The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 5.

The Terrace Garden.

Alice Maybell grew up very pretty; not a riant beauty, without much colour, rather pale, indeed, and a little sad. What struck one at first sight was a slender figure, with a prettiness in every motion. A clear-tinted oval face, with very large dark gray eyes, such as Chaucer describes in his beauties as “eyes gray as glass,” with very long lashes; her lips of a very brilliant red, with even little teeth, and when she smiled a great many tiny soft dimples.

This pretty creature led a lonely life at Wyvern. Between her and the young squires, Charles and Henry, there intervened the great gulf of twenty years, and she was left very much to herself.

Sometimes she rode into the village with the old Squire; she sat in the Wyvern pew every Sunday; hut except on those and like occasions, the townsfolk saw little of her.

“’Taint after her father or mother she takes with them airs of hers; there was no pride in the Vicar or poor Mrs. Maybell, and she’ll never be like her mother, a nice little thing she was.”

So said Mrs. Ford of the George Inn at Wyvern—but what she called pride was in reality shyness.

About Miss Maybell there was a very odd rumour afloat in the town. It had got about that this beautiful young lady was in love with old Squire Fairfield—or at least with his estate of Wyvern.

The village doctor was standing with his back to his drawing-room fire, and the newspaper in his left hand lowered to his knee—as he held forth to his wife, and romantic old Mrs. Diaper—at the tea-table.

“If she is in love with that old man, as they say, take my word for it, she’ll not be long out of a mad-house.”

“How do you mean, my dear?” asked his wife.

“I mean it is not love at all, but incipient mania; Her lonely life up there at Wyvern, would make any girl odd, and it’s setting her mad—that’s how I mean.”

“My dear sir,” remonstrated fat Mrs. Diaper, who was learned as well as romantic, “romance takes very whimsical shape at times; Vanessa was in love with Dean Swift, and very young men were passionately in love with Ninon de l’Enclos.”

“Tut—stuff—did I ever hear!” exclaimed Mrs. Buttle, derisively, “who ever thought of love or romance in the matter? The young lady thinks it would be very well to be mistress of Wyvern, and secure a comfortable jointure, and so it would; and if she can make that unfortunate old man fancy her in love with him, she’ll bring him to that, I have very little doubt. I never knew a quiet minx that wasn’t sly—smooth water.”

In fact, through the little town of Wyvern, shut out for the most part from the forest grounds, and old gray manor-house of the same name, it came to be buzzed abroad and about that, whether for love, or from a motive more sane, though less refined, pretty Miss Alice Maybell had set her heart on marrying her surly old benefactor, whose years were enough for her grandfather.

It was an odd idea to get into people’s heads; but why were her large soft gray eyes always following the Squire by stealth?

And, after all, what is incredible of the insanities of ambition? or the subtilty of women?

In the stable-yard of Wyvern Master Charles had his foot in the stirrup, and the old fellow with a mulberry-coloured face, and little gray eyes, who held the stirrup-leather at the other side, said, grinning—

“I wish ye may get it.”

“Get what?” said Charles Fairfield, arresting his spring for a moment and turning his dark and still handsome face, with a hard look at the man, for there was something dry and sly in his face and voice.

“What we was talking of—the old house and the land,” said the man.

“Hey, is that all?” said the young squire as he was still called at four-and-forty, throwing himself lightly into the saddle. “I’m pretty easy about that, why, what’s the matter?”

“What if the old fellow took it in his head to marry?”

“Marry—eh? well, if he did, I don’t care; but what the devil makes you talk like that? why, man, there’s black and white, seal and parchment for that, the house and acres are settled, Tom; and who do you think would marry him?”

“You’re the last to hear it; any child in the town could tell you, Miss Alice Maybell.”

“Oh! do they really? I did not think of that,” said the young squire, first looking in old Tom’s hard gray eyes. Then for a moment at his own boots thoughtfully, and then he swung himself into the saddle, and struck his spur in his horse’s side, and away he plunged, without another word.

“He don’t like it, not a bit,” said Tom, following him with askance look as he rode down the avenue. “No more do I, she’s always a-watching of the Squire, and old Harry does throw a sheep’s eye at her, and she’s a likely lass; what though he be old, it’s an old rat that won’t eat cheese.”

As Tom stood thus, he received a poke on the shoulder with the end of a stick, and looking round saw old Squire Harry.

The Squire’s face was threatening. “Turn about, damn ye, what were you saying to that boy o’ mine?”

“Nothin’ as I remember,” lied Tom, bluntly.

“Come, what was it?” said the hard old voice, sternly.

“I said Blackie’d be the better of a brushin-boot, that’s all, I mind.”

“You lie, I saw you look over your shoulder before you said it, and while he was talkin’ he saw me acomin’, and he looked away—I caught ye at it, ye pair of false, pratin’ scoundrels; ye were talkin’ o’ me—come, what did he say, sirrah ?

“Narra word about ye.”

“You lie; out wi’ it, sir, or I’ll make your head sing like the church bell.”

And he shook his stick in his great tremulous fist, with a look that Tom well knew.

“Narra word about you from first to last,” said Tom; and he cursed and swore in support of his statement, for a violent master makes liars of his servants, and the servile vices crop up fast and rank under the shadow of tyranny.

“I don’t believe you,” said the Squire irresolutely, “you’re a liar, Tom, a black liar; ye’ll choke wi’ lies some day—you—fool!”

But the Squire seemed partly appeased and stood with the point of his stick now upon the ground, looking down on little Tom, with a somewhat grim and dubious visage, and after a few moment’s silence, he, asked—

“Where’s Miss Alice ?

“Takin’ a walk, sir.”

“Where, I say?”

“She went towards the terrace-garden,” answered Tom.

And toward the terrace-garden walked with a stately, tottering step the old Squire, with his great mastiff at his heels. Under the shadow of tall trees, one side of their rugged stems lighted with the yellow sunset, the other in soft gray, while the small birds were singing pleasantly high over his head among quivering leaves.

He entered the garden, ascending five worn steps of stone, between two weather-worn stone-urns. It is a pretty garden, all the prettier though sadder for its neglected state. Tall trees overtop its walls from without, and those gray walls are here and there overgrown with a luxuriant mantle of ivy; within are yew-trees and wonderfully tall old myrtles; laurels not headed down for fifty years, and grown from shrubs into straggling, melancholy trees. Its broad walls are now overgrown with grass, and it has the air and solitude of a ruin.

In this conventual seclusion, seated under the shade of a great old tree, he saw her. The old-fashioned rustic seat on which she sat is confronted by another, with what was once a gravel walk between.

More erect, shaking himself up as it were, he strode slowly toward her. Her head was supported by her hand—her book on her lap—she seemed lost in a reverie, as he approached unawares over the thick carpet of grass and weeds.

“Well, lass, what brings you here? You’ll be sneezing and coughing for this; won’t you—sneezing and coughing—a moist, dark nook ye’ve chosen,” said Squire Harry, placing himself, nevertheless, on the seat opposite.

She started at the sound of his voice, and as she looked up in his face, he saw that she had been crying.

The Squire said nothing, but stiffly scuffled and poked the weeds and grass at his feet, for a while, with the end of his stick, and whistled low, some dreary old bars to himself.

At length he said abruptly, but in a kind tone—

“You’re no child, now; you’ve grown up; you’re a well-thriven, handsome young woman, little Alice. There’s not one to compare wi’ ye; of all the lasses that comes to Wyvern Church ye bear the bell, ye do, ye bear the bell; ye know it. Don’t ye? Come, say lass; don’t ye know there’s none to compare wi’ ye ?

“Thank you, sir. It’s very good of you to think so—you’re always so kind,” said pretty Alice, looking very earnestly up in his face, her large tearful eyes wider than usual, and wondering, and, perhaps, hoping for what might come next.

“I’ll be kinder, maybe; never ye mind; ye like Wyvern, lass—the old house; well, it’s snug, it is. It’s a good old English house; none o’ your thin brick—walls and Greek pillars, and scrape o’ rotten plaster, like my Lord Wrybroke’s sprawling house, they think so fine—but they don’t think it, only they say so, and they lie, just to flatter the peer; damn them. They go to London and learn courtiers’ ways there; that wasn’t so when I was a boy; a good old gentleman that kept house and hounds here was more, by a long score, than half a dozen fine Lunnon lords; and you’re handsomer, Alice, and a deal better, and a better lady, too, than the’ best o’ them painted, fine ladies, that’s too nice to eat good beef or mutton, and can’t call a cabbage a cabbage, I’m told, and would turn up their eyes, like a duck in thunder, if a body told ’em to put on their pattens, and walk out, as my mother used, to look over the poultry. But what was that you were saying—I forget?”

“I don’t think, sir—I don’t remember—was I saying anything? I— I don’t recollect,” said Alice, who knew that she had contributed nothing to the talk.

“And you like Wyvern,” pursued the old man, with a gruff sort of kindness, “well, you’re right; it’s not bin a bad home for ye, and ye’d grieve to leave it. Ay—you’re right, there’s no place like it—there’s no air like it, and ye love Wyvern, and ye shan’t leave it, Alice.”

Alice Maybell looked hard at him; she was frightened, and also agitated. She grew suddenly pale, but the Squire not observing this, continued—

“That is, unless ye be the greatest fool in the country’s side. You’d miss Wyvern, and the old woods, and glens, and spinnies, and, mayhap, ye’d miss the old man a bit too—not so old as they give out though, and ’tisn’t always the old dog gives in first—mind ye—nor the young un that’s the best dog, neither. I don’t care that stick for my sons—no more than they for me—that’s reason. They’re no comfort to me, nor never was. They’d be devilish glad I was carried out o’ Wyvern Hall feet foremost.”

“Oh, sir, you can’t think —?”

“Hold your little fool’s tongue; I’m wiser than you. If it warn’t for you, child, I don’t see much my life would be good for. You don’t wish me dead, like those cubs. Hold your tongue, lass. I see some one’s bin frightenin’ you; but I’m not going to die for a bit. Don’t you take on; gie us your hand.”

And he took it, and held it fast in his massive grasp.

“Ye’ve been cryin ye fool. Them fellows bin sayin’ I’m breakin’ up. It’s a damned lie. I’ve a mind to send them about their business. I’d do it as ready as put a horse over a three-foot wall; but I’ve twelve years’ life in me yet. I’m good for fourteen years, if I live as long as my father did. He took his time about it, and no one heard me grumble, and I’ll take mine. Don’t ye be a fool; I tell you there’s no one goin’ to die here, that I know of. There’s gentle blood in your veins, and you’re a kind lass, and I’ll take care o’ you—mind, I’ll do it, and I’ll talk to you again.”

And so saying, he gave her hand a parting shake, and let it drop, and rising, he turned away, and strode stiffly from the garden. He was not often so voluble; and now the whole of this talk seemed to Alice Maybell a riddle. He could not be thinking of marrying; but was he thinking of leaving her the house and a provision for her life!

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