Two Sundays in succession we had not been to church. As we were going out, after lessons, on Monday morning, a thunder-storm came on. So Bettina and I played in the upstairs passage. I remember how dark it grew, although there was a skylight overhead, and a window opening on the staircase. We groped for our playthings in the twilight, till quite suddenly the croisée of the casement showed as ink-black lines crossing a square of blue-white fire.
The shadowy stair was fiercely lit; our toys, too, and our faces. The moment after, we sat in blackness, waiting for the thunder. Far off it seemed to fall clattering down some vast incline. Then the rain. Thudding torrents that threatened to batter in the skylight.
Our mother came out of her room in time to receive the next flash full upon her face. I see the light now, making her eyes glitter and her paleness ghostlike.
She drew back from the window. Before the
lightning died I had seen that she was frightened. I had been frightened, too, till I saw that she was. In the impulse to reassure her, my own fear left me. I went to her in that second blackness and put my hand in hers. When I could see again I looked through the streaming window-pane, as we stood there, and I saw a man sheltering under the chestnut-tree at our gate. He lifted his umbrella, and seemed to make a sign: "May I come in?"
"Why, there is Colonel Dover!" I said, and could have bitten my tongue. My mother had moved away. She seemed not to hear, not to have seen.
I stood, half behind the curtain, praying God to keep him out. I prayed so hard I felt my temples prick with heat, and a moisture in my hair. A blinding flash made us start back. Almost simultaneously came a shock of sound like a cannon shot off in the house. We three were clinging together.
"That struck near by," my mother said, to our relief, for we had thought the house must tumble to pieces. The storm slackened after that, and daylight struggled back. We went on with our
playing. I noticed, as my mother went downstairs, that she kept her head turned away from the window.
Presently we heard unaccustomed sounds in the hall. The tramping and scraping of heavy feet. We looked over the banisters and saw a man being carried in by Kleiner Klaus and our gardener. The man's clothes were wet, so were his face and hair. It was Colonel Dover, staring with fixed, reproachful eyes at the lady of Duncombe House. And my mother, with a look I had never seen on her face, stood holding open the drawing-room door for the bearers to pass.
Their feet left muddy marks in the hall. . . .
We did not go downstairs till late that afternoon, when the body had been taken away.
People said the steel ferule of the umbrella had attracted the electric current.
I knew God had heard my prayer.
But in striking down my enemy he had struck the chestnut-tree. It was riven from foot to crotch.
That was the day I had in mind when I excused my laboured playing: "You expect me to be as quick as God."
End Chapter III
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