Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 25

I Hear from Uncle Silas

WITHOUT SAYING a word, Cousin Monica accompanied me to the school-room, and on entering she shut the door, not with a spirited clang, but quietly and determinedly.

“Well, dear,” she said, with the same pale, excited countenance, “that certainly is a sensible and charitable arrangement. I could not have believed it possible, had I not heard it with my ears.”

“About my going to Bartram–Haugh?”

“Yes, exactly so, under Silas Ruthyn’s guardianship, to spend two — three — of the most important years of your education and your life under that roof. Is that, my dear, what was in your mind when you were so alarmed about what you were to be called upon to do, or undergo?”

“No, no, indeed. I had no notion what it might be. I was afraid of something serious,” I answered.

“And, my dear Maud, did not your poor father speak to you as if it was something serious?” said she. “And so it is, I can tell you, something serious, and very serious; and I think it ought to be prevented, and I certainly will prevent it if I possibly can.”

I was puzzled utterly by the intensity of Lady Knollys’ protest. I looked at her, expecting an explanation of her meaning; but she was silent, looking steadfastly on the jewels on her right-hand fingers, with which she was drumming a staccato march on the table, very pale, with gleaming eyes, evidently thinking deeply. I began to think she had a prejudice against my uncle Silas.

“He is not very rich,” I commenced.

“Who?” said Lady Knollys.

“Uncle Silas,” I replied.

“No, certainly; he’s in debt,” she answered.

“But then, how very highly Doctor Clay spoke of him!” I pursued.

“Don’t talk of Doctor Clay. I do think that man is the greatest goose I ever heard talk. I have no patience with such men,” she replied.

I tried to remember what particular nonsense Doctor Clay had uttered, and I could recollect nothing, unless his eulogy upon my uncle were to be classed with that sort of declamation.

“Danvers is a very proper man and a good accountant, I dare say; but he is either a very deep person, or a fool — I believe a fool. As for your attorney, I suppose he knows his business, and also his interest, and I have no doubt he will consult it. I begin to think the best man among them, the shrewdest and the most reliable, is that vulgar visionary in the black wig. I saw him look at you, Maud, and I liked his face, though it is abominably ugly and vulgar, and cunning, too; but I think he’s a just man, and I dare say with right feelings — I’m sure he has.”

I was quite at a loss to divine the gist of my cousin’s criticism.

“I’ll have some talk with Dr. Bryerly; I feel convinced he takes my view, and we must really think what had best be done.”

“Is there anything in the will, Cousin Monica, that does not appear?” I asked, for I was growing very uneasy. “I wish you would tell me. What view do you mean?”

“No view in particular; the view that a desolate old park, and the house of a neglected old man, who is very poor, and has been desperately foolish, is not the right place for you, particularly at your years. It is quite shocking, and I will speak to Doctor Bryerly. May I ring the bell, dear?”

“Certainly;” and I rang it.

“When does he leave Knowl?”

I could not tell. Mrs. Rusk, however, was sent for, and she could tell us that he had announced his intention of taking the night train from Drackleton, and was to leave Knowl for that station at half-past six o’clock.

“May Rusk give or send him a message from me, dear?” asked Lady Knollys.

Of course she might.

“Then please let him know that I request he will be so good as to allow me a very few minutes, just to say a word before he goes.”

“You kind cousin!” I said, placing my two hands on her shoulders, and looking earnestly in her face; “you are anxious about me, more than you say. Won’t you tell me why? I am much more unhappy, really, in ignorance, than if I understood the cause.”

“Well, dear, haven’t I told you? The two or three years of your life which are to form you are destined to be passed in utter loneliness, and, I am sure, neglect. You can’t estimate the disadvantage of such an arrangement. It is full of disadvantages. How it could have entered the head of poor Austin — although I should not say that, for I am sure I do understand it — but how he could for any purpose have directed such a measure is quite inconceivable. I never heard of anything so foolish and abominable, and I will prevent it if I can.”

At that moment Mrs. Rusk announced that Doctor Bryerly would see Lady Knollys at any time she pleased before his departure.

“It shall be this moment, then,” said the energetic lady, and up she stood, and made that hasty general adjustment before the glass, which, no matter under what circumstances, and before what sort of creature one’s appearance is to be made, is a duty that every woman owes to herself. And I heard her a moment after, at the stair-head, directing Branston to let Dr. Bryerly know that she awaited him in the drawing-room.

And now she was gone, and I began to wonder and speculate. Why should my cousin Monica make all this fuss about, after all, a very natural arrangement? My uncle, whatever he might have been, was now a good man — a religious man — perhaps a little severe; and with this thought a dark streak fell across my sky.

A cruel disciplinarian! had I not read of such characters? — lock and key, bread and water, and solitude! To sit locked up all night in a dark out-of-the-way room, in a great, ghosty, old-fashioned house, with no one nearer than the other wing. What years of horror in one such night! Would not this explain my poor father’s hesitation, and my cousin Monica’s apparently disproportioned opposition? When an idea of terror presents itself to a young person’s mind, it transfixes and fills the vision, without respect of probabilities or reason.

My uncle was now a terrible old martinet, with long Bible lessons, lectures, pages of catechism, sermons to be conned by rote, and an awful catalogue of punishments for idleness, and what would seem to him impiety. I was going, then to a frightful isolated reformatory, where for the first time in my life I should be subjected to a rigorous and perhaps barbarous discipline.

All this was an exhalation of fancy, but it quite overcame me. I threw myself, in my solitude, on the floor, upon my knees, and prayed for deliverance — prayed that Cousin Monica might prevail with Doctor Bryerly, and both on my behalf with the Lord Chancellor, or the High Sheriff, or whoever else my proper deliverer might be; and when my cousin returned, she found me quite in an agony.

“Why, you little fool! what fancy has taken possession of you now?” she cried.

And when my new terror came to light, she actually laughed a little to reassure me, and she said —

“My dear child, your uncle Silas will never put you through your duty to your neighbor; all the time you are under his roof you’ll have idleness and liberty enough, and too much, I fear. It is neglect, my dear, not discipline, that I’m afraid of.”

“I think, dear Cousin Monica, you are afraid of something more than neglect,” I said, relieved, however.

“I am afraid of more than neglect,” she replied promptly; “but I hope my fears may turn out illusory, and that possibly they may be avoided. And now, for a few hours at least, let us think of something else. I rather like that Doctor Bryerly. I could not get him to say what I wanted. I don’t think he’s Scotch, but he is very cautious, and I am sure, though he would not say so, that he thinks of the matter exactly as I do. He says that those fine people, who are named as his co-trustees, won’t take any trouble, and will leave everything to him, and I am sure he is right. So we must not quarrel with him, Maud, nor call him hard names, although he certainly is intolerably vulgar and ugly, and at times very nearly impertinent — I suppose without knowing, or indeed very much caring.”

We had a good deal to think of, and talked incessantly. There were bursts and interruptions of grief, and my kind cousin’s consolations. I have often since been so lectured for giving way to grief, that I wonder at the patience exercised by her during this irksome visit. Then there was some reading of that book whose claims are always felt in the terrible days of affliction. After that we had a walk in the yew garden, that quaint little cloistered quadrangle — the most solemn, sad, and antiquated of gardens.

“And now, my dear, I must really leave you for two or three hours. I have ever so many letters to write, and my people must think I’m dead by this time.”

So till tea-time I had poor Mary Quince, with her gushes of simple prattle and her long fits of vacant silence, for my companion. And such a one, who can con over by rote the old friendly gossip about the dead, talk about their ways, and looks, and likings, without much psychologic refinement, but with a simple admiration and liking that never measured them critically, but always with faith and love, is in general about as comfortable a companion as one can find for the common moods of grief.

It is not easy to recall in calm and happy hours the sensations of an acute sorrow that is past. Nothing, by the merciful ordinance of God, is more difficult to remember than pain. One or two great agonies of that time I do remember, and they remain to testify of the rest, and convince me, though I can see it no more, how terrible all that period was.

Next day was the funeral, that appalling necessity; smuggled away in whispers, by black familiars, unresisting, the beloved one leaves home, without a farewell, to darken those doors no more; henceforward to lie outside, far away, and forsaken, through the drowsy heats of summer, through days of snow and nights of tempest, without light or warmth, without a voice near. Oh, Death, king of terrors! The body quakes and the spirit faints before thee. It is vain, with hands clasped over our eyes, to scream our reclamation; the horrible image will not be excluded. We have just the word spoken eighteen hundred years ago, and our trembling faith. And through the broken vault the gleam of the Star of Bethlehem.

I was glad in a sort of agony when it was over. So long as it remained to be done, something of the catastrophe was still suspended. Now it was all over.

The house so strangely empty. No owner — no master! I with my strange momentary liberty, bereft of that irreplaceable love, never quite prized until it is lost. Most people have experienced the dismay that underlies sorrow under such circumstances.

The apartment of the poor outcast from life is now dismantled. Beds and curtains taken down, and furniture displaced; carpets removed, windows open and doors locked; the bedroom and anteroom were henceforward, for many a day, uninhabited. Every shocking change smote my heart like a reproach.

I saw that day that Cousin Monica had been crying for the first time, I think, since her arrival at Knowl; and I loved her more for it, and felt consoled. My tears have often been arrested by the sight of another person weeping, and I never could explain why. But I believe that many persons experience the same odd reaction.

The funeral was conducted, in obedience to his brief but peremptory direction, very privately and with little expense. But of course there was an attendance, and the tenants of the Knowl estate also followed the hearse to the mausoleum, as it is called, in the park, where he was laid beside my dear mother. And so the repulsive ceremonial of that dreadful day was over. The grief remained, but there was rest from the fatigue of agitation, and a comparative calm supervened.

It was not the story equinoctial weather that sounds the wild dirge of autumn, and marches the winter in. I love, and always did, that grand undefinable music, threatening and bewailing, with its strange soul of liberty and desolation.

By this night’s mail, as we sat listening to the storm, in the drawing-room at Knowl, there reached me a large letter with a great black seal, and a wonderfully deep-black border, like a widow’s crape. I did not recognise the handwriting; but on opening the funereal missive, it proved to be from my uncle Silas, and was thus expressed:—

“MY DEAREST NIECE — This letter will reach you, probably, on the day which consigns the mortal remains of my beloved brother, Austin, your dear father, to the earth. Sad ceremony, from taking my mournful part in which I am excluded by years, distance, and broken health. It will, I trust, at this season of desolation, be not unwelcome to remember that a substitute, imperfect — unworthy — but most affectionately zealous, for the honoured parent whom you have just lost, has been appointed, in me, your uncle, by his will. I am aware that you were present during the reading of it, but I think it will be for our mutual satisfaction that our new and more affectionate relations should be forthwith entered upon. My conscience and your safety, and I trust convenience, will thereby be consulted. You will, my dear niece, remain at Knowl, until a few simple arrangements shall have been completed for your reception at this place. I will then settle the details of your little journey to us, which shall be performed as comfortably and easily as possible. I humbly pray that this affliction may be sanctified to us all, and that in our new duties we may be supported, comforted, and directed. I need not remind you that I now stand to you in loco parentis, which means in the relation of father, and you will not forget that you are to remain at Knowl until you hear further from me.

“I remain, my dear niece, your most affectionate uncle and guardian,

SILAS RUTHYN.”

P.S. — Pray present my respects to Lady Knollys, who, I understand, is sojourning at Knowl. I would observe that a lady who cherishes, I have reason to fear, unfriendly feelings against your uncle, is not the most desirable companion for his ward. But upon the express condition that I am not made the subject of your discussions — a distinction which could not conduce to your forming a just and respectful estimate of me — I do not interpose my authority to bring your intercourse to an immediate close.”

As I read this postscript, my cheek tingled as if I had received a box on the ear. Uncle Silas was as yet a stranger. The menace of authority was new and sudden, and I felt with a pang of mortification the full force of the position in which my dear father’s will had placed me.

I was silent, and handed the letter to my cousin, who read it with a kind of smile until she came, as I supposed, to the postscript, when her countenance, on which my eyes were fixed, changed, and with flushed cheeks she knocked the hand that held the letter on the table before her, and exclaimed —

“Did I ever hear! Well, if this isn’t impertinence! What an old man that is!”

There was a pause, during which Lady Knollys held her head high with a frown, and sniffed a little.

“I did not intend to talk about him, but now I will. I’ll talk away just whatever I like; and I’ll stay here just as long as you let me, Maud, and you need not be one atom afraid of him. Our intercourse to an “immediate close,” indeed! I only wish he were hear. He should hear something!”

And Cousin Monica drank off her entire cup of tea at one draught, and then she said, more in her own way —

“I’m better!” and drew a long breath, and then she laughed a little in a waggish defiance. “I wish we had him here, Maud, and would not we give him a bit of our minds! And this before the poor will is so much proved!”

“I am almost glad he wrote that postscript; for although I don’t think he has any authority in that matter while I am under my own roof,” I said, extemporising a legal opinion, “and, therefore, shan’t obey him, it has somehow opened my eyes to my real situation.”

I sighed, I believe, very desolately, for Lady Knollys came over and kissed me very gently and affectionately.

“It really seems, Maud, as if he had a supernatural sense, and heard things through the air over fifty miles of heath and hill. You remember how, just as he was probably writing that very postscript yesterday, I was urging you to come and stay with me, and palling to move Dr. Bryerly in our favour. And so I will, Maud, and to me you shall come — my guest, mind — I should be so delighted; and really if Silas is under a cloud, it has been his own doing, and I don’t see that it is your business to fight his battle. He can’t live very long. The suspicion, whatever it is, dies with him, and what could poor dear Austin prove by his will but what everybody knew quite well before — his own strong belief in Silas’s innocence? What an awful storm! The room trembles. Don’t you like the sound? What they used to call ‘wolving’ in the old organ at Dorminster!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/silas/chapter25.html

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