Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 35

We Visit a Room in the Second Storey

MR. CARYSBROKE amused my fancy sufficiently to prevent my observing Milly’s silence, till we had begun our return homeward.

“The Grange must be a pretty house, if that little sketch is true; is it far from this?”

“’Twill be two mile.”

“Are you vexed, Milly?” I asked, for both her tone and looks were angry.

“Yes, I am vexed; and why not lass?”

“What has happened?”

“Well, now, that is rich! Why, look at that fellow, Carysbroke: he took no more notice to me than a dog, and kep’ talking to you all the time of his pictures, and his walks, and his people. Why, a pig’s better manners than that.”

“But, Milly dear, you forget, he tried to talk to you, and you would not answer him,” I expostulated.

“And is not that just what I say — I can’t talk like other folk — ladies, I mean. Every one laughs at me; an’ I’m dressed like a show, I am. It’s a shame! I saw Polly Shives — what a lady she is, my eyes! — laughing at me in church last Sunday. I was minded to give her a bit of my mind. An’ I know I’m queer. It’s a shame, it is. Why should I be so rum? it is a shame! I don’t want to be so, nor it isn’t my fault.”

And poor Milly broke into a flood of tears, and stamped on the ground, and buried her face in her short frock, which she whisked up to her eyes; and an odder figure of grief I never beheld.

“And I could not make head or tail of what he was saying,” cried poor Milly through her buff cotton, with a stamp; “and you twigged every word o’t. An’ why am I so? It’s a shame — a shame! Oh, ho, ho! it’s a shame!”

“But, my dear Milly, we were talking of drawing, and you have not learned yet, but you shall — I’ll teach you; and then you’ll understand all about it.”

“An’ every one laughs at me — even you; though you try, Maud, you can scarce keep from laughing sometimes. I don’t blame you, for I know I’m queer; but I can’t help it; and it’s a shame.”

“Well, my dear Milly, listen to me: if you allow me, I assure you, I’ll teach you all the music and drawing I know. You have lived very much alone; and, as you say, ladies have a way of speaking of their own that is different from the talk of other people.”

“Yes, that they have, an’ gentlemen too — like the Governor, and that Carysbroke; and a precious lingo it is — dang it — why, the devil himself could not understand it; an’ I’m like a fool among you. I could ‘most drown myself. It’s a shame! It is — you know it is. — It’s a shame!”

“But I’ll teach you that lingo too, if you wish it, Milly; and you shall know everything that I know; and I’ll manage to have your dressed better made.”

By this time she was looking very ruefully, but attentively, in my face, her round eyes and nose swelled, and her cheeks all wet.

“I think if they were a little longer — yours is longer, you know;” and the sentence was interrupted by a sob.

“Now, Milly, you must not be crying; if you choose you may be just the same as any other lady — and you shall; and you will be very much admired, I can tell you, if only you will take the trouble to quite unlearn all your odd words and ways, and dress yourself like other people; and I will take care of that if you let me; and I think you are very clever, Milly; and I know you are very pretty.”

Poor Milly’s blubbered face expanded into a smile in spite of herself; but she shook her head, looking down.

“Noa, noa, Maud, I fear ‘twon’t be.” And indeed it seemed I had proposed to myself a labour of Hercules.

But Milly was really a clever creature, could see quickly, and when her ungainly dialect was mastered, describe very pleasantly; and if only she would endure the restraint and possessed the industry requisite, I did not despair, and was resolved at least to do my part.

Poor Milly! she was really very grateful, and entered into the project of her education with great zeal, and with a strange mixture of humility and insubordination.

Milly was in favour of again attacking “Beauty’s” position on her return, and forcing a passage from this side; but I insisted on following the route by which we had arrived, and so we got round the paling by the river, and were treated to a provoking grin of defiance by “Beauty,” who was talking across the gate to a slim young man, arrayed in fustian, and with an odd-looking cap of rabbit-skin on his head, which, on seeing us, he pulled sheepishly to the side of his face next to us, as he lounged, with his arm under this chin, on the top bar of the gate.

After our encounter of to-day, indeed, it was Miss “Beauty’s” wont to exhibit a kind of jeering disdain in her countenance whenever we passed.

I think Milly would have engaged her again, had I not reminded her of her undertaking, and exerted my new authority.

“Look at that sneak, Pegtop, there, going up the path to the mill. He makes belief now he does not see us; but he does, though, only he’s afraid we’ll tell the Governor, and he thinks Governor won’t give him his way with you. I hate that Pegtop; he stopped me o’ riding the cows a year ago, he did.”

I thought Pegtop might have done worse. Indeed it was plain that a total reformation was needed here; and I was glad to find that poor Milly seemed herself conscious of it; and that her resolution to become more like other people of her station was not a mere spasm of mortification and jealousy, but a genuine and very zealous resolve.

I had not half seen this old house of Bartram–Haugh yet. At first, indeed, I had but an imperfect idea of its extent. There was a range of rooms along one side of the great gallery, with closed window-shutters, and the doors generally locked. Old L’Amour grew cross when we went into them, although we could see nothing; and Milly was afraid to open the windows — not that any Bluebeard revelations were apprehended, but simply because she knew that Uncle Silas’s order was that things should be left undisturbed; and this boisterous spirit stood in awe of him to a degree which his gentle manners and apparent quietude rendered quite surprising.

There were in this house, what certainly did not exist at Knowl, and what I have never observed, though they may possibly be found in other old houses — I mean, here and there, very high hatches, which we could only peep over by jumping in the air. They crossed the long corridors and great galleries; and several of them were turned across and locked, so as to intercept the passage, and interrupt our explorations.

Milly, however, knew a queer little, very steep and dark back stair, which reached the upper floor; so she and I mounted, and made a long ramble through rooms much lower and ruder in finish than the lordly chambers we had left below. These commanded various views of the beautiful though neglected grounds; but on crossing a gallery we entered suddenly a chamber, which looked into a small and dismal quadrangle, formed by the inner walls of the great house, and of course designed only by the architect to afford the needful light and air to portions of the structure.

I rubbed the window-pane with my handkerchief and looked out. The surrounding roof was steep and high. The walls looked soiled and dark. The windows lined with dust and dirt, and the window-stones were in places tufted with moss, and grass, and groundsel. An arched doorway had opened from the house into this thickened square, but it was soiled and dusty; and the damp weeds that overgrew the quadrangle drooped undisturbed against it. It was plain that human footsteps tracked it little, and I gazed into that blind and sinister area with a strange thrill and sinking.

“This is the second floor — there is the enclosed court-yard”— I, as it were, soliloquised.

“What are you afraid of, Maud? you look as ye’d seen a ghost,” exclaimed Milly, who came to the window and peeped over my shoulder.

“It reminded me suddenly, Milly, of that frightful business.”

“What business, Maud? — what a plague are ye thinking on?” demanded Milly, rather amused.

“It was in one of these rooms — maybe this — yes, it certainly was this — for see, the panelling has been pulled off the wall — that Mr. Clarke killed himself.”

I was staring ruefully round the dim chamber, in whose corners the shadows of night were already gathering.

“Clarke! — what about him? — who’s Clarke?” asked Milly.

“Why, you must have heard of him,” said I.

“Not as I’m aware on,” answered she. “And he killed himself, did he, hanged himself, eh, or blowed his brains out?”

“He cut his throat in one of these rooms — this one, I’m sure — for your papa had the wainscoting stripped from the wall to ascertain whether there was any second door through which a murderer could have come; and you see these walls are stripped, and bear the marks of the woodwork that has been removed,” I answered.

“Well, that was awful! I don’t know how they have pluck to cut their throats; if I was doing it, I’d like best to put a pistol to my head and fire, like the young gentleman did, they say, in Deadman’s Hollow. But the fellows that cut their throats, they must be awful game lads, I’m thinkin’, for it’s a long slice, you know.”

“Don’t, don’t, Milly dear. Suppose we come away,” I said, for the evening was deepening rapidly into night.

“Hey and bury-me-wick, but here’s the blood; don’t you see a big black cloud all spread over the floor hereabout, don’t ye see?” Milly was stooping over the spot, and tracing the outline of this, perhaps, imaginary mapping, in the air with her finger.

“No, Milly, you could not see it; the floor is too dark, and it’s all in shadow. It must be fancy; and perhaps, after all, this is not the room.”

“Well — I think, I’m sure it is. Stand — just look.”

“We’ll come in the morning, and if you are right we can see it better then. Come away,” I said, growing frightened.

And just as we stood up to depart, the white high-cauled cap and large sallow features of old L’Amour peeped in at the door.

“Lawk! what brings you here?” cried Milly, nearly as much startled as I at the intrusion.

“What brings you here, miss?” whistled L’Amour through her gums.

“We’re looking where Clarke cut his throat,” replied Milly.

“Clarke the devil!” said the old woman, with an odd mixture of scorn and fury. “‘Tisn’t his room; and come ye out of it, please. Master won’t like when he hears how you keep pulling Miss Maud from one room to another, all through the house, up and down.”

She was gabbling sternly enough, but drooped a low courtesy as I passed her, and with a peaked and nodding stare round the room, the old woman clapped the door sharply, and locked it.

“And who has been a talking about Clarke — a pack o’ lies, I warrant. I s’pose you want to frighten Miss Maud here” (another crippled courtesy) “wi’ ghosts and like nonsense.”

“You’re out there: ’twas she told me; and much about it. Ghosts, indeed! I don’t vally them, not I; if I did, I know who’d frighten me,” and Milly laughed.

The old woman stuffed the key in her pocket, and her wrinkled mouth pouted and receded with a grim uneasiness.

“A harmless brat, and kind she is; but wild — wild — she will be wild.”

So whispered L’Amour in my ear, during the silence that followed, nodding shakily toward Milly over the banister, and she courtesied again as we departed, and shuffled off toward Uncle Silas’s room.

“The Governor is queerish this evening,” said Milly, when we were seated at our tea. “You never saw him queerish, did you?”

“You must say what you mean, more plainly, Milly. You don’t mean ill, I hope?”

“Well! I don’t know what it is; but he does grow very queer sometimes — you’d think he was dead a’most, maybe two or three days and nights together. He sits all the time like an old woman in a swound. Well, well, it is awful!”

“Is he insensible when in that state?” I asked, a good deal alarmed.

“I don’t know; but it never signifies anything. It won’t kill him, I do believe; but old L’Amour knows all about it. I hardly ever go into the room when he’s so, only when I’m sent for; and he sometimes wakes up and takes a fancy to call for this one or that. One day he sent for Pegtop all the way to the mill; and when he came, he only stared at him for a minute or two, and ordered him out o’ the room. He’s like a child a’most, when he’s in one o’ them dazes.”

I always knew when Uncle Silas was “queerish,” by the injunctions of old L’Amour, whistled and spluttered over the banister as we came up-stairs, to mind how we made a noise passing master’s door; and by the sound of mysterious to-ings and fro-ings about his room.

I saw very little of him. He sometimes took a whim to have us breakfast with him, which lasted perhaps for a week; and then the order of our living would relapse into its old routine.

I must not forget two kind letters from Lady Knollys, who was detained away, and delighted to hear that I enjoyed my quiet life; and promised to apply, in person, to Uncle Silas, for permission to visit me.

She was to be for the Christmas at Elverston, and that was only six miles away from Bartram–Haugh, so I had the excitement of a pleasant look forward.

She also said that she would include poor Milly in her invitation; and a vision of Captain Oakley rose before me, with his handsome gaze turned in wonder on poor Milly, for whom I had begun to feel myself responsible.

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