The Familiar, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 8

Softened

IT appeared that she had repaired to the kitchen garden, pursuant to her mistress’s directions, and had there begun to make the specified election among the rank and neglected herbs which crowded one corner of the enclosure; and while engaged in this pleasant labour she carelessly sang a fragment of an old song, as she said, “to keep herself company.” She was, however, interrupted by an ill-natured laugh; and, looking up, she saw through the old thorn hedge, which surrounded the garden, a singularly ill-looking little man, whose countenance wore the stamp of menace and malignity, standing close to her at the other side of the hawthorn screen.

She described herself as utterly unable to move or speak, while he charged her with a message for Captain Barton, the substance of which she distinctly remembered to have been to the effect that he, Captain Barton, must come abroad as usual, and show himself to his friends out of doors, or else prepare for a visit in his own chamber.

On concluding this brief message, the stranger had, with a threatening air, got down into the outer ditch, and, seizing the hawthorn stems in his hands, seemed on the point of climbing through the fence — a feat which might have been accomplished without much difficulty.

Without, of course, awaiting this result, the girl — throwing down her treasures of thyme and rosemary — had turned and run, with the swiftness of terror, to the house. Lady L—— commanded her, on pain of instant dismissal, to observe an absolute silence respecting all that passed of the incident which related to Captain Barton; and, at the same time, directed instant search to be made by her men in the garden and the fields adjacent. This measure, however, was as usual unsuccessful, and, filled with indefinable misgivings, Lady L—— communicated the incident to her brother. The story, however, until long afterwards, went no further, and, of course, it was jealously guarded from Barton, who continued to amend though slowly.

Barton now began to walk occasionally in the court-yard which I have mentioned, and which, being enclosed by a high wall, commanded no view beyond its own extent. Here he, therefore, considered himself perfectly secure: and, but for a careless violation of orders by one of the grooms, he might have enjoyed, at least for some time longer, his much-prized immunity. Opening upon the public road, this yard was entered by a wooden gate, with a wicket in it, and was further defended by an iron gate upon the outside. Strict orders had been given to keep both carefully locked; but, spite of these, it had happened that one day, as Barton was slowly pacing this narrow enclosure in his accustomed walk, and reaching the farther extremity was turning to retrace his steps, he saw the boarded wicket ajar, and the face of his tormentor immovably looking at him through the iron bars. For a few seconds he stood riveted to the earth — breathless and bloodless — in the fascination of that dreaded gaze, and then fell helplessly insensible upon the pavement.

There he was found a few minutes afterwards, and conveyed to his room — the apartment which he was never afterwards to leave alive. Henceforward a marked and unaccountable change was observable in the tone of his mind. Captain Barton was now no longer the excited and despairing man he had been before; a strange alteration had passed upon him — an unearthly tranquillity reigned in his mind — it was the anticipated stillness of the grave.

“Montague, my friend, this struggle is nearly ended now,” he said, tranquilly, but with a look of fixed and fearful awe. “I have, at last, some comfort from that world of spirits from which my punishment has come. I now know that my sufferings will soon be over.”

Montague pressed him to speak on.

“Yes,” said he, in a softened voice, “my punishment is nearly ended. From sorrow, perhaps, I shall never, in time or eternity, escape; but my agony is almost over. Comfort has been revealed to me, and what remains of my allotted struggle I will bear with submission — even with hope.”

“I am glad to hear you speak so tranquilly, my dear Barton,” said Montague; “peace and cheer of mind are all you need to make you what you were.”

“No, no — I never can be that,” said he mournfully. “I am no longer fit for life. I am soon to die. I am to see him but once again, and then all is ended.”

“He said so, then?” suggested Montague.

He? — No, no: good tidings could scarcely come through him; and these were good and welcome; and they came so solemnly and sweetly — with unutterable love and melancholy, such as I could not — without saying more than is needful, or fitting, of other long past scenes and persons — fully explain to you.” As Barton said this he shed tears.

“Come, come,” said Montague, mistaking the source of his emotions, “you must not give way. What is it, after all, but a pack of dreams and nonsense; or, at worst, the practices of a scheming rascal that enjoys his power of playing upon your nerves, and loves to exert it — a sneaking vagabond that owes you a grudge, and pays it off this way, not daring to try a more manly one.”

“A grudge, indeed, he owes me — you say rightly,” said Barton, with a sudden shudder; “a grudge as you call it. Oh, my God! when the justice of Heaven permits the Evil one to carry out a scheme of vengeance — when its execution is committed to the lost and terrible victim of sin, who owes his own ruin to the man, the very man, whom he is commissioned to pursue — then, indeed, the torments and terrors of hell are anticipated on earth. But heaven has dealt mercifully with me — hope has opened to me at last; and if death could come without the dreadful sight I am doomed to see, I would gladly close my eyes this moment upon the world. But though death is welcome, I shrink with an agony you cannot understand — an actual frenzy of terror — from the last encounter with that — that DEMON, who has drawn me thus to the verge of the chasm, and who is himself to plunge me down. I am to see him again — once more — but under circumstances unutterably more terrific than ever.”

As Barton thus spoke, he trembled so violently that Montague was really alarmed at the extremity of his sudden agitation, and hastened to lead him back to the topic which had before seemed to exert so tranquillizing an effect upon his mind.

“It was not a dream,” he said, after a time; “I was in a different state — I felt differently and strangely; and yet it was all as real, as clear and vivid, as what I now see and hear — it was a reality.”

“And what did you see and hear?” urged his companion.

“When I wakened from the swoon I fell into on seeing him,” said Barton, continuing as if he had not heard the question, “it was slowly, very slowly — I was lying by the margin of a broad lake, with misty hills all round, and a soft, melancholy, rose-coloured light illuminated it all. It was unusually sad and lonely, and yet more beautiful than any earthly scene. My head was leaning on the lap of a girl, and she was singing a song, that told, I know not how — whether by words or harmonies — of all my life — all that is past, and all that is still to come; and with the song the old feelings that I thought had perished within me came back, and tears flowed from my eyes — partly for the song and its mysterious beauty, and partly for the unearthly sweetness of her voice; and yet I knew the voice — oh! how well; and I was spellbound as I listened and looked at the solitary scene, without stirring, almost without breathing — and, alas! alas! without turning my eyes towards the face that I knew was near me, so sweetly powerful was the enchantment that held me. And so, slowly, the song and scene grew fainter, and fainter, to my senses, till all was dark and still again. And then I awoke to this world, as you saw, comforted, for I knew that I was forgiven much.” Barton wept again long and bitterly.

From this time, as we have said, the prevailing tone of his mind was one of profound and tranquil melancholy. This, however, was not without its interruptions. He was thoroughly impressed with the conviction that he was to experience another and a final visitation, transcending in horror all he had before experienced. From this anticipated and unknown agony he often shrank in such paroxysms of abject terror and distraction, as filled the whole household with dismay and superstitious panic. Even those among them who affected to discredit the theory of preternatural agency, were often in their secret souls visited during the silence of night with qualms and apprehensions, which they would not have readily confessed; and none of them attempted to dissuade Barton from the resolution on which he now systematically acted, of shutting himself up in his own apartment. The window-blinds of this room were kept jealously down, and his own man was seldom out of his presence, day or night, his bed being placed in the same chamber.

This man was an attached and respectable servant; and his duties, in addition to those ordinarily imposed upon valets, but which Barton’s independent habits generally dispensed with, were to attend carefully to the simple precautions by means of which his master hoped to exclude the dreaded intrusion of the “Watcher.” And, in addition to attending to whose arrangements, which amounted merely to guarding against the possibility of his master’s being, through any unscreened window or open door, exposed to the dreaded influence, the valet was never to suffer him to be alone — total solitude, even for a minute, had become to him now almost as intolerable as the idea of going abroad into the public ways — it was an instinctive anticipation of what was coming.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49