Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter LXIX. Of a Spectre Whom Old Tamar Saw.
Little Fairy, all this while, continued, in our Church language, 'sick and weak.' The vicar was very sorry, but not afraid. His little man was so bright and merry, that he seemed to him the very spirit of life. He could not dream of his dying. It was sad, to be sure, the little man so many days in his bed, too languid to care for toy or story, quite silent, except when, in the night time, those weird monologues began which showed that the fever had reached his brain. The tones of his pleasant little voice, in those sad flights of memory and fancy, busy with familiar scenes and occupations, sounded wild and plaintive in his ear. And when 'Wapsie' was mentioned, sometimes the vicar's eyes filled, but he smiled through this with a kind of gladness at the child's affection. 'It will soon be over, my darling! You will be walking with Wapsie in a week again.' The sun could as soon cease from shining as little Fairy from living. The thought he would not allow near him.
Doctor Buddle had been six miles away that evening with a patient, and looked in at the vicar's long after the candles were lighted.
He was not satisfied with little Fairy--not at all satisfied. He put his hand under the clothes and felt his thin, slender limbs--thinner than ever now. Dry and very hot they were--and little man babbling his nonsense about little boys, and his 'Wapsie,' and toys, and birds, and the mill-stream, and the church-yard--of which, with so strange a fatality, children, not in romance only, but reality, so often prattle in their feverish wanderings.
He felt his pulse. He questioned his mamma, and cross-examined the nurse, and looked grave and very much annoyed; and then bethought him of something to be tried; and having given his directions to the maid, he went home in haste, and returned in half an hour with the something in a phial--a few drops in water, and little man sat up, leaning on his Wapsie's arm, and 'took it very good,' his nurse said, approvingly; and he looked at them all wonderingly, for two or three moments, and so tired; and they laid him down again, and then his spoken dreams began once more.
Doctor Buddle was dark and short in his answers to voluble little Mrs. Wylder--though, of course, quite respectful--and the vicar saw him down the narrow stairs, and they turned into the study for a moment, and, said Buddle, in an under tone--
'He's very ill--I can say nothing else.'
And there was a pause.
The little colour he had receded from the vicar's face, for the looks and tones of good-natured Buddle were not to be mistaken. He was reading little Fairy's death warrant.
'I see, doctor--I see; you think he'll die,' said the vicar, staring at him. 'Oh doctor, my little Fairy!'
The doctor knew something of the poor vicar's troubles--of course in a village most things of the kind are known--and often, in his brisk, rough way, he thought as, with a nod and a word, he passed the lank cleric, under the trees or across the common, with his bright, prattling, sunny-haired little boy by the hand--or encountered them telling stories on the stile, near the castle meadow--what a gleam of sunshine was always dancing about his path, in that smiling, wayward, loving little fellow--and now a long Icelandic winter was coming, and his path was to know that light no more.
'With children, you know, I--I always say there's a chance--but you are right to look the thing in the face--and I'll be here the first call in the morning; and you know where to find me, in the meantime;' and the doctor shook hands very hard with the vicar at the hall-door, and made his way homeward--the vicar's eyes following him till he was out of sight.
Then William Wylder shut the hall-door, and turned about.
Little Fairy's drum was hanging from a peg on the hat-stand--the drum that was to sound no more in the garden, or up and down the hall, with the bright-haired little drummer's song. There would be no more interruption now--the vicar would write his sermons undisturbed; no more consolations claimed--no more broken toys to be mended--some of the innocent little rubbish lay in the study. It should never move from that--nor his drum--nor that little hat and cape, hanging on their peg, with the tiny boots underneath.
No more prattling at unseasonable times--no more crying--no more singing--no more laughing; all these interruptions were quiet now, and altogether gone--'Little man! little Fairy! Oh, was it possible!' But memory would call up the vicar from his half-written sermon. He would miss his troublesome little man, when the sun shone out that he used to welcome--when the birds hopped on the window-stone, to find the crumbs that little man used to strew there; and when his own little canary--'Birdie' he used to call him--would sing and twitter in his cage--and the time came to walk out on his lonely visits.
He must walk alone by the shop-doors--where the little man was so admired--and up the mill-road, and in the castle meadow and over the stile where they used to sit.
Poor Dolly! Her Willie would not tell her yet. He kneeled down in the study--'Little man's' top, and some cut paper nondescripts, were lying where he had left them, at his elbow--and he tried to pray, and then he remembered that his darling ought to know that he was going into the presence of his Maker.
Yes, he would tell poor Dolly first, and then his little man. He would repeat his hymn with him, and pray--and so he went up the nursery stairs.
Poor Dolly, very tired, had gone to lie down for a little. He would not disturb her--no, let her enjoy for an hour more her happy illusion.
When he went into the nursery little Fairy was sitting up, taking his medicine; the nurse's arm round his thin shoulders. He sat down beside him, weeping gently, his thin face turned a little away, and his hand on the coverlet.
Little man looked wonderingly from his tired eyes on Wapsie, and his thin fingers crept on his hand, and Wapsie turned about, drying his eyes, and said--
'Little man! my darling!'
'He's like himself, Sir, while he's sitting up--his little head quite right again.'
'My head's quite right, Wapsie,' the little man whispered, sadly.
'Thank God, my darling!' said the vicar. The tears were running down his cheeks while he parted little Fairy's golden hair with his fingers.
'When I am quite well again,' whispered the little man, 'won't you bring me to the castle meadow, where the wee river is, and we'll float races with daisies and buttercups--the way you did on my birthday.'
'They say that little mannikin----' suddenly the vicar stopped. 'They say that little mannikin won't get well.'
'And am I always to be sick, here in my little bed, Wapsie?' whispered little Fairy, in his dreamy, earnest way, that was new to him.
'No, darling; not always sick: you'll be happier than ever--but not here; little man will be taken by his Saviour, that loves him best of all--and he'll be in heaven--and only have a short time to wait, and maybe his poor Wapsie will come to him, please God, and his darling mamma--and we'll all be happy together, for ever, and never be sick or sorry any more, my treasure--my little Fairy--my darling.'
And little man looked on him with his tired eyes, not quite understanding what it meant, nor why Wapsie was crying; and the nurse said--
'He'd like to be dozin', Sir, he's so tired, please.' So down the poor little fellow lay, his 'Wapsie' praying by his bedside.
When, in a little time, poor Dolly returned, her Willie took her round the waist, as on the day when she accepted him, and led her tenderly into the other room, and told her all, and they hugged and wept together.
'Oh, Dolly, Dolly!'
'Oh, Willie, darling! Oh, Willie, our precious treasure--our only one.'
And so they walked up and down that room, his arm round her waist, and in that sorrowful embrace, murmuring amid their sobs to one another, their thoughts and remembrances of 'little man.' How soon the treasure grows a retrospect!
Then Dolly bethought her of her promise to Rachel.
'She made me promise to send for her if he was worse--she loved him so--everyone loved him--they could not help--oh, Willie! our bright darling.'
'I think, Dolly, we could not live here. I'd like to go on some mission, and maybe come back in a great many years--maybe, Dolly, when we are old. I'd like to see the place again--and--and the walks--but not, I think, for a long time. He was such a darling.'
Perhaps the vicar was thinking of the church-yard, and how he would like, when his time came, to lie beside the golden-haired little comrade of his walks. So Dolly despatched the messenger with a lantern, and thus it was there came a knocking at the door of Redman's Farm at that unseasonable hour. For some time old Tamar heard the clatter in her sleep; disturbing and mingling with her dreams. But in a while she wakened quite, and heard the double knocks one after another in quick succession; and huddling on her clothes, and muttering to herself all the way, she got into the hall, and standing a couple of yards away from the door, answered in shrill and querulous tones, and questioning the messenger in the same breath.
How could she tell what it might or might not portend? Her alarms quickly subsided, however, for she knew the voice well.
So the story was soon told. Poor little Fairy; it was doubtful if he was to see another morning; and the maid being wanted at home, old Tamar undertook the message to Brandon Hall, where her young mistress was, and sallied forth in her cloak and bonnet, under the haunted trees of Redman's Dell.
Tamar had passed the age of ghostly terrors. There are a certain sober literality and materialism in old age which abate the illusions of the supernatural as effectually as those of love; and Tamar, though not without awe, for darkness and solitude, even were there no associations of a fearful kind in the locality, are suggestive and dismal to the last.
Her route lay, as by this time my reader is well aware, by that narrow defile reached from Redman's Farm by a pathway which scales a flight of rude steps, the same which Stanley Lake and his sister had mounted on the night of Mark Wylder's disappearance.
Tamar knew the path very well. It was on the upper level of it that she had held that conference with Stanley Lake, which obviously referred to that young gentleman's treatment of the vanished Mark. As she came to this platform, round which the trees receded a little so as to admit the moonlight, the old woman was tired.
She would have gladly chosen another spot to rest in, but fatigue was imperious; and she sat down under the gray stone which stood perpendicularly there, on what had once been the step of a stile, leaning against the rude column behind her.
As she sat here she heard the clank of a step approaching measuredly from the Brandon side. It was twelve o'clock now; the chimes from the Gylingden church-tower had proclaimed that in the distance some minutes before. The honest Gylingden folk seldom heard the tower chimes tell eleven, and gentle and simple had, of course, been long in their beds.
The old woman had a secret hatred of this place, and the unexpected sounds made her hold her breath. She peeped round the stone, in whose shadow she was sitting. The steps were not those of a man walking briskly with a purpose: they were the desultory strides of a stroller lounging out an hour's watch. The steps approached. The figure was visible--that of a short broadish man, with a mass of cloaks, rugs, and mufflers across his arm.
Carrying them with a sort of swagger, he came slowly up to the part of the pathway opposite to the pillar, where he dropped those draperies in a heap upon the grass; and availing himself of the clear moonlight, he stopped nearly confronting her.
It was the face of Mark Wylder--she knew it well--but grown fat and broader, and there was--but this she could not see distinctly--a purplish scar across his eyebrow and cheek. She quivered with terror lest he should have seen her, and might be meditating some mischief. But she was seated close to the ground, several yards away, and in the sharp shadow of the old block of stone.
He consulted his watch, and she sat fixed and powerless as a portion of the block on which she leaned, staring up at this, to her, terrific apparition. Mark Wylder's return boded, she believed, something tremendous.
She saw the glimmer of the gold watch, and, distinctly, the great black whiskers, and the face pallid in the moonlight. She was afraid for a minute, during which he loitered there, that he was going to seat himself upon the cloaks which he had just thrown upon the ground, and felt that she could not possibly escape detection for many seconds more. But she was relieved; for, after a short pause, leaving these still upon the ground, he turned, and walked slowly, like a policeman on his beat, toward Brandon.
With a gasp she began to recover herself; but she felt too faint and ill to get up and commence a retreat towards Redman's Farm. Besides, she was sure he would return--she could not tell how soon--and although the clump of alders hid her from view, she could not tell but that the next moment would disclose his figure retracing his leisurely steps, and ready to pursue and overtake, if by a precipitate movement she had betrayed her presence.
In due time the same figure, passing at the same rate, did emerge again, and approached just as before, only this time he was carelessly examining some small but clumsy steel instrument which glittered occasionally in the light. From Tamar's description of it, I conclude it was a revolver.
He passed the pile of cloaks but a few steps, and again turned toward Brandon. So soon as he was once more concealed by the screen of underwood, old Tamar, now sufficiently recovered, crept hurriedly away in the opposite direction, half dead with terror, until she had descended the steps, and was buried once more in friendly darkness.
Old Tamar did not stop at Redman's Farm; she passed it and the mills, and never stopped till she reached the Vicarage. In the hall, she felt for a moment quite overpowered, and sitting in one of the old chairs that did duty there, she uttered a deep groan, and looked with such a gaze in the face of the maid who had admitted her, that she thought the old woman was dying.
Sick rooms, even when, palpably, doctors, nurses, friends, have all ceased to hope, are not to those who stand in the very nearest and most tender relations to the patient, altogether chambers of despair. There are those who hover about the bed and note every gleam and glow of subsiding life, and will read in sunset something of the colours of the dawn, and cling wildly to these hallucinations of love; and no one has the heart to tear them from them.
Just now, Dolly fancied that 'little man was better--the darling! the treasure! oh, precious little man! He was coming back!'
So, she ran down with this light of hope in her face, and saw old Tamar in the hall, and gave her a glass of the wine which Rachel had provided, and the old woman's spirit came again.
'She was glad--yes, very glad. She was thankful to hear the dear child was better.' But there was a weight upon her soul, and a dreadful horror on her countenance still.
'Will you please, Ma'am, write a little note--my old hand shakes so, she could hardly read my writing--to my mistress--Miss Radie, Ma'am. I see pen and ink on the table there. I was not able to go up to the Hall, Ma'am, with the message. There's something on the road I could not pass.'
'Something! What was it?' said Dolly, staring with round eyes in the old woman's woeful face, her curiosity aroused for a moment.
'Something, Ma'am--a person--I can't exactly tell--above the steps, in the Blackberry path. It would cost my young mistress her life. For Heaven's sake, Ma'am, write, and promise, if you send for her, she shall get the note.'
So, Dolly made the promise, and bringing old Tamar with her into the study, penned these odd lines from her dictation, merely adjusting the grammar.
'MISS RADIE, DEAR,--If coming down to-night from Brandon, this is to tell you, it is as much as your life is worth to pass the Blackberry walk above the steps. My old eyes have seen him there, walking back and forward, lying at catch for some one, this night--the great enemy of man; you can suppose in what shape.
'Your dutiful and loving servant,
So, old Tamar, after a little, took her departure; and it needed a great effort to enable her to take the turn up the dark and lonely mill-road, leading to Redman's Farm; so much did she dread the possibility of again encountering the person she had just described.