The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 18.

The March to Noulton Farm.

“I THINK, ma’am, the boy’s in the house. You’d best give him up, for I’ll not go without him. How many rooms have you?”

“Three and a loft, sir.”

The Sergeant stood up.

“I’ll search the house first, ma’am, and if he’s not here I’ll inform the police and have him in the Hue-and-Cry; and if you have had anything to do with the boy’s deserting, or had a hand in making away with him anyhow, I’ll have you in gaol and punished. I must secure the door, and you can leave the house first, if you like best.”

“Very well, sir,” answered she.

But at this moment came a knocking and crying from within the press.

“Oh! no—’twasn’t mammy; ’twas I that did it. Don’t take mammy.”

“You see, ma’am, you give useless trouble. Please open that door—I shall have to force it, otherwise,” he added, as very pale and trembling she hesitated.

Standing as he might before his commanding officer, stiff, with his heels together, with his inflexibly serene face, full before her, he extended his hand, and said simply, “The key, ma’am.”

In all human natures—the wildest and most stubborn—there is a point at which submission follows command, and there was that in the serenity of the ex-Sergeant-Major which went direct to the instinct of obedience.

It was quite idle any longer trying to conceal the boy. With a dreadful ache at her heart she put her hand in her pocket and handed him the key.

As the door opened the little boy shrank to the very back of the recess, from whence he saw the stout form of the Sergeant stooped low, as his blue, smooth fixed countenance peered narrowly into the dark. After a few seconds he seemed to discern the figure of the boy.

“Come, you sir, get out,” said the commanding voice of the visitor, as the cane which he carried in his hand, paid round with wax-end for some three inches at the extremity, began switching his little legs smartly.

“Oh, sir, for the love of God!” cried Marjory, clinging to his hand. “Oh, sir, he’s the gentlest little creature, and he’ll do Whatever he’s bid, and the lovingest child in the world.”

The boy had got out by this time, and looking wonderingly in the man’s face, was unconsciously, with the wincing of pain, lifting his leg slightly, for the sting of the cane was quite new to him.

“If I catch you at that work again I’ll give you five dozen,” said his new acquaintance.

“Is this his?” said he, touching the carpet bag with his cane.

“Yes, sir, please.”

He took it in his hand, and glanced at the boy—I think it was in his mind to make him carry it. But the child was slender, and the bag, conscientiously packed with everything that had ever belonged to him, was a trifle too heavy.

“Anything else?” demanded the Sergeant-Major.

“This—this, God bless him.”

It was the little box with the ships.

“And this; “and she thrust the griddle cake, broken across and rolled up in brown paper, into the boy’s pocket.

“And these;” and three apples she had ready, she thrust after them.

“And oh! my blessed darlin’, my darlin’, darlin’, darlin’.”

He was lifted up against her heart, folded fast, and hugging her round the neck, they kissed and cried and cried and kissed, and at last she let him down; and the Sergeant–Major, with the cane under his arm, the carpet-bag in one hand, and the boy’s wrist firmly held in the other, marched out of the door.

“That’s enough—don’t follow, woman,” said he, after they had gone about twenty yards on the path; “and I’ll report you,” he added with a nod which, with these pleasant words, she might take as a farewell or not as she pleased.

She stood on the little rising ground by the hawthorn tree, kissing her hands wildly after him, with streaming eyes.

“I’ll be sure to see you soon. I’d walk round the world barefoot to see my pretty man again,” she kept crying after him; “and I’ll bring the ninepins, I’ll be sure. Mammy’s comin’, my darlin’.”

And the receding figure of the little boy was turned toward her all it could. He was gazing over his shoulder, with cheeks streaming with tears, and his little hand waving yearningly back to her until he was out of sight. And after a while she turned back, and there was their ninepins’ ground, and the tarn, and her sobs quickened almost to a scream; and she sat down on the stone bench under the window—for she could not bear to enter the dark cottage—and there, in Irish phrase, she cried her fill.

In the meantime Archdale and his companion, or prisoner—which you will—pursued their march. He still held the boy’s wrist, and the boy cried and sobbed gently to himself all the way.

When they came down to the little hamlet called Maple Wickets he hired a boy to carry the carpet-bag to Wunning, four miles further on, where the Warhampton ’bus passes, as everybody knows, at half-past twelve o’clock daily.

They resumed their march. The Sergeant was a serenely taciturn man. He no more thought of addressing the boy than he did of apostrophising the cane or the carpet-bag.

He let him sob on, and neither snubbed nor consoled him, but carried his head serene and high, looking straight before him.

At length the novelty of the scene began to act upon the volatility of childhood.

As he walked by the Sergeant he began to prattle, at first timidly, and then more volubly.

The first instinct of the child is trust. It was a kind of consolation to the boy to talk a great deal of his home, and Tom Orange was of course mentioned with the usual inquiry, “Do you know Tom Orange?”

“Why so?”

Then followed the list of that facetious and brilliant person’s accomplishments.

“And are we to go near a place called Wyvern or Carwell Grange?” asked the boy, whose memory, where his fancy was interested, was retentive.

“Why so?” again demanded the Sergeant, looking straight before him.

“Because Tom Orange told me there’s the biggest mushroom in the world grown up there, and that the owner of the house can’t get in, for it fills up the door.”

“Tom Orange told you that?” demanded the Sergeant in the same way.

And the boy, supposing it incredulity on his part, assured him that Tom, who was truth itself, had told him so only yesterday.

The Sergeant said no more, and you could not have told in the least by his face that he had made a note of it and was going to “report “Tom Orange in the proper quarter. And in passing, I may mention that about three weeks later Tom Orange was peremptorily dismissed from his desultory employments under Mr. Archdale, and was sued for stealing apples from Warhampton orchard, and some minor peccadillos, and brought before the magistrates, among whom sat, as it so happened, on that occasion. Squire Fairfield of Wyvern, who was “precious hard on him,” and got him in for more than a month with hard labour. The urchin hireling with the carpet-bag trudged on in front as the Sergeant—Major had commanded.

Our little friend, with many a sobbing sigh, and a great load at his heart, yet was looking about him.

They were crossing a moor with beautiful purple heather, such as he had never seen before. The Sergeant had let go his wrist. He felt more at his ease every way.

There were little pools of water here and there which attracted the boy’s attention, and made him open his box of cork boats and peep at them. He wondered how they would sail in these dark little nooks, and at last, one lying very conveniently, he paused at its margin, and took out a ship and floated it, and another, and another. How quickly seconds fly and minutes.

He was roused by the distant voice of the Sergeant–Major shouting, “Hollo, you sir, come here.”

He looked up. The Sergeant was consulting his big silver watch as he stood upon a little eminence of peat.

By the time he reached him the Sergeant had replaced it, and the two or three seals and watchkey he sported were dangling at the end of his chain upon his paunch. The Sergeant was standing with his heels together and the point of his cane close to the side of his boot.

“Come to the front,” said the Sergeant.

“Give up that box,” said he.

The boy placed it in his hand. He uncovered it, turned over the little navy with his fingers, and then jerked the box and its contents over the heath at his side.

“Don’t pick one of ’em up,” said he.

“Move half a pace to the right,” was his next order.

His next command was—

“Hold out your hand.”

The boy looked in his face, surprised.

The Sergeant’s face looked not a bit angrier or a bit kinder than usual. Perfectly serene.

“Hold out your hand, sir.”

He held it out, and the cane descended with a whistling cut across his fingers. Another. The boy’s face flushed with pain, and his deadened hand sunk downward. An upward blow of the cane across his knuckles accompanied the command, “ Hold it up, sir,” and a third cut came down.

The Sergeant was strong, and could use his wrist dexterously.

“Hold out the other; “and the same discipline was repeated.

Mingled with and above the pain which called up the three great black weals across the slender fingers of each hand, was the sense of outrage and cruelty.

The tears sprang to his eyes, and for the first time in his life he cried passionately under that double anguish.

“Walk in front,” said the Sergeant, serenely.

And squeezing and wringing his trembling hands together, the still writhing little fellow marched along the path, with a bitterer sense of desolation than ever.

The bus was late at Wunning; and a lady in it, struck by the beauty and sadness of the little boy’s face, said some kind words, and seemed to take to him, he thought, with a tenderness that made his heart fuller; and it was a labour almost too great for him to keep down the rising sobs and the tears that were every moment on the point of flowing over. This good Samaritan bought a bag of what were called “Ginger-bread nuts”—quite a little store; which Archdale declined leaving at the boy’s discretion. But I am bound to say that they were served out to him, from day to day, with conscientious punctuality by the Sergeant–Major, who was strictly to be depended on in all matters of property; and would not have nibbled at one of those nuts though his thin lips had watered and not a soul had been near. He must have possessed a good many valuable military virtues, or he could not, I presume, have been where he was.

Noulton Farm is a melancholy but not an ugly place. There are a great many trees about it. They stand too near the windows. The house is small and old, and there is a small garden with a thick high hedge round it.

The members of the family were few. Miss Mary Archdale was ill when they arrived. She was the only child of the ex-Sergeant, who was a widower; and the new inmate of the house heard of her with a terror founded on his awe of her silent father.

They entered a small parlour, and the boy sat down in the chair indicated by the Sergeant. That person hung his hat on a peg-in the hall, and placed his cane along the chimney-piece. Then he rang the bell.

The elderly woman who was the female staff of the kitchen entered. She looked frightened, as all that household did, in their master’s presence, and watched him with an alarmed eye.

“Where’s Miss Mary?”

“A-spitting blood, sir, please.”

“Bring in supper,” said the Sergeant.

The boy sat in fear at the very corner of the table. His grief would not let him eat, and he sipped a cup of tea that was too hot, and had neither milk nor sugar enough. The Sergeant snuffed his caudle, and put on a pair of plated spectacles, and looked through his weekly paper.

While he was so employed there glided into the room a very slight girl, with large eyes and a very pale face. Her hair was brown and rich.

The hand with which she held her shawl across was very thin; and in her pale face and large eyes was a timid and imploring look that struck the little boy. She looked at him and he at her silently; her sad eyes lingered on his face for a moment, and he felt that he liked her.

She took a chair very softly and sat down without saying a word.

In a little while the Sergeant laid down his paper and looked at her. Her large eyes were raised toward him with timid expectation, hut she did not speak.

“Not well just now?”

“No, sir.”

“You take the bottle regularly?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ll be better in the morning belike.”

“I’m sure I shall, sir.”

He lighted a candle that stood on a side-table, and his dog Bion got up to attend him. It was a large pug-dog, gambouge-coloured, with a black nose. The boy often afterwards wished to play with Bion, and make his acquaintance. But he did not know how the attempt would be taken either by the dog or his master, and so he did not venture.

No caresses passed between the dog and the Sergeant. Each did his duty by the other, and they understood one another, I suppose, but no further signs of love appeared.

The Sergeant went out and shut the door, and the girl smiled very sweetly on the little guest, and put out her hand to welcome him.

“I’m very glad you are come here. I was very lonely. My father is gone to the work-room; he’s making an organ there, and he won’t come back till a quarter to nine. That’s an hour and three-quarters. Do you hear—listen.”

She raised her finger and looked toward the partition as she spoke, and he heard a booming of an organ through the wall.

“Tony blows the organ for him.”

Tony was a little boy from the workhouse, who cleaned knives, forks, shoes, and made himself generally useful, being the second servant, the only male one in their modest establishment.

“I wish I was better, I’m so out of breath talking. We’ll be very happy now. That’s tuning the pipes—that one’s wolving. I used to blow the bellows for him, but the doctor says I must not, and indeed I couldn’t now. You must eat something and drink more tea, and we’ll be great friends, shan’t we!”

So they talked a great deal, she being obliged to stop often for breath, and he could see that she was very weak, and also that she stood in indescribable awe of her father. But she said, “He’s a very good man, and he works very hard to earn his money, but he does not talk, and that makes people afraid of him. He won’t be back here until he comes here to read the Bible and prayers at a quarter to nine.”

So she talked on, but all the time in an undertone, and listening every now and then for the boom of the pipes, and the little boy opened his heart to her and wept bitterly, and she cried too, silently, as he went on, and they became very near friends. She looked as if she understood his griefs. Perhaps her own resembled them.

The old woman came in and took away the tea things, and shortly after the Sergeant entered and read the chapter and the prayers.

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