The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 17


In their homely sitting-room, with old Dulcibella in friendly attendance, Mildred Tarnley found Alice. It is not always that a dreadful impression makes itself immediately manifest. Nature rallies all her forces at first to meet the danger. A certain excitement of resistance sustains the system through a crisis of horror, and often for a long time after; and it is not until this extraordinary muster of the vital forces begins to dissolve and subside that the shattered condition of the normal powers begins to declare itself.

The scene which had just occurred was a dreadful ordeal for Alice. To recount, and with effort and minuteness, to gather into order the terrific incidents of the night preceding, relate them bit by bit to the magistrate as he wrote them down, make oath to their truth as the basis of a public prosecution, and most dreadful—the having to see and identify the spectre who had murderously assailed her on the night before.

Every step affrighted her, the shadow of a moving branch upon the wall chilled her with terror; the voices of people who spoke seemed to pierce the naked nerve of her ear, and to sing through her head; even for a moment faces, kind and familiar, seemed to flicker or darken with direful meanings alien from their natures.

In this nervous condition old Mildred found her.

“I come, ma’am, to know what you’d wish to be done,” said she, standing at the door with her usual grim little courtesy.

“I don’t quite understand—done about what?” inquired she.

“I mean, ma’am, Tom said you asked him to be ready to drive you from here; but as master hadn’t come back, and things is changed a bit here, I thought ye might wish to make a change, mayhap.”

“Oh, oh! thank you, Mrs. Tarnley; I forgot, I’ve been so frightened. Oh, Mrs. Tarnley, I wish I could cry—I’d be so much better, I’m sure, if I could cry—I feel my throat so odd and my head so confused—it seems so many days. If I could think of anything to make me cry.”

Mildred looked at her from the corners of her eyes darkly, as if with a hard heart, but I think she pitied her.

“That blind woman’s gone, the beast—I’m glad she’s away; and you’ll be the better o’ that, ma’am, I’m thinkin’. I was afeard o’ her a’most myself ever since last night; and Master Charles is gone, too, but he’ll be back soon.”

“He’ll come today?” she asked, in consternation.

“Today, of course, ma’am—in an hour or less, I do suppose; and it would not be well done, I’m thinkin’, ma’am, for you to leave the Grange, till you see him again, for it’s like enough he’ll a’ changed his plans.”

“I was thinking so myself. I’d rather wait here to see him—he had so much to distract him that he may easily think differently by this time. I’m glad, Mrs. Tarnley, you think so, for now I feel confident I may wait for his return—I think I ought to wait—and thank you, Mrs. Tarnley, for advising me in the midst of my distractions.”

“I just speak my mind, ma’am, and counsel’s no command, as they say; and I never liked meddlers; and don’t love to burn my fingers in other people’s brewes; so ye’ll please to mind, ma’am, ’tis for your own ear I speak, and your own wit will judge; and I wouldn’t have Master Charles looking askew, nor like to be shent by him for what’s kindly meant to you—not that I owe much kindness nowhere, for since I could scour a platter I ever gave work for wage. So ye’ll please not tell Master Charles I counselled ye aught in the matter.”

“Certainly, Mrs. Tarnley, just as you wish.”

“Would you please wish anything to eat, ma’am?” inquired Mildred, relapsing into her dry, official manner.

“Nothing, Mildred—no, thanks.”

“Ye’ll lose heart, miss, if ye don’t eat—ye must eat.”

“Thanks, Mildred, by-and-by, perhaps,”

Mrs. Tarnley, like many worthy people, regarded eating as a simply mechanical process, and wondered why people affected a difficulty about it under any circumstances. Somewhat hard of heart, and with nerves of wire, she had no idea that a sufficient shock might rob one not only of appetite, but positively of the power of eating for days.

Alone, for one moment, Alice could not endure to be—haunted unintermittingly by the vague but intense dread of a return of the woman who had so nearly succeeded in murdering her, and with nerves shattered in that indescribable degree which even a strong man experiences for a long time after a murder has been attempted upon him perfidiously and by a surprise. The worst panic comes after an interval of many hours.

As the day waned, more miserably nervous she became, and more defined her terror of the Dutchwoman’s return. That straggling old house, with no less than four doors of entrance, favoured the alarms of her imagination. Often she thought of her kind old kinswoman. Lady Wyndale, and her proffered asylum at her snug house at Oulton.

But that was a momentary picture—no more. Miserable as she was at the Grange, until she had seen her husband, learned his plans, and knew what his wishes were, that loyal little wife could not dream of going to Oulton.

She remained there as the shades of evening darkened over the steep roof and solemn trees of Carwell Grange, and more and more grew the horror that deepened with darkness, and was aggravated and distracted by the continued absence of her husband.

In the sitting-room she stood, listening, with a beating heart. Every sound, which at another time would have been unheard, now thrilled her with hope or terror.

Old Dulcibella in the room was also frightened—more a great deal than she could account for. And even Mildred Tarnley—that hard and grim old lady—was touched by the influence of that contagious fear, and barred and locked the doors with jealous care, and even looked to the fastenings of the windows, and caught some faint shadows of that supernatural fear with which Alice Fairfield had come to regard the wicked woman out of whose hands she had escaped.

Now and then, when appealed to, she said a short word or two of reassurance respecting Charles Fairfield’s unaccountably prolonged absence. But the panic of the young lady in like manner on this point began to invade her in uncomfortable misgivings.

So uneasy had she grown that at last she dispatched Tom when sunset had come without a sign of Charles Fairfield’s return, riding to Wykeford. Tom had now returned. A bootless errand it had proved. At Wykeford he learned that Charles Fairfield had been there—had been at Squire Rodney’s house and about the town, and made inquiries. His pursuit had been misdirected. At Wykeford is a House of Correction and Reformatory, which institution acts as a prison of ease to the county jail. But that jail is in the town of Hatherton, as Charles would have easily recollected if his rage had allowed him a moment to think. Tom, however, made no attempt further to pursue him, on conjecture, and had returned to Carwell Grange, no wiser than he went.

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