Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 34

Zamiel

IT WAS ALL vain my remonstrating. She vowed that by crossing the stepping-stones close by she could, by a short cut, reach the house, and return with my pencils and block-book in a quarter of an hour. Away then, with many a jump and fling, scampered Milly’s queer white stockings and navvy boots across the irregular and precarious stepping-stones, over which I dared not follow her; so I was fain to return to the stone so “pure and flat,” on which I sat, enjoying the grand sylvan solitude, the dark background and the grey bridge mid-way, so tall and slim, across whose ruins a sunbeam glimmered, and the gigantic forest trees that slumbered round, opening here and there in dusky vistas, and breaking in front into detached and solemn groups. It was the setting of a dream of romance.

It would have been the very spot in which to read a volume of German folk-lore, and the darkening colonnades and silent nooks of the forest seemed already haunted with the voices and shadows of those charming elves and goblins.

As I sat here enjoying the solitude and my fancies among the low branches of the wood, at my right I heard a crashing, and saw a squat broad figure in a stained and tattered military coat, and loose short trousers, one limb of which flapped about a wooden leg. He was forcing himself through. His face was rugged and wrinkled, and tanned to the tint of old oak; his eyes black, beadlike, and fierce, and a shock of sooty hair escaped from under his battered wide-awake nearly to his shoulders. This forbidding-looking person came stumping and jerking along toward me, whisking his stick now and then viciously in the air, and giving his fell of hair a short shake, like a wild bull preparing to attack.

I stood up involuntarily with a sense of fear and surprise, almost fancying I saw in that wooden-legged old soldier, the forest demon who haunted Der Freischütz.

So he approached shouting —

“Hollo! you — how came you here? Dost ‘eer?”

And he drew near panting, and sometimes tugging angrily in his haste at his wooden leg, which sunk now and then deeper than was convenient in the sod. This exertion helped to anger him, and when he halted before me, his dark face smirched with smoke and dust, and the nostrils of his flat drooping nose expanded and quivered as he panted, like the gills of a fish; an angrier or uglier face it would not be easy to fancy.

“Ye’ll all come when ye like, will ye? and do nout but what pleases yourselves, won’t you? And who’rt thou? Dost ‘eer — who are ye, I say; and what the deil seek ye in the woods here? Come, bestir thee!”

If his wide mouth and great tobacco-stained teeth, his scowl, and loud discordant tones were intimidating, they were also extremely irritating. The moment my spirit was roused, my courage came.

“I am Miss Ruthyn of Knowl, and Mr. Silas Ruthyn, your master, is my uncle.”

“Hoo!” he exclaimed more gently, “an’ if Silas be thy uncle thou’t be come to live wi’ him, and thou’rt she as come overnight — eh?”

I made no answer, but I believe I looked both angrily and disdainfully.

“And what make ye alone here? and how was I to know’t, an’ Milly not wi’ ye, nor no one? But Maud or no Maud, I wouldn’t let the Dooke hisself set foot inside the palin’ without Silas said let him. And you may tell Silas them’s the words o’ Dickon Hawkes, and I’ll stick to ‘m — and what’s more I’ll tell him myself — I will; I’ll tell him there be no use o’ my striving and straining here, day an’ night and night and day, watchin’ again poachers, and thieves, and gipsies, and they robbing lads, if rules won’t be kep, and folk do jist as they pleases. Dang it, lass, thou’rt in luck I didn’t heave a brick at thee when I saw thee first.”

“I’ll complain of you to my uncle,” I replied.

“So do, and and ‘appen thou’lt find thyself in the wrong box, lass; thou canst na’ say I set the dogs arter thee, nor cau’d thee so much as a wry name, nor heave a stone at thee — did I? Well? and where’s the complaint then?”

I simply answered, rather fiercely,

“Be good enough to leave me.”

“Well, I make no objections, mind. I’m takin’ thy word — thou’rt Maud Ruthyn —‘appen thou be’st and ‘appen thou baint. I’m not aweer on’t, but I takes thy word, and all I want to know’s just this, did Meg open the gate to thee?”

I made him no answer, and to my great relief I saw Milly striding and skipping across the unequal stepping-stones.

“Hallo, Pegtop! what are you after now?” she cried, as she drew near.

“This man has been extremely impertinent. You know him, Milly?” I said.

“Why that’s Pegtop Dickon. Dirty old Hawkes that never was washed. I tell you, lad, ye’ll see what the Governor thinks o’t — a-ha! He’ll talk to you.”

“I done or said nout — not but I should, and there’s the fack — she can’t deny’t; she hadn’t a hard word from I; and I don’t care the top o’ that thistle what no one says — not I. But I tell thee, Milly, I stopped some o’ thy pranks, and I’ll stop more. Ye’ll be shying no more stones at the cattle.”

“Tell your tales, and welcome,” cried Milly. “I wish I was here when you jawed cousin. If Winny was here she’d catch you by the timber toe and put you on your back.”

“Ay, she’ll be a good un yet if she takes arter thee,” retorted the old man with a fierce sneer.

“Drop it, and get away wi’ ye,” cried she, “or maybe I’d call Winny to smash your timber leg for you.”

“A-ha! there’s more on’t. She’s a sweet un. Isn’t she?” he replied sardonically.

“You did not like it last Easter, when Winny broke it with a kick.”

“’Twas the kick o’ a horse,” he growled with a glance at me.

“’Twas no such thing —’twas Winny did it — and he laid on his back for a week while carpenter made him a new one.” And Milly laughed hilariously.

“I’ll fool no more wi’ ye, losing my time; I won’t; but mind ye, I’ll speak wi’ Silas.” And going away he put his hand to his crumpled wide-awake, and said to me with a surly indifference —

“Good evening, Miss Ruthyn — good evening, ma’am — and ye’ll please remember, I did not mean nout to vex thee.”

And so he swaggered away, jerking and waddling over the sward, and was soon lost in the wood.

“It’s well he’s a little bit frightened — I never saw him so angry, I think; he is awful mad.”

“Perhaps he really is not aware how very rude he is,” I suggested.

“I hate him. We were twice as pleasant with poor Tom Driver — he never meddled with any one, and was always in liquor; Old Gin was the name he went by. But this brute — I do hate him — he comes from Wigan, I think, and he’s always spoiling sport — and he whops Meg — that’s Beauty, you know, and I don’t think she’d be half as bad only for him. Listen to him whistlin’.”

“I did hear him whistling at some distance among the trees.”

“I declare if he isn’t callin’ the dogs! Climb up here, I tell ye,” and we climbed up the slanting trunk of a great walnut tree, and strained our eyes in the direction from which we expected the onset of Pegtop’s vicious pack.

But it was a false alarm.

“Well, I don’t think he would do that, after all — hardly; but he is a brute, sure!”

“And that dark girl who would not let us through, is his daughter, is she?”

“Yes, that’s Meg — Beauty, I christened her, when I called him Beast; but I call him Pegtop now, and she’s Beauty still, and that’s the way o’t.”

“Come, sit down now, an’ make your picture,” she resumed so soon as we had dismounted from our position of security.

“I’m afraid I’m hardly in the vein. I don’t think I could draw a straight line. My hand trembles.”

“I wish you could, Maud,” said Milly, with a look so wistful and entreating, that considering the excursion she had made for the pencils, I could not bear to disappoint her.

“Well, Milly, we must only try; and if we fail we can’t help it. Sit you down beside me and I’ll tell you why I begin with one part and not another, and you’ll see how I make trees and the river, and — yes, that pencil, it is hard and answers for the first light lines; but we must begin at the beginning, and learn to copy drawings before we attempt real views like this. And if you wish it, Milly, I’m resolved to teach you everything I know, which, after all, is not a great deal, and we shall have such fun making sketches of the same landscapes, and then comparing.”

And so on, Milly, quite delighted, and longing to begin her course of instruction, sat down beside me in a rapture, and hugged and kissed me so heartily that we were very near rolling together off the stone on which we were seated. Her boisterous delight and good-nature helped to restore me, and both laughing heartily together, I commenced my task.

“Dear me! what’s that?” I exclaimed suddenly, as looking up from by block-book I saw the figure of a slight man in the careless morning-dress of a gentleman, crossing the ruinous bridge in my direction, with considerable caution, upon the precarious footing of the battlement, which alone offered an unbroken passage.

This was a day of apparitions! Milly recognised him instantly. The gentleman was Mr. Carysbroke. He had taken The Grange only for a year. He lived quite by himself, and was very good to the poor, and was the only gentleman, for ever so long, who had visited at Bartram, and oddly enough nowhere else. But he wanted leave to cross through the grounds, and having obtained it, had repeated his visit, partly induced, no doubt, by the fact that Bartram boasted no hospitalities, and that there was no risk of meeting the county folk there.

With a stout walking-stick in his hand, and a short shooting-coat, and a wide-awake hat in much better trim than Zamiel’s, he emerged from the copse that covered the bridge, walking at a quick but easy pace.

“He’ll be goin’ to see old Snoddles, I guess,” said Milly, looking a little frightened and curious; for Milly, I need not say, was a bumpkin, and stood in awe of this gentleman’s good-breeding, though she was as brave as a lion, and would have fought the Philistines at any odds, with the jawbone of an ass.

“‘Appen he won’t see us,” whispered Milly, hopefully.

But he did, and raising his hat, with a cheerful smile, that showed very white teeth, he paused.

“Charming day, Miss Ruthyn.”

I raised my head suddenly as he spoke, from habit appropriating the address; it was so marked that he raised his hat respectfully to me, and then continued to Milly —

“Mr. Ruthyn, I hope, quite well? but I need hardly ask, you seem so happy. Will you kindly tell him, that I expect the book I mentioned in a day or two, and when it comes I’ll either send or bring it to him immediately?”

Milly and I were standing, by this time, but she only stared at him, tongue-tied, her cheeks rather flushed, and her eyes very round, and to facilitate the dialogue, as I suppose, he said again —

“He’s quite well, I hope?”

Still no response from Milly, and I, provoked, though myself a little shy, made answer —

“My uncle, Mr. Ruthyn, is very well, thank you,” and I felt that I blushed as I spoke.

“Ah, pray excuse me, may I take a great liberty? you are Miss Ruthyn, of Knowl? Will you think me very impertinent — I’m afraid you will — if I venture to introduce myself? My name is Carysbroke, and I had the honour of knowing poor Mr. Ruthyn when I was quite a little boy, and he has shown a kindness for me since, and I hope you will pardon the liberty I fear I’ve taken. I think my friend, Lady Knollys, too, is a relation of yours; what a charming person she is!”

“Oh, is not she? such a darling!” I said, and then blushed at my outspoken affection.

But he smiled kindly, as if he liked me for it; and he said —

“You know whatever I think, I dare not quite say that; but frankly I can quite understand it. She preserves her youth so wonderfully, and her fun and her good-nature are so entirely girlish. What a sweet view you have selected,” he continued, changing all at once. “I’ve stood just at this point so often to look back at that exquisite old bridge. Do you observe — you’re an artist, I see — something very peculiar in that tint of the grey, with those odd cross stains of faded red and yellow?”

“I do, indeed; I was just remarking the peculiar beauty of the colouring — was I not, Milly?”

Milly stared at me, and uttered an alarmed “Yes,” and looked as if she had been caught in a robbery.

“Yes, and you have so very peculiar a background,” he resumed. “It was better before the storm though; but it is very good still.”

Then a little pause, and “Do you know this country at all?” rather suddenly.

“No, not in the least — that is, I’ve only had the drive to this place; but what I did see interested me very much.”

“You will be charmed with it when you know it better — the very place for an artist. I’m a wretched scribbler myself, and I carry this little book in my pocket,” and he laughed deprecatingly while he drew forth a thin fishing-book, as it looked. “They are mere memoranda, you see. I walk so much and come unexpectedly on such pretty nooks and studies, I just try to make a note of them, but it is really more writing than sketching; my sister says it is a cipher which nobody but myself understands. However, I’ll try and explain just two — because you really ought to go and see the places. Oh, no; not that,” he laughed, as accidentally the page blew over, “that’s the Cat and Fiddle, a curious little pot-house, where they gave me some very good ale one day.”

Milly at this exhibited some uneasy tokens of being about to speak, but not knowing what might be coming, I hastened to observe on the spirited little sketches to which he meant to draw my attention.

“I want to show you only the places within easy reach — a short ride or drive.”

So he proceeded to turn over two or three, in addition to the two he had at first proposed, and then another; then a little sketch just tinted, and really quite a charming little gem, of Cousin Monica’s pretty gabled old house; and every subject had its little criticism, or its narrative, or adventure.

As he was about returning this little sketch-book to his pocket, still chatting to me, he suddenly recollected poor Milly, who was looking rather lowering; but she brightened a good deal as he presented it to her, with a little speech which she palpably misunderstood, for she made one of her odd courtesies, and was about, I thought, to put it into her large pocket, and accept it as a present.

“Look at the drawings, Milly, and then return it,” I whispered.

At his request I allowed him to look at my unfinished sketch of the bridge, and while he was measuring distances and proportions with his eye, Milly whispered rather angrily to me,

“And why should I?”

“Because he wants it back, and only meant to lend it to you,” whispered I.

“Lend it to me — and after you! Bury-me-wick if I look at a leaf of it,” she retorted in high dudgeon. “Take it, lass; give it him yourself — I’ll not,” and she popped it into my hand, and made a sulky step back.

“My cousin is very much obliged,” I said, returning the book, and smiling for her, and he took it smiling also and said —

“I think if I had known how very well you draw, Miss Ruthyn, I should have hesitated about showing you my poor scrawls. But these are not my best, you know; Lady Knollys will tell you that I can really do better — a great deal better, I think.”

And then with more apologies for what he called his impertinence, he took his leave, and I felt altogether very much pleased and flattered.

He could not be more than twenty-nine or thirty, I thought, and he was decidedly handsome — that is, his eyes and teeth, and clear brown complexion were — and there was something distinguished and graceful in his figure and gesture; and altogether there was the indescribable attraction of intelligence; and I fancied — though this, of course, was a secret — that from the moment he spoke to us he felt an interest in me. I am not going to be vain. It was a grave interest, but still and interest, for I could see him studying my features while I was turning over his sketches, and he thought I saw nothing else. It was flattering, too, his anxiety that I should think well of his drawing, and referring me to Lady Knollys. Carysbroke — had I ever heard my dear father mention that name? I could not recollect it. But then he was habitually so silent, that his not doing so argued nothing.

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