The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 17.

The Hour and the Man.

Supper-time came, and Tom Orange did not return. Darkness closed over the old cottage, the poplar trees and the town, and the little boy said his prayers under the superintendence of worthy Marjory, and went to his bed.

He was disturbed in his sleep by voices talking in the room. He could only keep his eyes open for a little time, and he saw Tom Orange talking with mammy. He was at one side of the little table and she at another, and his head was leaning forward so as to approach uncomfortably near to the mutton-fat with a long snuff in the middle. Mammy, as he indiscriminately called “Granny,” was sobbing bitterly into her apron, and sometimes with streaming eyes, speaking so low that he could not hear, to Tom Orange.

Interesting as was the scene, slumber stole him away, and when he next wakened, Tom was gone, and mammy was sitting on the bed, crying as if her heart would break. When he opened his eyes, she said, —

“Ohjdarlin! darlin’! My man — my own, own blessed man — my darlin’! “and she huo;2;ed him to her heart.

He remembered transports similar when two years ago he was very ill of a fever.

“I’m not sick, mammy, indeed; I’m quite well,” and with these assurances and many caresses, he again fell asleep.

In the morning his Sunday clothes, to his wonder, were prepared for him to put on. The little old faded crimson carpet-bag, which she had always told him, to the no small content of his self-importance, was his own, stood plump and locked on the little table under the clock. His chair was close beside mammy’s. She had all the delicacies he liked best for his breakfast. There was a thin little slice of fried bacon, and a new-laid egg, and a hot cake, and tea — quite a grand breakfast.

Mammy sat beside him very close. Her arm was round him. She was very pale. She tried to smile at his prattle, and her eyes filled up as often as she looked at him, or heard him speak.

Now and then he looked wonderingly in her face, and she tried to smile her old smile and nodded, and swallowed down some tea from her cup.

She made behef of eating her breakfast, but she could not.

When the wondering little man had ended his breakfast, with her old kind hands she drew him towards her.

“Sit down on my lap, my precious — my own man — my beautiful boy — my own angel bright. Oh, darlin’ — darlin’ — darlin’! “and she hugged the boy to her heart, and sobbed over his shoulder as if her heart was burstincr.

He remembered that she cried the same way when the doctor said he was safe and sure to recover,

“Mammy,” he said, kissing her, “Amy has birthdays — and I think this is my birthday — is it?”

“No, darhn’; no, no,” she sobbed, kissing him. “No, my darhn’, no. Oh, no, ’taint that.”

She got up hastily, and brought him his little boots that she had cleaned. The boy put them on, wondering, and she laced them.

With eyes streaming she took up one of the little cork boats, which he kept on the window-stool floatino; in a wooden bowl.

“You’ll give me one of them, darlin’ — to old mammy — for a keepsake.”

“Oh! yes. Choose a good one — the one with the gold paper on the pin; that one sails the best of all.”

“And — and” — she cried bitterly before she could go on — “and this is the little box I’ll put them in,” and she picked them out of the bowl and laid them in a cardboard box, which she quickly tied round. “And this is the last day of poor mammy with her bright only darlin’ — for your friends are sending for you today, and Mr. Archdale will be here in ten minutes, and you’re to go with him. Oh, my precious — the light o’ the house — and to leave me alone.”

The boy stood up, and with a cry, ran and threw his arms round her, where she stood near the clock.

“Oh! no, no, no. Oh! mammy, you wouldn’t; you couldn’t, you couldn’t.”

“Oh, darlin’, you’re breaking my heart. What can I do T’

“Don’t let me go. Oh, mammy, don’t. Oh, you couldn’t, you couldn’t-”

“But what can I do, darlin’? Oh, darlin’, what can I do?”

“I’ll run away, mammy, I’ll run away; and I’ll come back when they’re gone, and stay with you.”

“Oh, God Almighty! “she cried, “here he’s coming. I see him coming down the hazel road.”

“Hide me, mammy; hide me in the press. Oh, mammy, mammy, you wouldn’t give me to him! “’

The boy had got into this large old-painted press, and coiled himself up between two shelves. There was hardly a moment to think; and yielding to the instinct of her desperate affection, and to the child’s wild appeal, she locked the door, and put the key in her pocket.

She sat down. She was half stunned by her own audacity. She scarcely knew what she had done. Before she could recover herself, the door darkened, a hand crossed the hatch and opened it, and ex-Sergeant–Major Archdale entered the cottage.

In curt military fashion he announced himself, and demanded the boy.

She was looking straight in this formidable man’s face, and yet it seemed as if he were yanishing from before her eyes.

“Where’s the boy?” inquired the chill stern voice of the Sergeant. . It seemed to her like lifting a mountain this effort to speak. She felt as if she were freezing as she uttered the denial.

“He aint here.”

“Where is he % “demanded the Sergeant’s imperturbablj clear cold voice.

“He’s run away,” she said with an effort, and the Sergeant seemed to vanish quite away, and she thought she was on the point of fainting.

The Sergeant glanced at the breakfast table, and saw that two had taken tea together; he saw the carpet bag packed.

“H’m?” intimated Archdale, with closed lips. He looked round the cottage room, and the Sergeant sat down wonderfully composed, considering the disconcerting nature of the announcement.

The ex-Sergeant–Major had in his time commanded parties in search of deserters, and he was not a bad slaught-hound of that sort.

“He breakfasted with you?” said he, with a cool nod toward the table.

There was a momentary hesitation, and she cleared her voice and said —

“Yes.”

Archdale rose and placed his fingers on the teapot.

“That’s hot,” said the Sergeant with the same inflexible dignity.

Marjory was awfully uneasy.

“He can’t be far. Which way did he go?”

“Out by the door. I can’t tell.”

The ex-Sergeant–Major might have believed her the goddess of truth itself, or might have thought her the most impudent liar in England. You could not have gathered in the least from his countenance toward which view his conclusions tended.

The Sergeant’s light cold grey eye glided again round the room, and there was another silence awfully trying to our good friend Marjory.

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