The Wyvern Mystery, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 9.

In which the Squire Loses His Gold-Headed Cane,

The sun, as I have said, was sinking among the western clouds with a melancholy glare; Captain Fairfield was pacing slowly to and fro upon the broad terrace that extends, with a carved balustrade, and many a stone flower-pot, along the rear of the old house. The crows were winging their way home, and the air was vocal with their faint cawings high above the gray roof, and the summits of the mighty trees, now glowing in that transitory light. His horse was ready saddled, and his portmanteau and other trifling effects had been despatched some hours before.

“Is there any good in bidding him good-bye?” hesitated the Captain.

He was thinking of descending the terrace steps at the further end, and as he mounted his horse, leaving his valedictory message with the man who held it. But the spell of childhood is not easily broken when it has been respected for so many after-years. The Captain had never got rid of the childish awe which began before he could remember. The virtues are respected; but such vices as pride, violence, and hard-heartedness in a father, are more respected still.

Charles could approach a quarrel with that old despot; he could stand at the very brink, and with a resentful and defiant eye scan the abyss; but he could not quite make up his mind to the plunge. The old beast was so utterly violent and incalculable in his anger that no one could say to what weapons and extremities he might be driven in a combat with him, and where was the good in avowed hostilities? Must not a very few years, now, bring humiliation and oppression to an end?

Charles Fairfield was saved the trouble of deciding for himself, however, by the appearance of old Squire Harry, who walked forth from the handsome stone door-case upon the terrace, where his son stood ready for departure.

The old man was walking with a measured tread, holding his head very high, with an odd flush on his face, and a sardonic smile, and he was talking inaudibly to himself. Charles saw in all this the signs of storm. In the old man’s hand was a letter firmly clutched. If he saw his son, who expected to be accosted by him, he passed him by with as little notice as he bestowed on the tall rose-tree that grew in the stone pot by his side.

The Squire walked down the terrace, southward, towards the steps, the wild sunset sky to his right, the flaming windows of the house to his left. When he had gone on a few steps, his tall son followed him. Perhaps he thought it better that Squire Harry should be informed of his intended departure from his lips than that he should learn it from the groom who held the bridle of his horse.

The Squire did not descend the steps, however; he stopped short of them, and sat down in one of the seats that are placed at intervals under the windows. He leaned with both hands on his cane, the point of which he ground angrily into the gravel; in his fingers was still crumpled the letter. He was looking down with a very angry face, illuminated by the wild western sky, shaking his head and muttering.

The tall, brown Captain stalked towards him, and touched his hat, according to his father’s reverential rule.

“May I say a word, sir?” he asked.

The old man stared in his face and nodded fiercely, and with this ominous invitation he complied.

“You were pleased, sir,” said he, “yesterday to express an opinion that, with the income I have, I ought to support myself, and no longer to trouble Wyvern. It was stupid of me not to think of that myself—very stupid—and all I can do is to lose no time about it; and so I have sent my traps away, and am going to follow now, sir; and I couldn’t go, of course, sir, without saying farewell to you and “He was on the point of adding—“thanking you for all your kindness;” but he recollected himself. Thank him, indeed! No, he could not bring himself to that. “And I am leaving now, sir, and good-bye.”

“Ho, turning your back on Wyvern, like all the rest I Well, sir, the world’s wide, you can choose your road. I don’t ask none o’ ye to stay and see me off—not I. I’ll not be without some one when I die to shut down my eyes, I dare say. Get ye gone.”

“I thought, sir—in fact I was quite convinced,” said Charles Fairfield, a little disconcerted, “that you had quite made up your mind, as I have mine, sir.”

“So I had, sir—so I had. Don’t suppose I care a rush, sir, who goes—not a damned rush—not I. Better an empty house than a bad tenant.”

Up rose the old man as he spoke, “Away with them, say I; bundle ’em out—off wi’ them, bag and baggage; there’s more like ye—read that,” and he thrust the letter at him like a pistol, and leaving it in his hand, turned and stalked slowly up the terrace, while the Captain read the following note:—

“Sir,—I hardly venture to hope that you will ever again think of me with that kindness which circumstances compel me so ungratefully to requite. I owe you more than I can ever tell. I began to experience your kindness in my infancy, and it has never failed me since. Oh, sir, do not, I entreat, deny me one last proof of your generosity—your forgiveness. I leave Wyvern, and before these lines are in your hand, I shall have found another home. Soon, I trust, I shall be able to tell my benefactor where. In the meantime may God recompense you, as I never can, for all your goodness to me. I leave the place where all my life has passed amid continual and unmerited kindness with the keenest anguish. Aggravated by my utter inability at present to repay your goodness by the poor acknowledgment of my confidence. Pray, sir, pardon me; pray restore me to your good opinion, or, at least if you cannot forgive and receive me again into your favour, spare me the dreadful affliction of your detestation, and in mercy try to forget

“Your unhappy, but ever grateful

“Alice Maybell.”

When Charles Fairfield, having read this through, raised his eyes, they lighted on the old man, returning, and now within a few steps of him.

“Well, there’s a lass for ye I I reared her like a child o’ my own—better, kinder than ever child was reared, and she’s hardly come to her full growth when she serves me like that. damn ye, are ye tongue-tied? what do you think of her?”

“It would not be easy, sir, on that letter, to pronounce,” said Charles Fairfield, disconcerted. “There’s nothing there to show what her reasons are.”

“Ye’r no Fairfield—ye’r not, ye’r none. If ye were, ye’d know when ye’r house was insulted; but ye’r none; ye’r a cold-blooded sneak, and no Fairfield.”

“I don’t see that anything I could say, sir, would mend the matter,” said the Captain.

“Like enough; but I’ll tell ye what I think of her,” thundered the old man, half beside himself. And his language became so opprobrious and frantic, that his son said, with a proud glare and a swarthy flush on his face,

“I take my leave, sir; for language like that I’ll not stay to hear.”

“But ye’ll not take ye’r leave, sir, till I choose, and ye shall stay,” yelled the old Squire, placing himself between the Captain and the steps. “And I’d like to know why ye shouldn’t hear her called what she is—a —— and a ——.”

“Because she’s my wife, sir!” retorted Charles Fairfield, whitening with fury.

“She is, is she?” said the old man, after a long gaping pause. “Then ye’re a worse scoundrel, ye black-hearted swindler, than I took you for—and ye’ll take that—”

And trembling with fury, he whirled his heavy cane in the air. But before it could descend, Charles Fairfield caught the hand that held it.

“None o’ that—none o’ that, sir,” he said with grim menace, as the old man with both hands and furious purpose sought to wrest the cane free.

“Do you want me to do it?”

The gripe of old Squire Harry was still powerful, and it required an exertion of the younger man’s entire strength to wring the walking-stick from his grasp.

Over the terrace balustrade it flew whirling, and old Squire Harry in the struggle lost his feet, and fell heavily on the flags.

There was blood already on his temple and white furrowed cheek, and he looked stunned. The young man’s blood was up—the wicked blood of the Fairfields—but he hesitated, stopped, and turned.

The old Squire had got to his feet again, and was holding giddily by the balustrade. His hat still lay on the ground, his cane was gone. The proud old Squire was a tower dismantled. To be met and foiled so easily in a feat of strength—to have gone down at the first tussle with the “youngster,” whom he despised as a “milksop “and a “Miss Molly,” was to the old Hercules, who still bragged of his early prowess, and was once the lord of the wrestling ring for five and twenty miles round, perhaps for the moment the maddest drop in the cup of his humiliation.

Squire Harry with his trembling hand clutched on the stone balustrade, his tall figure swaying a little, had drawn himself up and held his head high and defiantly. There was a little quiver in his white old features, a wild smile in his eyes, and on his thin, hard lips, showing the teeth that time had left him; and the blood that patched his white hair trickled down over his temple.

Charles Fairfield was agitated, and felt that he could have burst into tears—that it would have been a relief to fall on his knees before him for pardon. But the iron pride of the Fairfields repulsed this better emotion. He did, however, approach hurriedly, with an excited and troubled countenance, and he said hastily—

“I’m awfully sorry, but it wasn’t my fault; you know it wasn’t. No Fairfield ever stood to be struck yet; I only took the stick, sir. Damn it, if it had been my mother I could not have done it more gently. I could not help your tripping. I couldn’t; and I’m awfully sorry, by ———, and you won’t remember it against me? Say you won’t. It’s the last time you’ll ever see me in life, and there’s no use in parting at worse odds than we need; and—and—won’t you shake hands, sir?”

“I say, son Charlie, ye’ve spilled my blood,” said the old man. “May God damn ye for it; and if ever ye come into Wyvern after this, while there’s breath in my body I’ll shoot ye like a poacher.”

And with this paternal speech, Squire Harry turned his back and tottered stately and grimly into the house.

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