The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 7.

Sergeant-Major Archdale.

Harry Fairfield was a captain in his county militia. It was right that the House of Fairfield should be represented in that corps. Charlie, who was of an easy compliant temper, would have taken the commission and the light duties, if that dignity had been put upon him. But Harry chose it. It extended his acquaintance, added to his opportunities of selling his horses, and opened some houses, small and great, to him, in a neighbourly fashion, when making his circuits to fair and market. He knew something of games, too, and was shrewd at whist and draughts, and held a sure cue at billiards. On the whole, his commission turned him in something in the course of a year.

It was upon some regimental business that Sergeant–Major Archdale was awaiting his return at Wyvern.

Harry Fairfield, as it happened, was thinking of the Sergeant as he rode into the yard in gloomy rumination.

“Well, Archdale, what’s the news?” said he, as he dismounted.

The news was not a great deal. After he had heard it Harry paused for a time, and said he,—

“Quite well, Archdale, I hope?”

“Well, sir, I thank you.”

Again Harry paused.

“How did you come, Archdale.”

“Walked, sir.”

“Walked, oh! very well.”

Here was another pause.

“Archdale, you must go in. Here, Clinton, get some luncheon for Sergeant–Major Archdale. A drink of beer and a mouthful won’t do you no harm; and, Archdale, before you go let me know; I may have a word, and I’ll say it walking down the avenue. Get Mr. Archdale some luncheon, Clinton, and some sherry.”

“I thank you, sir,” said the Sergeant–Major. “’Tis more like a supper for me; I’ve had my dinner, sir, some time.”

And with a stiff military step the Sergeant followed Clinton into the house.

The Sergeant–Major was above the middle size, and stout of body, which made him look shorter. His hair was closely cut, and of a pale blue iron gray. His face was rather pale, and smooth as marble; full and long, with a blue chin, and a sort of light upon his fixed lineaments, not exactly a smile, but a light that was treacherous and cruel. For the rest his military coat, which was of the old-fashioned cut, and his shako, with all the brasses belonging to them, and his Wellington boots, were natty and brilliant, and altogether unexceptionable, and a more perfectly respectable looking man you could not have found in his rank of life in the country.

Without a word, with a creak in his boots, he marched slowly in, with inflexible countenance, after Clinton.

The Squire met Harry in the hall.

“Hollo! it’s a week a most since I set eyes on ye—ye’ll look out some other place for that mad filly ye bought of Jim Hardress: she’s broke a boy’s arm this morning in the stable; I’ll not look after him, I promise ye; ’tis your affair, mind, and you better look sharp, and delay may cost ye money. Ye’re over clever. The devil owes ye a cake this many a day, and he’s a busy bishop, and he’ll pay ye a loaf yet, I promise you. She shan’t be kicking my men—and she bites the manger besides. Get her away, mind, or, by my soul, I’ll sell her for the damage.”

So old Squire Harry stalked on, and the last scion of his stock grinned after him, sulkily, and snarled something between his teeth, so soon as he was quite out of hearing.

“Who’s arm’s broke, Dick, or is it all a damned lie o’ the Governor’s?” inquired Harry of a servant who happened to be passing at that moment.

“Well, yes, sir, Jim Slade’s arm was broke in the stable. ’Twas a kick, sir.”

“What kicked him?”

“The new horse that came in on Thursday, Sir.”

“Mare, ye mean. Why that thing’s a reg’lar lamb; she never kicked no one. A child might play wi’ her. More like ’twas the Governor kicked him. And what did he do wi’ his arm?”

“The doctor, down in the town, set it, and bound it up wi’ splints, sir.”

“Well, didn’t tell him, mind that—I wasn’t here, ye know—good-natured of the doctor, I’ll not deny, but he shan’t be sending in no bills to me. And how’s Jim since—gettin’ on nicely, I’ll swear.”

“I don’t know, sir; I didn’t see him since.”

“Hoot! then, it’s all right, I warrant ye, and ye can tell old Slade, if he likes it, I’ll get him a bit of a writin’ to the hospital for Jim; but it won’t be nothin’—not a bit.”

And with this economical arrangement, Harry dismissed the subject for the present, and took his stand upon the hall-door steps, and smoked his pipe, awaiting the close of Sergeant–Major Archdale’s repast.

The long shadows and lights of golden sunset faded before the guest appeared, and twilight and the moths were abroad.

Almost as the servant informed Harry Fairfield that Mr. Archdale was coming round to the hall-door to receive his commands, the Sergeant–Major appeared in front of the house, and Harry Fairfield stepped down to the court and was received by the militia-man with a military salute.

“I’ll walk a bit wi’ you, Archdale; I want a word about another matter—not regimental business. We’ll walk down towards the gate.”

Stiffly and silently the Sergeant–Major marched beside the smoking gentleman, who having got a little way from the house, knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and dropped it into his pocket.

“That militia sogerin’ is beggarly pay for a man like you, Archdale; and I’ll want a clever fellow, by-and-by—for when the Squire goes off the hooks, and that can’t be a long way off—I’ll have a deal o’ trouble lookin’ after things ; for there’s a young chap to succeed, and a plaguy long minority ’twill be, and one way or another the trouble will fall to my share, bein’ uncle, ye see, to the little fellow. Am I making it plain what I mean?”

“Quite plain, sir,” said the cold voice of the Sergeant-Major.

“Well, there’s the property down at Warhampton, a devilish wide stretch o’ land for the rental. There’s good shootin’ there, and two keepers, but I doubt they makes away wi’ the game, and they want lookin’ after; and there’s the old park o’ Warhampton—ye know that part o’ the country?”

“Yes, sir, well.”

“I know you do. Well, it should turn in a good penny more than the Governor gets. I can’t bring it home to them, but I know what I think. Where the horse lies down, the hair will be foun’, and I doubt the park-book’s doctored. There’ll be a sort o’ steward wanted there, d’ye see. D’ye know Noulton farm?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, it’s a nice thing, a snug house, and as many acres as you’d want to begin wi’; the tenant’s going after harvest—you’d be the very man for’t, and I’ll tell them I’ll do all I can to serve my nephew, but I must live myself too. I’ve nout but my time and my wits to turn a penny by, and if I try to manage for him I’ll want the best help I can get, d’ye see? and you re the man I want; I’ve got no end o’ a character o’ ye, for honesty and steadiness and the like; and ye’re a fellow can use his eyes, and hold his tongue; and ye’d have the farm and the house—ye know them—rent free; and the grazing of three cows on the common, and it’s none o’ your overstocked, bare commons, but as sweet a bit o’ grass as ye’d find in the kingdom; and ye shall a’ fifty pounds a year beside; and the farm’s nigh forty acres, and it’s worth close on a hundred more. And—if ye do all we want well, and I’m sure you will—I’ll never lose sight o’ ye while grass grows and you and me lives.”

“I thank you, sir,” said the cold, clear voice of Archdale.

“And there’s a little bit of a secret—I wouldn’t tell another—about myself. Archdale. I’ll tell you, though,” said Harry, lowering his voice.

“Yes, sir,” said Archdale, in the same cold stern way, which irritated Harry.

“Well, I’m not talking, mind, to Sergeant–Major Archdale, if you like the other thing, at Noulton, best.”

“Noulton best, sir, certainly; thank you.”

“But to Mr. Archdale of Noulton, and steward of Warhampton, mind ye, and ’twill be settled next harvest.”

“I thank you, sir.”

“Don’t walk so quick, we’re gettin’ over the ground too fast. Well, there’s a thing you’ll have to keep dark for me.”

“You’ll find me confidential, sir; my superior officers did.”

“I know that well—I know you, Archdale, and that is why I chose you out o’ a thousand, and it’s a confidential fellow—damned confidential—I want, for the country’s all one as the town for talk, and tongues will keep goin’ like the bells on a sheep-walk, and there’s many a bit o’ nonsense, that’s no great odds when all’s told, that a chap wouldn’t like to have made the laugh or the talk o’ the country side.”

“Yes, sir,” said the inflexible Sergeant–Major.

“You held the same rank in the line, Sergeant–Major, didn’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” said the Sergeant–Major, and saluted from habit.

“I thought so, and that says a deal for you, Mr. Archdale; and I remember one of your papers says you were the youngest sergeant ever made in your regiment?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, that says a lot too, and a very responsible office that is. Egad, from all I ’a seen, I’d say the sergeants has more to do with the state of a regiment than all the other officers, commissioned or non-commissioned, put together.”

“There’s a good deal depends on ’em, sir.”

“You keep to yourself, Archdale; that’s the way to rise.”

“I was a man of few acquaintances, sir, and confidential with my superior officers, and few words, but I meant ’em, sir, and made the men do their duty.”

“That’s the man for my money,” said Harry. “Will ye be ready for Noulton Farm by the middle o’ next month?”

“Yes, sir, I expect.”

“I’ll settle that for ye, then, and the pay and the commonage. I’ll settle that wi’ my father tomorrow, and we’ll get the writings drawn.”

“I thank you, sir.”

“And, wait a bit. I told you,” said Harry, perhaps a very little embarrassed, “there’s another little thing you must manage for me.

“Yes, sir.”

He almost wished Mr. Archdale to ask questions and raise difficulties. This icy surface, beneath which he saw nothing, began to embarrass him.

“Every fellow’s a fool once or twice in his life, you know, Archdale; and that’s the way rogues makes money, and honest chaps is sold—

‘No fools at the fair,

No sale for bad ware,’

you know?”

He looked for sympathy in the face of the Sergeant–Major, but he found there neither sympathy nor ridicule, but a serene, dignified, supercilious composure.

“Well, I’m not married, and more’s the pity,” he said, affecting a kind of jocularity, uneasily; “but among ’em they’ve made me a present of a brat they calls my son, and I must just put him to nurse and provide for him, I do suppose; and keep all quiet, and ye’ll look out some decent poor body that lives lonely and won’t ask no questions nor give no trouble, but be content wi’ a trifle, and I’ll gi’e’t to you every quarter for her, and she’ll never hear my name, mind, nor be the wiser who owns it or where it came from. I’d rayther she thought ’twas a poor body’s—if they think a fellow’s well-to-do it makes ’em unreasonable, and that’s the reason I pitched on you, Archdale, because ye’re a man o’ sense, and won’t be talkin’ like the pratin’ fools that’s goin’—and is it settled? is it a bargain?”

“Yes, sir, I thank you, quite,” said Archdale.

“Well, then, ye shall hear from me by the end o’ the week, and not a word, mind—till all’s signed and sealed—about Noulton Farm, and about t’other thing—never. The stars is comin’ out bright, and the sunset did ye mind; we’ll ’a frost tonight; it’s come dark very sudden; sharp air.”

He paused, but the non-commissioned officer did not venture a kindred remark, even an acquiescence in these meteorological speculations.

“And I heard the other day you made an organ for Mr. Arden. Is it true ?” said Harry, suddenly.

“Just a small thing, three stops, sir—diapason, principal, and dulciana.”

“Well, I don’t know nothing myself about such gear, except to hear the old organ o’ Wyvern o’ Sundays. But it’s clever o’ you. How did ye learn?”

“’Prenticed, sir, two years to an organ builder in “Westminster—Mr. Lomas—and he died, and I was put to the army,” said Archdale.

““Well, I may give ye a lift that way too. They were talkin’ of an organ for Warhampton Church. We’ll see. I’ll not forget.”

“I thank you, sir,” repeated Archdale. “Any more commands for me, sir?”

Mr. Archdale stood stiffly at the gate, drawn up, as it were, at right angles to Harry Fairfield.

“No, nothing, Archdale. I’m glad the thing suits you, and it may lie in my way yet to make them better than you think for. Good night, Archdale; good night, Sergeant–Major.”

“Good night, sir.”

And Archdale wheeled to his left, and with his back toward the village of Wyvern, marched away at so stiff and regular a quick march that you could have fancied the accompaniment of the drums and fifes.

Harry stood at the iron gate, one half of which was open, and he kicked a stone listlessly into the road, and leaning on the old iron arabesques, he looked long after that portly figure receding in distance and melting in twilight.

“Night’s the mother o’ thought, I’ve heard say,” said Harry, rousing himself, and swinging the great valve into its place with a clang. “But thought won’t do to dine on. Hollo! Gate! gate! Jorrocks, anyone,” he shouted. “Lock the gate, some of you, and make all sure for the night.”

And with these orders to Jorrocks, he marched back under the ancestral trees to the old hall of Wyvern. Who was to keep the hearth of the Fairfields aglow? The light of the old Squire’s life was flaring low in the socket, a tiny taper was just lighted in darksome Carwell, and Harry Fairfield—was he ever to take his turn and illuminate the Wyvern world?

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