The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 7.

The Old Soldier grows more friendly, and frightens Mrs. Tarnley.

The “Dutchwoman” resumed in a minute, and observed,—

“Well, old Tarnley, there’s no good in talking where you can’t right yourself, and where you can revenge, there’s no good in talk either; but gone it is, and the doctors say no cutting, nothing safe in my case; no cure, so let it be. I liked dress once; I dressed pretty well.”

“Beautiful!” exclaimed old Mildred, kindling for a moment into her earlier admiration of the French and London finery with which once this tall and faded beauty had amazed the solitudes of Carwell.

The bleached, big woman smiled—almost laughed with gratified vanity.

“Yes, I was well dressed—something better than the young dowdies and old fromps, in this part of the world. How I used to laugh at them! I went to church, and to the races, to see them. Well, we’ll have better times yet at Wyvern; the old man there can’t live for ever; he’s not the Wandering Jew, and he can’t be far from a hundred; and so sure as Charles is my husband, I’ll have you there, if you like it, or give you a snug house, and a bit of ground, and a garden, and a snug allowance monthly, if you like this place best. I love my own, and you’ve been true to me, and I never failed a friend.”

“I’m growing old and silly, ma’am—never so strong as I was took for. The will was ever stronger with Mildred than the body, bless ye—no, no; two or three quiet years to live as I should a lived always, wi’ an eye on my Bible and an eye on my ways—not that I ever did aught I need be one bit ashamed on—no, not I; honest and sober, and most respectable, thank God, as the family will testify, and the neighbours; but I’ll not deny, ’twould be something not that bad, if my old bones could rest a bit,” said old Mildred.

“Ha, girl, they shall; your old bones shall rest, my child,” said the lady.

“They’ll rest some day in the old church-yard o’ Carwell, but not much sooner, I’m thinking,” said Mrs. Tarnley.

“Folly, folly! ole girl; you’ve many a year to go before that journey; you’ll live to see me, Mrs. Vairvield of Wyvern, and it won’t be a bad day for you, old Mildred.”

The “Dutchwoman,” or the old soldier, as they used to call her long ago in this sequestered nook, drawled this languidly, and yawned a long, listless yawn.

“Well, ma’am, if you’re tired, so am I,” said Mildred, a little tartly; “and as for dreamin’ o’ quiet in this world, I ha’ cleared my head o’ that nonsense many a year ago. There’s little good can happen old Mildred now, and less I look for, and none I’ll seek, ma’am; and as for a roof over my head for nothing, and that bit o’ ground ye spoke of, and wages to live on without no work, I don’t believe there’s no such luck going for no one.”

“Listen to me, Mildred,” said the stranger, more sternly than before; “is it because I don’t swear you won’t believe? Hear, now, once for all, and understand: I’ll make that a good day for you that makes me the lady of Wyvern. Sharp and hard I’ve been with those I owed a knock to, but I never yet forgot a friend; you may do me a service tomorrow or next day, mind, and if you stand by me, I’ll stand by you; you need but ask and have, ask what you will.”

“Well, now, ma’am—bah! what talk it is! Lawk, ma’am; don’t I know the world, ma’am, and what sort o’ place it is? I a’ bin promised many a fine thing in my day, and here I am still—old and weary—among the pots and pans every night and mornin’, and up to my elbows in suds every Saturday; that’s all that ever came o’ fine promises to Mildred Tarnley.”

“Well, you used to say, it’s a long lane that has no turn. You’ll have a glass of this?” and she popped the brandy—bottle on the table beside her, with her hand fast on its neck.

“No brandy—no nothing, ma’am, I thank ye.”

“What! no brandy? Pish, girl, nonsense.”

“No, ma’am, I thank ye, I never drinks nothing o’ the sort—a mug o’ beer after washing or the like—but my headache never would abear brandy.”

“Once and away—come,” solicited the old soldier.

“No, I thank ye, ma’am; I’ll swallow nothing o’ the kind, please.”

“What a mule! You won’t have a nip with an old friend, after so long an absence—come, Mildred, come; where’s the glass?”

“Here’s the glass, ’m, but not a drop for me, ma’am; I won’t drink nothing o’ the sort, please.”

“Not from me, I suppose; but if you mean to say you never do, I don’t believe you,” said the Dutchwoman, more nettled, it seemed, than such a failure of good fellowship in Mrs. Tarnley would naturally have warranted. Perhaps she had particularly strong reasons for making old Mildred frank, genial, and intimate that night.

“I don’t tell lies,” said Mildred.

“Don’t you?” said the “old soldier,” and elevated the brows of her sightless eyes, and screwed her lips with ugly ridicule.

Mrs. Tarnley looked with a dark shrewdness upon this meaning mask, trying to discover the exact force of its significance. She felt very uncomfortable.

The blind woman’s face expanded into a broad smile. She shrugged, shook her head and laughed How odiously wide her face looked as she laughed! Mildred did not know exactly what to make of her.

“But if you did tell lies,” drawled the lady, “even to me, what does it matter, if you promised to tell no more ? So let us shake hands—where’s your hand?”

And she kept shuffling her big hand upon the table, palm upward, with its fingers groping in the air like the claws of a crab upon its back.

“Give me—give me—give me your hand, I say,” said she.

“Tain’t for the like o’ me,” replied Mildred, with grim formality.

“You’d better be friendly. Come, give me your hand.”

“Well, ma’am, ’tain’t for me to dispute your pleasure,” answered the old servant, and she slipped her hard fingers upon the upturned palm of the Dutchwoman, who clutched them with a strenuous friendship, and held them fast.

“I like you, Tarnley; we’ve had rough words, sometimes, but no ill blood, and I’ll do what I said. I never failed a friend, as you will see, if only you be my friend; and why or for whom should you not? Tut, we’re not fools!”

“The time is past for me to quarrel, being to the wrong side o’ sixty more than you’d suppose, and quiet all I wants—quiet, ma’am.”

“Yes, quiet and comfort, too, and both you shall have, Mildred Tarnley, if you don’t choose to quarrel with those who would be kind to you, if you’d let them. Yes, indeed, who would be kind, and very kind, if you’d only let them. No, leave your hand where it is, I can’t see you, and it’s sometimes dull work talking only to a voice. If I can’t see you I’ll feel you, and hold you, old girl—hold you fast till I know what terms we’re on.”

All this time she had Mildred Tarnley’s hand between hers, and was fondling and kneading it as a rustic lover in the agonies of the momentous question might have done fifty years ago.

“I don’t know what you want me to say, ma’am, no more than the plate there. Little good left in Mildred Tarnley now, and small power to help or hurt anyone, great or small, at these years.”

“I want you to be friendly with me, that’s all; I ask no more, and it ain’t a great deal, all things considered. Friendly talk, of course, ain’t all I mean, that’s civility, and civility’s very well, very pleasant, like a lady’s fan, or her lap-dog, but nothing at a real pinch, nothing to fight a wolf with. Come, old Mildred, Mildred Tarnley, good Mildred, can I be sure of you, quite sure?”

“Sure and certain, ma’am, in all honest service.”

“Honest service! Yes, of course; what else could we think of? You used to like, I remember, Mildred, a nice ribbon in your bonnet. I have two pieces quite new. I brought them from London. Satin ribbon—purple one is—I know you’ll like it, and you’ll drink a glass of this to please me.

“Thanks for the ribbons, ma’am, I’ll not refuse ’em; but I won’t drink nothing, ma’am, I thank you.”

“Well, please yourself in that. Pour out a little for me, there’s a glass, ain’t there?”

“Yes, ’m. How much will you have, ma’am?”

“Half a glass. There’s a dear. Stingy half glass,” she continued, putting her finger in to gauge the quantity. “Go on, go on, remember my long journey today. Do you smoke, Mildred?”

“Smoke, ’m? No, ’m! Dear me, there’s no smell o’ tobacco is there?” said Mildred, who was always suspecting Tom of smoking slily in his crib under the stairs.

“Smell, no; but I smoke a pinch of tobacco now and again myself, the doctor says I must, and a breath just of opium when I want it. You can have a pipe of tobacco if you like, child, and you needn’t be shy.

“Ho, Fau! No, ma’am, I thank ye.”

“Fau!” echoed the Dutchwoman, with a derisive, chilling laugh, which apprized old Mildred of her solecism. But the lady did not mean to quarrel.

“What sort of dress have you for Sundays, going to church, and all that?”

“An old dress it is now. I had the material, ye’ll mind, when ye was here, long ago; but it wasn’t made up till long after. It’s very genteel, the folk all says. Chocolate colour—British cashmere—’twas old Mrs. Hartlepool, the parson’s widow, made me a compliment o’t when she was goin’, and I kept it all the time, wi’ whole pepper and camphor, in my box, by my bed, and it looked as fresh when I took it out to give it to Miss Maddox to make up as if ’twas just put new on the counter. She did open her eyes, that’s nigh seven years gone, when I told her how old it was.”

“Heyday! Hi! I think I do remember that old chocolate thing. Why, it can’t be that, that’s twenty years old. Well, look in my box, here’s the key. You’ll see two books with green leather backs and gold. Can ye read? I’m going to make you a present.”

“I can read, ma’am; but I scarce have time to read my Bible.”

“The Bible’s a good book, but that’s a better,” said the lady, with one of her titters. “But it ain’t a book I’m going to give you. Look it out, green and gold, there are only two in the box. It is the one that has an I and a V on the back, four, the fourth volume. I have little else to amuse me. I have the news of the neighbours, but I don’t like ’em, who could? A bad lot, they hate one another; ’twouldn’t be a worse world if they were all hanged. They hate me because I’m a lady, so I don’t cry when baby takes the croup, nor break my heart when papa gets into the ‘Gazette.’ Have you found it? Why, it’s under your hand, there. They would not cry their eyes out for me, so I can see the funny side of their adventures, bless them!”

“Is this it, ma’am?”

“There are but two books in the box. Has it an I and a V on the back?”

“V, O, L, I, V,” spelled out old Mildred, who was listening in a fever for the sounds of Charles Fairfield’s arrival.

“That’s it. That’s the book you should read. I take it in, and I hire all the others, and a French one, from the Hoxton library. I make Molly Jinks, the little, dirty, starving maid, read to me two hours a day. She’s got rather to like it. How are your eyes?”

“I can make out twelve or fourteen verses wi’ the glasses, but not more, at one bout.”

“Well, get on your glasses. This is the ‘Magazine of the Beau–Monde, and Court and Vashionable Gazette,’ and full of pictures. Turn over.”

“La, ma’am, ’tis beautiful, but what have I to do with the like?”

“Well, look out for the puce gros de Naples walking dress, about page twenty-nine, and I’ll show you the picture afterwards. Do be quick. I have had it four years, it’s quite good though, only I’m grown a little fuller since, and it don’t fit now. So read it, and you’ll see how I’ll dress you.”

And bending her head forward and knitting her brows, she listened absorbed, while old Mildred helped, or corrected, at every second word, by her blind patroness, babbled and stuttered on with her in duet recitation.

“Walking dress,” said Mildred—

“Go on,” said the lady, who, having this like other descriptions in that cherished work pretty well by heart, led off energetically with her lean old companion, and together they read—

“A pelisse of puce-coloured gros de Naples, the corsage made to sit close to the shape with a large round pelerine which wraps across in front. The sleeve is excessively large at the upper part of the arm. The fulness of the lower is more moderate. It is confined in three places by bands and terminated by a broad wrist-band. The pelerine and bands of the sleeves are cased with satin to correspond, and three satin rouleaus are arranged en tablier on the front of the skirt. The bonnet is of rice straw of the cottage shape, trimmed under the brim on the right side, with a band and noeud of gold-coloured ribbon. The crown being also ornamented with gold-coloured ribbon, and a sprig of lilac, placed perpendicularly. Half-boots of black gros de Naples, tipped with black kid.”

Here they drew breath, and Mildred Tarnley was silent for a minute, thinking how much more like a lady her mother used to dress than she was able, and what fine presents of old clothes old Mrs. Fairfield used to send her now and then from Wyvern. For a moment an air of dignity, a sense of feminine vanity, showed itself in the face and mien of Mrs. Tarnley.

“That rice straw bonnet, with the gold-coloured noeud, of course I haven’t got, nor the gros de Naples’ boots—they’re gone, of course, long ago; but it reads best, altogether, and I hadn’t the heart to stop you, nor you to stop reading till we got to the end. And look at the pictures, you’ll easily find it; and I’ll write and have the pelisse sent here by the day-coach. It will be here on Sunday. Do you like it?”

“It is a bit too fine for me, I’m afraid,” said Mildred, smiling in spite of herself, with a grim elation; “my poor mother used to dress herself grand enough, in her day, and keep me handsome also when I was a young thing. But since the ladies come no more to Carwell the Grange has been a dull place, and gives a body enough to do to live, and little thought o’ fine dresses, and few to see them, except o’ Sundays, if ’twas here; not but ’twould be more for the credit o’ the family if old Mildred Tarnley, that’s known down here for housekeeper at the Grange of Carwell, wasn’t turned out quite so poor and dowdy, and seeing them taking the wall o’ me, which their mothers used to courtesy to mine, at church and market, and come up here to the Grange as humble as you please, when money was stirring at Carwell, and I, young as I was, thought more on, a deal more, than the best o’ them.”

“I drink your health, Mildred; as you won” pledge me, I do it alone.”

“I thank ye, ma’am.”

“Ha, yes, that does me good; I’m tired to death, Mildred.”

“There’s two on us so, ma’am; shall I get you to bed, please?”

“In a minute; give me your hand again girl; come, come, come,—yes, I have it. I think you are more friendly, eh? I think so; but the little goodwill I ever show you now is nothing to what I mean for you when I come to Wyvern—nothing.”

And she strengthened the present assurance with an oath, and grasped Mildred’s hard brown hand very tight.

“And you’ll be kind to me, Mildred, when I want it; and I shall want it, mind, and I’ll never forget it to you; ’twill be the making of you. I’ll show you how much I trust you, for I’ll put myself in your power.”

And, hereupon, she shook her hand harder. Her face and manner were changed, and she looked horribly frightened for some minutes.

“I don’t blame you, Mildred, but, this thing must not go on—it must not be.”

Mildred in her own way looked disconcerted and even agitated at this odd speech. She screwed her mouth sharply to one side, and with her brow knit had turned a frightened gaze on her visitor.

“There’s things as can’t be undone, and things as can,” said she, after a pause oracularly; “best not meddle or make—worms that is, and dust that will be, and God over all.”

“God over all, why not?” repeated the old soldier vaguely, and stood up suddenly with a kind of terrified shudder, “take me, hold me, quick.”

“A fit? La bless us,” cried Tarnley, seizing her in her lean arms.

The lady answered nothing, but grasped her fast by the wrist and shoulder, and so she stood for a time shuddering and swaying. “Better at last,” she said, “a little—put me in the chair.”

And she made a great shuddering sigh or two, and called for water and “hartshorn” and the hysteria subsided. And now she seemed overpowered with languor, and answered faintly and in monosyllables to old Mrs. Tarnley’s uncomfortable inquiries.

“Now I shall get a sleep,” she said at last, in low drowsy tones, interrupted with heavy sighs, and she looked so ill that old Mildred more than ever wished her back again at Hoxton Old Town.

“Help me to my bed—support me—get off my things,” she moaned and mumbled, and at last lay down with a great groaning sigh.

“What am I to do with her now?” thought Mrs. Tarnley, who was doubtful whether in this state she could be safely left to herself.

But the patient set her at ease upon the point.

“Get your ear down,” she whispered, “near, near—you need not stay any longer—only—one thing—the closet with the long row of pegs and the three presses in it, that lies between her room and mine, I remember it well—it isn’t open—I shouldn’t like her to find me here.”

“No, ma’am, it ain’t open, the doors were papered over, this room and hers, as I told you, when the rooms was done up.”

The old soldier sighed and whispered——

“My head is very bad, make no noise dear, don’t move the tray, don’t touch anything—leave me to myself, and I’ll sleep till eleven o’clock tomorrow morning; but go out softly, and then, no noise, for my sleep,” groaned this huge woman, “is a bird’s sleep—a bird’s sleep, and a pin dropping wakes me, a mouse stirring wakes me—oh—oh—oh. That’s all.” Glad to be dismissed on these easy terms, Mildred Tarnley bid her softly good night, having left her basket with her sal volatile, and all other comforts, on the table at her bedside. . And so, softly she stole on tiptoe out of the room, and closed her door, waiting for a moment to clear her head, and be quite sure that the “Dutchwoman,” whom they very much hated and feared, was actually established in her bedroom at Carwell Grange.

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