When she reached the foot of the stairs that leads to the gallery on which the room occupied by Alice opens, instead of pursuing her way to the kitchen she turned into a narrow and dark passage that is hemmed in on the side opposite to the wall by the ascending staircase.
The shadows of the banisters on the panelled oak flew after one another in sudden chase as the old woman glided by, and looking up and back she stopped at the door of a small room, constructed as we see in similar old houses, under the stairs. On the panel of this she struck a muffled summons with her fist, and on the third or fourth the startled voice of Tom demanded roughly from within,—
“Hish!” said the old woman, through a bit of the open door.
“’Tis Mrs. Tarnley—only me.”
“Lauk, woman, ye did take a rise out o’ me. I thought ye was—I don’t know what—I was a dreaming, I think.”
“Never mind, you must be awake for an hour or so,” said Mrs. Tarnley, entering the den without more ceremony.
Tom didn’t mind Mrs. Tarnley, nor Mrs. Tarnley Tom, a rush. She set the candle on the tiled floor. Tom was sitting in his shirt on the side of his “settlebed,” with his hands on his knees.
“Ye must get on your things, Tom, and if ever you stirred yourself, be alive now. The master’s a comin’, and may be here, across Cressley Common in half an hour, or might be in five minutes, and ye must go out a bit and meet him, and—are ye awake?”
“Starin’. Go on,”
“Ye’ll tell him just this, the big woman as lives at Hoxton——”
“That Master Harry has all the trouble wi’, has come here, angry, in search of Master Harry, mind, and is in the bedroom over the hall-door. Will ye mind all that now?”
“Ay,” said Tom, and repeated it.
“Well, he’ll know better whether it’s best for him to come on or turn back. But if come on he will, let him come in at the kitchen door, mind, and you go that way, too, and he’ll find neither bolt nor bar, but open doors, and nothing but the latch between him and the kitchen, and me sitting by the fire; but don’t you clap a door, nor tread heavy, but remember there’s a sharp pair of ears that ’id hear a cricket through the three walls o’ Carwell Grange.”
She took up the candle, and herself listened for a moment at the door, and again turned her earnest and sinister lace on Tom.
“And again, I say, Tom, if ever ye was quick, be quick now,” and she clapped her lean hand down on his shoulder with a sort of fierce shake; “and if ever ye trod soft, go softly now, mind.”
Tom, who was scratching his head, and staring in her face, nodded.
“And mind you, the kitchen way, and afraid o’ slips, say ye the message over again to me”
This he did, glibly enough.
“Here, light your candle from this, and if ye fail your master now, never, call yourself man again.”
Having thus charged him, she went softly from this nook with its slanting roof, and thinking of the thankless world, and all the trouble her old bones and brain were put to, she lost her temper, at the foot of the great staircase, and was near turning back again to the kitchen, or perhaps whisking out of the door herself, and marching off to Cressley Common to meet her master, and shock and scare him all she could, and place her resignation, as more distinguished functionaries sometimes do theirs, in the hands of her employer, to prove his helplessness and her own importance, and so assert herself for time past and to come.
Her interview with Tom had not occupied much time. She knocked at the Vrau’s door, and entering, found that person at the close of a greedy repast.
Emotions of fear, I suppose, disturb the appetite, much more than others. Not caring one farthing about Charles, she did not grieve at his infidelity; taking profligacy for granted as the rule of life, it did not even shock her. But she was stung with a furious pang of jealousy, for that needs no love, being in its essence the sense of property invaded, supremacy insulted, and: self despised. In this sort of jealousy there is neither the sublimity of despair nor the pathos of sorrow, but simply the malice, fury, and revenge of outraged egotism.
There she sat, unconscious of the glimmer of the firelight, feeding as a beast will bleeding after a blow. Beast she was, with the bestial faculty of cherishing a long revenge, with bestial treachery and seeming unconcern.
“Ho oh! you’ve come back,” she cried, with playful reproach, “cruel old girl! you leave your poor vrau alone, alone among the ghosts—now, sit down, are you sitting? and tell me everything, and all the news—did you bring a little brandy or what?”
Her open hand was extended, and gently moving over the tray at about the level of the top of a bottle.
“No, ma’am, I haven’t none in my charge, but there’s a smell o’ brandy about,” said Mildred, who liked saying a disagreeable thing.
“So there ought,” said the gaunt woman placidly, and lifted a big black bottle that lay in her lap, like a baby, folded in a grey shawl. “But I’ll want this, don’t you see, when I’m on my rambles again—get a little, there’s a good girl, or if you can’t get that, there’s rum or gin, there never was a country-house without something in it; you know very well where Harry Vairvield is there will be liquor—I know him well.”
“But he baint here now, as is well known to you, ma’am,” said Mildred, dryly.
“I’m not going to waste my drink, while I think there’s drink in the house. Who has a right before me, old girl?” said the stranger, grimly.
“Tut, ma’am, ’tis childish talkin’ so, there’s none in my charge, never a drop. Master Harry, I dare say, has summat under lock and key, but not me, and why should I tell you a lie about the like?”
“You never tell lies, old Mildred, I forgot that—but young as she is, I lay my life the woman, Mrs. Harry Vairvield, upstairs, likes a nip now and then, hey? and she has a boddle, I’ll be bound, in her wardrobe, or if she’s shy, ’twixt her bed and her mattress—ole rogue! you know very well, I think, does she? and if she likes it she sleeps sound, and go you, and while she snores, borrow you the bottle.”
“She’s nothing of the sort, she drinks nothing nowhere, much less in her bedroom, she’s a perfect lady,” said Mrs. Tarnley, in no mood to flatter her companion.
“Oh ho! that’s so like old Mildred Tarnley! Dear old cat, I’m so amused, I could stroke her thin ribs, and pet her for making me laugh so by her frisks and capers instead of throwing you by the neck out of the window for scratching and spitting—I’m so good-natured. Do you tell lies, Mildred?”
“I ’a told a shameful lot in my day, ma’am, but not more mayhap than many a one that hasn’t grace to say so.”
“You read your Bible, Mildred,” said the lady, who with a knife and fork was securing on her plate the morsels to which old Mildred helped her.
“Ay, ma’am, a bit now, and a bit again, never too late to repent, ma’am.”
“Repentance and grace, you’ll do, Mrs. Tarnley. It’s a pleasure to hear you,” said the lady, with her mouth rather full; “and you never see my husband?”
“Now and again, now and again, once and away he looks in.”
“Never stays a week or a month at a time?”
“Week or a month!” echoed Mrs. Tarnley, looking quickly in the serene face of the lady, and then laughing off the suggestion scorn fully. “You’re thinking of old times, ma’am.
“Thinking, thinking, I don’t think I was thinking at all,” said the lady, answering Mildred’s laugh with one more careless; “old times when he had a wife here, eh! old times! How old are they? Eh—that’s eighteen years ago—you hardly knew me when I called here!”
“There was a change surely. I’d like to know who wouldn’t in eighteen years, there’s a change in me since then.”
“I shouldn’t wonder,” said the lady quietly. “Did he ever tell you how we quarreled?”
“Not he,” answered Mildred.
“He’s very close,” said the stranger.
“A deal closer than Mr. Harry,” acquiesced Mildred.
“Not like you and me, Mrs. Tarnley, that can’t keep a secret—never. That tell truth, and shame the devil. I, because I don’t care a snap of my fingers for you, or him, or the Archbishop of Canterbury; and you, because you’re all for grace and repentance. How am I looking tonight—tired?”
“Tired, to be sure; you ought to be in your bed, ma’am, an hour ago; you’re as white as that plate, ma’am.”
“White are they?—so they used to be long ago,” said the visitor.
“The same set, ma’am. ’Twas a long set in my mother’s time, though ’tis little better than a short set now; but I don’t think there’s more than three plates, and the cracked butter-boat, that had a stitch in it. You’ll mind, although ye may a forgot, for I usen’t to send it up to table—only them three, and the butter-boat broke since; and that butter-boat, ’t wouldn’t a brought three ha’pence by auction, and ’twas that little slut downstairs, that doesn’t never do nothing right, that knocked it off the shelf, with her smashing.”
“And I’m not looking well tonight!” said this pallid woman.
“You’d be the better of a little blood to your cheeks; you’re as white as paper, ma’am,” answered Mildred.
“I never have any colour now, they tell me—always pale, pale, pale; but it isn’t muddy; ’taint what you call putty ?”
“Ha! no; I knew that—no, and I’d rather be a little pale. I don’t like your great, coarse peony-laced women; it’s seven years in May last since I lost my sight. Some people are persecuted; one curse after another—rank injustice! Why should I lose my sight, that never did anything to signify—not half what others have, who enjoy health, wealth, rank—everything. Things are topsy-turvey a bit just now, but we’ll see them righted yet.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11