Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 32

The Padlocked Door at Wyncomb.

The countenance of the new year was harsh, rugged, and gloomy — as of a stony-hearted, strong-minded new year, that had no idea of making his wintry aspect pleasant, or brightening the gloom of his infancy with any deceptive gleams of January sunshine. A bitter north wind made a dreary howling among the leafless trees, and swept across the broad bare fields with merciless force — a bleak cruel new-year’s-day, on which to go out a-pleasuring; but it was more in harmony with Ellen Carley’s thoughts than brighter weather could have been; and she went to and fro about her morning’s work, up and down cold windy passages, and in and out of the frozen dairy, unmoved by the bitter wind which swept the crisp waves of dark brown hair from her low brows, and tinged the tip of her impertinent little nose with a faint wintry bloom.

The bailiff was in very high spirits this first morning of the new year — almost uproarious spirits indeed, which vented themselves in snatches of boisterous song, as he bustled backwards and forwards from house to stables, dressed in his best blue coat and bright buttons and a capacious buff waistcoat; with his ponderous nether limbs clothed in knee-cords, and boots with vinegar tops; looking altogether the typical British farmer.

Those riotous bursts of song made his daughter shudder. Somehow, his gaiety was more alarming to her than his customary morose humour. It was all the more singular, too, because of late William Carley had been especially silent and moody, with the air of a man whose mind is weighed down by some heavy burden — so gloomy indeed, that his daughter had questioned him more than once, entreating to know if he were distressed by any secret trouble, anything going wrong about the farm, and so on. The girl had only brought upon herself harsh angry answers by these considerate inquiries, and had been told to mind her own business, and not pry into matters that in no way concerned her.

“But it does concern me to see you downhearted, father,” she answered gently.

“Does it really, my girl? What! your father’s something more than a stranger to you, is he? I shouldn’t have thought it, seeing how you’ve gone again me in some things lately. Howsomedever, when I want your help, I shall know how to ask for it, and I hope you’ll give it freely. I don’t want fine words; they never pulled anybody out of the ditch that I’ve heard tell of.”

Whatever the bailiff’s trouble had been, it seemed to be lightened to-day, Ellen thought; and yet that unusual noisy gaiety of his gave her an uncomfortable feeling: it did not seem natural or easy.

Her household work was done by noon, and she dressed hurriedly, while her father called for her impatiently from below — standing at the foot of the wide bare old staircase, and bawling up to her that they should be late at Wyncomb. She looked very pretty in her neat dark-blue merino dress and plain linen collar, when she came tripping downstairs at last, flushed with the hurry of her toilet, and altogether so bright a creature that it seemed a hard thing she should not be setting out upon some real pleasure trip, instead of that most obnoxious festival to which she was summoned.

Her father looked at her with a grim kind of approval.

“You’ll do well enough, lass,” he said; “but I should like you to have had something smarter than that blue stuff. I wouldn’t have minded a couple of pounds or so to buy you a silk gown. But you’ll be able to buy yourself as many silk gowns as ever you like by-and-by, if you play your cards well and don’t make a fool of yourself.”

Ellen knew what he meant well enough, but did not care to take any notice of the speech. The time would soon come, no doubt, when she must take her stand in direct opposition to him, and in the meanwhile it would be worse than foolish to waste breath in idle squabbling.

They were to drive to Wyncomb in the bailiff’s gig; rather an obsolete vehicle, with a yellow body, a mouldy leather apron, and high wheels picked out with red, drawn by a tall gray horse that did duty with the plough on ordinary occasions. Stephen Whitelaw’s house was within an easy walk of the Grange; but the gig was a more dignified mode of approach than a walk, and the bailiff insisted on driving his daughter to her suitor’s abode in that conveyance.

Wyncomb was a long low gray stone house, of an unknown age; a spacious habitation enough, with many rooms, and no less than three staircases, but possessing no traces of that fallen grandeur which pervaded the Grange. It had been nothing better than a farm-house from time immemorial, and had been added to and extended and altered to suit the convenience of successive generations of farmers. It was a gloomy-looking house at all times, Ellen Carley thought, but especially gloomy under that leaden winter sky; a house which it would have been almost impossible to associate with pleasant family gatherings or the joyous voices of young children; a grim desolate-looking house, that seemed to freeze the passing traveller with its cold blank stare, as if its gloomy portal had a voice to say to him, “However lost you may be for lack of shelter, however weary for want of rest, come not here!”

Idle fancies, perhaps; but they were the thoughts with which Wyncomb Farmhouse always inspired Ellen Carley.

“The place just suits its master’s hard miserly nature,” she said. “One would think it had been made on purpose for him; or perhaps the Whitelaws have been like that from generation to generation.”

There was no such useless adornment as a flower-garden at Wyncomb. Stephen Whitelaw cared about as much for roses and lilies as he cared for Greek poetry or Beethoven’s sonatas. At the back of the house there was a great patch of bare shadowless ground devoted to cabbages and potatoes, with a straggling border of savoury herbs; a patch not even divided from the farm land beyond, but melting imperceptibly into a field of mangel-wurzel. There were no superfluous hedges upon Mr. Whitelaw’s dominions; not a solitary tree to give shelter to the tired cattle in the long hot summer days. Noble old oaks and patriarch beeches, tall sycamores and grand flowering chestnuts, had been stubbed up remorselessly by that economical agriculturist; and he was now the proud possessor of one of the ugliest and most profitable farms in Hampshire.

In front of the gray-stone house the sheep browsed up to the parlour windows, and on both sides of the ill-kept carriage-drive leading from the white gate that opened into the meadow to the door of Mr. Whitelaw’s abode. No sweet-scented woodbine or pale monthly roses beautified the front of the house in spring or summer time. The neglected ivy had overgrown one end of the long stone building and crept almost to the ponderous old chimneys; and this decoration, which had come of itself, was the only spot of greenery about the place. Five tall poplars grew in a row about a hundred yards from the front windows; these, strange to say, Mr. Whitelaw had suffered to remain. They served to add a little extra gloom to the settled grimness of the place, and perhaps harmonised with his tastes.

Within Wyncomb Farmhouse was no more attractive than without. The rooms were low and dark; the windows, made obscure by means of heavy woodwork and common glass, let in what light they did admit with a grudging air, and seemed to frown upon the inmates of the chamber they were supposed to beautify. There were all manner of gloomy passages, and unexpected flights of half-a-dozen stairs or so, in queer angles of the house, and there was a prevailing darkness everywhere; for the Whitelaws of departed generations, objecting to the window tax, had blocked up every casement that it was possible to block up; and the stranger exploring Wyncomb Farmhouse was always coming upon those blank plastered windows, which had an unpleasant ghostly aspect, and set him longing for a fireman’s hatchet to hew them open and let in the light of day.

The furniture was of the oldest, black with age, worm-eaten, ponderous; queer old four-post bedsteads, with dingy hangings of greenish brown or yellowish green, from which every vestige of the original hue had faded long ago; clumsy bureaus, and stiff high-backed chairs with thick legs and gouty feet, heavy to move and uncomfortable to sit upon. The house was clean enough, and the bare floors of the numerous bed-chambers, which were only enlivened here and there with small strips or bands of Dutch carpet, sent up a homely odour of soft soap; for Mrs. Tadman took a fierce delight in cleaning, and the solitary household drudge who toiled under her orders had a hard time of it. There was a dismal kind of neatness about everything, and a bleak empty look in the sparsely furnished rooms, which wore no pleasant sign of occupation, no look of home. The humblest cottage, with four tiny square rooms and a thatched roof, and just a patch of old-fashioned garden with a sweetbrier hedge and roses growing here and there among the cabbages; would have been a pleasanter habitation than Wyncomb, Ellen Carley thought.

Mr. Whitelaw exhibited an unwonted liberality upon this occasion. The dinner was a ponderous banquet, and the dessert a noble display of nuts and oranges, figs and almonds and raisins, flanked by two old-fashioned decanters of port and sherry; and both the bailiff and his host did ample justice to the feast. It was a long dreary afternoon of eating and drinking; and Ellen was not sorry to get away from the prim wainscoted parlour, where her father and Mr. Whitelaw were solemnly sipping their wine, to wander over the house with Mrs. Tadman.

It was about four o’clock when she slipped quietly out of the room at that lady’s invitation, and the lobbies and long passages had a shadowy look in the declining light. There was light enough for her to see the rooms, however; for there were no rare collections of old china, no pictures or adornments of any kind, to need a minute inspection.

“It’s a fine old place, isn’t it?” asked Mrs. Tadman. “There’s not many farmers can boast of such a house as Wyncomb.”

“It’s large enough,” Ellen answered, with a tone which implied the reverse of admiration; “but it’s not a place I should like to live in. I’m not one to believe in ghosts or such nonsense, but if I could have any such foolish thoughts, I should have them here. The house looks as if it was haunted, somehow.”

Mrs. Tadman laughed a shrill hard laugh, and rubbed her skinny hands with an air of satisfaction.

“You’re not easy to please, Miss Carley,” she said; “most folks think a deal of Wyncomb; for, you see, it’s only them that live in a house as can know how dull it is; and as to the place being haunted, I never heard tell of anything of that kind. The Whitelaws ain’t the kind of people to come back to this world, unless they come to fetch their money, and then they’d come fast enough, I warrant. I used to see a good deal of my uncle, John Whitelaw, when I was a girl, and never did a son take after his father closer than my cousin Stephen takes after him; just the same saving prudent ways, and just the same masterful temper, always kept under in that quiet way of his.”

As Ellen Carley showed herself profoundly indifferent to the lights and shades of Mr. Whitelaw’s character, Mrs. Tadman did not pursue the subject, but with a gentle sigh led the way to another room, and so on from room to room, till they had explored all that floor of the house.

“There’s the attics above; but you won’t care to see them,” she said. “The shepherd and five other men sleep up there. Stephen thinks it keeps them steadier sleeping under the same roof with their master; and he’s able to ring them up of a morning, and to know when they go to their work. It’s wearying for me to have to get up and see to their breakfasts, but I can’t trust Martha Holden to do that, or she’d let them eat us out of house and home. There’s no knowing what men like that can eat, and a side of bacon would go as fast as if you was to melt it down to tallow. But you must know what they are, Miss Carley, having to manage for your father.”

“Yes,” Ellen answered, “I’m used to hard work.”

“Ah,” murmured the matron, with a sigh, “you’d have plenty of it, if you came here.”

They were at the end of a long passage by this time; a passage leading to the extreme end of the house, and forming part of that ivy-covered wing which seemed older than the rest of the building. It was on a lower level than the other part, and they had descended two or three steps at the entrance to this passage. The ceilings were lower too, the beams that supported them more massive, the diamond-paned windows smaller and more heavily leaded, and there was a faint musty odour as of a place that was kept shut up and uninhabited.

“There’s nothing more to see here,” said Mrs. Tadman quickly; “I had better go back I don’t know what brought me here; it was talking, I suppose, made me come without thinking. There’s nothing to show you this way.”

“But there’s another room there,” Ellen said, pointing to a door just before them — a heavy clumsily-made door, painted black.

“That room — well, yes; it’s a kind of a room, but hasn’t been used for fifty years and more, I’ve heard say. Stephen keeps seeds there and such-like. It’s always locked, and he keeps the key of it.”

There was nothing in this closed room to excite either curiosity or interest in Ellen’s mind, and she was turning away from the door with perfect indifference, when she started and suddenly seized Mrs. Tadman’s arm.

“Hark!” she said, in a frightened, breathless way; “did you hear that?”

“What, child?”

“Did you say there was no one in there — no one?”

“Lord bless your heart, no, Miss Carley, nor ever is. What a turn you did give me, grasping hold of my arm like that!”

“I heard something in there — a footstep. It must be the servant.”

“What, Martha Holden! I should like to see her venturing into any room Stephen keeps private to himself. Besides, that door’s kept locked; try it, and satisfy yourself.”

The door was indeed locked — a door with a clumsy old-fashioned latch, securely fastened by a staple and padlock. Ellen tried it with her own hand.

“Is there no other door to the room?” she asked.

“None; and only one window, that looks into the wood-yard, and is almost always blocked up with the wood piled outside it. You must have heard the muslin bags of seed blowing about, if you heard anything.”

“I heard a footstep,” said Ellen firmly; “a human footstep. I told you the house was haunted, Mrs. Tadman.”

“Lor, Miss Carley, I wish you wouldn’t say such things; it’s enough to make one’s blood turn cold. Do come downstairs and have a cup of tea. It’s quite dark, I declare; and you’ve given me the shivers with your queer talk.”

“I’m sorry for that; but the noise I heard must have been either real or ghostly, and you won’t believe it’s real.”

“It was the seed-bags, of course.”

“They couldn’t make a noise like human footsteps. However, it’s no business of mine, Mrs. Tadman, and I don’t want to frighten you.”

They went downstairs to the parlour, where the tea-tray and a pair of candles were soon brought, and where Mrs. Tadman stirred the fire into a blaze with an indifference to the consumption of fuel which made her kinsman stare, even on that hospitable occasion. The blaze made the dark wainscoted room cheerful of aspect, however, which the two candles could not have done, as their light was almost absorbed by the gloomy panelling.

After tea there was whist again, and a considerable consumption of spirits-and-water on the part of the two gentlemen, in which Mrs. Tadman joined modestly, with many protestations, and, with the air of taking only an occasional spoonful, contrived to empty her tumbler, and allowed herself to be persuaded to take another by the bailiff, whose joviality on the occasion was inexhaustible.

The day’s entertainment came to an end at last, to Ellen’s inexpressible relief; and her father drove her home in the yellow gig at rather an alarming pace, and with some tendency towards heeling over into a ditch. They got over the brief journey safely, however, and Mr. Carley was still in high good humour. He went off to see to the putting up of his horse himself, telling his daughter to wait till he came back, he had something particular to say to her before she went to bed.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31