Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 51

Sarah Matilda Comes to Light

SOME TIME after this interview, one day as I sat, sad enough, in my room, looking listlessly from the window, with good Mary Quince, whom, whether in the house or in my melancholy rambles, I always had by my side, I was startled by the sound of a loud and shrill female voice, in violent hysterical action, gabbling with great rapidity, sobbing, and very nearly screaming in a sort of fury.

I started up, staring at the door.

“Lord bless us!” cried honest Mary Quince, with round eyes and mouth agape, staring in the same direction.

“Mary — Mary, what can it be?”

“Are they beating some one down yonder? I don’t know where it comes from,” gasped Quince.

“I will — I will — I’ll see her. It’s her I want. Oo — hoo — hoo — hoo — oo — o — Miss Maud Ruthyn of Knowl. Miss Ruthyn of Knowl. Hoo — hoo — hoo — hoo — oo!”

“What on earth can it be?” I exclaimed, in great bewilderment and terror.

It was now plainly very near indeed, and Ii heard the voice of our mild and shaky butler evidently remonstrating with the distressed damsel.

“I’ll see her,” she continued, pouring a torrent of vile abuse upon me, which stung me with a sudden sense of anger What had I done to be afraid of anyone? How dared anyone in my uncle’s house — in my house — mix my name up with her detestable scurrilities?

“For Heaven’s sake, Miss, don’t ye go out,” cried poor Quince; “it’s some drunken creature.”

But I was very angry, and, like a fool as I was, I threw open the door, exclaiming in a loud and haughty key —

“Here is Miss Ruthyn of Knowl. Who wants to see her?”

A pink and white young lady, with black tresses, violent, weeping, shrill, voluble, was flouncing up the last stair, and shook her dress out on the lobby; and poor old Giblets, as Milly used to call him, was following in her wake, with many small remonstrances and entreaties, perfectly unheeded.

The moment I looked at this person, it struck me that she was the identical lady whom I had seen in the carriage at Knowl Warren. The next moment I was in doubt; the next, still more so. She was decidedly thinner, and dressed by no means in such lady-like taste. Perhaps she was hardly like her at all. I began to distrust all these resemblances, and to fancy, with a shudder, that they originated, perhaps, only in my own sick brain.

On seeing me, this young lady — as it seemed to me, a good deal of the barmaid or lady’s-maid species — dried her eyes fiercely, and, with a flaming countenance, called upon me peremptorily to produce her “lawful husband.” Her loud, insolent, outrageous attack had the effect of enhancing my indignation, and I quite forget what I said to her, but I well remember that her manner became a good deal more decent. She was plainly under the impression that I wanted to appropriate her husband, or, at least, that he wanted to marry me; and she ran on at such a pace, and her harangue was so passionate, incoherent, and unintelligible, that I thought her out of her mind; she was far from it, however. I think if she had allowed me even a second for reflection, I should have hit upon her meaning. As it was, nothing could exceed my perplexity, until, plucking a soiled newspaper from her pocket, she indicated a particular paragraph, already sufficiently emphasised by double lines of red ink at its sides. It was a Lancashire paper, of about six weeks since, and very much worn and soiled for its age. I remember in particular a circular stain from the bottom of a vessel, either of coffee or brown stout. The paragraph was as follows, recording an event a year or more anterior to the date of the paper:—

“MARRIAGE. — On Tuesday, August 7, 18 — at Leatherwig Church, by the Rev. Arthur Hughes, Dudley R. Ruthyn, Esq., only son and heir of Silas Ruthyn, Esq., of Bartram–Haugh, Derbyshire, to Sarah Matilda, second daughter of John Mangles, Esq., of Wiggan, in this county.”

At first I read nothing but amazement in this announcement, but in another moment felt how completely I was relieved; and showing, I believe, my intense satisfaction in my countenance — for the young lady eyed me with considerable surprise and curiosity — I said —

“This is extremely important. You must see Mr. Silas Ruthyn this moment. I am certain he knows nothing of it. I will conduct you to him.”

“No more he does — I know that myself,” she replied, following me with a self-asserting swagger, and a great rustling of cheap silk.

As we entered, Uncle Silas looked up from his sofa, and closed his Revue des Deux Mondes.

“What is all this?” he enquired, drily.

“This lady has brought with her a newspaper containing an extraordinary statement which affects our family,” I answered.

Uncle Silas raised himself, and looked with a hard, narrow scrutiny at the unknown young lady.

“A libel, I suppose, in the paper?” he said, extending his hand for it.

“No, uncle — no; only a marriage,” I answered.

“Not Monica?” he said, as he took it. “Pah, it smells all over of tobacco and beer,” he added, throwing a little eau de Cologne over it.

He raised it with a mixture of curiosity and disgust, saying again “pah,” as he did so.

He read the paragraph, and as he did his face changed from white, all over, to lead colour. He raised his eyes, and looked steadily for some seconds at the young lady, who seemed a little awed by his strange presence.

“And you are, I suppose, the young lady, Sarah Matilda née Mangles, mentioned in this little paragraph?” he said, in a tone you would have called a sneer, were it not that it trembled.

Sarah Matilda assented.

“My son is, I dare say, within reach. It so happens that I wrote to arrest his journey, and summon him here, some days since — some days since — some days since,” he repeated slowly, like a person whose mind has wandered far away from the theme on which he is speaking.

He had rung his bell, and old Wyat, always hovering about his rooms, entered.

“I want my son, immediately. If not in the house, send Harry to the stables; if not there, let him be followed, instantly. Brice is an active fellow, and will know where to find him. If he is in Feltram, or at a distance, let Brice take a horse, and Master Dudley can ride it back. He must be here without the loss of one moment.”

There intervened nearly a quarter of an hour, during which whenever he recollected her, Uncle Silas treated the young lady with a hyper-refined and ceremonious politeness, which appeared to make her uneasy, and even a little shy, and certainly prevented a renewal of those lamentations and invectives which he had heard faintly from the stair-head.

But for the most part Uncle Silas seemed to forget us and his book, and all that surrounded him, lying back in the corner of his sofa, his chin upon his breast, and such a fearful shade and carving on his features as made me prefer looking in any direction but his.

At length we heard the tread of Dudley’s thick boots on the oak boards, and faint and muffled the sound of his voice as he cross-examined old Wyat before entering the chamber of audience.

I think he suspected quite another visitor, and had no expectation of seeing the particular young lady, who rose from her chair as he entered, in an opportune flood of tears, crying —

“Oh, Dudley, Dudley! — oh, Dudley, could you? Oh, Dudley, your own poor Sal! You could not — you would not — your lawful wife!”

This and a good deal more, with cheeks that streamed like a window-pane in a thunder-shower, spoke Sarah Matilda with all her oratory, working his arm, which she clung to, up and down all the time, like the handle of a pump. But Dudley was, manifestly, confounded and dumbfoundered. He stood for a long time gaping at his father, and stole just one sheepish glance at me; then again at his father, who remained just in the attitude I have described, and with the same forbidding and dreary intensity in his strange face.

Like a quarrelsome man worried in his sleep by a noise, Dudley suddenly woke up, as it were, with a start, in a half-suppressed exasperation, and shook her off with a jerk and a muttered curse, as she whisked involuntarily into a chair, with more violence than could have been pleasant.

“Judging by your looks and demeanour, sir, I can almost anticipate your answers,” said my uncle, addressing him suddenly. “Will you be kind enough — pray, madame (parenthetically to our visitor), command yourself for a few moments. Is this young person the daughter of a Mr. Mangles, and is her name Sarah Matilda?”

“I dessay,” answered Dudley, hurriedly.

“Is she your wife?”

“Is she my wife?” repeated Dudley, ill at ease.

“Yes, sir; it is a plain question.”

All this time Sarah Matilda was perpetually breaking into talk, and with difficulty silenced by my uncle.

“Well, ‘appen she says I am — does she?” replied Dudley.

“Is she your wife, sir?”

“Mayhap she so considers it, after a fashion, he replied, with an impudent swagger, seating himself as he did so.

“What do you think, sir?” persisted Uncle Silas.

“I don’t think nout about it,” replied Dudley, surlily.

“Is that account true?” said my uncle, handing him the paper.

“They wishes us to believe so, at any rate.”

“Answer directly, sir. We have our thoughts upon it. If it be true, it is capable of every proof. For expedition’s sake I ask you. There is no use prevaricating.”

“Who wants to deny it? It is true — there!”

“There! I knew he would,” screamed the young woman, hysterically, with a laugh of strange joy.

“Shut up, will ye?” growled Dudley, savagely.

“Oh, Dudley, Dudley, darling! what have I done?”

“Bin and ruined me, jest — that’s all.”

“Oh! no, no, no, Dudley. Ye know I wouldn’t. I could not — could not hurt ye, Dudley. No, no, no!”

He grinned at her, and, with a sharp side-nod, said —

“Wait a bit.”

“Oh, Dudley, don’t be vexed, dear. I did not mean it. I would not hurt ye for all the world. Never!”

“Well, never mind. You and yours tricked me finely; and now you’ve got me — that’s all.”

My uncle laughed a very odd laugh.

“I knew it, of course; and upon my word, madame, you and he make a very pretty couple,” sneered Uncle Silas.

Dudley made no answer, looking, however, very savage.

And with this poor young wife, so recently wedded, the low villain had actually solicited me to marry him!

I am quite certain that my uncle was as entirely ignorant as I of Dudley’s connection, and had, therefore, no participation in this appalling wickedness.

“And I have to congratulate you, my good fellow, on having secured the affections of a very suitable and vulgar young woman.”

“I baint the first o’ the family as a’ done the same,” retorted Dudley.

At this taunt the old man’s fury for a moment overpowered him. In an instant he was on his feet, quivering from head to foot. I never saw such a countenance — like on of those demon-grotesques we see in the Gothic side-aisles and groinings — a dreadful grimace, monkey-like and insane — and his thin hand caught up his ebony stick, and shook it paralytically in the air.

“If ye touch me wi’ that, I’ll smash ye, by ——!” shouted Dudley, furious, raising his hands and hitching his shoulder, just as I had seen him when he fought Captain Oakley.

For a moment this picture was suspended before me, and I screamed, I know not what, in my terror. But the old man, the veteran of many a scene of excitement, where men disguise their ferocity in calm tones, and varnish their fury with smiles, had not quite lost his self-command. He turned toward me and said —

“Does he know what he’s saying?”

And with an icy laugh of contempt, his high, thin forehead still flushed, he sat down trembling.

“If you want to say aught, I’ll hear ye. Ye may jaw me all ye like, and I’ll stan’ it.”

“Oh, may I speak? Thank you,” sneered Uncle Silas, glancing slowly round at me, and breaking into a cold laugh.

“Ay, I don’t mind cheek, not I; but you must not go for to do that, ye know. Gammon. I won’t stand a blow — I won’t fro no one.”

“Well, sir, availing myself of your permission to speak, I may remark, without offence to the young lady, that I don’t happen to recollect the name Mangles among the old families of England. I presume you have chosen her chiefly for her virtues and her graces.”

Mrs. Sarah Matilda, not apprehending this compliment quite as Uncle Silas meant it, dropped a courtesy, notwithstanding her agitation, and, wiping her eyes, said, with a blubbered smile —

“You’re very kind, sure.”

“I hope, for both your sakes, she has got a little money. I don’t see how you are to live else. You’re too lazy for a game-keeper; and I don’t think you could keep a pot-house, you are so addicted to drinking and quarrelling. The only thing I am quite clear upon is, that you and your wife must find some other abode than this. You shall depart this evening: and now, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley Ruthyn, you may quit this room, if you please.”

Uncle Silas had risen, and made them one of his old courtly bows, smiling a death-like sneer, and pointing to the door with his trembling fingers.

“Come, will ye?” said Dudley, grinding his teeth. “You’re pretty well done here.”

Not half understanding the situation, but looking woefully bewildered, she dropped a farewell courtesy at the door.

“Will ye cut?” barked Dudley, in a tone that made her jump; and suddenly, without looking about, he strode after her from the room.

“Maud, how shall I recover this? The vulgar villain — the fool! What an abyss were we approaching! and for me the last hope gone — and for me utter, utter, irretrievable ruin.”

He was passing his fingers tremulously back and forward along the top of the mantelpiece, like a man in search of something, and continued so, looking along it, feebly and vacantly, although there was nothing there.

“I wish, uncle — you do not know how much I wish — I could be of any use to you. Maybe I can?”

He turned, and looked at me sharply.

“Maybe you can,” he echoed slowly. “Yes, maybe you can,” he repeated more briskly. “Let us — let us see — let us think — that d —— fellow! — my head!”

“You’re not well, uncle?”

“Oh! yes, very well. We’ll talk in the evening — I’ll send for you.”

I found Wyat in the next room, and told her to hasten, as I thought he was ill. I hope it was not very selfish, but such had grown to be my horror of seeing him in one of his strange seizures, that I hastened from the room precipitately — partly to escape the risk of being asked to remain.

The walls of Bartram House are thick, and the recess at the doorway deep. As I closed my uncle’s door, I heard Dudley’s voice on the stairs. I did not wish to be seen by him or by his “lady,” as his poor wife called herself, who was engaged in vehement dialogue with him as I emerged, and not caring either to re-enter my uncle’s room, I remained quietly ensconced within the heavy door-case, in which position I overheard Dudley say with a savage snarl —

“You’ll jest go back the way ye came. I’ not goin’ wi’ ye, if that’s what ye be drivin’ at — dang your impitins!”

“Oh! Dudley, dear, what have I done — what have I done — ye hate me so?”

“What a’ ye done? ye vicious little beast ye! You’ve got us turned out an’ disinherited wi’ yer d —— d bosh, that’s all; don’t ye think it’s enough?”

I could only hear her sobs and shrill tones in reply, for they were descending the stairs; and Mary Quince reported to me, in a horrified sort of way, that she saw him bundle her into the fly at the door, like a truss of hay into a hay-loft. And he stood with his head in at the window, scolding her, till it drove away.

“I knew he wor jawing her, poor thing! by the way he kep’ waggin’ his head — an’ he had his fist inside, a shakin’ in her face I’m sure he looked wicked enough for anything; an’ she a crying like a babby, an’ lookin’ back, an’ wavin’ her wet handkicher to him — poor thing! — and she so young! ’Tis a pity. Dear me! I often think, Miss, ’tis well for me I never was married. And see how we all would like to get husbands for all that, though so few is happy together. ’Tis a queer world, and them that’s single is maybe the best off after all.”

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