Uncle Silas

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter L

A few days' time saw me much better. Doctor Jolks was so contemptuously sturdy and positive on the point, that I began to have comfortable doubts about the reality of my ghost; and having still a horror indescribable of the illusion, if such it were, the room in which it appeared, and everything concerning it, I would neither speak, nor, so far as I could, think of it.

So, though Bartram-Haugh was gloomy as well as beautiful, and some of its associations awful, and the solitude that reigned there sometimes almost terrible, yet early hours, bracing exercise, and the fine air that predominates that region, soon restored my nerves to a healthier tone.

But it seemed to me that Bartram-Haugh was to be to me a vale of tears; or rather, in my sad pilgrimage, that valley of the shadow of death through which poor Christian fared alone and in the dark.

One day Milly ran into the parlour, pale, with wet cheeks, and, without saying a word, threw her arms about my neck, and burst into a paroxysm of weeping.

'What is it, Milly—what's the matter, dear—what is it?' I cried aghast, but returning her close embrace heartily.

'Oh! Maud—Maud darling, he's going to send me away.'

'Away, dear! where away? And leave me alone in this dreadful solitude, where he knows I shall die of fear and grief without you? Oh! no—no, it must be a mistake.'

'I'm going to France, Maud—I'm going away. Mrs. Jolks is going to London, day ar'ter to-morrow, and I'm to go wi' her; and an old French lady, he says, from the school will meet me there, and bring me the rest o' the way.'

'Oh—ho—ho—ho—ho—o—o—o!' cried poor Milly, hugging me closer still, with her head buried in my shoulder, and swaying me about like a wrestler, in her agony.

'I never wor away from home afore, except that little bit wi' you over there at Elverston; and you wor wi' me then, Maud; an' I love ye—better than Bartram—better than a'; an' I think I'll die, Maud, if they take me away.'

I was just as wild in my woe as poor Milly; and it was not until we had wept together for a full hour—sometimes standing—sometimes walking up and down the room—sometimes sitting and getting up in turns to fall on one another's necks,—that Milly, plucking her handkerchief from her pocket, drew a note from it at the same time, which, as it fell upon the floor, she at once recollected to be one from Uncle Silas to me.

It was to this effect:—

'I wish to apprise my dear niece and ward of my plans. Milly proceeds to an admirable French school, as a pensionnaire, and leaves this on Thursday next. If after three months' trial she finds it in any way objectionable, she returns to us. If, on the contrary, she finds it in all respects the charming residence it has been presented to me, you, on the expiration of that period, join her there, until the temporary complication of my affairs shall have been so far adjusted as to enable me to receive you once more at Bartram. Hoping for happier days, and wishing to assure you that three months is the extreme limit of your separation from my poor Milly, I have written this, feeling alas! unequal to seeing you at present.

'Bartram, Tuesday. 'P.S.—I can have no objection to your apprising Monica Knollys of these arrangements. You will understand, of course, not a copy of this letter, but its substance.' Over this document, scanning it as lawyers do a new Act of Parliament, we took comfort. After all, it was limited; a separation not to exceed three months, possibly much shorter. On the whole, too, I pleased myself with thinking Uncle Silas's note, though peremptory, was kind. Our paroxysms subsided into sadness; a close correspondence was arranged. Something of the bustle and excitement of change supervened. If it turned out to be, in truth, a 'charming residence,' how very delightful our meeting in France, with the interest of foreign scenery, ways, and faces, would be! So Thursday arrived—a new gush of sorrow—a new brightening up—and, amid regrets and anticipations, we parted at the gate at the farther end of the Windmill Wood. Then, of course, were more good-byes, more embraces, and tearful smiles. Good Mrs. Jolks, who met us there, was in a huge fuss; I believe it was her first visit to the metropolis, and she was in proportion heated and important, and terrified about the train, so we had not many last words. I watched poor Milly, whose head was stretched from the window, her hand waving many adieux, until the curve of the road, and the clump of old ash-trees, thick with ivy, hid Milly, carriage and all, from view. My eyes filled again with tears. I turned towards Bartram. At my side stood honest Mary Quince. 'Don't take on so, Miss; 'twon't be no time passing; three months is nothing at all,' she said, smiling kindly. I smiled through my tears and kissed the good creature, and so side by side we re-entered the gate. The lithe young man in fustian, whom I had seen talking with Beauty on the morning of our first encounter with that youthful Amazon, was awaiting our re-entrance with the key in his hand. He stood half behind the open wicket. One lean brown cheek, one shy eye, and his sharp upturned nose, I saw as we passed. He was treating me to a stealthy scrutiny, and seemed to shun my glance, for he shut the door quickly, and busied himself locking it, and then began stubbing up some thistles which grew close by, with the toe of his thick shoe, his back to us all the time. It struck me that I recognised his features, and I asked Mary Quince. 'Have you seen that young man before, Quince?' 'He brings up game for your uncle, sometimes, Miss, and lends a hand in the garden, I believe.' 'Do you know his name, Mary?' 'They call him Tom, I don't know what more, Miss.' 'Tom,' I called; 'please, Tom, come here for a moment.' Tom turned about, and approached slowly. He was more civil than the Bartram people usually were, for he plucked off his shapeless cap of rabbit-skin with a clownish respect. 'Tom, what is your other name,—Tom what, my good man?' I asked. 'Tom Brice, ma'am.' 'Haven't I seen you before, Tom Brice?' I pursued, for my curiosity was excited, and with it much graver feelings; for there certainly was a resemblance in Tom's features to those of the postilion who had looked so hard at me as I passed the carriage in the warren at Knowl, on the evening of the outrage which had scared that quiet place. Appen you may have, ma'am,' he answered, quite coolly, looking down the buttons of his gaiters. 'Are you a good whip—do you drive well?' 'I'll drive a plough wi' most lads hereabout,' answered Tom. 'Have you ever been to Knowl, Tom?' Tom gaped very innocently. 'Anan,' he said. 'Here, Tom, is half-a-crown.' He took it readily enough. 'That be very good,' said Tom, with a nod, having glanced sharply at the coin. I can't say whether he applied that term to the coin, or to his luck, or to my generous self. 'Now, Tom, you'll tell me, have you ever been to Knowl?' 'Maught a' bin, ma'am, but I don't mind no sich place—no.' As Tom spoke this with great deliberation, like a man who loves truth, putting a strain upon his memory for its sake, he spun the silver coin two or three times into the air and caught it, staring at it the while, with all his might. 'Now, Tom, recollect yourself, and tell me the truth, and I'll be a friend to you. Did you ride postilion to a carriage having a lady in it, and, I think, several gentlemen, which came to the grounds of Knowl, when the party had their luncheon on the grass, and there was a—a quarrel with the gamekeepers? Try, Tom, to recollect; you shall, upon my honour, have no trouble about it, and I'll try to serve you.' Tom was silent, while with a vacant gape he watched the spin of his half-crown twice, and then catching it with a smack in his hand, which he thrust into his pocket, he said, still looking in the same direction— 'I never rid postilion in my days, ma'am. I know nout o' sich a place, though 'appen I maught a' bin there; Knowl, ye ca't. I was ne'er out o' Derbyshire but thrice to Warwick fair wi' horses be rail, an' twice to York.' 'You're certain, Tom?' 'Sartin sure, ma'am.' And Tom made another loutish salute, and cut the conference short by turning off the path and beginning to hollo after some trespassing cattle. I had not felt anything like so nearly sure in this essay at identification as I had in that of Dudley. Even of Dudley's identity with the Church Scarsdale man, I had daily grown less confident; and, indeed, had it been proposed to bring it to the test of a wager, I do not think I should, in the language of sporting gentlemen, have cared to 'back' my original opinion. There was, however, a sufficient uncertainty to make me uncomfortable; and there was another uncertainty to enhance the unpleasant sense of ambiguity. On our way back we passed the bleaching trunks and limbs of several ranks of barkless oaks lying side by side, some squared by the hatchet, perhaps sold, for there were large letters and Roman numerals traced upon them in red chalk. I sighed as I passed them by, not because it was wrongfully done, for I really rather leaned to the belief that Uncle Silas was well advised in point of law. But, alas! here lay low the grand old family decorations of Bartram-Haugh, not to be replaced for centuries to come, under whose spreading boughs the Ruthyns of three hundred years ago had hawked and hunted! On the trunk of one of these I sat down to rest, Mary Quince meanwhile pattering about in unmeaning explorations. While thus listlessly seated, the girl Meg Hawkes, walked by, carrying a basket. 'Hish!' she said quickly, as she passed, without altering a pace or raising her eyes; 'don't ye speak nor look—fayther spies us; I'll tell ye next turn.' 'Next turn'—when was that? Well, she might be returning; and as she could not then say more than she had said, in merely passing without a pause, I concluded to wait for a short time and see what would come of it. After a short time I looked about me a little, and I saw Dickon Hawkes—Pegtop, as poor Milly used to call him—with an axe in his hand, prowling luridly among the timber. Observing that I saw him, he touched his hat sulkily, and by-and-by passed me, muttering to himself. He plainly could not understand what business I could have in that particular part of the Windmill Wood, and let me see it in his countenance. His daughter did pass me again; but this time he was near, and she was silent. Her next transit occurred as he was questioning Mary Quince at some little distance; and as she passed precisely in the same way, she said— 'Don't you be alone wi' Master Dudley nowhere for the world's worth.' The injunction was so startling that I was on the point of questioning the girl. But I recollected myself, and waited in the hope that in her future transits she might be more explicit. But one word more she did not utter, and the jealous eye of old Pegtop was so constantly upon us that I refrained. There was vagueness and suggestion enough in the oracle to supply work for many an hour of anxious conjecture, and many a horrible vigil by night. Was I never to know peace at Bartram-Haugh? Ten days of poor Milly's absence, and of my solitude, had already passed, when my uncle sent for me to his room. When old Wyat stood at the door, mumbling and snarling her message, my heart died within me. It was late—just that hour when dejected people feel their anxieties most—when the cold grey of twilight has deepened to its darkest shade, and before the cheerful candles are lighted, and the safe quiet of the night sets in. When I entered my uncle's sitting-room—though his window-shutters were open and the wan streaks of sunset visible through them, like narrow lakes in the chasms of the dark western clouds—a pair of candles were burning; one stood upon the table by his desk, the other on the chimneypiece, before which his tall, thin figure stooped. His hand leaned on the mantelpiece, and the light from the candle just above his bowed head touched his silvery hair. He was looking, as it seemed, into the subsiding embers of the fire, and was a very statue of forsaken dejection and decay. 'Uncle!' I ventured to say, having stood for some time unperceived near his table. 'Ah, yes, Maud, my dear child—my dear child.' He turned, and with the candle in his hand, smiling his silvery smile of suffering on me. He walked more feebly and stiffly, I thought, than I had ever seen him move before. 'Sit down, Maud—pray sit there.' I took the chair he indicated. 'In my misery and my solitude, Maud, I have invoked you like a spirit, and you appear.' With his two hands leaning on the table, he looked across at me, in a stooping attitude; he had not seated himself. I continued silent until it should be his pleasure to question or address me. At last he said, raising himself and looking upward, with a wild adoration—his finger-tips elevated and glimmering in the faint mixed light— 'No, I thank my Creator, I am not quite forsaken.' Another silence, during which he looked steadfastly at me, and muttered, as if thinking aloud— 'My guardian angel!—my guardian angel! Maud, you have a heart.' He addressed me suddenly—'Listen, for a few moments, to the appeal of an old and broken-hearted man—your guardian—your uncle—your suppliant. I had resolved never to speak to you more on this subject. But I was wrong. It was pride that inspired me—mere pride.' I felt myself growing pale and flushed by turns during the pause that followed. 'I'm very miserable—very nearly desperate. What remains for me—what remains? Fortune has done her worst—thrown in the dust, her wheels rolled over me; and the servile world, who follow her chariot like a mob, stamp upon the mangled wretch. All this had passed over me, and left me scarred and bloodless in this solitude. It was not my fault, Maud—I say it was no fault of mine; I have no remorse, though more regrets than I can count, and all scored with fire. As people passed by Bartram, and looked upon its neglected grounds and smokeless chimneys, they thought my plight, I dare say, about the worst a proud man could be reduced to. They could not imagine one half its misery. But this old hectic—this old epileptic—this old spectre of wrongs, calamities, and follies, had still one hope—my manly though untutored son—the last male scion of the Ruthyns. Maud, have I lost him? His fate—my fate—I may say Milly's fate;—we all await your sentence. He loves you, as none but the very young can love, and that once only in a life. He loves you desperately—a most affectionate nature—a Ruthyn, the best blood in England—the last man of the race; and I—if I lose him I lose all; and you will see me in my coffin, Maud, before many months. I stand before you in the attitude of a suppliant—shall I kneel?' His eyes were fixed on me with the light of despair, his knotted hands clasped, his whole figure bowed toward me. I was inexpressibly shocked and pained. 'Oh, uncle! uncle!' I cried, and from very excitement I burst into tears. I saw that his eyes were fixed on me with a dismal scrutiny. I think he divined the nature of my agitation; but he determined, notwithstanding, to press me while my helpless agitation continued. 'You see my suspense—you see my miserable and frightful suspense. You are kind, Maud; you love your father's memory; your pity your father's brother; you would not say no, and place a pistol at his head?' 'Oh! I must—I must—I must say no. Oh! spare me, uncle, for Heaven's sake. Don't question me—don't press me. I could not—I could not do what you ask.' 'I yield, Maud—I yield, my dear. I will not press you; you shall have time, your own time, to think. I will accept no answer now—no, none, Maud.' He said this, raising his thin hand to silence me. 'There, Maud, enough. I have spoken, as I always do to you, frankly, perhaps too frankly; but agony and despair will speak out, and plead, even with the most obdurate and cruel.' With these words Uncle Silas entered his bed-chamber, and shut the door, not violently, but with a resolute hand, and I thought I heard a cry. I hastened to my own room. I threw myself on my knees, and thanked Heaven for the firmness vouchsafed me; I could not believe it to have been my own. I was more miserable in consequence of this renewed suit on behalf of my odious cousin than I can describe. My uncle had taken such a line of importunity that it became a sort of agony to resist. I thought of the possibility of my hearing of his having made away with himself, and was every morning relieved when I heard that he was still as usual. I have often wondered since at my own firmness. In that dreadful interview with my uncle I had felt, in the whirl and horror of my mind, on the very point of submitting, just as nervous people are said to throw themselves over precipices through sheer dread of falling.

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