Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XXIII. How Rachel Slept That Night in Redman's Farm.
'Allow me--pray do,' and he took her little bag from her hand. 'I hope you are not very tired, darling; you've been so very good; and you're not afraid--you know the place is so quiet--of the little walk by yourself. Take my arm; I'll go as far as I can, but it is very late you know--and you are sure you are not afraid?'
'I ought to be afraid of nothing now, Stanley, but I think I am afraid of everything.'
'Merely a little nervous--it's nothing--I've been wretchedly since, myself; but, I'm so glad you are home again; you shall have no more trouble, I assure you; and not a creature suspects you have been from home. Old Tamar has behaved admirably.'
Rachel sighed again and said--
'And now, dear, I'm afraid I must leave you--I'm very sorry; but you see how it is; keep to the shady side, close by the hedge, where the trees stop; but I'm certain you will meet no one. Tamar will tell you who has called--hardly anyone--I saw them myself every day at Brandon, and told them you were ill. You've been very kind, Radie; I assure you I'll never forget it. You'll find Tamar up and watching for you--I arranged all that; and I need not say you'll be very careful not to let that girl of yours hear anything. You'll be very quiet--she suspects nothing; and I assure you, so far as personal annoyance of any kind is concerned, you may be perfectly at ease. Good-night, Radie; God bless you, dear. I wish very much I could see you all the way, but there's a risk in it, you know. Good-night, dear Radie. By-the-bye, here's your bag; I'll take the rug, it's too heavy for you, and I may as well have it to Dollington.'
He kissed her cheek in his slight way, and left her, and was soon on his way to Dollington, where he slept that night--rather more comfortably than he had done since Rachel's departure.
Rachel walked on swiftly. Very tired, but not at all sleepy--on the contrary, excited and nervous, and rather relieved, notwithstanding that Stanley had left her to walk home alone.
It seemed to her that more than a month had passed since she saw the mill-road last. How much had happened! how awful was the change! Familiar objects glided past her, the same, yet the fashion of the countenance was altered; there was something estranged and threatening.
The pretty parsonage was now close by: in the dews of night the spirit of peace and slumbers smiled over it; but the sight of its steep roof and homely chimney-stacks smote with a shock at her brain and heart--a troubled moan escaped her. She looked up with the instinct of prayer, and clasped her hands on the handle of that little bag which had made the mysterious journey with her; a load which no man could lift lay upon her heart.
Then she commenced her dark walk up the mill-road--her hands still clasped, her lips moving in broken appeals to Heaven. She looked neither to the right nor to the left, but passed on with inflexible gaze and hasty steps, like one who crosses a plank over some awful chasm.
In such darkness Redman's dell was a solemn, not to say an awful, spot; and at any time, I think, Rachel, in a like solitude and darkness, would have been glad to see the red glimmer of old Tamar's candle proclaiming under the branches the neighbourhood of human life and sympathy.
The old woman, with her shawl over her head, sat listening for her young mistress's approach, on the little side bench in the trellised porch, and tottered hastily forth to meet her at the garden wicket, whispering forlorn welcomes, and thanksgivings, which Rachel answered only with a kiss.
Safe, safe at home! Thank Heaven at least for that. Secluded once more--hidden in Redman's Dell; but never again to be the same--the careless mind no more. The summer sunshine through the trees, the leafy songs of birds, obscured in the smoke and drowned in the discord of an untold and everlasting trouble.
The hall-door was now shut and bolted. Wise old Tamar had turned the key upon the sleeping girl. There was nothing to be feared from prying eyes and listening ears.
'You are cold, Miss Radie, and tired--poor thing! I lit a bit of fire in your room, Miss; would you like me to go up stairs with you, Miss?'
And so up stairs they went; and the young lady looked round with a strange anxiety, like a person seeking for something, and forgetting what; and, sitting down, she leaned her head on her hand with a moan, the living picture of despair.
'You've a headache, Miss Radie?' said the old woman, standing by her with that painful enquiry which sat naturally on her face.
'A heartache, Tamar.'
'Let me help you off with these things, Miss Radie, dear.'
The young lady did not seem to hear, but she allowed Tamar to remove her cloak and hat and handkerchief.
The old servant had placed the tea-things on the table, and what remained of that wine of which Stanley had partaken on the night from which the eclipse of Rachel's life dated. So, without troubling her with questions, she made tea, and then some negus, with careful and trembling hands.
'No,' said Rachel, a little pettishly, and put it aside.
'See now, Miss Radie, dear. You look awful sick and tired. You are tired to death and pale, and sorry, my dear child; and to please old Tamar, you'll just drink this.'
'Thank you, Tamar, I believe you are right.'
The truth was she needed it; and in the same dejected way she sipped it slowly; and then there was a long silence--the silence of a fatigue, like that of fever, near which sleep refuses to come. But she sat in that waking lethargy in which are sluggish dreams of horror, and neither eyes nor ears for that which is before us.
When at last with another great sigh she lifted her head, her eyes rested on old Tamar's face, at the other side of the fire-place, with a dark, dull surprise and puzzle for a moment, as if she could not tell why she was there, or where the place was; and then rising up, with piteous look in her old nurse's face, she said, 'Oh! Tamar, Tamar. It is a dreadful world.'
'So it is, Miss Radie,' answered the old woman, her glittering eyes returning her sad gaze wofully. 'Aye, so it is, sure!--and such it was and will be. For so the Scripture says--"Cursed is the ground for thy sake"--hard to the body--a vale of tears--dark to the spirit. But it is the hand of God that is upon you, and, like me, you will say at last, "It is good for me that I have been in trouble." Lie down, dear Miss Radie, and I'll read to you the blessed words of comfort that have been sealed for me ever since I saw you last. They have--but that's over.'
And she turned up her pallid, puckered face, and, with a trembling and knotted pair of hands uplifted, she muttered an awful thanksgiving.
Rachel said nothing, but her eyes rested on the floor, and, with the quiet obedience of her early childhood, she did as Tamar said. And the old woman assisted her to undress, and so she lay down with a sigh in her bed. And Tamar, her round spectacles by this time on her nose, sitting at the little table by her pillow, read, in a solemn and somewhat quavering voice, such comfortable passages as came first to memory.
Rachel cried quietly as she listened, and at last, worn out by many feverish nights, and the fatigues of her journey, she fell into a disturbed slumber, with many startings and sudden wakings, with cries and strange excitement.
Old Tamar would not leave her, but kept her seat in the high-backed arm-chair throughout the night, like a nurse--as indeed she was--in a sick chamber. And so that weary night limped tediously away, and morning dawned, and tipped the discoloured foliage of the glen with its glow, awaking the songs of all the birds, and dispersing the white mists of darkness. And Rachel with a start awoke, and sat up with a wild look and a cry--
'What is it?'
'Nothing, dear Miss Radie--only poor old Tamar.' And a new day had begun.