The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 11

How Fares the Child?

Dr. Willett called regularly at the Grange, and kind Lady Wyndale was daily there, taking the doctor’s directions about jellies, wines, and such other good things as the depressed state of the patient called for, notwithstanding her fever.

In a few days more he changed this treatment. The patient, in fact, could not be got to swallow these things. Dr. Willett became more perplexed. It was not exactly gastric fever, but he thought it more resembled that flickering treacherous fire than any other fever with which he was acquainted.

There are sicknesses that will not be cured through the body. The mind diseased, which is the parent of these impracticable maladies, of which, when people die, they are said to have died of a broken heart—disdains the apothecary’s boxes and bottles—knows nothing of them. The heart-ache, of which it is no more than an unusually protracted fit, has its seat in that which no apothecary can hear, see, feel, or understand. When the immortal, and in this life, inscrutable, spirit, which is the unseen lodger, the master, of the body, sickens, all sickens. In its pain all below it writhe and wither, and the body, its ultimate expression, reflects but cannot mitigate its torment.

Dr. Willett, too, complained that the child was ill, and that it must have been ill before it left the Grange.

On this point he and Mildred Tarnley had a sharp battle.

When both parties had cooled a little ho admitted that possibly the symptoms might not have been sufficiently developed to have excited the attention of an uninstructed observer.

The Grange was growing all this time more awful. Death seemed to have made his abode there, and the shadow of the hearse plumes seemed to rest upon the windows. Courage flagged, despair supervened, and Mrs. Tarnley’s temper grew all but insupportable. A day in such situations seems very long, and many had passed since the baby had made his journey to Twyford. The doctor seemed desponding, and stood longer silent by his patient’s bed this day than usual. His questions were briefer, and he was less communicative than usual when he was going.

Mildred Tarnley was making up her mind that the blow was inevitable, and was secretly wishing it might come soon, since come it must.

The father buried but two months since, the mother sinking into an untimely grave, and the poor little baby also dying! Was this family accursed? What a blight was this!

The doctor had said that he would return by Gryce’s mill. It had been dark some time, and was now about seven o’clock. Tom was down at the forge, Dulcibella and Lilly Dogger both upstairs, and she quite alone in the kitchen. She was more uncomfortable than she had ever been before about Alice that night.

She had seen in the doctor’s countenance that day, as he told her he would look in again on his return up the glen, that which had profoundly alarmed her, and now, sitting alone in this dark kitchen, she was infested by gloomy forebodings and terrible fancies.

She went upstairs to the sick lady’s door. At that hour no amendment was probable, and there certainly was none. Down again she went. The idea had got into her head that the patient would die that night, and she grew nervous, and tired of listening for death-watches, and picking incipient winding-sheets off the candle. “I wonder Master

Harry doesn’t come here, if ’twas only to ask whether his sister was dead or alive, and why old Willett don’t come. Smelt out a good supper somewhere, and he’s stuffin’ his gut, I’ll warrant, while the poor lady’s takin’ the rattles.”

Mildred Tarnley could stand this no longer, and she went out and down the dark road that leads to the Glen of Carwell, close by, down which, with the uselessness of impatience, she went to look for a sight of the absent doctor, and listen for the tread of his horse.

Nothing cheered by that darksome walk, and the solemn and solitary view down the Carwell road, she stood gazing down toward distant Gryce’s mill, until she tired of that too, and in dismay and bitterness retraced her steps toward the Grange.

On entering the yard, she saw a man’s figure approaching her from the kitchen door. She thought it was the doctor’s, for a moment, but it was not, and with a “Lord! who’s that?” gasped in fear that sounded like fury, she stood fixed as the old pump.

“Bah! don’t you know me, woman?” said Harry Fairfield, surlily; “I have only a few minutes. Ye’ll have to come wi’ me in the morning over to Twyford.”

“To Twyford?”

“Ay, to Twyford; and why the devil do ye leave the yard-door open; I walked into the kitchen and right up the stairs, lookin’ for ye, and knocked at Ally’s door. I think ye’re cracked.”

“And what’s to fear here, down in the Grange? Hoot! If ’tweren’t for form’s sake we need never draw bolt from one Christmas to another.”

“There was a woman found with her throat cut by the Three Pollards, between this and Hatherton, on Tuesday. If you likes it, down here, ’tis little to me. I’ll come here at eight o’clock in the morning to fetch ye.”

“Is the child sick?”

“Not it. It was, but it’s gettin’ all right; that is, if it be the child.”

“What the de’il d’ye mean, Master Harry?”

“I was lookin’ at the child this mornin’, and damn me, if I think it’s the same child we left there!” said Harry.

“Why, sir—Ir. Harry, what’s this?”

“I say I misdoubt it’s not the same child, and ye must come over and look at it. Don’t ye say a word o’ the matter to no one; no more did I; if you do we’ll never come to the bottom of it.”

“My good Lord!” exclaimed old Mildred, turning paler, and frowning very hard.

“I won’t stop. I won’t eat anything. I can’t delay tonight; ray nag’s by the bridle, there, beside the scales, and—any message to Wykeford? I’ll be passing Willett’s house.”

“Well! well!” repeated Mildred, gaping at him still, with scarcely a breath left her, “sin is sin, be it seen or no; judgment follows. God has feet o’ wool and hands o’ iron.”

“Sweep before your own door, lass; ye’re a bit daft, bain’t ye?” said Harry, with a sudden glare in his face.

“God forgive us all!”

“Amen,” said Harry.

And there came a pause.

“Women and fools will be meddlin’,” he resumed. “Lord love ye! For mad words, deaf ears, they say. Ton my soul! ’twould make a cow laugh, and if ye don’t mind ye may run yer head against the wall.”

“I will go tomorrow and look at the child,” said Mildred, with sullen emphasis, clapping one lean hand down on the other.

“That’s all I want ye. Come, what mischief can ye make o’ that? Clear yer head!”

“There’s two things shouldn’t anger ye—what ye can help and what ye can’t,” said Mildred. “I’ll go wi’ ye in the mornin’, Master Harry.”

“That’s the least we can do and the most. How’s Ally?”

“Dyin’, I think; she’ll be gone before day-break, I’m thinkin’.”

“That’s bad,” said Harry.

“Good hap or ill hap, as God awards. I know nout against her.”

“Poor little thing!” said Harry.

“I blame myself; but what could I do? If aught’s gone wrong wi’ the child, poor lady! ’tis well she were gone too.”

“There’s many a fellow’d knock ye on the head for less,” replied Harry, with a very black look; “you women has a hintin’ funkin’ way wi’ ye. Ye like to ladle the drippin’ over a fellow’s legs, and say ye meant the mutton. Can’t ye speak out and say what ye mean, and get it off yer stomach, and let me know, and I’ll answer it straight, like a man and a Fairfield, d—me!”

“I’ll go wi’ ye tomorrow; and I take it that’s what ye want.”

“Well, this I’ll say. If ye suppose I’d hurt that poor baby to the value of a pin’s point, you’re a stupider and a wickeder witch than I took ye for, and I wish poor Ally could hear me, and I’d swear to her on my knees, at her dying bed, by the Creator that made me, that I’ll work for that boy as if he was my own, till I make him safe in Wyvern,

And can’t ye see, woman, damn ye, that I can have but the boy’s good in my mind when I ask ye to come over on such an errand to Twyford?”

“Well, I do suppose—I do suppose. Eight o’clock, and there’s two feet will be cold ere then, I’m afeard.”

“Don’t be a fool no more, and I forgive ye, Mildred,” said he, extending his hand; “and don’t ye mind a lick wi’ the rough side o’ my tongue—’tis a way wi’ us Fairfields—and there wasn’t many on ’em would ’a stood to let ye rile them as ye did me. And bolt yer doors, mind; and, poor Ally! I hope she may do yet, and mind ye—eight o’clock sharp.”

So Harry departed.

Mildred stood and looked after him for a time.

“There’s nothin’ ever goes right at the Grange,” she said with a short hard sigh; “nor never did, nor never will.”

And after a pause, with another sigh, she said—

“No, no; I won’t think it—I couldn’t think it—’taint in one o’ them. They might be fickle wi’ a lass, or hot tempered wi’ a man, and a bit too hard wi’ tongue or hand, but the like o’ that—I can’t believe it—never, and I wish I hadn’t a’ heard that. I’m most sure I heard the child cry in the loft there; I’m sorry I didn’t say so then. I don’t know why, and I don’t know now, what it should be no more than another, but I didn’t like it. It looked like summat hid—I can’t say. But my heart misgave me.”

Old Mildred walked into the house. She had other thoughts now than the poor lady upstairs. They were remorseful, though she could hardly say for what she could blame herself. Perhaps she overrated her authority, and fancied she could have prevented the baby’s being taken away.

But it might be all quite right—men were so stupid about babies. A pretty hand a Fairfield man would make of a nursery! At all events the morrow would clear a great deal up.

The morning came. The doctor had looked in, and, as often happened, had surprised the lookers-on by pronouncing positively that the patient was not worse.

With a qualm at her heart, Mildred asked him when he had seen the child: and watched his face hard while he answered quite frankly that he had seen it the day before—that it was decidedly better, and might possibly do well.

When should he see it again?

There was nothing alarming, probably tomorrow; certainly not later than the next day. There was nothing urgent—the chances were rather in favour of its recovery, but, of course, there were the risks, and we weren’t to hollo till we were out of the wood.

With this cheer Mildred was much comforted, so much reassured that when eight o’clock came next morning and brought no Harry Fairfield, she felt rather relieved of a bore than disappointed.

Two days later Dr. Willett reported more favourably than he had yet done on Alice. His account of the boy, however, was by no means so cheery.

Harry looked in still later, and talked the matter over with Mildred.

“I thought, ye see, I might just be makin’ a fool o’ myself—and another o’ you, so I went over there quietly next day, and I’m sure it was a mistake. The child’s thinner a deal, and its colour gone, and it was dark a’most when I saw it, and she held the candle too low and cast a shadow from its nose, by Jove, across its face. You never see so queer a monkey as it looked, and so I held my tongue, but made over here to put our heads together and make sure o’ the matter. But when I went next day and saw it in the daylight, by Jove it was all right—the child and no mistake. But it is grown awful thin and wry-faced, only you couldn’t take it for any other, and the doctor sees it every second day, and I’m glad to hear that poor little Alice is getting on so well. She’ll be on her legs again, in no time, I’m thinking.”

After Harry had gone, Dr. Willett arrived with a very ill account of the baby.

“Dying, poor little thing. Its heart wrong, and all the organs; but you musn’t tell poor Mrs. Fairfield. It may cost her her life, if she begins to fret about it, and just tell her it’s quite well, for it’s true, you know—it’s nearer heaven, and best of all when it gets there. So tell her, when she asks, that it was sent in charge of careful people to get it out of the reach of the infection that is in the neighbourhood, and keep her mind quiet.”

A few days later the news of its death arrived in the kitchen, and Lilly Dogger, who was afraid to give way to her emotions before Mrs, Tarnley, abruptly rose, and ran out, and throwing her apron over her head, broke into absolute screams of crying under the great old trees that stand by the scales.

Here there was a sad secret to disclose when the time came, and poor Alice was strong enough to bear the story.

In the meantime Harry Fairfield came and had a stormy interview with old Mildred. The doctor, he swore, didn’t know his business. The women at Twyford had neglected the child. He’d see to it. He’d be a devil among the tailors. He’d open their eyes for them. He had often got fifty pounds for a less neglect of a filly. They should smoke all round for it. And there now was Wyvern without an heir, for, damn him if he’d ever marry; he wouldn’t for Saint Peter. It wouldn’t do—it couldn’t be, at no price; and there was old Wyvern, and never a Fairfield to see tankard filled or faggot fired in the old house.

Harry was not married, although he had insinuated some matrimonial ambiguities in his talk with old Mildred. But I believe he swore truly when he vowed that he never would marry. He had quite made up his mind on that point for some time.

For the rest, his threatenings ended in the noise they began in. In truth there was no ground for complaint, and both nurse and doctor had done their duty.

Alice recovered. I do not attempt to describe the long mourning that followed, the sweet, the bitter, and the terrible recollections that ever after tinted the image of Carwell Grange in her memory.

As soon as she could bear removal to her kind kinswoman. Lady Wyndale insisted on taking her to Oulton. After a time they travelled, and finally returned to Oulton, where they lived on together in the happiness of great and tried affection.

A difference of five-and-thirty years did not separate them any more than the interval of a generation did Naomi and Ruth. Lady Wyndale, being one of those gifted women in whom the girlish spirit burns high and bright so Ions; as life itself continues, full of sympathy and gaiety, with a strong vein of romance, and a pleasant sense of the ridiculous, and also fine immovable affections, was to one who had suffered calamities so dire as had befallen Alice Fairfield, a more delightful companion than any of her own age could have been. For when it was needed, there was the graver charm of a long and sad experience, and there were also the grander teachings of religion, and these were not obtruded or vaunted in anywise, but, rather toned her thoughts and feelings, with their peculiar sublime and melancholy lights, in which all things are subdued and also glorified.

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