Uncle Silas/Chapter XXI
My father was dead—as suddenly as if he had been murdered. One of those fearful aneurisms that lie close to the heart, showing no outward sign of giving way in a moment, had been detected a good time since by Dr. Bryerly. My father knew what must happen, and that it could not be long deferred. He feared to tell me that he was soon to die. He hinted it only in the allegory of his journey, and left in that sad enigma some words of true consolation that remained with me ever after. Under his rugged ways was hidden a wonderful tenderness. I could not believe that he was actually dead. Most people for a minute or two, in the wild tumult of such a shock, have experienced the same skepticism. I insisted that the doctor should be instantly sent for from the village.
'Well, Miss Maud, dear, I will send to please you, but it is all to no use. If only you saw him yourself you'd know that. Mary Quince, run you down and tell Thomas, Miss Maud desires he'll go down this minute to the village for Dr. Elweys.'
Every minute of the interval seemed to me like an hour. I don't know what I said, but I fancied that if he were not already dead, he would lose his life by the delay. I suppose I was speaking very wildly, for Mrs. Rusk said—
'My dear child, you ought to come in and see him; indeed but you should, Miss Maud. He's quite dead an hour ago. You'd wonder all the blood that's come from him—you would indeed; it's soaked through the bed already.'
'Oh, don't, don't, don't, Mrs. Rusk.'
'Will you come in and see him, just?
'Oh, no, no, no, no!'
'Well, then, my dear, don't of course, if you don't like; there's no need. Would not you like to lie down, Miss Maud? Mary Quince, attend to her. I must go into the room for a minute or two.'
I was walking up and down the room in distraction. It was a cool night; but I did not feel it. I could only cry:—'Oh, Mary, Mary! what shall I do? Oh, Mary Quince! what shall I do?'
It seemed to me it must be near daylight by the time the Doctor arrived. I had dressed myself. I dared not go into the room where my beloved father lay.
I had gone out of my room to the gallery, where I awaited Dr. Elweys, when I saw him walking briskly after the servant, his coat buttoned up to his chin, his hat in his hand, and his bald head shining. I felt myself grow cold as ice, and colder and colder, and with a sudden sten my heart seemed to stand still.
I heard him ask the maid who stood at the door, in that low, decisive, mysterious tone which doctors cultivate—
And then, with a nod, I saw him enter.
'Would not you like to see the Doctor, Miss Maud?' asked Mary Quince.
The question roused me a little.
'Thank you, Mary; yes, I must see him.'
And so, in a few minutes, I did. He was very respectful, very sad, semi-undertakerlike, in air and countenance, but quite explicit. I heard that my dear father 'had died palpably from the rupture of some great vessel near the heart.' The disease had, no doubt, been 'long established, and is in its nature incurable.' It is 'consolatory in these cases that in the act of dissolution, which is instantaneous, there can be no suffering.' These, and a few more remarks, were all he had to offer; and having had his fee from Mrs. Rusk, he, with a respectful melancholy, vanished.
I returned to my room, and broke into paroxysms of grief, and after an hour or more grew more tranquil.
From Mrs. Rusk I learned that he had seemed very well—better than usual, indeed—that night, and that on her return from the study with the book he required, he was noting down, after his wont, some passages which illustrated the text on which he was employing himself. He took the book, detaining her in the room, and then mounting on a chair to take down another book from a shelf, he had fallen, with the dreadful crash I had heard, dead upon the floor. He fell across the door, which caused the difficulty in opening it. Mrs. Rusk found she had not strength to force it open. No wonder she had given way to terror. I think I should have almost lost my reason.
Everyone knows the reserved aspect and the taciturn mood of the house, one of whose rooms is tenanted by that mysterious guest.
I do not know how those awful days, and more awful nights, passed over. The remembrance is repulsive. I hate to think of them. I was soon draped in the conventional black, with its heavy folds of crape. Lady Knollys came, and was very kind. She undertook the direction of all those details which were to me so inexpressibly dreadful. She wrote letters for me beside, and was really most kind and useful, and her society supported me indescribably. She was odd, but her eccentricity was leavened with strong common sense; and I have often thought since with admiration and gratitude of the tact with which she managed my grief.
There is no dealing with great sorrow as if it were under the control of our wills. It is a terrible phenomenon, whose laws we must study, and to whose conditions we must submit, if we would mitigate it. Cousin Monica talked a great deal of my father. This was easy to her, for her early recollections were full of him.
One of the terrible dislocations of our habits of mind respecting the dead is that our earthly future is robbed of them, and we thrown exclusively upon retrospect. From the long look forward they are removed, and every plan, imagination, and hope henceforth a silent and empty perspective. But in the past they are all they ever were. Now let me advise all who would comfort people in a new bereavement to talk to them, very freely, all they can, in this way of the dead. They will engage in it with interest, they will talk of their own recollections of the dead, and listen to yours, though they become sometimes pleasant, sometimes even laughable. I found it so. It robbed the calamity of something of its supernatural and horrible abruptness; it prevented that monotony of object which is to the mind what it is to the eye, and prepared the faculty for those mesmeric illusions that derange its sense.
Cousin Monica, I am sure, cheered me wonderfully. I grow to love her more and more, as I think of all her trouble, care, and kindness.
I had not forgotten my promise to dear papa about the key, concerning which he had evinced so great an anxiety. It was found in the pocket where he had desired me to remember he always kept it, except when it was placed, while he slept, under his pillow.
'And so, my dear, that wicked woman was actually found picking the lock of your poor papa's desk. I wonder he did not punish her—you know that is burglary.'
'Well, Lady Knollys, you know she is gone, and so I care no more about her—that is, I mean, I need not fear her.'
'No, my dear, but you must call me Monica—do you mind—I'm your cousin, and you call me Monica, unless you wish to vex me. No, of course, you need not be afraid of her. And she's gone. But I'm an old thing, you know, and not so tender-hearted as you; and I confess I should have been very glad to hear that the wicked old witch had been sent to prison and hard labour—I should. And what do you suppose she was looking for—what did she want to steal? I think I can guess—what do you think?'
'To read the papers; maybe to take bank-notes—I'm not sure,' I answered.
'Well, I think most likely she wanted to get at your poor papa's will—that's my idea.
'There is nothing surprising in the supposition, dear,' she resumed. 'Did not you read the curious trial at York, the other day? There is nothing so valuable to steal as a will, when a great deal of property is to be disposed of by it. Why, you would have given her ever so much money to get it back again. Suppose you go down, dear—I'll go with you, and open the cabinet in the study.'
'I don't think I can, for I promised to give the key to Dr. Bryerly, and the meaning was that he only should open it.'
Cousin Monica uttered an inarticulate 'H'm!' of surprise or disapprobation.
'Has he been written to?'
'No, I do not know his address.'
'Not know his address! come, that is curious,' said Knollys, a little testily.
I could not—no one now living in the house could furnish even a conjecture. There was even a dispute as to which train he had gone by—north or south—they crossed the station at an interval of five minutes. If Dr. Bryerly had been an evil spirit, evoked by a secret incantation, there could not have been more complete darkness as to the immediate process of his approach.
'And how long do you mean to wait, my dear? No matter; at all events you may open the desk; you may find papers to direct you—you may find Dr. Bryerly's address—you may find, heaven knows what.'
So down we went—I assenting—and we opened the desk. How dreadful the desecration seems—all privacy abrogated—the shocking compensation for the silence of death!
Henceforward all is circumstantial evidence—all conjectural—except the litera scripta, and to this evidence every note-book, and every scrap of paper and private letter, must contribute—ransacked, bare in the light of day—what it can.
At the top of the desk lay two notes sealed, one to Cousin Monica, the other to me. Mine was a gentle and loving little farewell—nothing more—which opened afresh the fountains of my sorrow, and I cried and sobbed over it bitterly and long.
The other was for 'Lady Knollys.' I did not see how she received it, for I was already absorbed in mine. But in awhile she came and kissed me in her girlish, goodnatured way. Her eyes used to fill with tears at sight of my paroxysms of grief. Then she would begin, 'I remember it was a saying of his,' and so she would repeat it—something maybe wise, maybe playful, at all events consolatory—and the circumstances in which she had heard him say it, and then would follow the recollections suggested by these; and so I was stolen away half by him, and half by Cousin Monica, from my despair and lamentation.
Along with these lay a large envelope, inscribed with the words 'Directions to be complied with immediately on my death.' One of which was, 'Let the event be forthwith published in the county and principal London papers.' This step had been already taken. We found no record of Dr. Bryerly's address.
We made search everywhere, except in the cabinet, which I would on no account permit to be opened except, according to his direction, by Dr. Bryerly's hand. But nowhere was a will, or any document resembling one, to be found. I had now, therefore, no doubt that his will was placed in the cabinet.
In the search among my dear father's papers we found two sheafs of letters, neatly tied up and labelled—these were from my uncle Silas.
My cousin Monica looked down upon these papers with a strange smile; was it satire—was it that indescribable smile with which a mystery which covers a long reach of years is sometimes approached?
These were odd letters. If here and there occurred passages that were querulous and even abject, there were also long passages of manly and altogether noble sentiment, and the strangest rodomontade and maunderings about religion. Here and there a letter would gradually transform itself into a prayer, and end with a doxology and no signature; and some of them expressed such wild and disordered views respecting religion, as I imagine he can never have disclosed to good Mr. Fairfield, and which approached more nearly to the Swedenborg visions than to anything in the Church of England.
I read these with a solemn interest, but my cousin Monica was not similarly moved. She read them with the same smile—faint, serenely contemptuous, I thought—with which she had first looked down upon them. It was the countenance of a person who amusedly traces the working of a character that is well understood.
'Uncle Silas is very religious?' I said, not quite liking Lady Knollys' looks.
'Very,' she said, without raising her eyes or abating her old bitter smile, as she glanced over a passage in one of his letters.
'You don't think he is, Cousin Monica?' said I. She raised her head and looked straight at me.
'Why do you say that, Maud?'
'Because you smile incredulously, I think, over his letters.'
'Do I?' said she; 'I was not thinking—it was quite an accident. The fact is, Maud, your poor papa quite mistook me. I had no prejudice respecting him—no theory. I never knew what to think about him. I do not think Silas a product of nature, but a child of the Sphinx, and I never could understand him—that's all.'
'I always felt so too; but that was because I was left to speculation, and to glean conjectures as I might from his portrait, or anywhere. Except what you told me, I never heard more than a few sentences; poor papa did not like me to ask questions about him, and I think he ordered the servants to be silent.'
'And much the same injunction this little note lays upon me—not quite, but something like it; and I don't know the meaning of it.'
And she looked enquiringly at me.
'You are not to be alarmed about your uncle Silas, because your being afraid would unfit you for an important service which you have undertaken for your family, the nature of which I shall soon understand, and which, although it is quite passive, would be made very sad if illusory fears were allowed to steal into your mind.'
She was looking into the letter in poor papa's handwriting, which she had found addressed to her in his desk, and emphasised the words, I suppose, which she quoted from it.
'Have you any idea, Maud, darling, what this service may be?' she enquired, with a grave and anxious curiosity in her countenance.
'None, Cousin Monica; but I have thought long over my undertaking to do it, or submit to it, be it what it may; and I will keep the promise I voluntarily made, although I know what a coward I am, and often distrust my courage.'
'Well, I am not to frighten you.'
'How could you? Why should I be afraid? Is there anything frightful to be disclosed? Do tell me—you must tell me.'
'No, darling, I did not mean that—I don't mean that;—I could, if I would; I—I don't know exactly what I meant. But your poor papa knew him better than I—in fact, I did not know him at all—that is, ever quite understood him—which your poor papa, I see, had ample opportunities of doing.' And after a little pause, she added—'So you do not know what you are expected to do or to undergo.'
'Oh! Cousin Monica, I know you think he committed that murder,' I cried, starting up, I don't know why, and I felt that I grew deadly pale.
'I don't believe any such thing, you little fool; you must not say such horrible things, Maud,' she said, rising also, and looking both pale and angry. 'Shall we go out for a little walk? Come, lock up these papers, dear, and get your things on; and if that Dr. Bryerly does not turn up to-morrow, you must send for the Rector, good Doctor Clay, and let him make search for the will—there may be directions about many things, you know; and, my dear Maud, you are to remember that Silas is my cousin as well as your uncle. Come, dear, put on your hat.'
So we went out together for a little cloistered walk.