The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 10.

A Drive to Twyfoed.

In less than ten minutes the doctor came down.

“Well?” said Harry, over his shoulder, turning briskly from the window.

“No material change,” replied the doctor. “It’s not a case in which medicine can do much. The most cheering thing about it is that her strength has not given way, but you know it is an anxious case—a very anxious case.”

“I hope they are taking care of the child. Old Dulcibella Crane would be a deal better for that sort of thing than that dry old cake, Mildred Tarnley. But then Ally would half break her heart if ye took old Dulcibella from her, always used to her, you know. And what’s best to be done? It would be bad enough to lose poor Ally, but it would be worse to lose the boy, for though I’m willing to take my share of work for the family, there’s one thing I won’t do, and that’s to marry. I’m past the time, and damn me if I’d take half England and do it. I’d like to manage and nurse the estate for him, and be paid of course, like other fellows, and that’s what would fit my knuckle. But, by Jove, if they kill that boy among them there will be no one to maintain the old name of Wyvern; and kill him they will, if they leave him in the hard hands of that wiry old girl, Mildred Tarnley. She’s a cast-iron old maid, with the devil’s temper, and she has a dozen other things to mind beside, and I know the child will die, and I don’t know anything to advise, damn me if I do.”

“The house is in confusion, and very little attention for the child, certainly,” said Doctor Willett.

“And that damned scarlatina, beyond a doubt, is in the glen there.”

The old doctor shrugged and shook his head.

“I talked to the Governor a bit,”’ said Harry, “thinking he might have the child over to Wyvern, where it would be safe and well looked after, but he hates the whole lot. You know it was a stolen match, and it’s no use trying in that quarter. You’re going now, and I’ll walk a little bit beside you; maybe you’ll think of something, and I haven’t no money, ye may guess, to throw away; but rather than the child shouldn’t thrive I’d make out what would answer.”

“That’s very kind of you, sir,” said Doctor Willett, looking at him, admiringly. “They certainly have their hands pretty full here, and a little neglect sometimes goes a long way with a child.”

So they walked out together, talking, and when the doctor got on his horse Harry walked beside him part of the way towards Cressley Common.

When he came back to the Grange Harry asked to see old Dulcibella, and he told her, standing on the lobby and talking in whispers,

“The doctor says she’s not able to understand anything as she is at present.”

“Well, ye know she’s wanderin’ just now, but she may clear up a bit for a while, by-and-by.”

“Well, the doctor says she’s not to be told a word that can fret her, and particularly about the child, for he says this is no place for it, and he won’t be answerable for its life if it’s left longer here, and there’s scarlatina and fever all round, and ye have as much as ye can well manage here already, so few as there is, without nursing children; and Doctor Willett says he’ll have it well attended to by a person near Wykeford, and I’ll bring old Mildred over with it to the place this evening, and we’ll get it out o’ reach o’ the sickness that’s goin’.”

“Please God!” said Dulcibella, after a pause.

“Amen,” added Harry, and walked down whistling low, with his hands in his pockets, to tell the same story to old Mildred Tarnley.

“’Tis a pity,” she said, darkly, “the child should be sent away from its home.”

“Especially with scarlet fever and typhus all round,” said Harry.

“And away from its mother,” she continued.

“Much good its mother is to it.”

“Just now she mayn’t be able to do much.”

“Oh! but she can though,” interrupted Harry, “she may give it the fever she’s got, whatever that is.”

“Well, I can’t say nothin’ else but it’s a pity the child should be took away from its natural home, and its own mother,” repeated Mrs. Tarnley.

“And who’s takin’ care o’t now?” demanded Harry.

“Lilly Dogger,” answered she.

“Lilly Dogger! just so; the slut! you said yourself, today, you wouldn’t trust a kitten with!”

Mrs. Tarnley couldn’t deny it. She sniffed and tossed up her chin a little.

“Ye forget, lass, ’twas never a Wyvern fashion nursin’ the babbies at home, wasn’t, nor Charlie, poor fellow! nor Willie, nor none of us. ’Twas a sayin’ with the old folk, and often ye heered it, ‘ one year a nurse, and seven year the worse;’ and we all was tall, well-thriven lads, and lives long, without fever or broken bones or the like, floors us untimely; and, anyhow, the doctor says, so it must be. There’s no one here, wi’ all this sickness in the house, has time to look after it, and the child will just come to grief unless his orders be followed. So stick on your bonnet and roll up the young chap in blankets, and I’ll drive ye over to the place he says. It brings me a bit out o’ my way, but kith and kin, ye know; and I told the doctor if he went to any expense, I’d be answerable to him myself, and I’ll gi’e ye a pound for good luck. So ye see I’m not sich a screw all out as ye took me for.”

“I thank you. Master Harry, and I’ll not deny but ’twas always the way wi’ the family to send out the children to nurse.”

“And what Mr. Charles would ’a done himself if he was alive, as every one of us knows; and for that reason what the lady upstairs would ’a done if she had ’a bin able to talk about anything. I’m sorry I have to drive ye over, but I’ll bring ye back tonight, and ye know I couldn’t drive and manage the babby, and the folk would be wonderin’ when the child set up the pipes in the tax—cart, and I’d soon have the hue-and-cry behind me.”

“Hoot! I wouldn’t allow no such thing as let the poor little thing be druv so, all alone, like a parcel o’ shop goods. No, no. The family’s not come to that yet a bit, I hope,” cried Mrs. Tarnley.

“Gi’e me a lump o’ bread and cheese and a mug o’ beer. I don’t think I ever was here before without a bit and a sup, and it wouldn’t be lucky, ye know, to go without enough to swear by, anyhow; but there’s no hurry, mind—ye needn’t be ready for a good hour to come, for Willett won’t have no nurse there sooner.”

Harry went out and had a talk with Tom Clinton, and smoked his pipe for half an hour; and Tom thought that the young Squire was dull and queerish, and perhaps he was not very well, for he did not eat his bread and cheese, but drank a deal more beer than usual instead.

“Bring a lot o’ lolly-pops and milk, or whatever it likes best, wi’ ye, to keep it quiet. I can’t abide the bawlin’ o’ children.”

Lilly Dogger, with red eyes and an inflamed nose, blubbered heart-broken, and murmured to the baby—lest old Mildred should overhear and blow her up—her leave-takings and endearments, as she held it close in her arms.

Beautiful though to us men, utterly mysterious is the feminine love of babies, Lilly Dogger had led a serene, if not a very cheerful life, at Carwell Grange up to this. But now came this parting, and her peace was shivered.

Old Mildred had now got up, with her threadbare brown cloak, and her grizzly old bonnet, and had arranged the child on her lap; so, at last, all being ready, the tax-cart was in motion.

It was late in the autumn now. The long days were over. They had dawdled away a longer time than they supposed before starting. It turned out a long drive, much longer than Mildred Tarnley had expected. The moon rose, and they had got into a part of the country with which she was not familiar.

They had driven fourteen miles or upward through a lonely and somewhat melancholy country. It was, I suppose, little better than moor, but detached groups of trees, possibly the broken and disappearing fragments of what had once been a forest, gave it a sad sort of picturesqueness.

Mildred Tarnley was not a garrulous person, and had not spent her life at Car well Grange without learning the accomplishment of taciturnity, but she remarked and resented the gloomy silence of Master Harry, who had never once addressed a word to her since they started.

Toward the close of their journey she observed that Harry Fairfield looked frequently at his watch, and hurried the pace of the mare, and altogether seemed to grow more and more anxious. They had been obliged to pull up twice to enable her to feed the baby, who was now fast asleep.

“’Tis right,” she thought, “he should look ahead and mind his driving, while we’re getting on, though a word now and then would not have troubled him much. But when we stopped to feed the child there was no excuse. He got down and settled the buckle at the horse’s head. He got up again, and drew the rug over his knees, and he leaned on his elbow back upon the cushion, and he never so much as asked was me or the baby alive!”

They now reached a gentle hollow, in which a shallow brook crossed the road, and some four or five habitations of an humble sort stood at either side; one under the shade of two gigantic ash trees, had a sign depending in front, being a wayside inn of the humblest dimensions.

A village this could hardly be termed; and at the near end Harry pulled up before a building a little above the rank of a cottage, old and quaint, with a large-leafed plant that, in the moonlight, looked like a vine, growing over the prop of a sort of porch that opened under the gable.

If the mare was quiet at the Grange, you may be sure that her run to Twyford had not made her less so.

Harry helped old Tarnley down, with her little charge in her arms, and led her silently into the neat little room, with tiers of delf ornaments, in brilliant colours, on the cupboard, and a Dutch clock ticking in the nook by the fire where some faggots crackled, and a candle was burning on the table in a bright brass candlestick.

Mrs. Tarnley’s experienced eye surveyed the room and its belongings. She descried, moreover, a ladder stair which mounted to a loft, from whose dormant window, as she looked from her seat in the tax—cart, she had observed the light of a candle.

Very humble it undoubtedly was, but nothing could be more scrupulously clean. It had an air of decency, too, that was reassuring. There was a woman there in a cloak and bonnet, who rose as they entered and courtesied.

Harry set a lumbering armchair by the fire, and beckoned Tarnley to occupy it. Then he asked:

“How soon is the Warhampton ’bus expected?”

“Twenty-five minutes, please, sir,” answered the woman, with another courtesy and a glance at the clock.

“That—woman from Willett’s is coming by the ’bus,” he said gruffly to Mildred. “’Tis a snug little place this, and as clean as a bone after a hungry dog. Would you mind,” he continued, addressing the stranger or hostess, whichsoever she might be, “tellin’ Archdale, if he’s here, I want a word wi’ him at the door?”

“He’s over the way I think, sir, with the horse. I’ll call him, please, sir.”

So off she went.

“This is where poor Charles said he’d like to have his child nursed—Twyford; ’tis sweet air about here, considered. He was expectin’ a babby, poor fellow, and he talked a deal wi’ me about it the day he was took “Wouldn’t ye like a bit to eat and a glass of beer, or somethin’? They have lots over the way, for as poor as it looks; and here’s the pound I promised ye, lass, for luck, ye know, when we was leaving the Grange.”

He drew forth the hand with which he had been fumbling in his pocket and placed the piece of gold in hers.

“Thank you, Master Harry,” she said, making a little instinctive effort to rise for the purpose of executing a courtesy. But Harry, with his hand on her shoulder, repressed it.

“Sit ye quiet, and rest yourself, after joggin’ all this way; and what’s that bundle?”

“The baby’s things, sir.”

“All right. Well, and what will ye have?”

“I feel a bit queerish, Master Harry, I thank ye. I’d rather not eat nothin’ till I gets home, and I’ll get my cup o’ tea then.”

“Not eat!”

“Nothin’, sir, I thank ye, Master Harry.”

“Well,” said Harry, so far forth relieved, but resolved, cost what it might, to make Mildred happy on this particular occasion, “if ye won’t eat, I’m hanged but ye shall drink some. I tell ye what it shall be, a jug of sherry negus. Come, ye must.”

“Well, Master Harry, as so ye will have it, I’ll not say ye nay,” consented Mildred graciously.

Harry went himself to the little pot-house over the way, and saw this nectar brewed, and brought it over in his own hand—the tankard in one hand and the glass in the other.

“Devilish good stuff it is, Mildred, and I’m glad, old lass, I thought of it. I remember you liked that brew long ago, and much good may it do you, girl.”

He was trying to be kind.

He had set it down on the table, and now, as he spoke, he laid his hand on her shoulder, and she thought she might have wronged Master Harry with his rough jests, and shrewd ways, and that he had more of the Fairfield in his nature than she had always given him credit for.

Out he went again, and talked with Archdale, who was in plain clothes, and a round hat, with a great coat buttoned up to his smooth blue chin, and a gig—whip in his hand. Archdale, as usual, was severely placid and brief, and as Harry talked with him outside, Mildred Tarnley thought she heard a step in the loft over her head, and another sound that excited her curiosity. She listened, but all was quiet again.

Harry returned in comparatively high spirits.

“Well, Mrs. Tarnley,” said he, “the ’bus is a bit late, I’m thinkin’, but anyhow, he can’t wait,” and he pointed over his shoulder at Mr. Archdale who stood at the door; “he’ll drive you back again, and he knows the road as far as Cressley Common, and you can show him the rest,—and you’ll want to be back again with poor Alice,—and the doctor—will look in here, often in the week—almost every day—and tell you how the little chap’s going on. And, see, here’s a very respectable woman—what’s her name?—she was here this minute, and she won’t be leaving till after the ’bus comes in, and you leave her the baby, and I’ll wait here till I see it in charge of the nurse that’s coming from Wykeford. Come in, will ye?—not you—the woman, I mean. Now, Mildred, give her the baby.”

The woman had a gentle, cheerful, and honest face; and looked down with the angelic light of a woman’s tenderness on the sleeping face of the little baby.

“Lord, love it,” she murmured, smiling. “What a darling little face!”

Mildred Tarnley looked down on it, too. She said nothing. She bit her lips hard, and her old eyes filled up with tears that welled over as she surrendered the baby, without a word, and then hastily she went out, mounted to her seat in the tax-cart, and was driven swiftly away by a companion as silent as he who had conveyed her there.

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