The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 11


In his dream, a pale frightened face approached him slowly, and recoiling uttered a cry. The scream was horribly prolonged as the figure receded. He thought he recognised some one—dead or living he could not say—in the strange, Grecian face, fixed as marble, that with enormous eyes, had looked into his.

With this sound ringing in his ears he awoke. As is the case with other over-fatigued men, on whom, at length, slumber has seized, he was for a time in the attitude of wakefulness before his senses and his recollection were thoroughly aroused, and his dream quite dissipated. Another long shriek, and another, and another, he heard.

Charles recognised, he fancied, his wife’s voice. Scared, and wide awake, he ran from the room—to the foot of the stairs—up the stairs. A tread of feet he heard in the room, and the door violently shaken, and another long, agonized scream.

Over this roof and around it is the serenest and happiest night. The brilliant moon, the dark azure and wide field of stars make it a night for holy thoughts, and lovers’ vigils, so tender and beautiful. There is no moaning night-wind, not even a rustle in the thick ivy. The window gives no sound, except when the gray moth floating in its shadow taps softly on the pane. You can hear the leaf that drops of itself from the tree-top, and flits its way from bough to spray to the ground.

Even in that gentle night there move, however, symbols of guilt and danger. While the small birds, with head under wing, nestle in their leafy nooks, the white owl glides with noiseless wing, a murderous phantom, cutting the air. The demure cat creeps on and on softly as a gray shadow till its green eyes glare close on its prey. Nature, with her gentleness and cruelty, her sublimity and meanness, resembles that microcosm, the human heart, in which lodge so many contrarieties, and the shabby contends with the heroic, the diabolic with the angelic.

In this still night Alice’s heart was heavy. Who can account for those sudden, silent, but terrible changes in the spiritual vision which interpose as it were a thin coloured medium between ourselves and the realities that surround us—how all objects, retaining their outlines, lose their rosy glow and golden lights, and on a sudden fade into dismallest gray and green?

“Dulcibella, do you think he’s coming? Oh! Dulcibella, do you think he’ll come tonight?”

“He may, dear. Why shouldn’t he? Lie down, my child, and don’t be sitting up in your bed so. You’ll never go asleep while you’re listening and watching. Nothing but fidgets, and only the wider awake the longer you watch. Well I know it, and many a long hour I laid awake myself expectin’ and listenin’ for poor Crane a comin’ home with the cart from market, long ago. He had his failin’s—as who has not? poor Crane—but an honest man, and good-natured, and would not hurt a fly, and never a wry word out of his mouth, excepting maybe, one or two, which he never meant them, when he was in liquor, as who is there. Miss Ally, will not be sometimes? But he was a kind, handsome fellow, and sore was my heart when lie was taken,” and Dulcibella wiped her eyes. “Seven-and-twenty years agone last Stephen’s Day I buried him in Wyvern Churchyard, and I tried to keep the little business agoin’, but I couldn’t make it pay no how, and when it pleased God to take my little girl six years after, I gave all up and went to live at the vicarage. But as I was sayin’, miss, many a long hour I sat up a watchin’ for my poor Crane on his way home. He would sometimes stop a bit on the way, wi’ a friend or two, at the Cat and Fiddle—’twas the only thing I could ever say wasn’t quite as I could a’ liked in my poor Crane. And that’s how I came to serve your good mother, miss, and your poor father, the good vicar o’ Wyvern—there’s not been none like him since, not one—no, indeed.”

“You remember mamma very well?”

“Like yesterday, miss,” said old Dulcibella, who often answered that question. “Like yesterday, the pretty lady. She always looked so pleasant, too—a smiling face, like the light of the sun coming into a room.”

“I wonder, Dulcibella, there was no picture.”

“No picture. No miss. Well, ye see, Miss Ally, dear, them pictures, I’m told, costs a deal o’ money, and they were only beginnin’ you know, and many a little expense—and Wyvern Vicarage is a small livelihood at best, and ye must be managin’ if ye’d keep it—and good to the poor they was with all that, and gave what many a richer one wouldn’t, and never spared trouble for them; they counted nothin’ trouble for no one. They loved all, and lived to one another, not a wry word ever; what one liked t’other loved, and all in the light o’ God’s blessin’. I never seen such a couple, never; they doated on one another, and loved all, and they two was like one angel.”

“Lady Wyndale has a picture of poor mamma—very small—what they call a miniature. I think it quite beautiful. It was taken when she was not more than seventeen. Lady Wyndale, you know, was ever so much older than mamma.”

“Ay, so she was, ten year and more, I dare say,” answered Dulcibella.

“She is very fond of it—too fond to give it to me now; but she says, kind aunt, she has left it to me in her will. And oh! Dulcibella, I feel so lonely.”

“Lonely! why should you, darling, wi’ a fine handsome gentleman to your husband, that will be squire o’ Wyvern—think o’ that—squire o’ Wyvern, and that’s a greater man than many a lord in Parliament; and he’s good-natured, never a hard word or a skew look, always the same quiet way wi’ him. Hoot, miss! ye mustn’t be talkin’ that way. Think o’ the little baby that’s a comin’. Ye won’t know yourself for joy when ye see his face, please God, and I’m a longin’ to show him to ye.”

“You good old Dulcibella,” said the young lady, and her eyes filled with tears as she smiled. “But poor mamma died when I was born, and oh, Dulcibella, do you think I shall ever see the face of the poor little thing? Oh! wouldn’t it be sad! wouldn’t it be sad!”

“Ye’re not to be talkin’ that nonsense, darling; ’tis sinful, wi’ all that God has given you, a comfortable house over your head, and enough to eat, and good friends, and a fine, handsome husband that’s kind to you, and a blessed little child a comin’ to make every minute pleasant to all that’s in the house. Why, ’tis a sin to be frettin’ like that, and as for this thing or that thing, or being afeard, why, everyone’s afeard, if they’d let themselves, and not one in a thousand comes by any harm; and ’tis sinful, I tell ye, for ye know well ye’re in the hands o’ the good God that’s took care o’ ye till now, and took ye out o’ the little nursery o’ Wyvern Vicarage, when ye weren’t the length o’ my arm, and not a friend near but poor, foolish, old Dulcibella, that did not know where to turn. And your aunt, that only went out as poor as your darling mamma, brought home well again from t’other end of the world, and well to do, your own loving kith and kin, and good friends raised up on every side, and the old squire, Harry o’ Wyvern, although he be a bit angered for a while he’s another good friend, that will be sure to make it up, whatever it is came between him and Master Charles. Hot blood’s not the worst blood; better a blow in haste and a shake hands after than a smile at the lips and no goodwill wi’ it. I tell you, they’re not the worst, they hot-headed, hard-fisted, out-spoken folk; and I’ll never forget that day to him, when he brought you home that had no home, and me that was thinkin’ o’ nout but the workhouse. So do or say what he will, God bless him for that day, say I, for ’twas an angel’s part he did,” said old Dulcibella.

“So I feel, God knows; so I feel,” said Alice, “and I hope it may all be made up; I’m sure it will; and, oh! Dulcibella, I have been the cause of so much sorrow and bitterness!”

She stopped suddenly, her eyes full of tears; but she restrained them.

“That’s the way ye’ll always be talking. I’d like to know where they’d be without you. Every man that marries will have care, more or less; ’tis the will o’ God; and if he hadn’t he’d never think o’ Him; and ’tis a short life at the longest, and a sore pilgrimage at the best. So what He pleases to lay on us we must, even bear wi’ a patient heart, if we can’t wi’ a cheerful; for wi’ his blessin’ ’twill all end well.”

“Amen,” said Alice, with a cheerier smile but a load still at her heart; “I hope so, my good old Dulcibella. What should I do without you? Wait! hush! Is that a noise outside? No; I thought I heard a horse’s tread, but there’s nothing. It’s too late now; there’s no chance of him tonight. Do you think, Dulcibella, there is any chance?”

“Well, no, my dear; it’s gettin’ on too late—a deal too late; no, no, we must even put that clean out of our heads. Ye’ll not get a wink o’ sleep if you be listening for him. Well I know them fidgets, and many a time I lay on my hot ear—now this side, now that, listening, till I could count the veins o’ my head beating like a watch, and myself only wider and wider awake every hour, and more fool I; and well and hearty home wi’ him, time enough, and not a minute sooner for all my watching. And mind ye, what I often told ye when ye were a wee thing, and ye’ll find it true to the end o’ your days—a watch-pot never boils.”

Alice laughed gently.

“I believe you are right, Dulcibella. No, he won’t come to night. It was only a chance, and I might have known. But, perhaps, tomorrow? Don’t you think tomorrow?”

“Very like, like enough, tomorrow—daylight, mayhap to breakfast—why not?” she answered.

“Well, I do think he may; he said, perhaps tonight, and I know, I’m sure he’ll think how his poor wife is watching and longing to see him; and, as you advise, I’ll put that quite out of my head; he has so many things to look after, and he only said perhaps; and you think in the morning. Well, I won’t let myself think so, it would be too delightful; I won’t think it. But it can’t be many days, I’m sure—and—I won’t keep you up any longer, dear old Dulcibella. I’ve been very selfish. So, good-night.”

And they kissed, as from little Alice’s infancy they had always done, before settling for the night.

“Good-night, and God love it; it mustn’t be frettin’, and God bless you, my darling Miss Allie; and you must get to sleep, or you’ll be looking so pale and poor in the morning, he won’t know you when he comes.”

So, with another hug and a kiss they parted, and old Dulcibella leaving her young mistress’s candle burning on the table, as was her wont, being nervous when she was alone, and screened from her eyes by the curtain, with a final good-night and another blessing she closed the door.

Is there ever an unreserved and complete confidence after marriage? Even to kind old Dulcibella she could not tell all. As she smiled a little farewell on the faithful old soul her heart was ready to burst. She was longing for a good cry all to herself, and now, poor little thing, she had it.

She cried herself, as children do, to sleep.

An hour later the old grange was silent as the neighbouring churchyard of Carwell. But there was not a household in the parish, or in the county, I suppose, many of whose tenants, at that late hour, were so oddly placed.

In his chair in the oak-panelled room, down stairs, sat Charles Fairfield, in that slumber of a tormented and exhausted brain, which in its first profound submersion, resembles the torpor of apoplexy.

In his forsaken room lay on the pillow the pale face of his young wife, her eyelashes not yet dry, fallen asleep in the sad illusion of his absence—better, perhaps, than his presence would have been, if she had known but all.

In her crib down stairs, at last asleep, lay the frightened Lilly Dogger, her head still under the coverlet, under which she had popped it in panic, as she thought on the possible return of the tall unknown, and the lobe of her ear still flaming from the discipline of her vice-like pinch.

Under his slanting roof, in the recess of the staircase, with only his coat off, stretched on the broad of his back, with one great horny hand half shut under his bullet head, and the other by his side, snored honest Tom, nothing the less soundly for his big mug of beer and his excursion to Crossly Common.

For a moment now we visit the bedside of good old Dulcibella. An easy conscience, a good digestion, and an easy place in this troublesome world, are favourable to sound slumbers, and very tranquilly she slept, with a large handkerchief pianed closely about her innocent bald head, and a night-cap of many borders outside it. Her thick, well-thumbed Bible, in which she read some half-dozen verses every night, lay, with her spectacles upon its cover, on the table by the brass candlestick.

Mildred Tarnley, a thin figure with many corners, lay her length in her clothes, her old brown stuff gown her cap and broad faded ribbons binding her busy head, and her darned black worsted stockings still on her weary feet, ready at call to jump up, pop her feet again into her misshapen shoes, and resume her duties.

In her own solitary chamber, at the deserted side of the house, the tall stranger, arrayed in a white woollen nightdress, lay her length, not stirring.

After Mildred Tarnley had got herself stiffly under her quilt, she was visited with certain qualms about this person, recollections of her abhorred activity and energy in old times, and fears that the “grim white woman” was not resting in her bed. This apprehension grew so intense that, tired as she was, she could not sleep. The suspicion that, bare-footed, listening, that dreadful woman was possibly groping her way through the house made her heart beat faster and faster.

At last she could bear it no longer, and up she got, lighted her candle with a match, and in her stockings glided softly through the passage, and by the room where Charles Fairfield was at that time at his letters.

He recognised the step to which his ear was accustomed, and did not trouble himself to inquire what she was about.

So, softly, softly, softly—Mildred Tarnley found herself at the door of the unwelcome guest and listened. You would not have supposed old Mildred capable of a nervous tremble, but she was profoundly afraid of this awful woman, before whose superior malignity and unearthly energy her own temper and activity quailed. She listened, but could hear no evidence of her presence. Was the woman there at all? Lightly, lightly, with her nail, she tapped at the door. No answer. Then very softly she tried the door. It was secured.

But was the old soldier in the room still, or wandering about the house with who could fathom what evil purpose in her head?

The figure in white woollen was there still; she had been lying on her side, with her pale features turned toward the door as Mildred approached. Her blind eyes were moving in their sockets—there was a listening smile on her lips—and she had turned her neck awry to get her ear in the direction of the door. She was just as wide awake as Mildred herself.

Mildred watched for a time at the door, irresolute. Excuse enough, she bethought her, in the feeble state in which she had left her, had she for making her a visit. Why should she not open the door boldly and enter? But Mildred, in something worse than solitude, was growing more and more nervous. What if that tall, insane miscreant were waiting at the door, in a fit of revenge for her suspected perfidy, ready to clutch her by the throat as she opened it, and to strangle her on the bed! And when there came from the interior of the room a weary bleating “heigh-ho!” she absolutely bounced backward, and for a moment froze with terror.

She took a precaution as she softly withdrew. The passage, which is terminated by the “old soldier’s” room, passes a dressing-room on the left, and then opens, on the other side, upon a lobby. This door is furnished with a key, and having secured it, Mrs. Tarnley, with that key in her pocket, felt that she had pretty well imprisoned that evil spirit, and returned to her own bed more serenely, and was soon lost in slumber.

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