Uncle Silas/Chapter LIV

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Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter LIV: IN SEARCH OF MR. CHARKE'S SKELETON


On the whole, however, I was unspeakably relieved. Dudley Ruthyn, Esq., and Mrs. D. Ruthyn, were now skimming the blue waves on the wings of the Seamew, and every morning widened the distance between us, which was to go on increasing until it measured a point on the antipodes. The Liverpool paper containing this golden line was carefully preserved in my room; and like the gentleman who, when much tried by the shrewish heiress whom he had married, used to retire to his closet and read over his marriage settlement, I used, when blue devils haunted me, to unfold my newspaper and read the paragraph concerning the Seamew.

The day I now speak of was a dismal one of sleety snow. My own room seemed to me cheerier than the lonely parlour, where I could not have had good Mary Quince so decorously.

A good fire, that kind and trusty face, the peep I had just indulged in at my favourite paragraph, and the certainty of soon seeing my dear cousin Monica, and afterwards affectionate Milly, raised my spirits.

'So,' said I, 'as old Wyat, you say, is laid up with rheumatism, and can't turn up to scold me, I think I'll run up stairs and make an exploration, and find poor Mr. Charke's skeleton in a closet.'

'Oh, law, Miss Maud, how can you say such things!' exclaimed good old Quince, lifting up her honest grey head and round eyes from her knitting.

I had grown so familiar with the frightful tradition of Mr. Charke and his suicide, that I could now afford to frighten old Quince with him.

'I am quite serious. I am going to have a ramble up-stairs and down-stairs, like goosey-goosey-gander; and if I do light upon his chamber, it is all the more interesting. I feel so like Adelaide, in the "Romance of the Forest," the book I was reading to you last night, when she commenced her delightful rambles through the interminable ruined abbey in the forest.'

'Shall I go with you, Miss?'

'No, Quince; stay there; keep a good fire, and make some tea. I suspect I shall lose heart and return very soon;' and with a shawl about me, cowl fashion, over my head, I stole up-stairs.

I shall not recount with the particularity of the conscientious heroine of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, all the suites of apartments, corridors, and lobbies, which I threaded in my ramble. It will be enough to mention that I lighted upon a door at the end of a long gallery, which, I think, ran parallel with the front of the house; it interested me because it had the air of having been very long undisturbed. There were two rusty bolts, which did not evidently belong to its original securities, and had been, though very long ago, somewhat clumsily superadded. Dusty and rusty they were, but I had no difficulty in drawing them back. There was a rusty key, I remember it well, with a crooked handle in the lock; I tried to turn it, but could not. My curiosity was piqued. I was thinking of going back and getting Mary Quince's assistance. It struck me, however, that possibly it was not locked, so I pulled the door and it opened quite easily. I did not find myself in a strangely-furnished suite of apartments, but at the entrance of a gallery, which diverged at right angles from that through which I had just passed; it was very imperfectly lighted, and ended in total darkness.

I began to think how far I had already come, and to consider whether I could retrace my steps with accuracy in case of a panic, and I had serious thoughts of returning.

The idea of Mr. Charke was growing unpleasantly sharp and menacing; and as I looked down the long space before me, losing itself among ambiguous shadows, lulled in a sinister silence, and as it were inviting my entrance like a trap, I was very near yielding to the cowardly impulse.

But I took heart of grace and determined to see a little more. I opened a side-door, and entered a large room, where were, in a corner, some rusty and cobwebbed bird-cages, but nothing more. It was a wainscoted room, but a white mildew stained the panels. I looked from the window: it commanded that dismal, weed-choked quadrangle into which I had once looked from another window. I opened a door at its farther end, and entered another chamber, not quite so large, but equally dismal, with the same prison-like look-out, not very easily discerned through the grimy panes and the sleet that was falling thickly outside. The door through which I had entered made a little accidental creak, and, with my heart at my lips, I gazed at it, expecting to see Charke, or the skeleton of which I had talked so lightly, stalk in at the half-open aperture. But I had an odd sort of courage which was always fighting against my cowardly nerves, and I walked to the door, and looking up and down the dismal passage, was reassured.

Well, one room more—just that whose deep-set door fronted me, with a melancholy frown, at the opposite end of the chamber. So to it I glided, shoved it open, advancing one step, and the great bony figure of Madame de la Rougierre was before me.

I could see nothing else.

The drowsy traveller who opens his sheets to slip into bed, and sees a scorpion coiled between them, may have experienced a shock the same in kind, but immeasurably less in degree.

She sat in a clumsy old arm-chair, with an ancient shawl about her, and her bare feet in a delft tub. She looked a thought more withered. Her wig shoved back disclosed her bald wrinkled forehead, and enhanced the ugly effect of her exaggerated features and the gaunt hollows of her face. With a sense of incredulity and terror I gazed, freezing, at this evil phantom, who returned my stare for a few seconds with a shrinking scowl, dismal and grim, as of an evil spirit detected.

The meeting, at least then and there, was as complete a surprise for her as for me. She could not tell how I might take it; but she quickly rallied, burst into a loud screeching laugh, and, with her old Walpurgis gaiety, danced some fantastic steps in her bare wet feet, tracking the floor with water, and holding out with finger and thumb, in dainty caricature, her slammakin old skirt, while she sang some of her nasal patois with an abominable hilarity and emphasis.

With a gasp, I too recovered from the fascination of the surprise. I could not speak though for some seconds, and Madame was first.

'Ah, dear Maud, what surprise! Are we not overjoy, dearest, and cannot speak? I am full of joy—quite charmed—ravie—of seeing you. So are you of me, your face betray. Ah! yes, thou dear little baboon! here is poor Madame once more! Who could have imagine?'

'I thought you were in France, Madame,' I said, with a dismal effort.

'And so I was, dear Maud; I 'av just arrive. Your uncle Silas he wrote to the superioress for gouvernante to accompany a young lady—that is you, Maud—on her journey, and she send me; and so, ma chère, here is poor Madame arrive to charge herself of that affair.'

'How soon do we leave for France, Madame?' I asked.

'I do not know, but the old women—wat is her name?'

'Wyat,' I suggested.

'Oh! oui, Waiatt;—she says two, three week. And who conduct you to poor Madame's apartment, my dear Maud?' She inquired insinuatingly.

'No one, I answered promptly: 'I reached it quite accidentally, and I can't imagine why you should conceal yourself.' Something like indignation kindled in my mind as I began to wonder at the sly strategy which had been practised upon me.

'I 'av not conceal myself, Mademoiselle,' retorted the governness. 'I 'av act precisally as I 'av been ordered. Your uncle, Mr. Silas Ruthyn, he is afraid, Waiatt says, to be interrupted by his creditors, and everything must be done very quaitly. I have been commanded to avoid me faire voir, you know, and I must obey my employer—voilà tout!'

'And for how long have you been residing here?' I persisted, in the same resentful vein.

Bout a week. It is soche triste place! I am so glad to see you, Maud! I've been so isolée, you dear leetle fool!'

'You are not glad, Madame; you don't love me—you never did,' I exclaimed with sudden vehemence.

'Yes, I am very glad; you know not, chère petite niaise, how I 'av desire to educate you a leetle more. Let us understand one another. You think I do not love you, Mademoiselle, because you have mentioned to your poor papa that little dérèglement in his library. I have repent very often that so great indiscretion of my life. I thought to find some letters of Dr. Braierly. I think that man was trying to get your property, my dear Maud, and if I had found something I would tell you all about. But it was very great sottise, and you were very right to denounce me to Monsieur. Je n'ai point de rancune contre vous. No, no, none at all. On the contrary, I shall be your gardienne tutelaire—wat you call?—guardian angel—ah, yes, that is it. You think I speak par dérision; not at all. No, my dear cheaile, I do not speak par moquerie, unless perhaps the very least degree in the world.'

And with these words Madame laughed unpleasantly, showing the black caverns at the side of her mouth, and with a cold, steady malignity in her gaze.

'Yes,' I said; 'I know what you mean, Madame—you hate me.'

'Oh! wat great ogly word! I am shock! vous me faites honte. Poor Madame, she never hate any one; she loves all her friends, and her enemies she leaves to Heaven; while I am, as you see, more gay, more joyeuse than ever, they have not been 'appy—no, they have not been fortunate these others. Wen I return, I find always some of my enemy they 'av die, and some they have put themselves into embarrassment, or there has arrived to them some misfortune;' and Madame shrugged and laughed a little scornfully.

A kind of horror chilled my rising anger, and I was silent.

'You see, my dear Maud, it is very natural you should think I hate you. When I was with Mr. Austin Ruthyn, at Knowl, you know you did not like a me—never. But in consequence of our intimacy I confide you that which I 'av of most dear in the world, my reputation. It is always so. The pupil can calomniate, without been discover, the gouvernante. 'Av I not been always kind to you, Maud? Which 'av I use of violence or of sweetness the most? I am, like other persons, jalouse de ma réputation; and it was difficult to suffer with patience the banishment which was invoked by you, because chiefly for your good, and for an indiscretion to which I was excited by motives the most pure and laudable. It was you who spied so cleverly—eh! and denounce me to Monsieur Ruthyn? Helas! wat bad world it is!'

'I do not mean to speak at all about that occurrence, Madame; I will not discuss it. I dare say what you tell me of the cause of your engagement here is true, and I suppose we must travel, as you say, in company; but you must know that the less we see of each other while in this house the better.'

'I am not so sure of that, my sweet little béte; your education has been neglected, or rather entirely abandoned, since you 'av arrive at this place, I am told. You must not be a bestiole. We must do, you and I, as we are ordered. Mr. Silas Ruthyn he will tell us.'

All this time Madame was pulling on her stockings, getting her boots on, and otherwise proceeding with her dowdy toilet. I do not know why I stood there talking to her. We often act very differently from what we would have done upon reflection. I had involved myself in a dialogue, as wiser generals than I have entangled themselves in a general action when they meant only an affair of outposts. I had grown a little angry, and would not betray the least symptom of fear, although I felt that sensation profoundly.

'My beloved father thought you so unfit a companion for me that he dismissed you at an hour's notice, and I am very sure that my uncle will think as he did; you are not a fit companion for me, and had my uncle known what had passed he would never have admitted you to this house—never!'

'Helas! Quelle disgrace! And you really think so, my dear Maud,' exclaimed Madame, adjusting her wig before her glass, in the corner of which I could see half of her sly, grinning face, as she ogled herself in it.

'I do, and so do you, Madame,' I replied, growing more frightened.

'It may be—we shall see; but everyone is not so cruel as you, ma chère petite calomniatrice.'

'You shan't call me those names,' I said, in an angry tremor.

'What name, dearest cheaile?'

'Calomniatrice—that is an insult.'

'Why, my most foolish little Maud, we may say rogue, and a thousand other little words in play which we do not say seriously.

'You are not playing—you never play—you are angry, and you hate me,' I exclaimed, vehemently.

'Oh, fie!—wat shame! Do you not perceive, dearest cheaile, how much education you still need? You are proud, little demoiselle; you must become, on the contrary, quaite humble. Je ferai baiser le babouin à vous—ha, ha, ha! I weel make a you to kees the monkey. You are too proud, my dear cheaile.'

'I am not such a fool as I was at Knowl,' I said; 'you shall not terrify me here. I will tell my uncle the whole truth,' I said.

'Well, it may be that is the best,' she replied, with provoking coolness.

'You think I don't mean it?'

'Of course you do,' she replied.

'And we shall see what my uncle thinks of it.'

'We shall see, my dear,' she replied, with an air of mock contrition.

'Adieu, Madame!'

'You are going to Monsieur Ruthyn?—very good!'

I made her no answer, but more agitated than I cared to show her, I left the room. I hurried along the twilight passage, and turned into the long gallery that opened from it at right angles. I had not gone half-a-dozen steps on my return when I heard a heavy tread and a rustling behind me.

'I am ready, my dear; I weel accompany you,' said the smirking phantom, hurrying after me.

'Very well,' was my reply; and threading our way, with a few hesitations and mistakes, we reached and descended the stairs, and in a minute more stood at my uncle's door.

My uncle looked hard and strangely at us as we entered. He looked, indeed, as if his temper was violently excited, and glared and muttered to himself for a few seconds; and treating Madame to a stare of disgust, he asked peevishly—

'Why am I disturbed, pray?'

'Miss Maud a Ruthyn, she weel explain,' replied Madame, with a great courtesy, like a boat going down in a ground swell.

'Will you explain, my dear?' he asked, in his coldest and most sarcastic tone.

I was agitated, and I am sure my statement was confused. I succeeded, however, in saying what I wanted.

'Why, Madame, this is a grave charge! Do you admit it, pray?'

Madame, with the coolest possible effrontery, denied it all; with the most solemn asseverations, and with streaming eyes and clasped hands, conjured me melodramatically to withdraw that intolerable story, and to do her justice. I stared at her for a while astounded, and turning suddenly to my uncle, as vehemently asserted the truth of every syllable I had related.

'You hear, my dear child, you hear her deny everything; what am I to think? You must excuse the bewilderment of my old head. Madame de la—that lady has arrived excellently recommended by the superioress of the place where dear Milly awaits you, and such persons are particular. It strikes me, my dear niece, that you must have made a mistake.'

I protested here. But he went on without seeming to hear the parenthesis—

'I know, my dear Maud, that you are quite incapable of wilfully deceiving anyone; but you are liable to be deceived like other young people. You were, no doubt, very nervous, and but half awake when you fancied you saw the occurrence you describe; and Madame de—de—'

'De la Rougierre,' I supplied.

'Yes, thank you—Madame de la Rougierre, who has arrived with excellent testimonials, strenuously denies the whole thing. Here is a conflict, my dear—in my mind a presumption of mistake. I confess I should prefer that theory to a peremptory assumption of guilt.'

I felt incredulous and amazed; it seemed as if a dream were being enacted before me. A transaction of the most serious import, which I had witnessed with my own eyes, and described with unexceptionable minuteness and consistency, is discredited by that strange and suspicious old man with an imbecile coolness. It was quite in vain my reiterating my statement, backing it with the most earnest asseverations. I was beating the air. It did not seem to reach his mind. It was all received with a simper of feeble incredulity.

He patted and smoothed my head—he laughed gently, and shook his while I insisted; and Madame protested her purity in now tranquil floods of innocent tears, and murmured mild and melancholy prayers for my enlightenment and reformation. I felt as if I should lose my reason.

'There now, dear Maud, we have heard enough; it is, I do believe, a delusion. Madame de la Rougierre will be your companion, at the utmost, for three or four weeks. Do exercise a little of your self-command and good sense—you know how I am tortured. Do not, I entreat, add to my perplexities. You may make yourself very happy with Madame if you will, I have no doubt.'

'I propose to Mademoiselle,' said Madame, drying her eyes with a gentle alacrity, 'to profit of my visit for her education. But she does not seem to weesh wat I think is so useful.'

'She threatened me with some horrid French vulgarism—de faire baiser le babouin à moi, whatever that means; and I know she hates me,' I replied, impetuously.

'Doucement—doucement!' said my uncle, with a smile at once amused and compassionate. 'Doucement! ma chère.'

With great hands and cunning eyes uplifted, Madame tearfully—for her tears came on short notice—again protested her absolute innocence. She had never in all her life so much as heard one so villain phrase.

'You see, my dear, you have misheard; young people never attend. You will do well to take advantage of Madame's short residence to get up your French a little, and the more you are with her the better.'

'I understand then, Mr. Ruthyn, you weesh I should resume my instructions?' asked Madame.

'Certainly; and converse all you can in French with Mademoiselle Maud. You will be glad, my dear, that I've insisted on it,' he said, turning to me, 'when you have reached France, where you will find they speak nothing else. And now, dear Maud—no, not a word more—you must leave me. Farewell, Madame!'

And he waved us out a little impatiently; and I, without one look toward Madame de la Rougierre, stunned and incensed, walked into my room and shut the door.