Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 7

Church Scarsdale

I THINK ALL the females of our household, except Mrs. Rusk, who was at open feud with her, and had only room for the fiercer emotions, were more or less afraid of this inauspicious foreigner.

Mrs. Rusk would say in her confidences in my room —

“Where does she come from? — is she a French or a Swiss one, or is she a Canada woman? I remember one of them when I was a girl, and a nice limb she was, too! And who did she live with? Where was her last family? Not one of us knows nothing about her, no more than a child; except, of course, the Master — I do suppose he made enquiry. She’s always at hugger-mugger with Anne Wixted. I’ll pack that one about her business, if she don’t mind. Tattling and whispering eternally. It’s not about her own business she’s a-talking. Madame de la Rougepot, I call her. She does know how to paint up to the ninety-nines — she does, the old cat. I beg your pardon, Miss, but that she is — a devil, and no mistake. I found her out first by her thieving the Master’s gin, that the doctor ordered him, and filling the decanter up with water — the old villain; but she’ll be found out yet, she will; and all the maids is afraid of her. She’s not right, they think — a witch or a ghost — I should not wonder. Catherine Jones found her in her bed asleep in the morning after she sulked with you, you know, Miss, with all her clothes on, whatever was the meaning; and I think she has frightened you, Miss, and has you as nervous as anythink — I do,” and so forth.

It was true. I was nervous, and growing rather more so; and I think this cynical woman perceived and intended it, and was pleased. I was always afraid of her concealing herself in my room, and emerging at night to scare me. She began sometimes to mingle in my dreams, too — always awfully; and this nourished, of course, the kind of ambiguous fear in which, in waking hours, I held her.

I dreamed one night that she led me, all the time whispering something so very fast that I could not understand her, into the library, holding a candle in her other hand above her head. We walked on tiptoe, like criminals at the dead of night, and stopped before that old oak cabinet which my father had indicated in so odd a way to me. I felt that we were about some contraband practice. There was a key in the door, which I experienced a guilty horror at turning, she whispering in the same unintelligible way, all the time, at my ear. I did turn it; the door opened quite softly, and within stood my father, his face white and malignant, and glaring close in mine. He cried in a terrible voice, “Death!” Out went Madame’s candle, and at the same moment, with a scream, I waked in the dark — still fancying myself in the library; and for an hour after I continued in a hysterical state.

Every little incident about Madame furnished a topic of eager discussion among the maids. More or less covertly, they nearly all hated and feared her. They fancied that she was making good her footing with “the Master;” and that she would then oust Mrs. Rusk — perhaps usurp her place — and so make a clean sweep of them all. I fancy the honest little housekeeper did not discourage that suspicion.

About this time I recollect a pedlar — an odd, gipsified-looking man — called in at Knowl. I and Catherine Jones were in the court when he came, and set down his pack on the low balustrade beside the door.

All sorts of commodities he had — ribbons, cottons, silks, stockings, lace, and even some bad jewellery; and just as he began his display — an interesting matter in a quiet country house — Madame came upon the ground. He grinned a recognition, and hoped “Madamasel” was well, and “did not look to see her here.”

“Madamasel” thanked him. “Yes, vary well,” and looked for the first time decidedly “put out.”

“Wat a pretty things!” she said. “Catherine, run and tell Mrs. Rusk. She wants scissars, and lace too — I heard her say.”

So Catherine, with a lingering look, departed; and Madame said —

“Will you, dear cheaile, be so kind to bring here my purse, I forgot on the table in my room; also, I advise you, bring your.”

Catherine returned with Mrs. Rusk. Here was a man who could tell them something of the old Frenchwoman, at last! Slyly they dawdled over his wares, until Madame had made her market and departed with me. But when the coveted opportunity came, the pedlar was quite impenetrable. “He forgot everything; he did not believe as he ever saw the lady before. He called a Frenchwoman all the world over, Madamasel — that wor the name on ’em all. He never seed her in partiklar afore, as he could bring to mind. He liked to see ’em always, ‘cause they makes the young uns buy.”

This reserve and oblivion were very provoking, and neither Mrs. Rusk nor Catherine Jones spent sixpence with him; — he was a stupid fellow, or worse.

Of course Madame had tampered with him. But truth, like murder, will out some day. Tom Williams, the groom, had seen her, when alone with him, and pretending to look at his stock, with her face almost buried in his silks and Welsh linseys, talking as fast as she could all the time, and slipping money, he did suppose, under a piece of stuff in his box.

In the mean time, I and Madame were walking over the wide, peaty sheep-walks that lie between Knowl and Church Scarsdale. Since our visit to the mausoleum in the wood, she had not worried me so much as before. She had been, indeed, more than usually thoughtful, very little talkative, and troubled me hardly at all about French and other accomplishments. A walk was a part of our daily routine. I now carried a tiny basket in my hand, with a few sandwiches, which were to furnish our luncheon when we reached the pretty scene, about two miles away, whither we were tending.

We had started a little too late; Madame grew unwontedly fatigued and sat down to rest on a stile before we had got half-way; and there she intoned, with a dismal nasal cadence, a quaint old Bretagne ballad, about a lady with a pig’s head:—

“This lady was neither pig nor maid, And so she was not of human mould; Not of the living nor the dead. Her left hand and foot were warm to touch; Her right as cold as a corpse’s flesh! And she would sing like a funeral bell, with a ding-dong tune. The pigs were afraid, and viewed her aloof; And women feared her and stood afar. She could do without sleep for a year and a day; She could sleep like a corpse, for a month and more. No one knew how this lady fed — On acorns or on flesh. Some say that she’s one of the swine-possessed, That swam over the sea of Gennesaret. A mongrel body and a demon soul. Some say she’s the wife of the Wandering Jew, And broke the law for the sake of pork; And a swinish face for a token doth bear, That her shame is now, and her punishment coming.”

And so it went on, in a gingling rigmarole. The more anxious I seemed to go on our way, the more likely was she to loiter. I therefore showed no signs of impatience, and I saw her consult her watch in the course of her ugly minstrelsy, and slyly glance, as if expecting something, in the direction of our destination.

When she had sung to her heart’s content, up rose Madame, and began to walk onward silently. I saw her glance once or twice, as before, toward the village of Trillsworth, which lay in front, a little to our left, and the smoke of which hung in a film over the brow of the hill. I think she observed me, for she enquired —

“Wat is that a smoke there?”

“That is Trillsworth, Madame; there is a railway station there.”

“Oh, le chemin de fer, so near! I did not think. Where it goes?”

I told her, and silence resumed.

Church Scarsdale is a very pretty and odd scene. The slightly undulating sheep-walk dips suddenly into a wide glen, in the lap of which, by a bright, winding rill, rise from the sward the ruins of a small abbey, with a few solemn trees scattered round. The crows’ nests hung untenanted in the trees; the birds were foraging far away from their roosts. The very cattle had forsaken the place. It was solitude itself.

Madame drew a long breath and smiled.

“Come down, come down, cheaile — come down to the churchyard.”

As we descended the slope which shut out the surrounding world, and the scene grew more sad and lonely, Madame’s spirits seemed to rise.

“See ‘ow many grave-stones — one, two hundred. Don’t you love the dead, cheaile? I will teach you to love them. You shall see me die here to-day, for half an hour, and be among them. That is what I love.”

We were by this time at the little brook’s side, and the low churchyard wall with a stile, reached by a couple of stepping stones, across the stream, immediately at the other side.

“Come, now!” cried Madame, raising her face, as if to sniff the air; “we are close to them. You will like them soon as I. You shall see five of them. Ah, ça ira, ça ira, ça ira! Come cross quickily! I am Madame la Morgue — Mrs. Deadhouse! I will present you my friends, Monsieur Cadavre and Monsieur Squelette. Come, come, leetle mortal, let us play, Ouaah!” And she uttered a horrid yell from her enormous mouth, and pushing her wig and bonnet back, so as to show her great, bald head. She was laughing, and really looked quite mad.

“No, Madame, I will not go with you,” I said, disengaging my hand with a violent effort, receding two or three steps.

“Not enter the churchyard! Ma foi — wat mauvais goût! But see, we are already in shade. The sun he is setting soon — where well you remain, cheaile? I will not stay long.”

“I’ll stay here,” I said, a little angrily — for I was angry as well as nervous; and through my fear was that indignation at her extravagances which mimicked lunacy so unpleasantly, and were, I knew, designed to frighten me.

Over the stepping-stones, pulling up her dress, she skipped with her long, lank legs, like a witch joining a Walpurgis. Over the stile she strode, and I saw her head wagging, and heard her sing some of her ill-omened rhymes, as she capered solemnly, with many a grin and courtesy, among the graves and headstones, towards the ruin.

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