Some lean, nervous temperaments, once fairly excited, and in presence of a substantial cause of uneasiness, are very hard to reduce to composure. After she had got back again, Mildred Tarnley fidgeted and turned in her bed, and lay in the dark, with her tired eyes wide open, and imagining, one after another, all sorts of horrors.
She was still in her clothes; so she got up again, and lighted a candle, and stole away, angry with herself and all the world on account of her fussy and feverish condition, and crept up the great stairs, and stealthily reached again the door of the “old soldier’s” room.
Not a sound, not a breath, could she hear from within. Gently she opened the door which no longer resisted. The fire was low in the grate; and, half afraid to look at the bed, she raised the candle and did look.
There lay the “Dutchwoman,” so still that Mrs. Tarnley felt a sickening doubt as she stared at her.
“Lord bless us! she’s never quite well. I wish she was somewhere else,” said Mrs. Tarnley, frowning sharply at her from the door.
Then, with a little effort of resolution, she walked to the bedside, and fancied, doubtfully, that she saw a faint motion as of breathing in the great resting figure, and she placed her fingers upon her arm, and then passed them down to her big hand, which to her relief was warm.
At the touch the woman moaned and turned a little.
“Faugh! what makes her sleep so like dead? She’d a frightened me a’most, if I did not know better. Some folks can’t do nout like no one else.” And Mildred would have liked to shake her up and bid her “snore like other people, and give over her unnatural ways.”
But she did look so pale and fixed, and altogether so unnatural, that Mrs. Tarnley’s wrath was overawed, and, rather uneasily, she retired, and sat for a while at the kitchen fire, ruminating and grumbling.
“If she’s a-goin’ to die, what for should she come all the way to Carwell? Wasn’t Lonnon good enough to die in? ”
Mrs. Tarnley only meant to warm her feet on the fender for a few minutes. But she fell asleep, and wakened, it might be, a quarter of an hour later, and got up and listened.
What was it that overcame old Mildred on this night with so unusual a sense of danger and panic at the presence of this woman? She could not exactly define the cause. But she was miserably afraid of her, and full of unexplainable surmises.
“I can’t go to bed till I try again; I can’t. I don’t know what’s come over me. It seems to me, Lor’ be wi’ us! as if the Evil One was in the house, and I don’t know what I should do—and there’s nout o’ any avail I can do; but quiet I can’t bide, and sleep won’t stay wi’ me while—she’s here, and I’ll just go up again to her room, and if all’s right then, I will lie down, and take it easy for the rest o’ the night, come what, come may; for my old bones is fairly wore out, and I can’t hold my head up no longer.”
Thus resolved, and sorely troubled, the old woman took the candle again and sallied forth once more upon her grizzly expedition.
From the panelled sitting-room, where by this time Charles Fairfield sat in his chair locked in dismal sleep, came the faint red mist of his candle’s light, and here she paused to listen for a moment. Well, all was quiet there, and so on and into the passage, and so into the great hall, as it was called, which seemed to her to have grown chill and cheerless since she was last there, and so again cautiously up the great stair, with its clumsy banister of oak, relieved at every turn by a square oak block terminating in a ball, like the head of a gigantic nine-pin. Black looked the passage through this archway, at the summit of this ascent; and for the first time Mildred was stayed by the sinking of a superstitious horror.
It was by putting a kind of force upon herself that she entered this dark and silent gallery, so far away from every living being in the house, except that one of whom secretly she stood in awe, as of something not altogether of this earth.
This gallery is pretty large, and about midway is placed another arch, with a door-case, and a door that is held open by a hook, and, as often happens in old houses, a descent of a couple of steps here brings you to a different level of the floor.
There may have been a reason of some other sort for the uncomfortable introduction of so many gratuitous steps in doorways and passages, but certainly it must have exercised the wits of the comparatively slow persons who flourished at the period of this sort of architecture, and prevented the drowsiest from falling asleep on the way to their bedrooms.
It happened that as she reached this doorway her eye was caught by a cobweb hanging from the ceiling. For a sharp old servant like Mrs. Tarnley, such festoonery has an attraction of antipathy that is irresistible; she tried to knock it with her hand, but it did not reach high enough, so she applied her fingers to loosen her apron, and sweep it down with a swoop of that weapon.
She was still looking up at the dusty cord that waved in the air, and as she did so she received a long pull by the dress, from an unseen hand below—a determined tweak—tightening and relaxing as she drew a step back, and held the candle backward to enable her to see.
It was not her kitten, which might have playfully followed her up stairs—it was not a prowling rat making a hungry attack. A low titter accompanied this pluck at her dress, and she saw the wide pale face of the Dutchwoman turned up towards her with an odious smile. She was seated on the step, with her shoulder leaning upon the frame of the door.
“You thought I was asleep under the coverlet,” she drawled: “or awake, perhaps, in the other world—dead. I never sleep long, and I don’t die easily—see!”
“And what for are ye out o’ your bed at all, ma’am? Ye’ll break your neck in this house, if ye go walking about, wi’ its cranky steps and stairs, and you blind.”
“When you go blind, old Mildred, you’ll find your memory sharper than you think, and steps, and corners, and doors, and chimney-pieces will come to mind like a picture. What was I about ?”
“Well, what was ye about? Sure I am I don’t know, ma’am.”
“No, I’m sure you don’t,” said she.
“But you should be in your bed—that I know, ma’am.”
Still holding her dress, and with a lazy laugh, the lady made answer——
“So should you, old lass—a pair of us gadders; but I had a reason—I wanted you, old Mildred.”
“Well, ma’am, I don’t know how you’d ’a found me, for I sleep in the five-cornered room, two doors away from the spicery—you’d never ’a found me.”
“I’d have tried—hit or miss—I would not have stayed where I was,” answered the “old soldier.”
“What, not in the state room, ma’am—the finest room in the house, so ’twas always supposed!”
“So be it; I don’t like it,” she answered.
“Ye didn’t hear no noises in’t, sure?” demanded Mildred.
“Not I” said the Dutchwoman. “Another reason quite, girl.”
“And what the de’il is it? It must be summat grand, I take it, that makes ye better here, sittin’ on a hard stair, than lying your length on a good bed.”
“Right well said, clever Mildred. What is the state-room without a quiet mind,” replied the old soldier, with an oracular smile.
“What’s the matter wi’ your mind, ma’am?” said Mildred testily.
“I’m not safe there from intrusion,” answered the lady, with little pauses between her words to lend an emphasis to them.
“I don’t know what you’re afeard on, ma’am,” repeated Mrs. Tarnley, whose acquaintance with fine words was limited, and who was too proud to risk a mistake.
“Well, it’s just this—I won’t be pried upon by that young lady.”
“What young lady, ma’am?” asked Mrs. Tarnley, who fancied she might ironically mean Miss Lilly Dogger.
“Harry Fairfield’s wife, of course, what other? I choose to be private here,” said the Dutch dame imperiously.
“She’ll not pry—she don’t pry on no one, and if she wished it, she couldn’t.”
“Why, there’s nothing between us, woman, but the long closet where you used to keep the linen, and the broken furniture and rattle-traps” (raddle-drabs she pronounced the word), “and she’ll come and peep—every woman peeps and pries” (beebs and bries she called the words)—“peep and pry. She’ll just pretend she never knew any one was there, and she’ll walk in through the closet door, and start, and beg my pardon, and say how sorry she is, and then go off, and tell you next morning how many buttons are on my pelisse, and how many pins in my pin-cushion, and let all the world know everything about me.”
“But she can’t come in.”
“Why? Because, ma’am, the door is papered over.”
“Fine protection—paper!” sneered the lady.
“I saw her door locked myself before ’twas papered over,” said Mildred.
“Did you, though?” said the lady.
“With my own eyes,” insisted Mildred.
“I’d rather see it with mine,” joked the blind lady. “Well, see, we’ll make a long story short. If I consent to stay in that room, I’ll lock the door that opens into it. I’ll have a room, and not a passage, if you please. I won’t be peeped on, or listened to. If I can’t choose my company I’ll be alone, please.”
“And what do you want, ma’am?” asked Mildred, whose troubles were multiplying.
“Another room,” said the lady, doggedly.
“Well, did I ever!” pondered Mrs. Tarnley, reading the lady’s features sharply as she spoke; but they were sullen, and, for aught she could make out, meaningless. “Well, it will do if ye can have the key, I take it, and lock your door yourself?”
“Not so well as another room, if you’ll give me one, but better than nothing.”
“Come along then, ma’am, for another room’s not to be had at no price, and I’ll gi’ ye the key.”
“And then, when you lock it fast, I may sleep easy. What’s that your parson used to say—‘the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.’ Plenty of wicked people going, Mrs. Tarnley, and weary enough am I,” sighed the great pale Dutchwoman.
“There’s two on us so, ma’am,” said Mildred, as she led the lady back to her room, and having placed her in her armchair by the fire, Mildred Tarnley took the key from a brass-headed tack, on which it hung behind the bedpost.
“Here it is, ma’am,” she said, placing the key in her groping fingers.
“What key is it?” asked the old soldier.
“The key of the long linen closet that was.”
“And how do I know that?” she inquired, twirling it round in her large fingers, and smiling in such a way as to nettle Mrs. Tarnley, who began——
“Ye may know, I take it, because Mildred Tarnley says so, and I never yet played a trick. I never tells lies,” she concluded, pulling up on a sudden.
“Well, I know that. I know you’re truth itself, so far as human nature goes; but that has its limits, and can’t fly very high off the ground. Come, get me up—we’ll try the key. I’ll lock it myself—I’ll lock it with my own fingers. Seeing is believing, and I can’t see; but feeling has no fellow, and, not doubting you, Mrs. Tarnley, I’ll feel for myself.”
She placed her hand on Mrs. Tarnley’s shoulder, and when she had reached the corner at the further side of the bed, where the covered door, as she knew, was situated, with her scissors’ point, where the crevice of the door was covered over with the paper, she ripped it asunder (notwithstanding the remonstrances of Mildred, who told her she was “leavin’ it not worth a rag off the road”) all round the door, which thus freed, and discovering by her finger tips the point at which the keyhole was placed, she broke the paper through, introduced the key, turned it, and with very little resistance pulled the door partly open, with an ugly grimace and a chuckle at Mildred. Then, locking it fast, she said, —
“And now I defy madam, do all she can—and you’ll clap the table against it, to make more sure; and so I think I may sleep—don’t you?”
Mildred scratched above her eyebrow with one finger for a moment, and she said—
“Yes, ye might a’ slept, I’m thinking as sound before if ye had a mind, ma’am.”
“What the dickens does the lass mean?” said the blind woman, with a sleepy laugh. “As if people could sleep when they like. Why, woman, if that was so there would be no such thing as fidgets.”
“Well, I suppose, no more there wouldn’t—no more there wouldn’t. I may take away the tray, ma’am?”
“Let it be till morning—I want rest. Good night. Are you going?—good night.”
“Good night, ma’am,” said Mildred, making her stiff little curtsey, although it was lost upon the lady, and a little thoughtfully she left the room.
The “Old Soldier” listened, sitting up, for she had lain down on her bed, and as she heard the click-clack of Mildred’s shoe grow fainter—
“Yes, good-night really, Mildred; I think you need visit no more tonight.”
And she got up, and secured the door that opened on the gallery.
“Good-night, old Tarnley,” she said, with a nod and an unpleasant smirk, and then a deep and dismal sigh. Then she threw herself again upon her bed and lay still.
Old Mildred seemed also to have come to a like conclusion as to the matter of further visiting for the night, for at the door, on the step of which the Dutchwoman sitting a few minutes before had startled her, she looked back suspiciously over her shoulder, and then shutting the door noiselessly, she locked it—leaving that restless spirit a prisoner till morning.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57