Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 38

A Midnight Departure

“I’M GOING this minute — I— I want to know”— another glance at the door — are you really quite comfortable here?”

“Quite,” I answered promptly.

“You have only your cousin’s company?” he continued, glancing at the table, which was laid for two.

“Yes; but Milly and I are very happy together.”

“That’s very nice; but I think there are no teachers, you see — painters, and singers, and that sort of thing that is usual with young ladies. No teachers of that kind — of any kind — are there?”

“No; my uncle thinks it better I should lay in a store of health, he says.”

“I know; and the carriage and horses have not come; how soon are they expected?”

“I really can’t say, and I assure you I don’t much care. I think running about great fun.”

“You walk to church?”

“Yes; Uncle Silas’s carriage wants a new wheel, he told me.”

“Ay, but a young woman of your rank, you know, it is not usual she should be without the use of a carriage. Have you horses to ride?”

I shook my head.

“Your uncle, you know, has a very liberal allowance for your maintenance and education.”

I remembered something in the will about it, and Mary Quince was constantly grumbling that “he did not spend a pound a week on our board.”

I answered nothing, but looked down.

Another glance at the door from Doctor Bryerly’s sharp black eyes.

“Is he kind to you?”

“Very kind — most gentle and affectionate.”

“Why doesn’t he keep company with you? Does he ever dine with you, or drink tea, or talk to you? Do you see much of him?”

“He is a miserable invalid — his hours and regimen are peculiar. Indeed I wish very much you would consider his case; he is, I believe, often insensible for a long time, and his mind in a strange feeble state sometimes.”

“I dare say — worn out in his young days; and I saw that preparation of opium in his bottle — he takes too much.”

“Why do you think so, Doctor Bryerly?”

“It’s made on water: the spirit interferes with the use of it beyond a certain limit. You have no idea what those fellows can swallow. Read the ‘Opium Eater.’ I knew two cases in which the quantity exceeded De Quincey’s. Aha! it’s new to you?” and he laughed quietly at my simplicity.

“And what do you think his complaint is?” I asked.

“Pooh! I haven’t a notion; but, probably, one way or another, he has been all his days working on his nerves and his brain. These men of pleasure, who have no other pursuit, use themselves up mostly, and pay a smart price for their sins. And so he’s kind and affectionate, but hands you over to your cousin and the servants. Are his people civil and obliging?”

“Well, I can’t say much for them; there is a man named Hawkes, and his daughter, who are very rude, and even abusive sometimes, and say they have orders from my uncle to shut us out from a portion of the grounds; but I don’t believe that, for Uncle Silas never alluded to it when I was making my complaint of them to-day.”

“From what part of the grounds is that?” asked Doctor Bryerly, sharply.

I described the situation as well as I could.

“Can we see it from this?” he asked, peeping from the window.

“Oh, no.”

Doctor Bryerly made a note in his pocket-book here, and I said —

“But I am really quite sure it was a story of Dickon’s, he is such a surly, disobliging man.”

“And what sort is that old servant that came in and out of his room?”

“Oh, that is old L’Amour,” I answered, rather indirectly, and forgetting that I was using Milly’s nickname.

“And is she civil?” he asked.

No, she certainly was not; a most disagreeable old woman, with a vein of wickedness. I thought I had heard her swearing.

“They don’t seem to be a very engaging lot,” said Doctor Bryerly; “but where there’s one, there will be more. See here, I was just reading a passage,” and he opened the little volume at the place where his finger marked it, and read for me a few sentences, the purport of which I well remember, although, of course, the words have escaped me.

It was in that awful portion of the book which assumes to describe the condition of the condemned; and it said that, independently of the physical causes in that state operating to enforce community of habitation, and an isolation from superior spirits, there exist sympathies, aptitudes, and necessities which would, of themselves, induce that depraved gregariousness, and isolation too.

“And what of the rest of the servants, are they better?” he resumed.

We saw little or nothing of the others, except of old “Giblets,” the butler, who went about like a little automaton of dry bones, poking here and there, and whispering and smiling to himself as he laid the cloth; and seeming otherwise quite unconscious of an external world.

“This room is not got up like Mr. Ruthyn’s; does he talk of furnishings and making things a little smart? No! Well, I must say, I think he might.”

Here there was a little silence, and Doctor Bryerly, with his accustomed simultaneous glance at the door, said in low, cautious tones, very distinctly —

“Have you been thinking at all over that matter again, I mean about getting your uncle to forego his guardianship? I would not mind his first refusal. You could make it worth his while, unless he — that is — unless he’s very unreasonable indeed; and I think you would consult your interest, Miss Ruthyn, by doing so and, if possible, getting out of this place.”

“But I have not thought of it at all; I am much happier here than I had at all expected, and I am very fond of my cousin Milly.”

“How long have you been here exactly?”

I told him. It was some two or three months.

“Have you seen your other cousin yet — the young gentleman?”

“No.”

“H’m! Aren’t you very lonely?” he enquired.

“We see no visitors here; but that, you know, I was prepared for.”

Doctor Bryerly read the wrinkles on his splay boot intently and peevishly, and tapped the sole lightly on the ground.

“Yes, it is very lonely, and the people a bad lot. You’d be pleasanter somewhere else — with Lady Knolly’s, for instance, eh?”

“Well, there certainly. But I am very well here: really the time passes very pleasantly; and my uncle is so kind. I have only to mention anything that annoys me, and he will see that it is remedied: he is always impressing that on me.”

“Yes, it is not a fit place for you,” said Doctor Bryerly. “Of course, about your uncle,” he resumed, observing my surprised look, “it is all right: but he’s quite helpless, you know. At all events, think about it. Here’s my address — Hans Emmanuel Bryerly, M. D., 17 King Street, Covent Garden, London — don’t lose it, mind,” and he tore the leaf out of his note-book.

“Here’s my fly at the door, and you must — you must” (he was looking at his watch)—“mind you must think of it seriously; and so, you see, don’t let anyone see that. You’ll be sure to leave it throwing about. The best way will be just to scratch it on the door of your press, inside, you know; and don’t put my name — you’ll remember that — only the rest of the address; and burn this. Quince is with you?”

“Yes,” I answered, glad to have a satisfactory word to say.

“Well, don’t let her go; it’s a bad sign if they wish it. Don’t consent, mind; but just tip me a hint and you’ll have me down. And any letters you get from Lady Knollys, you know, for she’s very plain-spoken, you’d better burn them off-hand. And I’ve stayed too long, though; mind what I say, scratch it with a pin, and burn that, and not a word to a mortal about it. Good-bye; oh, I was taking away your book.”

And so, in a fuss, with a slight shake of the hand, getting up his umbrella, his bag, and tin box, he hurried from the room; and in a minute more, I heard the sound of his vehicle as it drove away.

I looked after it with a sigh; the uneasy sensations which I had experienced respecting my sojourn at Bartram–Haugh were re-awakened.

My ugly, vulgar, true friend was disappearing beyond those gigantic lime trees which hid Bartram from the eyes of the outer world. The fly, with the doctor’s valise on top, vanished, and I sighed an anxious sigh. The shadow of the over-arching trees contracted, and I felt helpless and forsaken; and glancing down the torn leaf, Doctor Bryerly’s address met my eye, between my fingers.

I slipt it into my breast, and ran up-stairs stealthily, trembling lest the old woman should summon me again, at the head of the stairs, into Uncle Silas’s room, where under his gaze, I fancied, I should be sure to betray myself.

But I glided unseen and safely by, entered my room, and shut my door. So listening and working, I, with my scissors’ point, scratched the address where Doctor Bryerly had advised. Then, in positive terror, lest some one should even knock during the operation, I, with a match, consumed to ashes the tell-tale bit of paper.

Now, for the first time, I experienced the unpleasant sensations of having a secret to keep. I fancy the pain of this solitary liability was disproportionately acute in my case, for I was naturally very open and very nervous. I was always on the point of betraying it apropos des bottes — always reproaching myself for my duplicity; and in constant terror when honest Mary Quince approached the press, or good-natured Milly made her occasional survey of the wonders of my wardrobe. I would have given anything to go and point to the tiny inscription, and say:—“This is Doctor Bryerly’s address in London. I scratched it with my scissors’ point, taking every precaution lest anyone — you, my good friends, included — should surprise me. I have ever since kept this secret to myself, and trembled whenever your frank kind faces looked into the press. There — you at last know all about it. Can you ever forgive my deceit?”

But I could not make up my mind to reveal it; nor yet to erase the inscription, which was my alternative thought. Indeed I am a wavering, irresolute creature as ever lived, in my ordinary mood. High excitement or passion only can inspire me with decision. Under the inspiration of either, however, I am transformed, and often both prompt and brave.

“Some one left here last night, I think, Miss,” said Mary Quince, with a mysterious nod, one morning. “’Twas two o’clock, and I was bad with the toothache, and went down to get a pinch o’ red pepper — leaving the candle a-light here lest you should awake. When I was coming up — as I was crossing the lobby, at the far end of the long gallery — what should I hear, but a horse snorting, and some people a-talking, short and quiet like. So I looks out o’ the window; and there surely I did see two horses yoked to a shay, and a fellah a-pullin’ a box up o’ top; and out comes a walise and a bag; and I think it was old Wyat, please’m, that Miss Milly calls L’Amour, that stood in the doorway a-talking to the driver.”

“And who got into the chaise, Mary?” I asked.

“Well, Miss, I waited as long as I could; but the pain was bad, and made me so awful cold; I gave it up at last, and came back to bed, for I could not say how much longer they might wait. And you’ll find, Miss, ’twill be kep’ a secret, like the shay as you saw’d, Miss, last week. I hate them dark ways, and secrets; and old Wyat — she does tell stories, don’t she? — and she as ought to be partickler, seein’ her time be short now, and she so old. It is awful, an old un like that telling such crams as she do.”

Milly was as curious as I, but could throw no light on this. We both agreed, however, that the departure was probably that of the person whose arrival I had accidentally witnessed. This time the chaise had drawn up at the side door, round the corner of the left side of the house; and, no doubt, driven away by the back road.

Another accident had revealed this nocturnal move. It was very provoking, however, that Mary Quince had not resolution to wait for the appearance of the traveller. We all agreed, however, that we were to observe a strict silence, and that even to Wyat — L’Amour I had better continue to call her — Mary Quince was not to hint what she had seen. I suspect, however, that injured curiosity asserted itself, and that Mary hardly adhered to this self-denying resolve.

But cheerful wintry suns and frosty skies, long nights, and brilliant starlight, with good homely fires in our snuggery — gossipings, stories, short readings now and then, and brisk walks through the always beautiful scenery of Bartram–Haugh, and, above all, the unbroken tenor of our life, which had fallen into a serene routine, foreign to the idea of danger or misadventure, gradually quieted the qualms and misgivings which my interview with Doctor Bryerly had so powerfully resuscitated.

My cousin Monica, to my inexpressible joy, had returned to her country-house; and an active diplomacy, through the post-office, was negotiating the re-opening of friendly relations between the courts of Elverston and of Bartram.

At length, one fine day, Cousin Monica, smiling pleasantly, with her cloak and bonnet on, and her colour fresh from the shrewd air of the Derbyshire hills, stood suddenly before me in our sitting-room. Our meeting was that of two school-companions long separated. Cousin Monica was always a girl in my eyes.

What a hug it was; what a shower of kisses and ejaculations, enquiries and caresses! At last I pressed her down into a chair, and, laughing, she said —

“You have no idea what self-denial I have exercised to bring this visit about. I, who detest writing, have actually written five letters to Silas; and I don’t think I said a single impertinent thing in one of them! What a wonderful little old thing your butler is! I did not know what to make of him on the steps. Is he a struldbrug, or a fairy, or only a ghost? Where on earth did your uncle pick him up? I’m sure he came in on All Hallows E’en, to answer an incantation — not your future husband, I hope — and he’ll vanish some night into gray smoke, and whisk sadly up the chimney. He’s the most venerable little thing I ever beheld in my life. I leaned back in the carriage and thought I should absolutely die of laughing. He’s gone up to prepare your uncle for my visit; and I really am very glad, for I’m sure I shall look as young as Hebe after him. But who is this? Who are you, my dear?”

This was addressed to poor Milly, who stood at the corner of the chimney-piece, staring with her round eyes and plump cheeks in fear and wonder upon the strange lady.

“How stupid of me,” I exclaimed. “Milly, dear, this is your cousin, Lady Knollys.”

“And so you are Millicent. Well, dear, I am very glad to see you.” And Cousin Monica was on her feet again in an instant, with Milly’s hand very cordially in hers; and she gave her a kiss upon each cheek, and patted her head.

Milly, I must mention, was a much more presentable figure than when I first encountered her. Her dresses were at least a quarter of a yard longer. Though very rustic, therefore, she was not so barbarously grotesque, by any means.

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