Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 36

An Arrival at Dead of Night

I HAVE sometimes been asked why I wear an odd little turquois ring — which to the uninstructed eye appears quite valueless and altogether an unworthy companion of those jewels which flash insultingly beside it. It is a little keepsake, of which I became possessed about this time.

“Come, lass, what name shall I give you?” cried Milly, one morning, bursting into my room in a state of alarming hilarity.

“My own, Milly.”

“No, but you must have a nickname, like every one else.”

“Don’t mind it, Milly.”

“Yes, but I will. Shall I call you Mrs. Bustle?”

“You shall do no such thing.”

“But you must have a name.”

“I refuse a name.”

“But I’ll give you one, lass.”

“And I won’t have it.”

“But you can’t help me christening you.”

“I can decline answering.”

“But I’ll make you,” said Milly, growing very red.

Perhaps there was something provoking in my tone, for I certainly was very much disgusted at Milly’s relapse into barbarism.

“You can’t,” I retorted quietly.

“See if I don’t, and I’ll give ye one twice as ugly.”

I smiled, I fear, disdainfully.

“And I think you’re a minx, and a slut, and a fool,” she broke out, flushing scarlet.

I smiled in the same unchristian way.

“And I’d give ye a smack o’ the cheek as soon as look at you.”

And she gave her dress a great slap, and drew near me, in her wrath. I really thought she was about tendering the ordeal of single combat.

I made her, however, a paralysing courtesy, and, with immense dignity, sailed out of the room, and into Uncle Silas’s study, where it happened we were to breakfast that morning, and for several subsequent ones.

During the meal we maintained the most dignified reserve; and I don’t think either so much as looked at the other.

We had no walk together that day.

I was sitting in the evening, quite alone, when Milly entered the room. Her eyes were red, and she looked very sullen.

“I want your hand, cousin,” she said, at the same time taking it by the wrist, and administering with it a sudden slap on her plump cheek, which made the room ring, and my fingers tingle; and before I had recovered from my surprise, she had vanished.

I called after her, but no answer; I pursued, but she was running too; and I quite lost her at the cross galleries.

I did not see her at tea, nor before going to bed; but after I had fallen asleep I was awakened by Milly, in floods of tears.

“Cousin Maud, will ye forgi’ me — you’ll never like me again, will ye? No — I know ye won’t — I’m such a brute — I hate it — it’s a shame. And here’s a Banbury cake for you — I sent to the town for it, and some taffy — won’t ye eat it? and here’s a little ring —‘tisn’t as pretty as your own rings; and ye’ll wear it, maybe, for my sake — poor Milly’s sake, before I was so bad to ye — if ye forgi’ me; and I’ll look at breakfast, and if it’s on your finger I’ll know you’re friends wi’ me again; and if ye don’t, I won’t trouble you no more; and I think I’ll just drown myself out o’ the way, and you’ll never see wicked Milly no more.”

And without waiting a moment, leaving me only half awake, and with the sensations of dreaming, she scampered from the room, in her bare feet, with a petticoat about her shoulders.

She had left her candle by my bed, and her little offerings on the coverlet by me. If I had stood an atom less in terror of goblins than I did, I should have followed her, but I was afraid. I stood in my bare feet at my bedside, and kissed the poor little ring and put it on my finger, where it has remained ever since and always shall. And when I lay down, longing for morning, the image of her pale, imploring, penitential face was before me for hours; and I repented bitterly of my cool provoking ways, and thought myself, I dare say justly, a thousand times more to blame than Milly.

I searched in vain for her before breakfast. At that meal, however, we met, but in the presence of Uncle Silas, who, though silent and apathetic, was formidable; and we, sitting at a table disproportionably large, under the cold, strange gaze of my guardian, talked only what was inevitable, and that in low tones; for whenever Milly for a moment raised her voice, Uncle Silas would wince, place his thin white fingers quickly over his ear, and look as if a pain had pierced his brain, and then shrug and smile piteously into vacancy. When Uncle Silas, therefore, was not in the talking vein himself — and that was not often — you may suppose there was very little spoken in his presence.

When Milly, across the table, saw the ring upon my finger, she, drawing in her breath, said, “Oh!” and, with round eyes and mouth, she looked so delighted; and she made a little motion, as if she was on the point of jumping up; and then her poor face quivered, and she bit her lip; and staring imploringly at me, her eyes filled fast with tears, which rolled down her round penitential cheeks.

I am sure I felt more penitent than she. I know I was crying and smiling, and longing to kiss her. I suppose we were very absurd; but it is well that small matters can stir the affections so profoundly at a time of life when great troubles seldom approach us.

When at length the opportunity did come, never was such a hug out of the wrestling ring as poor Milly bestowed on me, swaying me this way and that, and burying her face in my dress, and blubbering —

“I was so lonely before you came, and you so good to me, and I such a devil; and I’ll never call you a name, but Maud — my darling Maud.”

“You must, Milly — Mrs. Bustle. I’ll be Mrs. Bustle, or anything you like. You must.” I was blubbering like Milly, and hugging my best; and, indeed, I wonder how we kept our feet.

So Milly and I were better friends than ever.

Meanwhile, the winter deepened, and we had short days and long nights, and long fireside gossipings at Bartram–Haugh. I was frightened at the frequency of the strange collapses to which Uncle Silas was subject. I did not at first mind them much, for I naturally fell into Milly’s way of talking about them.

But one day, while in one of his “queerish” states, he called for me, and I saw him, and was unspeakably scared.

In a white wrapper, he lay coiled in a great easy chair. I should have though him dead, had I not been accompanied by old L’Amour, who knew every gradation and symptom of these strange affections.

She winked and nodded to me with a ghastly significance, and whispered —

“Don’t make no noise, miss, till he talks; he’ll come to for a bit, anon.”

Except that there was no sign of convulsions, the countenance was like that of an epileptic arrested in one of his contortions.

There was a frown and a smirk like that of idiocy, and a strip of white eyeball was also disclosed.

Suddenly, with a kind of chilly shudder, he opened his eyes wide, and screwed his lips together, and blinked and stared on me with a fatuised uncertainty, that gradually broke into a feeble smile.

“Ah! the girl — Austin’s child. Well, dear, I’m hardly able — I’ll speak to-morrow — next day — it is tic — neuralgia, or something — torture — tell her.”

So, huddling himself together, he lay again in his great chair, with the same inexpressible helplessness in his attitude, and gradually his face resumed its dreadful cast.

“Come away, miss; he’s changed his mind; he’ll not be fit to talk to you noways all day, maybe,” said the old woman, again in a whisper.

So forth we stole from the room, I unspeakably shocked. In fact, he looked as if he were dying, and so, in my agitation, I told the crone, who, forgetting the ceremony with which she usually treated me, chuckled out derisively,

“A-dying is he? Well, he be like Saint Paul — he’s bin a-dying daily this many a day.”

I looked at her with a chill of horror. She did not care, I suppose, what sort of feelings she might excite, for she went on mumbling sarcastically to herself. I had paused, and overcame my reluctance to speak to her again, for I was really very much frightened.

“Do you think he is in danger? Shall we send for a doctor?” I whispered.

“Law bless ye, the doctor knows all about it, miss.” The old woman’s face had a gleam of that derision which is so shocking in the features of feebleness and age.

“But it is a fit, it is paralytic, or something horrible — it can’t be safe to leave him to chance or nature to get through these terrible attacks.”

“There’s no fear of him, ‘tisn’t no fits at all, he’s nout the worse o’t. Jest silly a bit now and again. It’s been the same a dozen year and more; and the doctor knows all about it,” answered the old woman sturdily. “And ye’ll find he’ll be as mad as bedlam if ye make any stir about it.”

That night I talked the matter over with Mary Quince.

“They’re very dark, miss; but I think he takes a deal too much laudlum,” said Mary.

To this hour I cannot say what was the nature of those periodical seizures. I have often spoken to medical men about them, since, but never could learn that excessive use of opium could altogether account for them. It was, I believe, certain, however, that he did use that drug in startling quantities. It was, indeed, sometimes a topic of complaint with him that his neuralgia imposed this sad necessity upon him.

The image of Uncle Silas, as I had seen him that day, troubled and affrighted my imagination, as I lay in my bed; I had slept very well since my arrival at Bartram. So much of the day was passed in the open air, and in active exercise, that this was but natural. But that night I was nervous and wakeful, and it was past two o’clock when I fancied I heard the sound of horses and carriage-wheels on the avenue.

Mary Quince was close by, and therefore I was not afraid to get up and peep from the window. My heart beat fast as I saw a post-chaise approach the court-yard. A front window was let down, and the postilion pulled up for a few seconds.

In consequence of some directions received by him, I fancied he resumed his route at a walk, and so drew up at the hall-door, on the steps of which a figure awaited his arrival. I think it was old L’Amour, but I could not be quite certain. There was a lantern on the top of the balustrade, close by the door. The chaise-lamps were lighted, for the night was rather dark.

A bag and valise, as well as I could see, were pulled from the interior by the post-boy, and a box from the top of the vehicle, and these were carried into the hall.

I was obliged to keep my cheek against the window-pane to command a view of the point of debarkation, and my breath upon the glass, which dimmed it again almost as fast as I wiped it away, helped to obscure my vision. But I saw a tall figure, in a cloak, get down and swiftly enter the house, but whether male or female I could not discern.

My heart beat fast. I jumped at once to a conclusion. My uncle was worse — was, in fact, dying; and this was the physician, too late summoned to his bedside.

I listened for the ascent of the doctor, and his entrance at my uncle’s door, which, in the stillness of the night, I thought I might easily hear, but no sound reached me. I listened so for fully five minutes, but without result. I returned to the window, but the carriage and horses had disappeared.

I was strongly tempted to wake Mary Quince, and take counsel with her, and persuade her to undertake a reconnaissance. The fact is, I was persuaded that my uncle was in extremity, and I was quite wild to know the doctor’s opinion. But, after all, it would be cruel to summon the good soul from her refreshing nap. So, as I began to feel very cold, I returned to my bed, where I continued to listen and conjecture until I fell asleep.

In the morning, as was usual, before I was dressed, in came Milly.

“How is Uncle Silas?” I eagerly enquired.

“Old L’Amour says he’s queerish still; but he’s not so dull as yesterday,” answered she.

“Was not the doctor sent for?” I asked.

“Was he? Well, that’s odd; and she said never a word o’t to me,” answered she.

“I’m asking only,” said I.

“I don’t know whether he came or no,” she replied; “but what makes you take that in your head?”

“A chaise arrived here between two and three o’clock last night.”

“Hey! and who told you?” Milly seemed all on a sudden highly interested.

“I saw it, Milly; and some one, I fancy the doctor, came from it into the house.”

“Fudge, lass! who’d send for the doctor? ‘Twasn’t he, I tell you. What was he like?” said Milly.

“I could only see clearly that he, or she, was tall, and wore a cloak,” I replied.

“Then ‘twasn’t him nor t’other I was thinking on, neither; and I’ll be hanged but I think it will be Cormoran,” cried Milly, with a thoughtful rap with her knuckle on the table.

Precisely at this juncture a tapping came to the door.

“Come in,” said I.

And old L’Amour entered the room, with a courtesy.

“I came to tell Miss Quince her breakfast’s ready,” said the old lady.

“Who came in the chase, L’Amour?” demanded Milly.

“What chaise?” spluttered the beldame tartly.

“The chaise that came last night, past two o’clock,” said Milly.

“That’s a lie, and a damn lie!” cried the beldame. “There worn’t no chaise at the door since Miss Maud there came from Knowl.”

I stared at the audacious old menial who could utter such language.

“Yes, there was a chaise, and Cormoran, as I think, be come in it,” said Milly, who seemed accustomed to L’Amour’s daring address.

“And there’s another damn lie, as big as t’other,” said the crone, her haggard and withered face flushing orange all over.

“I beg you will not use such language in my room,” I replied, very angrily. “I saw the chaise at the door; your untruth signifies very little, but your impertinence here I will not permit. Should it be repeated, I will assuredly complain to my uncle.”

The old woman flushed more fiercely as I spoke, and fixed her bleared glare on me, with a compression of her mouth that amounted to a wicked grimace. She resisted her angry impulse, however, and only chuckled a little spitefully, saying,

“No offence, miss; it be a way we has in Derbyshire o’ speaking our minds. No offence, miss, were meant, and none took, as I hopes,” and she made me another courtesy.

“And I forget to tell you, Miss Milly, the master wants you this minute.”

So Milly, in mute haste, withdrew, followed closely by L’Amour.

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