Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 22

Somebody in the Room with the Coffin

WHEN WE RETURNED, a “young” gentleman had arrived. We saw him in the parlour as we passed the window. It was simply a glance, but such a one as suffices to make a photograph, which we can study afterwards, at our leisure. I remember him at this moiment — a man of six-and-thirty — dressed in a grey travelling suit, not over-well made; light-haired, fat-faced, and clumsy; and he looked both dull and cunning, and not at all like a gentleman.

Branston met us, announced the arrival, and handed me the stranger’s credentials. My cousin and I stopped in the passage to read them.

“That’s your uncle Silas’s,” said Lady Knollys, touching one of the two letters with the tip of her finger.

“Shall we have lunch, Miss?”

“Certainly.” So Branston bowed.

“Read it with me, Cousin Monica,” I said. And a very curious letter it was. It spoke as follows:—

“How can I thank my beloved niece for remembering her aged and forlorn kinsman at such a moment of anguish?”

I had written a note of a few, I dare say, incoherent words by the next post after my dear father’s death.

“It is, however, in the hour of bereavement that we most value the ties that are broken, and yearn for the sympathy of kindred.”

Here came a little distich of French verse, of which I could only read ciel and l’amour.

“Our quiet household here is clouded with a new sorrow. How inscrutable are the ways of Providence! I— though a few years younger — how much the more infirm — how shattered in energy and in mind — how a mere burden — how entirely de trop — am spared to my said place in a world where I can be no longer useful, where I have but one business — prayer, but one hope — the tomb; and he — apparently so robust — the centre of so much good — so necessary to you — so necessary alas! to me — is taken! He is gone to his rest — for us, what remains but to bow our heads, and murmur, ‘His will be done’? I trace these lines with a trembling hand, while tears dim my old eyes. I did not think that any earthly event could have moved me so profoundly. From the world I have long stood aloof. I once led a life of pleasure — alas! of wickedness — as I now do one of austerity; but as I never was rich, so my worst enemy will allow I never was avaricious. My sins, I thank my Maker, have been of a more reducible kind, and have succumbed to the discipline which Heaven has provided. To earth and its interests, as well as to its pleasures, I have long been dead. For the few remaining years of my life I ask but quiet — an exemption from the agitations and distractions of struggle and care, and I trust to the Giver of all Good for my deliverance — well knowing, at the same time, that whatever befalls will, under His direction, prove best. Happy shall I be, my dearest niece, if in your most interesting and, in some respects, forlorn situation, I can be of any use to you. My present religious adviser — of whom I ventured to ask counsel on your behalf — states that I ought to send some one to represent me at the melancholy ceremony of reading the will which my beloved and now happy brother has, no doubt, left behind; and the idea that the experience and professional knowledge possessed by the gentleman whom I have selected may possibly be of use to you, my dearest niece, determines me to place him at your disposal. He is the junior partner in the firm of Archer and Sleigh, who conduct any little business which I may have from time to time; may I entreat your hospitality for him during a brief stay at Knowl? I write, even for a moment, upon these small matters of business with an effort — a painful one, but necessary. Alas! my brother! The cup of bitterness is now full. Few and evil must the remainder of my old days be. Yet, while they last, I remain always for my beloved niece, that which all her wealth and splendour cannot purchase — a loving and faithful kinsman and friend,

SILAS RUTHYN

“Is it not a kind letter?” I said, while tears stood in my eyes.

“Yes,” answered Lady Knollys, drily.

“But don’t you think it so, really?”

“Oh! kind, very kind,” she answered in the same tone, “and perhaps a little cunning.”

“Cunning! — how?”

“Well, you know I’m a peevish old Tabby, and of course I scratch now and then, and see in the dark. I dare say Silas is sorry, but I don’t think he is in sackcloth and ashes. He has reason to be sorry and anxious, and I say I think he is both; and you know he pities you very much, and also himself a good deal; and he wants money, and you — his beloved niece — have a great deal — and altogether it is an affectionate and prudent letter; and he has sent his attorney here to make a note of the will; and you are to give the gentleman his meals and lodging; and Silas, very thoughtfully, invites you to confide your difficulties and troubles to his solicitor. It is very kind, but not imprudent.”

“Oh, Cousin Monica, don’t you think at such a moment it is hardly natural that he should form such petty schemes, even were he capable at other times of practising so low? Is it not judging him hardly? and you, you know, so little acquainted with him.”

“I told you, dear, I’m a cross old thing — and there’s an end; and I really don’t care two pence about him; and of the two I’d much rather he were no relation of ours.”

Now, was not this prejudice? I dare say in part it was. So, too, was my vehement predisposition in his favour. I am afraid we women are factionists; we always take a side, and nature has formed us for advocates rather than judges; and I think the function, if less dignified, is more amiable.

I sat alone at the drawing-room window, at nightfall, awaiting my cousin Monica’s entrance.

Feverish and frightened I felt that night. It was a sympathy, I fancy, with the weather. The sun had set stormily. Though the air was still, the sky looked wild and storm-swept. The crowding clouds, slanting in the attitude of flight, reflected their own sacred aspect upon my spirits. My grief darkened with a wild presaging of danger, and a sense of the supernatural fell upon me. It was the saddest and most awful evening that had come since my beloved father’s death.

All kinds of shapeless fears environed me in silence. For the first time, dire misgivings about the form of faith affrighted me. Who were these Swedenborgians who had got about him — no one could tell how — and held him so fast to the close of his life? Who was this bilious, bewigged, black-eyed Doctor Bryerly, whom none of us quite liked and all a little feared; who seemed to rise out of the ground, and came and went, no one knew whence or whither, exercising, as I imagined, a mysterious authority over him? Was it all good and true, or a heresy and a witchcraft? Oh, my beloved father! was it all well with you?

When Lady Knollys entered, she found me in floods of tears, walking distractedly up and down the room. She kissed me in silence; she walked back and forward with me, and did her best to console me.

“I think, Cousin Monica, I would wish to see him once more. Shall we go up?”

“Unless you really wish it very much, I think, darling, you had better not mind it. It is happier to recollect them as they were; there’s a change, you know, darling, and there is seldom any comfort in the sight.”

“But I do wish it very much. Oh! won’t you come with me?”

And so I persuaded her, and up we went hand in hand, in the deepening twilight; and we halted at the end of the dark gallery, and I called Mrs. Rusk, growing frightened.

“Tell her to let us in, Cousin Monica,” I whispered.

“She wishes to see him, my lady — does she?” enquired Mrs. Rusk, in an under-tone, and with a mysterious glance at me, as she softly fitted the key to the lock.

“Are you quite sure, Maud, dear?”

“Yes, yes.”

But when Mrs. Rusk entered bearing the candle, whose beam mixed dismally with the expiring twilight, disclosing a great black coffin standing upon trestles, near the foot of which she took her stand, gazing sternly into it, I lost heart again altogether and drew back.

“No, Mrs. Rusk, she won’t; and I am very glad, dear,” she added to me. “Come, Mrs. Rusk, come away. Yes, darling,” she continued to me, “it is much better for you;” and she hurried me away, and down-stairs again. But the awful outlines of that large black coffin remained upon my imagination with a new and terrible sense of death.

I had no more any wish to see him. I felt a horror even of the room, and for more than an hour after a kind of despair and terror, such as I have never experienced before or since at the idea of death.

Cousin Monica had had her bed placed in my room, and Mary Quince’s moved to the dressing-room adjoining it. For the first time the superstitious awe that follows death, but not immediately, visited me. The idea of seeing my father enter the room, or open the door and look in, haunted me. After Lady Knollys and I were in bed, I could not sleep. The wind sounded mournfully outside, and the small sounds, the rattlings, and strainings that responded from within, constantly startled me, and simulated the sounds of steps, of doors opening, of knockings, and so forth, rousing me with a palpitating heart as often as I fell into a doze.

At length the wind subsided, and these ambiguous noises abated, and I, fatigued, dropped into a quiet sleep. I was awakened by a sound in the gallery — which I could not define. A considerable time had passed, for the wind was now quite lulled. I sat up in my bed a good deal scared, listening breathlessly for I knew not what.

I heard a step moving stealthily along the gallery. I called my cousin Monica softly; and we both heard the door of the room in which my father’s body lay unlocked, some one furtively enter, and the door shut.

“What can it be? Good Heavens, Cousin Monica, do you hear it?”

“Yes, dear; and it is two o’clock.”

Everyone at Knowl was in bed at eleven. We knew very well that Mrs. Rusk was rather nervous, and would not, for worlds, go alone, and at such an hour, to the room. We called Mary Quince. We all three listened, but we heard no other sound. I set these things down here because they made so terrible an impression upon me at the time.

It ended by our peeping out, all three in a body, upon the gallery. Through each window in the perspective came its blue sheet of moonshine; but the door on which our attention was fixed was in the shade, and we thought we could discern the glare of a candle through the key-hole. While in whispers we were debating this point together, the door opened, the dusky light of a candle emerge, the shadow of a figure crossed it within, and in another moment the mysterious Doctor Bryerly — angular, ungainly, in the black cloth coat that fitted little better than a coffin — issued from the chamber, candle in hand; murmuring, I suppose, a prayer — it sounded like a farewell — stepped cautiously upon the gallery floor, shutting and locking the door upon the dead; and then having listened for a second, the saturnine figure, casting a gigantic and distorted shadow upon the ceiling and side-wall from the lowered candle, strode lightly down the long dark passage, away from us.

I can only speak for myself, and I can honestly say that I felt as much frightened as if I had just seen a sorcerer stealing from his unhallowed business. I think Cousin Monica was also affected in the same way, for she turned the key on the inside of the door when we entered. I do not think one of us believed at the moment that what we had seen was a Doctor Bryerly of flesh and blood, and yet the first thing we spoke of in the morning was Doctor Bryerly’s arrival. The mind is a different organ by night and by day.

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