The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 3.

The Lady has Her Tea.

“You suffers dreadful, ma’am,” said Mildred Tarnley. “Do you have them toothaches still.”

“’Twas not toothache—a worse thing,” said the stranger, demurely, who, with closed eyes, and her hand propping her head, seemed to have composed herself for a doze in the great chair.

“Wuss than toothache! That’s bad. Earache mayhap?” inquired Mrs. Tarnley with pathetic concern, though I don’t think it would have troubled her much if her guest had tumbled over the precipice of Carwell Valley and broken her neck among the stones in the brook.

“Pain in my face—it is called tic,” said the lady, with closed eyes in a languid drawl.

“Tic? lawk! Well, I never heard o’ the like, unless it be the field-bug as sticks in the cattle—that’s a bad ailment, I do suppose,” conjectured Mrs. Tarnley.

“You may have it yourself some day,” said this lady, who spoke quietly and deliberately, but with fluency, although her accent was foreign. “When we are growing a little old our bones and nerves they will not be young still. You have your rheumatism, I have my tic—the pain in my cheek and mouth—a great deal worse, as you will find, whenever you taste of it, as it may happen. Your tea is good—after a journey tea is so refreshing. I cannot live without my cup of tea, though it is not good for my tic. So, ha, ha, he-ha! There is the tea already in my cheek—oh! Well, you will be so good to give me my bag.”

Mildred looked about, and found a small baize bag with an umbrella and a bandbox.

“There’s a green bag I have here, ma’am.”

“A baize bag?”

“Yes, ’m.”

“Give it to me. Ha, yes, my bibe—my bibe—and my box.”

So this lady rummaged and extricated a pipe very like a meerschaum, and a small square box.

“Tibbacca!” exclaimed Mrs. Tarnley. The stranger interpreted the exclamation, without interrupting her preparations.

“Dobacco? no, better thing—some opium. You are afraid Mrs. Harry Fairfield, she would smell id. No—I do not wish to disturb her sleeb. I am quite private here, and do not wish to discover myself. Ya, ya, ya, hoo!”

It was another twinge.

“Sad thing, ma’am,” said Mildred. “Better now, perhaps?”

“Put a stool under my feed. Zere, zere, sat will do. Now you light that match and hold to the end of ze bibe, and I will zen be bedder.”

Accordingly Mildred Tarnley, strongly tempted to mutter a criticism, but possibly secretly in awe of the tall and “big-made” woman who issued these orders, proceeded to obey them.

“No great odds of a smell arter all,” said Mrs. Tarnley approvingly, after a little pause.

“And how long since Harry married?” inquired the smoker after another silence.

“I can’t know that nohow; but ’tis since Master Charles gave ’em the lend o’ the house.”

“Deeb people these Vairvields are,” laughed the big woman drowsily.

“When will he come here?”

“Tomorrow or next day, I wouldn’t wonder; but he never stays long, and he comes and goes as secret-like as a man about a murder a’most.”

“Ha, I dare say. Old Vairvield would cut him over the big shoulders with his horsewhip, I think. And when will your master come?”

“Master comes very seldom. Oh! very. Just when he thinks to find Master Henry here, maybe once in a season.”

“And where does he live—at home or where?” asked the tall visitor.

“Well, I can’t say, I’m sure, if it baint at Wyvern. At Wyvern, I do suppose, mostly. But I daresay he travels a bit now and again. I don’t know I’m sure.”

“Because I wrote to him lo Wyvern to meet me here. Is he at Wyvern?”

“Well, faith, I can’t tell. I know no more than you, ma’am, where Master Charles is,” said Mildred, with energy, relieved in the midst of her rosary of lies to find herself free to utter one undoubted truth.

“You have been a long time in the family, Mrs. Tarnley?” drawled the visitor, listlessly.

“Since I was the height o’ that—before I can remember. I was born in Carwell gate-house here. My mother was here in old Squire’s time, meanin’ the father o’ the present Harry Fairfield o’ Wyvern that is, and grandfather o’ the two young gentlemen, Master Charles and Master Harry. Why, bless you, my grandfather, that is my mother’s father, was in charge o’ the house and farm, and the woods, and the tenants, and all; there wasn’t a tree felled, nor a cow sold, nor an acre o’ ground took up but jest as he said. They called him honest Tom Pennecuick; he was thought a great deal of, my grandfather was, and Carwell never turned in as good a penny to the Fairfields as in his time; not since, and not before—never, and never will, that’s sure.”

“And which do you like best. Squire Charles or Squire Harry?” inquired the languid lady.

“I likes Charles,” said Mrs. Tarnley, with decision.

And why so?”

Well, Harry’s a screw; ye see he’d as lief gie a joint o’ his thumb as a sixpence. He’ll take his turn out of every one good-humoured enough, and pay for trouble wi’ a joke and a laugh; a very pleasant gentleman for such as has nothing to do but exchange work for his banter and live without wages; all very fine. I never seed a shillin’ of hisn since he had one to spend.”

“Mr. Charles can be close-fisted too, when he likes it?” suggested the lady.

“No, no, no, he’s not that sort if he had it. Open-handed enough, and more the gentleman every way than Master Harry—more the gentleman,” answered Mildred.

“Yes, Harry Fairfield is a shrewd, hard man, I believe; he ought to have helped his brother a bit; he has saved a nice bit o’ money, I dare say,” said the visitor.

“If he hasn’t a good handful in his kist corner ’t’aint that he wastes what he gets.”

“I do suppose he’ll pay his brother a fair rent for the house?” said the visitor.

“Master Harry’ll pay for no more than he can help,” observed Mildred.

“It’s a comfortable house,” pursues the stranger; “’twas so when I was here.”

“Warm and roomy,” acquiesced Mrs. Tarnley—“chimbley, roof, and wall—staunch and stout; ’twill stand a hundred year to come, wi’ a new shingle and a daub o’ mortar now and again. There’s a few jackdaws up in the chimbleys that ought to be drew out o’ that wi’ their sticks and dirt,” she reflected, respectfully.

“And do you mean to tell me he pays no rent for the Grange, and keeps his wife here?” demanded the lady, peremptorily.

“I know nothing about their dealings,” answered Mrs. Tarnley, as tartly.

“And ’t’aint clear to me I should care much neither; they’ll settle that, like other matters, without stoppin’ to ask Mildred what she thinks o’t; and I dare say Master Harry will be glad enough to take it for nothing, if Master Charles will be fool enough to let him.”

“Well, he shan’t do that, I’ll take care.” said the lady, maintaining her immovable pose, which, with a certain peculiarity in the tone of her voice, gave to her an indescribable and unpleasant langour.

“I never have two pounds to lay on top o’ one another. Jarity begins at home. I’ll not starve for Master Harry,” and she laughed softly and unpleasantly.

“His wife, you say, is a starved gurate’s daughter!”

“Parson Maybell—poor he was, down at Wyvern Vicarage—meat only twice or thrice a week, as I have heard say, and treated old Squire Harry bad, I hear, about his rent; and old Squire Fairfield was kind—to her anyhow, and took her up to the hall, and so when she grew up she took her opportunity and married Master Harry.”

“She was clever to catch such a shrewd chap—clever. Light again; I shall have three four other puff before I go to my bed—very clever. How did she take so well, and hold so fast, that wise fellow, Harry Fairfield?”

“Hoo! fancy, I do suppose, and liken’. She’s a pretty lass. All them Fairfields married for beauty mostly. Some o’ them got land and money, and the like, but a pretty face allays along with the fortune.”

The blind stranger, for blind she was, smiled downward, faintly and slily, while she was again preparing the pipe.

“When will Harry come again?” she asked.

“I never knows, he’s so wary; do you want to talk to him, ma’am?” said Mildred.

“Yes, I do,” said she; “hold the match now, Mrs. Tarnley, please.”

So she did, and—puff, puff, puff—about a dozen times, went the smoke, and the smoker was satisfied.

“Well, I never knows the minute, but it mightn’t be for a fortnight,” said Mrs. Tarnley.

“And when Mr. Charles Fairfield come?” asked the visitor.

“If he’s got your letter hell be here quick enough. If it’s missed him he mayn’t set foot in it for three months’ time. That’s how it is wi’ him,” answered Mildred.

“What news of old Harry at Wyvern?” asked the stranger.

“No news in partic’lar,” answered Mildred, “only he’s well and hearty—but that’s no news; the Fairfields is a long-lived stock, as everyone knows; he’ll not lie in oak and wool for many a day yet, I’m thinkin’.”

Perhaps she had rightly guessed the object of the lady’s solicitude, for a silence followed.

“There’s a saying in my country—‘God’s children die young,’” said the tall lady.

“And here about they do say, the Devil takes care of his own,” said Mildred Tarnley. “But see how my score o’ years be runnin’ up, I take it sinners’ lives be lengthened out a bit by the Judge of all, to gi’e us time to stay our thoughts a little, and repent our misdeeds, while yet we may.”

“You have made a little fire in my room, Mrs. Tarnley?” inquired the stranger, who had probably no liking for theology.

“Yes ’m; everything snug.”

“Would you mind running up and looking? I detest a chill,” said this selfish person.

At that hour no doubt Mrs. Tarnley resented this tax on her rheumatics; but though she was not a woman to curb her resentments she made shift on this occasion; that did not prevent her, however, from giving the stranger a furious look, while she muttered inaudibly a few words.

“I’ll go with pleasure, ma’am, but I’m sure it’s all right,” she said aloud, very civilly, and paused, thinking perhaps that the lady would would let her off the long walk upstairs to the front of the house.

“Very good; I’ll wait here,” said the guest, unfeelingly.

“As you please ’m,” said Mildred, and with a parting look round the kitchen, she took the candle, and left the lady to the light of the fire.

The lady was almost reclining in her chair, as if she were dozing; but in a few moments up she stood, and placing her hand by her ear, listened; then, with her hands advanced, she crept slowly, and as noiselessly as a cat, across the floor. She jostled a little against the table at Lilly Dogger’s door; then she stopped perfectly still, withdrew the table without a sound; the door swung a little open, and the gaunt figure in grey stood at it, listening. A very faint flicker from the fire lighted this dim woman, who seemed for the moment to have no more life in her than the tall, gray stone of the Druid’s hoe on Cressley Common.

Lilly Dogger was fast asleep; but broken were her slumbers destined to be that night. She felt a hand on her neck, and looking up, could not for a while see anything, so dark was the room.

She jumped up in a sitting posture, with a short cry of fear, thinking that she was in the hands of a robber.

“Be quiet, fool,” said the tall woman, slipping her hand over the girl’s mouth. “I’m a lady, a friend of Mrs. Mildred Tarnley, and I’m come to stay in the house. Who is the lady that sleeps upstairs in the room that used to be Mr. Harry’s? You must answer true, or I’ll pull your ear very hard.”

“It is the mistress, please ’m,” answered the frightened girl.

“Married lady?”

“Yes ’m.”

“Who is her husband?”

With this question the big fingers of her visitor closed upon Lilly Dogger’s ear with a monitory pinch.

“The master, ma’am.”

“And what’s the master’s name, you dirdy liddle brevarigator?”

And with these words her ear was wrung sharply.

She would have cried, very likely, if she had been less frightened, but she only winced, with her shoulders up to her ears, and answered in tremulous haste—

“Mr. Fairfield, sure.”

“There’s three Mr. Vairvields: there’s old Mr. Vairvield, there’s Mr. Charles Vairvield, and there’s Mr. Harry Vairvield—you shall speak plain.”

And at each name in her catalogue she twisted the child’s ear with a sharp separate wring.

“Oh, law, ma’am. Please’m, I mean Mr. Charles Fairfield. I didn’t mean to tell you no story, indeed, my lady.”

“Ho, ho—yes—Charles, Charles—very goot. Now, you tell me how you know Mr. Harry from Mr. Charles?”

“Oh, law, ma’am! oh, law! oh, ma’am, dear! sure, you won’t pull it no more, good lady, pleas—my ear’s most broke,” gasped the girl, who felt the torture beginning again.

“You tell truth. How do you know Mr. Charles from Mr. Harry?”

“Mr. Charles has bigger eyes, ma’am, and Mr. Harry has lighter hair, and a red face, please’m, and Mr. Charles’s face is brown, and he talks very quiet-like, and Mr. Harry talks very loud, and he’s always travelling about a-horseback, and Mr. Charles is the eldest son, and the little child they’re lookin’ for is to be the Squire o’ Wyvern.”

The interrogator here gave her a hard pinch by the ear, perhaps without thinking of it, for she said nothing for a minute nearly, and the girl remained with her head buried between her shoulders, and her eyes wide open, staring straight up where she conjectured her examiner’s face might be.

“Is the man that talks loud—Mr. Harry—here often?” asked the voice at her bedside.

“But seldom, ma’am—too busy at fairs and races, I hear them say.”

“And Mr. Charles—is he often here?”

“Yes’m; master be always here, exceptin’ this time only; he’s gone about a week.”

“About a week, Mr. Charles?”

“Oh la, ma’am—yes, indeed, ma’am, dear, it’s just a week today since master went.”

Here was a silence.

“That will do. If I find you’ve been telling me lies I’ll take ye by the back of the neck and squeeze your face against the kitchen bars till it’s burnt through and through—do you see; and I give you this one chance, if you have been telling lies to say so, and I’ll forgive you.”

“Nothing but truth, indeed and indeed, ma’am.”

“Old Tarnley will beat you if she hears you have told me anything. So keep your own secret, and I’ll not tell of you.”

She saw the brawny outline of the woman faintly like a black shadow as she made her way through the door, into the kitchen, and she heard the door close, and the table shored cautiously back into its place, and then, with a beating heart, she lay still and awfully wide-awake in the dark.

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