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Wylder's Hand
by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
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'Witnesses! Captain Lake. Do you allude to a legal matter?' enquired Larkin, with his look of insinuating concern and enquiry.

'Quite the contrary—a very lawless matter, indeed. These four gentlemen, beside myself, were present at the occurrence. But perhaps you've heard of it?' said the captain, 'though that's not likely.'

'Not that I recollect, Captain Lake,' answered Jos. Larkin.

'Well, it is not a thing you'd forget easily—and indeed it was a very well kept secret, as well as an ugly one,' and Lake smiled in his sly quizzical way.

'And where, Captain Lake, did it occur, may I enquire?' said Larkin, with his charming insinuation.

'You may, and you shall hear—in fact, I'll tell you the whole thing. It was at Gray's Club, in Pall Mall. The whist party were old Jermyn, Carter, Vanbrugh, and Wylder. Clinton and I were at piquet, and were disturbed by a precious row the old boys kicked up. Jermyn and Carter were charging Mark Wylder, in so many words, with not playing fairly—there was an ace of hearts on the table played by him, and before three minutes they brought it home—and in fact it was quite clear that poor dear Mark had helped himself to it in quite an irregular way.'

'Oh, dear, Captain Lake, oh, dear, how shocking—how inexpressibly shocking! Is not it melancholy?' said Larkin, in his finest and most pathetic horror.

'Yes; but don't cry till I've done,' said Lake, tranquilly. 'Mark tried to bully, but the cool old heads were too much for him, and he threw himself at last entirely on our mercy—and very abject he became, poor thing.'

'How well the mountains look! I am afraid we shall have rain to-morrow.'

Larkin uttered a short groan.

'So they sent him into the small card-room, next that we were playing in. I think we were about the last in the club—it was past three o'clock—and so the old boys deliberated on their sentence. To bring the matter before the committee were utter ruin to Mark, and they let him off, on these conditions—he was to retire forthwith from the club; he was never to play any game of cards again; and, lastly, he was never more to address any one of the gentlemen who were present at his detection. Poor dear devil!—how he did jump at the conditions;—and provided they were each and all strictly observed, it was intimated that the occurrence should be kept secret. Well, you know, that was letting poor old Mark off in a coach; and I do assure you, though we had never liked one another, I really was very glad they did not move his expulsion—which would have involved his quitting the service—and I positively don't know how he could have lived if that had occurred.'

'I do solemnly assure you, Captain Lake, what you have told me has beyond expression amazed, and I will say, horrified me,' said the attorney, with a slow and melancholy vehemence. 'Better men might have suspected something of it—I do solemnly pledge my honour that nothing of the kind so much as crossed my mind—not naturally suspicious, I believe, but all the more shocked, Captain Lake, on that account'

'He was poor then, you see, and a few pounds were everything to him, and the temptation immense; but clumsy fellows ought not to try that sort of thing. There's the highway—Mark would have made a capital garrotter.'

The attorney groaned, and turned up his eyes. The band was playing 'Pop goes the weasel,' and old Jackson, very well dressed and buckled up, with a splendid smile upon his waggish, military countenance, cried, as he passed, with a wave of his hand, 'How do, Lake—how do, Mr. Larkin—beautiful day!'

'I've no wish to injure Mark; but it is better that you should know at once, than go about poking everywhere for information.'

'I do assure you——'

'And having really no wish to hurt him,' pursued the captain, 'and also making it, as I do, a point that you shall repeat this conversation as little as possible, I don't choose to appear singular, as your sole informant, and I've given you here a line to Sir James Carter—he's member, you know, for Huddlesbury. I mention, that Mark, having broken his promise, and played for heavy stakes, too, both on board his ship, and at Plymouth and Naples, which I happen to know; and also by accosting me, whom, as one of the gentlemen agreeing to impose these conditions, he was never to address, I felt myself at liberty to mention it to you, holding the relation you do to me as well as to him, in consequence of the desirableness of placing you in possession of the true cause of his absconding, which was simply my telling him that I would not permit him, slurred as he was, to marry a lady who was totally ignorant of his actual position; and, in fact, that unless he withdrew, I must acquaint the young lady's guardian of the circumstances.'

There was quite enough probability in this story to warrant Jos. Larkin in turning up his eyes and groaning. But in the intervals, his shrewd eyes searched the face of the captain, not knowing whether to believe one syllable of what he related.

I may as well mention here, that the attorney did present the note to Sir J. Carter with which Captain Lake had furnished him; indeed, he never lost an opportunity of making the acquaintance of a person of rank; and that the worthy baronet, so appealed to, and being a blunt sort of fellow, and an old acquaintance of Stanley's, did, in a short and testy sort of way, corroborate Captain Lake's story, having previously conditioned that he was not to be referred to as the authority from whom Mr. Larkin had learned it.

The attorney and Captain Brandon Lake were now walking side by side over the more sequestered part of the green.

'And so,' said the captain, coming to a stand-still, 'I'll bid you good-bye, Larkin; what stay, I forgot to ask, do you make in town?'

'Only a day or two.'

'You'll not wait for the division on Trawler's motion?'

'Oh, dear, no. I calculate I'll be here again, certainly, in three days' time. And, I suppose, Captain Lake, you received my note?'

'You mean just now? Oh, yes; of course it is all right; but one day is as good as another; and you have got my agreement signed.'

'Pardon me, Captain Brandon Lake; the fact is, one day, in this case, does not answer as well as another, for I must have drafts of the deeds prepared by my conveyancer in town, and the note is indispensable. Perhaps, if there is any difficulty, you will be so good as to say so, and I shall then be in a position to consider the case in its new aspect.'

'What the devil difficulty can there be, Sir? I can't see it, any more than what hurry can possibly exist about it,' said Lake, stung with a momentary fury. It seemed as though everyone was conspiring to perplex and torment him; and he, like the poor vicar, though for very different reasons, had grown intensely anxious to sell. He had grown to dread the attorney, since the arrival of Dutton's letter. He suspected that his journey to London had for its object a meeting with that person. He could not tell what might be going on in the dark. But the possibility of such a conjunction might well dismay him.

On the other hand, the more Mr. Larkin relied upon the truth of Dutton's letter, the cooler he became respecting the purchase of Five Oaks. It was, of course, a very good thing; but not his first object. The vicar's reversion in that case was everything; and of it he was now sure.

'There is no difficulty about the note, Sir; it contains but four lines, and I've given you the form. No difficulty can exist but in the one quarter; and the fact is,' he added, steadily, 'unless I have that note before I leave to-morrow-morning, I'll assume that you wish to be off, Captain Lake, and I will adapt myself to circumstances.'

'You may have it now,' said the captain, with a fierce carelessness. 'D—d nonsense! Who could have fancied any such stupid hurry? Send in the morning, and you shall have it.' And the captain rather savagely turned away, skirting the crowd who hovered about the band, in his leisurely and now solitary ramble.

The captain was sullen that evening at home. He was very uncomfortable. His heart was failing him for the things that were coming to pass. One of his maniacal tempers, which had often before thrown him, as it were, 'off the rails,' was at the bottom of his immediate troubles. This proneness to sudden accesses of violence and fury was the compensation which abated the effect of his ordinary craft and self-command.

He had done all he could to obviate the consequences of his folly in this case. He hoped the attorney might not succeed in discovering Jim Dutton's whereabouts. At all events, he had been beforehand, and taken measures to quiet that person's dangerous resentment. But it was momentous in the critical state of things to give this dangerous attorney a handsome share in his stake—to place him, as he had himself said, 'in the same boat,' and enlist all his unscrupulous astuteness in maintaining his title: and if he went to London disappointed, and that things turned out unluckily about Dutton, it might be a very awful business indeed.

Dinner had been a very dull tete-a-tete. Dorcas sat stately and sad—looking from the window toward the distant sunset horizon, piled in dusky gold and crimson clouds, against the faded, green sky—a glory that is always melancholy and dreamy. Stanley sipped his claret, his eyes upon the cloth. He raised them and looked out, too; and the ruddy light tinted his pale features.

A gleam of good humour seemed to come with it, and he said,

'I was just thinking, Dorkie, that for you and me, alone, these great rooms are a little dreary. Suppose we have tea in the tapestry room.'

'The Dutch room, Stanley—I think so—I should like it very well. So, I am certain, would Rachel. I've written to her to come. I hope she will. I expect her at nine. The brougham will be with her. She wrote such an odd note to-day, addressed to you; but I opened it. Here it is.'

She did not watch his countenance, or look in his direction, as he read it. She addressed herself, on the contrary, altogether to her Liliputian white lap-dog, Snow, and played with his silken ears; and chatted with him as ladies will.

A sealed envelope broken. That scoundrel, Larcom, knew perfectly it was meant for me. He was on the point of speaking his mind, which would hardly have been pleasant to hear, upon this piece of detective impertinence of his wife's. He could have smashed all the glass upon the table. But he looked serene, and leaned back with the corner of Rachel's note between two fingers. It was a case in which he clearly saw he must command himself.



CHAPTER LXIV.

IN THE DUTCH ROOM.

His heart misgave him. He felt that a crisis was coming; and he read—

'I cannot tell you, my poor brother, how miserable I am. I have just learned that a very dangerous person has discovered more about that dreadful evening than we believed known to anybody in Gylingden. I am subjected to the most agonising suspicions and insults. Would to Heaven I were dead! But living, I cannot endure my present state of mind longer. To-morrow morning I will see Dorcas—poor Dorcas!—and tell her all. I am weary of urging you, in vain, to do so. It would have been much better. But although, after that interview, I shall, perhaps, never see her more, I shall yet be happier, and, I think, relieved from suspense, and the torments of mystery. So will she. At all events, it is her right to know all—and she shall.

'YOUR OUTCAST AND MISERABLE SISTER.'

On Stanley's lips his serene, unpleasant smile was gleaming, as he closed the note carelessly. He intended to speak, but his voice caught. He cleared it, and sipped a little claret.

'For a clever girl she certainly does write the most wonderful rubbish. Such an effusion! And she sends it tossing about, from hand to hand, among the servants. I've anticipated her, however, Dorkie.' And he took her hand and kissed it. 'She does not know I've told you all myself.'

Stanley went to the library, and Dorcas to the conservatory, neither very happy, each haunted by an evil augury, and a sense of coming danger. The deepening shadow warned Dorcas that it was time to repair to the Dutch room, where she found lights and tea prepared.

In a few minutes more the library door opened and Stanley Lake peeped in.

'Radie not come yet?' said he entering. 'We certainly are much pleasanter in this room, Dorkie, more, in proportion, than we two should have been in the drawing-room.'

He seated himself beside her, drawing his chair very close to hers, and taking her hand in his. He was more affectionate this evening than usual. What did it portend? she thought. She had already begun to acquiesce in Rachel's estimate of Stanley, and to fancy that whatever he did it was with an unacknowledged purpose.

'Does little Dorkie love me?' said Lake, in a sweet undertone.

There was reproach, but love too, in the deep soft glance she threw upon him.

'You must promise me not to be frightened at what I am going to tell you,' said Lake.

She heard him with sudden panic, and a sense of cold stole over her. He looked like a ghost—quite white—smiling. She knew something was coming—the secret she had invoked so long—and she was appalled.

'Don't be frightened, darling. It is necessary to tell you; but it is really not much when you hear me out. You'll say so when you have quite heard me. So you won't be frightened?'

She was gazing straight into his wild yellow eyes, fascinated, with a look of expecting terror.

'You are nervous, darling,' he continued, laying his hand on hers. 'Shall we put it off for a little? You are frightened.'

'Not much frightened, Stanley,' she whispered.

'Well, we had better wait. I see, Dorcas, you are frightened and nervous. Don't keep looking at me; look at something else, can't you? You make yourself nervous that way. I promise, upon my honour, I'll not say a word about it till you bid me.'

'I know, Stanley—I know.'

'Then, why won't you look down, or look up, or look any way you please, only don't stare at me so.'

'Yes—oh, yes,' and she shut her eyes.

'I'm sorry I began,' he said, pettishly. 'You'll make a fuss. You've made yourself quite nervous; and I'll wait a little.'

'Oh! no, Stanley, now—for Heaven's sake, now. I was only a little startled; but I am quite well again. Is it anything about marriage? Oh, Stanley, in mercy, tell me was there any other engagement?'

'Nothing, darling—nothing on earth of the sort;' and he spoke with an icy little laugh. 'Your poor soldier is altogether yours, Dorkie,' and he kissed her cheek.

'Thank God for that!' said Dorcas, hardly above her breath.

'What I have to say is quite different, and really nothing that need affect you; but Rachel has made such a row about it. Fifty fellows, I know, are in much worse fixes; and though it is not of so much consequence, still I think I should not have told you; only, without knowing it, you were thwarting me, and helping to get me into a serious difficulty by your obstinacy—or what you will—about Five Oaks.'

Somehow trifling as the matter was, Stanley seemed to grow more and more unwilling to disclose it, and rather shrank from it now.

'Now, Dorcas, mind, there must be no trifling. You must not treat me as Rachel has. If you can't keep a secret—for it is a secret—say so. Shall I tell you?'

'Yes, Stanley—yes. I'm your wife.'

'Well, Dorcas, I told you something of it; but only a part, and some circumstances I did intentionally colour a little; but I could not help it, unless I had told everything; and no matter what you or Rachel may say, it was kinder to withhold it as long as I could.'

He glanced at the door, and spoke in a lower tone.

And so, with his eyes lowered to the table at which he sat, glancing ever and anon sideways at the door, and tracing little figures with the tip of his finger upon the shining rosewood, he went on murmuring his strange and hateful story in the ear of his wife.

It was not until he had spoken some three or four minutes that Dorcas suddenly uttered a wild scream, and started to her feet. And Stanley also rose precipitately, and caught her in his arms, for she was falling.

As he supported her in her chair, the library door opened, and the sinister face of Uncle Lorne looked in, and returned the captain's stare with one just as fixed and horrified.

'Hush!' whispered Uncle Lorne, and he limped softly into the room, and stopped about three yards away, 'she is not dead, but sleepeth.'

'Hallo! Larcom,' shouted Lake.

'I tell you she's dreaming the same dream that I dreamt in the middle of the night.'

'Hallo! Larcom.'

'Mark's on leave to-night, in uniform; his face is flattened against the window. This is his lady, you know.'

'Hallo! D— you—are you there?' shouted the captain, very angry.

'I saw Mark following you like an ape, on all-fours; such nice white teeth! grinning at your heels. But he can't bite yet—ha, ha, ha! Poor Mark!'

'Will you be so good, Sir, as to touch the bell?' said Lake, changing his tone.

He was afraid to remove his arm from Dorcas, and he was splashing water from a glass upon her face and forehead.

'No—no. No bell yet—time enough—ding, dong. You say, dead and gone.'

Captain Lake cursed him and his absent keeper between his teeth; still in a rather flurried way, prosecuting his conjugal attentions.

'There was no bell for poor Mark; and he's always listening, and stares so. A cat may look, you know.'

'Can't you touch the bell, Sir? What are you standing there for?' snarled Lake, with a glare at the old man. He looked as if he could have murdered him.

'Standing between the living and the dead!'

'Here, Reuben, here; where the devil have you been—take him away. He has terrified her. By —— he ought to be shot.'

The keeper silently slid his arm into Uncle Lorne's, and, unresisting, the old man talking to himself the while, drew him from the room.

Larcom, about to announce Miss Lake, and closely followed by that young lady, passed the grim old phantom on the lobby.

'Be quick, you are wanted there,' said the attendant as he passed.

Dorcas, pale as marble, sighing deeply again and again, her rich black hair drenched in water, which trickled over her cheeks, like the tears and moisture of agony, was recovering. There was water spilt on the table, and the fragments of a broken glass upon the floor.

The moment Rachel saw her, she divined what had happened, and, gliding over, she placed her arm round her.

'You're better, darling. Open the window, Stanley. Send her maid.'

'Aye, send her maid,' cried Captain Lake to Larcom. 'This is your d—d work. A nice mess you have made of it among you.'

'Are you better, Dorcas?' said Rachel.

'Yes—much better. I'm glad, darling, I understand you now. Radie, kiss me.'

Next morning, before early family prayers, while Mr. Jos. Larkin was locking the despatch box which was to accompany him to London Mr. Larcom arrived at the Lodge.

He had a note for Mr. Larkin's hand, which he must himself deliver; and so he was shown into that gentleman's official cabinet, and received with the usual lofty kindness.

'Well, Mr. Larcom, pray sit down. And can I do anything for you, Mr. Larcom?' said the good attorney, waving his long hand toward a vacant chair.

'A note, Sir.'

'Oh, yes; very well.' And the tall attorney rose, and, facing the rural prospect at his window, with his back to Mr. Larcom, he read, with a faint smile, the few lines, in a delicate hand, consenting to the sale of Five Oaks.

He had to look for a time at the distant prospect to allow his smile to subside, and to permit the conscious triumph which he knew beamed through his features to discharge itself and evaporate in the light and air before turning to Mr. Larcom, which he did with an air of sudden recollection.

'Ah—all right, I was forgetting; I must give you a line.'

So he did, and hid away the note in his despatch-box, and said—

'The family all quite well, I hope?' whereat Larcom shook his head.

'My mistress'—he always called her so, and Lake the capting—'has been takin' on hoffle, last night, whatever come betwixt 'em. She was fainted outright in her chair in the Dutch room; and he said it was the old gentleman—Old Flannels, we calls him, for shortness—but lor' bless you, she's too used to him to be frightened, and that's only a make-belief; and Miss Dipples, her maid, she says as how she was worse up stairs, and she's made up again with Miss Lake, which she was very glad, no doubt, of the making friends, I do suppose; but it's a bin a bad row, and I suspeck amost he's used vilins.'

'Compulsion, I suppose; you mean constraint?' suggested Larkin, very curious.

'Well, that may be, Sir, but I amost suspeck she's been hurted somehow. She got them crying fits up stairs, you know; and the capting, he's hoffle bad-tempered this morning, and he never looked near her once, after his sister came; and he left them together, talking and crying, and he locked hisself into the library, like one as knowed he'd done something to be ashamed on, half the night.'

'It's not happy, Larcom, I'm much afraid; it's not happy,' and the attorney rose, shaking his tall bald head, and his hands in his pockets, and looked down in meditation.

'In the Dutch room, after tea, I suppose?' said the attorney.

'Before tea, Sir, just as Miss Lake harrived in the brougham.'

And so on. But there was no more to be learned, and Mr. Larcom returned and attended the captain very reverentially at his solitary breakfast.

Mr. Jos. Larkin was away for London. And a very serene companion he was, if not very brilliant. Everything was going perfectly smoothly with him. A celestial gratitude glowed and expanded within his breast. His angling had been prosperous hitherto, but just now he had made a miraculous draught, and his nets and his heart were bursting. Delightful sentiment, the gratitude of a righteous man; a man who knows that his heart is not set upon the things of the world; who has, like King Solomon, made wisdom his first object, and who finds riches added thereto!

There was no shadow of self-reproach to slur the sunny landscape. He had made a splendid purchase from Captain Lake it was true. He drew his despatch-box nearer to him affectionately, as he thought on the precious records it contained. But who in this wide-awake world was better able to take care of himself than the gallant captain? If it were not the best thing for the captain, surely it would not have been done. Whom have I defrauded? My hands are clean! He had made a still better purchase from the vicar; but what would have become of the vicar if he had not been raised up to purchase? And was it not speculative, and was it not possible that he should lose all that money, and was it not, on the whole, the wisest thing that the vicar, under his difficulties, could have been advised to do?

So reasoned the good attorney, as with a languid smile and a sigh of content, his long hand laid across the cover of the despatch-box by his side, he looked forth through the plate-glass window upon the sunny fields and hedgerows that glided by him, and felt the blessed assurance, 'look, whatsoever he doeth it shall prosper,' mingling in the hum of surrounding nature. And as his eyes rested on the flying diorama of trees, and farmsteads, and standing crops, and he felt already the pride of a great landed proprietor, his long fingers fiddled pleasantly with the rough tooling of his morocco leather box; and thinking of the signed articles within, it seemed as though an angelic hand had placed them there while he slept, so wondrous was it all; and he fancied under the red tape a label traced in the neatest scrivenery, with a pencil of light, containing such gratifying testimonials to his deserts, 'as well done good and faithful servant,' 'the saints shall inherit the earth,' and so following; and he sighed again in the delicious luxury of having secured both heaven and mammon. And in this happy state, and volunteering all manner of courtesies, opening and shutting windows, lending his railway guide and his newspapers whenever he had an opportunity, he at length reached the great London terminus, and was rattling over the metropolitan pavement, with his hand on his despatch-box, to his cheap hotel near the Strand.



CHAPTER LXV.

I REVISIT BRANDON HALL.

Rachel Lake was courageous and energetic; and, when once she had taken a clear view of her duty, wonderfully persistent and impracticable. Her dreadful interview with Jos. Larkin was always in her mind. The bleached face, so meek, so cruel, of that shabby spectre, in the small, low parlour of Redman's Farm, was always before her. There he had spoken the sentences which made the earth tremble, and showed her distinctly the cracking line beneath her feet, which would gape at his word into the fathomless chasm that was to swallow her. But, come what might, she would not abandon the vicar and his little boy, and good Dolly, to the arts of that abominable magician.

The more she thought, the clearer her conviction. She had no one to consult with; she knew the risk of exasperating that tall man of God, who lived at the Lodge. But, determined to brave all, she went down to see Dolly and the vicar at home.

Poor Dolly was tired; she had been sitting up all night with sick little Fairy. He was better to-day; but last night he had frightened them so, poor little man! he began to rave about eleven o'clock; and more or less his little mind continued wandering until near six, when he fell into a sound sleep, and seemed better for it; and it was such a blessing there certainly was neither scarlatina nor small-pox, both which enemies had appeared on the northern frontier of Gylingden, and were picking down their two or three cases each in that quarter.

So Rachel first made her visit to little man, sitting up in his bed, very pale and thin, and looking at her, not with his pretty smile, but a languid, earnest wonder, and not speaking. How quickly and strikingly sickness tells upon children. Little man's frugal store of toys, chiefly the gifts of pleasant Rachel, wild beasts, Noah and his sons, and part of a regiment of foot soldiers, with the usual return of broken legs and missing arms, stood peacefully mingled upon the board across his bed which served as a platform.

But little man was leaning back; his fingers once so busy, lay motionless on the coverlet, and his tired eyes rested on the toys with a joyless, earnest apathy.

'Didn't play with them a minute,' said the maid.

'I'll bring him a new box. I'm going into the town; won't that be pretty?' said Rachel, parting his golden locks over the young forehead, and kissing him; and she took his little hand in hers—it was hot and dry.

'He looks better—a little better, don't you think; just a little better?' whispered his mamma, looking, as all the rest were, on that wan, sad little face.

But he really looked worse.

'Well, he can't look better, you know, dear, till there's a decided change. What does Doctor Buddle say?'

'He saw him yesterday morning. He thinks it's all from his stomach, and he's feverish; no meat. Indeed he won't eat anything, and you see the light hurts his eyes.

There was only a chink of the shutter open.

'But it is always so when he is ever so little ill, my precious little man; and I know if he thought it anything the least serious, Doctor Buddle would have looked in before now, he's so very kind.'

'I wish my darling could get a little sleep. He's very tired, nurse,' said Rachel.

'Yes'm, very tired'm; would he like his precious head lower a bit? No; very well, darling, we'll leave it so.'

'Dolly, darling, you and nurse must be so tired sitting up. I have a little wine at Redman's Farm. I got it, you remember, more than a year ago, when Stanley said he was coming to pay me a visit. I never take any, and a little would be so good for you and poor nurse. I'll send some to you.'

So coming down stairs Rachel said, 'Is the vicar at home?' Yes, he was in the study, and there they found him brushing his seedy hat, and making ready for his country calls in the neighbourhood of the town. The hour was dull without little Fairy; but he would soon be up and out again, and he would steal up now and see him. He could not go out without his little farewell at the bed-side, and he would bring him in some pretty flowers.

'You've seen little Fairy!' asked the good vicar, with a very anxious smile, 'and you think him better, dear Miss Lake, don't you?'

'Why, I can't say that, because you know, so soon as he's better, he'll be quite well; they make their recoveries all in a moment.'

'But he does not look worse?' said the vicar, lifting his eyes eagerly from his boot, which he was buttoning on the chair.

'Well, he does look more tired, but that must be till his recovery begins, which will be, please Heaven, immediately.'

'Oh, yes, my little man has had two or three attacks much more serious than this, and always shook them off so easily, I was reminding Dolly, always, and good Doctor Buddle assures us it is none of those horrid complaints.'

And so they talked over the case of the little man, who with Noah and his sons, and the battered soldiers and animals before him, was fighting, though they only dimly knew it, silently in his little bed, the great battle of life or death.

'Mr. Larkin came to me the evening before last,' said Rachel, 'and told me that the little sum I mentioned—now don't say a word till you have heard me—was not sufficient; so I want to tell you what I have quite resolved on. I have been long intending some time or other to change my place of residence, perhaps I shall go to Switzerland, and I have made up my mind to sell my rent-charge on the Dulchester estate. It will produce, Mr. Young says, a very large sum, and I wish to lend it to you, either all or as much as will make you quite comfortable—you must not refuse. I had intended leaving it to my dear little man up stairs; and you must promise me solemnly that you will not listen to the advice of that bad, cruel man, Mr. Larkin.'

'My dear Miss Lake, you misunderstood him. But what can I say—how can I thank you?' said the vicar, clasping her hand.

'A wicked and merciless man, I say,' repeated Miss Lake. 'From my observation of him, I am certain of two things—I am sure that he has some reason for thinking that your brother, Mark Wylder, is dead; and secondly, that he is himself deeply interested in the purchase of your reversion. I feel a little ill; Dolly, open the window.'

There was a silence for a little while, and Rachel resumed:—

'Now, William Wylder, I am convinced, that you and your wife (and she kissed Dolly), and your dear little boy, are marked out for plunder—the objects of a conspiracy; and I'll lose my life, but I'll prevent it.'

'Now, maybe, Willie, upon my word, perhaps, she's quite right; for, you know, if poor Mark is dead, then would not he have the estate now; is not that it, Miss Lake, and—and, you know, that would be dreadful, to sell it all for next to nothing, is not that what you mean, Miss Lake—Rachel dear, I mean.'

'Yes, Dolly, stripping yourselves of a splendid inheritance, and robbing your poor little boy. I protest, in the name of Heaven, against it, and you have no excuse now, William, with my offer before you; and, Dolly, it will be inexcusable wickedness in you, if you allow it.'

'Now, Willie dear, do you hear that—do you hear what she says?'

'But, Dolly darling—dear Miss Lake, there is no reason whatever to suppose that poor Mark is dead,' said the vicar, very pale.

'I tell you again, I am convinced the attorney believes it. He did not say so, indeed; but, cunning as he is, I think I've quite seen through his plot; and even in what he said to me, there was something that half betrayed him every moment. And, Dolly, if you allow this sale, you deserve the ruin you are inviting, and the remorse that will follow you to your grave.'

'Do you hear that, Willie?' said Dolly, with her hand on his arm.

'But, dear, it is too late—I have signed this—this instrument—and it is too late. I hope—God help me—I have not done wrong. Indeed, whatever happens, dear Miss Lake, may Heaven for ever bless you. But respecting good Mr. Larkin, you are, indeed, in error; I am sure you have quite misunderstood him. You don't know how kind—how disinterestedly good he has been; and now, my dear Miss Lake, it is too late—quite too late.'

'No; it is not too late. Such wickedness as that cannot be lawful—I won't believe the law allows it,' cried Rachel Lake. 'It is all a fraud—even if you have signed—all a fraud. You must procure able advice at once. Your enemy is that dreadful Mr. Larkin. Write to some good attorney in London. I'll pay everything.'

'But, dear Miss Lake, I can't,' said the vicar, dejectedly; 'I am bound in honour and conscience not to disturb it—I have written to Messrs. Burlington and Smith to that effect. I assure you, dear Miss Lake, we have not acted inconsiderately—nothing has been done without careful and deep consideration.'

'You must employ an able attorney immediately. You have been duped. Your little boy must not be ruined.'

'But—but I do assure you, I have so pledged myself by the letter I have mentioned, that I could not—no, it is quite impossible,' he added, as he recollected the strong and pointed terms in which he had pledged his honour and conscience to the London firm, to guarantee them against any such disturbance as Miss Lake was urging him to attempt.

'I am going into the town, Dolly, and so are you,' said Rachel, after a little pause. 'Let us go together.'

And to this Dolly readily assented; and the vicar, evidently much troubled in mind, having run up to the nursery to see his little man, the two ladies set out together. Rachel saw that she had made an impression upon Dolly, and was resolved to carry her point. So, in earnest terms, again she conjured her, at least, to lay the whole matter before some friend on whom she could rely; and Dolly, alarmed and eager, quite agreed with Rachel, that the sale must be stopped, and she would do whatever dear Rachel bid her.

'But do you think Mr. Larkin really supposes that poor Mark is dead?'

'I do, dear—I suspect he knows it.'

'And what makes you think that, Rachel, darling?'

'I can't define—I've no proofs to give you. One knows things, sometimes. I perceived it—and I think I can't be mistaken; and now I've said all, and pray ask me no more upon that point.'

Rachel spoke with a hurried and fierce impatience, that rather startled her companion.

It is wonderful that she showed her state of mind so little. There was, indeed, something feverish, and at times even fierce, in her looks and words. But few would have guessed her agony, as she pleaded with the vicar and his wife; or the awful sense of impending consequences that closed over her like the shadow of night, the moment the excitement of her pleading was over—'Rachel, are you mad?—Fly, fly, fly!' was always sounding in her ears. The little street of Gylingden, through which they were passing, looked strange and dream-like. And as she listened to Mrs. Crinkle's babble over the counter, and chose his toys for poor little 'Fairy,' she felt like one trifling on the way to execution.

But her warnings and entreaties, I have said, were not quite thrown away; for, although the vicar was inflexible, she had prevailed with his wife, who, at parting, again promised Rachel, that if she could do it, the sale should be stopped.

When I returned to Brandon, a few mornings later, Captain Lake received me joyfully at his solitary breakfast. He was in an intense electioneering excitement. The evening papers for the day before lay on the breakfast table.

'A move of some sort suspected—the opposition prints all hinting at tricks and ambuscades. They are whipping their men up awfully. Old Wattles, not half-recovered, went by the early train yesterday, Wealdon tells me. It will probably kill him. Stower went up the day before. Lee says he saw him at Charteris. He never speaks—only a vote—and a fellow that never appears till the minute.'

'Brittle, the member for Stoney-Muckford, was in the next carriage to me yesterday; and he's a slow coach, too,' I threw in. 'It does look as if the division was nearer than they pretend.'

'Just so. I heard from Gybes last evening—what a hand that fellow writes—only a dozen words—"Look out for squalls," and "keep your men in hand." I've sent for Wealdon. I wish the morning papers were come. I'm a quarter past eleven—what are you? The post's in at Dollington fifty minutes before we get our letters here. D—d nonsense—it's all that heavy 'bus of Driver's—I'll change that. They leave London at five, and get to Dollington at half-past ten, and Driver never has them in sooner than twenty minutes past eleven! D—d humbug! I'd undertake to take a dog-cart over the ground in twenty minutes.'

'Is Larkin here?' I asked.

'Oh, no—run up to town. I'm so glad he's away—the clumsiest dog in England—nothing clever—no invention—only a bully—the people hate him. Wealdon's my man. I wish he'd give up that town-clerkship—it can't be worth much, and it's in his way—I'd make it up to him somehow. Will you just look at that—it's the 'Globe'—only six lines, and tell me what you make of it?'

'It does look like it, certainly.'

'Wealdon and I have jotted down a few names here,' said Lake, sliding a list of names before me; 'you know some of them, I think—rather a strong committee; don't you think so? Those fellows with the red cross before have promised.'

'Yes; it's very strong—capital!' I said, crunching my toast. 'Is it thought the writs will follow the dissolution unusually quickly?'

'They must, unless they want a very late session. But it is quite possible the government may win—a week ago they reckoned upon eleven.'

And as we were talking the post arrived.

'Here they are!' cried Lake, and grasping the first morning paper he could seize on, he tore it open with a greater display of energy than I had seen that languid gentleman exhibit on any former occasion.



CHAPTER LXVI.

LADY MACBETH.

'Here it is,' said the captain. 'Beaten'—then came an oath—'three votes—how the devil was that?—there it is, by Jove—no mistake—majority against ministers, three! Is that the "Times?" What does it say?'

'A long leader—no resignation—immediate dissolution. That is what I collect from it.'

'How on earth could they have miscalculated so! Swivell, I see, voted in the majority; that's very odd; and, by Jove, there's Surplice, too, and he's good for seven votes. Why his own paper was backing the ministers! What a fellow that is! That accounts for it all. A difference of fourteen votes.'

And thus we went on, discussing this unexpected turn of luck, and reading to one another snatches of the leading articles in different interests upon the subject.

Then Lake, recollecting his letters, opened a large-sealed envelope, with S.C.G. in the corner.

'This is from Gybes—let us see. Oh! before the division. "It looks a little fishy," he says—well, so it does—"We may take the division to-night. Should it prove adverse, you are to expect an immediate dissolution; this on the best authority. I write to mention this, as I may be too much hurried to-morrow."'

We were discussing this note when Wealdon arrived.

'Well, captain; great news, Sir. The best thing, I take it, could have happened ministers, ha, ha, ha! A rotten house—down with it—blow it up—three votes only—but as good as three hundred for the purpose—of the three hundred, grant but three, you know—of course, they don't think of resigning.'

'Oh, dear, no—an immediate dissolution. Read that,' said Lake, tossing Gybes' note to him.

'Ho, then, we'll have the writs down hot and heavy. We must be sharp. The sheriff's all right; that's a point. You must not lose an hour in getting your committee together, and printing your address.'

'Who's on the other side?'

'You'll have Jennings, of course; but they are talking of four different men, already, to take Sir Harry Twisden's place. He'll resign; that's past a doubt now. He has his retiring address written; Lord Edward Mordun read it; and he told FitzStephen on Sunday, after church, that he'd never sit again.'

'Here, by Jove, is a letter from Mowbray,' said Lake, opening it. 'All about his brother George. Hears I'm up for the county. Lord George ready to join and go halves. What shall I say?'

'Could not have a better man. Tell him you desire no better, and will bring it at once before your committee; and let him know, the moment they meet; and tell him I say he knows Wealdon pretty well—he may look on it as settled. That will be a spoke in Sir Harry's wheel.'

'Sir Harry who?' said Lake.

'Bracton. I think it's only to spoil your game, you see,' answered Wealdon.

'Abundance of malice; but I don't think he's countenanced?'

'He'll try to get the start of you; and if he does, one or other must go to the wall; for Lord George is too strong to be shook out. Do you get forward at once; that's your plan, captain.'

Then the captain recurred to his letters, which were a larger pack than usual this morning, chatting all the time with Wealdon and me on the tremendous topic, and tossing aside every letter that did not bear on the coming struggle.

'Who can this be?' said Lake, looking at the address of one of these. 'Very like my hand,' and he examined the seal. It was only a large wafer-stamp, so he broke it open, and drew out a shabby, very ill-written scroll. He turned suddenly away, talking the while, but with his eyes upon the note, and then he folded, or rather crumpled it up, and stuffed it into his pocket, and continued his talk; but it was now plain to me there was something more on his mind, and he was thinking of the shabby letter he had just received.

But, no matter; the election was the pressing topic, and Lake was soon engaged in it again.

There was now a grand coup under discussion—the forestalling of all the horses and vehicles along the line of railway, and in all the principal posting establishments throughout the county.

'They'll want to keep it open for a bid from the other side. It is a heavy item any way; and if you want to engage them now, you'll have to give double what they got last time.'

But Lake was not to be daunted. He wanted the seat, and would stick at nothing to secure it; and so, Wealdon got instructions, in his own phrase, to go the whole animal.

As I could be of no possible use in local details, I left the council of war sitting, intending a stroll in the grounds.

In the hall, I met the mistress of the house, looking very handsome, but with a certain witch-like beauty, very pale, something a little haggard in her great, dark eyes, and a strange, listening look. Was it watchfulness? was it suspicion? She was dressed gravely but richly, and received me kindly—and, strange to say, with a smile that, yet, was not joyful.

'I hope she is happy. Lake is such a beast; I hope he does not bully her.'

In truth, there were in her exquisite features the traces of that mysterious misery and fear which seemed to fall wherever Stanley Lake's ill-omened confidences were given.

I walked down one of the long alleys, with tall, close hedges of beech, as impenetrable as cloister walls to sight, and watched the tench basking and flickering in the clear pond, and the dazzling swans sailing majestically along.

What a strange passion is ambition, I thought. Is it really the passion of great minds, or of little. Here is Lake, with a noble old place, inexhaustible in variety; with a beautiful, and I was by this time satisfied, a very singular and interesting woman for his wife, who must have married him for love, pure and simple; a handsome fortune; the power to bring his friends—those whom he liked, or who amused him—about him, and to indulge luxuriously every reasonable fancy, willing to forsake all, and follow the beck of that phantom. Had he knowledge, public talents, training? Nothing of the sort. Had he patriotism, any one noble motive or fine instinct to prompt him to public life? The mere suggestion was a sneer. It seemed to me, simply, that Stanley Lake was a lively, amusing, and even intelligent man, without any internal resource; vacant, peevish, with an unmeaning passion for corruption and intrigue, and the sort of egotism which craves distinction. So I supposed.

Yet, with all its weakness, there was a dangerous force in the character which, on the whole, inspired an odd mixture of fear and contempt. I was bitten, however, already, by the interest of the coming contest. It is very hard to escape that subtle and intoxicating poison. I wondered what figure Stanley would make as a hustings orator, and what impression in his canvass. The latter, I was pretty confident about. Altogether, curiosity, if no deeper sentiment, was highly piqued; and I was glad I happened to drop in at the moment of action, and wished to see the play out.

At the door of her boudoir, Rachel Lake met Dorcas.

'I am so glad, Radie, dear, you are come. You must take off your things, and stay. You must not leave me to-night. We'll send home for whatever you want; and you won't leave me, Radie, I'm certain.'

'I'll stay, dear, as you wish it,' said Rachel, kissing her.

'Did you see Stanley? I have not seen him to-day,' said Dorcas.

'No, dear; I peeped into the library, but he was not there; and there are two men writing in the Dutch room, very busily,'

'It must be about the election.'

'What election, dear?' asked Rachel.

'There is going to be an election for the county, and—only think—he intends coming forward. I sometimes think he is mad, Radie.'

'I could not have supposed such a thing. If I were he, I think I should fly to the antipodes. I should change my name, sear my features with vitriol, and learn another language. I should obliterate my past self altogether; but men are so different, so audacious—some men, at least—and Stanley, ever since his ill-omened arrival at Redman's Farm, last autumn, has amazed and terrified me.'

'I think, Radie, we have both courage—you have certainly; you have shown it, darling, and you must cease to blame yourself; I think you a heroine, Radie; but you know I see with the wild eyes of the Brandons.'

'I am grateful, Dorcas, that you don't hate me. Most women I am sure would abhor me—yes, Dorcas—abhor me.'

'You and I against the world, Radie!' said Dorcas, with a wild smile and a dark admiration in her look, and kissing Rachel again. 'I used to think myself brave; it belongs to women of our blood; but this is no common strain upon courage, Radie. I've grown to fear Stanley somehow like a ghost; I fear it is even worse than he says,' and she looked with a horrible enquiry into Rachel's eyes.

'So do I, Dorcas,' said Rachel, in a firm low whisper, returning her look as darkly.

'What's done cannot be undone,' said Rachel, sadly, after a little pause, unconsciously quoting from a terrible soliloquy of Shakespeare.

'I know what you mean, Radie; and you warned me, with a strange second-sight, before the evil was known to either of us. It was an irrevocable step, and I took it, not seeing all that has happened, it is true; but forewarned. And this I will say, Radie, if I had known the worst, I think even that would not have deterred me. It was madness—it is madness, for I love him still. Rachel, though I know him and his wickedness, and am filled with horror—I love him desperately.'

'I am very glad,' said Rachel, 'that you do know everything. It is so great a relief to have companionship. I often thought I must go mad in my solitude.'

'Poor Rachel! I think you wonderful—I think you a heroine—I do, Radie; you and I are made for one another—the same blood—something of the same wild nature; I can admire you, and understand you, and will always love you.'

'I've been with William Wylder and Dolly. That wicked attorney, Mr. Larkin, is resolved on robbing them. I wish they had anyone able to advise them. Stanley I am sure could save them; but he does not choose to do it. He was always so angry when I urged him to help them, that I knew it would be useless asking him; I don't think he knows what Mr. Larkin has been doing; but, Dorcas, I am afraid the very same thought has been in his mind.'

'I hope not, Radie,' and Dorcas sighed deeply. 'Everything is so wonderful and awful in the light that has come.'

That morning, poor William Wylder had received a letter from Jos. Larkin, Esq., mentioning that he had found Messrs. Burlington and Smith anything but satisfied with him—the vicar. What exactly he had done to disoblige them he could not bring to mind. But Jos. Larkin told him that he had done all in his power 'to satisfy them of the bona fide character' of his reverend client's dealings from the first. But 'they still express themselves dissatisfied upon the point, and appear to suspect a disposition to shilly-shally.' I have said 'all I could to disabuse them of the unpleasant prejudice; but I think I should hardly be doing my duty if I were not to warn you that you will do wisely to exhibit no hesitation in the arrangements by which your agreement is to be carried out, and that in the event of your showing the slightest disposition to qualify the spirit of your strong note to them, or in anywise disappointing their client, you must be prepared, from what I know of the firm, for very sharp practice indeed.'

What could they do to him, or why should they hurt him, or what had he done to excite either the suspicion or the temper of the firm? They expected their client, the purchaser, in a day or two. He was already grumbling at the price, and certainly would stand no trifling. Neither would Messrs. Burlington and Smith, who, he must admit, had gone to very great expense in investigating title, preparing deeds, &c., and who were noted as a very expensive house. He was aware that they were in a position to issue an execution on the guarantee for the entire amount of their costs; but he thought so extreme a measure would hardly be contemplated, notwithstanding their threats, unless the purchaser were to withdraw or the vendor to exhibit symptoms of—he would not repeat their phrase—irresolution in his dealing. He had, however, placed the vicar's letter in their hands, and had accompanied it with his own testimony to the honour and character of the Rev. William Wylder, which he was happy to say seemed to have considerable weight with Messrs. Burlington and Smith. There was also this passage, 'Feeling acutely the anxiety into which the withdrawal of the purchaser must throw you—though I trust nothing of that sort may occur—I told them that rather than have you thrown upon your beam-ends by such an occurrence, I would myself step in and purchase on the terms agreed on. This will, I trust, quiet them on the subject of their costs, and also prevent any low dodging on the part of the purchaser.'

This letter would almost seem to have been written with a supernatural knowledge of what was passing in Gylingden, and was certainly well contrived to prevent the vicar from wavering.

But all this time the ladies are conversing in Dorcas's boudoir.

'This election frightens me, Radie—everything frightens me now—but this is so audacious. If there be powers either in heaven or hell, it seems like a defiance and an invocation. I am glad you are here, Radie—I have grown so nervous—so superstitious, I believe; watching always for signs and omens. Oh, darling, the world's ghastly for me now.'

'I wish, Dorcas, we were away—as you used to say—in some wild and solitary retreat, living together—two recluses—but all that is visionary—quite visionary now.'

Dorcas sighed.

'You know, Rachel, the world must not see this—we will carry our heads high. Wicked men, and brave and suffering women—that is the history of our family—and men and women always quite unlike the rest of the world—unlike the human race; and somehow they interest me unspeakably. I wish I knew more about those proud, forlorn beauties, whose portraits are fading on the walls. Their spirit, I am sure, is in us, Rachel; and their pictures and traditions have always supported me. When I was a little thing, I used to look at them with a feeling of melancholy and mystery. They were in my eyes, reserved prophetesses, who could speak, if they would, of my own future.'

'A poor support, Dorcas—a broken reed. I wish we could find another—the true one, in the present, and in the coming time.'

Dorcas smiled faintly, and I think there was a little gleam of a ghastly satire in it. I am afraid that part of her education which deals with futurity had been neglected.

'I am more likely to turn into a Lady Macbeth than a devote,' said she, coldly, with the same painful smile. 'I found myself last night sitting up in my bed, talking in the dark about it.'

There was a silence for a time, and Rachel said,—

'It is growing late, Dorcas.'

'But you must not go, Rachel—you must stay and keep me company—you must, indeed, Radie,' said Dorcas.

'So I will,' she answered; 'but I must send a line to old Tamar; and I promised Dolly to go down to her to-night, if that darling little boy should be worse—I am very unhappy about him.'

'And is he in danger, the handsome little fellow?' said Dorcas.

'Very great danger, I fear,' said Rachel. 'Doctor Buddle has been very kind—but he is, I am afraid, more desponding than poor William or Dolly imagines—Heaven help them!'

'But children recover wonderfully. What is his ailment?'

'Gastric fever, the doctor says. I had a foreboding of evil the moment I saw him—before the poor little man was put to his bed.'

Dorcas rang the bell.

'Now, Radie, if you wish to write, sit down here—or if you prefer a message, Thomas can take one very accurately; and he shall call at the vicar's, and see Dolly, and bring us word how the dear little boy is. And don't fancy, darling, I have forgotten what you said to me about duty—though I would call it differently—only I feel so wild, I can think of nothing clearly yet. But I am making up my mind to a great and bold step, and when I am better able, I will talk it over with you—my only friend, Rachel.'

And she kissed her.



CHAPTER LXVII.

MR. LARKIN IS VIS-A-VIS WITH A CONCEALED COMPANION.

The time had now arrived when our friend Jos. Larkin was to refresh the village of Gylingden with his presence. He had pushed matters forward with wonderful despatch. The deeds, with their blue and silver stamps, were handsomely engrossed—having been approved in draft by Crompton S. Kewes, the eminent Queen's Counsel, on a case furnished by Jos. Larkin, Esq., The Lodge, Brandon Manor, Gylingden, on behalf of his client, the Reverend William Wylder; and in like manner on behalf of Stanley Williams Brandon Lake, of Brandon Hall, in the county of ——, Esq.

In neither draft did Jos. Larkin figure as the purchaser by name. He did not care for advice on any difficulty depending on his special relations to the vendors in both these cases. He wished, as was his custom, everything above-board, and such 'an opinion' as might be published by either client in the 'Times' next day if he pleased it. Besides these matters of Wylder and of Lake, he had also a clause to insert in a private Act, on behalf of the trustees of the Baptist Chapel, at Naunton Friars; a short deed to be consulted upon on behalf of his client, Pudder Swynfen, Esq., of Swynfen Grange, in the same county; and a deed to be executed at Shillingsworth, which he would take en route for Gylingden, stopping there for that night, and going on by next morning's train.

Those little trips to town paid very fairly.

In this particular case his entire expenses reached exactly L5 3s., and what do you suppose was the good man's profit upon that small item? Precisely L62 7s.! The process is simple, Jos. Larkin made his own handsome estimate of his expenses, and the value of his time to and from London, and then he charged this in its entirety—shall we say integrity—to each client separately. In this little excursion he was concerned for no less than five.

His expenses, I say, reached exactly L5 3s. But he had a right to go to Dondale's if he pleased, instead of that cheap hostelry near Covent Garden. He had a right to a handsome lunch and a handsome dinner, instead of that economical fusion of both meals into one, at a cheap eating-house, in an out-of-the-way quarter. He had a right to his pint of high-priced wine, and to accomplish his wanderings in a cab, instead of, as the Italians say, 'partly on foot, and partly walking.' Therefore, and on this principle, Mr. Jos. Larkin had 'no difficulty' in acting. His savings, if the good man chose to practise self-denial, were his own—and it was a sort of problem while he stayed, and interested him curiously—keeping down his bill in matters which he would not have dreamed of denying himself at home.

The only client among his wealthy supporters, who ever went in a grudging spirit into one of these little bills of Jos. Larkin's, was old Sir Mulgrave Bracton—the defunct parent of the Sir Harry, with whom we are acquainted.

'Don't you think, Mr. Larkin, you could perhaps reduce this, just a little?'

'Ah, the expenses?'

'Well, yes.'

Mr. Jos. Larkin smiled—the smile said plainly, 'what would he have me live upon, and where?' We do meet persons of this sort, who would fain 'fill our bellies with the husks' that swine digest; what of that—we must remember who we are—gentlemen—and answer this sort of shabbiness, and every other endurable annoyance, as Lord Chesterfield did—with a bow and a smile.

'I think so,' said the baronet, in a bluff, firm way.

'Well, the fact is, when I represent a client, Sir Mulgrave Bracton, of a certain rank and position, I make it a principle—and, as a man of business, I find it tells—to present myself in a style that is suitably handsome.'

'Oh! an expensive house—where was this, now?'

'Oh, Sir Mulgrave, pray don't think of it—I'm only too happy—pray, draw your pen across the entire thing.'

'I think so,' said the baronet unexpectedly. 'Don't you think if we said a pound a-day, and your travelling expenses?'

'Certainly—anything—whatever you please, Sir.'

And the attorney waved his long hand a little, and smiled almost compassionately; and the little alteration was made, and henceforward he spoke of Sir Mulgrave as not quite a pleasant man to deal with in money matters; and his confidential friends knew that in a transaction in which he had paid money out of his own pocket for Sir Mulgrave he had never got back more than seven and sixpence in the pound; and, what made it worse, it was a matter connected with the death of poor Lady Bracton! And he never lost an opportunity of conveying his opinion of Sir Mulgrave, sometimes in distinct and confidential sentences, and sometimes only by a sad shake of his head, or by awfully declining to speak upon the subject.

In the present instance Jos. Larkin was returning in a heavenly frame of mind to the Lodge, Brandon Manor, Gylingden. Whenever he was away he interpolated 'Brandon Manor,' and stuck it on his valise and hat-case; and liked to call aloud to the porters tumbling among the luggage—'Jos. Larkin, Esquire, Brandon Manor, if you please;' and to see the people read the inscription in the hall of his dingy hostelry. Well might the good man glow with a happy consciousness of a blessing. In small things as in great he was prosperous.

This little excursion to London would cost him, as I said, exactly L5 3s. It might have cost him L13 10s. and at that sum his expenses figured in his ledger; and as he had five clients on this occasion, the total reached L67 10s., leaving a clear profit, as I have mentioned, of L62 7s. on this item.

But what was this little tip from fortune, compared with the splendid pieces of scrivenery in his despatch box. The white parchment—the blue and silver stamps in the corner—the German text and flourishes at the top, and those broad, horizontal lines of recital, 'habendum,' and so forth—marshalled like an army in procession behind his march of triumph into Five Oaks, to take the place of its deposed prince? From the captain's deed to the vicar's his mind glanced fondly.

He would yet stand the highest man in his county. He had found time for a visit to the King-at-Arms and the Heralds' Office. He would have his pictures and his pedigree. His grandmother had been a Howard. Her branch, indeed, was a little under a cloud, keeping a small provision-shop in the town of Dwiddleston. But this circumstance need not be in prominence. She was a Howard—that was the fact he relied on—no mortal could gainsay it; and he would be, first, J. Howard Larkin, then Howard Larkin, simply; then Howard Larkin Howard, and the Five Gaks' Howards would come to be very great people indeed. And the Brandons had intermarried with other Howards, and Five Oaks would naturally, therefore, go to Howards; and so he and his, with clever management, would be anything but novi homines in the county.

'He shall be like a tree planted by the water-side, that will bring forth his fruit in due season. His leaf also shall not wither. So thought this good man complacently. He liked these fine consolations of the Jewish dispensation—actual milk and honey, and a land of promise on which he could set his foot. Jos. Larkin, Esq., was as punctual as the clock at the terminus. He did not come a minute too soon or too late, but precisely at the moment which enabled him, without fuss, and without a tiresome wait, to proceed to the details of ticket, luggage, selection of place, and ultimate ascension thereto.

So now having taken all measures, gliding among the portmanteaus, hand-barrows, and porters, and the clangorous bell ringing, he mounted, lithe and lank, into his place.

There was a pleasant evening light still, and the gas-lamps made a purplish glow against it. The little butter-cooler of a glass lamp glimmered from the roof. Mr. Larkin established himself, and adjusted his rug and mufflers about him, for, notwithstanding the season, there had been some cold, rainy weather, and the evening was sharp; and he set his two newspapers, his shilling book, and other triumphs of cheap literature in sundry shapes, in the vacant seat at his left hand, and made everything handsome about him. He glanced to the other end of the carriage, where sat his solitary fellow-passenger. This gentleman was simply a mass of cloaks and capes, culminating in a queer battered felt hat; his shoulders were nestled into the corner, and his face buried among his loose mufflers. They sat at corners diagonally opposed, and were, therefore, as far apart as was practicable—an arrangement, not sociable, to be sure, but on the whole, very comfortable, and which neither seemed disposed to disturb.

Mr. Larkin had a word to say to the porter from the window, and bought one more newspaper; and then looked out on the lamplit platform, and saw the officials loitering off to the clang of the carriage doors; then came the whistle, and then the clank and jerk of the start. And so the brick walls and lamps began to glide backward, and the train was off.

Jos. Larkin tried his newspaper, and read for ten minutes, or so, pretty diligently; and then looked for a while from the window, upon receding hedgerows and farmsteads, and the level and spacious landscape; and then he leaned back luxuriously, his newspaper listlessly on his knees, and began to read, instead, at his ease, the shapeless, wrapt-up figure diagonally opposite.

The quietude of the gentleman in the far corner was quite singular. He produced neither tract, nor newspaper, nor volume—not even a pocket-book or a letter. He brought forth no cigar-case, with the stereotyped, 'Have you any objection to my smoking a cigar?' He did not even change his attitude ever so little. A burly roll of cloaks, rugs, capes, and loose wrappers, placed in the corner, and tanquam cadaver, passive and motionless.

I have sometimes in my travels lighted on a strangely shaped mountain, whose huge curves, and sombre colouring have interested me indefinably. In the rude mass at the far angle, Mr. Jos. Larkin, I fancy, found some such subject of contemplation. And the more he looked, the more he felt disposed to look.

As they got on there was more night fog, and the little lamp at top shone through a halo. The fellow-passenger at the opposite angle lay back, all cloaks and mufflers, with nothing distinct emerging but the felt hat at top, and the tip—it was only the tip now—of the shining shoe on the floor.

The gentleman was absolutely motionless and silent. And Mr. Larkin, though his mind was pretty universally of the inquisitive order, began in this particular case to feel a special curiosity. It was partly the monotony and their occupying the carriage all to themselves—as the two uncommunicative seamen did the Eddystone Lighthouse—but there was, beside, an indistinct feeling, that, in spite of all these wrappers and swathings, he knew the outlines of that figure; and yet the likeness must have been of the rudest possible sort.

He could not say that he recognised anything distinctly—only he fancied that some one he knew was sitting there, unrevealed, inside that mass of clothing. And he felt, moreover, as if he ought to be able to guess who he was.



CHAPTER LXVIII.

THE COMPANION DISCLOSES HIMSELF.

But this sort of musing and wonderment leads to nothing; and Mr. Jos. Larkin being an active-minded man, and practical withal, in a little while shook it off, and from his breast-pocket took a tiny treasure of a pocket-book, in which were some bank-notes, precious memoranda in pencil, and half-a-dozen notes and letters, bearing upon cases and negotiations on which, at this juncture, he was working.

Into these he got, and now and then brought out a letter bearing on some point of speculation, and read it through, and then closed his eyes for three minutes at a time, and thought. But he had not his tin boxes there; and, with a man of his stamp, speculation, which goes upon guess as to dates and quantities, which are all ascertainable by reference to black and white, soon loses its interest. And the evidence in his pocket being pretty soon exhausted, he glanced again at his companion over the way.

He had not moved all this while. He had a high stand-up collar to the cape he wore, which covered his cheeks and nose and outside was loosely swathed a large, cream-coloured, cashmere handkerchief. The battered felt hat covered his forehead and eyebrows, and left, in fact, but a narrow streak of separation between.

Through this, however, for the first time, Jos. Larkin now saw the glitter of a pair of eyes gazing at him, he fancied. At all events there was the glitter, and the gentleman was awake.

Jos. returned the gentleman's gaze. It was his lofty aristocratic stare; and he expected to see the glittering lights that peeped through the dark chink between brim and collar shut up under its rebuke. But nothing of the kind took place, and the ocular exercises of the attorney were totally ineffectual.

If the fellow knew that his fixed stare was observed through his narrow embrasure—and Larkin thought he could hardly be insensible to the reproof of his return fire—he must be a particularly impertinent person. It would be ridiculous, however, to continue a contest of this kind; so the attorney lowered the window and looked out. Then he pulled it up, and took to his newspaper again, and read the police cases, and a very curious letter from a poor-house doctor, describing a boy who was quite blind in daylight, but could see very fairly by gas or candle light, and then he lighted upon a very odd story, and said to be undergoing special sifting at the hands of Sir Samuel Squailes, of a policeman on a certain beat, in Fleet Street, not far from Temple Bar, who every night saw, at or about the same hour, a certain suspicious-looking figure walk along the flag-way and enter a passage. Night after night he pursued this figure, but always lost it in the same passage. On the last occasion, however, he succeeded in keeping him in view, and came up with him in a court, when he was rewarded with a sight of such a face as caused him to fall to the ground in a fit. This was the Clampcourt ghost, and I believe he was left in that debatable state, and never after either exploded or confirmed.

So having ended all these studies, the attorney lifted up his eyes again, as he lowered his newspaper, and beheld the same glittering gaze fixed upon him through the same horizontal cranny.

He fancied the eyes were laughing. He could not be sure, of course, but at all events the persistent stare was extremely, and perhaps determinedly, impertinent. Forgetting the constitutional canon through which breathes the genuine spirit of British liberty, he felt for a moment that he was such a king as that cat had no business to look at; and he might, perhaps, have politely intimated something of the kind, had not the enveloped offender made a slight and lazy turn which, burying his chin still deeper in his breast, altogether concealed his eyes, and so closed the offensive scrutiny.

In making this change in his position, slight as it was, the gentleman in the superfluous clothing reminded Mr. Jos. Larkin very sharply for an instant of—somebody. There was the rub; who could it be?

The figure was once more a mere mountain of rug. What was the peculiarity in that slight movement—something in the knee? something in the elbow? something in the general character?

Why had he not spoken to him? The opportunity, for the present, was past. But he was now sure that his fellow-traveller was an acquaintance, who had probably recognised him. Larkin—except when making a mysterious trip at election times, or in an emergency, in a critical case—was a frank, and as he believed could be a fascinating compagnon de voyage, such and so great was his urbanity on a journey. He rather liked talking with people; he sometimes heard things not wholly valueless, and once or twice had gathered hints in this way, which saved him trouble, or money, which is much the same thing. Therefore upon principle he was not averse from that direst of bores, railway conversation.

And now they slackened speed, with a long, piercing whistle, and came to a standstill at 'East Haddon' (with a jerk upon the last syllable), 'East Haddon, East Haddon,' as the herald of the station declared, and Lawyer Larkin sat straight up, very alert, with a budding smile, ready to blow out into a charming radiance the moment his fellow-traveller rose perpendicular, as was to be expected, and peeped from his window.

But he seemed to know intuitively that Larkin intended telling him, apropos of the station, that story of the Haddon property, and Sir James Wotton's will, which as told by the good attorney and jumbled by the clatter, was perhaps a little dreary. At all events he did not stir, and carefully abstained from wakening, and in a few seconds more they were again in motion.

They were now approaching Shillingsworth, where the attorney was to get out, and put up for the night, having a deed with him to be executed in that town, and so sweetening his journey with this small incident of profit.

Now, therefore, looking at his watch, and consulting his time table, he got his slim valise from under on top of the seat before him, together with his hat-case, despatch-box, stick, and umbrella, and brushed off with his handkerchief some of the gritty railway dust that lay drifted in exterior folds and hollows of his coat, rebuttoned that garment with precision, arranged his shirt-collar, stuffed his muffler into his coat-pocket, and made generally that rude sacrifice to the graces with which natty men precede their exit from the dust and ashes of this sort of sepulture.

At this moment he had just eight minutes more to go, and the glitter of the pair of eyes, staring between the muffler and the rim of the hat, met his view once more.

Mr. Larkin's cigar-case was open in his hand in a moment, and with such a smile as a genteel perfumer offers his wares with, he presented it toward the gentleman who was built up in the stack of garments.

He merely shook his head with the slightest imaginable nod and a wave of a pudgy hand in a soiled dog-skin glove, which emerged for a second from under a cape, in token that he gratefully declined the favour.

Mr. Larkin smiled and shrugged regretfully, and replaced the case in his coat pocket. Hardly five minutes remained now. Larkin glanced round for a topic.

'My journey is over for the present, Sir, and perhaps you would find these little things entertaining.'

And he tendered with the same smile 'Punch,' the 'Penny Gleaner,' and 'Gray's Magazine,' a religious serial. They were, however, similarly declined in pantomime.

'He's not particularly polite, whoever he is,' thought Mr. Larkin, with a sniff. However, he tried the effect of a direct observation. So getting one seat nearer, he said:—

'Wonderful place Shillingsworth, Sir; one does not really, until one has visited it two or three times over, at all comprehend its wealth and importance; and how justly high it deserves to hold its head amongst the provincial emporia of our productive industry.'

The shapeless traveller in the corner touched his ear with his pudgy dogskin fingers, and shook his hand and head a little, in token either that he was deaf, or the noise such as to prevent his hearing, and in the next moment the glittering eyes closed, and the pantomimist appeared to be asleep.

And now, again, the train subsided to a stand-still, and Shillingsworth resounded through the night air, and Larkin scrambled forward to the window, by which sat the enveloped gentleman, and called the porter, and, with many unheeded apologies, pulled out his various properties, close by the knees of the tranquil traveller. So, Mr. Larkin was on the platform, and his belongings stowed away against the wall of the station-house.

He made an enquiry of the guard, with whom he was acquainted, about his companion; but the guard knew nothing of the 'party,' neither did the porter, to whom the guard put a similar question.

So, as Larkin walked down the platform, the whistle sounded and the train glided forward, and as it passed him, the gentleman in the cloak and queer hat was looking out. A lamp shone full on him. Mr. Larkin's heart stood still for a moment, and then bounded up as if it would choke him.

'It's him, by ——!' and Mr. Larkin, forgetting syntax, and propriety, and religion, all together, and making a frantic race to keep up with the train, shouted—

'Stop it, stop it—hollo!—stop—stop—ho, stop!'

But he pleaded with the winds; and before he had reached the end of the platform, the carriage windows were flying by him with the speed of wheel-spokes, and the end of the coupe, with its red lantern, sailed away through the cutting.

'Forgot summat, Sir,' said the porter, touching his hat.

'Yes—signal—stop him, can you?'

The porter only scratched his head, under his cap, and smiled sheepishly after the train. Jos. Larkin knew, the next moment, he had talked nonsense.

'I—I—yes—I have—have you an engine here:—express—I'll pay anything.'

But, no, there was 'no engine—not nearer than the junction, and she might not be spared.'

'How far is the junction?'

'Nineteen and a-half.'

'Nineteen miles! They'll never bring me there, by horse, under two hours, they are so cursed tedious. Why have not you a spare engine at a place like this? Shillingsworth! Nice management! Are you certain? Where's the station-master?'

All this time he kept staring after the faint pulsations on the air that indicated the flight of the engine.

But it would not do. The train—the image upon earth of the irrevocable, the irretrievable—was gone, neither to be overtaken nor recalled. The telegraph was not then, as now, whispering secrets all over England, at the rate of two hundred miles a second, and five shillings per twenty words. Larkin would have given large money for an engine, to get up with the train that was now some five miles on its route, at treble, quadruple, the common cost of such a magical appliance; but all was vain. He could only look and mutter after it wildly. Vain to conjecture for what station that traveller in the battered hat was bound! Idle speculation! Mere distraction!

Only that Mr. Larkin was altogether the man he was, I think he would have cursed freely.



CHAPTER LXIX.

OF A SPECTRE WHOM OLD TAMAR SAW.

Little Fairy, all this while, continued, in our Church language, 'sick and weak.' The vicar was very sorry, but not afraid. His little man was so bright and merry, that he seemed to him the very spirit of life. He could not dream of his dying. It was sad, to be sure, the little man so many days in his bed, too languid to care for toy or story, quite silent, except when, in the night time, those weird monologues began which showed that the fever had reached his brain. The tones of his pleasant little voice, in those sad flights of memory and fancy, busy with familiar scenes and occupations, sounded wild and plaintive in his ear. And when 'Wapsie' was mentioned, sometimes the vicar's eyes filled, but he smiled through this with a kind of gladness at the child's affection. 'It will soon be over, my darling! You will be walking with Wapsie in a week again.' The sun could as soon cease from shining as little Fairy from living. The thought he would not allow near him.

Doctor Buddle had been six miles away that evening with a patient, and looked in at the vicar's long after the candles were lighted.

He was not satisfied with little Fairy—not at all satisfied. He put his hand under the clothes and felt his thin, slender limbs—thinner than ever now. Dry and very hot they were—and little man babbling his nonsense about little boys, and his 'Wapsie,' and toys, and birds, and the mill-stream, and the church-yard—of which, with so strange a fatality, children, not in romance only, but reality, so often prattle in their feverish wanderings.

He felt his pulse. He questioned his mamma, and cross-examined the nurse, and looked grave and very much annoyed; and then bethought him of something to be tried; and having given his directions to the maid, he went home in haste, and returned in half an hour with the something in a phial—a few drops in water, and little man sat up, leaning on his Wapsie's arm, and 'took it very good,' his nurse said, approvingly; and he looked at them all wonderingly, for two or three moments, and so tired; and they laid him down again, and then his spoken dreams began once more.

Doctor Buddle was dark and short in his answers to voluble little Mrs. Wylder—though, of course, quite respectful—and the vicar saw him down the narrow stairs, and they turned into the study for a moment, and, said Buddle, in an under tone—

'He's very ill—I can say nothing else.'

And there was a pause.

The little colour he had receded from the vicar's face, for the looks and tones of good-natured Buddle were not to be mistaken. He was reading little Fairy's death warrant.

'I see, doctor—I see; you think he'll die,' said the vicar, staring at him. 'Oh doctor, my little Fairy!'

The doctor knew something of the poor vicar's troubles—of course in a village most things of the kind are known—and often, in his brisk, rough way, he thought as, with a nod and a word, he passed the lank cleric, under the trees or across the common, with his bright, prattling, sunny-haired little boy by the hand—or encountered them telling stories on the stile, near the castle meadow—what a gleam of sunshine was always dancing about his path, in that smiling, wayward, loving little fellow—and now a long Icelandic winter was coming, and his path was to know that light no more.

'With children, you know, I—I always say there's a chance—but you are right to look the thing in the face—and I'll be here the first call in the morning; and you know where to find me, in the meantime;' and the doctor shook hands very hard with the vicar at the hall-door, and made his way homeward—the vicar's eyes following him till he was out of sight.

Then William Wylder shut the hall-door, and turned about.

Little Fairy's drum was hanging from a peg on the hat-stand—the drum that was to sound no more in the garden, or up and down the hall, with the bright-haired little drummer's song. There would be no more interruption now—the vicar would write his sermons undisturbed; no more consolations claimed—no more broken toys to be mended—some of the innocent little rubbish lay in the study. It should never move from that—nor his drum—nor that little hat and cape, hanging on their peg, with the tiny boots underneath.

No more prattling at unseasonable times—no more crying—no more singing—no more laughing; all these interruptions were quiet now, and altogether gone—'Little man! little Fairy! Oh, was it possible!' But memory would call up the vicar from his half-written sermon. He would miss his troublesome little man, when the sun shone out that he used to welcome—when the birds hopped on the window-stone, to find the crumbs that little man used to strew there; and when his own little canary—'Birdie' he used to call him—would sing and twitter in his cage—and the time came to walk out on his lonely visits.

He must walk alone by the shop-doors—where the little man was so admired—and up the mill-road, and in the castle meadow and over the stile where they used to sit.

Poor Dolly! Her Willie would not tell her yet. He kneeled down in the study—'Little man's' top, and some cut paper nondescripts, were lying where he had left them, at his elbow—and he tried to pray, and then he remembered that his darling ought to know that he was going into the presence of his Maker.

Yes, he would tell poor Dolly first, and then his little man. He would repeat his hymn with him, and pray—and so he went up the nursery stairs.

Poor Dolly, very tired, had gone to lie down for a little. He would not disturb her—no, let her enjoy for an hour more her happy illusion.

When he went into the nursery little Fairy was sitting up, taking his medicine; the nurse's arm round his thin shoulders. He sat down beside him, weeping gently, his thin face turned a little away, and his hand on the coverlet.

Little man looked wonderingly from his tired eyes on Wapsie, and his thin fingers crept on his hand, and Wapsie turned about, drying his eyes, and said—

'Little man! my darling!'

'He's like himself, Sir, while he's sitting up—his little head quite right again.'

'My head's quite right, Wapsie,' the little man whispered, sadly.

'Thank God, my darling!' said the vicar. The tears were running down his cheeks while he parted little Fairy's golden hair with his fingers.

'When I am quite well again,' whispered the little man, 'won't you bring me to the castle meadow, where the wee river is, and we'll float races with daisies and buttercups—the way you did on my birthday.'

'They say that little mannikin——' suddenly the vicar stopped. 'They say that little mannikin won't get well.'

'And am I always to be sick, here in my little bed, Wapsie?' whispered little Fairy, in his dreamy, earnest way, that was new to him.

'No, darling; not always sick: you'll be happier than ever—but not here; little man will be taken by his Saviour, that loves him best of all—and he'll be in heaven—and only have a short time to wait, and maybe his poor Wapsie will come to him, please God, and his darling mamma—and we'll all be happy together, for ever, and never be sick or sorry any more, my treasure—my little Fairy—my darling.'

And little man looked on him with his tired eyes, not quite understanding what it meant, nor why Wapsie was crying; and the nurse said—

'He'd like to be dozin', Sir, he's so tired, please.' So down the poor little fellow lay, his 'Wapsie' praying by his bedside.

When, in a little time, poor Dolly returned, her Willie took her round the waist, as on the day when she accepted him, and led her tenderly into the other room, and told her all, and they hugged and wept together.

'Oh, Dolly, Dolly!'

'Oh, Willie, darling! Oh, Willie, our precious treasure—our only one.'

And so they walked up and down that room, his arm round her waist, and in that sorrowful embrace, murmuring amid their sobs to one another, their thoughts and remembrances of 'little man.' How soon the treasure grows a retrospect!

Then Dolly bethought her of her promise to Rachel.

'She made me promise to send for her if he was worse—she loved him so—everyone loved him—they could not help—oh, Willie! our bright darling.'

'I think, Dolly, we could not live here. I'd like to go on some mission, and maybe come back in a great many years—maybe, Dolly, when we are old. I'd like to see the place again—and—and the walks—but not, I think, for a long time. He was such a darling.'

Perhaps the vicar was thinking of the church-yard, and how he would like, when his time came, to lie beside the golden-haired little comrade of his walks. So Dolly despatched the messenger with a lantern, and thus it was there came a knocking at the door of Redman's Farm at that unseasonable hour. For some time old Tamar heard the clatter in her sleep; disturbing and mingling with her dreams. But in a while she wakened quite, and heard the double knocks one after another in quick succession; and huddling on her clothes, and muttering to herself all the way, she got into the hall, and standing a couple of yards away from the door, answered in shrill and querulous tones, and questioning the messenger in the same breath.

How could she tell what it might or might not portend? Her alarms quickly subsided, however, for she knew the voice well.

So the story was soon told. Poor little Fairy; it was doubtful if he was to see another morning; and the maid being wanted at home, old Tamar undertook the message to Brandon Hall, where her young mistress was, and sallied forth in her cloak and bonnet, under the haunted trees of Redman's Dell.

Tamar had passed the age of ghostly terrors. There are a certain sober literality and materialism in old age which abate the illusions of the supernatural as effectually as those of love; and Tamar, though not without awe, for darkness and solitude, even were there no associations of a fearful kind in the locality, are suggestive and dismal to the last.

Her route lay, as by this time my reader is well aware, by that narrow defile reached from Redman's Farm by a pathway which scales a flight of rude steps, the same which Stanley Lake and his sister had mounted on the night of Mark Wylder's disappearance.

Tamar knew the path very well. It was on the upper level of it that she had held that conference with Stanley Lake, which obviously referred to that young gentleman's treatment of the vanished Mark. As she came to this platform, round which the trees receded a little so as to admit the moonlight, the old woman was tired.

She would have gladly chosen another spot to rest in, but fatigue was imperious; and she sat down under the gray stone which stood perpendicularly there, on what had once been the step of a stile, leaning against the rude column behind her.

As she sat here she heard the clank of a step approaching measuredly from the Brandon side. It was twelve o'clock now; the chimes from the Gylingden church-tower had proclaimed that in the distance some minutes before. The honest Gylingden folk seldom heard the tower chimes tell eleven, and gentle and simple had, of course, been long in their beds.

The old woman had a secret hatred of this place, and the unexpected sounds made her hold her breath. She peeped round the stone, in whose shadow she was sitting. The steps were not those of a man walking briskly with a purpose: they were the desultory strides of a stroller lounging out an hour's watch. The steps approached. The figure was visible—that of a short broadish man, with a mass of cloaks, rugs, and mufflers across his arm.

Carrying them with a sort of swagger, he came slowly up to the part of the pathway opposite to the pillar, where he dropped those draperies in a heap upon the grass; and availing himself of the clear moonlight, he stopped nearly confronting her.

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