The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 4.

The Old Squire and Alice Maybell.

Wyvern is a very pretty old house. It is built of a light gray stone, in the later Tudor style. A portion of it is overgrown with thick ivy. It stands not far away from the high road, among grand old trees, and is one of the most interesting features in a richly wooded landscape, that rises into little hills, and, breaking into rocky and forest-darkened glens, and sometimes into dimpling hollows, where the cattle pasture beside pleasant brooks, presents one of the prettiest countries to be found in England.

The old squire, Henry Fairfield, has seen his summer and his autumn days out. It is winter with him now.

He is not a pleasant picture of an English squire, but such, nevertheless, as the old portraits on the walls of Wyvem here and there testify, the family of Fairfield have occasionally turned out.

He is not cheery nor kindly. Bleak, dark, and austere as a northern winter, is the age of that gaunt old man.

He is too proud to grumble, and never asked any one for sympathy. But it is plain that he parts with his strength and his pleasures bitterly. Of course, seeing the old churchyard, down in the hollow at the left, as he stands of an evening on the steps, thoughts will strike him. He does not acquiesce in death. He resents the order of things. But he keeps his repinings to himself, and retaliates his mortification on the people about him.

Though his hair is snowy, and his shoulders stooped, there is that in his length of bone and his stature that accords with the tradition of his early prowess and activity.

He has long been a widower — fully thirty years. He has two sons, and no daughter. Two sons whom he does not much trust — neither of them young — Charles and Henry.

By no means young are they. The elder, now forty-three, the younger only a year or two less. Charles has led a wandering life, and tried a good many things. He had been fond of play, and other expensive follies. He had sobered, however, people thought, and it might be his mission, notwithstanding his wild and wasteful young days, to pay off the debts of the estate.

Henry, the younger son, a shrewd dealer in horses, liked being king of his company, condescended to strong ale, made love to the barmaid at the “George,” in the little town of Wyvern, and affected the conversation of dog-fanciers, horse-jockeys, wrestlers, and similar celebrities.

The old Squire was not much considered, and less beloved, by his sons. The gaunt old man was, however, more feared by these matured scions than their pride would have easily allowed. The fears of childhood survive its pleasures. Something of the ghostly terrors of the nursery haunt us through life, and the tyrant of early days maintains a strange and unavowed ascendancy over the imagination, long after his real power to inflict pain or privation has quite come to an end.

As this tall, grim, handsome old man moves about the room, as he stands, or sits down, or turns eastward at the Creed in church — as he marches slowly toppling along the terrace, with his gold-headed cane in his hand, surveying the long familiar scenes which will soon bloom and brown no more for him — with sullen eyes, thinking his solitary thoughts — as in the long summer evenings he dozes in the great chair by the fire, which even in the dog-days smoulders in the drawing-room grate — looking like a gigantic effigy of winter — a pair of large and soft gray eyes follow, or steal towards him — removed when observed — but ever and anon returning. People have remarked this, and talked it over, and laughed and shook their heads, and built odd speculations upon it.

Alice Maybell had grown up from orphan childhood under the roof of Wyvern. The old squire had been, after a fashion, kind to that pretty waif of humanity, which a chance wave of fortune had thrown at his door. She was the child of a distant cousin, who had happened, being a clergyman, to die in occupation of the vicarage of Wyvern. Her young mother lay, under the branches of the two great trees, in the lonely corner of the village churchyard; and not two years later the Vicar died, and was buried beside her.

Melancholy, gentle Vicar! Some good judges, I believe, pronounced his sermons admirable. Seedily clothed, with kindly patience visiting his poor; very frugal — his pretty young wife and he were yet happy in the light and glow of the true love that is eternal. He was to her the nonpareil of vicars — the loveliest, wisest, wittiest, and best of men. She to him — what shall I say? The same beautiful first love. Never a day older. Every summer threw new gold on her rich hair, and a softer and brighter bloom on her cheeks, and made her dearer and dearer than he could speak. He could only look and feel his heart swelling with a vain yearning to tell the love that lighted his face with its glory and called a mist to his kind eye.

And then came a time when she had a secret to tell her Willie. Full of a wild fear and delight, in their tiny drawing-room, clasped in each other’s arms, they wept for joy, and a kind of wonder and some dim unspoken tremblings of fear, and loved one another, it seemed, as it were more desperately than ever.

And then, as he read aloud to her in the evenings, her pretty fingers were busy with a new sort of work, full of wonderful and delightful interest. A little guest was coming, a little creature with an immortal soul, that was to be as clever and handsome as Willie.

“And, oh, Willie, darling, don’t you hope I may live to see it? Ah, Willie, would not it be sad?”

And then the Vicar, smiling through tears, would put his arms round her, and comfort her, breaking into a rapturous castle-building and a painting of. pictures of this great new happiness and treasure that was coming.

And so in due time the little caps and frocks and all the tiny wardrobe were finished; and the day came when the long-pictured treasure was to come. It was there; but its young mother’s eyes were dim, and the pretty hands that had made its little dress and longed to clasp it were laid beside her, never to stir again.

“The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away — blessed be the name of the Lord.” Yes, blessed be the name of the Lord for that love that outlives the separation of death — that saddens and glorifies memory with its melancholy light, and illuminates far futurity with a lamp whose trembling ray is the thread that draws us toward heaven. Blessed in giving and in taking — blessed for the yearning remembrances, and for the agony of hope.

The little baby — the relic — the treasure — was there. Poor little forlorn baby! And with this little mute companion to look at and sit by, his sorrow was stealing away into a wonderful love; and in this love a consolation and a living fountain of sympathy with his darling who was gone.

A trouble of a new kind had come. Squire Fairfield, who wanted money, raised a claim for rent for the vicarage and its little garden. The Vicar hated law and feared it, and would no doubt have submitted; but this was a battle in which the Bishop took command, and insisted on fighting it out. It was a tedious business.

It had lasted two years nearly, and was still alive and angry, when the Reverend William Maybell took a cold, which no one thought would signify. A brother clergyman from Willowford kindly undertook his duty for one Sunday, and on the next he had died.

The Wyvern doctor said the vis-vitae was wanting — he had lived quite too low, and had not stamina, and so sank like a child.

But there was more. When on Sundays, as the sweet bell of Wyvern trembled in the air, the Vicar had walked alone up to the old gray porch, and saw the two trees near the ivied nook of the churchyard-wall, a home sickness yearned at his heart, and when the hour came his spirit acquiesced in death.

Old Squire Fairfield knew that it was the Bishop who really, and, as I believe, rightly opposed him, for to this day the vicarage pays no rent; but the proud and violent man chose to make the Vicar feel his resentment. He beheld him with a gloomy and thunderous aspect, never a word more would he exchange with him; he turned his back upon bim; he forbid him the footpath across the fields of Wyvern, that made the way to church shorter. He walked out of church grimly when his sermon began. He turned the Vicar’s cow off of the common, and made him every way feel the weight of his displeasure.

Well, now the Vicar was dead. He had borne it all very gently and sadly, and it was over, a page in the past, no line erasable, no line addible for ever.

“So, Parson’s dead and buried; serve him right,” said the Squire of Wyvern. “Thankless rascal. You go down and tell them I must have the house up on the 24th, and if they don’t go, you bundle ’era out, Thomas Rooke.”

“There’ll be the Vicar’s little child there; who’s to take it in, Squire?” asked Tom Rooke, after a hesitation.

“You may, or the Bishop, damn him.”

“I’m a poor man, and, for the Bishop, he’s not like to”

“Let ’em try the workhouse,” said the Squire, “where many a better man’s brat is.”

And he gave Tom Rooke a look that might have knocked him down, and turned his back on him and walked away.

A week or so after he went down himself to the vicarage with Tom Rooke. Old Dulcibella Crane went over the lower part of the house with Tom, and the Squire strode up the stairs, and stooping his tall head as he entered the door, walked into the first room he met with, in a surly mood.

The clatter of his boots prevented his hearing, till he had got well into the room, the low crying of a little child in a cradle. He stayed his step for a moment. He had quite forgotten that unimportant being, and he half turned to go out again, but changed his mind. He stooped over the cradle, and the little child’s crying ceased. It was a very pretty face and large eyes, still wet with tears, that looked up with an earnest wondering gaze at him from out the tiny blankets.

Old Dulcibella Crane had gone down, and the solitude, no doubt, affrighted it, and there was consolation even in the presence of the grim Squire, into whose face those large eyes looked with innocent trust.

Who would have thought it? Below lay the little image of utter human weakness; above stooped a statue of inflexibility and power, a strong statue with a grim contracted eye. There was a heart, steeled against man’s remonstrance, and a pride that would have burst into fury at a hint of reproof. Below lay the mere wonder and vagueness of dumb infancy. Could contest be imagined more hopeless! But “the faithful Creator,” who loved the poor Vicar, had brought those eyes to meet.

The little child’s crying was hushed; big tears hung in its great wondering eyes, and the little face looked up pale and forlorn. It was a gaze that lasted while you might count four or five. But its mysterious work of love was done. “All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.”

Squire Fairfield walked round this room, and went out and examined the others, and went downstairs in silence, and when he was going out at the hall-door he stopped and looked at old Dulcibella Crane, who stood courtesying at it in great fear, and said he, —

“The child’ll be better at home wi’ me, up at Wy vem, and I’ll send down for it and you in the afternoon, till — something’s settled.”

And on this invitation little Alice Maybell and her nurse, Dulcibella Crane, came to Wyvern Manor, and had remained there now for twenty years.

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