The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 5.

The Heir of the Fairfields.

At dead of night Alice was very ill, and Tom was called up to ride across Cressley Common for the Wykeford doctor. Worse and worse she grew. In this unknown danger—without the support of a husband s love or consolation—“the pains of hell gat hold of her,” the fear of death was upon her. Glad was she in her lonely terrors to hear the friendly voice of Doctor Willett as he came up the stairs, with a heavy, booted step, in hurried conversation with old Dulcibella Crane, who had gone down to meet him on hearing the sound of his arrival. In lower tones the doctor put his questions when he had arrived in his patient’s room, and his manner became stern, and his measures prompt, and it was plain that he was very much alarmed.

Alice Fairfield was in danger—in so great danger that he would have called in the Hatherton doctor, or any other, to share his responsibility, if the horse which Tom drove had not had as much as he could do that night in the long trot—and partly canter—to Wykeford and back again to the Grange.

Alice’s danger increased, and her state became so alarming that the doctor was afraid to leave his patient, and stayed that night at the Grange.

In the morning he sent Tom to Hatherton with a summons for his brother physician, and now this quaint household grew thoroughly alarmed.

The lady was past the effort of speaking, almost of thinking, and lay like a white image in her bed. Old Dulcibella happily had charge of the money, not much, which Alice had for present use; so the doctors had their fees, and were gone, and Doctor Willett, of Wykeford, was to come again in the evening, leaving his patient, as he said, quieter, but still in a very precarious state.

When the Wykeford doctor returned he found her again too ill to think of leaving her. At midnight Tom was obliged to mount, and ride away to Hatherton for the other doctor.

Before the Hatherton doctor had reached the Grange, however, a tiny voice was crying there—a little spirit had come, a scion of the Fairfield race.

Mrs. Tarnley wrote to Harry Fairfield to Wyvern to announce the event, which she did thus:—


“Master Harey, it has came a sirprise. Missis is this mornin’ gev burth to a boy and air; babe is well, but Missis Fairfield low and dangerous.

“Your servant,

“Mildred Tarnley.”

Dulcibella, without consulting Mildred, any more than Mildred did her, wrote also a letter, gentler and more gracious, but certainly no better spelled. When these reached Wyvern, Harry was from home.

It was not till four days had passed that Harry Fairfield arrived in the afternoon.

He had thrown his horse’s bridle to Tom in the stable yard, and appeared suddenly before Mildred Tarnley in the kitchen door.

“Well, how’s the lady in the straw?” inquired Harry, looking uncomfortable, but smiling: his best. “How is Miss Alice?”

“Mrs. Fairfield’s very bad, and the doctor han’t much hopes of her. She lies at God’s mercy, sir.”

“She’ll be better, you’ll find. She’ll be all right soon. And when was it—you put no date to your note?”

“On Friday, I think. We’re so put about here I scarce know one day from t’other.”

“She’ll be better. Is anyone here with her?”

“A nurse from Hatherton.”

“No one else? I thought Lady Wyndale might a’ come.”

“I was goin’ to send over there, but Doctor Willett said no.”

“Did he? Why?”

“Not yet a bit; he says she’d be in his way and no use, and maybe worrit her into a fever.”

“Very like,” said Harry; “and how’s the boy—isn’t it a boy?”

“Boy—yes, sir, a fine thumpin’ baby—and like to do well, and will prove, belike, a true, open-handed Fairfield, and a brave Squire o’ Wyvern.”

“Well, that’s as it may be. I’ll not trouble him. I have more than enough to my share as it is—and there’s some things that’s better never than late, and I’ll live and die a bachelor. I’ve more years than my teeth shows.”

And Harry smiled and showed his fine teeth.

“There’s Fairfields has took a wife later than you,” said she, eyeing him darkly.

“Too wise, old girl. You’ll not catch me at that work. Wives is like Flanders’ mares, as the Squire says, fairest afar off.”

“Hey?” snarled old Mildred, with a prolonged note.

“No, lass, I don’t want, nohow, to be Squire o’ Wyvern—there’s more pains than gains in it; always one thing or t’other wrong—one begs and t’other robs, and ten cusses to one blessin’. I don’t want folks to say o’ me as they does of some—Harry’s a hog, and does no good till he dies.”

“Folk do like an estate, though,” said Mildred, with another shrewd look.

“Ay, if all’s straight and clear, but I don’t like debts and bother, and I a’ seen how the old boy’s worried that way till he’s fit to drown himself in the pond. I can do something, buyin’ or sellin’; and little and often, you know, fills the purse.”

Mildred was silent.

“They do say—I mean, I knows it for certain, there is a screw loose—and you know where, I think—but how can I help that—The Dutchwoman, I know, can prove her marriage to poor Charlie, but never you blab—no more will I. There was no child o’ that marriage—neither chick nor child, so, bein’ as she is, ’tis little to her how that sow’s handled. ’T would be a pity poor Charlie’s son should lose his own; and ye may tell Alice I’m glad there’s a boy, and that she’ll ha’ no trouble from me, but all the help I can, and that’s a fact, and that’s God’s truth.”

“Well, well, that is queer!—I never heard man speak as you speak.”

There was a cynical incredulity in Mildred Tarnley’s tone.

“Listen, now—here we be alone, eh?” said he, looking round.

“Ye may say so,” she said, with a discontented emphasis.

“I’d tell you a thing in a minute, old Tarnley, only they say old vessels must leak. Will you be staunch? Will ye hold your tongue on’t if I tell you a thing?”

“Ay,” said Mildred.

“Because one barking dog sets all the street a barking, ye know,” he added.

“Ye know me well. Master Harry. I could hold my tongue always when there was need.”

“And that’s the reason I’m going to talk to you,” said Harry, “and no one knows it, mind, but yourself, and if it gets out I’ll know who to blame.”

“’T won’t get out for me,” said Mildred, looking hard at him.

“One devil drubs another, they say, and if the young Squire upstairs has a foot in the mud I’ve one in the mire,” said Harry. “If his hat has a hole, my shoe has another. And ’tis a bad bargain where both are losers.”

“Well, I can’t see it nohow. I don’t know what you’re drivin’ at; but I think you’re no fool. Master Harry; ye never was that, and it’s a cunning part, I’ve heered, to play the fool well.”

And Harry did look very cunning as she cited this saw, and for a moment also a little put out. But he quickly resumed, and staring in her face surlily, said he,——

“Well, I am cunnin’; I hope I am; and you’re a little bit that way yourself, old Mildred; no fool, anyhow, that ever I could see.

“Crafty I may be, I ha’ lived years and seen folk enough to make me, but my heart weren’t set never on pelf.

‘A thousand pounds and a bottle of hay

Is all one at doom’s-day.’”

“So it is,” said he, “but there’s a good many days ’twixt this and doom’s-day yet and money’ll do more than my lord’s letter, any place, and I’ll not deny I’d like Wyvern well enough if my hand was free to lay on it. But I a’ thought it well over, and it wouldn’t fit me nohow. I can’t.”

“Ye’re the first Fairfield I ever heered say that Wyvern wouldn’t fit him,” said she.

“Is that beer in the jug?” he asked, nodding toward a brown jug that stood on the dresser.

“Yes, sir. Would ye like a drink?”

“Ay, if it baint stale.”

“Fresh drew, just as you was coming in, sir,” said she, setting it down on the table. “I’ll fetch ye a glass.”

“Never mind a glass, a rantin’ dog like me can drink out of a well-bucket, much less a brown jug,” and clutching it carelessly by the handle he quaffed as long and deep a draught as his ancestor and namesake might after his exhausting flight from Worcester a couple of hundred years before.

“You are puzzled, old girl, and don’t know whether I be in jest or earnest. But, good or bad, wives must be had—you know, and you never heard of a Fairfield yet that was lucky in a wife, or hadn’t a screw loose sometime about they sort o’ cattle; and ye’re an old servant, Mildred, and though you be a bit testy, you’re true, and I may tell ye things I wouldn’t tell no one, not the Governor, not my little finger; I’d burn my shirt if it knew; and ye won’t tell no one, upon your soul, and as ye hope to be saved?”

“I can keep counsel, I’m good at that,” said Mildred.

“Well, I need not say no more than this: there’s them that’s quiet enough now, and will be, that if they thought I was Squire o’ Wyvern I’d make the world too hot to hold me. I’d rather be Harry Fairfield at fair and market than archbishop of hell, I can tell ye, havin’ no likin’ for fine titles and honour, and glory, wi’ a tethered leg and a sore heart; better to go your own gait, and eat your mouthful where ye find it, than go in gold wi’ a broken back, that’s all, and that’s truth. If ’twas otherwise I’d be down in the mouth, I can tell you, about the young gen-man upstairs, and I’d a’ liked his birthday no better than a shepherd loves a bright Candlemas; but as it is—no matter, ’tis better to me than a pot o’ gold, and I drink the little chap’s health, and I wish she had a sieve full o’ them, and that’s God’s truth, as I stand here,” and Harry backed the declaration with an oath.

“Well, I believe you, Harry,” said Mildred.

“And I’m glad o’t,” she added after a pause.

“I’m very glad—there has been ill blood o’er much in the family,” she resumed; “it’s time there should be peace and brotherhood, God knows—and—I’m glad to hear you speak like that, sir.”

And, so saying, she extended her dark, hard palm to him, and he took it, and laughed.

“Every man knows where his own shoe pinches,” said he; “’tis a shrewish world, old girl, and there’s warts and chilblains where no one guesses, but things won’t be for ever; ’tis a long lane, ye know, that has no turning, and the burr won’t stick always.”

“Ay, ay, Master Harry, as I’ve heard the old folks say, ‘Be the day never so long, at last Cometh even-song.’”

“And how is the lady herself?” said he.

“As bad as can be, a’most,” answered Mildred.

“Who says so?” he asked.

“The doctor; he has no opinion of her, I’m afeared, poor little thing.”

“The doctor—does he?—but is he any good?”

“It’s Doctor Willett of Wykeford. He’s thought a deal of by most folk down here. I don’t know, I’m sure, but he seems very nice about her, I think, and kind, and looks after the baby too.”

“That’s right; I’m glad o’ that. I’d pay something myself rather than it should be neglected; and what does he say o’ the boy?”

“Doin’ very well—nothin’ against him; but, you know, ’tis only a few days, and o’er soon to judge yet a bit.”

“I wonder could she see me for a minute?”

“Hoot, man! How came that in your head? Why, the room’s dark, and she never speaks above a whisper, and not five words then, and only, may be, thrice in a day. Ye don’t know what way she is; ’tis just the turn o’ a halfpenny whether she’ll live till mornin’.”

“That’s bad. I didn’t think she could be that bad,” said he.

“She is, then.”

“’Twould do her no harm to know that there’s some rent—about thirty pounds—due from Riddleswake. I’ll give Tom a bit of a note to Farmer Wycraft, and he’ll pay it. It’s settled to her for her life—I know that—and she’ll be wantin’ money; and see you that the child wants nothing. I have lots o’ reasons why that child should do well. This ain’t bad beer, I can tell you. Another mug of it wouldn’t hurt me, and if you can make me out a mouthful of anything; I’m beastly hungry.”

A bit of cold corned beef, some cheese, and a loaf Mildred Tarnley produced, and Harry made a hearty meal in the kitchen, not disturbing that engrossing business by conversation, while old Mildred went to and fro, into the scullery and back again, and busied herself about her saucepans and dishes.

“Now get me a pen and ink and a bit o’ paper. There’s no one in the house will be the worse of a little money, and I’ll write that note.” And so he did, and handed it to Mildred with the air of a prince who was bestowing a gift.

“There I That will make the mare go for a while longer; and, look ye, where’s old Dulcibella Crane? I’d like to shake hands wi’ her before I go.”

“Upstairs, wi’ her mistress.”

“Tell her to come down and see me for a minute; and mind, old Tarnley, ye must write to me often—tomorrow and next day—and—where’s my hat ?—on my head, by Jove—and so on; for if anything should happen—if little Alice should founder, you know—there should be some one, when she’s off the hooks, to look after things a bit; and the Governor won’t do nothing—put that out o’ yer head—and ’twill all fall on my shoulders; and send her down to me—old Dulcibella Crane, I mean—for I’m going, and unless I’m wanted I mayn’t see ye here for many a day.”

Thus charged, Mildred Tarnley went away, and in a few minutes old Dulcibella appeared.

From her, after he had examined her as to the state of the lady upstairs, and of her baby, he exacted the same promise as that which Mildred had made him—a promise to write often to Wyvern.

He did not mind making her the same odd confidence which he had made to Mildred. There was no need, he thought, for Dulcibella was soft-hearted, and somewhat soft-headed, too, and by no means given to suspicion; and as she had not the evil that attends shrewdness, neither had she the reliability, and she was too much given to talking, and his secret would then become more public than he cared to make it.

“And tell the mistress I wish her joy, do you mind, and I’d like to stand godfather to the boy whenever the christenin’ is, and to put me to any work she thinks I’m fit for; and tell her I wrote about a handful o’ rent that’s coming to her; and good-by, and take care o’ yourself; and who’s nursin’ the baby?”

“We feeds it wi’ goat’s milk and sich like, by direction of the doctor. Wouldn’t ye like to see it?”

“Not this time—I’m off—but—who’s taking charge of him “?”

“Among us the poor little darling is, but mostly me.”

“Well, that’s right, and look after it well, and I’ll give ye a bit o’ money when—when it’s on a little, and don’t forget to write; and ye needn’t say nout to old Mildred, for she’s goin’ to write too, and might take huff if she knew that you was writin’ also, do you see?”

“Yes, Master Harry, surely none shall know, and I’m thinkin’ ye would like to see it, and it won’t be nothin’ the worse, ye’ll find, and it is such a darlin’,”

“And so like its poor papa that’s gone, eh? But I haven’t no time, dear, this bout, and you may give his worship my kind regards, and tell him the more he thrives the better I’m pleased, and old chimnies won’t stand for ever, and he won’t be long kept out of his own, and I’ll keep them aloof that would make or meddle or mar, and good-by, old Dulcie Crane, and mind what I said.”

And clapping her on the shoulder with his strong hand, he smiled after his fashion, and wagged his head and strode into the yard, mounted his horse, and was soon far away on the road from Carwell Grange.

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