Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 42

The Pleasures of Wyncomb.

That shrill anguish-stricken cry which Ellen Whitelaw had heard on the night of the stranger’s visit to Wyncomb Farm haunted her afterwards with a wearisome persistence. She could not forget that wild unearthly sound; she could not help continually trying to find some solution for the mystery, until her brain was tired with the perpetual effort.

Ponder upon this matter as she might, she could find no reasonable explanation of the enigma; and in spite of her common sense — a quality of which she possessed a very fair share — she was fain to believe at last that this grim bare-looking old house was haunted, and that the agonised shriek she and Mrs. Tadman had heard that night was only the ghostly sound of some cry wrung from a bleeding heart in days gone by, the echo of an anguish that had been in the far past.

She even went so far as to ask her husband one day if he had ever heard that the house was haunted, and whether there was any record of crime or wrong that had been done in it in the past. Mr. Whitelaw seemed scarcely to relish the question; but after one of his meditative pauses laughed his wife’s inquiry to scorn, and told her that there were no ghosts at Wyncomb except the ghosts of dead rats that had ravaged the granaries — and certainly they seemed to rise from their graves in spite of poison and traps, cats and ferrets — and that, as to anything that had been done in the house in days gone by, he had never heard tell that his ancestors had ever done anything but eat and drink and sleep, and save money from year’s end to year’s end; and a hard time they’d had of it to pay their way and put something by, in the face of all the difficulties that surround the path of a farmer.

If Ellen Whitelaw’s life had been as the lives of happier women, full of small daily cares and all-engrossing domestic interests, the memory of that unearthly scream would no doubt have faded out of her mind ere long, instead of remaining, as it did, a source of constant perplexity to her. But there was no interest, no single charm in her life. There was nothing in the world left for her to care for. The fertile flats around Wyncomb Farmhouse bounded her universe. Day by day she rose to perform the same monotonous duties, sustained by no lofty aim, cheered by neither friendship nor affection; for she could not teach herself to feel anything warmer than toleration for her daily companion, Mrs. Tadman — only working laboriously because existence was more endurable to her when she was busy than when she was idle. It was scarcely strange, then, that she brooded upon the memory of that night when the nameless stranger had come to Wyncomb, and that she tried to put the fact of his coming and that other incident of the cry together, and to make something out of the two events by that means; but put them together as she might, she was no nearer any solution of the mystery. That her husband and the stranger could have failed to hear that piercing shriek seemed almost impossible: yet both had denied hearing it. The story of the stranger having knocked his shin and cried out on doing so, appeared like a feeble attempt to account for that wild cry. Vain and hopeless were all her endeavours to arrive at any reasonable explanation, and her attempts to get anything like an opinion out of Mrs. Tadman were utterly useless. Mr. Whitelaw’s cousin was still inclined to take a gloomy view of the stranger’s visit, in spite of her kinsman’s assurance that the transaction between himself and the unknown was a profitable one. Horse-racing — if not parting with a farm — Mrs. Tadman opined was at the bottom of the business; and when did horse-racing ever fail to lead to ruin sooner or later? It was only a question of time. Ellen sighed, remembering how her father had squandered his employer’s money on the race-course, and how, for that folly of his, she had been doomed to become Stephen Whitelaw’s wife. But there did not seem to her to be anything of the horsey element in her husband’s composition. He was never away from home, except to attend to his business at market; and she had never seen him spelling over the sporting-papers, as her father had been wont to do, night after night, with a perplexed brow and an anxious face, making calculations upon the margin of the print every now and then with a stump of lead pencil, and chewing the end of it meditatively in the intervals of his lection.

Although Mrs. Whitelaw did not, like Mrs. Tadman, associate the idea of the stranger’s visit with any apprehension of her husband’s impending ruin, she could not deny that some kind of change had arisen in him since that event. He had always drunk a good deal, in his slow quiet manner, which impressed people unacquainted with his habits with a notion of his sobriety, even when he was steadily emptying the bottle before him; but he drank more now, and sat longer over his drink, and there was an aspect of trouble and uneasiness about him at times which fairly puzzled his wife. Of course the most natural solution for all this was the one offered by the dismally prophetic Tadman. Stephen Whitelaw had been speculating or gambling, and his affairs were in disorder. He was not a man to be affected by anything but the most sordid considerations, one would suppose. Say that he had lost money, and there you had a key to the whole.

He got into a habit of sitting up at night, after the rest of the household had gone to bed. He had done this more or less from the time of his marriage; and Mrs. Tadman had told Ellen that the habit was one which had arisen within the last few months.

“He would always see to the fastenings of the house with his own eyes,” Mrs. Tadman said; “but up to last autumn he used to go upstairs with me and the servants. It’s a new thing for him to sit up drinking his glass of grog in the parlour by himself.”

The new habit seemed to grow upon Mr. Whitelaw more rapidly after that visit of the stranger’s. He took to sitting up till midnight — an awful hour in a farm-house; and Ellen generally found the spirit-bottle empty in the morning. Night after night, he went to bed soddened with drink. Once, when his kinswoman made some feeble remonstrance with him about this change in his habits, he told her savagely to hold her tongue — he could afford to drink as much as he pleased — he wasn’t likely to come upon her to pay for what he took. As for his wife, she unhappily cared nothing what he did. He could not become more obnoxious to her than he had been from the first hour of her acquaintance with him, let him do what he would.

Little by little, finding no other explanation possible, Mrs. Whitelaw grew to believe quite firmly in the supernatural nature of that unforgotten cry. She remembered the unexplainable footstep which she had heard in the padlocked room in the early dusk of that new-year’s-day, when Mrs. Tadman and she explored the old house; and she associated these two sounds in her mind as of a like ghostly character. From this time forward she shrank with a nervous terror from that darksome passage leading to the padlocked door at the end of the house. She had never any occasion to go in this direction. The rooms in this wing were low, dark, and small, and had been unused for years. It was scarcely any wonder if rats had congregated behind the worm-eaten wainscot, to scare nervous listeners with their weird scratchings and scramblings. But no one could convince Ellen Whitelaw that the sounds she had heard on new-year’s-day were produced by anything so earthly as a rat. With that willingness to believe in a romantic impossibility, rather than in a commonplace improbability so natural to the human mind, she was more ready to conceive the existence of a ghost than that her own sense of hearing might have been less powerful than her fancy. About the footsteps she was quite as positive as she was about the scream; and in the last instance she had the evidence of Mrs. Tadman’s senses to support her.

She was surprised to find one day, when the household drudge, Martha Holden, had been cleaning the passage and rooms in that deserted wing — a task very seldom performed — that the girl had the same aversion to that part of the house which she felt herself, but of which she had never spoken in the presence of the servants.

“If it wasn’t for Mrs. Tadman driving and worrying after me all the time I’m at work, I don’t think I could stay there, mum,” Martha told her mistress. “It isn’t often I like to be fidgetted and followed; but anything’s better than being alone in that unked place.”

“It’s rather dark and dreary, certainly, Martha,” Ellen answered with an admirable assumption of indifference; “but, as we haven’t any of us got to live there, that doesn’t much matter.”

“It isn’t that, mum. I wouldn’t mind the darkness and the dreariness — and I’m sure such a place for spiders I never did see in my life; there was one as I took down with my broom to-day, and scrunched, as big as a small crab — but it’s worse than, that: the place is haunted.”

“Who told you that?”

“Sarah Batts.”

“Sarah Batts! Why, how should she know anything about it? She hasn’t been here so long as you; and she came straight from the workhouse.”

“I think master must have told her, mum.”

“Your master would never have said anything so foolish. I know that he doesn’t believe in ghosts; and he keeps all his garden-seeds in the locked room at the end of the passage; so he must go there sometimes himself.”

“O yes, mum; I know that master goes there. I’ve seen him go that way at night with a candle.”

“Well, you silly girl, he wouldn’t use the room if he thought it was haunted, would he? There are plenty more empty rooms in the house.”

“I don’t know about that, I’m sure, mum; but anyhow I know Sarah Batts told me that passage was haunted. ‘Don’t you never go there, Martha,’ she says, ‘unless you want to have your blood froze. I’ve heard things there that have froze mine.’ And I never should go, mum, if it wasn’t for moth — Mrs. Tadman’s worrying and driving, about the place being cleaned once in a way. And Sarah Batts is right, mum, however she may have got to know it; for I have heard things.”

“What things?”

“Moaning and groaning like, as if it was some one in pain; but all very low; and I never could make out where it came from. But as to the place being haunted, I’ve no more doubt about it than about my catechism.”

“But, Martha, you ought to know it’s very silly and wicked to believe in such things,” Ellen Whitelaw said, feeling it her duty to lecture the girl a little, and yet half inclined to believe her. “The moanings and groanings, as you call them, were only sounds made by the wind, I daresay.”

“O dear no, mum,” Martha answered, shaking her head in a decided manner; “the wind never made such noises as I heard. But I don’t want to make you nervous, mum; only I’d sooner lose a month’s wages than stay for an hour alone in the west wing.”

It was strange, certainly; a matter of no importance, perhaps, this idle belief of a servant’s, these sounds which harmed no one; and yet all these circumstances worried and perplexed Ellen Whitelaw. Having so little else to think of, she brooded upon them incessantly, and was gradually getting into a low nervous way. If she complained, which she did very rarely, there was no one to sympathise with her. Mrs. Tadman had so many ailments of her own, such complicated maladies, such deeply-rooted disorders, that she could be scarcely expected to give much attention to the trivial sufferings of another person.

“Ah, my dear,” she would exclaim with a groan, if Ellen ventured to complain of a racking headache, “when you’ve lived as long as I have, and gone through what I’ve gone through, and have got such a liver as I’ve got, you’ll know what bad health means. But at your age, and with your constitution, it’s nothing more than fancy.”

And then Mrs. Tadman would branch off into a graphic description of her own maladies, to which Ellen was fain to listen patiently, wondering vaguely as she listened whether the lapse of years would render her as wearisome a person as Mrs. Tadman.

She had no sympathy from anyone. Her father came to Wyncomb Farm once a week or so, and sat drinking and smoking with Mr. Whitelaw; but Ellen never saw him alone. He seemed carefully to avoid the chance of being alone with her, guiltily conscious of his part in the contriving of her marriage, and fearing to hear some complaint about her lot. He pretended to take it for granted that her fate was entirely happy, congratulated her frequently upon her prosperity, and reminded her continually that it was a fine thing to be the sole mistress of the house she lived in, instead of a mere servant — as he himself was, and as she had been at the Grange — labouring for the profit of other people.

Up to this time Mr. Carley had had some reason to be disappointed with the result of his daughter’s marriage, so far as his own prosperity was affected thereby. Not a sixpence beyond that one advance of the two hundred pounds had the bailiff been able to extort from his son-in-law. It was the price that Mr. Whitelaw had paid for his wife, and he meant to pay no more. He told William Carley as much one day when the question of money matters was pushed rather too far — told him in the plainest language.

This was hard; but that two hundred pounds had saved the bailiff from imminent destruction. He was obliged to be satisfied with this advantage, and to bide his time.

“I’ll have it out of the mean hound sooner or later,” he muttered to himself as he walked homewards, after a social evening with the master of Wyncomb.

One evening Mr. Carley brought his daughter a letter. It was from Gilbert Fenton, who was quite unaware of Ellen’s marriage, and had written to her at the Grange. This letter afforded her the only pleasure she had known since fate had united her to Stephen Whitelaw. It told her that Marian Holbrook was living, and in all probability safe — though by no means in good hands. She had sailed for America with her father; but her husband was in hot pursuit of her, and her husband was faithful.

“I have schooled myself to forgive him,” Gilbert went on to say, “for I know that he loves her — and that must needs condone my wrongs. I look forward anxiously to their return from America, and hope for a happy reunion amongst us all — when your warm friendship shall not be forgotten. I am waiting impatiently for news from New York, and will write to you again directly I hear anything definite. We have suffered the torments of suspense for a long weary time, but I trust and believe that the sky is clearing.”

This was not much, but it was more than enough to relieve Ellen Carley’s mind of a heavy load. Her dear young lady, as she called Marian, was not dead — not lying at the bottom of that cruel river, at which Ellen had often looked with a shuddering horror, of late, thinking of what might be. She was safe, and would no doubt be happy. This was something. Amid the wreck of her own fortunes, Ellen Whitelaw was unselfish enough to rejoice in this.

Her husband asked to see Mr. Fenton’s letter, which he spelt over with his usual deliberate air, and which seemed to interest him more than Ellen would have supposed likely — knowing as she did how deeply he had resented Marian’s encouragement of Frank Randall’s courtship.

“So she’s gone to America with her father, has she?” he said, when he had perused the document twice. “I shouldn’t have thought anybody could have persuaded her to leave that precious husband of hers. And she’s gone off to America, and he after her! That’s rather a queer start, ain’t it, Nell?” Mrs. Whitelaw did not care to discuss the business with her husband. There was something in his tone, a kind of veiled malice, which made her angry.

“I don’t suppose you care whether she’s alive or dead,” she said impatiently; “so you needn’t trouble yourself to talk about her.”

“Needn’t I? O, she’s too grand a person to be talked of by such as me, is she? Never mind, Nell; don’t be cross. And when Mrs. Holbrook comes back to England, you shall go and see her.”

“I will,” answered Ellen; “if I have to walk to London to do it.”

“O, but you sha’n’t walk. You shall go by rail. I’ll spare you the money for that, for once in a way, though I’m not over fond of wasting money.”

Day by day Mr. Whitelaw’s habits grew more secluded and morose. It is not to be supposed that he was troubled by those finer feelings which might have made the misery of a better man; but even in his dull nature there may have been some dim sense that his marriage was a failure and mistake; that in having his own way in this matter he had in nowise secured his own happiness. He could not complain of his wife’s conduct in any one respect. She was obedient to his will in all things, providing for his comfort with scrupulous regularity, industrious, indefatigable even. As a housekeeper and partner of his fortunes, no man could have desired a better wife. Yet dimly, in that sluggish soul, there was the consciousness that he had married a woman who hated him, that he had bought her with a price; and, being a man prone to think the worst of his fellow-creatures, Mr. Whitelaw believed that, sooner or later, his wife meant to have her revenge upon him somehow. She was waiting for his death perhaps; calculating that, being so much her senior, and a hard-working man, he would die soon enough to leave her a young widow. And then, of course, she would marry Frank Randall; and all the money which he, Stephen, had amassed, by the sacrifice of every pleasure in life, would enrich that supercilious young coxcomb.

It was a hard thing to think of, and Stephen pondered upon the expediency of letting off Wyncomb Farm, and sinking all his savings in the purchase of an annuity. He could not bring himself to contemplate selling the house and lands that had belonged to his race for so many generations. He clung to the estate, not from any romantic reverence for the past, not from any sentimental associations connected with those who had gone before him, but from the mere force of habit, which rendered this grim ugly old house and these flat shelterless fields dearer to him than all the rest of the universe. He was a man to whom to part with anything was agony; and if he loved anything in the world, he loved Wyncomb. The possession of the place had given him importance for twenty years past. He could not fancy himself unconnected with Wyncomb. His labours had improved the estate too; and he could not endure to think how some lucky purchaser might profit by his prudence and sagacity. There had been some fine old oaks on the land when he inherited it, all mercilessly stubbed-up at the beginning of his reign; there had been tall straggling hedgerows, all of a tangle with blackberry bushes, ferns, and dog-roses, hazel and sloe trees, all done away with by his order. No, he could never bring himself to sell Wyncomb. Nor was the purchase of an annuity a transaction which he was inclined to accomplish. It was a pleasing notion certainly, that idea of concentrating all his hoarded money upon the remaining years of his life — retiring from the toils of agriculture, and giving himself up for the rest of his days to an existence of luxurious idleness. But, on the other hand, it would be a bitter thing to surrender his fondly-loved money for the poor return of an income, to deprive himself of all opportunity of speculating and increasing his store.

So the annuity scheme lay dormant in his brain, as it were, for the time being. It was something to have in reserve, and to carry out any day that his wife gave him fair cause to doubt her fidelity.

In the mean time he went on living his lonely sulky kind of life, drinking a great deal more than was good for him in his own churlish manner, and laughing to scorn any attempt at remonstrance from his wife or Mrs. Tadman. Some few times Ellen had endeavoured to awaken him to the evil consequences that must needs ensue from his intemperate habits, feeling that it would be a sin on her part to suffer him to go on without some effort to check him; but her gently-spoken warnings had been worse than useless.

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