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A CURIOUS CONVERSATION
We each had another cup of tea, and were silent for awhile.
'We must not talk of ghosts now. You are a superstitious little woman, you know, and you shan't be frightened.'
And now Cousin Monica grew silent again, and looking briskly around the room, like a lady in search of a subject, her eye rested on a small oval portrait, graceful, brightly tinted, in the French style, representing a pretty little boy, with rich golden hair, large soft eyes, delicate features, and a shy, peculiar expression.
'It is odd; I think I remember that pretty little sketch, very long ago. I think I was then myself a child, but that is a much older style of dress, and of wearing the hair, too, than I ever saw. I am just forty-nine now. Oh dear, yes; that is a good while before I was _born_. What a strange, pretty little boy! a mysterious little fellow. Is he quite sincere, I wonder? What rich golden hair! It is very clever--a French artist, I dare say--and who _is_ that little boy?'
'I never heard. Some one a hundred years ago, I dare say. But there is a picture down-stairs I am so anxious to ask you about!'
'Oh!' murmured Lady Knollys, still gazing dreamily on the crayon.
'It is the full-length picture of Uncle Silas--I want to ask you about him.'
At mention of his name, my cousin gave me a look so sudden and odd as to amount almost to a start.
'Your uncle Silas, dear? It is very odd, I was just thinking of him;' and she laughed a little.
'Wondering whether that little boy could be he.'
And up jumped active Cousin Monica, with a candle in her hand, upon a chair, and scrutinised the border of the sketch for a name or a date.
'Maybe on the back?' said she.
And so she unhung it, and there, true enough, not on the back of the drawing, but of the frame, which was just as good, in pen-and-ink round Italian letters, hardly distinguishable now from the discoloured wood, we traced--
'_Silas Aylmer Ruthyn, AEtate_ viii. 15 _May_, 1779.'
'It is very odd I should not have been told or remembered who it was. I think if I had _ever_ been told I _should_ have remembered it. I do recollect this picture, though, I am nearly certain. What a singular child's face!'
And my cousin leaned over it with a candle on each side, and her hand shading her eyes, as if seeking by aid of these fair and half-formed lineaments to read an enigma.
The childish features defied her, I suppose; their secret was unfathomable, for after a good while she raised her head, still looking at the portrait, and sighed.
'A very singular face,' she said, softly, as a person might who was looking into a coffin. 'Had not we better replace it?'
So the pretty oval, containing the fair golden hair and large eyes, the pale, unfathomable sphinx, remounted to its nail, and the _funeste_ and beautiful child seemed to smile down oracularly on our conjectures.
'So is the face in the large portrait--_very_ singular--more, I think, than that--handsomer too. This is a sickly child, I think; but the full-length is so manly, though so slender, and so handsome too. I always think him a hero and a mystery, and they won't tell me about him, and I can only dream and wonder.'
'He has made more people than you dream and wonder, my dear Maud. I don't know what to make of him. He is a sort of idol, you know, of your father's, and yet I don't think he helps him much. His abilities were singular; so has been his misfortune; for the rest, my dear, he is neither a hero nor a wonder. So far as I know, there are very few sublime men going about the world.'
'You really must tell me all you know about him, Cousin Monica. Now don't refuse.'
'But why should you care to hear? There is really nothing pleasant to tell.'
'That is just the reason I wish it. If it were at all pleasant, it would be quite commonplace. I like to hear of adventures, dangers, and misfortunes; and above all, I love a mystery. You know, papa will never tell me, and I dare not ask him; not that he is ever unkind, but, somehow, I am afraid; and neither Mrs. Rusk nor Mary Quince will tell me anything, although I suspect they know a good deal.'
'I don't see any good in telling you, dear, nor, to say the truth, any great harm either.'
'No--now that's _quite_ true--no harm. There _can't_ be, for I _must_ know it all some day, you know, and better now, and from _you_, than perhaps from a stranger, and in a less favourable way.'
'Upon my word, it is a wise little woman; and really, that's not such bad sense after all.'
So we poured out another cup of tea each, and sipped it very comfortably by the fire, while Lady Knollys talked on, and her animated face helped the strange story.
'It is not very much, after all. Your uncle Silas, you know, is living?'
'Oh yes, in Derbyshire.'
'So I see you do know something of him, sly girl! but no matter. You know how very rich your father is; but Silas was the younger brother, and had little more than a thousand a year. If he had not played, and did not care to marry, it would have been quite enough--ever so much more than younger sons of dukes often have; but he was--well, a _mauvais sujet_--you know what that is. I don't want to say any ill of him--more than I really know--but he was fond of his pleasures, I suppose, like other young men, and he played, and was always losing, and your father for a long time paid great sums for him. I believe he was really a most expensive and vicious young man; and I fancy he does not deny that now, for they say he would change the past if he could.
I was looking at the pensive little boy in the oval frame--aged eight years--who was, a few springs later, 'a most expensive and vicious young man,' and was now a suffering and outcast old one, and wondering from what a small seed the hemlock or the wallflower grows, and how microscopic are the beginnings of the kingdom of God or of the mystery of iniquity in a human being's heart.
'Austin--your papa--was very kind to him--_very_; but then, you know, he's an oddity, dear--he _is_ an oddity, though no one may have told you before--and he never forgave him for his marriage. Your father, I suppose, knew more about the lady than I did--I was young then--but there were various reports, none of them pleasant, and she was not visited, and for some time there was a complete estrangement between your father and your uncle Silas; and it was made up, rather oddly, on the very occasion which some people said ought to have totally separated them. Did you ever hear anything--anything _very_ remarkable--about your uncle?'
'No, never, they would not tell me, though I am sure they know. Pray go on.'
'Well, Maud, as I have begun, I'll complete the story, though perhaps it might have been better untold. It was something rather shocking--indeed, _very_ shocking; in fact, they insisted on suspecting him of having committed a murder.'
I stared at my cousin for some time, and then at the little boy, so refined, so beautiful, so _funeste_, in the oval frame.
'Yes, dear,' said she, her eyes following mine; 'who'd have supposed he could ever have--have fallen under so horrible a suspicion?'
'The wretches! Of course, Uncle Silas--of course, he's innocent?' I said at last.
'Of course, my dear,' said Cousin Monica, with an odd look; 'but you know there are some things as bad almost to be suspected of as to have done, and the country gentlemen chose to suspect him. They did not like him, you see. His politics vexed them; and he resented their treatment of his wife--though I really think, poor Silas, he did not care a pin about her--and he annoyed them whenever he could. Your papa, you know, is very proud of his family--_he_ never had the slightest suspicion of your uncle.'
'Oh no!' I cried vehemently.
'That's right, Maud Ruthyn,' said Cousin Monica, with a sad little smile and a nod. 'And your papa was, you may suppose, very angry.'
'Of course he was,' I exclaimed.
'You have no idea, my dear, _how_ angry. He directed his attorney to prosecute, by wholesale, all who had said a word affecting your uncle's character. But the lawyers were against it, and then your uncle tried to fight his way through it, but the men would not meet him. He was quite slurred. Your father went up and saw the Minister. He wanted to have him a Deputy-Lieutenant, or something, in his county. Your papa, you know, had a very great influence with the Government. Beside his county influence, he had two boroughs then. But the Minister was afraid, the feeling was so very strong. They offered him something in the Colonies, but your father would not hear of it--that would have been a banishment, you know. They would have given your father a peerage to make it up, but he would not accept it, and broke with the party. Except in that way--which, you know, was connected with the reputation of the family--I don't think, considering his great wealth, he has done very much for Silas. To say truth, however, he was very liberal before his marriage. Old Mrs. Aylmer says he made a vow _then_ that Silas should never have more than five hundred a year, which he still allows him, I believe, and he permits him to live in the place. But they say it is in a very wild, neglected state.'
'You live in the same county--have you seen it lately, Cousin Monica?'
'No, not very lately,' said Cousin Monica, and began to hum an air abstractedly.
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