Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 39

Cousin Monica and Uncle Silas Meet

COUSIN MONICA, with her hands upon Milly’s shoulders, looked amusedly and kindly in her face. “And,” said she, “we must be very good friends — you funny creature, you and I. I’m allowed to be the most saucy old woman in Derbyshire — quite incorrigibly privileged; and nobody is ever affronted with me, so I say the most shocking things constantly.”

“I’m a bit that way, myself; and I think,” said poor Milly, making an effort, and growing very red; she quite lost her head at that point, and was incompetent to finish the sentiment she had prefaced.

“You think? Now, take my advice, and never wait to think my dear; talk first, and think afterwards, that is my way; though, indeed, I can’t say I ever think at all. It is a very cowardly habit. Our cold-blooded cousin Maud, there, thinks sometimes; but it is always such a failure that I forgive her. I wonder when your little pre-Adamite butler will return. He speaks the language of the Picts and Ancient Britons, I dare say, and your father requires a little time to translate him. And, Milly dear, I am very hungry, so I won’t wait for your butler, who would give me, I suppose, one of the cakes baked by King Alfred, and some Danish beer in a skull; but I’ll ask you for a little of that nice bread and butter.”

With which accordingly Lady Knollys was quickly supplied; but it did not at all impede her utterance.

“Do you think, girls, you could be ready to come away with me, if Silas takes leave, in an hour or two? I should so like to take you both home with me to Elverston.”

“How delightful! you darling,” cried I, embracing and kissing her; “for my part, I should be ready in five minutes; what do you say, Milly?”

Poor Milly’s wardrobe, I am afraid, was more portable than handsome; and she looked horribly affrighted, and whispered in my ear —

“My best petticoat is away at the laundress; say in a week, Maud.”

“What does she say?” asked Lady Knollys.

“She fears she can’t be ready,” I answered, dejectedly.

“There’s a deal of my slops in the wash,” blurted out poor Milly, staring straight at Lady Knollys.

“In the name of wonder, what does my cousin mean?” asked Lady Knollys.

“Her things have not come home yet from the laundress,” I replied; and at this moment our wondrous old butler entered to announce to Lady Knollys that his master was ready to receive her, whenever she was disposed to favour him; and also to make polite apologies for his being compelled, by his state of health, to give her the trouble of ascending to his room.

So Cousin Monica was at the door in a moment, over her shoulder calling to us, “Come, girls.”

“Please, not yet, my lady — you alone; and he requests the young ladies will be in the way, as he will send for them presently.”

I began to admire poor “Giblets” as the wreck of a tolerably respectable servant.

“Very good; perhaps it is better we should kiss and be friends in private first,” said Cousin Knollys, laughing; and away she went under the guidance of the mummy.

I had an account of this tête-à-tête afterwards from Lady Knollys.

“When I saw him, my dear,” she said, “I could hardly believe my eyes; such white hair — such a white face — such mad eyes — such a death-like smile. When I saw him last, his hair was dark; he dressed himself like a modern Englishman; and he really preserved a likeness to the full-length portrait at Knowl, that you fell in love with, you know; but, angels and ministers of grace! such a spectre! I asked myself, is it necromancy, or is it delirium tremens that has reduced him to this? And said he, with that odious smile, that made me fancy myself half insane —

“‘You see a change, Monica?’

“What a sweet, gentle, insufferable voice he has! Somebody once told me about the tone of a glass flute that made some people hysterical to listen to, and I was thinking of it all the time. There was always a peculiar quality to his voice.

“‘I do see a change, Silas,’ I said at last; ‘and, no doubt, so do you in me — a great change.’

“‘There has been time enough to work a greater than I observe in you since you last honoured me with a visit,’ said he.

“I think he was at his old sarcasms, and means that I was the same impertinent minx he remembered long ago, uncorrected by time; and so I am, and he must not expect compliments from old Monica Knollys.

“‘It is a long time, Silas; but that, you know, is not my fault,’ said I.

“‘Not your fault, my dear — your instinct. We are all imitative creatures: the great people ostracised me, and the small ones followed. We are very like turkeys, we have so much good sense and so much generosity. Fortune, in a freak, wounded my head, and the whole brood were upon me, pecking and gobbling, gobbling and pecking, and you among them, dear Monica. It wasn’t your fault only your instinct, so I quite forgive you; but no wonder the peckers wear better than the pecked. You are robust; and I, what I am.’

“‘Now, Silas. I have not come here to quarrel. If we quarrel now, mind, we can never make it up — we are too old, so let us forget all we can, and try to forgive something; and if we can do neither, at all events let there be truce between us while I am here.’

“‘My personal wrongs I can quite forgive, and I do, Heaven knows, from my heart; but there are things which ought not to be forgiven. My children have been ruined by it. I may, by the mercy of Providence, be set right in the world, and so soon as that time comes, I will remember, and I will act; but my children — you see that wretched girl, my daughter — education, society, all would come too late — my children have been ruined by it.’

“‘I have not done it; but I know what you mean,’ I said. ‘You menace litigation whenever you have the means; but you forget that Austin placed you under promise, when he gave you the use of this house and place, never to disturb my title to Elverston. So there is my answer, if you mean that.’

“‘I mean what I mean,’ he replied, with his old smile.

“‘You mean then,’ said I, ‘that for the pleasure of vexing me with litigation, you are willing to forfeit your tenure of this house and place.’

“‘Suppose I did mean precisely that, why should I forfeit anything? My beloved brother, by his will, has given me a right to the use of Bartram–Haugh for my life, and attached no absurd condition of the kind you fancy to his gift.’

“Silas was in one of his vicious old moods, and liked to menace me. His vindictiveness got the better of his craft; but he knows as well as I do that he never could succeed in disturbing the title of my poor dear Harry Knollys; and I was not at all alarmed by his threats; and I told him so, as coolly as I speak to you now.

“‘Well, Monica,’ he said, ‘I have weighed you in the balance, and you are not found wanting. For a moment the old man possessed me: the thought of my children, of past unkindness, and present affliction and disgrace, exasperated me, and I was mad. It was but for a moment — the galvanic spasm of a corpse. Never was breast more dead than mine to the passions and ambitions of the world. They are not for white locks like these, nor for a man who, for a week in every month, lies in the gate of death. Will you shake hands? Here — I do strike a truce; and I do forget and forgive everything.’

“I don’t know what he meant by this scene. I have no idea whether he was acting, or lost his head, or, in fact, why or how it occurred; but I am glad, darling, that, unlike myself, I was calm, and that a quarrel has not been forced upon me.”

When our turn came and we were summoned to the presence, Uncle Silas was quite as usual; but Cousin Monica’s heightened colour, and the flash of her eyes, showed plainly that something exciting and angry had occurred.

Uncle Silas commented in his own vein upon the effect of Bartram air and liberty, all he had to offer; and called on me to say how I liked them. And then he called Milly to him, kissed her tenderly, smiled sadly upon her, and turning to Cousin Monica, said —

“This is my daughter Milly — oh! she has been presented to you down-stairs, has she? You have, no doubt, been interested by her. As I told her cousin Maud, though I am not yet quite a Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, she is a very finished Miss Hoyden. Are not you, my poor Milly? You owe your distinction, my dear, to that line of circumvallation which has, ever since your birth, intercepted all civilisation on its way to Bartram. You are much obliged, Milly, to everybody who, whether naturally or un-naturally, turned a sod in that invisible, but impenetrable work. For your accomplishments — rather singular that fashionable — you are indebted, in part to your cousin, Lady Knollys. Is not she, Monica? Thank her, Milly.”

“This is your truce, Silas,” said Lady Knollys, with a quiet sharpness. “I think, Silas Ruthyn, you want to provoke me to speak in a way before these young creatures which we should all regret.”

“So my badinage excites your temper, Monnie. Think how you would feel, then, if I had found you by the highway side, mangled by robbers, and set my foot upon your throat, and spat in your face. But — stop this. Why have I said this? simply to emphasize my forgiveness. See, girls, Lady Knollys and I, cousins long estranged, forget and forgive the past, and join hands over its buried injuries.”

“Well, be it so; only let us have done with ironies and covert taunts.”

And with these words their hands were joined; and Uncle Silas, after he had released hers, patted and fondled it with his, laughing icily and very low all the time.

“I wish so much, dear Monica,” he said, when this piece of silent by-play was over, “that I could ask you to stay to-night; but absolutely I have not a bed to offer, and even if I had, I fear my suit would hardly prevail.”

Then came Lady Knollys’ invitation for Milly and me. He was very much obliged; he smiled over it a great deal, meditating. I thought he was puzzled; and amid his smiles, his wild eyes scanned Cousin Monica’s frank face once or twice suspiciously.

There was a difficulty — an undefined difficulty — about letting us go that day; but on a future one — soon — very soon — he would be most happy.

Well, there was an end of that little project, for to-day at least; and Cousin Monica was too well-bred to urge it beyond a certain point.

“Milly, my dear, will you put on your hat and show me the grounds about the house? May she, Silas? I should like to renew my acquaintance.”

“You’ll see them sadly neglected, Monnie. A poor man’s pleasure grounds must rely on Nature, and trust to her for effects. Where there is fine timber, however, and abundance of slope, and rock, and hollow, we sometimes gain in picturesqueness what we lose by neglect in luxury.”

Then, as Cousin Monica said she would cross the grounds by a path, and meet her carriage at a point to which we would accompany her, and so make her way home, she took leave of Uncle Silas; a ceremony whereat — without, I thought much Zeal at either side — a kiss took place.

“Now, girls!” said Cousin Knollys, when we were fairly in motion over the grass, “what do you say — will he let you come — yes or no? I can’t say, but I think, dear,”— this to Milly —“he ought to let you see a little more of the world than appears among the glens and bushes of Bartram. Very pretty they are, like yourself; but very wild, and very little seen. Where is your brother, Milly; is he not older than you?”

“I don’t know where; and he is older by six years and a bit.”

By-and-by, when Milly was gesticulating to frighten some herons by the river’s brink into the air, Cousin Monica said confidentially to me —

“He has run away, I’m told — I wish I could believe it — and enlisted in a regiment going to India, perhaps the best thing for him. Did you see him here before his judicious self-banishment?”

“No.”

“Well, I suppose you have had no loss. Doctor Bryerly says from all he can learn he is a very bad young man. And now tell me, dear, is Silas kind to you?”

“Yes, always gentle, just as you saw him to-day; but we don’t see a great deal of him — very little, in fact.”

“And how do you like your life and the people?” she asked.

“My life, very well; and the people, pretty well. There’s an old woman we don’t like, old Wyat, she is cross and mysterious and tells untruths; but I don’t think she is dishonest — so Mary Quince says — and that, you know, is a point; and there is a family, father and daughter, called Hawkes, who live in the Windmill Wood, who are perfect savages, though my uncle says they don’t mean it; but they are very disagreeable, rude people; and except them we see very little of the servants or other people. But there has been a mysterious visit; some one came late at night, and remained for some days, though Milly and I never saw them, and Mary Quince saw a chaise at the side-door at two o’clock at night.”

Cousin Monica was so highly interested at this that she arrested her walk and stood facing me, with her hand on my arm, questioning and listening, and lost, as it seemed, in dismal conjecture.

“It is not pleasant, you know,” I said.

“No, it is not pleasant,” said Lady Knollys, very gloomily.

And just then Milly joined us, shouting to us to look at the herons flying; so Cousin Monica did, and smiled and nodded in thanks to Milly, and was again silent and thoughtful as we walked on.

“You are to come to me, mind, both of you girls,” she said, abruptly; “you shall. I’ll manage it.”

When silence returned, and Milly ran away once more to try whether the old grey trout was visible in the still water under the bridge, Cousin Monica said to me in a low tone, looking hard at me —

“You’ve not seen anything to frighten you, Maud? Don’t look so alarmed, dear,” she added with a little laugh, which was not very merry, however. “I don’t mean frighten in any awful sense — in fact, I did not mean frighten at all. I meant — I can’t exactly express it — anything to vex, or make you uncomfortable; have you?”

“No, I can’t say I have, except that room in which Mr. Clarke was found dead.”

“Oh! you saw that, did you? — I should like to see it so much. Your bedroom is not near it?”

“Oh, no; on the floor beneath, and looking to the front. And Doctor Bryerly talked a little to me, and there seemed to be something on his mind more than he chose to tell me; so that for some time after I saw him I really was, as you say, frightened; but except that, I really have had no cause. And what was in your mind when you asked me?”

“Well, you know, Maud, you are afraid of ghosts, banditti, and everything; and I wished to know whether you were uncomfortable, and what your particular bogle was just now — that, I assure you, was all; and I know,” she continued, suddenly changing her light tone and manner for one of pointed entreaty, “what Doctor Bryerly said; and I implore of you, Maud, to think of it seriously; and when you come to me, you shall do so with the intention of remaining at Elverston.”

“Now, Cousin Monica, is this fair? You and Doctor Bryerly both talk in the same awful way to me; and I assure you, you don’t know how nervous I am sometimes, and yet you won’t, either of you, say what you mean. Now, Monica, dear cousin, won’t you tell me?”

“You see, dear, it is so lonely; it’s a strange place, and he so odd. I don’t like the place, and I don’t like him. I’ve tried, but I can’t and I think I never shall. He may be a very — what was it that good little silly curate at Knowl used to call him? — a very advanced Christian — that is it, and I hope he is; but if he is only what he used to be, his utter seclusion from society removes the only check, except personal fear — and he never had much of that — upon a very bad man. And you must know, my dear Maud, what a prize you are, and what an immense trust it is.”

Suddenly Cousin Monica stopped short, and looked at me as if she had gone too far.

“But, you know, Silas may be very good now, although he was wild and selfish in his young days. Indeed I don’t know what to make of him; but I am sure when you have thought it over, you will agree with me and Doctor Bryerly, that you must not stay here.”

It was vain trying to induce my cousin to be more explicit.

“I hope to see you at Elverston in a very few days. I will shame Silas in to letting you come. I don’t like his reluctance.”

“But don’t you think he must know that Milly would require some little outfit before her visit?”

“Well, I can’t say. I hope that is all; but be it what it may, I’ll make him let you come, and immediately, too.”

After she had gone, I experienced a repetition of those undefined doubts which had tortured me for some time after my conversation with Dr. Bryerly. I had truly said, however, I was well enough contented with my mode of life here, for I had been trained at Knowl to a solitude very nearly as profound.

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