A PRETTY medley was revolving in old Mildred’s brain as she stood outside this door, on the gallery. The epileptic old soldier, the puce gros de Naples, Tom on outpost duty on Cressley Common—had he come back? Charles Fairfield, perhaps, in the house, and that foolish poor young wife in her room, in the centre, and herself the object of all this manoeuvring and conspiring; quite unconscious. Mildred had a good many wires to her fingers just now; could she possibly work them all and keep the show going?
She was listening now, wondering whether Master Charles had arrived, wondering whether the young lady was asleep, and wondering, most of all, why she had been fool enough to meddle in other people’s affairs. “What the dickens was it to her if they was all in kingdom come? If Mildred was a roastin’ they wouldn’t, not one of ’em, walk across the yard there, to take her off the spit—la, bless you, not a foot.”
Mildred was troubled about many things. Among others, what was the meaning of those oracular appeals of the Dutchwoman in which she had seemed to know something of the real state of things.
Down went Mildred Tarnley, softly still, for she would not risk waking Alice, and at the foot of the second staircase she paused again.
All was quiet, she peeped into Tom’s little room, under the staircase. It was still empty. Into the kitchen she went, nothing had been stirred there.
From habit she trotted about, and settled and unsettled some of the scanty ironmongery and earthenware, and peeped, with her candle aloft, into this corner and that, and she then moved the smoothing-iron that stood on the window-stool, holding the shutters close, and peeped into the paved yard, tufted with grass, high over which the solemn trees were drooping.
Then, candle in hand, the fidgety old woman visited the back door, the latch was in its place, and she turned about and visited the panelled sitting-room. The smell of flowers was there, and on the little spider-table was Alice’s work-box, and some little muslin clippings and bits of thread and tape, the relics of that evening’s solitary work over the little toilet on which her pretty fingers and sad eyes were now always employed.
Well, there was no sign of Master Charles here; so with a little more pottering and sniffing, out she went, and again to the back door, which softly she opened, and she toddled across the uneven pavement to the backdoor and looked out, and walked forth upon the narrow road, that, darkened with thick trees, overhangs the edge of the ravine.
Here she listened, and listened in vain. There was nothing but the soft rush of the leaves overhead in the faint visitings of the night air, and across the glen at intervals came that ghastliest of sounds, between a long-drawn hiss and shiver, from a lonely owl.
Interrupted at intervals by this freezing sound, the old woman listened and muttered now and again a testy word or two. What was to be done, if by any mischance or blunder of Tom’s the master should thunder his summons at the hall-door? Down of course would fly his young wife to let him in, and be clasped in his arms, while from the low window of the Dutchwoman that evil tenant might overhear every word that passed, and almost touch their heads with her down-stretched hand.
A pretty scene it would lead to, and agreeable consequences to Mildred herself.
“The woman’s insane; she’s an evil spirit; many a time she would have brained me in a start of anger if I hadn’t been sharp. The mark of the cut glass decanter she flung at my head is in the doorcase at the foot of the stairs this minute like the scar of a bill-hook, the mad beast. I thank God she’s blind, though there’s an end o’ them pranks, anyhow. But she’s a limb o’ the evil one, and where there’s a will there’s a way, and blind though she be, I would not trust her.”
She walked two or three steps slowly, toward Cressley Common, from which direction she expected the approach of Charles Fairfield.
No wonder Mildred was fidgeted—there were so many disasters on the cards. If she could but see Charles Fairfield something at least might be guarded against. This wiry old woman was by no means hard of hearing—rather sharp, on the contrary, was her ear. But she listened long in vain.
Fearful lest something might go wrong within doors during her absence, she was turning to go back, when she thought she heard the distant clink of a horseshoe on the road.
Her old heart throbbed suddenly, and frowning as she listened, with eyes directed towards the point of approach, softly she said “hush,” as if to quiet the faint rustle of the trees.
Stooping forward, she listened, with her lean arm extended, every wrinkled knuckle of her brown hand, and every black-rimmed nail distinct in the moonlight.
Yes, it was the clink of trotting horseshoes. She prayed heaven the blind woman might not hear it. There was a time when her more energetic misanthropy would possibly have enjoyed a fracas such as was now to be apprehended. But years teach us the value of quiet, the providential instincts of growing helplessness disarm our pugnacity, and all but quite reprobate spirits grow gentler and kinder as the hour of parting with earth approaches. Thus had old Mildred taken her part in this game, and as her stake became deeper and more dangerous her zeal burnt intensely.
Nearer and sharper came the clink, and old Mildred in her anxiety walked on, sometimes five steps, sometimes twenty, to meet the rider.
It was Tom who appeared, mounted on the mule. I think he took Mildred for a ghost, for he pulled up violently more than twenty yards away, and said, “Lord! who’s that?”
“It’s me, Tom, Mrs. Tarnley; and is he comin’?”
“I hardly knowed you, Mrs. Tarnley. No, I met him up near the stone.”
“Not a coming?” urged Mildred.
“Thank God. Well, and what did you tell him?”
“I told him your message. He first asked all about the young lady, and then I told him how she was, and then I told him your message”
“Word for word, and he drew bridle and stood a while, thinkin’, and he wished to know whether the mistress had spoke with her—Mr. Harry’s friend, I mean—and I said I didn’t know; and he asked was the house quiet, and no high words going, nor the new comer giving any trouble, and I said no, so far as I knowed. Then, says he, I think, Tom, I had best let Master Harry settle it his own way, so I’ll ride back again to Darwynd, and you can come over to the old place for the horse tomorrow; and tell Mildred I thank her for her care of us, and she shall hear from me in a day or two, and tell no one else, mind, that you have seen me. Well, I asked was there anything more, and he paused a bit, and says he, no, not at present. And then again, says he, tell Mildred Tarnley I’ll write to her, and let her know where I am, and mind, Tom, you go yourself to the Post Office, and be sure the letters go only to the persons they are directed to, your mistress’s to her, and Mildred’s to her, and don’t you talk with that person that I hear has come to the Grange, and if by any chance she should get into talk with you, you must be wide awake and tell her nothing, and get away from her as quick as you can. It’s easy to escape her, for she’s blind.”
“So she is,” affirmed Mildred, “as that wall. Go on.”
“‘Then,’ says he, ‘good night, Tom, get ye home again.’ So I wished him God speed, and I rode away, and when I was on a bit I threw a look back again over my shoulder, and I saw him still in the same spot, no more stirring than the stone at the roadside, thinking, I do suppose.”
“And that’s all?” said Mildred.
“Bring in the beast very quiet, Tom, unless you leave him in the field for the night, and don’t be clappin’ o’ doors or ginglin’ o’ bridle bits. That one has an ear like a hare, and she’ll be askin’ questions; and when you’ve done in the stable come you in this way, and I’ll let you in softly, and don’t you be talkin’ within doors above a whisper. Your voice is rough, and her ear is as sharp as a needle’s point.”
Tom gave her a little nod and a great wink, and got off the mule, and led him on the grass toward the stable-yard, and old Mildred at the same time got in softly by the other entrance, and in the kitchen awaited the return of Tom.
She sat by the fire, troubled in mind, with her eyes turned askance on the windows. What a small thing is a human body, and what a gigantic moral sphere surrounds that little centre! That blind woman lay still as death, on a six-foot-long bedstead, in a remote chamber. But the direful circuit of that sphere which radiated thence enveloped old Mildred Tarnley go where she would, and outspread even the bourn of the road which Charles Fairfield was to travel that night. For Mildred Tarnley, something of molestation and horror was in it, which forbid her to rest.
Tom came into the yard, and Mildred was at the door, and opened it before he could place his hand on the latch.
“Put off them big shoes, and not a word above your breath, and not a stir, but get ye in again to your bed as still as a mouse,” said Mrs. Tarnley, in a hard whisper, giving him a shake of the shoulder.
“Ye’ll gi’e me a mug o’ beer, Mrs. Tarnley, and a lump o’ bread, and a cut o’ cheese wouldn’t hurt me; I’m a bit hungry. If you won’t I must even take a smoke, for I can’t sleep as I am.”
“Well, I will give ye a drink and a bit o’ bread and cheese. Did ye lock the yard-door?”
“No,” said Tom.
“Well, no, never you mind; I’ll do it,” said Mildred, stopping him, “and go you straight to your room, and here’s the lantern for you; and now get ye in, and not a sound, mind you gi’e me your pipe here, for you shan’t be stinkin’ the house wi’ your nasty tobaccy.”
So Tom was got quick to his bed.
And Mildred sat down again by the kitchen fire, to rest for a little, feeling too tired to undress.
“Well, I do thank God of his mercy he’s not a comin’; I do. Who can tell what would be if he was? And now, if only Master Harry was sure to keep away all might go right—yes, all—all might go right. Oh, ho, ho! I wish it was, and my old head at rest, for I’m worked worse than a horse, and wore off my feet altogether.”
And all this time she was looking through the kitchen-window, with dismal eyes, from her clumsy oak chair by the fire, with her feet on the fender, and her lean shanks as close to the bars as was safe, shaking her head from time to time as she looked out on the black outlines of the trees which stood high and gloomy above the wall at the other side, against the liquid moonlit sky.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57