Uncle Silas/Chapter XXXIII
I had not time to explore this noble old house as my curiosity prompted; for Milly was in such a fuss to set out for the 'blackberry dell' that I saw little more than just so much as I necessarily traversed in making my way to and from my room.
The actual decay of the house had been prevented by my dear father; and the roof, windows, masonry, and carpentry had all been kept in repair. But short of indications of actual ruin, there are many manifestations of poverty and neglect which impress with a feeling of desolation. It was plain that not nearly a tithe of this great house was inhabited; long corridors and galleries stretched away in dust and silence, and were crossed by others, whose dark arches inspired me in the distance with an awful sort of sadness. It was plainly one of those great structures in which you might easily lose yourself, and with a pleasing terror it reminded me of that delightful old abbey in Mrs. Radcliffe's romance, among whose silent staircases, dim passages, and long suites of lordly, but forsaken chambers, begirt without by the sombre forest, the family of La Mote secured a gloomy asylum.
My cousin Milly and I, however, were bent upon an open-air ramble, and traversing several passages, she conducted me to a door which led us out upon a terrace overgrown with weeds, and by a broad flight of steps we descended to the level of the grounds beneath. Then on, over the short grass, under the noble trees, we walked; Milly in high good-humour, and talking away volubly, in her short garment, navvy boots, and a weather-beaten hat. She carried a stick in her gloveless hand. Her conversation was quite new to me, and resembled very much what I would have fancied the holiday recollections of a schoolboy; and the language in which it was sustained was sometimes so outlandish, that I was forced to laugh outright—a demonstration which she plainly did not like.
Her talk was about the great jumps she had made—how she snow-balled the chaps' in winter—how she could slide twice the length of her stick beyond 'Briddles, the cow-boy.'
With this and similar conversation she entertained me.
The grounds were delightfully wild and neglected. But we had now passed into a vast park beautifully varied with hollows and uplands, and such glorious old timber massed and scattered over its slopes and levels. Among these, we got at last into a picturesque dingle; the grey rocks peeped from among the ferns and wild flowers, and the steps of soft sward along its sides were dark in the shadows of silver-stemmed birch, and russet thorn, and oak, under which, in the vaporous night, the Erl-king and his daughter might glide on their aërial horses.
In the lap of this pleasant dell were the finest blackberry bushes, I think, I ever saw, bearing fruit quite fabulous; and plucking these, and chatting, we rambled on very pleasantly.
I had first thought of Milly's absurdities, to which, in description, I cannot do justice, simply because so many details have, by distance of time, escaped my recollection. But her ways and her talk were so indescribably grotesque that she made me again and again quiver with suppressed laughter.
But there was a pitiable and even a melancholy meaning underlying the burlesque.
This creature, with no more education than a dairy-maid, I gradually discovered had fine natural aptitudes for accomplishment—a very sweet voice, and wonderfully delicate ear, and a talent for drawing which quite threw mine into the shade. It was really astonishing.
Poor Milly, in all her life, had never read three books, and hated to think of them. One, over which she was wont to yawn and sigh, and stare fatiguedly for an hour every Sunday, by command of the Governor, was a stout volume of sermons of the earlier school of George III., and a drier collection you can't fancy. I don't think she read anything else. But she had, notwithstanding, ten times the cleverness of half the circulating library misses one meets with. Besides all this, I had a long sojourn before me at Bartram-Haugh, and I had learned from Milly, as I had heard before, what a perennial solitude it was, with a ludicrous fear of learning Milly's preposterous dialect, and turning at last into something like her. So I resolved to do all I could for her—teach her whatever I knew, if she would allow me—and gradually, if possible, effect some civilising changes in her language, and, as they term it in boarding-schools, her demeanour.
But I must pursue at present our first day's ramble in what was called Bartram Chase. People can't go on eating blackberries always; so after a while we resumed our walk along this pretty dell, which gradually expanded into a wooded valley—level beneath and enclosed by irregular uplands, receding, as it were, in mimic bays and harbours at some points, and running out at others into broken promontories, ending in clumps of forest trees.
Just where the glen which we had been traversing expanded into this broad, but wooded valley, it was traversed by a high and close paling, which, although it looked decayed, was still very strong.
In this there was a wooden gate, rudely but strongly constructed, and at the side we were approaching stood a girl, who was leaning against the post, with one arm resting on the top of the gate.
This girl was neither tall nor short—taller than she looked at a distance; she had not a slight waist; sooty black was her hair, with a broad forehead, perpendicular but low; she had a pair of very fine, dark, lustrous eyes, and no other good feature—unless I may so call her teeth, which were very white and even. Her face was rather short, and swarthy as a gipsy's; observant and sullen too; and she did not move, only eyed us negligently from under her dark lashes as we drew near. Altogether a not unpicturesque figure, with a dusky, red petticoat of drugget, and tattered jacket of bottle-green stuff, with short sleeves, which showed her brown arms from the elbow.
'That's Pegtop's daughter,' said Milly.
'Who is Pegtop?' I asked.
'He's the miller—see, yonder it is,' and she pointed to a very pretty feature in the landscape, a windmill, crowning the summit of a hillock which rose suddenly above the level of the treetops, like an island in the centre of the valley.
'The mill not going to-day, Beauty?' bawled Milly.
'No—a, Beauty; it baint,' replied the girl, loweringly, and without stirring.
'And what's gone with the stile?' demanded Milly, aghast. 'It's tore away from the paling!'
'Well, so it be,' replied the wood nymph in the red petticoat, showing her fine teeth with a lazy grin.
'Who's a bin and done all that?' demanded Milly.
'Not you nor me, lass,' said the girl.
Twas old Pegtop, your father, did it,' cried Milly, in rising wrath.
Appen it wor,' she replied.
'And the gate locked.'
'That's it—the gate locked,' she repeated, sulkily, with a defiant side-glance at Milly.
'And where's Pegtop?'
'At t'other side, somewhere; how should I know where he be?' she replied.
'Who's got the key?'
'Here it be, lass,' she answered, striking her hand on her pocket.
'And how durst you stay us here? Unlock it, huzzy, this minute!' cried Milly, with a stamp.
Her answer was a sullen smile.
'Open the gate this instant!' bawled Milly.
'Well, I won't.'
I expected that Milly would have flown into a frenzy at this direct defiance, but she looked instead puzzled and curious—the girl's unexpected audacity bewildered her.
'Why, you fool, I could get over the paling as soon as look at you, but I won't. What's come over you? Open the gate, I say, or I'll make you.'
'Do let her alone, dear,' I entreated, fearing a mutual assault. 'She has been ordered, may be, not to open it. Is it so, my good girl?'
'Well, thou'rt not the biggest fool o' the two,' she observed, commendatively, 'thou'st hit it, lass.'
'And who ordered you?' exclaimed Milly.
'Old Pegtop. Well, that's summat to laugh at, it is—our servant a-shutting us out of our own grounds.'
'No servant o' yourn!'
'Come, lass, what do you mean?'
'He be old Silas's miller, and what's that to thee?'
With these words the girl made a spring on the hasp of the padlock, and then got easily over the gate.
'Can't you do that, cousin?' whispered Milly to me, with an impatient nudge. 'I wish you'd try.'
'No, dear—come away, Milly,' and I began to withdraw.
'Lookee, lass, 'twill be an ill day's work for thee when I tell the Governor,' said Milly, addressing the girl, who stood on a log of timber at the other side, regarding us with a sullen composure.
'We'll be over in spite o' you,' cried Milly.
'You lie!' answered she.
'And why not, huzzy?' demanded my cousin, who was less incensed at the affront than I expected. All this time I was urging Milly in vain to come away.
'Yon lass is no wild cat, like thee—that's why,' said the sturdy portress.
'If I cross, I'll give you a knock,' said Milly.
'And I'll gi' thee another,' she answered, with a vicious wag of the head.
'Come, Milly, I'll go if you don't,' I said.
'But we must not be beat,' whispered she, vehemently, catching my arm; 'and ye shall get over, and see what I will gi' her!'
'I'll not get over.'
'Then I'll break the door, for ye shall come through,' exclaimed Milly, kicking the stout paling with her ponderous boot.
'Purr it, purr it, purr it!' cried the lass in the red petticoat with a grin.
'Do you know who this lady is?' cried Milly, suddenly.
'She is a prettier lass than thou,' answered Beauty.
'She's my cousin Maud—Miss Ruthyn of Knowl—and she's a deal richer than the Queen; and the Governor's taking care of her; and he'll make old Pegtop bring you to reason.'
The girl eyed me with a sulky listlessness, a little inquisitively, I thought.
'See if he don't,' threatened Milly.
'You positively must come,' I said, drawing her away with me.
'Well, shall we come in?' cried Milly, trying a last summons.
'You'll not come in that much,' she answered, surlily, measuring an infinitesimal distance on her finger with her thumb, which she pinched against it, the gesture ending with a snap of defiance, and a smile that showed her fine teeth.
'I've a mind to shy a stone at you,' shouted Milly.
'Faire away; I'll shy wi' ye as long as ye like, lass; take heed o' yerself;' and Beauty picked up a round stone as large as a cricket ball.
With difficulty I got Milly away without an exchange of missiles, and much disgusted at my want of zeal and agility.
'Well, come along, cousin, I know an easy way by the river, when it's low,' answered Milly. 'She's a brute—is not she?'
As we receded, we saw the girl slowly wending her way towards the old thatched cottage, which showed its gable from the side of a little rugged eminence embowered in spreading trees, and dangling and twirling from its string on the end of her finger the key for which a battle had so nearly been fought.
The stream was low enough to make our flank movement round the end of the paling next it quite easy, and so we pursued our way, and Milly's equanimity returned, and our ramble grew very pleasant again.
Our path lay by the river bank, and as we proceeded, the dwarf timber was succeeded by grander trees, which crowded closer and taller, and, at last, the scenery deepened into solemn forest, and a sudden sweep in the river revealed the beautiful ruin of a steep old bridge, with the fragments of a gate-house on the farther side.
'Oh, Milly darling!' I exclaimed, 'what a beautiful drawing this would make! I should so like to make a sketch of it.'
'So it would. Make a picture—do!—here's a stone that's pure and flat to sit upon, and you look very tired. Do make it, and I'll sit by you.'
'Yes, Milly, I am tired, a little, and I will sit down; but we must wait for another day to make the picture, for we have neither pencil nor paper. But it is much too pretty to be lost; so let us come again to-morrow.'
'To-morrow be hanged! you'll do it to-day, bury-me-wick, but you shall; I'm wearying to see you make a picture, and I'll fetch your conundrums out o' your drawer, for do't you shall.'