Uncle Silas/Chapter XXXVII
When Milly joined me at breakfast, her eyes were red and swollen. She was still sniffing with that little sobbing hiccough, which betrays, even were there no other signs, recent violent weeping. She sat down quite silent.
'Is he worse, Milly?' I enquired, anxiously.
'No, nothing's wrong wi' him; he's right well,' said Milly, fiercely.
'What's the matter then, Milly dear?'
'The poisonous old witch! 'Twas just to tell the Gov'nor how I'd said 'twas Cormoran that came by the po'shay last night.'
'And who is Cormoran?' I enquired.
'Ay, there it is; I'd like to tell, and you want to hear—and I just daren't, for he'll send me off right to a French school—hang it—hang them all!—if I do.'
'And why should Uncle Silas care?' said I, a good deal surprised.
'They're a-tellin' lies.'
'Who?' said I.
'L'Amour—that's who. So soon as she made her complaint of me, the Gov'nor asked her, sharp enough, did anyone come last night, or a po'shay; and she was ready to swear there was no one. Are ye quite sure, Maud, you really did see aught, or 'appen 'twas all a dream?'
'It was no dream, Milly; so sure as you are there, I saw exactly what I told you,' I replied.
'Gov'nor won't believe it anyhow; and he's right mad wi' me; and he threatens me he'll have me off to France; I wish 'twas under the sea. I hate France—I do—like the devil. Don't you? They're always a-threatening me wi' France, if I dare say a word more about the po'shay, or—or anyone.'
I really was curious about Cormoran; but Cormoran was not to be defined to me by Milly; nor did she, in reality, know more than I respecting the arrival of the night before.
One day I was surprised to see Doctor Bryerly on the stairs. I was standing in a dark gallery as he walked across the floor of the lobby to my uncle's door, his hat on, and some papers in his hand.
He did not see me; and when he had entered Uncle Silas's door, I went down and found Milly awaiting me in the hall.
'So Doctor Bryerly is here,' I said.
'That's the thin fellow, wi' the sharp look, and the shiny black coat, that went up just now?' asked Milly.
'Yes, he's gone into your papa's room,' said I.
Appen 'twas he come 'tother night. He may be staying here, though we see him seldom, for it's a barrack of a house—it is.'
The same thought had struck me for a moment, but was dismissed immediately. It certainly was not Doctor Bryerly's figure which I had seen.
So, without any new light gathered from this apparition, we went on our way, and made our little sketch of the ruined bridge. We found the gate locked as before; and, as Milly could not persuade me to climb it, we got round the paling by the river's bank.
While at our drawing, we saw the swarthy face, sooty locks, and old weather-stained red coat of Zamiel, who was glowering malignly at us from among the trunks of the forest trees, and standing motionless as a monumental figure in the side aisle of a cathedral. When we looked again he was gone.
Although it was a fine mild day for the wintry season, we yet, cloaked as we were, could not pursue so still an occupation as sketching for more than ten or fifteen minutes. As we returned, in passing a clump of trees, we heard a sudden outbreak of voices, angry and expostulatory; and saw, under the trees, the savage old Zamiel strike his daughter with his stick two great blows, one of which was across the head. 'Beauty' ran only a short distance away, while the swart old wood-demon stumped lustily after her, cursing and brandishing his cudgel.
My blood boiled. I was so shocked that for a moment I could not speak; but in a moment more I screamed—
'You brute! How dare you strike the poor girl?'
She had only run a few steps, and turned about confronting him and us, her eyes gleaming fire, her features pale and quivering to suppress a burst of weeping. Two little rivulets of blood were trickling over her temple.
'I say, fayther, look at that,' she said, with a strange tremulous smile, lifting her hand, which was smeared with blood.
Perhaps he was ashamed, and the more enraged on that account, for he growled another curse, and started afresh to reach her, whirling his stick in the air. Our voices, however, arrested him.
'My uncle shall hear of your brutality. The poor girl!'
'Strike him, Meg, if he does it again; and pitch his leg into the river to-night, when he's asleep.'
'I'd serve you the same;' and out came an oath. 'You'd have her lick her fayther, would ye? Look out!'
And he wagged his head with a scowl at Milly, and a flourish of his cudgel.
'Be quiet, Milly,' I whispered, for Milly was preparing for battle; and I again addressed him with the assurance that, on reaching home, I would tell my uncle how he had treated the poor girl.
Tis you she may thank for't, a wheedling o' her to open that gate,' he snarled.
'That's a lie; we went round by the brook,' cried Milly.
I did not think proper to discuss the matter with him; and looking very angry, and, I thought, a little put out, he jerked and swayed himself out of sight. I merely repeated my promise of informing my uncle as he went, to which, over his shoulder, he bawled—
'Silas won't mind ye that;' snapping his horny finger and thumb.
The girl remained where she had stood, wiping the blood off roughly with the palm of her hand, and looking at it before she rubbed it on her apron.
'My poor girl,' I said, 'you must not cry. I'll speak to my uncle about you.'
But she was not crying. She raised her head, and looked at us a little askance, with a sullen contempt, I thought.
'And you must have these apples—won't you?' We had brought in our basket two or three of those splendid apples for which Bartram was famous.
I hesitated to go near her, these Hawkeses, Beauty and Pegtop, were such savages. So I rolled the apples gently along the ground to her feet.
She continued to look doggedly at us with the same expression, and kicked away the apples sullenly that approached her feet. Then, wiping her temple and forehead in her apron, without a word, she turned and walked slowly away.
'Poor thing! I'm afraid she leads a hard life. What strange, repulsive people they are!'
When we reached home, at the head of the great staircase old L'Amour was awaiting me; and with a courtesy, and very respectfully, she informed me that the Master would be happy to see me.
Could it be about my evidence as to the arrival of the mysterious chaise that he summoned me to this interview? Gentle as were his ways, there was something undefinable about Uncle Silas which inspired fear; and I should have liked few things less than meeting his gaze in the character of a culprit.
There was an uncertainty, too, as to the state in which I might find him, and a positive horror of beholding him again in the condition in which I had last seen him.
I entered the room, then, in some trepidation, but was instantly relieved. Uncle Silas was in the same health apparently, and, as nearly as I could recollect it, in precisely the same rather handsome though negligent garb in which I had first seen him.
Doctor Bryerly—what a marked and vulgar contrast, and yet, somehow, how reassuring!—sat at the table near him, and was tying up papers. His eyes watched me, I thought, with an anxious scrutiny as I approached; and I think it was not until I had saluted him that he recollected suddenly that he had not seen me before at Bartram, and stood up and greeted me in his usual abrupt and somewhat familiar way. It was vulgar and not cordial, and yet it was honest and indefinably kind.
Up rose my uncle, that strangely venerable, pale portrait, in his loose Rembrandt black velvet. How gentle, how benignant, how unearthly, and inscrutable!
'I need not say how she is. Those lilies and roses, Doctor Bryerly, speak their own beautiful praises of the air of Bartram. I almost regret that her carriage will be home so soon. I only hope it may not abridge her rambles. It positively does me good to look at her. It is the glow of flowers in winter, and the fragrance of a field which the Lord hath blessed.'
'Country air, Miss Ruthyn, is a right good kitchen to country fare. I like to see young women eat heartily. You have had some pounds of beef and mutton since I saw you last,' said Dr. Bryerly.
And this sly speech made, he scrutinised my countenance in silence rather embarrassingly.
'My system, Doctor Bryerly, as a disciple of Aesculapius you will approve—health first, accomplishment afterwards. The Continent is the best field for elegant instruction, and we must see the world a little, by-and-by, Maud; and to me, if my health be spared, there would be an unspeakable though a melancholy charm in the scenes where so many happy, though so many wayward and foolish, young days were passed; and I think I should return to these picturesque solitudes with, perhaps, an increased relish. You remember old Chaulieu's sweet lines—
Désert, aimable solitude,
Séjour du calme et de la paix,
Asile où n'entrèrent jamais
Le tumulte et l'inquiétude.
I can't say that care and sorrow have not sometimes penetrated these sylvan fastnesses; but the tumults of the world, thank Heaven!—never.'
There was a sly scepticism, I thought, in Doctor Bryerly's sharp face; and hardly waiting for the impressive 'never,' he said—
'I forgot to ask, who is your banker?'
'Oh! Bartlet and Hall, Lombard Street,' answered Uncle Silas, dryly and shortly.
Dr. Bryerly made a note of it, with an expression of face which seemed, with a sly resolution, to say, 'You shan't come the anchorite over me.'
I saw Uncle Silas's wild and piercing eye rest suspiciously on me for a moment, as if to ascertain whether I felt the spirit of Doctor Bryerly's almost interruption; and, nearly at the same moment, stuffing his papers into his capacious coat pockets, Doctor Bryerly rose and took his leave.
When he was gone, I bethought me that now was a good opportunity of making my complaint of Dickon Hawkes. Uncle Silas having risen, I hesitated, and began,
'Uncle, may I mention an occurrence—which I witnessed?'
'Certainly, child,' he answered, fixing his eye sharply on me. I really think he fancied that the conversation was about to turn upon the phantom chaise.
So I described the scene which had shocked Milly and me, an hour or so ago, in the Windmill Wood.
'You see, my dear child, they are rough persons; their ideas are not ours; their young people must be chastised, and in a way and to a degree that we would look upon in a serious light. I've found it a bad plan interfering in strictly domestic misunderstandings, and should rather not.'
'But he struck her violently on the head, uncle, with a heavy cudgel, and she was bleeding very fast.'
'Ah?' said my uncle, dryly.
'And only that Milly and I deterred him by saying that we would certainly tell you, he would have struck her again; and I really think if he goes on treating her with so much violence and cruelty he may injure her seriously, or perhaps kill her.'
'Why, you romantic little child, people in that rank of life think absolutely nothing of a broken head,' answered Uncle Silas, in the same way.
'But is it not horrible brutality, uncle?'
'To be sure it is brutality; but then you must remember they are brutes, and it suits them,' said he.
I was disappointed. I had fancied that Uncle Silas's gentle nature would have recoiled from such an outrage with horror and indignation; and instead, here he was, the apologist of that savage ruffian, Dickon Hawkes.
'And he is always so rude and impertinent to Milly and to me,' I continued.
'Oh! impertinent to you—that's another matter. I must see to that. Nothing more, my dear child?'
'Well, there was nothing more.'
'He's a useful servant, Hawkes; and though his looks are not prepossessing, and his ways and language rough, yet he is a very kind father, and a most honest man—a thoroughly moral man, though severe—a very rough diamond though, and has no idea of the refinements of polite society. I venture to say he honestly believes that he has been always unexceptionably polite to you, so we must make allowances.'
And Uncle Silas smoothed my hair with his thin aged hand, and kissed my forehead.
'Yes, we must make allowances; we must be kind. What says the Book?—"Judge not, that ye be not judged." Your dear father acted upon that maxim—so noble and so awful—and I strive to do so. Alas! dear Austin, longo intervalle, far behind! and you are removed—my example and my help; you are gone to your rest, and I remain beneath my burden, still marching on by bleak and alpine paths, under the awful night.
O nuit, nuit douloureuse! O toi, tardive aurore!
Viens-tu? vas-tu venir? es-tu bien loin encore?
And repeating these lines of Chenier, with upturned eyes, and one hand lifted, and an indescribable expression of grief and fatigue, he sank stiffly into his chair, and remained mute, with eyes closed for some time. Then applying his scented handkerchief to them hastily, and looking very kindly at me, he said—
'Anything more, dear child?'
'Nothing, uncle, thank you, very much, only about that man, Hawkes; I dare say that he does not mean to be so uncivil as he is, but I am really afraid of him, and he makes our walks in that direction quite unpleasant.'
'I understand quite, my dear. I will see to it; and you must remember that nothing is to be allowed to vex my beloved niece and ward during her stay at Bartram—nothing that her old kinsman, Silas Ruthyn, can remedy.'
So with a tender smile, and a charge to shut the door 'perfectly, but without clapping it,' he dismissed me.
Doctor Bryerly had not slept at Bartram, but at the little inn in Feltram, and he was going direct to London, as I afterwards learned.
'Your ugly doctor's gone away in a fly,' said Milly, as we met on the stairs, she running up, I down.
On reaching the little apartment which was our sitting-room, however, I found that she was mistaken; for Doctor Bryerly, with his hat and a great pair of woollen gloves on, and an old Oxford grey surtout that showed his lank length to advantage, buttoned all the way up to his chin, had set down his black leather bag on the table, and was reading at the window a little volume which I had borrowed from my uncle's library.
It was Swedenborg's account of the other worlds, Heaven and Hell.
He closed it on his finger as I entered, and without recollecting to remove his hat, he made a step or two towards me with his splay, creaking boots. With a quick glance at the door, he said—
'Glad to see you alone for a minute—very glad.'
But his countenance, on the contrary, looked very anxious.