The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 6.

The Old Squire Unlike Himself.

He talked very little that night in the old-fashioned drawing-room, where Alice played his favourite old airs for him on the piano, which he still called the “harpsichord.” He sat sometimes dozing, sometimes listening to her music, in the great chair by the fire. He ruminated, perhaps, but he did not open the subject, whatever it might be, which he had hinted at.

But before ten o’clock came, he got up and stood with his back to the fire. Is there any age at which folly has quite done with us, and we cease from building castles in the air?

“My wife was a tartar,” said he rather abruptly, “and she was always telling me I’d marry again before she was cold in her grave, and I made answer, ‘I’ve had enough of that market, I thank you; one wife in a life is one too many.’ But she wasn’t like you—no more than chalk to cheese—a head devil she was. Play me the Week before Easter again, lass.”

And the young lady thrice over played that pretty but vulgar old air; and when she paused the gaunt old Squire chanted the refrain from the hearth-rug, somewhat quaveringly and discordantly.

“You should have heard Tom Snedly sing that round a bowl of punch. My sons, a pair o’ dull dogs—we were pleasanter fellows then—I don’t care if they was at the bottom of the Lunnon canal. Gi’e us the ‘Lincolnshire Poacher,’ lass. Pippin-squeezing rascals—and never loved me. I sometimes think I don’t know what the world’s a comin’ to. I’d be a younger lad by a score o’ years, if neighbours were as I remember ’em.”

At that moment entered old Tom Ward, who, like his master, had seen younger, if not better days, bearing something hot in a silver tankard on a little tray. Tom looked at the Squire. The Squire pointed to the little table by the hearth-rug, and pulled out his great gold watch, and found it was time for his “night-cap.”

Tom was skilled in the brew that pleased his master, and stood with his shrewd gray eye on him, till he had swallowed his first glass, then the Squire nodded gruffly, and he knew all was right, and was relieved, for every one stood in awe of old Fairfield.

Tom was gone, and the Squire drank a second glass, slowly, and then a third, and stood up again with his back to the fire and filled his glass with the last precious drops of his cordial, and placed it on the chimney-piece, and looked steadfastly on the girl, whose eyes looked sad on the notes, while her slender fingers played those hilarious airs which Squire Fairfield delighted to listen to.

“Down in the mouth, lass—hey?” said the Squire with a suddenness that made the unconscious girl start.

When she looked up he was standing grinning upon her, from the hearth-rug, with his glass in his fingers, and his face flushed.

“You girls, when you like a lad, you’re always in the dumps—ain’t ye?—mopin’ and moultin’ like a sick bird, till the fellow comes out wi’ his mind, and then all’s right, flutter and song and new feathers, and—come, what do you think o’ me, lass?”

She looked at him dumbly, with a colour-less and frightened face. She saw no object in the room but the tall figure of the old man, flushed with punch, and leering with a horrid jollity, straight before her like a vivid magic-lantern figure in the dark. He was grinning and wagging his head with exulting encouragement.

Had Squire Fairfield, as men have done, all on a sudden grown insane; and was that leering mask, the furrows and contortions of which, and its glittering eyes, were fixing themselves horribly on her brain, a familiar face transformed by madness?

“Come, lass, do ye like me?” demanded the phantom.

“Well, you’re tongue-tied, ye little fool—shame-faced, and all that, I see,” he resumed after a little pause. “But you shall answer—ye must; you do—you like old Wyvern, the old Squire. You’d feel strange in another place—ye would, and a younger fellow would not be a tithe so kind as me—and I like ye well, chick-a-biddy, chick-a-biddy—ye’ll be my little queen, and I’ll keep ye brave satins and ribbons, and laces, and lawn; and I’ll gi’e ye the jewellery—d’ye hear?—necklaces, and earrings, and bodkins, and all the rest, for your own, mind; for the Captain nor Jack shall never hang them on wife o’ theirs, mind ye—and ye’ll be the grandest lady has ever bin in Wyvern this hundred years—and ye’ll have nothing to do but sit all day in the window, or ride in the coach, and order your maids about; and I’ll leave you every acre and stick and stone, and silver spoon, that’s in or round about Wyvern—for you’re a good lass, and I’ll make a woman of you; and I’d like to break them young rascals’ necks—they never deserved a shilling o’ mine; so gie’s your hand, lass, and the bargain’s made.”

So the Squire strode a step or two nearer, extending his huge bony hand, and Alice, aghast, stared with wide open eyes fixed on him, and exclaiming faintly, “Oh, sir!—oh, Mr. Fairfield!”

“Oh! to be sure, and oh, Squire Fairfield!” chuckled he, mimicking the young lady, as he drew near; “ye need not be shy, nor scared by me, little Alice; I like you too well to hurt the tip o’ your little finger, look ye—and you’ll sleep on’t, and tell me all tomorrow morning.”

And he laid his mighty hands, that had lifted wrestlers from the earth, and hurled boxers headlong in his day, tremulously on her two little shoulders. “And ye’ll say good-night, and gi’e me a buss; good-night to ye, lass, and we’ll talk again in the morning, and ye’ll say naught, mind, to the boys, damn ’em, till all’s settled—ye smooth-cheeked, bright-eyed, cherry-lipped little —”

And here the ancient Squire boisterously “bussed” the young lady, as he had threatened, and two or three times again, till scrubbed by the white stubble of his chin, she broke away, with her cheeks flaming, and still more alarmed, reached the door.

“Say good-night, won’t ye, hey?” bawled the Squire, still in a chuckle and shoving the chairs out of his way as he stumbled after her.

“Good-night, sir,” cried she, and made her escape through the door, and under the arch that opened from the hall, and up the stairs toward her room, calling as unconcernedly as she could, but with tremulous eagerness to her old servant, “Dulcibella, are you there?” and immensely relieved when she heard her kindly old voice, and saw the light of her candle.

“I say—hallo—why wench, what the devil’s come over ye?” halloed the voice of the old man from the foot of the stairs. “That’s the trick of you rogues all—ye run away to draw us after; well, it won’t do—another time. I say, good-night, ye wild bud.”

“Thank you, sir—good night, sir—good night, sir,” repeated the voice of Alice, higher and higher up the stairs, and he heard her door shut.

He stood with a flushed face, and a sardonic grin for a while, looking up the stairs, with his big bony hand on the banister, and wondering how young he was; and he laughed and muttered pleasantly, and resolved it should all be settled between them next evening; and so again he looked at his watch, and found that she had not gone, after all, earlier than usual, and went back to his fire, and rang the bell, and got a second ‘night-cap,’ as he called his flagon of punch.

Tom remarked how straight the Squire stood that night, with his back to the fire, eyeing him as he entered from the corners of his eyes, with a grin, and a wicked wag of his head.

“A dull dog, Tom. Who’s a-goin’ to hang ye? damn ye, look brighter, or I’ll stir ye up with the poker. Never shake your head, man; ye may brew yourself a tankard o’ this, and ye’ll find you’re younger than ye think for, and some of the wenches will be throwing a sheep’s eye at you—who knows?”

Tom did not quite know what to make of this fierce lighting up of gaiety and benevolence. An inquisitive glance he fixed stealthily on his master, and thanked him dubiously—for he was habitually afraid of him; and as he walked away through the passages, he sometimes thought the letter that came that afternoon might have told of the death of old Lady Drayton, or some other relief of the estate; and sometimes his suspicions were nearer to the truth, for in drowsy houses like Wyvern, where events are few, all theses of conversation are valuable and speculation is active, and you may be sure that what was talked of in the town, was no mystery in the servants’ hall, though more gossipped over than believed.

Men who are kings in very small dominions are whimsical, as well as imperious—eccentricity is the companion of seclusion—and the Squire had a jealous custom, in his house, which Was among the oddities of his despotism; it was simply this: the staircase up which Alice Maybell flew, that night, to old Dulcibella and her room, is that which ascends the northern wing of the house. A strong door in the short passage leading to it from the hall, shuts it off from the rest of the building on that level.

For this young lady then, while she was still a child, Squire Fairfield had easily made an Oriental seclusion in his household, by locking, with his own hand, that door every night, and securing more permanently the doors which, on other levels, afforded access to the same wing.

He had a slight opinion of the other sex, and an evil one of his own, and would have no Romeo and Juliet tragedies. As he locked this door after Miss Alice Maybell’s “good-night,” he would sometimes wag his head shrewdly and wink to himself in the lonely oak hall, as he dropped the key into his deep coat pocket—“safe bind, safe find,” “better sure than sorry,” and other wise;saws seconding the precaution.

So this night he recollected the key, as usual, which in the early morning, when he drank his glass of beer at his room-door, he handed to old Mrs. Durdin, who turned it in the lock, and restored access for the day.

This custom was too ancient—reaching back beyond her earliest memory—to suggest the idea of an affront, and so it was acquiesced in and never troubled Miss Maybell; the lock was not tampered with, the door was never passed, although the Squire, versed in old saws, was simple to rely on that security against a power that laughs at locksmiths.

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