The Ash-Tree IV

One morning (it was in 1754) Sir Richard woke after a night of discomfort. It had been windy, and his chimney had smoked persistently, and yet it was so cold that he must keep up a fire. Also something had so rattled about the window that no man could get a moment’s peace. Further, there was the prospect of several guests of position arriving in the course of the day, who would expect sport of some kind, and the inroads of the distemper (which continued among his game) had been lately so serious that he was afraid for his reputation as a game-preserver. But what really touched him most nearly was the other matter of his sleepless night. He could certainly not sleep in that room again.

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That was the chief subject of his meditations at breakfast, and after it he began a systematic examination of the rooms to see which would suit his notions best. It was long before he found one. This had a window with an eastern aspect and that with a northern; this door the servants would be always passing, and he did not like the bedstead in that. No, he must have a room with a western look-out, so that the sun could not wake him early, and it must be out of the way of the business of the house. The housekeeper was at the end of her resources.

‘Well, Sir Richard,’ she said, ‘you know that there is but the one room like that in the house.’

‘Which may that be?’ said Sir Richard.

‘And that is Sir Matthew’s–the West Chamber.’

‘Well, put me in there, for there I’ll lie tonight,’ said her master. ‘Which way is it? Here, to be sure’; and he hurried off.

‘Oh, Sir Richard, but no one has slept there these forty years. The air has hardly been changed since Sir Matthew died there.’

Thus she spoke, and rustled after him.

‘Come, open the door, Mrs Chiddock. I’ll see the chamber, at least.’

So it was opened, and, indeed, the smell was very close and earthy. Sir Richard crossed to the window, and, impatiently, as was his wont, threw the shutters back, and flung open the casement. For this end of the house was one which the alterations had barely touched, grown up as it was with the great ash-tree, and being otherwise concealed from view.

‘Air it, Mrs Chiddock, all today, and move my bed-furniture in in the afternoon. Put the Bishop of Kilmore in my old room.’

‘Pray, Sir Richard,’ said a new voice, breaking in on this speech, ‘might I have the favour of a moment’s interview?’

Sir Richard turned round and saw a man in black in the doorway, who bowed.

‘I must ask your indulgence for this intrusion, Sir Richard. You will, perhaps, hardly remember me. My name is William Crome, and my grandfather was Vicar in your grandfather’s time.’

‘Well, sir,’ said Sir Richard, ‘the name of Crome is always a passport to Castringham. I am glad to renew a friendship of two generations’ standing. In what can I serve you? for your hour of calling–and, if I do not mistake you, your bearing–shows you to be in some haste.’

‘That is no more than the truth, sir. I am riding from Norwich to Bury St Edmunds with what haste I can make, and I have called in on my way to leave with you some papers which we have but just come upon in looking over what my grandfather left at his death. It is thought you may find some matters of family interest in them.’

by Montague Rhodes James

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