Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 32

Uncle Silas

I THOUGHT my odd cousin was also impressed with a kind of awe, though different in degree from mine, for a shade overcast her face, and she was silent as we walked side by side along the gallery, accompanied by the crone who carried the candle which lighted us to the door of that apartment which I may call Uncle Silas’s presence chamber.

Milly whispered to me as we approached —

“Mind how you make a noise; the governor’s as sharp as a weasel, and nothing vexes him like that.”

She was herself toppling along on tiptoe. We paused at a door near the head of the great staircase, and L’Amour knocked timidly with her rheumatic knuckles.

A voice, clear and penetrating, from within summoned us to enter. The old woman opened the door, and the next moment I was in the presence of Uncle Silas.

At the far end of a handsome wainscoted room, near the hearth in which a low fire was burning, beside a small table on which stood four waxlights, in tall silver candlesticks, sat a singular-looking old man.

The dark wainscoting behind him, and the vastness of the room, in the remoter parts of which the light which fell strongly upon his face and figure expended itself with hardly any effect, exhibited him with the forcible and strange relief of a finely painted Dutch portrait. For some time I saw nothing but him.

A face like marble, with a fearful monumental look, and, for an old man, singularly vivid strange eyes, the singularity of which rather grew upon me as I looked; for his eyebrows were still black, though his hair descended from his temples in long locks of the purest silver and fine as silk, nearly to his shoulders.

He rose, tall and slight, a little stooped, all in black, with an ample black velvet tunic, which was rather a gown than a coat, with loose sleeves, showing his snowy shirt some way up the arm, and a pair of wrist buttons, then quite out of fashion, which glimmered aristocratically with diamonds.

I know I can’t convey in words an idea of this apparition, drawn as it seemed in black and white, venerable, bloodless, fiery-eyed, with its singular look of power, and an expression so bewildering — was it derision, or anguish, or cruelty, or patience?

The wild eyes of this strange old man were fixed upon me as he rose; an habitual contraction, which in certain lights took the character of a scowl, did not relax as he advanced toward me with his thin-lipped smile. He said something in his clear, gentle, but cold voice, the import of which I was too much agitated to catch, and he took both my hands in his, welcomed me with a courtly grace which belonged to another age, and led me affectionately, with many inquiries which I only half comprehended, to a chair near his own.

“I need not introduce my daughter; she has saved me that mortification. You’ll find her, I believe, good-natured and affectionate; au reste, I fear a very rustic Miranda, and fitted rather for the society of Caliban than of a sick old Prospero. Is it not so, Millicent?”

The old man paused sarcastically for an answer, with his eyes fixed severely on my odd cousin, who blushed and looked uneasily to me for a hint.

“I don’t know who they be — neither one nor t’other.”

“Very good, my dear,” he replied, with a little mocking bow. “You see, my dear Maud, what a Shakespearean you have got for a cousin. It’s plain, however, she has made acquaintance with some of our dramatists; she has studied the rôle of Miss Hoyden so perfectly.”

It was not a reasonable peculiarity of my uncle that he resented, with a good deal of playful acrimony, my poor cousin’s want of education, for which, if he were not to blame, certainly neither was she.

“You see her, poor thing, a result of all the combined disadvantage of want of refined education, refined companionship, and, I fear, naturally, of refined tastes; but a sojourn at a good French conventual school will do wonders, and I hope to manage by-and-by. In the meantime we jest at our misfortunes, and love one another, I hope, cordially.”

He extended his thin, white hand with a chilly smile towards Milly, who bounced up, and took it with a frightened look; and he repeated, holding her hand rather slightly I thought, “Yes, I hope, very cordially,” and then turning again to me, he put it over the arm of his chair, and let it go, as a man might drop something he did not want from a carriage window.

Having made this apology for poor Milly, who was plainly bewildered, he passed on, to her and my relief, to other topics, every now and then expressing his fears that I was fatigued, and his anxiety that I should partake of some supper or tea; but these solicitudes somehow seemed to escape his remembrance almost as soon as uttered; and he maintained the conversation, which soon degenerated into a close, and to me a painful examination, respecting my dear father’s illness and its symptoms, upon which I could give no information, and his habits, upon which I could.

Perhaps he fancied that there might be some family predisposition to the organic disease of which his brother died, and that his questions were directed rather to the prolonging of his own life than to the better understanding of my dear father’s death.

How little was there left to this old man to make life desirable, and yet how keenly, I afterwards found, he clung to it. Have we not all of us seen those to whom life was not only undesirable, but positively painful — a mere series of bodily torments, yet hold to it with a desperate and pitiable tenacity — old children or young, it is all the same.

See how a sleepy child will put off the inevitable departure for bed. The little creature’s eyes blink and stare, and it needs constant jogging to prevent his nodding off into the slumber which nature craves. His waking is a pain; he is quite worn out, and peevish, and stupid, and vows he is not sleepy, even to the moment when his mother takes him in her arms, and carries him, in a sweet slumber, to the nursery. So it is with us old children of earth and the great sleep of death, and nature our kind mother. Just so reluctantly we part with consciousness, the picture is, even to the last, so interesting; the bird in the hand, though sick and moulting, so inestimably better than all the brilliant tenants of the bush. We sit up, yawning, and blinking, and stupid, the whole scene swimming before us, and the stories and music humming off into the sound of distant winds and waters. It is not time yet; we are not fatigued; we are good for another hour still, and so protesting against bed, we falter and drop into the dreamless sleep which nature assigns to fatigue and satiety.

He then spoke a little eulogy of his brother, very polished, and, indeed, in a kind of way, eloquent. He possessed in a high degree that accomplishment, too little cultivated, I think, by the present generation, of expressing himself with perfect precision and fluency. There was, too, a good deal of slight illustrative quotation, and a sprinkling of French flowers, over the conversation, which gave to it a character at once elegant and artificial. It was all easy, light, and pointed, and being quite new to me, had a wonderful fascination.

He then told me that Bartram was the temple of liberty, that the health of a whole life was founded in a few years of youth, air, and exercise, and that accomplishments, at least, if not education, should wait upon health. Therefore, while at Bartram, I should dispose of my time quite as I pleased, and the more I plundered the garden and gipsied in the woodlands, the better.

Then he told me what a miserable invalid he was, and how the doctors interfered with his frugal tastes. A glass of beer and a mutton chop — his ideal of a dinner — he dared not touch. They made him drink light wines, which he detested, and live upon those artificial abominations all liking for which vanishes with youth.

There stood on a side-table, in its silver coaster, a long-necked Rhenish bottle, and beside it a thin pink glass, and he quivered his fingers in a peevish way toward them.

But unless he found himself better very soon, he would take his case into his own hands, and try the dietary to which nature pointed.

He waved his fingers toward his bookcases, and told me his books were altogether at my service during my stay; but this promise ended, I must confess, disappointingly. At last, remarking that I must be fatigued, he rose, and kissed me with a solemn tenderness, placed his hand upon what I now perceived to be a large Bible, with two broad silk markers, red and gold, folded in it — the one, I might conjecture, indicating the place in the Old, the other in the New Testament. It stood on the small table that supported the waxlights, with a handsome cut bottle of eau-de-cologne, his gold and jewelled pencil-case, and his chased repeater, chain and seals, beside it. There certainly were no indications of poverty in Uncle Silas’s room; and he said impressively —

“Remember that book; in it your father placed his trust, in it he found his reward, in it lives my only hope; consult it, my beloved niece, day and night, as the oracle of life.”

Then he laid his thin hand on my head, and blessed me, and then kissed my forehead.

“No-a!” exclaimed Cousin Milly’s lusty voice. I had quite forgotten her presence, and looked at her with a little start. She was seated on a very high old-fashioned chair; she had palpably been asleep; her round eyes were blinking and staring glassily at us; and her white legs and navvy boots were dangling in the air.

“Have you anything to remark about Noah?” enquired her father, with a polite inclination and an ironical interest.

“No-a!” she repeated in the same blunt accents; “I didn’t snore; did I? No-a.”

The old man smiled and shrugged a little at me — it was the smile of disgust.

“Good night, my dear Maud;” and turning to her, he said, with a peculiar gentle sharpness, “Had not you better wake, my dear, and try whether your cousin would like some supper?”

So he accompanied us to the door, outside which we found L’Amour’s candle awaiting us.

“I’m awful afraid of the Governor, I am. Did I snore that time?”

“No, dear; at least, I did not hear it,” I said, unable to repress a smile.

“Well, if I didn’t, I was awful near it,” she said, reflectively.

We found poor Mary Quince dozing over the fire; but we soon had tea and other good things, of which Milly partook with a wonderful appetite.

“I was in a qualm about it,” said Milly, who by this time was quite herself again. “When he spies me a-napping, maybe he don’t fetch me a prod with his pencil-case over the head. Odd! girl, it is sore.”

When I contrasted the refined and fluent old gentleman whom I had just left, with this amazing specimen of young ladyhood, I grew sceptical almost as to the possibility of her being his child.

I was to learn, however, how little she had, I won’t say of his society, but even of his presence — that she had no domestic companion of the least pretensions to education — that she ran wild about the place — never, except in church, so much as saw a person of that rank to which she was born — and that the little she knew of reading and writing had been picked up, in desultory half-hours, from a person who did not care a pin about her manners of decorum, and perhaps rather enjoyed her grotesqueness — and that no one who was willing to take the least trouble about her was competent to make her a particle more refined than I saw her — the wonder ceased. We don’t know how little is heritable, and how much simply training, until we encounter some such spectacle as that of my poor cousin Milly.

When I lay down in my bed and reviewed the day, it seemed like a month of wonders. Uncle Silas was always before me; the voice so silvery for an old man — so preternaturally soft; the manners so sweet, so gentle; the aspect, smiling, suffering, spectral. It was no longer a shadow; I had now seen him in the flesh. But, after all, was he more than a shadow to me? When I closed my eyes I saw him before me still, in necromantic black, ashy with a pallor on which I looked with fear and pain, a face so dazzlingly pale, and those hollow, fiery, awful eyes! It sometimes seemed as if the curtain opened, and I had seen a ghost.

I had seen him; but he was still an enigma and a marvel. The living face did not expound the past, any more than the portrait portended the future. He was still a mystery and a vision; and thinking of these things I fell asleep.

Mary Quince, who slept in the dressing-room, the door of which was close to my bed, and lay open to secure me against ghosts, called me up; and the moment I knew where I was I jumped up, and peeped eagerly from the window. It commanded the avenue and court-yard; but we were many windows removed from that over the half-door, and immediately beneath ours lay the two giant lime trees, prostrate and uprooted, which I had observed as we drove up the night before.

I saw more clearly in the bright light of morning the signs of neglect and almost of dilapidation which had struck me as I approached. The court-yard was tufted over with grass, seldom from year to year crushed by the carriage-wheels, or trodden by the feet of visitors. This melancholy verdure thickened where the area was more remote from the centre; and under the windows, and skirting the walls to the left, was reinforced by a thick grove of nettles. The avenue was all grass-grown, except in the very centre, where a narrow track still showed the roadway. The handsome carved balustrade of the court-yard was discoloured with lichens, and in two places gapped and broken; and the air of decay was heightened by the fallen trees, among whose sprays and yellow leaves the small birds were hopping.

Before my toilet was completed, in marched my cousin Milly. We were to breakfast alone that morning, “and so much the better,” she told me. Sometimes the Governor ordered her to breakfast with him, and “never left off chaffing her” till his newspaper came, and “sometimes he said such thing she made her cry,” and then he only “boshed her more,” and packed her away to her room; but she was by chalks nicer than him, talk as he might. “Was not she nicer? was not she?” Upon this point she was so strong and urgent that I was obliged to reply by a protest against awarding the palm of elegance between parent and child, and declaring I liked her very much, which I attested by a kiss.

“I know right well which of us you do think’s the nicest, and no mistake, only you’re afraid of him; and he had no business boshing me last night before you. I knew he was at it, though I couldn’t twig him altogether; but wasn’t he a sneak, now, wasn’t he?”

This was a still more awkward question; so I kissed her again, and said she must never ask me to say of my uncle in his absence anything I could not say to his face.

At which speech she stared at me for a while, and then treated me to one of her hearty laughs, after which she seemed happier, and gradually grew into better humour with her father.

“Sometimes, when the curate calls, he has me up — for he’s as religious as six, he is — and they read Bible and prays, ho — don’t they? You’ll have that, lass, like me, to go through; and maybe I don’t hate it; on, no!”

We breakfasted in a small room, almost a closet, off the great parlour, which was evidently quite disused. Nothing could be homelier than our equipage, or more shabby than the furniture of the little apartment. Still, somehow, I liked it. It was a total change; but one likes “roughing it” a little at first.

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