Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XVI. 'Jenny, Put the Kettle On.'
Old Lady Chelford, having despatched a sharp and unceremonious message to her young kinswoman, absent without leave, warning her, in effect, that if she returned to the drawing-room it would be to preside, alone, over gentlemen, departed, somewhat to our secret relief.
Upon this, on Lord Chelford's motion, in our forlorn condition, we went to the billiard-room, and there, under the bright lights, and the gay influence of that wonderful game, we forgot our cares, and became excellent friends apparently--'cuts,' 'canons,' 'screws,' 'misses,' 'flukes'--Lord Chelford joked, Wylder 'chaffed,' even Lake seemed to enjoy himself; and the game proceeded with animation and no lack of laughter, beguiling the watches of the night; and we were all amazed, at length, to find how very late it was. So we laid down our cues, with the customary ejaculations of surprise.
We declined wine and water, and all other creature comforts. Wylder and Lake had a walk before them, and we bid Lord Chelford 'good-night' in the passage, and I walked with them through the deserted and nearly darkened rooms.
Our talk grew slow, and our spirits subsided in this changed and tenebrose scenery. The void and the darkness brought back, I suppose, my recollection of the dubious terms on which these young men stood, and a feeling of the hollowness and delusion of the genial hours just passed under the brilliant lights, together with an unpleasant sense of apprehension.
On coming out upon the door-steps we all grew silent.
The moon was low, and its yellow disk seemed, as it sometimes does, dilated to a wondrous breadth, as its edge touched the black outline of the distant woods. I half believe in presentiments, and I felt one now, in the chill air, the sudden silence, and the watchful gaze of the moon. I suspect that Wylder and Lake, too, felt something of the same ominous qualm, for I thought their faces looked gloomy in the light, as they stood together buttoning their loose wrappers and lighting their cigars.
With a 'good-night, good-night,' we parted, and I heard their retreating steps crunching along the walk that led to Redman's Hollow, and by Miss Rachel's quiet habitation. I heard no talking, such as comes between whiffs with friendly smokers, side by side; and, silent as mutes at a funeral, they walked on, and soon the fall of their footsteps was heard no more, and I re-entered the hall and shut the door. The level moonlight was shining through the stained heraldic window, and fell bright on the portrait of Uncle Lorne, at the other end, throwing a patch of red, like a stain, on one side of its pale forehead.
I had forgot, at the moment, that the ill-omened portrait hung there, and a sudden horror smote me. I thought of what my vision said of the 'blood upon my forehead,' and, by Jove! there it was!
At this moment the large white Marseilles waistcoat of grave Mr. Larcom appeared, followed by a tall powdered footman, and their candles and business-like proceedings frightened away the phantoms. So I withdrew to my chamber, where, I am glad to say, I saw nothing of Uncle Lorne.
Miss Lake, as she drove that night toward Gylingden, said little to the vicar's wife, whose good husband had been away to Friars, making a sick-call, and she prattled on very merrily about his frugal little tea awaiting his late return, and asked her twice on the way home whether it was half-past nine, for she did not boast a watch; and in the midst of her prattle was peeping at the landmarks of their progress.
'Oh, I'm so glad--here's the finger post, at last!' and then--'Well, here we are at the "Cat and Fiddle;" I thought we'd never pass it.'
And, at last, the brougham stopped at the little garden-gate, at the far end of the village; and the good little mamma called to her maid-of-all-work from the window--
'Has the master come yet, Becky?'
'No, Ma'am, please.'
And I think she offered up a little thanksgiving, she so longed to give him his tea herself; and then she asked--
'Is our precious mannikin asleep?' Which also being answered happily, as it should be, she bid her fussy adieux, with a merry smile, and hurried, gabbling amicably with her handmaid, across the little flower-garden; and Miss Lake was shut in and drove on alone, under the thick canopy of old trees, and up the mill-road, lighted by the flashing lamps, to her own little precincts, and was, in turn, at home--solitary, triste, but still her home.
'Get to your bed, Margery, child, you are sleepy,' said the young lady kindly to her queer little maid-of-honour. Rachel was one of those persons who, no matter what may be upon their minds, are quickly impressible by the scenes in which they find themselves. She stepped into her little kitchen--always a fairy kitchen, so tiny, so white, so raddled, and shining all over with that pleasantest of all effulgence--burnished tins, pewters, and the homely decorations of the dresser--and she looked all round and smiled pleasantly, and kissed old Tamar, and said--
'So, my dear old fairy, here's your Cinderella home again from the ball, and I've seen nothing so pretty as this since I left Redman's Farm. How white your table is, how nice your chairs; I wish you'd change with me and let me be cook week about; and, really the fire is quite pleasant to-night. Come, make a cup of tea, and tell us a story, and frighten me and Margery before we go to our beds. Sit down, Margery, I'm only here by permission. What do you mean by standing?' And the young lady, with a laugh, sat down, looking so pleased, and good-natured, and merry, that even old Tamar was fain to smile a glimmering smile; and little Margery actively brought the tea-caddy; and the kettle, being in a skittish singing state, quickly went off in a boil, and Tamar actually made tea in her brown tea-pot.
'Oh, no; the delf cups and saucers;--it will be twice as good in them;' and as the handsome mistress of the mansion, sitting in the deal chair, loosened her cloak and untied her bonnet, she chatted away, to the edification of Margery and the amusement of both.
This little extemporised bivouac, as it were, with her domestics, delighted the young belle. Vanity of vanities, as Mr. Thackeray and King Solomon cry out in turn. Silver trays and powdered footmen, and Utrecht, velvet upholstery--miserable comforters! What saloon was ever so cheery as this, or flashed all over in so small a light so splendidly, or yielded such immortal nectar from chased teapot and urn, as this brewed in brown crockery from the roaring kettle?
So Margery, sitting upon her stool in the background--for the Queen had said it, and sit she must--and grinning from ear to ear, in a great halo of glory, partook of tea.
'Well, Tamar, where's your story?' said the young lady.
'Story! La! bless you, dear Miss Radie, where should I find a story? My old head's a poor one to remember,' whimpered white Tamar.
'Anything, no matter what--a ghost or a murder.'
Old Tamar shook her head.
'Or an elopement?'
Another shake of the head.
'Or a mystery--or even a dream?'
'Well--a dream! Sometimes I do dream. I dreamed how Master Stanley was coming, the night before.'
'You did, did you? Selfish old thing! and you meant to keep it all to yourself. What was it?'
Tamar looked anxiously and suspiciously in the kitchen fire, and placed her puckered hand to the side of her white linen cap.
'I dreamed, Ma'am, the night before he came, a great fellow was at the hall-door.'
'Yes, Ma'am, this hall-door. So muffled up I could not see his face; and he pulls out a letter all over red.'
'Aye, Miss; a red letter.'
'No, Miss, red paper, written with black, and directed for you.'
'And so, Miss, in my dream, I gave it you in the drawing-room; and you opened it, and leaned your hand upon your head, sick-like, reading it. I never saw you read a letter so serious-like before. And says you to me, Miss, "It's all about Master Stanley; he is coming." And sure enough, here he was quite unexpected, next morning.'
'And was there no more?' asked Miss Lake.
'No more, Miss. I awoke just then.'
'It is odd,' said Miss Lake, with a little laugh. 'Had you been thinking of him lately?'
'Not a bit, Ma'am. I don't know when.'
'Well, it certainly is very odd.'
At all events, it had glanced upon a sensitive recollection unexpectedly. The kitchen was only a kitchen now; and the young lady, on a sudden, looked thoughtful--perhaps a little sad. She rose; and old Tamar got up before her, with her scared, secret look, clothed in white--the witch, whose word had changed all, and summoned round her those shapes, which threw their indistinct shadows on the walls and faces around.
'Light the candles in the drawing-room, Margery, and then, child, go to your bed,' said the young lady, awakening from an abstraction. 'I don't mind dreams, Tamar, nor fortune-tellers--I've dreamed so many good dreams, and no good ever came of them. But talking of Stanley reminds me of trouble and follies that I can't help, or prevent. He has left the army, Tamar, and I don't know what his plans are.'
'Ah! poor child; he was always foolish and changeable, and a deal too innocent for them wicked officer-gentlemen; and I'm glad he's not among them any longer to learn bad ways--I am.'
So, the drawing-room being prepared, Rachel bid Tamar and little Margery good-night, and the sleepy little handmaid stumped off to her bed; and white old Tamar, who had not spoken so much for a month before, put on her solemn round spectacles, and by her dipt candle read her chapter in the ponderous Bible she had thumbed so well, and her white lips told over the words as she read them in silence.
Old Tamar, I always thought, had seen many untold things in her day, and some of her recollections troubled her, I dare say; and she held her tongue, and knitted her white worsteds when she could sit quiet--which was most hours of the day; and now and then when evil remembrances, maybe, gathered round her solitude, she warned them off with that book of power--so that my recollection of her is always the same white-clad, cadaverous old woman, with a pair of barnacles on her nose, and her look of secrecy and suffering turned on the large print of that worn volume, or else on the fumbling-points of her knitting-needles.
It was a small house, this Redman's Farm, but very silent, for all that, when the day's work was over; and very solemn, too, the look-out from the window among the colonnades of tall old trees, on the overshadowed earth, and through them into deepest darkness; the complaining of the lonely stream far down is the only sound in the air.
There was but one imperfect vista, looking down the glen, and this afforded no distant view--only a downward slant in the near woodland, and a denser background of forest rising at the other side, and to-night mistily gilded by the yellow moon-beams, the moon herself unseen.
Rachel had opened her window-shutters, as was her wont when the moon was up, and with her small white hands on the window-sash, looked into the wooded solitudes, lost in haunted darkness in every direction but one, and there massed in vaporous and discoloured foliage, hardly more distinct, or less solemn.
'Poor old Tamar says her prayers, and reads her Bible; I wish I could. How often I wish it. That good, simple vicar--how unlike his brother--is wiser, perhaps, than all the shrewd people that smile at him. He used to talk to me; but I've lost that--yes--I let him understand I did not care for it, and so that good influence is gone from me--graceless creature. No one seemed to care, except poor old Tamar, whether I ever said a prayer, or heard any good thing; and when I was no more than ten years old, I refused to say my prayers for her. My poor father. Well, Heaven help us all.'
So she stood in the same sad attitude, looking out upon the shadowy scene, in a forlorn reverie.
Her interview with Dorcas remained on her memory like an odd, clear, half-horrible dream. What a dazzling prospect it opened for Stanley; what a dreadful one might it not prepare for Dorcas. What might not arise from such a situation between Stanley and Mark Wylder, each in his way a worthy representative of the ill-conditioned and terrible race whose blood he inherited? Was this doomed house of Brandon never to know repose or fraternity?
Was it credible? Had it actually occurred, that strange confession of Dorcas Brandon's? Could anything be imagined so mad--so unaccountable? She reviewed Stanley in her mind's eye. She was better acquainted, perhaps, with his defects than his fascinations, and too familiar with both to appreciate at all their effect upon a stranger.
'What can she see in him? There's nothing remarkable in Stanley, poor fellow, except his faults. There are much handsomer men than he, and many as amusing--and he with no estate.'
She had heard of charms and philtres. How could she account for this desperate hallucination?
Rachel was troubled by a sort of fear to-night, and the low fever of an undefined expectation was upon her. She turned from the window, intending to write two letters, which she had owed too long--young ladies' letters--for Miss Lake, like many of her sex, as I am told, had several little correspondences on her hands; and as she turned, with a start, she saw old Tamar standing in the door-way, looking at her.
'Yes, Miss Rachel.'
'Why do you come so softly, Tamar? Do you know, you frightened me?'
'I thought I'd look in, Miss, before I went to bed, just to see if you wanted anything.'
'No--nothing, thank you, dear Tamar.'
'And I don't think, Miss Rachel, you are quite well to-night, though you are so gay--you're pale, dear; and there's something on your mind. Don't be thinking about Master Stanley; he's out of the army now, and I'm thankful for it; and make your mind easy about him; and would not it be better, dear, you went to your bed, you rise so early.'
'Very true, good old Tamar, but to-night I must write a letter--not a long one, though--and I assure you, I'm quite well. Good-night, Tamar.'
Tamar stood for a moment with her odd weird look upon her, and then bidding her good-night, glided stiffly away, shutting the door.
So Rachel sat down to her desk and began to write; but she could not get into the spirit of her letter; on the contrary, her mind wandered away, and she found herself listening, every now and then, and at last she fancied that old Tamar, about whom that dream, and her unexpected appearance at the door, had given her a sort of spectral feeling that night, was up and watching her; and the idea of this white sentinel outside her door excited her so unpleasantly, that she opened it, but found no Tamar there; and then she revisited the kitchen, but that was empty too, and the fire taken down. And, finally, she passed into the old woman's bed-chamber, whom she saw, her white head upon her pillow, dreaming again, perhaps. And so, softly closing her door, she left her to her queer visions and deathlike slumber.