So now at last I had heard the story of Uncle Silas's mysterious disgrace. We sat silent for a while, and I, gazing into vacancy, sent him in a chariot of triumph, chapletted, ringed, and robed through the city of imagination, crying after him, 'Innocent! innocent! martyr and crowned!' All the virtues and honesties, reason and conscience, in myriad shapes—tier above tier of human faces—from the crowded pavement, crowded windows, crowded roofs, joined in the jubilant acclamation, and trumpeters trumpeted, and drums rolled, and great organs and choirs through open cathedral gates, rolled anthems of praise and thanksgiving, and the bells rang out, and cannons sounded, and the air trembled with the roaring harmony; and Silas Ruthyn, the full-length portrait, stood in the burnished chariot, with a proud, sad, clouded face, that rejoiced not with the rejoicers, and behind him the slave, thin as a ghost, white-faced, and sneering something in his ear: while I and all the city went on crying 'Innocent! innocent! martyr and crowned!' And now the reverie was ended; and there were only Lady Knollys' stern, thoughtful face, with the pale light of sarcasm on it, and the storm outside thundering and lamenting desolately.
It was very good of Cousin Monica to stay with me so long. It must have been unspeakably tiresome. And now she began to talk of business at home, and plainly to prepare for immediate flight, and my heart sank.
I know that I could not then have defined my feelings and agitations. I am not sure that I even now could. Any misgiving about Uncle Silas was, in my mind, a questioning the foundations of my faith, and in itself an impiety. And yet I am not sure that some such misgiving, faint, perhaps, and intermittent, may not have been at the bottom of my tribulation.
I was not very well. Lady Knollys had gone out for a walk. She was not easily tired, and sometimes made a long excursion. The sun was setting now, when Mary Quince brought me a letter which had just arrived by the post. My heart throbbed violently. I was afraid to break the broad black seal. It was from Uncle Silas. I ran over in my mind all the unpleasant mandates which it might contain, to try and prepare myself for a shock. At last I opened the letter. It directed me to hold myself in readiness for the journey to Bartram-Haugh. It stated that I might bring two maids with me if I wished so many, and that his next letter would give me the details of my route, and the day of my departure for Derbyshire; and he said that I ought to make arrangements about Knowl during my absence, but that he was hardly the person properly to be consulted on that matter. Then came a prayer that he might be enabled to acquit himself of his trust to the full satisfaction of his conscience, and that I might enter upon my new relations in a spirit of prayer.
I looked round my room, so long familiar, and now so endeared by the idea of parting and change. The old house—dear, dear Knowl, how could I leave you and all your affectionate associations, and kind looks and voices, for a strange land!
With a great sigh I took Uncle Silas's letter, and went down stairs to the drawing-room. From the lobby window, where I loitered for a few moments, I looked out upon the well-known forest-trees. The sun was down. It was already twilight, and the white vapours of coming night were already filming their thinned and yellow foliage. Everything looked melancholy. How little did those who envied the young inheritrex of a princely fortune suspect the load that lay at her heart, or, bating the fear of death, how gladly at that moment she would have parted with her life!
Lady Knollys had not yet returned, and it was darkening rapidly; a mass of black clouds stood piled in the west, through the chasms of which was still reflected a pale metallic lustre.
The drawing-room was already very dark; but some streaks of this cold light fell upon a black figure, which would otherwise have been unseen, leaning beside the curtains against the window frame.
It advanced abruptly, with creaking shoes; it was Doctor Bryerly.
I was startled and surprised, not knowing how he had got there. I stood staring at him in the dusk rather awkwardly, I am afraid.
'How do you do, Miss Ruthyn?' said he, extending his hand, long, hard, and brown as a mummy's, and stooping a little so as to approach more nearly, for it was not easy to see in the imperfect light. 'You're surprised, I dare say, to see me here so soon again?'
'I did not know you had arrived. I am glad to see you, Doctor Bryerly. Nothing unpleasant, I hope, has happened?'
'No, nothing unpleasant, Miss. The will has been lodged, and we shall have probate in due course; but there has been something on my mind, and I'm come to ask you two or three questions which you had better answer very considerately. Is Miss Knollys still here?'
'Yes, but she is not returned from her walk.'
'I am glad she is here. I think she takes a sound view, and women understand one another better. As for me, it is plainly my duty to put it before you as it strikes me, and to offer all I can do in accomplishing, should you wish it, a different arrangement. You don't know your uncle, you said the other day?'
'No, I've never seen him.'
'You understand your late father's intention in making you his ward?'
'I suppose he wished to show his high opinion of my uncle's fitness for such a trust.'
'That's quite true; but the nature of the trust in this instance is extraordinary.'
'I don't understand.'
'Why, if you die before you come to the age of twenty-one, the entire of the property will go to him—do you see?—and he has the custody of your person in the meantime; you are to live in his house, under his care and authority. You see now, I think, how it is; and I did not like it when your father read the will to me, and I said so. Do you?'
I hesitated to speak, not sure that I quite comprehended him.
'And the more I think of it, the less I like it, Miss,' said Doctor Bryerly, in a calm, stern tone.
'Merciful Heaven! Doctor Bryerly, you can't suppose that I should not be as safe in my uncle's house as in the Lord Chancellor's?' I ejaculated, looking full in his face.
'But don't you see, Miss, it is not a fair position to put your uncle in,' replied he, after a little hesitation.
'But suppose he does not think so. You know, if he does, he may decline it.'
'Well that's true—but he won't. Here is his letter'—and he produced it—'announcing officially that he means to accept the office; but I think he ought to be told it is not delicate, under all circumstances. You know, Miss, that your uncle, Mr. Silas Ruthyn, was talked about unpleasantly once.'
'You mean'—I began.
'I mean about the death of Mr. Charke, at Bartram-Haugh.'
'Yes, I have heard that,' I said; he was speaking with a shocking aplomb.
'We assume, of course, unjustly; but there are many who think quite differently.'
'And possibly, Doctor Bryerly, it was for that very reason that my dear papa made him my guardian.'
'There can be no doubt of that, Miss; it was to purge him of that scandal.'
'And when he has acquitted himself honourably of that trust, don't you think such a proof of confidence so honourably fulfilled must go far to silence his traducers?'
'Why, if all goes well, it may do a little; but a great deal less than you fancy. But take it that you happen to die, Miss, during your minority. We are all mortal, and there are three years and some months to go; how will it be then? Don't you see? Just fancy how people will talk.'
'I think you know that my uncle is a religious man?' said I.
'Well, Miss, what of that?' he asked again.
'He is—he has suffered intensely,' I continued. 'He has long retired from the world; he is very religious. Ask our curate, Mr. Fairfield, if you doubt it.'
'But I am not disputing it, Miss; I'm only supposing what may happen—an accident, we'll call it small-pox, diphtheria, that's going very much. Three years and three months, you know, is a long time. You proceed to Bartram-Haugh, thinking you have much goods laid up for many years; but your Creator, you know, may say, "Thou fool, this day is thy soul required of thee." You go—and what pray is thought of your uncle, Mr. Silas Ruthyn, who walks in for the entire inheritance, and who has long been abused like a pickpocket, or worse, in his own county, I'm told?'
'You are a religious man, Doctor Bryerly, according to your lights?' I said.
The Swedenborgian smiled.
'Well, knowing that he is so too, and having yourself experienced the power of religion, do not you think him deserving of every confidence? Don't you think it well that he should have this opportunity of exhibiting both his own character and the reliance which my dear papa reposed on it, and that we should leave all consequences and contingencies in the hands of Heaven?'
'It appears to have been the will of Heaven hitherto,' said Doctor Bryerly—I could not see with what expression of face, but he was looking down, and drawing little diagrams with his stick on the dark carpet, and spoke in a very low tone—'that your uncle should suffer under this ill report. In countervailing the appointment of Providence, we must employ our reason, with conscientious diligence, as to the means, and if we find that they are as likely to do mischief as good, we have no right to expect a special interposition to turn our experiment into an ordeal. I think you ought to weigh it well—I am sure there are reasons against it. If you make up your mind that you would rather be placed under the care, say of Lady Knollys, I will endeavour all I can to effect it.'
'That could not be done without his consent, could it?' said I.
'No, but I don't despair of getting that—on terms, of course,' remarked he.
'I don't quite understand,' I said.
'I mean, for instance, if he were allowed to keep the allowance for your maintenance—eh?'
'I mistake my uncle Silas very much,' I said, 'if that allowance is any object whatever to him compared with the moral value of the position. If he were deprived of that, I am sure he would decline the other.'
'We might try him at all events,' said Doctor Bryerly, on whose dark sinewy features, even in this imperfect light, I thought I detected a smile.
'Perhaps,' said I, 'I appear very foolish in supposing him actuated by any but sordid motives; but he is my near relation, and I can't help it, sir.'
'That is a very serious thing, Miss Ruthyn,' he replied. 'You are very young, and cannot see it at present, as you will hereafter. He is very religious, you say, and all that, but his house is not a proper place for you. It is a solitude—its master an outcast, and it has been the repeated scene of all sorts of scandals, and of one great crime; and Lady Knollys thinks your having been domesticated there will be an injury to you all the days of your life.'
'So I do, Maud,' said Lady Knollys, who had just entered the room unperceived,—'How do you do, Doctor Bryerly?—a serious injury. You have no idea how entirely that house is condemned and avoided, and the very name of its inmates tabooed.'
'How monstrous—how cruel!' I exclaimed.
'Very unpleasant, my dear, but perfectly natural. You are to recollect that quite independently of the story of Mr. Charke, the house was talked about, and the county people had cut your uncle Silas long before that adventure was dreamed of; and as to the circumstance of your being placed in his charge by his brother, who took, from strong family feeling, a totally one-sided view of the affair from the first, having the slightest effect in restoring his position in the county, you must quite give that up. Except me, if he will allow me, and the clergyman, not a soul in the country will visit at Bartram-Haugh. They may pity you, and think the whole thing the climax of folly and cruelty; but they won't visit at Bartram, or know Silas, or have anything to do with his household.'
'They will see, at all events, what my dear papa's opinion was.'
'They know that already,' answered she, 'and it has not, and ought not to have, the slightest weight with them. There are people there who think themselves just as great as the Ruthyns, or greater; and your poor father's idea of carrying it by a demonstration was simply the dream of a man who had forgotten the world, and learned to exaggerate himself in his long seclusion. I know he was beginning himself to hesitate; and I think if he had been spared another year that provision of his will would have been struck out.'
Doctor Bryerly nodded, and he said—
'And if he had the power to dictate now, would he insist on that direction? It is a mistake every way, injurious to you, his child; and should you happen to die during your sojourn under your uncle's care, it would woefully defeat the testator's object, and raise such a storm of surmise and inquiry as would awaken all England, and send the old scandal on the wing through the world again.'
'Doctor Bryerly will, I have no doubt, arrange it all. In fact, I do not think it would be very difficult to bring Silas to terms; and if you do not consent to his trying, Maud, mark my words, you will live to repent it.'
Here were two persons viewing the question from totally different points; both perfectly disinterested; both in their different ways, I believe, shrewd and even wise; and both honourable, urging me against it, and in a way that undefinably alarmed my imagination, as well as moved my reason. I looked from one to the other—there was a silence. By this time the candles had come, and we could see one another.
'I only wait your decision, Miss Ruthyn,' said the trustee, 'to see your uncle. If his advantage was the chief object contemplated in this arrangement, he will be the best judge whether his interest is really best consulted by it or no; and I think he will clearly see that it is not so, and will answer accordingly.'
'I cannot answer now—you must allow me to think it over—I will do my best. I am very much obliged, my dear Cousin Monica, you are so very good, and you too, Doctor Bryerly.'
Doctor Bryerly by this time was looking into his pocket-book, and did not acknowledge my thanks even by a nod.
'I must be in London the day after to-morrow. Bartram-Haugh is nearly sixty miles from here, and only twenty of that by rail, I find. Forty miles of posting over those Derbyshire mountains is slow work; but if you say try, I'll see him to-morrow morning.'
'You must say try—you must, my dear Maud.'
'But how can I decide in a moment? Oh, dear Cousin Monica, I am so distracted!'
'But you need not decide at all; the decision rests with him. Come; he is more competent than you. You must say yes.'
Again I looked from her to Doctor Bryerly, and from him to her again. I threw my arms about her neck, and hugging her closely to me, I cried—
'Oh, Cousin Monica, dear Cousin Monica, advise me. I am a wretched creature. You must advise me.'
I did not know till now how irresolute a character was mine.
I knew somehow by the tone of her voice that she was smiling as she answered—
'Why, dear, I have advised you; I do advise you;' and then she added, impetuously, 'I entreat and implore, if you really think I love you, that you will follow my advice. It is your duty to leave your uncle Silas, whom you believe to be more competent than you are, to decide, after full conference with Doctor Bryerly, who knows more of your poor father's views and intentions in making that appointment than either you or I.'
'Shall I say, yes?' I cried, drawing her close, and kissing her helplessly.' Oh, tell me—tell me to say, yes.'
'Yes, of course, yes. She agrees, Doctor Bryerly, to your kind proposal.'
'I am to understand so?' he asked.
'Very well—yes, Doctor Bryerly,' I replied.
'You have resolved wisely and well,' said he, briskly, like a man who has got a care off his mind.
'I forgot to say, Doctor Bryerly—it was very rude—that you must stay here to-night.'
'He can't, my dear,' interposed Lady Knolly's; 'it is a long way.'
'He will dine. Won't you, Doctor Bryerly?'
'No; he can't. You know you can't, sir,' said my cousin, peremptorily. 'You must not worry him, my dear, with civilities he can't accept. He'll bid us good-bye this moment. Good-bye, Doctor Bryerly. You'll write immediately; don't wait till you reach town. Bid him good-bye, Maud. I'll say a word to you in the hall.'
And thus she literally hurried him out of the room, leaving me in a state of amazement and confusion, not able to review my decision—unsatisfied, but still unable to recall it.
I stood where they had left me, looking after them, I suppose, like a fool.
Lady Knollys returned in a few minutes. If I had been a little cooler I was shrewd enough to perceive that she had sent poor Doctor Bryerly away upon his travels, to find board and lodging half-way to Bartram, to remove him forthwith from my presence, and thus to make my decision—if mine it was—irrevocable.
'I applaud you, my dear,' said Cousin Knollys, in her turn embracing me heartily. 'You are a sensible little darling, and have done exactly what you ought to have done.'
'I hope I have,' I faltered.
'Hope? fiddle! stuff! the thing's as plain as a pikestaff.'
And in came Branston to say that dinner was served.