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Uncle Silas: a Tale of Bartram-Haugh (Author: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu)

chapter 63

Spiced Claret

I did not lie down; but I despaired. I walked round and round the room, wringing my hands in utter distraction. I threw myself at the bedside on my knees. I could not pray; I could only shiver and moan, with hands clasped, and eyes of horror turned up to heaven. I think Madame was, in her malignant way, perplexed. That some evil was intended me I am sure she was persuaded; but I dare say Meg Hawkes had said rightly in telling me that she was not fully in their secrets.

The first paroxysm of despair subsided into another state. All at once my mind was filled with the idea of Meg Hawkes, her enterprise, and my chances of escape. There is one point at which the road to Elverston makes a short ascent: there is a sudden curve there, two great ash-trees, with a roadside stile between, at the right side, covered with ivy. Driving back and forward, I did not recollect having particularly remarked this point in the highway; but now it was before me, in the thin light of the thinnest segment of moon, and the figure of Meg Hawkes, her back toward me, always ascending towards Elverston. It was constantly the same picture—the same motion without progress—the same dreadful suspense and impatience.

I was now sitting on the side of the bed, looking wistfully


across the room. When I did not see Meg Hawkes, I beheld Madame darkly eyeing first one than another point of the chamber, evidently puzzling over some problem, and in one of her most savage moods—sometimes muttering to herself, sometimes protruding, and sometimes screwing up her great mouth.

She went into her own room, where she remained, I think, nearly ten minutes, and on her return there was that in the flash of her eyes, the glow of her face, and the peculiar fragrance that surrounded her, that showed she had been partaking of her favourite restorative.

I had not moved since she left my room.

She paused about the middle of the floor, and looked at me with what I can only describe as her wild-beast stare.

‘You are a very secrete family, you Ruthyns—you are so coning. I hate the coning people. By my faith, I weel see Mr. Silas Ruthyn, and ask wat he mean. I heard him tell old Wyat that Mr. Dudley is gone away to-night. He shall tell me everything, or else I weel make echec et mat aussi vrai que je vis.’

Madame's words had hardly ceased, when I was again watching Meg Hawkes on the steep road, mounting, but never reaching, the top of the acclivity, on the way to Elverston, and mentally praying that she might be brought safely there. Vain prayer of an agonized heart! Meg's journey was already frustrated; she was not to reach Elverston in time.

Madame revisited her apartment, and returned, not, I think, improved in temper. She walked about the room, hustling the scanty furniture hither and thither as she encountered it. She kicked her empty box out of her way, with a horrid crash, and a curse in French. She strode and swaggered round the room, muttering all the way, and turning the corners of her course with a furious whisk. At last, out of the door she went. I think she fancied she had not been sufficiently taken into confidence as to what was intended for me.

It was now growing late, and yet no succour! I was seized, I remember, with a dreadful icy shivering.

I was listening for signals of deliverance. At every distant sound, half stifled with a palpitation, these sounds piercing my


ear with a horrible and exaggerated distinctness—‘Oh Meg!—Oh cousin Monica!—oh come! Oh Heaven, have mercy!— Lord, have mercy!’ I thought I heard a roaring and jangle of voices. Perhaps it came from Uncle Silas's room. It might be the tipsy violence of Madame. It might—merciful Heaven!—be the arrival of friends. I started to my feet; I listened, quivering with attention. Was it in my brain?—was it real? I was at the door, and it seemed to open of itself. Madame had forgotten to lock it, she was losing her head a little by this time. The key stood in the gallery door beyond; it, too, was open. I fled wildly. There was a subsiding sound of voices in my uncle's room. I was, I know not how, on the lobby at the great stair-head outside my uncle's apartment. My hand was on the banisters, my foot on the first step, when below me and against the faint light that glimmered through the great window on the landing I saw a bulky human form ascending, and a voice said ‘Hush!’ I staggered back, and that instant fancied, with a thrill of conviction, I heard Lady Knollys's voice in Uncle Silas's room.

I don't know how I entered the room; I was there like a ghost. I was frightened at my own state.

Lady Knollys was not there—no one but Madame and my guardian.

I can never forget the look that Uncle Silas fixed on me as he cowered, seemingly as appalled as I.

I think I must have looked like a phantom newly risen from the grave.

‘What's that?—where do you come from?’ whispered he.

‘Death! Death!’ was my whispered answer, as I froze with terror where I stood.

‘What does she mean?—what does all this mean?’ said Uncle Silas, recovering wonderfully, and turning with a withering sneer on Madame. ‘Do you think it right to disobey my plain directions, and let her run about the house at this hour?’

‘Death! Death! Oh, pray to God for you and me!’ I whispered in the same dreadful tones.

My uncle stared strangely at me again; and after several horrible seconds, in which he seemed to have recovered himself, he said, sternly and coolly:


‘You give too much place to your imagination, niece. Your spirits are in an odd state—you ought to have advice.’

‘Oh, Uncle, pity me! Oh, Uncle, you are good! you're kind; you're kind when you think. You could not—you could not—could not! Oh, think of your brother that was always good to you! He sees me here. He sees us both. Oh, save me, Uncle—save me!—and I'll give up everything to you. I'll pray to God to bless you—I'll never forget your goodness and mercy. But don't keep me in doubt. If I'm to go, oh, for God's sake, shoot me now!’

‘You were always odd, niece; I begin to fear you are insane,’ he replied, in the same stern icy tone.

‘Oh, Uncle—oh!—am I? Am I mad?

‘I hope not; but you'll conduct yourself like a sane person if you wish to enjoy the privileges of one.’

Then, with his finger pointing at me, he turned to Madame, and said, in a tone of suppressed ferocity:

‘What's the meaning of this?—why is she here?’

Madame was gabbling volubly, but to me it was only a shrilly noise. My whole soul was concentrated in my uncle, the arbiter of my life, before whom I stood in the wildest agony of supplication.

That night was dreadful. The people I saw dizzily, made of smoke or shining vapour, smiling or frowning, I could have passed my hand through them. They were evil spirits.

‘There's no ill intended you; by —— there's none,’ said my uncle, for the first time violently agitated. ‘Madame told you why we've changed your room. You told her about the bailiffs, did not you?’ with a stamp of fury he demanded of Madame, whose nasal roullades of talk were running on like an accompaniment all the time. She had told me indeed only a few hours since, and now it sounded to me like the echo of something heard a month ago or more.

‘You can't go about the house, d—n it, with bailiffs in occupation. There now—there's the whole thing. Get to your room, Maud, and don't vex me. There's a good girl.’

He was trying to smile as he spoke these last words, and, with quavering soft tones, to quiet me; but the old scowl was there,


the smile was corpse-like and contorted, and the softness of his tones was more dreadful than another man's ferocity.

‘There, Madame, she'll go quite gently, and you can call if you want help. Don't let it happen again.’

‘Come, Maud,’ said Madame, encircling but not hurting my arm with her grip; ‘let us go, my friend.’

I did go, you will wonder, as well you may—as you may wonder at the docility with which strong men walk through the pressroom to the drop, and thank the people of the prison for their civility when they bid them good-bye, and facilitate the fixing of the rope and adjusting of the cap. Have you never wondered that they don't make a last battle for life with the unscrupulous energy of terror, instead of surrendering it so gently in cold blood, on a silent calculation, the arithmetic of despair?

I went upstairs with Madame like a somnambulist. I rather quickened my step as I drew near my room. I went in, and stood a phantom at the window, looking into the dark quadrangle. A thin glimmering crescent hung in the frosty sky, and all heaven was strewn with stars. Over the steep roof at the other side spread on the dark azure of the night this glorious blazonry of the unfathomable Creator. To me a dreadful scroll—inexorable eyes—the cloud of cruel witnesses looking down in freezing brightness on my prayers and agonies.

I turned about and sat down, leaning my head upon my arms. Then suddenly I sat up, as for the first time the picture of Uncle Silas's littered room, and the travelling bags and black boxes piled on the floor by his table—the desk, hat-case, umbrella, coats, rugs, and mufflers, all ready for a journey—reached my brain and suggested thought. The mise en scène had remained in every detail fixed upon my retina; and how I wondered—‘When is he going—how soon? Is he going to carry me away and place me in a mad-house?’

‘Am I—am I mad?’ I began to think. ‘Is this all a dream, or is it real?’

I remembered how a thin polite gentleman, with a tall grizzled head and a black velvet waistcoat, came into the carriage on our journey, and said a few words to me; how Madame whispered him something, and he murmured ‘Oh!’ very gently, with


raised eyebrows, and a glance at me, and thenceforward spoke no more to me, only to Madame, and at the next station carried his hat and other travelling chattels into another carriage. Had she told him I was mad?

These horrid bars! Madame always with me! The direful hints that dropped from my uncle! My own terrific sensations!—All these evidences revolved in my brain, and presented themselves in turn like writings on a wheel of fire.

There came a knock to the door:

Oh, Meg! Was it she? No; old Wyat whispered Madame something about her room.

So Madame re-entered, with a little silver tray and flagon in her hands, and a glass. Nothing came from Uncle Silas in ungentlemanlike fashion.

‘Drink, Maud,’ said Madame, raising the cover, and evidently enjoying the fragrant steam.

I could not. I might have done so had I been able to swallow anything—for I was too distracted to think of Meg's warning.

Madame suddenly recollected her mistake of that evening, and tried the door; but it was duly locked. She took the key from her pocket and placed it in her breast.

‘You weel 'av these rooms to yourself, ma chère. I shall sleep downstairs to-night.’

She poured out some of the hot claret into the glass abstractedly, and drank it off.

‘'Tis very good—I drank without theenk. Bote 'tis very good. Why don't you drink some?’

‘I could not,’ I repeated. And Madame boldly helped herself.

‘Vary polite, certally, to Madame was it to send nothing at all for hair’ (so she pronounced ‘her’); ‘bote is all same thing.’ And so she ran on in her tipsy vein, which was loud and sarcastic, with a fierce laugh now and then.

Afterwards I heard that they were afraid of Madame, who was given to cross purposes, and violent in her cups. She had been noisy and quarrelsome downstairs. She was under the delusion that I was to be conveyed away that night to a remote and safe place, and she was to be handsomely compensated for services and evidence to be afterwards given. She was not to be trusted,


however, with the truth. That was to be known but to three persons on earth.

I never knew, but I believe that the spiced claret which Madame drank was drugged. She was a person who could, I have been told, drink a great deal without exhibiting any change from it but an inflamed colour and furious temper. I can only state for certain what I saw, and that was, that shortly after she had finished the claret she lay down upon my bed, and, I now know, fell asleep. I then thought she was feigning sleep only, and that she was really watching me.

About an hour after this I suddenly heard a little clink in the yard beneath. I peeped out, but saw nothing. The sound was repeated, however—sometimes more frequently, sometimes at long intervals. At last, in the deep shadow next the farther wall, I thought I could discover a figure, sometimes erect, sometimes stooping and bowing toward the earth. I could see this figure only in the rudest outline mingling with the dark.

Like a thunderbolt it smote my brain. ‘They are making my grave!’

After the first dreadful stun I grew quite wild, and ran up and down the room wringing my hands and gasping prayers to heaven. Then a calm stole over me—such a dreadful calm as I could fancy glide over one who floated in a boat under the shadow of the ‘Traitor's Gate,’ leaving life and hope and trouble behind.

Shortly after there came a very low tap at my door; then another, like a tiny post-knock. I could never understand why it was I made no answer. Had I done so, and thus shown that I was awake, it might have sealed my fate. I was standing in the middle of the floor staring at the door, which I expected to see open, and admit I knew not what troop of spectres.