Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 59

A Sudden Departure

“MARY,” said I, “I am miserably anxious to hear what Madame may have to tell; she knows the state I am in, and she would not like so much trouble as to look in my door to say a word. Did you hear what she told me?”

“No, Miss Maud,” she answered, rising and drawing near.

“She thinks we are going to France immediately, and to leave this place perhaps for ever.”

“Heaven be praised for that, if it be so, Miss!” said Mary, with more energy than was common with her, “for there is no luck about it, and I don’t expect to see you ever well or happy in it.”

“You must take your candle, Mary, and make out her room, upstairs; I found it accidentally myself one evening.”

“But Wyat won’t let us upstairs.”

“Don’t mind her, Mary; I tell you to go. You must try. I can’t sleep till we hear.”

“What direction is her room in, Miss?” asked Mary.

“Somewhere in that direction, Mary,” I answered, pointing. “I cannot describe the turns; but I think you will find it if you go along the great passage to your left, on getting to the top of the stairs, till you come to the cross-galleries, and then turn to your left; and when you have passed four or perhaps five doors, you must be very near it, and I am sure she will hear if you call.”

“But will she tell me — she is such a rum un, Miss?” suggested Mary.

Tell her exactly what I have said to you, and when she learns that you already know as much as I do, she may — unless, indeed, she wishes to torture me. If she won’t, perhaps at least you can persuade her to come to me for a moment. Try, dear Mary; we can but fail.”

“Will you be very lonely, Miss, while I am away?” asked Mary, uneasily, as she lighted her candle.

“I can’t help it, Mary. Go. I think if I heard we were going, I could almost get up and dance and sing. I can’t bear this dreadful uncertainty any longer.”

“If old Wyat is outside, I’ll come back and wait here a bit, till she’s out o’ the way,” said Mary; “and, anyhow, I’ll make all the haste I can. The drops and the sal-volatile is here, Miss, by your hand.”

And with an anxious look at me, she made her exit, softly, and did not immediately return, by which I concluded that she had found the way clear, and had gained the upper story without interruption.

This little anxiety ended, its subsidence was followed by a sense of loneliness, and with it, of vague insecurity, which increased at last to such a pitch, that I wondered at my own madness in sending my companion away; and at last my terrors so grew, that I drew back into the farthest corner of the bed, with my shoulders to the wall, and my bed-clothes huddled about me, with only a point open to peep at.

At last the door opened gently.

“Who’s there?” I cried, in extremity of horror, expecting I knew not whom.

“Me, Miss,” whispered Mary Quince, to my unutterable relief; and with her candle flared, and a wild and pallid face, Mary Quince glided into the room, locking the door as she entered.

I do not know how it was, but I found myself holding Mary fast with both my hands as we stood side by side on the floor.

“Mary, you are terrified; for God’s sake, what is the matter?” I cried.

“No, Miss,” said Mary, faintly, “not much.”

“I see it in your face. What is it?”

“Let me sit down, Miss. I’ll tell you what I saw; only I’m just a little bit queerish.”

Mary sat down by my bed.

“Get in, Miss; you’ll take cold. Get into bed, and I’ll tell you. It is not much.”

I did get into bed, and gazing on Mary’s frightened face, I felt a corresponding horror.

“For mercy’s sake, Mary, say what it is?”

So again assuring me, “it was not much,” she gave me in a somewhat diffuse and tangled narrative the following facts:—

On closing my door, she raised her candle above her head and surveyed the lobby, and seeing no one there she ascended the stairs swiftly. She passed along the great gallery to the left, and paused a moment at a cross gallery, and then recollected my directions clearly, and followed the passage to the right.

There are doors at each side, and she had forgotten to ask me at which Madame’s was. She opened several. In one room she was frightened by a bat, which had very nearly put her candle out. She went on a little, paused, and began to lose heart in the dismal solitude, when on a sudden, a few doors farther on, she thought she heard Madame’s voice.

She said that she knocked at the door, but receiving no answer, and hearing Madame still talking within, she opened it.

There was a candle on the chimneypiece, and another in a stable lantern near the window. Madame was conversing volubly on the hearth, with her face toward the window, the entire frame of which had been taken from its place: Dickon Hawkes, the Zamiel of the wooden leg, was supporting it with one hand, as it leaned imperfectly against the angle of the recess. There was a third figure standing, buttoned up in a surtout, with a bundle of tools under his arm, like a glazier, and, with a silent thrill of fear, she distinctly recognised the features as those of Dudley Ruthyn.

“’Twas him, Miss, so sure as I sit here! Well, like that, they were as mute as mice; three pairs of eyes were on me. I don’t know what made me so study like, but som’at told me I should not make as though I knew any but Madame; and so I made a courtesy, as well as I could, and I said, ‘Might I speak a word wi’ ye, please, on the lobby?’

“Mr. Dudley was making belief be this time to look out the window, wi’ his back to me, and I kept looking straight on Madame, and she said, ‘They’re mendin’ my broken glass, Mary,’ walking between them and me, and coming close up to me very quick; and so she marched me backward out o’ the door, prating all the time.

“When we were on the lobby, she took my candle from my hand, shutting the door behind her, and she held the light a bit behind her ear; so ’twas full on my face, as she looked sharp into it; and, after a bit, she said again, in her queer lingo — there was two panes broke in her room, and men sent for to mend it.

“I was awful frightened when I saw Mr. Dudley, for I could not believe any such thing before, and I don’t know how I could look her in the face as I did and not show it. I was as smooth and cool as yonder chimneypiece, and she has an awful evil eye to stan’ against; but I never flinched, and I think she’s puzzled, for as cunning as she is, whether I believe all she said, or knowed ’twas a pack o’ stories. So I told her your message, and she said she had not heard another word since; but she did believe we had not many more days here, and would tell you if she heard to-night, when she brought his soup to your uncle, in half an hour’s time.”

I asked her, as soon as I could speak, whether she was perfectly certain as to the fact that the man in the surtout was Dudley, and she made answer —

“I’d swear to him on that Bible, Miss.”

So far from any longer wishing Madame’s return that night, I trembled at the idea of it. Who could tell who might enter the room with her when the door opened to admit her?

Dudley, so soon as he recovered the surprise, had turned about, evidently anxious to prevent recognition; Dickon Hawkes stood glowering at her. Both might have hope of escaping recognition in the imperfect light, for the candle on the chimneypiece was flaring in the air, and the light from the lantern fell in spots, and was confusing.

What could that ruffian, Hawkes, be doing in the house? Why was Dudley there? Could a more ominous combination be imagined? I puzzled my distracted head over all Mary Quince’s details, but could make nothing of their occupation. I know of nothing so terrifying as this kind of perpetual puzzling over ominous problems.

You may imagine how the long hours of that night passed, and how my heart beat at every fancied sound outside my door.

But morning came, and with its light some reassurance. Early, Madame de la Rougierre made her appearance; she searched my eyes darkly and shrewdly, but made no allusion to Mary Quince’s visit. Perhaps she expected some question from me, and, hearing none, thought it as well to leave the subjected at rest.

She had merely come it top say that she had heard nothing since, but was now going to make my uncle’s chocolate; and that so soon as her interview was ended she would see me again, and let me hear anything she should have gleaned.

In a little while a knock came to my door, and Mary Quince was ordered by old Wyat into my uncle’s room. She returned flushed, in a huge fuss, to say that I was to be up and dressed for a journey in half an hour, and to go straight, when dressed, to my uncle’s room.

It was good news; at the same time it was a shock. I was glad. I was stunned. I jumped out of bed, and set about my toilet with an energy quite new to me. Good Mary Quince was busily packing my boxes, and consulting as to what I should take with me, and what not.

Was Mary Quince to accompany me? He had not said a word on that point; and I feared from his silence she was to remain. There was comfort, however, in this — that the separation would not be for long; I felt confident of that; and I was about to join Milly, whom I loved better than I could have believed before our separation; but whatsoever the conditions might be, it was an indescribable relief to have done with Bartram–Haugh, and leave behind me its sinister lines of circumvallation, its haunted recesses, and the awful spectres that had lately appeared within its walls.

I stood too much in awe of my uncle to fail in presenting myself punctually at the close of the half-hour. I entered his sitting-room under the shadow of sour old Wyat’s high-cauled cap; she closed the door behind me, and the conference commenced.

Madame de la Rougierre sat there, dressed and draped for a journey, and with a thick black lace veil on. My uncle rose, gaunt and venerable, and with a harsh and severe countenance. He did not offer his hand; he made me a kind of bow, more of repulsion than of respect. He remained in a standing position, supporting his crooked frame by his hand, which he leaned on a despatch-box; he glared on me steadily with his wild phosphoric eyes, from under the dark brows I have described to you, now corrugated in lines indescribably stern.

“You shall join my daughter at the Pension, in France; Madame de la Rougierre shall accompany you,” said my uncle, delivering his directions with the stern monotony and the measured pauses of a person dictating an important despatch to a secretary. “Old Mrs. Quince shall follow eith me, or, if alone, in a week. You shall pass to-night in London; to-morrow night you proceed thence to Dover, and cross by the mail-packet. You shall now sit down and write a letter to your cousin Monica Knollys, which I will first read and then despatch. To-morrow you shall write a note to Lady Knollys, from London, telling her how you have got over so much of your journey, and that you cannot write from Dover, as you must instantly start by the packet on reaching it; and that until my affairs are a little settled, you cannot write to her from France, as it is of high importance to my safety that no clue should exist as to our address. Intelligence, however, shall reach her through my attorneys, Archer and Sleigh, and I trust we shall soon return. You will, please, submit that latter note to Madame de la Rougierre, who has my directions to see that it contains no libels upon my character. Now, sit down.”

So, with those unpleasant words tingling in my ears, I obeyed.

“Write,” said he, when I was duly placed. “You shall convey the substance of what I say in your own language. The imminent danger this morning announced of an execution — remember the word,” and he spelled it for me —“being put into this house either this afternoon or to-morrow, compels me to anticipate my plans, and despatch you for France this day. That you are starting with an attendant.” Here an uneasy movement from Madame, whose dignity was perhaps excited. “An attendant,” he repeated, with a discordant emphasis; “and you can, if you please — but I don’t solicit that justice — say that you have been as kindly treated here as my unfortunate circumstances would permit. That is all. You have just fifteen minutes to write. Begin.”

I wrote accordingly. My hysterical state had made me far less combative than I might have proved some months since, for there was much that was insulting as well as formidable in his manner. I completed my letter, however, to his satisfaction in the prescribed time; and he said, as he laid it and its envelope on the table —

“Please to remember that this lady is not your attendant only, but that she has authority to direct every detail respecting your journey, and will make all the necessary payments on the way. You will please, then, implicitly to comply with her directions. The carriage awaits you at the hall-door.”

Having thus spoken, with another grim bow and “I wish you a safe and pleasant journey,” he receded a step or two, and I, with an undefinable kind of melancholy, though also with a sense of relief, withdrew.

My letter, I afterwards found, reached Lady Knollys, accompanied by one from Uncle Silas, who said —“Dear Maud apprises me that she has written to tell you something of our movements. A sudden crisis in my miserable affairs compels a break-up as sudden here. Maud joins my daughter at the Pension, in France. I purposely omit the address, because I mean to reside in its vicinity until this storm shall have blown over; and as the consequences of some of my unhappy entanglements might pursue me even there, I must only for the present spare you the pain and trouble of keeping a secret. I am sure that for some little time you will excuse the girl’s silence; in the meantime you shall hear of them, and perhaps circuitously, from me. Our dear Maud started this morning en route for her destination, very sorry, as am I, that she could not enjoy first a flying visit to Elverston, but in high spirits, notwithstanding, at the new life and sights before her.”

At the door my beloved old friend, Mary Quince, awaited me.

“Am I going with you, Miss Maud?”

I burst into tears and clasped her in my arms.

“I’m not,” said Mary, very sorrowfully; “and I never was from you uet, Miss, since you wasn’t the length of my arm.”

And kind old Mary began to cry with me.

“Bote you are coming in a few days, Mary Queence,” expostulated Madame. “I wonder you are soche fool. What is two, three days? Bah! nonsense, girl.”

Another farewell to poor Mary Quince, quite bewildered at the suddenness of her bereavement. A serious and tremulous bow from our little old butler on the steps. Madame bawling through the open window to the driver to make good speed, and remember that we had but nineteen minutes to reach the station. Away we went. Old Crowle’s iron grille rolled back before us. I looked on the receding landscape, the giant trees — the palatial, time-stained mansion. A strange conflict of feelings, sweet and bitter, rose and mingled in the reverie. Had I been too hard and suspicious with the inhabitants of that old house of my family? Was my uncle justly indignant? Was I ever again to know such pleasant rambles as some of those I had enjoyed with dear Millicent through the wild and beautiful woodlands I was leaving behind me? And there, with my latest glimpse of the front of Bartram–Haugh, I beheld dear old Mary Quince gazing after us. Again my tears flowed. I waved my handkerchief from the window; and now the park-wall hid all from view, and at a great pace, through the steep wooded glen, with the rocky and precipitous character of a ravine, we glided; and when the road next emerged, Bartram–Haugh was a misty mass of forest and chimneys, slope and hollow, and we within a few minutes of the station.

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