‘What’s that, child?’ said my father’s voice, very near. I looked round, with a start, and flushed and faltered, receding a step from him.
‘No harm, dear. You have said nothing wrong,’ he said gently, observing my alarm. ’You said I was always sad, I think, about Uncle Silas. Well, I don’t know how you gather that; but if I were, I will now tell you, it would not be unnatural. Your uncle is a man of great talents, great faults, and great wrongs. His talents have not availed him; his faults are long ago repented of; and his wrongs I believe he feels less than I do, but they are deep. Did she say any more, madam?’ he demanded abruptly of Mrs. Rusk.
‘Nothing, sir,’ with a stiff little courtesy, answered Mrs. Rusk, who stood in awe of him.
‘And there is no need, child,’ he continued, addressing himself to me, ’that you should think more of him at present. Clear your head of Uncle Silas. One day, perhaps, you will know him—yes, very well—and understand how villains have injured him.
Then my father retired, and at the door he said—
‘Mrs. Rusk, a word, if you please,’ beckoning to that lady, who trotted after him to the library.
I think he then laid some injunction upon the housekeeper, which was transmitted by her to Mary Quince, for from that time forth I could never lead either to talk with me about Uncle Silas. They let me talk on, but were reserved and silent themselves, and seemed embarrassed, and Mrs. Rusk sometimes pettish and angry, when I pressed for information.
Thus curiosity was piqued; and round the slender portrait in the leather pantaloons and top-boots gathered many-coloured circles of mystery, and the handsome features seemed to smile down upon my baffled curiosity with a provoking significance.
Why is it that this form of ambition—curiosity—which entered into the temptation of our first parent, is so specially hard to resist? Knowledge is power—and power of one sort or another is the secret lust of human souls; and here is, beside the sense of exploration, the undefinable interest of a story, and above all, something forbidden, to stimulate the contumacious appetite.
A NEW FACE
I think it was about a fortnight after that conversation in which my father had expressed his opinion, and given me the mysterious charge about the old oak cabinet in his library, as already detailed, that I was one night sitting at the great drawing-room window, lost in the melancholy reveries of night, and in admiration of the moonlighted scene. I was the only occupant of the room; and the lights near the fire, at its farther end, hardly reached to the window at which I sat.
The shorn grass sloped gently downward from the windows till it met the broad level on which stood, in clumps, or solitarily scattered, some of the noblest timber in England. Hoar in the moonbeams stood those graceful trees casting their moveless shadows upon the grass, and in the background crowning the undulations of the distance, in masses, were piled those woods among which lay the solitary tomb where the remains of my beloved mother rested.