riversley Grange lay in a rich watered hollow of the Hampshire heath-country; a lonely circle of enclosed brook and pasture, within view of some of its dependent farms, but out of hail of them or any dwelling except the stables and the head-gardener’s cottage. Traditions of audacious highwaymen, together with the gloomy surrounding fir-scenery, kept it alive to fears of solitude and the night; and there was that in the determined violence of the knocks and repeated bell-peals which assured all those who had ever listened in the servants’ hall to prognostications of a possible night attack, that the robbers had come at last most awfully. A crowd of maids gathered along the upper corridor of the main body of the building: two or three footmen hung lower down, bold in attitude. Suddenly the noise ended, and soon after the voice of old Sewis commanded them to scatter away to their beds; whereupon the footmen took agile leaps to the post of danger, while the women, in whose bosoms intense curiosity now supplanted terror, proceeded to a vacant room overlooking the front entrance, and spied from the window.
Meanwhile Sewis stood by his master’s bedside. The squire was a hunter, of the old sort: a hard rider, deep drinker, and heavy slumberer. Before venturing to shake his arm Sewis struck a light and flashed it over the squire’s eyelids to make the task of rousing him easier. At the first touch the squire sprang up, swearing by his Lord Harry he had just dreamed of fire, and muttering of buckets.
‘Sewis! you’re the man, are you: where has it broken out?’
‘No, sir; no fire,’ said Sewis; ‘you be cool, sir.’
’Cool, sir! confound it, Sewis, haven’t I heard a whole town of steeples at work? I don’t sleep so thick but I can hear, you dog! Fellow comes here, gives me a start, tells me to be cool; what the deuce! nobody hurt, then? all right!’
The squire had fallen back on his pillow and was relapsing to sleep.
Sewis spoke impressively: ’There’s a gentleman downstairs; a gentleman downstairs, sir. He has come rather late.’
‘Gentleman downstairs come rather late.’ The squire recapitulated the intelligence to possess it thoroughly. ’Rather late, eh? Oh! Shove him into a bed, and give him hot brandy and water, and be hanged to him!’
Sewis had the office of tempering a severely distasteful announcement to the squire.
He resumed: ’The gentleman doesn’t talk of staying. That is not his business. It ‘s rather late for him to arrive.’