'But, after all,' he suddenly resumed, as if a new thought had struck him, 'is it quite such folly, after all? It really strikes me, dear Maud, that the subject may be worth a second thought. No, no, you won't refuse to hear me,' he said, observing me on the point of protesting. 'I am, of course, assuming that you are fancy free. I am assuming, too, that you don't care twopence about Dudley, and even that you fancy you dislike him. You know in that pleasant play, poor Sheridan—delightful fellow!—all our fine spirits are dead—he makes Mrs. Malaprop say there is nothing like beginning with a little aversion. Now, though in matrimony, of course, that is only a joke, yet in love, believe me, it is no such thing. His own marriage with Miss Ogle, I know, was a case in point. She expressed a positive horror of him at their first acquaintance; and yet, I believe, she would, a few months later, have died rather than not have married him.'
I was again about to speak, but with a smile he beckoned me into silence.
'There are two or three points you must bear in mind. One of the happiest privileges of your fortune is that you may, without imprudence, marry simply for love. There are few men in England who could offer you an estate comparable with that you already possess; or, in fact, appreciably increase the splendour of your fortune. If, therefore, he were in all other respects eligible, I can't see that his poverty would be an objection to weigh for one moment. He is quite a rough diamond. He has been, like many young men of the highest rank, too much given up to athletic sports—to that society which constitutes the aristocracy of the ring and the turf, and all that kind of thing. You see, I am putting all the worst points first. But I have known so many young men in my day, after a madcap career of a few years among prizefighters, wrestlers, and jockeys—learning their slang and affecting their manners—take up and cultivate the graces and the decencies. There was poor dear Newgate, many degrees lower in that kind of frolic, who, when he grew tired of it, became one of the most elegant and accomplished men in the House of Peers. Poor Newgate, he's gone, too! I could reckon up fifty of my early friends who all began like Dudley, and all turned out, more or less, like Newgate.'
At this moment came a knock at the door, and Dudley put in his head most inopportunely for the vision of his future graces and accomplishments.
'My good fellow,' said his father, with a sharp sort of playfulness, 'I happen to be talking about my son, and should rather not be overheard; you will, therefore, choose another time for your visit.'
Dudley hesitated gruffly at the door, but another look from his father dismissed him.
'And now, my dear, you are to remember that Dudley has fine qualities—the most affectionate son in his rough way that ever father was blessed with; most admirable qualities—indomitable courage, and a high sense of honour; and lastly, that he has the Ruthyn blood—the purest blood, I maintain it, in England.'
My uncle, as he said this, drew himself up a little, unconsciously, his thin hand laid lightly over his heart with a little patting motion, and his countenance looked so strangely dignified and melancholy, that in admiring contemplation of it I lost some sentences which followed next.
'Therefore, dear, naturally anxious that my boy should not be dismissed from home—as he must be, should you persevere in rejecting his suit—I beg that you will reserve your decision to this day fortnight, when I will with much pleasure hear what you may have to say on the subject. But till then, observe me, not a word.'
That evening he and Dudley were closeted for a long time. I suspect that he lectured him on the psychology of ladies; for a bouquet was laid beside my plate every morning at breakfast, which it must have been troublesome to get, for the conservatory at Bartram was a desert. In a few days more an anonymous green parrot arrived, in a gilt cage, with a little note in a clerk's hand, addressed to 'Miss Ruthyn (of Knowl), Bartram-Haugh,' &c. It contained only 'Directions for caring green parrot,' at the close of which, underlined, the words appeared—'The bird's name is Maud.'
The bouquets I invariably left on the table-cloth, where I found them—the bird I insisted on Milly's keeping as her property. During the intervening fortnight Dudley never appeared, as he used sometimes to do before, at luncheon, nor looked in at the window as we were at breakfast. He contented himself with one day placing himself in my way in the hall in his shooting accoutrements, and, with a clumsy, shuffling kind of respect, and hat in hand, he said—
'I think, Miss, I must a spoke uncivil t'other day. I was so awful put about, and didn't know no more nor a child what I was saying; and I wanted to tell ye I'm sorry for it, and I beg your pardon—very humble, I do.'
I did not know what to say. I therefore said nothing, but made a grave inclination, and passed on.
Two or three times Milly and I saw him at a little distance in our walks. He never attempted to join us. Once only he passed so near that some recognition was inevitable, and he stopped and in silence lifted his hat with an awkward respect. But although he did not approach us, he was ostentatious with a kind of telegraphic civility in the distance. He opened gates, he whistled his dogs to 'heel,' he drove away cattle, and then himself withdrew. I really think he watched us occasionally to render these services, for in this distant way we encountered him decidedly oftener than we used to do before his flattering proposal of marriage.
You may be sure that we discussed, Milly and I, that occurrence pretty constantly in all sorts of moods. Limited as had been her experience of human society, she very clearly saw now how far below its presentable level was her hopeful brother.
The fortnight sped swiftly, as time always does when something we dislike and shrink from awaits us at its close. I never saw Uncle Silas during that period. It may seem odd to those who merely read the report of our last interview, in which his manner had been more playful and his talk more trifling than in any other, that from it I had carried away a profounder sense of fear and insecurity than from any other. It was with a foreboding of evil and an awful dejection that on a very dark day, in Milly's room, I awaited the summons which I was sure would reach me from my punctual guardian.
As I looked from the window upon the slanting rain and leaden sky, and thought of the hated interview that awaited me, I pressed my hand to my troubled heart, and murmured, 'O that I had wings like a dove! then would I flee away, and be at rest.'
Just then the prattle of the parrot struck my ear. I looked round on the wire cage, and remembered the words, 'The bird's name is Maud.'
'Poor bird!' I said. 'I dare say, Milly, it longs to get out. If it were a native of this country, would not you like to open the window, and then the door of that cruel cage, and let the poor thing fly away?'
'Master wants Miss Maud,' said Wyat's disagreeable tones, at the half-open door.
I followed in silence, with the pressure of a near alarm at my heart, like a person going to an operation.
When I entered the room, my heart beat so fast that I could hardly speak. The tall form of Uncle Silas rose before me, and I made him a faltering reverence.
He darted from under his brows a wild, fierce glance at old Wyat, and pointed to the door imperiously with his skeleton finger. The door shut, and we were alone.
'A chair?' he said, pointing to a seat.
'Thank you, uncle, I prefer standing,' I faltered.
He also stood—his white head bowed forward, the phosphoric glare of his strange eyes shone upon me from under his brows—his finger-nails just rested on the table.
'You saw the luggage corded and addressed, as it stands ready for removal in the hall?' he asked.
I had. Milly and I had read the cards which dangled from the trunk-handles and gun-case. The address was—'Mr. Dudley R. Ruthyn, Paris, viâ Dover.'
'I am old—agitated—on the eve of a decision on which much depends. Pray relieve my suspense. Is my son to leave Bartram to-day in sorrow, or to remain in joy? Pray answer quickly.'
I stammered I know not what. I was incoherent—wild, perhaps; but somehow I expressed my meaning—my unalterable decision. I thought his lips grew whiter and his eyes shone brighter as I spoke.
When I had quite made an end, he heaved a great sigh, and turning his eyes slowly to the right and the left, like a man in a helpless distraction, he whispered—
'God's will be done.'
I thought he was upon the point of fainting—a clay tint darkened the white of his face; and, seeming to forget my presence, he sat down, looking with a despairing scowl on his ashy old hand, as it lay upon the table.
I stood gazing at him, feeling almost as if I had murdered the old man—he still gazing askance, with an imbecile scowl, upon his hand.
'Shall I go, sir?' I at length found courage to whisper.
Go? he said, looking up suddenly; and it seemed to me as if a stream of cold sheet-lightning had crossed and enveloped me for a moment.
'Go?—oh!—a—yes—yes, Maud—go. I must see poor Dudley before his departure,' he added, as it were, in soliloquy.
Trembling lest he should revoke his permission to depart, I glided quickly and noiselessly from the room.
Old Wyat was prowling outside, with a cloth in her hand, pretending to dust the carved door-case. She frowned a stare of enquiry over her shrunken arm on me, as I passed. Milly, who had been on the watch, ran and met me. We heard my uncle's voice, as I shut the door, calling Dudley. He had been waiting, probably, in the adjoining room. I hurried into my chamber, with Milly at my side, and there my agitation found relief in tears, as that of girlhood naturally does.
A little while after we saw from the window Dudley, looking, I thought, very pale, get into a vehicle, on the top of which his luggage lay, and drive away from Bartram.
I began to take comfort. His departure was an inexpressible relief. His final departure! a distant journey!
We had tea in Milly's room that night. Firelight and candles are inspiring. In that red glow I always felt and feel more safe, as well as more comfortable, than in the daylight—quite irrationally, for we know the night is the appointed day of such as love the darkness better than light, and evil walks thereby. But so it is. Perhaps the very consciousness of external danger enhances the enjoyment of the well-lighted interior, just as the storm does that roars and hurtles over the roof.
While Milly and I were talking, very cosily, a knock came to the room-door, and, without waiting for an invitation to enter, old Wyat came in, and glowering at us, with her brown claw upon the door-handle, she said to Milly—
'Ye must leave your funnin', Miss Milly, and take your turn in your father's room.'
'Is he ill?' I asked.
She answered, addressing not me, but Milly—
'A wrought two hours in a fit arter Master Dudley went. 'Twill be the death o' him, I'm thinkin', poor old fellah. I wor sorry myself when I saw Master Dudley a going off in the moist to-day, poor fellah. There's trouble enough in the family without a' that; but 'twon't be a family long, I'm thinkin'. Nout but trouble, nout but trouble, since late changes came.'
Judging by the sour glance she threw on me as she said this, I concluded that I represented those 'late changes' to which all the sorrows of the house were referred.
I felt unhappy under the ill-will even of this odious old woman, being one of those unhappily constructed mortals who cannot be indifferent when they reasonably ought, and always yearn after kindness, even that of the worthless.
'I must go. I wish you'd come wi' me, Maud, I'm so afraid all alone,' said Milly, imploringly.
'Certainly, Milly,' I answered, not liking it, you may be sure; 'you shan't sit there alone.'
So together we went, old Wyat cautioning us for our lives to make no noise.
We passed through the old man's sitting-room, where that day had occurred his brief but momentous interview with me, and his parting with his only son, and entered the bed-room at the farther end.
A low fire burned in the grate. The room was in a sort of twilight. A dim lamp near the foot of the bed at the farther side was the only light burning there. Old Wyat whispered an injunction not to speak above our breaths, nor to leave the fireside unless the sick man called or showed signs of weariness. These were the directions of the doctor, who had been there.
So Milly and I sat ourselves down near the hearth, and old Wyat left us to our resources. We could hear the patient breathe; but he was quite still. In whispers we talked; but our conversation flagged. I was, after my wont, upbraiding myself for the suffering I had inflicted. After about half an hour's desultory whispering, and intervals, growing longer and longer, of silence, it was plain that Milly was falling asleep.
She strove against it, and I tried hard to keep her talking; but it would not do—sleep overcame her; and I was the only person in that ghastly room in a state of perfect consciousness.
There were associations connected with my last vigil there to make my situation very nervous and disagreeable. Had I not had so much to occupy my mind of a distinctly practical kind—Dudley's audacious suit, my uncle's questionable toleration of it, and my own conduct throughout that most disagreeable period of my existence,—I should have felt my present situation a great deal more.
As it was, I thought of my real troubles, and something of Cousin Knollys, and, I confess, a good deal of Lord Ilbury. When looking towards the door, I thought I saw a human face, about the most terrible my fancy could have called up, looking fixedly into the room. It was only a 'three-quarter,' and not the whole figure—the door hid that in a great measure, and I fancied I saw, too, a portion of the fingers. The face gazed toward the bed, and in the imperfect light looked like a livid mask, with chalky eyes.
I had so often been startled by similar apparitions formed by accidental lights and shadows disguising homely objects, that I stooped forward, expecting, though tremulously, to see this tremendous one in like manner dissolve itself into its harmless elements; and now, to my unspeakable terror, I became perfectly certain that I saw the countenance of Madame de la Rougierre.
With a cry, I started back, and shook Milly furiously from her trance.
'Look! look!' I cried. But the apparition or illusion was gone.
I clung so fast to Milly's arm, cowering behind her, that she could not rise.
'Milly! Milly! Milly! Milly!' I went on crying, like one struck with idiotcy, and unable to say anything else.
In a panic, Milly, who had seen nothing, and could conjecture nothing of the cause of my terror, jumped up, and clinging to one another, we huddled together into the corner of the room, I still crying wildly, 'Milly! Milly! Milly!' and nothing else.
'What is it—where is it—what do you see?' cried Milly, clinging to me as I did to her.
'It will come again; it will come; oh, heaven!'
'What—what is it, Maud?'
'The face! the face!' I cried. 'Oh, Milly! Milly! Milly!'
We heard a step softly approaching the open door, and, in a horrible sauve qui peut, we rushed and stumbled together toward the light by Uncle Silas's bed. But old Wyat's voice and figure reassured us.
'Milly,' I said, so soon as, pale and very faint, I reached my apartment, 'no power on earth shall ever tempt me to enter that room again after dark.'
'Why, Maud dear, what, in Heaven's name, did you see?' said Milly, scarcely less terrified.
'Oh, I can't; I can't; I can't, Milly. Never ask me. It is haunted. The room is haunted horribly.'
'Was it Charke?' whispered Milly, looking over her shoulder, all aghast.
'No, no—don't ask me; a fiend in a worse shape.' I was relieved at last by a long fit of weeping; and all night good Mary Quince sat by me, and Milly slept by my side. Starting and screaming, and drugged with sal-volatile, I got through that night of supernatural terror, and saw the blessed light of heaven again.
Doctor Jolks, when he came to see my uncle in the morning, visited me also. He pronounced me very hysterical, made minute enquiries respecting my hours and diet, asked what I had had for dinner yesterday. There was something a little comforting in his cool and confident pooh-poohing of the ghost theory. The result was, a regimen which excluded tea, and imposed chocolate and porter, earlier hours, and I forget all beside; and he undertook to promise that, if I would but observe his directions, I should never see a ghost again.