The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 4.

A Twilight Visit.

In the evening Tom had looked in at his usual hour, and was recruiting himself with his big mug of beer and lump of bread and cheese at the kitchen table, and now the keen edge of appetite removed, he was talking agreeably. This was what he called his supper. The flush of sunset on the sky was fading into twilight, and Tom was chatting with old Mildred Tarnley.

“Who’d think it was only three weeks since the funeral?” said Tom—“three weeks tomorrow.”

“Ay, tomorrow. ’Twas a Thursday, I mind, by the little boy comin’ from Gryce’s mill, for the laundress’s money, by noon. Two months ago, to look at him, you’d a said there was forty years’ life in him; but death keeps no calendar, they say. I wonder Harry Fairfield isn’t here oftener. Though she might not talk wi’ him nor see him, the sound o’ his voice in the house would do her good—his own brother, you know.”

“Dead men, ’tis an old sayin’, is kin to none,” said Tom. “They goes their own gate, and so does the livin’.”

“There’s that woman in jail. What’s to be done wi’ her, and who’s to talk wi’ the lawyer folk?” said Mildred.

“Ill luck came wi’ her to Carwell,” said Tom. “Pity he ever set eyes on her; but chances will be, and how can cat help it if maid be a fool? I don’t know nothin’ o’ that business, but in this world nout for nout is the most of our wages, and I take it folks knows what they are about, more or less.”

Mildred Tarnley sniffed at this oracular speech, and turned up her nose, and went over to the dresser and arranged some matters there,

“The days is shortening apace. My old eyes can scarce see over here without a candle,” she said, returning. “But there’s a many a thing to be settled in this house, I’m thinkin’.”

Tom nodded an acquiescence, and stood up and stretched himself, and looked up to the darkening sky.

“The crows is home in Carwell Wood; ’twill be time to be turning keys and drawing of bolts,” said Tom. “Ay, many a thing ’ll want settlin’, I doubt, down here, and who’s to do it?”

“Ay, who’s to do it?” repeated Mildred. “I tell ye, Tom, there’s many a thing—too many a thing—more than ye wot of—enough to bring him out o’ his grave, Tom—as I’ve heered stories, many a one, wi’ less reason.”

As she ceased, a clink of a horseshoe was heard in the little yard without, and a tall figure leading a horse, as Charles Fairfield used often to do, on his late returns to his home, looked in at the window—in that uncertain twilight, in stature, attitude, and, as well as she could see, in face, so much resembling the deceased master of Carwell Grange, that Mrs. Tarnley gasped——

“My good Lord! Who’s that?”

Something of the same momentary alarm puzzled Tom, who frowned wildly at it, with his fists clenched beside him.

It was Harry Fairfield, who exhibited, as sometimes happens in certain lights and moments, a family resemblance, which had never struck those most familiar with his appearance.

“Lawk, it’s Mr. Harry; run out, Tom, and take his nag, will ye?”

Out went Tom, and in came Harry Fairfield. He looked about him. He did not smile facetiously and nod, and take old Mildred’s dubious hand, as he was wont, and crack a joke, not always very welcome or very pleasant, to the tune of

“Nobody coming to marry me—

Nobody coming to woo.”

On the contrary, he looked as if he saw-nothing there but walls and twilight, and as heavy laden with gloomy thoughts as the troubled ghost she had imagined.

“How is Miss Ally? how is your mistress?” at last he inquired abruptly. “Only middling?”

“Ailing, sir,” answered Mildred, dryly.

“Tell her I’m here, will ye? and has something to tell her and talk over, and will make it as short as I can. Tell her I’d a come earlier, but couldn’t, for the sessions at Wykeford, and dined wi’ a neighbour in the town; and say I mayn’t be able to come for a good while again. Is she up?”

“No, sir, the doctor keeps her still to her bed.”

“Well, old Dulcey Crane’s there; ain’t she?”

“Ay, sir, and Lilly Dogger, too. Little good the slut’s to me these days.”

Harry was trying to read his watch at the darkened window.

“Tell her all that—quick, for time flies,” said Harry.

Harry Fairfield remained in the kitchen while old Mildred did his message, and she speedily returned to say that Alice was sitting up by the fire, and would see him.

Up the dim stairs went Harry. He had not been up there since the day he saw the undertakers at Charlie’s coffin, and had his last peep at his darkening face. Up he strode with his hand on the banister, and old Mildred gliding before him like a shadow. She knocked at the door. It was not that of the room which they had occupied, where poor Charles Fairfield had died, but the adjoining one, hurriedly arranged, with such extemporized comforts as the primitive people of the household could manage—homely enough, but not desolate, it looked.

Opening the door, she said—“Here’s Master Harry, ma’am, a-comin’ to see you.”

Harry was already in the room. There were candles lighted on a little table near the bed, although the shutters were still open, and the faint twilight mingling with the light of the candles made a sort of purple halo. Alice was sitting in a great chair by the fire in her dressing-gown, pale, and looking very ill. She did not speak; she extended her hand.

“Came to see you. Ally. Troublesome world; but you must look up a bit, you know. Troubles are but trials, they say, and can’t last for ever; so don’t you be frettin yourself out o’ the world, lass, and makin’ more food for worms.”

And with this consolation he shook her hand.

“I would have seen you, Harry, when you called before—it was very kind of you—but I could not. I am better now, thank God. I can’t believe it still, sometimes,” and her eyes filled with tears—

“Well, well, well,” said Harry, “whereas the good o’ cryin’; cryin’ won’t bring him back, you know. There, there. And I want to say a word to you about that woman that’s in jail, you know. ’Tis right you should know everything. He should a told you more about that, don’t you see, else ye might put your foot in it.”

Paler still turned Alice at these words.

“Tell them to go in there,” said he in a lower tone, indicating with his thumb over his shoulder, a sort of recess at the far end of the room, in which stood a table with some work on it.

At a word from Alice old Dulcibella called Lilly Dogger into that distant “alcove,” as Mildred termed it.

“It’s about that woman,” he continued, in a very low tone, “about that one—Bertha. That woman, you know, that’s in Hatherton Jail, you remember. There’s no good prosecuting that one. Poor Charles wouldn’t have allowed it at no price.”

“He said so. I wouldn’t for the world,” she answered very faintly.

“No, of course; he wished it, and we’d like to see his wishes complied with, poor fellow, now he’s gone,” acquiesced Harry with alacrity. “And you know about her?” he added, in a very low tone.

“Oh no, no, Harry; no, please,” she answered imploringly.

“Well, it wouldn’t do for you, you know, to be gettin’ up in the witness-box at the ’sizes to hang her, ye know.”

“Oh dear, Harry; no, I never could have thought of it.”

“Well, you are not bound, luckily; nor no one. I saw Rodney today about it; there’s no recognizances—he only took the informations—and I said you wouldn’t prosecute; nor I won’t, I’m sure; and the crown won’t take it up, and so it will fall through, and end quietly—the best way for you; for, as I told him, you’re not in health to go down there to be battlin’ wi’ lawyers, and all sorts; ’twould never answer you, ye know. So here’s a slip o’ paper I wrote, and I told him I knew you’d sign it—only sayin’ you have no notion of prosecutin’ that woman, nor moving more in the matter.”

He placed it in her hand.

“I’m sure it’s quite right; it’s just what I mean. Thank you, Harry; you’re very good.”

“Get the ink and pen,” said Harry aloud to Dulcibella.

“’Tis downstairs,” answered she. “I’ll fetch it.”

And Dulcibella withdrew. Harry was poking about the shelves and the chimney-piece.

“This is ink,” said he, “ain’t it?” So it was, and a pen. “I think it will write—try it, Ally.”

So it was signed; and he had fairly described its tenor and effect to his widowed sister-in-law.

“I’ll see Rodney this evening and show him this, to prevent his bothering you here about it. And,” he almost whispered, “you know about that woman? or you don’t—do you?”

Her lips moved, but he could hear no words.

“She was once a fine woman—ye wouldn’t think—a devilish fine woman, I can tell you; and she says—ye know ’twas more than likin’—she says she has the whip hand o’ ye—first come, first served. She’s talkin o’ law, and all that. She says—but it won’t make no odds now, you know, what she says—well, she says she was his wife.”

“Oh, God!—it’s a lie,” whispered the poor lady, with white lips, and staring at him with darkening eyes.

“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it aint,” he answered. “But it don’t much matter now; and I daresay we’ll hear nothing about it, and dead men’s past fooling, ye know. Good night, Ally, and God bless you; and take care o’ yourself, and don’t be crying your eyes out like that. And I’ll come again as soon as I can; and any business, you know, or anything, I’ll be always ready to do for you—and good night. Ally, and mind all I said.”

Since those terrible words of his were spoken she had not heard a syllable. He took her icy hand. He looked for a puzzled moment in her clouded eyes, and nodded, and he called to the little girl in the adjoining room.

“I’m going now, child, and do you look after your mistress.”

By a coincidence or association—something suggested by Harry Fairfield’s looks, was it?—old Mildred Tarnley’s head was full of the Dutchwoman when Dulcibella came into the kitchen.

“You took out the ink, Tom, when you was weighin’ them oats today,” said she, and out went Tom in search of that always errant and mitching article.

“I was sayin’ to Tom as ye came in, Mrs. Crane, how I hoped to see that one in her place. I think I’d walk to Hatherton and back to see her hanged, the false jade, wi’ her knife, and her puce pelisse, and her divilry. Old witch! ”

“Lawk, Mrs. Tarnley, how can ye?”

“Well, now Master Charles is under the mould, I wouldn’t spare her. What for shouldn’t Mrs. Fairfield make her pay for the pipe she danced to. It’s her turn now——

‘When you are anvil, hold you still,

When you are hammer, strike your fill.’

And if I was Mrs. Fairfield, maybe I wouldn’t make her smoke for all.”

“I think my lady will do just what poor Master Charles wished, and I know nothing about the woman,” said Dulcibella, “only they all say she’s not right in her head, Mrs. Tarnley, and I don’t think she’ll slight his last word, and punish the woman; ’twould be the same as sacrilege a’most; and what of her? Much matter about a wooden platter! and its ill burning the house to frighten the mice.”

Harry Fairfield here sauntered into the kitchen, rolling unspoken thoughts in his mind. The conversation subsided at his approach; Dulcibella made her courtesy and withdrew, and said he to Tom, who was entering with the ink-bottle,—

“Tom, run out, will ye, and get my nag ready for the road; I’ll be off this minute.”

Tom departed promptly.

“Well, Mildred,” said he, eyeing her darkly from the corners of his eyes, “sorrow comes unsent for.”

“Ay, sure, she’s breakin’ her heart, poor thing.”

“’Twon’t break, I warrant, for all that,” he answered; “sorrow for a husband they say is a pain in the elbow, sharp and short.”

“All along o’ that ugly Dutch beast. Twas an ill wind carried her to Carwell,” said Mildred.

He shut his eyes and shook his head.

“That couldn’t do nowhere,” said he,——

“’Two cats and one mouse,

Two wives in one house.’”

“Master Charles was no such fool. What for should he ever a’ married such as that? I couldn’t believe no such thing,” said Mrs. Tarnley, sharply.

“’Two dogs at one bone,

Can never agree in one,’”

repeated Harry, oracularly. “There’s no need, mind, to set folks’ tongues a ringin’, nor much good in tryin’ to hide the matter, for her people won’t never let it rest, I lay ye what ye please,—never. ’Twill be strange news up at Wyvern, but I’m afeard she’ll prove it only too ready; ’twill shame us finely.”

“Well, let them talk—‘As the bell clinks, so the fool thinks’—and who the worse, I don’t believe it no how. He never would ha’ brought down the Fairfields to that, and if he had, he could not ha’ brought the poor young creature upstairs into such trouble and shame. I won’t believe it of him till it’s proved.”

“I hope they may never prove it. But what can we do? You and I know how they lived here, and I have heard her call him husband as often as I have fingers and toes, but, bless ye, we’ll hold our tongues—you will, eh? won’t ye, Mildred? ye musn’t be talkin’.”

“Talkin’! I ha’ nout to talk about. Fudge! man, I don’t believe it—’tis a damned lie, from top to bottom.”

“I hope so,” said he.

“A shameless liar she was, the blackest I ever heard talk.”

“Best let sleepin’ dogs be,” said he.

There was some silver loose in his trousers’ pocket, and he was fumbling with it, and looking hard at Mildred as he spoke to her. Sometimes, between his finger and thumb, he held the shilling—sometimes the half-crown. He was mentally deciding which to part with, and it ended by his presenting Mildred with the shilling, and recommending her to apply this splendid “tip” to the purchase of tea.

Some people experience a glow after they have done a great benevolence; as he walked into the stable-yard, Harry experienced a sensation, but it wasn’t a glow, a chill rather. Remembering the oblique look with which she eyed the silver coin in her dark palm, and her scant thanks, he was thinking what a beast he was to part with his money so lightly.

Mildred Tarnley cynically muttered to herself in the kitchen,—

“’Farewell frost,
Nothing got nor nothing lost.’

Here’s a gift! Bless him! I mind the time a Fairfield would a’ been ashamed to give an old servant such a vails. Hoot! what’s the world a comin’ to? ’Tis time we was a goin’. But Master Harry was ever the same—a thrifty lad he was, that looked after his pennies sharply,” said old Mildred Tarnley, scornfully; and she dropped the coin disdainfully into a little tin porringer that stood on the dresser.

And Tom came in, and the doors were made sure, and Mildred Tarnley made her modest cup of tea, and all was subsiding for the night.

But Harry’s words had stricken Alice Fairfield. Perhaps those viewless arrows oftener kill than people think of. Up in her homely room Alice now lay very ill indeed.

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