The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 17.

Mildred Tarnley’s Warning Stert.

As she reached the top of the stairs she called to the old servant, not, I think, caring to traverse the haunted flooring that intervened alone. She heard Dulcibella talking, and a moment after her old nurse appeared, and standing by her shoulder Mildred Tarnley.

“Oh, Mrs. Tarnley! I’m so glad to see you—you’ve been paying Dulcibella a visit. Pray, come back, and tell me some stories about this old house; you’ve been so long here, and know it so well, that you must have a great deal to tell.”

The old woman, with the unpleasant face, made a stiff courtesy.

“At your service, ma’am,” she said, ungraciously.

“That is if it don’t inconvenience you,” pleaded Alice, who was still a little afraid of her.

“’Tis as you please, ma’am,” said the old servant, with another dry courtesy.

“Well, I’m so glad you can come. Dulcibella, have we a little bit of fire? Oh, yes, I see—it looks so cheerful.”

So they entered the old-fashioned bedroom.

“I hope, Mrs. Tarnley, I’m not keeping you from your tea?”

“No, I thank ye, ma’am. I’ve ’ad my tea an hour agone,” answered the old woman.

“And you must sit down, Mrs. Tarnley,” urged Alice.

“I’ll stand, if ye please, ma’am,” said the withered figure perversely.

“I should be so much happier if you would sit down, Mildred,” urged her young mistress; “but if you prefer it—I only mean that whatever is most comfortable to you you should do. I wanted so much to hear something about this old house. You remember what happened when I was coming upstairs with you—when I was so startled.”

“I didn’t see it, miss—ma’am. I only heard you say summat,” answered Mildred Tarnley.

“Oh, yes, I know; but you spoke today of a warning, and you looked when it happened as if you had heard of it before.”

The old woman raised her chin, and with her hands folded together made another courtesy, which mutually seemed to say,—

“If you have anything to ask, ask it.”

“Do you remember,” inquired Alice, “having ever heard of anything strange being seen at that passage near the head of the stairs?”

“I ought, ma’am,” answered the old woman discreetly.

“And what was it?” inquired Alice.

“I don’t know, ma’am, would the master be pleased if he was to hear I was talkin’ o’ such things to you,” suggested Mildred.

“He’d only laugh as I should, I assure you. I’m not the least a coward; so you need not be afraid of my making a fool of myself. Now, do tell me what it was!”

“Well, ma’am, you’ll be pleased to remember ’tis you orders me, in case Master Charles should turn on me about it; but, as you say, ma’am, there’s many thinks ’tis all nothin’ but old ’oman’s tales and fribble-frabble; and ’tisn’t for me to say”

“I’ll take all the blame to myself,” said Alice.

“There’s no blame in’t as I’m aware on; and if there was I wouldn’t ask no one to take it on themselves more than their right share; and that I’d take leave to lay on them myself, without stoppin’ to ask whether they likes it or no; but only I told you, ma’am, that I should have your orders, and wi’ them I’ll comply.”

“Yes, certainly, Mrs. Tarnley—and now do kindly go on,” said Alice.

“Well, please, ma’am, you’ll tell me, what you saw?”

“A heavy black drapery fell from the top of the arch through which we pass to the gallery outside the door, and for some seconds closed up the entire entrance,” answered the young lady.

“Ay, ay, no doubt that’s it; but there was no drapery there, ma’am, sich as this world’s loom ever wove. Them as weaves that web is light o’ hand and heavy o’ heart, and the de’el himself speeds the shuttle,” and as she said this the old woman smiled sourly. “I was talking o’ that very thing to Mrs. Crane here when you came up, ma’am.”

“Yes,” said old Dulcibella, quietly; “it was very strange, surely.”

“And there came quite a cloud of dust from it rolling along the floor,” continued Alice.

“Yes, so there would—so there does; ’tis always so,” said Mrs. Tarnley, with the same faint ugly smile; “not that there’s a grain o’ dust in all the gallery, for the child Lily Dogger and me washed it out and swept it clean. Dust ye saw; but that’s no real dust, like what the minister means when he says, ‘Dust to dust.’ No, no, a finer dust by far—the dust o’ death. No more clay in that than in yon smoke, or the mist in Carwell Glen below; no dust at all, but sich dust as a ghost might shake from its windin’ sheet—an appearance, ye understand; that’s all, ma’am—like the rest.”

Alice smiled, but old Mildred’s answering smile chilled her, and she turned to Dulcibella; but good Mrs. Crane looked in her face with round eyes of consternation and a very solemn countenance.

“I see, Dulcibella, if my courage fails I’m not to look to you for support. Well, Mrs. Tarnley, don’t mind—I shan’t need her help; and I’m not a bit afraid, so pray go on.”

“Well, ye see, ma’am, this place and the house came into the family, my grandmother used to say, more than a hundred years ago; and I was a little thing when I used to hear her say so, and there’s many a year added to the tale since then; but it was in the days o’ Sir Harry Fairfield. They called him Harry Boots in his day, for he was never seen except in his boots, and for the matter o’ that seldom out o’ the saddle; for there was troubles in them days, and militia and yeomanry, and dear knows what all—and the Fairfields was ever a bold, dare-devil stock, and them dangerous times answered them well—and what with dragooning, and what with the hunting-field, I do suppose his foot was seldom out o’ the stirrup. So my grandmother told me some called him Booted Fairfield and more called him Harry Boots—that was Sir Harry Fairfield o’ them days.”

“I think I’ve seen his picture, haven’t I?—at Wyvern. It’s in the hall, at the far end from the door, near the window, with a long wig and lace cravat, and a great steel breast-plate?” inquired Alice.

“Like enough, miss—ma’am, I mean—I don’t know, I’m sure—but he was a great man in his time, and would have his picture took, no doubt. His wife was a Carwell—an heiress—there’s not a Carwell in this country now, nor for many a day has been. ’Twas she brought Carwell Grange and the Vale o’ Carwell to the Fairfields—poor thing— pretty she was. Her picture was never took to Wyvern, and much good her land, and houses, and good looks done her. The Fairfields was wild folk. I don’t say there wasn’t good among ’em, but whoever else they was good to, they was seldom kind to their wives. Hard, bad husbands they was— that’s sure.”

Alice smiled, and stirred the fire quietly, but did not interrupt, and as the story went on, she sighed.

“They said she was very lonesome here. Well, it is a lonesome place, you know—awful lonesome, and always the same. For old folk like me it doesn’t matter, but young blood’s different, you know, and they likes to see the world a bit, and talk and hear what’s a-foot, be it fun or change, or what not; and she was very lonesome, mopin’ about the old garden, plantin’ flowers, or pluckin’ roses—all to herself—or cryin’ in the window—while Harry Boots was away wi’ his excuses—now wi’ his sogerin’, and now wi’ the hounds, and truly wi’ worse matters, if all were out. So, not twice in a year was his face—handsome Harry Boots, they ca’d him—seen down here, and his pretty lady was sick and sore and forsaken, down in her own lonesome house, by the Vale of Carwell, where I’m telling you this.”

Alice smiled, and nodded in sign of attention, and the old woman went on.

“I often wonder they try to hide these things—’twould be better sometimes they were more out-spoken, for sooner or later all will out, and then there’s wild work, and mayhap it’s past ever makin’ up between them. So stories travel a’most without legs to carry ’em, and there’s no gainsaying the word o’ God that said, ‘let there be light,’ for, sooner or later, light ’twill be, and all will be cleared up, and the wicked doin’s of Harry Boots, far away, and cunning, as all was done, come clear to light, so as she could no longer have hope or doubt in the matter. Poor thing—she loved him better than life—better than her soul, mayhap, and that’s all she got by’t—a bad villain that was.”

“He was untrue to her?” said Alice.

“Lawk! to be sure he was,” replied Mrs. Tarnley, with a cynical scorn.

“And so she had that to think of all alone, along with the rest—for she might have had a greater match than Sir Harry—a lord he was. I forget his name, but he’d a given his eyes a’most to a got her. But a’ wouldn’t do, for she loved Booted Harry Fairfield, and him she’d have, and wouldn’t hear o’ no other, and so she had enough to think on here, in Carwell Grange. The house she had brought the Fairfields—poor bird alone, as we used to say—but the rest of her time wasn’t very long—it wasn’t to be—she used to walk out sometimes, but she talked to no one, and she cared for nothin’ after that; and there’s the long sheet o’ water, in the thick o’ the trees, with the black yew-hedge round it.”

“I know,” said Alice, “a very high hedge, and trees behind it—it is the darkest place I ever saw—beyond the garden. Isn’t that the place?”

“Yes, that’s it; she used to walk round it—sometimes cryin’—sometimes not; and there she was found drowned, poor thing. Some said ’twas by mischance, for the bank was very steep and slippery—it had been rainy weather—where she was found, and more said she made away wi’ herself, and that’s what was thought among the Carwell folk, as my grandmother heared; for what’s a young creature to do wi’ nothing more to look to, and all alone, wi’ no one ever to talk to, and the heart quite broke?”

“You said, I think, that there was a picture here?” inquired Alice.

“I said ’twasn’t took to Wyvern, ma’am; there was a picture here they said ’twas hers—my grandmother said so, and she should know. ’Twas the only picture I remember in the Grange.”

“And where is it?” inquired Alice.

“Dropped to pieces long ago. ’Twas in the room they called the gun-room, in my day. The wall was damp; ’twas gone very poor and rotten in my time, and so black you could scarce make it out. Many a time when I was a bit of a girl, some thirteen or fourteen years old, I stood on the table, for a long time together a-looking at it. But it was dropping away that time in flakes, and the canvas as rotten as tinder, and every time it got a stir it lost something, till ye couldn’t make nothing of it. It’s all gone long ago, and the frame broke up I do suppose.”

“What a pity!” said Alice. “Oh, what a pity! Can you, do you think, remember anything of it?”

“She was standin’—you could see the point o’ the shoe—white satin it looked like, with a buckle that might be diamonds; there was a nosegay, I mind, in her fingers, wi’ small blue flowers, and a rose, but the face was all faded and dark, except just a bit o’ the mouth, red, and smilin’ at the corner—very pretty. But ’twas all gone very dark, you know, and a deal o’ the paintin’ gone; and that’s all I ever seen o’ the picture.”

“Well, and did anything more happen?” asked Alice.

“Hoo! yes, lots. Down comes Booted Fairfield, now there was no one left to care whether he came or went. The Carwell people didn’t love him, but ’twas best to keep a civil tongue, for the Fairfields were dangerous folk always, ’twas a word and a blow wi’ them, and no one cared to cross them, and he made a pother about it to be sure, and had the rooms hung wi’ black, and the staircase and the drapery hung over the arch in the gallery, outside, down to the floor, for she, poor thing, lay up here.”

“Not in this room!” said Alice, who even at that distance of time did not care to invade the sinister sanctity of the lady’s room.

“No, not this, the room at t’ other end o’ the gallery; ’t would require a deal o’ doing up, and plaster, and paper, before you could lie in’t. But Harry Boots made a woundy fuss about his dead wife. They was cunning after a sort, them Fairfields, and I suppose he thought ’twas best to make folk think he loved his wife, at least to give ’em something good to say o’ him if they liked, and he gave alms to the poor, and left a good lump o’ money they say for the parish, both at Cressley Church and at Carwell Priory—they call the vicarage so—and he had a grand funeral as ever was seen from the Grange, and she was buried down at the priory, which the Carwells used to be, in a new vault, where she was laid the first, and has been the last, for Booted Fairfield married again, and was buried with his second wife away at Wyvern. So the poor thing, living and dying, has been to herself.”

“But is there any story to account for what I saw as I came into the gallery with you?” asked Alice.

“I told you, miss, it was hung with black, as I heard my grandmother say, and thereupon the story came, for there was three ladies of the Fairfield family at different times before you, ma’am, as saw the same thing. Well, ma’am, at the funeral, as I’ve heard say, the young lord that liked her well, if she’d a had him—and liked her still in spite of all—gave Sir Harry a lick or two wi’ the rough side o’ his tongue, and a duel came out o’ them words more than a year afterwards, and Harry Boots was killed, and he’s buried away down at Wyvern.”

“Well, see there! Ain’t it a wonder how gentlemen that has all this world can give, will throw away their lives at a word, like that,” moralized Dulcibella Crane—“and not knowing what’s to become o’ them, when they’ve lost all here—all in the snap of a pistol. If it was a poor body, ’twould be another matter, but—well it does make a body stare.”

“You mentioned, Mrs. Tarnley, that something had occurred about some ladies of the Fairfield family; what was it?” inquired Alice.

“Well, they say Sir Harry—that’s Booted Fairfield, you know—brought his second wife down here, only twelve months after the first one died, and she saw, at the very same place, when she was setting her first step on the gallery, the same thing ye seen yourself; and two months after he was in his grave, and she in a madhouse.”

“Well, I think, Mrs. Tarnley, ye needn’t be tellin’ all that to frighten the young lady.”

“Frighten the young lady? And why not, if she’s frighted wi’ truth. She has asked for the truth, and she’s got it. Better to fright the young lady than fool her,” answered Mildred Tarnley coldly and sternly.

“I don’t say you should fool her, by no chance,” answered honest Dulcibella; “but there’s no need to be filling her head wi’ them frightful fancies. Ye ha’ scared her, and ye saw her turn pale.”

“Ay, and so well she ought. There was three other women o’ the Fairfields seen the same thing, in the self-same place, and every-one to her sorrow. One fell over the pixie’s cliff; another died in fits, poor thing, wi’ her first baby; and the last was flung beside the quarry in Cressley Common, ridin’ out to see the hunt, and was never the better o’t in brain or bone after. Don’t tell me, woman. I know rightly what I’m doin’.”

“Pray, Dulcibella, don’t. I assure you, Mrs. Tarnley, I’m very much obliged,” interposed Alice Fairfield, frighted at the malignant vehemence of the old woman.

“Obliged! Not you; why should you?” retorted Mildred Tarnley. “Ye’re not obliged; ye’re frightened, I dare say. But ’tis all true; and no Fairfield has any business bringing his wife to Carwell Grange; and Master Charles knows that as well as me; and, now, the long and the short o’t ’s this, ma’am—ye’ve got your warning, and ye had better quit this without letting grass grow under your feet. You’ve seen your warnin”, ma’am, and I a’ told you, stark enough, the meanin’ o’t. My conscience is clear, and ye’ll do as ye like; and if, after this, ye expect me to spy for you, and fetch and carry stories, and run myself into trouble with other people, to keep you out of it, ye’re clean out o’ your reckoning. Ye’ll have no more warnings, mayhap—none from me—and so ye may take it, ma’am, or leave it, as ye see fit; and now Mildred Tarnley’s said her say. Ye have my story, and ye have my counsel; and if ye despise both one and t’other, and your own eye—sight beside, ye’ll even take what’s coming.”

“Ye shouldn’t be frightening Miss Alice like that, I tell you, you should not. Don’t grow frightened at any such a story, dear. I say it’s a shame. Don’t you see how ye have her as white as a handkercher, in a reg’lar state.”

“No, Dulcibella, indeed,” said Alice, smiling, very pale, and her eyes filled up with tears.

“I’ll frighten her no more; and that you may be sure on; and if what I told her be frightful, ’tisn’t me as made it so. Thankless work it be; but ’tisn’t her nor you I sought to please, but just to take it off my shoulders, and leave her none to blame but herself if she turns a deaf ear. It’s ill offering counsel to a wilful lass. Ye’ll excuse me, ma’am, for speaking so plain, but better now than too late,” she added, recollecting herself a little. “And can I do anything, please, ma’am, below stairs? I should be going, for who knows what that child may be a-doing all this time?”

“Thanks, very much; no, not anything,” said Alice.

And Mildred Tarnley, with a hard, dark glance at her, dropped another stiff little courtesy, and withdrew.

“Well, I never see such a one as that,” said old Dulcibella, gazing after her, as it were through the panel of the door. “You must not let her talk that way to you, my darling. She’s no business to talk up to her mistress that way. I don’t know what sort o’ manners people has in these here out o’ the way places, I’m sure; but I think ye’ll do well, my dear, to keep that one at arm’s length, and make her know her place. Nothing else but encroaching and impudence, and domineering from such as her, and no thanks for any condescension, only the more affable you’ll be, the more saucy and conceited she’ll grow, and I don’t think she likes you. Miss Alice, no more I do.”

It pains young people, and some persons always, to hear from an impartial observer such a conclusion. There is much mortification, and often some alarm.

“Well, it doesn’t much matter,” said Alice. “I don’t think she can harm me much. I don’t suppose she would if she could, and I don’t mind such stories.”

“Why should you, my dear? No one minds the like now-a-days.”

“But I wish she liked me; there are so few of us here. It is such a little world, and I have never done anything to vex her. I can’t think what good it can do her hating me.”

“No good, dear; but she’s bin here so long—the only hen in the house, and she doesn’t like to be drove off the roost, I suppose; and I don’t know why she told you all that, if it wasn’t to make your mind uneasy; and, dear knows, there’s enough to trouble it in this moping place without her riggamarolin’ sich a yarn.”

“Hush, Dulcibella; isn’t that a horse? Perhaps Charles is coming home.”

She opened the window, which commanded a view of the stable-yard.

“And is he gone a-riding?” asked old Dulcibella.

“No; there’s nothing,” said Alice, gently. “Besides, you remind me he did not take a horse; he only walked a little way with Mr. Henry; and he’ll soon be back. Nothing is going wrong, I hope.”

And, with a weary sigh, she threw herself into a great chair by the fire; and thought, and listened, and dreamed away a long time, before Charhe’s step and voice were heard again in the old house.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57