Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 30

On the Road

ALL AT KNOWL was indicative of the break-up that was so near at hand. Doctor Bryerly arrived according to promise. He was in a whirl of business all the time. He and Mr. Danvers conferred about the management of the estate. It was agreed that the grounds and gardens should be let, but not the house, of which Mrs. Rusk was to take the care. The gamekeeper remained in office, and some out-door servants. But the rest were to go, except Mary Quince, who was to accompany me to Bartram–Haugh as my maid.

“Don’t part with Quince,” said Lady Knollys, peremptorily; “they’ll want you, but don’t.”

She kept harping on this point, and recurred to it half a dozen times every day.

“They’ll say, you know, that she is not fit for a lady’s maid, as she certainly is not, if it in the least signified in such a wilderness as Bartram–Haugh; but she is attached, trustworthy, and honest; and those are qualities valuable everywhere, especially in a solitude. Don’t allow them to get you a wicked young French milliner in her stead.”

Sometimes she said things that jarred unpleasantly on my nerves, and left an undefined sense of danger. Such as:—

“I know she’s true to you, and a good creature; but is she shrewd enough?”

Or, with an anxious look:—

“I hope Mary Quince is not easily frightened.”

Or, suddenly:—

“Can Mary Quince write, in case you were ill?”

Or,

“Can she take a message exactly?”

Or,

“Is she a person of any enterprise and resource, and cool in an emergency?”

Now, these questions did not come all in a string, as I write them down here, but at long intervals, and were followed quickly by ordinary talk; but they generally escaped from my companion after silence and gloomy thought; and though I could extract nothing more defined than these questions, yet they seemed to me to point at some possible danger contemplated in my good cousin’s dismal ruminations.

Another topic that occupied my cousin’s mind a good deal was obviously the larceny of my pearl cross. She made a note of the description furnished by the recollection, respectively, of Mary Quince, Mrs. Rusk, and myself. I had fancied her little vision of the police was no more than the result of a momentary impulse; but really, to judge by her methodical examinations of us, I should have fancied that she had taken it up in downright earnest.

Having learned that my departure from Knowl was to be so very soon, she resolved not to leave me before the day of my journey to Bartram–Haugh; and as day after day passed by, and the hour of our leave-taking approached, she became more and more kind and affectionate. A feverish and sorrowful interval it was to me.

Of Doctor Bryerly, though staying in the house, we saw almost nothing except for an hour or so at tea-time. He breakfasted very early, and dined solitarily, and at uncertain hours, as business permitted.

The second evening of his visit, Cousin Monica took occasion to introduce the subject of his visit to Bartram–Haugh.

“You saw him, of course?” said Lady Knollys.

“Yes, he saw me; he was not well. On hearing who I as, he asked me to go to his room, where he sat in a silk dressing-gown and slippers.”

“About business principally,” said Cousin Monica, laconically.

“That was despatched in very few words; for he was quite resolved, and placed his refusal upon ground which it was difficult to dispute. But difficult or not, mind you, he intimated that he would hear nothing more on the subject — so that was closed.”

“Well; and what is his religion now?” inquired she, irreverently.

“We had some interesting conversation on the subject. He leans much to what we call the doctrine of correspondents. He is read rather deeply in the writings of Swedenborg, and seemed anxious to discuss some points with one who professes to be his follower. To say truth, I did not expect to find him either so well read or so deeply interested in the subject.”

“Was he angry when it was proposed that he should vacate his guardianship.”

“Not at all. Contrariwise, he said he had at first been so minded himself. His years, his habits, and something of the unfitness of the situation, the remoteness of Bartram–Haugh from good teachers, and all that, had struck him, and nearly determined him against accepting the office. But then came the views which I stated in my letter, and they governed him; and nothing could shake them, he said, or induce him to re-open the question in his own mind.”

All the time Doctor Bryerly was relating his conference with the head of the family at Bartram–Haugh my cousin commented on the narrative with a variety of little “pishes” and sneers, which I thought showed more of vexation than contempt.

I was glad to hear all that Doctor Bryerly related. It gave me a kind of confidence; and I experienced a momentary reaction. After all, could Bartram–Haugh be more lonely than I had found Knowl? Was I not sure of the society of my Cousin Millicent, who was about my own age? Was it not quite possible that my sojourn in Derbyshire might turn out a happy though very quiet remembrance through all my after-life? Why should it not? What time or place would be happy if we gave ourselves over to dismal imaginations?

So the summons reached me from Uncle Silas. The hours at Knowl were numbered.

The evening before I departed I visited the full-length portrait of Uncle Silas, and studied it for the last time carefully, with deep interest, for many minutes; but with results vaguer than ever.

With a brother so generous and so wealthy, always ready to help him forward; with his talents; with his lithe and gorgeous beauty, the shadow of which hung on that canvas — what might he not have accomplished? whom might he not have captivated? And yet where and what was he? A poor and shunned old man, occupying a lonely house and place that did not belong to him, married to degradation, with a few years of suspected and solitary life before him, and then swift oblivion his best portion.

I gazed on the picture, to fix it well and vividly in my remembrance. I might still trace some of its outlines and tints in its living original, whom I was next day to see for the first time in my life.

So the morning came — my last for many a day at Knowl — a day of partings, a day of novelty and regrets. The travelling carriage and post horses were at the door. Cousin Monica’s carriage had just carried her away to the railway. We had embraced with tears; and her kind face was still before me, and her words of comfort and promise in my ears. The early sharpness of morning was still in the air; the frosty dew still glistened on the window-panes. We had made a hasty breakfast, my share of which was a single cup of tea. The aspect of the house how strange! Uncarpeted, uninhabited, doors for the most part locked, all the servants but Mrs. Rusk and Branston departed. The drawing-room door stood open, and a charwoman was washing the bare floor. I was looking my last — for who could say how long? — on the old house, and lingered. The luggage was all up. I made Mary Quince get in first, for every delay was precious; and now he moment was come. I hugged and kissed Mrs. Rusk in the hall.

“God bless you, Miss Maud, darling. You must not fret; mind, the time won’t be long going over — no time at all; and you’ll be bringing back a fine young gentleman — who know? as great as the Duke of Wellington, for your husband; and I’ll take the best care of everything, and the birds and the dogs, till you come back; and I’ll go and see you and Mary, if you’ll allow, in Derbyshire;” and so forth.

I got into the carriage, and bid Branston, who shut the door, good-bye, and kissed hands to Mrs. Rusk, who was smiling and drying her eyes and courtesying on the hall-door steps. The dogs, who had started gleefully with the carriage, were called back by Branston, and driven home, wondering and wistful, looking back with ears oddly cocked and tails dejected. My heart thanked them for their kindness, and I felt like a stranger, and very desolate.

It was a bright, clear morning. I had been settled that it was not worth the trouble changing from the carriage to the railway for sake of five-and-twenty miles, and so the entire journey of sixty miles was to be made by the post road — the pleasantest travelling, if the mind were free. The grander and more distant features of the landscape we may see well enough from the window of the railway-carriage; but it is the foreground that interests and instructs us, like a pleasant gossiping history; and that we had, in old days, from the post-chaise window. It was more than travelling picquet. Something of all conditions of life — luxury and misery — high spirits and low; — all sorts of costume, livery, rags, millinery; faces buxom, faces wrinkled, faces kind, faces wicked; — no end of interest and suggestion, passing in a procession silent and vivid, and all in their proper scenery. The golden corn-sheafs — the old dark-alleyed orchards, and the high streets of antique towns. There were few dreams brighter, few books so pleasant.

We drove by the dark wood — it always looked dark to me — where the “mausoleum” stands — where my dear parents both lay now. I gazed on its sombre masses not with a softened feeling, but a peculiar sense of pain, and was glad when it was quite past.

All the morning I had not shed a tear. Good Mary Quince cried at leaving Knowl; Lady Knollys’ eyes were not dry as she kissed and blessed me, and promised an early visit; and the dark, lean, energetic face of the housekeeper was quivering, and her cheeks wet, as I drove away. But I, whose grief was sorest, never shed a tear. I only looked about from one familiar object to another, pale, excited, not quite apprehending my departure, and wondering at my own composure.

But when we reached the old bridge, with the tall osiers standing by the buttress, and looked back at poor Knowl — the places we love and are leaving look so fairy-like and so sad in the clear distance, and this is the finest view of the gabled old house, with its slanting meadow-lands and noble timber reposing in solemn groups — I gazed at the receding vision, and the tears came at last, and I wept in silence long after the fair picture was hidden from view by the intervening uplands.

I was relieved, and when we had made our next change of horses, and got into a country that was unknown to me, the new scenery and the sense of progress worked their accustomed effects on a young traveller who had lived a particularly secluded life, and I began to experience, on the whole, a not unpleasurable excitement.

Mary Quince and I, with the hopefulness of inexperienced travellers, began already to speculate about our proximity to Bartram–Haugh, and were sorely disappointed when we heard from the nondescript courier — more like a ostler than a servant, who sat behind in charge of us and the luggage, and represented my guardian’s special care — at nearly one o’clock, that we had still forty miles to go, a considerable portion of which was across the high Derbyshire mountains, before we reached Bartram–Haugh.

The fact was, we had driven at a pace accommodated rather to the convenience of the horses than to our impatience; and finding, at the quaint little inn where we now halted, that we must wait for a nail or two in a loose shoe of one of our relay, we consulted, and being both hungry, agreed to beguile the time with an early dinner, which we enjoyed very sociably in a queer little parlour with a bow window, and commanding, with a little garden for foreground, a very pretty landscape.

Good Mary Quince, like myself, had quite dried her tears by this time, and we were both highly interested, and I a little nervous, too, about our arrival and reception at Bartram. Some time, of course, was lost in this pleasant little parlour, before we found ourselves once more pursuing our way.

The slowest part of our journey was the pull up the long mountain road, ascending zig-zag, as sailors make way against a head-wind, by tacking. I forget the name of the pretty little group of houses — it did not amount to a village — buried in trees, where we got our four horses and two postilions, for the work was severe. I can only designate it as the place where Mary Quince and I had our tea, very comfortably, and bought some gingerbread, very curious to look upon, but quite uneatable.

The greater portion of the ascent, when we were fairly upon the mountain, was accomplished at a walk, and at some particularly steep points we had to get out and go on foot. But this to me was quite delightful. I had never scaled a mountain before, and the ferns and heath, the pure boisterous air, and above all the magnificent view of the rich country we were leaving behind, now gorgeous and misty in sunset tints, stretching in gentle undulations far beneath us, quite enchanted me.

We had just reached the summit when the sun went down. The low grounds at the other side were already lying in cold grey shadow, and I got the man who sat behind to point out as well as he could the site of Bartram–Haugh. But mist was gathering over all by this time. The filmy disk of the moon which was to light us on, so soon as twilight faded into night, hung high in the air. I tried to see the sable mass of wood which he described. But it was vain, and to acquire a clear idea of the place, as of its master, I must only wait that nearer view which an hour or two more would afford me.

And now we rapidly descended the mountain side. The scenery was wilder and bolder than I was accustomed to. Our road skirted the edge of a great heathy moor. The silvery light of the moon began to glimmer, and we passed a gipsy bivouac with fires alight and caldrons hanging over them. It was the first I had seen. Two or three low tents; a couple of dark, withered crones, veritable witches; a graceful girl standing behind, gazing after us; and men in odd-shaped hats, with gaudy waistcoats and bright-coloured neck-handkerchiefs and gaitered legs, stood lazily in front. They had all a wild tawdry display of colour; and a group of alders in the rear made a background of shade for tents, fires, and figures.

I opened a front window of the chariot, and called to the postboys to stop. The groom from behind came to the window.

“Are not those gipsies?” I enquired.

“Yes, please’m, them’s gipsies, sure, Miss,” he answered, glancing with that odd smile, half contemptuous, half superstitious, with which I have since often observed the peasants of Derbyshire eyeing those thievish and uncanny neighbours.

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