Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 7

The Smoker

THREE YEARS LATER I learned — in a way she probably little expected, and then did not much care about — what really occurred there. I learned even phrases and looks — for the story was related by one who had heard it told — and therefore I venture to narrate what at the moment I neither saw nor suspected. While I sat, flushed and nervous, upon a flat stone by the bank of the little stream, Madame looked over her shoulder, and perceiving that I was out of sight, she abated her pace, and turned sharply towards the ruin which lay at her left. It was her first visit, and she was merely exploring; but now, with a perfectly shrewd and businesslike air, turning the corner of the building, she saw, seated upon the edge of a grave-stone, a rather fat and flashily-equipped young man, with large, light whiskers, a jerry hat, green cutaway coat with gilt buttons, and waistcoat and trousers rather striking than elegant in pattern. He was smoking a short pipe, and made a nod to Madame, without either removing it from his lips or rising, but with his brown and rather good-looking face turned up, he eyed her with something of the impudent and sulky expression that was habitual in it.

“Ha, Deedle, you are there! an’ look so well. I am here, too, quite alon; but my friend, she wait outside the churchyard, byside the leetle river, for she must not think I know you — so I am come alon.”

“You’re a quarter late, and I lost a fight by you, old girl, this morning,” said the gay man, and spat on the ground; “and I wish you would not call me Diddle. I’ll call you Granny if you do.”

“Eh bien! Dud, then. She is vary nice — wat you like. Slim waist, wite teeth, vary nice eyes — dark — wat you say is best — and nice leetle foot and ankle.”

Madame smiled leeringly.

Dud smoked on.

“Go on,” said Dud, with a nod of command.

“I am teach her to sing and play — she has such sweet voice!”

There was another interval here.

“Well, that isn’t much good. I hate women’s screechin’ about fairies and flowers. Hang her! there’s a scarecrow as sings at Curl’s Divan. Such a caterwauling upon a stage! I’d like to put my two barrels into her.”

By this time Dud’s pipe was out, and he could afford to converse.

“You shall see her and decide. You will walk down the river, and pass her by.”

“That’s as may be; howsoever, it would not do, nohow, to buy a pig in a poke, you know. And s’pose I shouldn’t like her, arter all?”

Madame sneered, with a patois ejaculation of derision.

“Vary good! Then some one else will not be so ‘ard to please — as you will soon find.”

“Some one’s bin a-lookin’ arter her, you mean?” said the young man, with a shrewd uneasy glance on the cunning face of the French lady.

“I mean precisely — that which I mean,” replied the lady, with a teazing pause at the break I have marked.

“Come, old ’un, none of your d —— q old chaff, if you want me to stay here listening to you. Speak out, can’t you? There’s any chap as has been a-lookin’ arter her — is there?”

“Eh bien! I suppose some.”

“Well, you suppose, and I suppose — we may all suppose, I guess; but that does not make a thing be, as wasn’t before; and you tell me as how the lass is kep’ private up there, and will be till you’re done educating her — a precious good ’un that is!” And he laughed a little lazily, with the ivory handle of his cane on his lip, and eyeing Madame with indolent derision.

Madame laughed, but looked rather dangerous.

“I’m only chaffin’, you know, old girl. You’ve bin chaffin’— w’y shouldn’t I? But I don’t see why she can’t wait a bit; and what’s all the d —— d hurry for? I’m in no hurry. I don’t want a wife on my back for a while. There’s no fellow marries till he’s took his bit o’ fun, and seen life — is there! And why should I be driving with her to fairs, or to church, or to meeting, by jingo! — for they say she’s a Quaker — with a babby on each knee, only to please them as will be dead and rotten when I’m only beginning?”

“Ah, you are such charming fellow; always the same — always sensible. So I and my friend we will walk home again, and you go see Maggie Hawkes. Good-a-by, Dud — good-a-by.”

“Quiet, you fool! — can’t ye?” said the young gentleman, with the sort of grin that made his face vicious when a horse vexed him. “Who ever said I wouldn’t go look at the girl? Why, you know that’s just what I come here for — don’t you? Only when I think a bit, and a notion comes across me, why shouldn’t I speak out? I’m not one o’ them shilly-shallies. If I like the girl, I’ll not be mug in and mug out about it. Only mind ye, I’ll judge for myself. Is that her a-coming?”

“No; it was a distant sound.”

Madame peeped round the corner. No one was approaching.

“Well, you go round that a-way, and you only look at her, you know, for she is such fool — so nairvous.”

“Oh, is that the way with her?” said Dud, knocking out the ashes of his pipe on a tombstone, and replacing the Turkish utensil in his pocket. “Well, then, old lass, good-bye,” and he shook her hand. “And, do ye see, don’t ye come up till I pass, for I’m no hand at play-acting; an’ if you called me ‘sir,’ or was coming it dignified and distant, you know, I’d be sure to laugh, a’most, and let all out. So good-bye, d’ye see, and if you want me again be sharp to time, mind.”

From habit he looked about for his dogs, but he had not brought one. He had come unostentatiously by rail, travelling in a third-class carriage, for the advantage of Jack Briderly’s company, and getting a world of useful wrinkles about the steeplechase that was coming off next week.

So he strode away, cutting off the heads of the nettles with his cane as he went; and Madame walked forth into the open space among the graves, where I might have seen her, had I stood up, looking with the absorbed gaze of an artist on the ruin.

In a little while, along the path, I heard the clank of a step, and the gentleman in the green cutaway coat, sucking his cane, and eyeing me with an offensive familiar sort of stare the while, passed me by, rather hesitating as he did so.

I was glad when he turned the corner in the little hollow close by, and disappeared. I stood up at once, and was reassured by a sight of Madame, not very many yards away, looking at the ruin, and apparently restored to her right mind. The last beams of the sun were by this time touching the uplands, and I was longing to recommence our walk home. I was hesitating about calling to Madame, because that lady had a certain spirit of opposition within her, and to disclose a small wish of any sort was generally, if it lay in her power, to prevent its accomplishment.

At this moment the gentleman in the green coat returned, approaching me with a slow sort of swagger.

“I say, Miss, I dropped a glove close by here. May you have seen it?”

“No, sir,” I said, drawing back a little, and looking, I dare say, both frightened and offended.

“I do think I must ‘a dropped it close by your foot, Miss.”

“No, sir,” I repeated.

“No offence, Miss, but you’re sure you didn’t hide it?”

I was beginning to grow seriously uncomfortable.

“Don’t be frightened, Miss; it’s only a bit o’ chaff. I’m not going to search.”

I called aloud, “Madame, Madame!” and he whistled through his fingers, and shouted, “Madame, Madame,” and added, “She’s as deaf as a tombstone, or she’ll hear that. Gi’e her my compliments, and say I said you’re a beauty, Miss;” and with a laugh and a leer he strode off.

Altogether this had not been a very pleasant excursion. Madame gobbled up our sandwiches, commending them every now and then to me. But I had been too much excited to have any appetite left, and very tired I was when we reached home.

“So, thee is lady coming to-morrow?” said Madame, who knew everything. “Wat is her name? I forget.”

“Lady Knollys,” I answered.

“Lady Knollys — wat odd name! She is very young — is she not?”

“Past fifty, I think.”

“Hélas! She’s vary old, then. Is she rich?”

“I don’t know. She has a place in Derbyshire.”

“Derbyshire — that is one of your English counties, is it not?”

“Oh yes, Madame,” I answered, laughing. “I have said it to you twice since you came;” and I gabbled through the chief towns and rivers as catalogued in my geography.

“Bah! to be sure — of course, cheaile. And is she your relation?”

“Papa’s first cousin.”

“Won’t you present-a me, pray? — I would so like!”

Madame had fallen into the English way of liking people with titles, as perhaps foreigners would if titles implied the sort of power they do generally with us.

“Certainly, Madame.”

“You will not forget?”

“Oh no.”

Madame reminded me twice, in the course of the evening, of my promise. She was very eager on this point. But it is a world of disappointment, influenza, and rheumatics; and next morning Madame was prostrate in her bed, and careless of all things but flannel and James’s powder.

Madame was désolée; but she could not raise her head. She only murmured a question.

“For ‘ow long time, dear, will Lady Knollys remain?”

“A very few days, I believe.”

“Hélas! ‘ow onlucky! maybe to-morrow I shall be better. Ouah! my ear. The laudanum, dear cheaile!”

And so our conversation for that time ended, and Madame buried her head in her old red cashmere shawl.

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