Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 44

A Friend Arises

AT THE TOP of the great staircase I was glad to see the friendly face of Mary Quince, who stood, candle in hand, greeting us with many little courtesies, and a very haggard and pallid smile.

“Very welcome, Miss, hoping you are very well.”

“All well, and you are well, Mary? and oh! tell us quickly how is Uncle Silas?”

“We thought he was gone, Miss, this morning, but doing fairly now; doctor says in a trance like. I was helping old Wyat most of the day, and was there when doctor blooded him, an’ he spoke at last; but he must be awful weak, he took a deal o’ blood from his arm, Miss; I held the basin.”

“And he’s better — decidedly better?” I asked.

“Well, he’s better, doctor says; he talked some, and doctor says if he goes off asleep again, and begins a-snoring like he did before, we’re to loose the bandage, and let him bleed till he comes to his self again; which, it seems to me and Wyat, is the same thing a’most as saying he’s to be killed off-hand, for I don’t believe he has a drop to spare, as you’ll say likewise, Miss, if you’ll please to look in the basin.”

This was not an invitation with which I cared to comply. I thought I was going to faint. I sat on the stairs and sipped a little water, and Quince sprinkled a little on my face, and my strength returned.

Milly must have felt her father’s danger more than I, for she was affectionate, and loved him from habit and relation, although he was not kind to her. But I was more nervous and more impetuous, and my feelings both stimulated and overpowered me more easily. The moment I was able to stand I said — thinking of nothing but the one idea —

“We must see him — come, Milly.”

I entered his sitting-room; a common “dip” candle hanging like the tower of Pisa all to one side, with a dim, long wick, in a greasy candlestick, profaned the table of the fastidious invalid. The light was little better than darkness, and I crossed the room swiftly, still transfixed by the one idea of seeing my uncle.

His bed-room door beside the fireplace stood partly open, and I looked in.

Old Wyat, a white, high-cauled ghost, was pottering in her slippers in the shadow at the far side of the bed. The doctor, a stout little bald man, with a paunch and a big bunch of seals, stood with his back to the fireplace, which corresponded with that in the next room, eyeing his patient through the curtains of the bed with a listless sort of importance.

The head of the large four-poster rested against the opposite wall. Its foot was presented toward the fireplace; but the curtains at the side, which alone I could see from my position, were closed.

The little doctor knew me, and thinking me, I suppose, a person of consequence, removed his hands from behind him, suffering the skirts of his coat to fall forward, and with great celerity and gravity made me a low but important bow; then choosing more particularly to make my acquaintance he further advanced, and with another reverence he introduced himself as Doctor Jolks, in a murmured diapason. He bowed me back again into my uncle’s study, and the light of old Wyat’s dreadful candle.

Doctor Jolks was suave and pompous. I longed for a fussy practitioner who would have got over the ground in half the time.

“Coma, madam; coma. Miss Ruthyn, your uncle, I may tell you, has been in a very critical state; highly so. Coma of the most obstinate type. He would have sunk — he must have gone, in fact, had I not resorted to a very extreme remedy, and bled him freely, which happily told precisely as we could have wished. A wonderful constitution — a marvellous constitution — prodigious nervous fibre; the greatest pity in the world he won’t give himself fair play. His habits, you know, are quite, I may say, destructive. We do our best — we do all we can, but if the patient won’t cooperate it can’t possibly end satisfactorily.”

And Jolks accompanied this with an awful shrug. “Is there anything? Do you think change of air? What an awful complaint it is,” I exclaimed.

He smiled, mysteriously looking down, and shook his head undertaker-like.

“Why, we can hardly call it a complaint, Miss Ruthyn. I look upon it he has been poisoned — he has had, you understand me,” he pursued, observing my startled look, “an overdose of opium; you know he takes opium habitually; he takes it in laudanum, he takes it in water, and, most dangerous of all, he takes it solid, in lozenges. I’ve known people take it moderately. I’ve known people take it to excess, but they all were particular as to measure, and that is exactly the point I’ve tried to impress upon him. The habit, of course, you understand is formed, there’s no uprooting that; but he won’t measure — he goes by the eye and by sensation, which I need not tell you, Miss Ruthyn, is going by chance; and opium, as no doubt you are aware, is strictly a poison; a poison, no doubt, which habit will enable you to partake of, I may say, in considerable quantities, without fatal consequences, but still a poison; and to exhibit a poison so, is, I need scarcely tell you, to trifle with death. He has been so threatened, and for a time he changes his haphazard mode of dealing with it, and then returns; he may escape — of course, that is possible — but he may any day overdo the thing. I don’t think the present crisis will result seriously. I am very glad, independently of the honour of making your acquaintance, Miss Ruthyn, that you and your cousin have returned; for, however zealous, I fear the servants are deficient in intelligence; and as in the event of a recurrence of the symptoms — which, however, is not probable — I would beg to inform you of their nature, and how exactly best to deal with them.”

So upon these points he delivered us a pompous little lecture, and begged that either Milly or I would remain in the room with the patient until his return at two or three o’clock in the morning; a reappearance of the coma “might be very bad indeed.”

Of course Milly and I did as we were directed. We sat by the fire, scarcely daring to whisper. Uncle Silas, about whom a new and dreadful suspicion had begun to haunt me, lay still and motionless as if he were actually dead.

“Had he attempted to poison himself?”

If he believed his position to be as desperate as Lady Knollys had described it, was this, after all, improbable? There were strange wild theories, I had been told, mixed up in his religion.

Sometimes, at an hour’s interval, a sign of life would come — a moan from that tall sheeted figure in the bed — a moan and a pattering of the lips. Was it prayer — what was it? who could guess what thoughts were passing behind that white-fillited forehead?

I had peeped at him: a white cloth steeped in vinegar and water was folded round his head; his great eyes were closed, so were his marble lips; his figure straight, thin, and long, dressed in a white dressing-gown, looked like a corpse “laid out” in the bed; his gaunt bandaged arm lay outside the sheet that covered his body.

With this awful image of death we kept our vigil, until poor Milly grew so sleepy that old Wyat proposed that she should take her place and watch with me.

Little as I liked the crone with the high-cauled cap, she would, at all events, keep awake, which Milly could not. And so at one o’clock this new arrangement began.

“Mr. Dudley Ruthyn is not at home?” I whispered to old Wyat.

“He went away wi’ himself yesternight, to Cloperton, Miss, to see the wrestling; it was to come off this morning.”

“Was he sent for?”

“Not he.”

“And why not?”

“He would na’ leave the sport for this, I’m thinking,” and the old woman grinned uglily.

“When is he to return?”

“When he wants money.”

So we grew silent, and again I thought of suicide, and of the unhappy old man, who just then whispered a sentence or two to himself with a sigh.

For the next hour he had been quite silent, and old Wyat informed me that she must go down for candles. Ours were already burnt down to the sockets.

“There’s a candle in the next room,” I suggested, hating the idea of being left alone with the patient.

“Hoot! Miss. I dare na’ set a candle but wax in his presence,” whispered the old woman, scornfully.

“I think if we were to stir up the fire, and put on a little more coal, we should have a great deal of light.”

“He’ll ha’ the candles,” said Dame Wyat, doggedly; and she tottered from the chamber, muttering to herself; and I heard her take the candle from the next room and depart, shutting the outer door after her.

Here was I then alone, but for this unearthly companion, whom I feared inexpressibly, at two o’clock, in the vast old house of Bartram.

I stirred the fire. It was low, and would not blaze. I stood up, and, with my hand on the mantelpiece, endeavoured to think of cheerful things. But it was a struggle against wind and tide — vain; and so I drifted away into haunted regions.

Uncle Silas was perfectly still. I would not suffer myself to think of the number of dark rooms and passages which now separated me from the other living tenants of the house. I awaited with a false composure the return of old Wyat.

Over the mantelpiece was a looking-glass. At another time this might have helped to entertain my solitary moments, but now I did not like to venture a peep. A small thick Bible lay on the chimneypiece, and leaning its back against the mirror, I began to read in it with a mind as attentively directed as I could. While so engaged in turning over the leaves, I lighted upon two or three odd-looking papers, which had been folded into it. One was a broad printed thing, with names and dates written into blank spaces, and was about the size of a quarter of a yard of very broad ribbon. The others were mere scraps, with “Dudley Ruthyn” penned in my cousin’s vulgar round-hand at the foot. While I folded and replaced these, I really don’t know what caused me to fancy that something was moving behind me, as I stood with my back toward the bed. I do not recollect any sound whatever; but instinctively I glanced into the mirror, and my eyes were instantly fixed by what I saw.

The figure of Uncle Silas rose up, and dressed in a long white morning gown, slid over the end of the bed, and with two or three swift noiseless steps, stood behind me, with a death-like scowl and a simper. Preternaturally tall and thin, he stood for a moment almost touching me, with the white bandage pinned across his forehead, his bandaged arm stiffly by his side, and diving over my shoulder, with his long thin hand he snatched the Bible, and whispered over my head —“The serpent beguiled her and she did eat;” and after a momentary pause, he glided to the farthest window, and appeared to look out upon the midnight prospect.

It was cold, but he did not seem to feel it. With the same inflexible scowl and smile, he continued to look out for several minutes, and then with a great sigh, he sat down on the side of his bed, his face immovably turned towards me, with the same painful look.

It seemed to me an hour before old Wyat came back; and never was lover made happier at sight of his mistress than I to behold that withered crone.

You may be sure I did not prolong my watch. There was now plainly no risk of my uncle’s relapsing into lethargy. I had a long hysterical fit of weeping when I got into my room, with honest Mary Quince by my side.

Whenever I closed my eyes, the face of Uncle Silas was before me, as I had seen it reflected in the glass. The sorceries of Bartram were enveloping me once more.

Next morning the doctor said he was quite out of danger, but very weak. Milly and I saw him; and again in our afternoon walk we saw the doctor marching under the trees in the direction of the Windmill Wood.

“Going down to see that poor girl there?” he said, when he had made his salutation, prodding with his levelled stick in the direction. “Hawke, or Hawkes, I think.”

“Beauty’s sick, Maud,” exclaimed Milly.

“Hawkes. She’s upon my dispensary list. Yes,” said the doctor, looking into his little note-book —“Hawkes.”

“And what is her complaint?”

“Rheumatic fever.”

“Not infectious?”

“Not the least — no more, as we say, Miss Ruthyn, than a broken leg,” and he laughed obligingly.

So soon as the doctor had departed, Milly and I agreed to follow to Hawkes’ cottage and enquire more particularly how she was. To say truth, I am afraid it was rather for the sake of giving our walk a purpose and a point of termination, than for any very charitable interest we might have felt in the patient.

Over the inequalities of the upland slope, clumped with trees, we reached the gabled cottage, with its neglected little farm-yard. A rheumatic old woman was the only attendant; and, having turned her ear in an attitude of attention, which induced us in gradually exalted keys to enquire how Meg was, she informed us in very loud tones that she had long lost her hearing and was perfectly deaf. And added considerately —

“When the man comes in, ‘appen he’ll tell ye what ye want.”

Through the door of a small room at the further end of that in which we were, we could see a portion of the narrow apartment of the patient, and hear the moans and the doctor’s voice.

“We’ll see him, Milly, when he comes out. Let us wait here.”

So we stood upon the door-stone awaiting him. The sounds of suffering had moved my compassion and interested us for the sick girl.

“Blest if here isn’t Pegtop,” said Milly.

And the weather-stained red coat, the swarthy forbidding face and sooty locks of old Hawkes loomed in sight, as he stumped, steadying himself with his stick, over the uneven pavement of the yard. He touched his hat gruffly to me, but did not seem half to like our being where we were, for he looked surlily, and scratched his head under his wide-awake.

“Your daughter is very ill, I’m afraid,” said I.

“Ay — she’ll be costin’ me a handful, like her mother did,” said Pegtop.

“I hope her room is comfortable, poor thing.”

“Ay, that’s it; she be comfortable enough, I warrant — more nor I. It be all Meg, and nout o’ Dickon.”

“When did her illness commence?” I asked.

“Day the mare wor shod — Saturday. I talked a bit wi’ the workus folk, but they won’t gi’e nout — dang ’em — an’ how be I to do’t? It be all’ays hard bread wi’ Silas, an’ a deal harder now she’ ta’en them pains. I won’t stan’ it much longer. Gammon! If she keeps on that way I’ll just cut. See how the workus fellahs ‘ill like that!”

“The Doctor gives his services for nothing,” I said.

“An’ does nothin’, bless him! ha, ha. No more nor that old deaf gammon there that costs me three tizzies a week, and haint worth a h’porth — no more nor Meg there, that’s making all she can o’ them pains. They be all a foolin’ o’ me, an’ thinks I don’t know’t. Hey? we’ll see.”

All this time he was cutting a bit of tobacco into shreds on the window-stone.

“A workin’ man be same as a hoss; if he baint cared, he can’t work —‘tisn’t in him:” and with these words, having by this time stuffed his pipe with tobacco, he poked the deaf lady, who was pattering about with her back toward him, rather viciously with the point of his stick, and signed for a light.

“It baint in him, you can’t get it out o’ ’im, no more nor y’ell draw smoke out o’ this,” and he raised his pipe an inch or two, with his thumb on the bowl, “without ‘backy and fire. ‘Tisn’t in it.”

“Maybe I can be of some use?” I said, thinking.

“Maybe,” he rejoined.

By this time he received from the old deaf abigail a flaming roll of brown paper, and, touching his hat to me, he withdrew, lighting his pipe and sending up little white puffs, like the salute of a departing ship.

So he did not care to hear how his daughter was, and had only come here to light his pipe!

Just then the doctor emerged.

“We have been waiting to hear how your poor patient is to-day?” I said.

“Very ill, indeed, and utterly neglected, I fear. If she were equal to it — but she’s not — I think she ought to be removed to the hospital immediately.”

“That poor old woman is quite deaf, and the man is so surly and selfish! Could you recommend a nurse who would stay here till she’s better? I will pay her with pleasure, and anything you think might be good for the poor girl.”

So this was settled on the spot. Doctor Jolks was kind, like most men of his calling, and undertook to send the nurse from Feltram with a few comforts for the patient; and he called Dickon to the yard-gate, and I suppose told him of the arrangement; and Milly and I went to the poor girl’s door and asked, “May we come in?”

There was no answer. So, with the conventional construction of silence, we entered. Her looks showed how ill she was. We adjusted her bed-clothes, and darkened the room, and did what we could for her — noting, beside, what her comfort chiefly required. She did not answer any questions. She did not thank us. I should almost have fancied that she had not perceived our presence, had I not observed her dark, sunken eyes once or twice turned up towards my face, with a dismal look of wonder and enquiry.

The girl was very ill, and we went every day to see her. Sometimes she would answer our questions — sometimes not. Thoughtful, observant, surly, she seemed; and as people like to be thanked, I sometimes wonder that we continued to throw our bread upon these ungrateful waters. Milly was specially impatient under this treatment, and protested against it, and finally refused to accompany me into poor Beauty’s bed-room.

“I think, my good Meg,” said I one day, as I stood by her bed — she was now recovering with the sure reascent of youth —“that you ought to thank Miss Milly.”

“I’ll not thank her,” said Beauty, doggedly.

“Very well, Meg; I only thought I’d ask you, for I think you ought.”

As I spoke, she very gently took just the tip of my finger, which hung close to her coverlet, in her fingers, and drew it beneath, and before I was aware, burying her head in the clothes, sh suddenly clasped my hand in both hers to her lips, and kissed it passionately, again and again, sobbing. I felt her tears.

I tried to withdraw my hand, but she held it with an angry pull, continuing to weep and kiss it.

“Do you wish to say anything, my poor Meg?” I asked.

“Nout, Miss,” she sobbed gently; and she continued to kiss my hand and weep. But suddenly she said, “I won’t thank Milly, for it’s a’ you; it baint her, she hadn’t the thought — no, no, it’s a’ you, Miss. I cried hearty in the dark last night, thinkin’ o’ the apples, and the way I knocked them away’ wi’ a pur o’ my foot, the day father rapped me ower the head wi’ his stick; it was kind o’ you and very bad o’ me. I wish you’d beat me, Miss; ye’re better to me than father or mother — better to me than a’; an’ I wish I could die for you, Miss, for I’m not fit to look at you.”

I was surprised. I began to cry. I could have hugged poor Meg.

I did not know her history. I have never learned it since. She used to talk with the most utter self-abasement before me. It was no religious feeling — it was a kind of expression of her love and worship of me — all the more strange that she was naturally very proud. There was nothing she would not have borne from me except the slightest suspicion of her entire devotion, or that she could in the most trifling way wrong or deceive me.

I am not young now. I have had my sorrows, and with them all that wealth, virtually unlimited, can command; and through the retrospect a few bright and pure lights quiver along my life’s dark stream — dark, but for them; and these are shed, not by the splendour of a splendid fortune, but by two or three of the simplest and kindest remembrances, such as the poorest and homeliest life may count up, and beside which, in the quiet hours of memory, all artificial triumphs pale, and disappear, for they are never quenched by time or distance, being founded on the affections, and so far heavenly.

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