The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 14.

A Messenger.

Alice had not gone far when she was seized with a great shivering—the mediate process by which from high hysterical tension, nature brings down the nerves again to their accustomed tone.

The air was soft and still, and the faint gray of morning was already changing the darkness into its peculiar twilight.

“Ye’ll be better presently, dear,” said the old woman, with unaccustomed kindness. “There, there, ye’ll be nothing the worse when a’s done, and yell have a cup o’ tea when ye come back.”

Under the great old trees near the ivied wall which screens the court is a stone bench, and on this old Mildred was constrained to place her.

“There, there, there, rest a bit—rest a little bit. Hih! cryin’—well, cry if ye will; but yell ha’ more to thank God than to cry for, if all be as I guess.”

Alice cried on with convulsive sobs, starting every now and then, with a wild glance towards the yard gate, and grasping the old woman’s arm. In a very few minutes this paroxysm subsided, and she wept quietly.

“’Twas you, ma’am, that cried out, I take it—hey? Frightened mayhap?”

“I was—yes—I—I’ll wait a little, and tell you by-and-by—horribly—horribly.”

“Ye needn’t be afeerd here, and me beside ye, ma’am, and daylight a-comin’, and I think I could gi’e a sharp guess at the matter. Ye saw her ladyship, I do suppose? The old soger, ma’am—ay, that’s a sight might frighten a body—like a spirit a’most—a great white-faced, blind devil.”

“Who is she? how did she come? She tried to kill me. Oh! Mrs. Tarnley, I’m so terrified!”

And with these words Alice began to cry and tremble afresh.

“Hey! try to kill ye, did she? I’m glad o’ that—right glad o’t; ’twill rid us o’ trouble, ma’am. But la! think o’ that! And did she actually raise her hand to you?”

“Oh yes, Mrs. Tarnley—frightful. I’m saved by a miracle—I don’t know how—the mercy of God only.”

She was clinging to Mrs. Tarnley with a fast and trembling grasp.

“Zooks! the lass is frightened. Ye ha’ seen sights tonight, young lady, ye’ll remember. Young folk loves pleasure, and the world, and themselves ower well to trouble their heads about death or judgment, if the Lord in His mercy didn’t shake ’em up from their dreams and their sins. ‘Awake thou that sleepest,’ says the Word, callin’ loud in a drunken ear, at dead o’ night, wi’ the house all round a-fire, as the parson says. He’s a good man, though I may ha’ seen better, in old days in Carwell pulpit. So, ’tis all for good, and in place o’ crying ye should be praisin’ God for startlin’ ye out o’ your carnal sleep, and makin’ ye think o’ him, and see yourself as ye are, and not according to the flatteries o’ your husband and your own vanity. Ye’ll pardon me, but truth is truth, and God’s truth first of all; and who’ll tell it ye if them as is within hearin’ won’t open their lips, and I don’t see that Mr. Charles troubles his head much about the matter.”

“He is so noble, and always my guardian angel. Oh, Mrs. Tarnley, tonight I must have perished if it had not been for him; he is always my best friend, and so unselfish and noble.”

“Well that’s good,” said Mildred Tarnley, coldly. “But I’m thinkin’ something ought to be done wi’ that catamountain in there, and strike while the iron’s hot, and they’ll never drive home that nail ye’ll find—more like to go off when airs done wi’ her pocket full o’ money. ’Tis a sin, while so many an honest soul wants, and I’ll take that just into my own old hands, I’m thinkin’, and sarve her out as she would better women.”

“Isn’t she mad, Mrs. Tarnley?” asked Alice.

“And if she’s mad, to the madhouse wi’ her, an’ if she’s not, where’s the gallows high enough for her, the dangerous harridan? For, one way or t’other, the fiend’s in her, and the sooner judgment overtakes her, and she’s in her coffin, the sooner the devil’s laid, and the better for honest folk.”

“If she is mad, it accounts for everything; but I feel as if I never could enter that house again; and oh! Mrs. Tarnley, you mustn’t leave me. Oh, heavens! what’s that?”

It was no great matter—Mrs. Tarnley had got up, for the yard-door had opened and some one passed out and looked round.

It was the girl, Lilly Dogger, who stood there looking about her under the canopy of tall trees.

“Hoot, ma’m, ’tis only the child Lilly Dogger—and well pleased I am, for I was thinkin’ this minute how I could get her to me quietly. Here, Lilly—come here, ye goose-cap—d’ye see me?”

So, closing the door behind her, the girl approached with eyes very wide, and a wonderfully solemn countenance. She had been roused and scared by the sounds which had alarmed the house, huddled on her clothes, and seeing Mrs. Tarnley’s figure cross the window, had followed in a tremor.

Mrs. Tarnley walked a few steps towards her, and beckoning with her lean finger, the girl drew near.

“Yell have to go over Cressley Common, girl, to Wykeford. Ye know Wykeford?”

“Yes, please ’m.”

“Well, ye must go through the village, and call up Mark Topham. Ye know Mark Topham’s house with the green door, by the bridge-end?”

“Yes please, Mrs. Tarnley, ma’am.”

“And say he’ll be wanted down here at the Grange—for murder mind—and go ye on to Mr. Rodney at t’other side o’ the river. Squire Rodney of Wrydell. Ye know that house, too?”

“Yes, ’em,” said the girl, with eyes momentarily distending, and face of blanker consternation.

“And ye’ll tell Mr. Rodney there’s been bad work down here, and murder all but done, and say ye’ve told Mark Topham, the constable, and that it is hoped he’ll come over himself to make out the writin’s and send away the prisoner as should go. We being chiefly women here, and having to keep Tom Clinton at home to mind the prisoner—ye understand—and keep all safe, having little other protection. Now run in, lass, and clap your bonnet on, and away wi’ ye; and get ye there as fast as your legs will carry ye, and take your time comin’ back; and ye may get a lift, for they’ll not be walkin’, and you’re like to get your bit o’ breakfast down at Wry dell; but if ye shouln’t, here’s tuppence, and buy yourself a good bit o’ bread in the town. Now, ye understand?”

“Yes, ’m, please.”

“And ye’ll not be makin’ mistakes, mind?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then do as I bid ye, and off ye go,” said Mrs. Tarnley, despatching her with a peremptory gesture.

So with a quaking heart, not knowing what dangers might still be lurking there, Lilly Dogger ran into the yard on her way to her bonnet, and peeped through the kitchen window, but saw nothing there in the pale gray light but “still life.”

With a timid finger she lifted the latch, and stole into the familiar passage as if she were exploring a haunted house. She had quaked in her bed as thin and far away the shrill sounds of terror had penetrated through walls and passages to her bedroom. She had murmured “Lord bless us!” at intervals, and listened, chilled with a sense of danger—associated in her imagination with the stranger who had visited her room and frighted away her slumbers. And she had jumped out of bed, and thrown on her clothes in panic, blessed herself, and pinned and tied strings, and listened, and blessed herself again; and seeing Mrs. Tarnley cross the window accompanied by some one else whom she did not then recognise, and fearing to remain thus deserted in the house more than the risk of being blown up by Mrs. Tarnley, she had followed that grim protectress.

Now, as on tiptoe she recrossed the kitchen with her straw bonnet in her hand she heard on a sudden cries of fury, and words, as doors opened and shut, reached her that excited her horror and piqued her curiosity.

She hastened, however, to leave the house, and again approached and passed by the lady and Mildred Tarnley, having tied her bonnet under her chin, and obeying Mildred’s impatient beckon, and——

“Run, lass, run. Stir your stumps, will ye!”

She started at a pace that promised soon to see her across Cressley Common.

Old Mildred saw this with comfort. She knew that broad-shouldered, brown-eyed lass for a shrewd and accurate messenger, and seeing how dangerous and complicated things were growing, she was glad that fortune had opened so short and sharp a way of getting rid of the troubler of their peace.

“Come in, ma’am, ye’ll catch your death o’ cold here. All’s quiet by this time, and I’ll make the kitchen safe against the world; and Mr. Charles is in the house, and Tom Clinton up, and all safe—and who cares a rush for that blind old cat? Not I for one. She’ll come no nonsense over Mildred Tarnley in her own kitchen, while there’s a poker to rap her ower the pate. Hoot! one old blind limmer; I’d tackle six o’ her sort, old as I am, and tumble ’em one after t’other into the Brawl. Never ye trouble your head about that, ma’am, and I’ll bolt the door on the passage, and the scullery door likewise, and lock ’em if ye like; and we’ll get down old Dulcibella to sit wi’ ye, and ye’ll be a deal less like to see that beast in the kitchen than here. There’s Miss Crane,” by which title she indicated old Dulcibella, “a lookin’ out o’ her window. Ho! Miss Crane—will ye please, Miss Crane, come down and stay a bit wi’ your mistress?”

“Thank God!—is she down there?” exclaimed she.

“Come down, ma’am, please; she’s quite well, and she’ll be glad to see ye.”

Old Dulcibella’s head disappeared from the window promptly.

“Now, ma’am, she’ll be down, and when she comes—for ye’d like to ha’ some one by ye—I’ll go in and make the kitchen door fast.”

“And won’t you search it well, Mrs. Tarnley, and the inner room, that we may be certain no one is hid there? Pray do—may I rely on you—won’t you promise?”

“There’s nothin’ there, that I promise ye.”

“But, oh! pray do,” urged Alice.

“I will, ma’am, just to quiet ye. Ye need not fear, I’ll leave her no chance, and she’ll soon be safe enough, she shall—safe enough when she gets on her doublet of stone; and don’t ye be frightenin’ yourself for nothin’—just keep yourself quiet, for there is nothing to fear, and if ye will keep yourself in a fever for nothin’ ye’ll be just making food for worms, mark my words.”

As she spoke old Dulcibella appeared, and with a face of deep concern waddled as fast as she could toward her young mistress, raising her hands and eyes from time to time as she approached.

As she drew nearer she made a solemn thanksgiving, and——

“Oh! my child, my child, thank God you’re well I was a’most ready to drop in a swound when I came into your room, just now, everything knocked topsy-turvey, and a door cut in the wall, and all in a litter, I couldn’t know where I was, and someone a bleedin’ all across the floor, and one of the big, green-handled knives on the floor—Lord a’ mercy on us—with the blade bent and blood about it. I never was so frightened. I thought my senses was a leavin’ me, and I couldn’t tell what I might see next, and I ready to drop down on the floor wi’ fright. My darling child—my precious—Lord love it, and here it was, barefooted, and but half clad,and—come in ye must, dear, ’tis enough to kill ye.”

“I can scarcely remember anything, Dulcibella, only one thing—oh! I’m so terrified.”

“Come in, darling, you’ll lose your life if you stay here as you are, and what was it dear, and who did you see?”

“A woman—that dreadful blind woman, who came in at the new door; I never saw her before.”

“Well, dear! Oh, Miss Alice, darling, I couldn’t a’ believed, and thank God you’re safe after all; that s she I heard a screechin’ as strong as a dozen—and frightful words, as well as I could hear, to come from any woman’s lips. Lord help us.”

“Where is she now?”

“Somewhere in the front of the house, darlin’, screechin’ and laughin’ I thought, but heaven only knows.”

“She’s mad, Mrs. Tarnley says, and Mr. Fairfield said so too. Master Charles is come—my darling Ry. Oh! Dulcibella, how grateful I should be. What could I have done if he hadn’t?”

So Dulcibella persuaded her to come into the yard, and so, through the scullery door, at which Mildred stood, having secured all other access to the kitchen. So in she came, awfully frightened to find herself again in the house, but was not her husband there, and help at hand, and the doors secured?

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