The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 5.

The Bell Rings.

“Will that beast never go to bed—even there, I mind, she used to sleep with an eye open and an ear cocked—and nowhere safe from her never—here and there, up and down, without a stir or a breath, like a ghost or a devil,”—thought Mrs. Tarnley. “Thank God, she’s blind now, that will quiet her.”

Mildred was afraid of that woman. It was not only that she was cold and hard, but she was so awfully violent and wicked.

“Satan’s her name. Lord help us, in what hell did he pick her up?” Mildred would say to herself, in old times, as with the important fury of fear, she used to knock about the kitchen utensils, and deal violently with every chair, table, spoon, or “cannikin” that came in her way.

The woman had fits, and bad fits too, in old times, when she knew her well.

“And she drank like a fish cogniac neat—and she was alive still, and millions of people, younger and better, that never had a fit, and kept their bodies in soberness and temperance, was gone dead and buried since; and that drunken, shattered, battered creature, wi’ her fallin’ sickness and her sins and her years, was here alive and strong to plague and frighten better folk. Well, she’s ’ad small-pox, thank God, and well mauled she is, and them spyin’, glarin’ eyes o’ hers, the wild beast.”

By this time Mrs. Tarnley was again in the kitchen. She did not take down the fire yet. She did not know, for certain, whether Charles Fairfield might not arrive. The London mail that passed by the town of Darwynd, beyond Cressley Common, came later than that divergent stage coach that changed on the line of road that passes the Pied Horse.

What a situation it would have been if Charles Fairfield and the Frau had found themselves vis-a-vis as inside passengers in the coach that night. Would the matter have been much mended if the Dutch woman had loitered long enough in the kitchen for Charles to step in and surprise her! It was a thought that occurred more than once to Mildred with a qualm of panic. But she was afraid to hasten the stranger’s departure to her room, for that lady’s mind swarmed with suspicion which a stir would set in motion.

“The Lord gave us dominion over the beast o’ the field. Parson Winyard said in his sermon last Sunday; but we ain’t allowed to kill nor hurt, but for food or for defence; and good old Parson Buckles, that was as good as two of he, said, I mind, the very same words. I often thought o’ them of late—merciful to them brutes, for they was made by the one Creator as made ourselves. So the merciful man is merciful to his beast—will ye—”

Mrs. Tarnley interrupted herself sharply, dealing on the lean ribs of the cat, who had got its head into a saucepan, a thump with a wooden spoon, which emitted a hollow sound and doubled the thief into a curve.

“Merciful, of course, except when they’re arter mischief; but them that’s noxious, and hurtful, and dangerous, we’re free to kill; and where’s the beast so dangerous as a real bad man or woman? God forbid I should do wrong. I’m an old woman, nigh-hand the grave, and murder’s murder!—I do suppose and allow that’s it. Thou shalt do no murder. No more I would—no, not if an angel said do it; no, I wouldn’t for untold goold. But I often wondered why if ye may, wi’ a good conscience, knock a snake on the head wi’ a stone, and chop a shovel down smack on a toad, ye should stay your hand, and let a devil incarnate go her murdering way through the world, blastin’ that one wi’ lies, robbin’ this one wi’ craft, and murderin’ toother, if it make for her interest, wi’ poison or perjury. Lord help my poor head, and forgive me if it be sin, but I can find neither right nor reason in that, nor see, nohow, why she shouldn’t be killed off-hand like a rat or a sarpent.”

At this point the bell rang loud and sudden, and Mrs. Tarnley bounced and blessed herself. There was no great difficulty in settling from what quarter the summons came, for, except the hall door bell, which was a deep-toned sonorous one, there was but one in the house in ringing order, and that was of the bedroom where her young mistress lay.

“Well, here’s a go! Who’d a’ thought o’ her awake at these hours, and out o’ her bed, and a pluckin’ at her bell. I doubt it is her. The like was never before. ’Tis enough to frighten a body. The Lord help us.”

Mrs. Tarnley stood straight as a grenadier on drill with her back to the fire, the poker with which, during her homily, she had been raking the bars, still in her hand.

“This night’ll be the death o’ me. Everything’s gone cross and contrary. Here’s that young silly lass awake and out o’ her bed, that never had an eye open at these hours, since she came to the Grange, before; and there’s that other one in the state-room, not that far from her, as wide awake as she; and here’s Master Charles a comin’, mayhap, this minute wi’ his drummin’ and bellin’ at the hall door. ’Tis enough to make a body swear; ’t has given me the narves and the tremblins, and I don’t know how it’s to end.”

And Mrs. Tarnley unconsciously shouldered her poker as if awaiting the assault of burglars, and vaguely thought if Charles arrived as she had described, what power on earth could keep the peace?

Again the bell rang.

“Well, there’s patience for ye!”

She halted at the kitchen door, with the candle in her hand, listening, with a stern, frightened face. She was thinking whether Alice might not have been frightened by some fantastic terror in her room.

“She has that old fat fool, Dulcibella Crane, only a room off—why don’t she call up her?”

But Mrs. Tarnley at length did go on, and up the stairs, and heard Alice’s voice call along the passage, in a loud tone,—

“Mrs. Tarnley ! is that you, Mrs. Tarnley?”

“Me, ma’am? Yes’m. I thought I heard your bell ring, and I had scant time to hustle my clothes on. Is there anything uncommon a-happenin’, ma’am, or what’s expected just now from an old woman like me?”

“Oh, Mrs. Tarnley, I beg your pardon, I’m so sorry, and I would not disturb you, only that I heard a noise, and I thought Mr. Charles might have arrived.”

“No, ma’am, he’s not come, nor no sign o’ him. You told me, ma’am, his letter said there was but small chance o’t.”

“So I did, Mildred—so it did. Still a chance—just a chance—and I thought, perhaps——”

“There’s no perhaps in it, ma’am; he baint come.”

“Dulcibella tells me she thought some time ago she heard some one arrive.”

“So she did, mayhap, for there did come a message for Master Harry from the farmer beyond Gryce’s mill; but he went his way again.”

Mildred was fibbing with a fluency that almost surprised herself.

“I dessay you’ve done wi’ me now, ma’am?” said Mildred. “Lugged out o’ my bed, ma am, at these hours—my achin’ old bones—’taint what I’m used to, asking your pardon for making so free.”

“I’m really very sorry—you won’t be vexed with me. Good night, Mildred.”

“Your servant, ma’am.”

And Mrs. Tarnley withdrew from the door where Alice stood before her with her dressing-gown about her shoulders, looking so pale and deprecatory and anxious, that I wonder even Mildred Tarnley did not pity her.

“I’m tellin’ lies enough to break a bridge, and me that’s vowed against lying so stiff and strong over again only Monday last”

She shook her head slowly, and with a sudden qualm of conscience.

“Well, in for a penny in for a pound. It’s only for tonight; mayhap, and I can’t help it, and if that old witch was once over the door-stone I’d speak truth the rest o’ my days, as I ha’ done, by the grace o’ God, for more than a month, and here’s a nice merry-go-round for my poor old head. Who’s to keep all straight and smooth wi’ them that’s in the house, and, mayhap comin’? And that ghost upstairs—she’ll be gropin’ and screechin’ through the house, and then there’ll be the devil to pay wi’ her and the poor lass up there if I don’t gi’e her her supper quick. Come, bustle, bustle, be alive,” she muttered, as this thought struck her with new force; and so to the little “safe” which served that miniature household for larder she repaired. Plates clattered, and knives and forks, and the dishes in the safe slid forth, and how near she was forgetting the salt! and “the bread, all right,” so here was a tray very comfortably furnished, and setting the candlestick upon it also, she contemplated the supper, with a fierce sneer, and a wag of her head.

“How sick and weak we be! Tea and toast and eggs down here, and this little bit in her bedroom—heaven bless her—la’ love it, poor little darling, don’t I hope it may do her good?—I wish the first mouthful may choke her— keeping me on the trot to these hours, old beast.”

Passing the stairs, Mrs. Tarnley crept softly, and took pains to prevent her burden from rattling on the tray, while there rose in her brain the furious reflection,——

“Pretty rubbish that I should be this way among ’em!”

And she would have liked to dash the tray on the floor at the foot of the stairs, and to leave the startled inhabitants to their own courses.

This, of course, was but an emotion. The old woman completed her long march cautiously, and knocked at the Vrau’s door.

“Come in, dear,” said the inmate, and Mildred Tarnley, with her tray in her hands, marched into the room, and looked round peevishly for a table to set it down on.

“You’ll find all as you said, ’m,” said old Tarnley. “Shall I set it before you, or will you move this way, please ’m?”

“Before me, dear.”

So Mildred carried the table and supper over, and placed it before the lady, who sat up and said—

“Good Mildred, how good you are; give me now the knife and fork, in my fingers, and put some salt just there. Very good. How good of you to take so much trouble for poor me, you kind old Mildred?”

How wondrous sweet she had grown in a minute. The old servant, who knew her, was not conciliated, but disgusted, and looked hard at the benevolent lady, wondering what could be in her mind.

“If everything’s right, I’ll wish you good night, ’m, and I’ll go down to my bed, ma’am, please.”

“Wait a while with me. Do, there’s a good soul, I’ll not detain you long, you dear old lass.”

“Well, ma’am, I must go down and take down the fire, and shut-to the door, or the rats will be in from the scullery; and I’ll come up again, ma’am, in a few minutes.”

And not waiting for permission, Mildred Tarnley, who had an anxiety of another sort in her head, took the candle in her hand and left the guest at her supper by the light of the fire.

She shut the door quickly lest her departure should be countermanded, and trotted away and downstairs, but not to the kitchen.

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