No one who has not experienced it can imagine the nervous disgust and horror which such a spectacle as we had been forced in part to witness leaves upon the mind of a young person of my peculiar temperament.
It affected ever after my involuntary estimate of the principal actors in it. An exhibition of such thorough inferiority, accompanied by such a shock to the feminine sense of elegance, is not forgotten by any woman. Captain Oakley had been severely beaten by a smaller man. It was pitiable, but also undignified; and Milly's anxieties about his teeth and nose, though in a certain sense horrible, had also a painful suspicion of the absurd.
People say, on the other hand, that superior prowess, even in such barbarous contests, inspires in our sex an interest akin to admiration. I can positively say in my case it was quite the reverse. Dudley Ruthyn stood lower than ever in my estimation; for though I feared him more, it was by reason of these brutal and cold-blooded associations.
After this I lived in constant apprehension of being summoned to my uncle's room, and being called on for an explanation of my meeting with Captain Oakley, which, notwithstanding my perfect innocence, looked suspicious, but no such inquisition resulted. Perhaps he did not suspect me; or, perhaps, he thought, not in his haste, all women are liars, and did not care to hear what I might say. I rather lean to the latter interpretation.
The exchequer just now, I suppose, by some means, was replenished, for next morning Dudley set off upon one of his fashionable excursions, as poor Milly thought them, to Wolverhampton. And the same day Dr. Bryerly arrived.
Milly and I, from my room window, saw him step from his vehicle to the court-yard.
A lean man, with sandy hair and whiskers, was in the chaise with him. Dr. Bryerly descended in the unchangeable black suit that always looked new and never fitted him.
The Doctor looked careworn, and older, I thought, by several years, than when I last saw him. He was not shown up to my uncle's room; on the contrary, Milly, who was more actively curious than I, ascertained that our tremulous butler informed him that my uncle was not sufficiently well for an interview. Whereupon Dr. Bryerly had pencilled a note, the reply to which was a message from Uncle Silas, saying that he would be happy to see him in five minutes.
As Milly and I were conjecturing what it might mean, and before the five minutes had expired, Mary Quince entered.
'Wyat bid me tell you, Miss, your uncle wants you this minute.'
When I entered his room, Uncle Silas was seated at the table, with his desk before him. He looked up. Could anything be more dignified, suffering, and venerable?
'I sent for you, dear,' he said very gently, extending his thin, white hand, and taking mine, which he held affectionately while he spoke, 'because I desire to have no secrets, and wish you thoroughly to know all that concerns your own interests while subject to my guardianship; and I am happy to think, my beloved niece, that you requite my candour. Oh, here is the gentleman. Sit down, dear.'
Doctor Bryerly was advancing, as it seemed, to shake hands with Uncle Silas, who, however, rose with a severe and haughty air, not the least over-acted, and made him a slow, ceremonious bow. I wondered how the homely Doctor could confront so tranquilly that astounding statue of hauteur.
A faint and weary smile, rather sad than comtemptuous, was the only sign he showed of feeling his repulse.
'How do you do, Miss?' he said, extending his hand, and greeting me after his ungallant fashion, as if it were an afterthought.
'I think I may as well take a chair, sir,' said Doctor Bryerly, sitting down serenely, near the table, and crossing his ungainly legs.
My uncle bowed.
'You understand the nature of the business, sir. Do you wish Miss Ruthyn to remain?' asked Doctor Bryerly.
'I sent for her, sir,' replied my uncle, in a very gentle and sarcastic tone, a smile on his thin lips, and his strangely-contorted eyebrows raised for a moment contemptuously. 'This gentleman, my dear Maud, thinks proper to insinuate that I am robbing you. It surprises me a little, and, no doubt, you—I've nothing to conceal, and wished you to be present while he favours me more particularly with his views. I'm right, I think, in describing it as robbery, sir?'
'Why,' said Doctor Bryerly thoughtfully, for he was treating the matter as one of right, and not of feeling, 'it would be, certainly, taking that which does not belong to you, and converting it to your own use; but, at the worst, it would more resemble thieving, I think, than robbery.'
I saw Uncle Silas's lip, eyelid, and thin cheek quiver and shrink, as if with a thrill of tic-douloureux, as Doctor Bryerly spoke this unconsciously insulting answer. My uncle had, however, the self-command which is learned at the gaming-table. He shrugged, with a chilly, sarcastic, little laugh, and a glance at me.
'Your note says waste, I think, sir?'
'Yes, waste—the felling and sale of timber in the Windmill Wood, the selling of oak bark and burning of charcoal, as I'm informed,' said Bryerly, as sadly and quietly as a man might relate a piece of intelligence from the newspaper.
'Detectives? or private spies of your own—or, perhaps, my servants, bribed with my poor brother's money? A very high-minded procedure.'
'Nothing of the kind, sir.'
My uncle sneered.
'I mean, sir, there has been no undue canvass for evidence, and the question is simply one of right; and it is our duty to see that this inexperienced young lady is not defrauded.'
'By her own uncle?'
'By anyone,' said Doctor Bryerly, with a natural impenetrability that excited my admiration.
'Of course you come armed with an opinion?' said my smiling uncle, insinuatingly.
'The case is before Mr. Serjeant Grinders. These bigwigs don't return their cases sometimes so quickly as we could wish.'
'Then you have no opinion?' smiled my uncle.
'My solicitor is quite clear upon it; and it seems to me there can be no question raised, but for form's sake.'
'Yes, for form's sake you take one, and in the meantime, upon a nice question of law, the surmises of a thick-headed attorney and of an ingenious apoth—I beg pardon, physician—are sufficient warrant for telling my niece and ward, in my presence, that I am defrauding her!'
My uncle leaned back in his chair, and smiled with a contemptuous patience over Doctor Bryerly's head, as he spoke.
'I don't know whether I used that expression, sir, but I am speaking merely in a technical sense. I mean to say, that, whether by mistake or otherwise, you are exercising a power which you don't lawfully possess, and that the effect of that is to impoverish the estate, and, by so much as it benefits you, to wrong this young lady.'
'I'm a technical defrauder, I see, and your manner conveys the rest. I thank my God, sir, I am a very different man from what I once was.' Uncle Silas was speaking in a low tone, and with extraordinary deliberation. 'I remember when I should have certainly knocked you down, sir, or tried it, at least, for a great deal less.'
'But seriously, sir, what do you propose?' asked Doctor Bryerly, sternly and a little flushed, for I think the old man was stirred within him; and though he did not raise his voice, his manner was excited.
'I propose to defend my rights, sir,' murmured Uncle Silas, very grim. 'I'm not without an opinion, though you are.'
You seem to think, sir, that I have a pleasure in annoying you; you are quite wrong. I hate annoying anyone—constitutionally—I hate it; but don't you see, sir, the position I'm placed in? I wish I could please everyone, and do my duty.'
Uncle Silas bowed and smiled.
'I've brought with me the Scotch steward from Tolkingden, your estate, Miss, and if you let us we will visit the spot and make a note of what we observe, that is, assuming that you admit waste, and merely question our law.'
'If you please, sir, you and your Scotchman shall do no such thing; and, bearing in mind that I neither deny nor admit anything, you will please further never more to present yourself, under any pretext whatsoever, either in this house or on the grounds of Bartram-Haugh, during my lifetime.'
Uncle Silas rose up with the same glassy smile and scowl, in token that the interview was ended.
'Good-bye, sir,' said Doctor Bryerly, with a sad and thoughtful air, and hesitating for a moment, he said to me, 'Do you think, Miss, you could afford me a word in the hall?'
'Not a word, sir,' snarled Uncle Silas, with a white flash from his eyes.
There was a pause.
'Sit where you are, Maud.'
'If you have anything to say to my ward, sir, you will please to say it here.'
Doctor Bryerly's dark and homely face was turned on me with an expression of unspeakable compassion.
'I was going to say, that if you think of any way in which I can be of the least service, Miss, I'm ready to act, that's all; mind, any way.'
He hesitated, looking at me with the same expression as if he had something more to say; but he only repeated—
'That's all, Miss.'
'Won't you shake hands, Doctor Bryerly, before you go?' I said, eagerly approaching him.
Without a smile, with the same sad anxiety in his face, with his mind, as it seemed to me, on something else, and irresolute whether to speak it or be silent, he took my fingers in a very cold hand, and holding it so, and slowly shaking it, his grave and troubled glance unconsciously rested on Uncle Silas's face, while in a sad tone and absent way he said—
From before that sad gaze my uncle averted his strange eyes quickly, and looked, oddly, to the window.
In a moment more Doctor Bryerly let my hand go with a sigh, and with an abrupt little nod to me, he left the room; and I heard that dismallest of sounds, the retreating footsteps of a true friend, lost.
'Lead us not into temptation; if we pray so, we must not mock the eternal Majesty of Heaven by walking into temptation of our own accord.'
This oracular sentence was not uttered by my uncle until Doctor Bryerly had been gone at least five minutes.
'I've forbid him my house, Maud—first, because his perfectly unconscious insolence tries my patience nearly beyond endurance; and again, because I have heard unfavourable reports of him. On the question of right which he disputes, I am perfectly informed. I am your tenant, my dear niece; when I am gone you will learn how scrupulous I have been; you will see how, under the pressure of the most agonising pecuniary difficulties, the terrific penalty of a misspent youth, I have been careful never by a hair's breadth to transgress the strict line of my legal privileges; alike, as your tenant, Maud, and as your guardian; how, amid frightful agitations, I have kept myself, by the miraculous strength and grace vouchsafed me—pure.
'The world,' he resumed after a short pause, 'has no faith in any man's conversion; it never forgets what he was, it never believes him anything better, it is an inexorable and stupid judge. What I was I will describe in blacker terms, and with more heartfelt detestation, than my traducers—a reckless prodigal, a godless profligate. Such I was; what I am, I am. If I had no hope beyond this world, of all men most miserable; but with that hope, a sinner saved.'
Then he waxed eloquent and mystical. I think his Swedenborgian studies had crossed his notions of religion with strange lights. I never could follow him quite in these excursions into the region of symbolism. I only recollect that he talked of the deluge and the waters of Mara, and said, 'I am washed—I am sprinkled,' and then, pausing, bathed his thin temples and forehead with eau de Cologne; a process which was, perhaps, suggested by his imagery of sprinkling and so forth.
Thus refreshed, he sighed and smiled, and passed to the subject of Doctor Bryerly.
'Of Doctor Bryerly, I know that he is sly, that he loves money, was born poor, and makes nothing by his profession. But he possesses many thousand pounds, under my poor brother's will, of your money; and he has glided with, of course a modest "nolo episcopari," into the acting trusteeship, with all its multitudinous opportunities, of your immense property. That is not doing so badly for a visionary Swedenborgian. Such a man must prosper. But if he expected to make money of me, he is disappointed. Money, however, he will make of his trusteeship, as you will see. It is a dangerous resolution. But if he will seek the life of Dives, the worst I wish him is to find the death of Lazarus. But whether, like Lazarus, he be borne of angels into Abraham's bosom, or, like the rich man, only dies and is buried, and the rest, neither living nor dying do I desire his company.'
Uncle Silas here seemed suddenly overtaken by exhaustion. He leaned back with a ghastly look, and his lean features glistened with the dew of faintness. I screamed for Wyat. But he soon recovered sufficiently to smile his odd smile, and with it and his frown, nodded and waved me away.