It was the face of Mark Wylder—she knew it well—but grown fat and broader, and there was—but this she could not see distinctly—a purplish scar across his eyebrow and cheek. She quivered with terror lest he should have seen her, and might be meditating some mischief. But she was seated close to the ground, several yards away, and in the sharp shadow of the old block of stone.
He consulted his watch, and she sat fixed and powerless as a portion of the block on which she leaned, staring up at this, to her, terrific apparition. Mark Wylder's return boded, she believed, something tremendous.
She saw the glimmer of the gold watch, and, distinctly, the great black whiskers, and the face pallid in the moonlight. She was afraid for a minute, during which he loitered there, that he was going to seat himself upon the cloaks which he had just thrown upon the ground, and felt that she could not possibly escape detection for many seconds more. But she was relieved; for, after a short pause, leaving these still upon the ground, he turned, and walked slowly, like a policeman on his beat, toward Brandon.
With a gasp she began to recover herself; but she felt too faint and ill to get up and commence a retreat towards Redman's Farm. Besides, she was sure he would return—she could not tell how soon—and although the clump of alders hid her from view, she could not tell but that the next moment would disclose his figure retracing his leisurely steps, and ready to pursue and overtake, if by a precipitate movement she had betrayed her presence.
In due time the same figure, passing at the same rate, did emerge again, and approached just as before, only this time he was carelessly examining some small but clumsy steel instrument which glittered occasionally in the light. From Tamar's description of it, I conclude it was a revolver.
He passed the pile of cloaks but a few steps, and again turned toward Brandon. So soon as he was once more concealed by the screen of underwood, old Tamar, now sufficiently recovered, crept hurriedly away in the opposite direction, half dead with terror, until she had descended the steps, and was buried once more in friendly darkness.
Old Tamar did not stop at Redman's Farm; she passed it and the mills, and never stopped till she reached the Vicarage. In the hall, she felt for a moment quite overpowered, and sitting in one of the old chairs that did duty there, she uttered a deep groan, and looked with such a gaze in the face of the maid who had admitted her, that she thought the old woman was dying.
Sick rooms, even when, palpably, doctors, nurses, friends, have all ceased to hope, are not to those who stand in the very nearest and most tender relations to the patient, altogether chambers of despair. There are those who hover about the bed and note every gleam and glow of subsiding life, and will read in sunset something of the colours of the dawn, and cling wildly to these hallucinations of love; and no one has the heart to tear them from them.
Just now, Dolly fancied that 'little man was better—the darling! the treasure! oh, precious little man! He was coming back!'
So, she ran down with this light of hope in her face, and saw old Tamar in the hall, and gave her a glass of the wine which Rachel had provided, and the old woman's spirit came again.
'She was glad—yes, very glad. She was thankful to hear the dear child was better.' But there was a weight upon her soul, and a dreadful horror on her countenance still.
'Will you please, Ma'am, write a little note—my old hand shakes so, she could hardly read my writing—to my mistress—Miss Radie, Ma'am. I see pen and ink on the table there. I was not able to go up to the Hall, Ma'am, with the message. There's something on the road I could not pass.'
'Something! What was it?' said Dolly, staring with round eyes in the old woman's woeful face, her curiosity aroused for a moment.
'Something, Ma'am—a person—I can't exactly tell—above the steps, in the Blackberry path. It would cost my young mistress her life. For Heaven's sake, Ma'am, write, and promise, if you send for her, she shall get the note.'
So, Dolly made the promise, and bringing old Tamar with her into the study, penned these odd lines from her dictation, merely adjusting the grammar.
'MISS RADIE, DEAR,—If coming down to-night from Brandon, this is to tell you, it is as much as your life is worth to pass the Blackberry walk above the steps. My old eyes have seen him there, walking back and forward, lying at catch for some one, this night—the great enemy of man; you can suppose in what shape.
'Your dutiful and loving servant,
So, old Tamar, after a little, took her departure; and it needed a great effort to enable her to take the turn up the dark and lonely mill-road, leading to Redman's Farm; so much did she dread the possibility of again encountering the person she had just described.
THE MEETING IN THE LONG POND ALLEY.
I suppose there were few waking heads at this hour in all the wide parish of Gylingden, though many a usually idle one was now busy enough about the great political struggle which was to muster its native forces, both in borough and county, and agitate these rural regions with the roar and commotion of civil strife.
But generals must sleep like other men; and even Tom Wealdon was snoring in the fairy land of dreams.
The night was very still—a sharp night, with a thin moon, like a scimitar, hanging bright in the sky, and a myriad of intense stars blinking in the heavens, above the steep roofs and spiral chimneys of Brandon Hall, and the ancient trees that surrounded it.
It was late in the night, as we know. The family, according to their custom, had sought their slumbers early; and the great old house was perfectly still.
One pair, at least, of eyes, however, were wide open; one head busy; and one person still in his daily costume. This was Mr. Larcom—the grave major domo, the bland and attached butler. He was not busy about his plate, nor balancing the cellar book, nor even perusing his Bible.
He was seated in that small room or closet which he had, years ago, appropriated as his private apartment. It is opposite the housekeeper's room—a sequestered, philosophic retreat. He dressed in it, read his newspaper there, and there saw his select acquaintance. His wardrobe stood there. The iron safe in which he kept his keys, filled one of its nooks. He had his two or three shelves of books in the recess; not that he disturbed them much, but they were a grave and gentlemanlike property, and he liked them for their binding, and the impression they produced on his visitors. There was a meditative fragrance of cigars about him, and two or three Havannah stumps under the grate.
The fact is, he was engaged over a letter, the writing of which, considering how accomplished a gentleman he was, he had found rather laborious and tedious. The penmanship was, I am afraid, clumsy, and the spelling here and there, irregular. It was finished however, and he was now reading it over with care.
It was thus expressed:—
'RESPECTET SIR,—In accordens with your disier, i av took my pen to say a fue words. There has cum a leter for a sertun persen this morning, with a Lundun posmark, and i do not now hand nor sele, but bad writting, which i have not seen wot contanes, but I may, for as you told me offen, you are anceus for welfare of our famly, as i now to be no more than trewth, so I am anceus to ascest you Sir, wich my conseynce is satesfid, but leter as trubeled a sertun persen oufull, hoo i new was engry, and look oufull put about, wich do not offen apen, and you may sewer there is sumthing in wind, he is alday so oufull peefish, you will not thing worse of me speeken plane as yo disier, there beeing a deel to regret for frends of the old famly i feer in a sertun resent marrege, if I shud lern be chance contense of letter i will sewer rite you.—i Remane your humbel servant,
Just as grave Mr. Larcom had ended the perusal of this bulletin, he heard a light step on the stair, at the end of the passage, which made his manly heart jump unpleasantly within his fat ribs. He thrust the unfolded letter roughly into the very depths of his breeches pocket, and blew out both candles; and then listened, as still as a mouse.
What frightened him was the certainty that the step, which he well knew, was Stanley Lake's. And Stanley being a wideawake and violent person, and his measures sharp and reckless, Mr. Larcom cherished a nervous respect for him.
He listened; the captain's step came lightly to the foot of the stairs, and paused. Mr. Larcom prepared to be fast asleep in the chair, in the event of the captain's making a sudden advance, and entering his sanctum. But this movement was not executed.
There was a small door at the foot of the stairs. It shut with a spring lock, of which Captain Lake had a latch-key. Mr. Larcom accidentally had another—a cylindrical bit of steel, with a hinge in the end of it, and a few queer wards.
Now, of this little door he heard the two iron bolts stealthily drawn, and then the handle of the spring lock turned, and the door cautiously opened, and as gently closed.
Mr. Larcom's fears now naturally subsided, and curiosity as naturally supervened. He drew near his window; and it was well he had extinguished his lights, for as he did so, Captain Lake's light figure, in a gray paletot and cloth cap, glided by like a spirit in the faint moonlight.
This phenomenon excited the profoundest interest in the corresponding friend of the family, who, fumbling his letter between his finger and thumb in his breeches' pocket, standing on tip-toe, with mouth agape, and his head against the shutter, followed the receding figure with a greedy stare.
Mr. Larcom had no theory whatsoever to account for this procedure on the part of his master. It must be something very extraordinary, and well worth investigating—of course, for the benefit of the family—which could have evoked the apparition which had just crossed his window. With his eyes close to the window pane, he saw his master glide swiftly along the short terrace which covers this side of the house, and disappear down the steps, like a spectre sinking into the earth.
It is a meeting, thought Mr. Larcom, taking courage, for he already felt something of the confidence and superiority of possessing a secret; and as quickly as might be, the trustworthy man, with his latch-key in his pocket, softly opened the portal through which the object of his anxiety had just emerged, closed the door behind him, and stood listening intently in the recess of the entrance, where he heard the now more careless step of the captain, treading, as he thought, the broad yew-walk, which turns at a right angle at the foot of the terrace step. The black yew hedge was a perfect screen.
Here was obviously resented a chance of obtaining the command of a secret of greater or less importance. It was a considerable stake to play for, and well worth a trifling risk.
He did not hesitate to follow—but with the soft tread of a polite butler, doing his offices over the thick carpet of a drawing-room—and it was in his mind—'Suppose he does discover me, what then? I'm as much surprised as he! Thomas Brewen, the footman, who is under notice to leave, has twice, to the captain's knowledge, played me the same trick, and stole out through the gunroom window at night, and denied it afterwards; so I sat up to detect him, and hearing the door open, and a step, I pursued, and find I've made a mistake; and beg pardon with proper humility—supposing the master is on the same errand—what can he say? It will bring me a present, and a hint to say nothing of my having seen him in the yew-walk at this hour.'
Of course he did not run through all this rigmarole in detail; but the situation, the excuse, and the result, were present to his mind, and filled him with a comfortable assurance.
Therefore, with decision and caution, he followed Captain Lake's march, and reaching the yew-walk, he saw the slim figure in the cap and paletot turn the corner, and enter the broad walk between the two wall-like beech hedges, which led direct to the first artificial pond—a long, narrow parallelogram, round which the broad walk passed in two straight lines, fenced with the towering beech hedges, shorn as smooth as the walls of a nunnery.
When the butler reached the point at which Captain Lake had turned, he found himself all at once within fifty steps of that eccentric gentleman, who was talking, but in so low a tone, that not even the sound of the voices reached him, with a rather short, broad-shouldered person, buttoned up in a surtout, and wearing a queer, Germanesque, felt hat, battered and crushed a good deal.
Mr. Larcom held his breath. He was profoundly interested. After a while, with an oath, he exclaimed—
Then, after another pause, he gasped another oath:—
'It is him!'
The square-built man in the surtout had a great pair of black whiskers; and as he stood opposite Lake, conversing, with, now and again, an earnest gesture, he showed a profile which Mr. Larcom knew very well; and now they turned and walked slowly side by side along the broad walk by that perpendicular wall of crisp brown leaves, he recognised also a certain hitch in his shoulder, which made him swear and asseverate again.
He would have given something to hear what was passing. He thought uneasily whether there might not be a side-path or orifice anywhere through which he might creep so as to get to the other side of the hedge and listen. But there was no way, and he must rest content with such report as his eyes might furnish.
'They're not quarrelling no ways,' murmured he.
And, indeed, they walked together, stopping now and again, as it seemed, very amicably. Captain Lake seemed to have most to say.
'He's awful cowed, he is; I never did think to see Mr. Wylder so affeard of Lake; he is affeard; yes, he is—that he is.
And indeed there was an indescribable air of subservience in the demeanour of the square-built gentleman very different from what Mark Wylder once showed.
He saw the captain take from the pocket of his paletot a square box or packet, it might be jewels or only papers, and hand them to his companion, who popped them into his left-hand surtout pocket, and kept his hand there as if the freightage were specially valuable.
Then they talked earnestly a little longer, standing together by the pond; and then, side-by-side, they paced down the broad walk by its edge. It was a long walk. Honest Larcom would have followed if there had been any sort of cover to hide his advance; but there being nothing of the kind he was fain to abide at his corner. Thence he beheld them come at last slowly to a stand-still, talk evidently a little more, and finally they shook hands—an indefinable something still of superiority in Lake's air—and parted.
The captain was now all at once walking at a swift pace, alone, towards Larcom's post of observation, and his secret confederate nearly as rapidly in an opposite direction. It would not do for the butler to be taken or even seen by Lake, nor yet to be left at the outside of the door and barred out. So the captain had hardly commenced his homeward walk, when Larcom, though no great runner, threw himself into an agitated amble, and reached and entered the little door just in time to escape observation. He had not been two minutes in his apartment again when he once more beheld the figure of his master cross the window, and heard the small door softly opened and closed, and the bolts slowly and cautiously drawn again into their places. Then there was a pause. Lake was listening to ascertain whether anyone was stirring, and being satisfied, re-ascended the stairs, leaving the stout and courteous butler ample matter for romantic speculation.
It was now the butler's turn to listen, which he did at the half-opened door of his room. When he was quite assured that all was quiet, he shut and bolted his door, closed the window-shutters, and relighted his pair of wax candles.
Mr. Larcom was a good deal excited. He had seen strange things that night. He was a good deal blown and heated by his run, and a little wild and scared at the closeness of the captain's unconscious pursuit. His head beside was full of amazing conjectures. After a while he took his crumpled letter from his pocket, unfolded and smoothed it, and wrote upon a blank half-page—
'RESPECTED SIR,—Since the above i ave a much to tel mos surprisen, the gentleman you wer anceous of tiding mister M. W. is cum privet, and him and master met tonite nere 2 in morning, in the long pond allee, so is near home then we suposed, no more at present Sir from your
'humbel servent JOHN
'i shall go to dolington day arter to-morrow by eleven o'clock trane if you ere gong, Sir.'
When the attorney returned, between eleven and twelve o'clock next morning, this letter awaited him. It did not, of course, surprise him, but it conclusively corroborated all his inferences.
Here had been Mark Wylder. He had stopped at Dollington, as the attorney suspected he would, and he had kept tryst, in the Brandon grounds, with sly Captain Lake, whose relations with him it became now more difficult than ever clearly to comprehend.
Wylder was plainly under no physical coercion. He had come and gone unattended. For one reason or other he was, at least, as strongly interested as Lake in maintaining secrecy.
That Mark Wylder was living was the grand fact with which he had just then to do. How near he had been to purchasing the vicar's reversion! The engrossed deeds lay in the black box there. And yet it might be all true about Mark's secret marriage. At that moment there might be a whole rosary of sons, small and great, to intercept the inheritance; and the Reverend William Wylder might have no more chance of the estates than he had of the crown.
What a deliverance for the good attorney. His money was quite safe. The excellent man's religion was, we know, a little Jewish, and rested upon temporal rewards and comforts. He thought, I am sure, that a competent staff of angels were placed specially in charge of the interests of Jos. Larkin, Esq., who attended so many services and sermons on Sundays, and led a life of such ascetic propriety. He felt quite grateful to them, in his priggish way—their management in this matter had been so eminently satisfactory. He regretted that he had not an opportunity of telling them so personally. I don't say that he would have expressed it in these literal terms; but it was fixed in his mind that the carriage of his business was supernaturally arranged. Perhaps he was right, and he was at once elated and purified, and his looks and manner that afternoon were more than usually meek and celestial.
SIR HARRY BRACTON'S INVASION OF GYLINGDEN.
Jim Dutton had not turned up since, and his letter was one of those mares' nests of which gentlemen in Mr. Larkin's line of business have so large an experience. Of Mark Wylder not a trace was discoverable. His enquiries on this point were, of course, conducted with caution and remoteness. Gylingden, however, was one of those places which, if it knows anything, is sure to find a way of telling it, and the attorney was soon satisfied that Mark's secret visit had been conducted with sufficient caution to baffle the eyes and ears of the good folk of the town.
Well, one thing was plain. The purchase of the reversion was to wait, and fraudulent as was the price at which he had proposed to buy it, he was now resolved to get it for less than half that sum, and he wrote a short note to the vicar, which he forthwith despatched.
In the meantime there was not a moment to be lost in clenching the purchase of Five Oaks. And Mr. Jos. Larkin, with one of his 'young men' with him in the tax-cart, reached Brandon Hall in a marvellously short time after his arrival at home.
Jos. Larkin, his clerk, and the despatch-box, had a short wait in the Dutch room, before his admission to the library, where an animated debate was audible. The tremendous contest impending over the county was, of course, the theme. In the Dutch room, where they waited, there was a large table, with a pyramid of blank envelopes in the middle, and ever so many cubic feet of canvassing circulars, six chairs, and pens and ink. The clerks were in the housekeeper's room at that moment, partaking of refreshment. There was a gig in the court-yard, with a groom at the horse's head, and Larkin, as he drew up, saw a chaise driving round to the stable yard. People of all sorts were coming and going, and Brandon Hall was already growing like an inn.
'How d'ye do, dear Larkin?' said Captain Brandon Stanley Lake, the hero of all this debate and commotion, smiling his customary sly greeting, and extending his slim hand across the arm of his chair—'I'm so sorry you were away—this thing has come, after all, so suddenly—we are getting on famously though—but I'm awfully fagged.' And, indeed, he looked pale and tired, though smiling. 'I've a lot of fellows with me; they've just run in to luncheon; won't you take something?'
But Jos. Larkin, smiling after his sort, excused himself. He was glad they had a moment to themselves. He had brought the money, which he knew would be acceptable at such a moment, and he thought it would be desirable to sign and seal forthwith, to which the captain, a little anxiously, agreed. So he got in one of the clerks who were directing the canvassing circulars, and gave him the draft, approved by his counsel, to read aloud, while he followed with his eye upon the engrossed deed.
The attorney told down the money in bank bills. He fancied that exception might be taken to his cheque for so large a sum, and was eager to avoid delay, and came from London so provided.
The captain was not sorry, for in truth he was in rather imminent jeopardy just then. He had spoken truth, strangely enough, when he mentioned his gambling debts as an incentive to his marriage with the heiress of Brandon, in that Sunday walk with Rachel in the park; and hardly ten minutes had passed when Melton Hervey, trustiest of aide-de-camps, was on his way to Dollington to make a large lodgment to the captain's credit in the county bank, and to procure a letter of credit for a stupendous sum in favour of Messrs. Hiram and Jacobs, transmitted under cover to Captain Lake's town solicitor. The captain had signed, sealed, and delivered, murmuring that formula about hand and seal, and act and deed, and Dorcas glided in like a ghost, and merely whispering an enquiry to Lake, did likewise, the clerk deferentially putting the query, 'this is your hand and seal, &c.?' and Jos. Larkin drawing a step or two backward.
Of course the lady saw that lank and sinister man of God quite distinctly, but she did not choose to do so, and Larkin, with a grand sort of prescience, foresaw a county feud between the Houses of Five Oaks and Brandon, and now the lady had vanished. The money, carefully counted, was rolled in Lake's pocket book, and the bright new deed which made Jos. Larkin, of the Lodge, Esq., master of Five Oaks, was safely locked into the box, under his long arm, and the attorney vanished, bowing very much, and concealing his elation under a solemn sort of nonchalance.
The note, which by this time the vicar had received, though short, was, on the whole, tremendous. It said:—
REV. AND DEAR SIR,—I have this moment arrived from London, where I deeply regret to state the negotiation on which we both relied to carry you comfortably over your present difficulties has fallen through, in consequence of what I cannot but regard as the inexcusable caprice of the intending purchaser. He declines stating any reason for his withdrawal. I fear that the articles were so artfully framed by his solicitors, in one particular which it never entered into my mind to refer to anything like trick or design, that we shall find it impossible to compel him to carry out what, in the strongest terms, I have represented to Messrs. Burlington and Smith as a bargain irrevocably concluded in point of honour and morality. The refusal of their own client to make the proposed investment has alarmed those gentlemen, I regret to add, for the safety of their costs, which, as I before apprised you, are, though I cannot say excessive, certainly very heavy; and I fear we must be prepared for extreme measures upon their part. I have carefully reconsidered the very handsome proposal which Miss Lake was so good as to submit; but the result is that, partly on technical, and partly on other grounds, I continue of the clear opinion that the idea is absolutely impracticable, and must be peremptorily laid aside in attempting to arrive at an estimate of any resources which you may be conscious of commanding. If, under these deplorably untoward circumstances, you still think I can be of any use to you, may I beg that you will not hesitate to say how.
'I remain, my dear and reverend Sir, with profound regrets and sympathy, yours very sincerely,
'JOS. H. LARKIN.'
He had already imported the H. which was to germinate, in a little while, into Howard.
When Jos. Larkin wanted to get a man's property a bargain—and he had made two or three excellent hits, though, comparatively, on a very small scale—he liked so to contrive matters as to bring his client to his knees, begging him to purchase on the terms he wished; and then Jos. Larkin came forward, in the interests of humanity, and unable to resist the importunities of 'a party whom he respected,' he did 'what, at the time, appeared a very risky thing, although it has turned out tolerably safe in the long run.'
The screw was now twisted pretty well home upon the poor vicar, who, if he had any sense at all, would, remembering Larkin's expressions only a week before, suggest his buying, and so, the correspondence would disclose, in a manner most honourable to the attorney, the history of the purchase.
But the clouds had begun to break, and the sky to clear, over the good vicar, just at the point where they had been darkest and most menacing.
Little Fairy, after all, was better. Good-natured Buddle had been there at nine, quite amazed at his being so well, still reserved and cautious, and afraid of raising hopes. But when he came back, at eleven, and had completed his examination, he told them, frankly, that there was a decided change; in fact, that the little man, with, of course, great care, might do very well, and ought to recover, if nothing went wrong.
Honest Buddle was delighted. He chuckled over the little man's bed. He could not suppress his grins. He was a miracle of a child! a prodigy! By George, it was the most extraordinary case he had ever met with! It was all that bottle, and that miraculous child; they seemed made for one another. From two o'clock, last night, the action of his skin has commenced, and never ceased since. When he was here last night, the little fellow's pulse was a hundred and forty-four, and now down to ninety-seven!
The doctor grew jocular; and who can resist a doctor's jokes, when they garnish such tidings as he was telling. Was ever so pleasant a doctor! Laughter through tears greeted these pleasantries; and oh, such transports of gratitude broke forth when he was gone!
It was well for Driver, the postmaster, and his daughters, that all the circulars made up that day in Brandon Hall were not despatched through the Gylingden post-office. It was amazing how so many voters could find room to one county. Next day, it was resolved, the captain's personal canvass was to commence. The invaluable Wealdon had run through the list of his to-morrow's visits, and given him an inkling of the idiosyncrasies, the feuds, and the likings of each elector in the catalogue. 'Busy times, Sir!' Tom Wealdon used to remark, with a chuckle, from time to time, in the thick of the fuss and conspiration which was the breath of his nostrils; and, doubtless, so they are, and were, and ever will be, until the time-honoured machinery of our election system has been overhauled, and adapted to the civilisation of these days.
Captain Brandon Lake was as much as possible at head quarters in these critical times; and, suddenly, Mr. Crump; the baker, and John Thomas, of the delft, ironmongery, sponge, and umbrella shop, at the corner of Church Street, in Gylingden, were announced by the fatigued servant. They bowed, and stood, grinning, near the door; and the urbane and cordial captain, with all a candidate's good fellowship, shook them both by the hands, and heard their story; and an exciting one it was.
Sir Harry Bracton had actually invaded the town of Gylingden. There was a rabble of the raff of Queen's Bracton along with him. He, with two or three young swells by him, had made a speech, from his barouche, outside the 'Silver Lion,' near the green; and he was now haranguing from the steps of the Court House. They had a couple of flags, and some music. It was 'a regular, planned thing;' for the Queen's Bracton people had been dropping in an hour before. The shop-keepers were shutting their windows. Sir Harry was 'chaffing the capting,' and hitting him very hard 'for a hupstart'—and, in fact, Crump was more particular in reporting the worthy baronet's language than was absolutely necessary. And it was thought that Sir Harry was going to canvass the town.
The captain was very much obliged, indeed, and begged they would go into the parlour, and take luncheon; and, forthwith, Wealdon took the command. The gamekeepers, the fifty hay-makers in the great meadow, they were to enter the town from the top of Church Street, where they were to gather all the boys and blackguards they could. The men from the gas-works, the masons, and blacksmiths, were to be marched in by Luke Samways. Tom Wealdon would, himself, in passing, give the men at the coal-works a hint. Sir Harry's invasion was the most audacious thing on record; and it was incumbent on Gylingden to make his defeat memorably disgraceful and disastrous.
His barouche was to be smashed, and burnt on the green; his white topcoat and hat were to clothe the effigy, which was to swing over the bonfire. The captured Bracton banners were to hang in the coffee-room of the 'Silver Lion,' to inspire the roughs. What was to become of the human portion of the hostile pageant, Tom, being an official person, did not choose to hint.
All these, and fifty minor measures, were ordered by the fertile Wealdon in a minute, and suitable messengers on the wing to see after them. The captain, accompanied by Mr. Jekyl, myself, and a couple of the grave scriveners from the next room, were to go by the back approach and Redman's Dell to the Assembly Rooms, which Crump and Thomas, already on their way in the fly, undertook to have open for their reception, and furnished with some serious politicians from the vicinity. From the windows, the captain, thus supported, was to make his maiden speech, one point in which Tom Wealdon insisted upon, and that was an injunction to the 'men of Gylingden' on no account to break the peace. 'Take care to say it, and we'll have it well reported in the "Chronicle," and our lads won't mind it, nor hear it neither, for that matter.'
So, there was mounting in hot haste in the courtyard of old Brandon, and a rather ponderous selection of walking-sticks by the politicians—of whom I was one—intended for the windows of the assembly room.
Lake rode; Tom Wealdon, myself, and two scriveners, squeezed into the dog-cart, which was driven by Jekyl, and away we went. It was a pleasant drive, under the noble old trees. But we were in no mood for the picturesque. A few minutes brought us into the Blackberry hollow, which debouches into Redman's Dell.
Here, the road being both steep and rugged, our speed abated. The precipitous banks shut out the sunlight, except at noon, and the road through this defile, overhung by towering trees and rocks, was even now in solemn shadow. The cart-road leading down to Redman's Dell, and passing the mills near Redman's Farm, diverges from the footpath with which we are so well acquainted, near that perpendicular block of stone which stands a little above the steps which the footpath here descends.
MARK WYLDER'S HAND.
Just at the darkest point of the road, a little above the rude column which I have mentioned, Lake's horse, a young one, shied, stopped short, recoiling on its haunches, and snorted fiercely into the air. At the same time, the two dogs which had accompanied us began to bark furiously beneath in the ravine.
The tall form of Uncle Lorne was leaning against a tree at the edge of the ravine, with his left hand extended towards us, and his right pointing down the precipice. Perhaps it was this odd apparition that startled Lake's horse.
'I told you he was coming up—lend him a hand,' yelled Uncle Lorne, in great excitement.
No one at such a moment minded his maunderings: but many people afterwards thought that the crazed old man, in one of his night-rambles, had seen that which, till now, no one had imagined; and that Captain Lake himself, whose dislike of him was hardly disguised, suspected him, at times of that alarming knowledge.
Lake plunged the spurs into his beast, which reared so straight that she toppled backward toward the edge of the ravine.
'Strike her on the head; jump off,' shouted Wealdon.
But he did neither.
'D— it! put her head down; lean forward,' bellowed Wealdon again.
But it would not do. With a crash among briars, and a heavy thump from beneath that shook the earth, the mare and her rider went over. A shout of horror broke from us all; and Jekyl, watching the catastrophe, was very near pulling our horse over the edge, and launching us all together, like the captain, into the defile.
In a moment more we were all on the ground, and scrambling down the side of the ravine, among rocks, boughs, brambles, and ferns, in the deep shadows of the gorge, the dogs still yelling furiously from below.
'Here he is,' cried Jekyl. 'How are you, Lake? Much hurt, old boy? By Jove, he's killed, I think.'
He lay about twelve feet below the edge. The mare, now lying near the bottom of the gorge, had, I believe, fallen upon him, and then tumbled over.
Strange to say, Lake was conscious, and in a few seconds, he said, in reply to the horrified questions of his friend—
'I'm all smashed. Don't move me;' and, in a minute more—'Don't mind that d—d brute; she's killed. Let her lie.'
It appeared very odd, but so it was, he appeared eager upon this point, and, faint as he was, almost savage.
'Tell them to let her lie there.'
Wealdon and I, however, scrambled down the bank. He was right. The mare lay stone dead, on her side, at the bottom. He lifted her head, by the ear, and let it fall back.
In the meantime the dogs continued their unaccountable yelling close by.
'What the devil's that?' said Wealdon.
Something like a stunted, blackened branch was sticking out of the peat, ending in a set of short, thickish twigs. This is what it seemed. The dogs were barking at it. It was, really, a human hand and arm, disclosed by the slipping of the bank; undermined by the brook, which was swollen by the recent rains.
The dogs were sniffing and yelping about it.
'It's a hand!' cried Wealdon, with an oath.
'A hand?' I echoed.
We were both peering at it, having drawn near, stooping and hesitating as men do in a curious horror.
It was, indeed, a human hand and arm, disclosed from about the elbow, enveloped in a discoloured coat-sleeve, which fell back from the limb, and the fingers, like it black, were extended in the air. Nothing more of the body to which it belonged, except the point of a knee, in stained and muddy trousers, protruding from the peat, was visible.
It must have lain there a considerable time, for, notwithstanding the antiseptic properties of that sort of soil, mixed with the decayed bark and fibre of trees, a portion of the flesh of the hand was decomposed, and the naked bone disclosed. On the little finger something glimmered dully.
In this livid hand, rising from the earth, there was a character both of menace and appeal; and on the finger, as I afterwards saw at the inquest, glimmered the talismanic legend 'Resurgam—I will rise again!' It was the corpse of Mark Wylder, which had lain buried here undiscovered for many months. A horrible odour loaded the air. Perhaps it was this smell of carrion, from which horses sometimes recoil with a special terror, that caused the swerving and rearing which had ended so fatally. At that moment we heard a voice calling, and raising our eyes, saw Uncle Lorne looking down from the rock with an agitated scowl.
'I've done with him now—emeritus—he touches me, no more. Take him by the hand, merciful lads, or they'll draw him down again.'
And with these words Uncle Lorne receded, and I saw him no more.
As yet we had no suspicion whose was the body thus unexpectedly discovered.
We beat off the dogs, and on returning to Lake, found Jekyl trying to raise him a little against a tree. We were not far from Redman's Farm, and it was agreed, on hasty consultation, that our best course would be to carry Lake thither at once by the footpath, and that one of us—Wealdon undertook this—should drive the carriage on, and apprising Rachel on the way of the accident which had happened, and that her brother was on his way thither, should drive on to Buddle's house, sending assistance to us from the town.
It was plain that Stanley Lake's canvass was pretty well over. There was not one of us who looked at him that did not feel convinced that he was mortally hurt. I don't think he believed so himself then; but we could not move him from the place where he lay without inflicting so much pain, that we were obliged to wait for assistance.
'D— the dogs, what are they barking for?' said Lake, faintly. He seemed distressed by the noise.
'There's a dead body partly disclosed down there—some one murdered and buried; but one of Mr. Juke's young men is keeping them off.'
Lake made an effort to raise himself, but with a grin and a suppressed moan he abandoned it.
'Is there no doctor—I'm very much hurt?' said Lake, faintly, after a minute's silence.
We told him that Buddle had been sent for; and that we only awaited help to get him down to Redman's Farm.
When Rachel heard the clang of hoofs and the rattle of the tax-cart driving down the mill-road, at a pace so unusual, a vague augury of evil smote her. She was standing in the porch of her tiny house, and old Tamar was sitting knitting on the bench close by.
'Tamar, they are galloping down the road, I think—what can it mean?' exclaimed the young lady, scared she could not tell why; and old Tamar stood up, and shaded her eyes with her shrunken hand.
Tom Wealdon pulled up at the little wicket. He was pale. He had lost his hat, too, among the thickets, and could not take time to recover it. Altogether he looked wild.
He put his hand to where his hat should have been in token of salutation, and said he—
'I beg pardon, Miss Lake, Ma'am, but I'm sorry to say your brother the captain's badly hurt, and maybe you could have a shakedown in the parlour ready for him by the time I come back with the doctor, Ma'am?'
Rachel, she did not know how, was close by the wheel of the vehicle by this time.
'Is it Sir Harry Bracton? He's in the town, I know. Is Stanley shot?'
'Not shot; only thrown, Miss, into the Dell; his mare shied at a dead body that's there. You'd better stay where you are, Miss; but if you could send up some water, I think he'd like it. Going for the doctor, Ma'am; good-bye, Miss Lake.'
And away went Wealdon, wild, pale, and hatless, like a man pursued by robbers.
'Oh! Tamar, he's killed—Stanley's killed—I'm sure he's killed, and all's discovered'—and Rachel ran wildly up the hill a few steps, but stopped and returned as swiftly.
'Thank God, Miss,' said old Tamar, lifting up her trembling fingers and white eyes to Heaven. 'Better dead, Miss, than living on in sin and sorrow, better discovered than hid by daily falsehood and cruelty. Old Tamar's tired of life; she's willing to go, and wishin' for death this many a day. Oh! Master Stanley, my child!'
Rachel went into the parlour and kneeled down, with white upturned face and clasped hands. But she could not pray. She could only look her wild supplication;—deliverance—an issue out of the terrors that beset her; and 'oh! poor miserable lost Stanley!' It was just a look and an inarticulate cry for mercy.
An hour after Captain Stanley Brandon Lake, whose 'election address' was figuring that evening in the 'Dollington Courier,' and in the 'County Chronicle,' lay with his clothes still on, in the little drawing-room of Redman's Farm, his injuries ascertained, his thigh broken near the hip, and his spine fractured. No hope—no possibility of a physical reascension, this time.
Meanwhile, in the Blackberry Dell, Doctor Buddle was assisting at a different sort of inquisition. The two policemen who constituted the civil force of Gylingden, two justices of the peace, the doctor, and a crowd of amateurs, among whom I rank myself, were grouped in the dismal gorge, a little to windward of the dead body, which fate had brought to light, while three men were now employed in cautiously disinterring it.
When the operation was completed, there remained no doubt whatever on my mind: discoloured and disfigured as were both clothes and body, I was sure that the dead man was no other than Mark Wylder. When the clay with which it was clotted was a little removed, it became indubitable. The great whiskers; the teeth so white and even; and oddly enough, one black lock of hair which he wore twisted in a formal curl flat on his forehead, remained undisturbed in its position, as it was fixed there at his last toilet for Brandon Hall.
In the rude and shallow grave in which he lay, his purse was found, and some loose silver mixed in the mould. The left hand, on which was the ring of 'the Persian magician,' was bare; the right gloved, with the glove of the other hand clutched firmly in it.
The body was got up in a sheet to a sort of spring cart which awaited it, and so conveyed to the 'Silver Lion,' in Gylingden, where it was placed in a disused coach-house to await the inquest. There the examination was continued, and his watch (the chain broken) found in his waistcoat pocket. In his coat-pocket were found (of course, in no very presentable condition) his cigar-case, his initials stamped on it, for Mark had, in his day, a keen sense of property; his handkerchief, also marked; a pocket-book with some entries nearly effaced; and a letter unopened, and sealed with Lord Chelford's seal. The writing was nearly washed away, but the letters 'lwich,' or 'twich,' were still legible near the corner, and it turned out to be a letter to Dulwich, which Mark Wylder had undertaken to put in the Gylingden post-office, on the last night on which he appeared at Brandon.
The whole town was in a ferment that night. Great debate and conjecture in the reading-room, and even on the benches of the billiard-room. The 'Silver Lion' did a great business that night. Mine host might have turned a good round sum only by showing the body, were it not that Edwards, the chief policeman, had the keys of the coach-house. Much to-ing and fro-ing there was between the town and Redman's Farm, the respectable inhabitants all sending or going up to enquire how the captain was doing. At last Doctor Buddle officially interfered. The constant bustle was injurious to his patient. An hourly bulletin up to twelve o'clock should be in the hall of the 'Brandon Arms;' and Redman's Dell grew quiet once more.
When William Wylder heard the news, he fainted; not altogether through horror or grief, though he felt both; but the change in his circumstances was so amazing and momentous. It was a strange shock—immense relief—immense horror—quite overwhelming.
Mark had done some good-natured things for him in a small five-pound way; he had promised him that loan, too, which would have lifted him out of his Slough of Despond, and he clung with an affectionate gratitude to these exhibitions of brotherly love. Besides, he had accustomed himself—the organ of veneration standing prominent on the top of the vicar's head—to regard Mark in the light of a great practical genius—'natus rebus agendis;' he knew men so thoroughly—he understood the world so marvellously! The vicar was not in the least surprised when Mark came in for a fortune. He had always predicted that Mark must become very rich, and that nothing but indolence could prevent his ultimately becoming a very great man. The sudden and total disappearance of so colossal an object was itself amazing.
There was another person very strongly, though differently, affected by the news. Under pretext of business at Naunton, Jos. Larkin had driven off early to Five Oaks, to make inspection of his purchase. He dined like a king in disguise, at the humble little hostelry of Naunton Friars, and returned in the twilight to the Lodge, which he would make the dower-house of Five Oaks, with the Howard shield over the door. He was gracious to his domestics, but the distance was increased: he was nearer to the clouds, and they looked smaller.
'Well, Mrs. Smithers,' said he, encouragingly, his long feet on the fender, for the evening was sharp, and Mrs. S. knew that he liked a bit of fire at his tea 'any letters—any calls—any news stirring?'
'No letters, nor calls, Sir, please, except the butcher's book. I s'pose, Sir, you were viewing the body?'
'Mr. Wylder's, please, Sir.'
'The vicar!' exclaimed Mr. Larkin, his smile of condescension suddenly vanishing.
'No, Sir; Mr. Mark Wylder, please; the gentleman, Sir, as was to 'av married Miss Brandon.'
'What the devil do you mean, woman?' ejaculated the attorney, his back to the fire, standing erect, and a black shadow over his amazed and offended countenance.
'The devil,' in such a mouth, was so appalling and so amazing, that the worthy woman gazed, thunder-struck, upon him for a moment.
'Beg your pardon, Sir; but his body's bin found, Sir.'
'You mean Mr. Mark?'
'Yes, please, Sir; in a hole near the mill road—it's up in the "Silver Lion" now, Sir.'
'It must be the vicar's—it must,' said Jos. Larkin, getting his hat on, sternly, and thinking how likely he was to throw himself into the mill race, and impossible it was that Mark, whom he and Larcom had both seen alive and well last night—the latter, indeed, this morning—could possibly be the man. And thus comforting himself, he met old Major Jackson on the green, and that gentleman's statement ended with the words; 'and in an advanced stage of decomposition.'
'That settles the matter,' said Larkin, breathing again, and with a toss of his head, and almost a smile of disdain: 'for I saw Mr. Mark Wylder late last night at Shillingsworth.'
Leaving Major Jackson in considerable surprise, Mr. Larkin walked off to Edwards' dwelling, at the top of Church Street, and found that active policeman at home. In his cool, grand, official way, Mr. Larkin requested Mr. Edwards to accompany him to the 'Silver Lion,' where in the same calm and commanding way, he desired him to attend him to view the corpse. In virtue of his relation to Mark Wylder, and of his position as sole resident and legal practitioner, he was obeyed.
The odious spectacle occupied him for some minutes. He did not speak while they remained in the room. On coming out there was a black cloud upon the attorney's features, and he said, sulkily, to Edwards, who had turned the key in the lock, and now touched his hat as he listened,
'Yes, there is a resemblance, but it is all a mistake. I travelled as far as Shillingsworth last night with Mr. Mark Wylder: he was perfectly well. This can't be he.'
But there was a terrible impression on Mr. Jos. Larkin's mind that this certainly was he, and with a sulky nod to the policeman, he walked darkly down to the vicar's house. The vicar had been sent for to Naunton to pray with a dying person; and Mr. Larkin, disappointed, left a note to state that in writing that morning, as he had done, in reference to the purchase of the reversion, through Messrs. Burlington and Smith, he had simply expressed his own surmises as to the probable withdrawal of the intending purchaser, but had received no formal, nor, indeed, any authentic information, from either the party or the solicitors referred to, to that effect. That he mentioned this lest misapprehension should arise, but not as attaching any importance to the supposed discovery which seemed to imply Mr. Mark Wylder's death. That gentleman, on the contrary, he had seen alive and well at Shillingsworth on the night previous; and he had been seen in conference with Captain Lake at a subsequent hour, at Brandon.
From all this the reader may suppose that Mr. Jos. Larkin was not quite in a comfortable state, and he resolved to get the deeds, and go down again to the vicar's, and persuade him to execute them. He could make William Wylder, of course, do whatever he pleased.
There were a good many drunken fellows about the town, but there was an end of election demonstrations in the Brandon interest. Captain Lake was not going in for that race; he would be on another errand by the time the writ came down.
THE MASK FALLS.
There was a 'stop press' that evening in the county paper—'We have just learned that a body has been disinterred, early this afternoon, under very strange circumstances, in the neighbourhood of Gylingden; and if the surmises which are afloat prove well-founded, the discovery will set at rest the speculations which have been busy respecting the whereabouts of a certain gentleman of large property and ancient lineage, who, some time since, mysteriously disappeared, and will, no doubt, throw this county into a state of very unusual excitement. We can state, upon authority, that the coroner will hold his inquest on the body, to-morrow at twelve o'clock, in the town of Gylingden.
There was also an allusion to Captain Lake's accident—with the expression of a hope that it would 'prove but a trifling one,' and an assurance 'that his canvass would not be prevented by it—although for a few days it might not be a personal one. But his friends might rely on seeing him at the hustings, and hearing him too, when the proper time arrived.'
It was quite well known, however, in Gylingden, by this time, that Captain Lake was not to see the hustings—that his spine was smashed—that he was lying on an extemporised bed, still in his clothes, in the little parlour of Redman's Farm—cursing the dead mare in gasps—railing at everybody—shuddering whenever they attempted to remove his clothes—hoping, in broken sentences, that his people would give Bracton and—good licking. Bracton's outrage was the cause of the entire thing—and so help him Heaven, so soon as he should be on his legs again, he would make him feel it, one way or other.
Buddle thought he was in so highly excited a state, that his brain must have sustained some injury also.
He asked Buddle about ten o'clock (having waked up from a sort of stupor)—'what about Jim Dutton?' and then, whether there was not some talk about a body they had found, and what it was. So Buddle told him all that was yet known, and he listened very attentively.
'But Larkin has been corresponding with Mark Wylder up to a very late day, and if this body has been so long buried, how the devil can it be he? And if it be as bodies usually are after such a time, how can anybody pretend to identify it? And I happen to know that Mark Wylder is living,' he added, suddenly.
The doctor told him not to tire himself talking, and offered, if he wished to make a statement before a magistrate, to arrange that one should attend and receive it.
'I rather dislike it, because Mark wants to keep it quiet; but if, on public grounds, it is desirable, I will make it, of course. You'll use your discretion in mentioning the subject.'
So the captain was now prepared to acknowledge the secret meeting of the night before, and to corroborate the testimony of his attorney and his butler.
Stanley Lake had now no idea that his injuries were dangerous. He said he had a bad bruise under his ribs, and a sprained wrist, and was a little bit shaken; and he talked of his electioneering as only suspended for a day or two.
Buddle, however, thought the case so imminent, that on his way to the 'Brandon Arms,' meeting Larkin, going, attended by his clerk, again to the vicar's house, he stopped him for a moment, and told him what had passed, adding, that Lake was so frightfully injured, that he might begin to sink at any moment, and that by next evening, at all events, he might not be in a condition to make a deposition.
'It is odd enough—very odd,' said Larkin. 'It was only an hour since, in conversation with our policeman, Edwards, that I mentioned the fact of my having myself travelled from London to Shillingsworth last night with Mr. Mark Wylder, who went on by train in this direction, I presume, to meet our unfortunate friend, Captain Lake, by appointment. Thomas Sleddon, of Wadding Hall—at this moment in the "Brandon Arms"—is just the man; if you mention it to him, he'll go up with you to Redman's Farm, and take the deposition. Let it be a deposition, do you mind; a statement is mere hearsay.'
Comforted somewhat, reassured in a certain way, and in strong hopes that, at all events, such a muddle would be established as to bewilder the jury, Mr. Jos. Larkin, with still an awful foreboding weighing at his heart, knocked at the vicar's door, and was shown into the study. A solitary candle being placed, to make things bright and pleasant for the visitor, who did not look so himself, the vicar, very pale, and appearing to have grown even thinner since he last saw him, entered, and shook his hand with an anxious attempt at a smile, which faded almost instantly.
'I am so delighted that you have come. I have passed a day of such dreadful agitation. Poor Mark!'
'There is no doubt, Sir, whatsoever that he is perfectly well. Three different persons—unexceptionable witnesses—can depose to having seen him last night, and he had a long conference with Captain Lake, who is by this time making his deposition. It is with respect to the other little matter—the execution of the deed of conveyance to Messrs. Burlington and Smith's clients. You know my feeling about the note I wrote this morning a little—I will not say incautiously, because with a client of your known character and honour, no idea of the sort can find place—but I will say thoughtlessly. If there be any hanging back, or appearance of it, it may call down unpleasant—indeed, to be quite frank, ruinous—consequences, which, I think, in the interest of your family, you would hardly be justified in invoking upon the mere speculation of your respected brother's death.'
There was a sound of voices at the door. 'Do come in—pray do,' was heard in Dolly's voice. 'Won't you excuse me, but pray do. Willie, darling, don't you wish him to come in?'
'Most particularly. Do beg of him, in my name—and I know Mr. Larkin would wish it so much.'
And so Lord Chelford, with a look which, at another time, would have been an amused one, quite conscious of the oddity of his introduction, came in and slightly saluted Mr. Larkin, who was for a few seconds pretty obviously confounded, and with a pink flush all over his bald forehead, tried to smile, while his hungry little eyes searched the viscount with fear and suspicion.
Larkin's tone was now much moderated. Any sort of dealing was good enough for the simple vicar; but here was the quiet, sagacious peer, who had shown himself, on two remarkable committees, so quick and able a man of business, and the picture of the vicar's situation, and of the powers and terrors of Messrs. Burlington and Smith, were to be drawn with an exacter pencil, and far more delicate colouring.
Lord Chelford listened so quietly that the tall attorney felt he was making way with him, and concluded his persuasion by appealing to him for an opinion.
'That is precisely as I said. I knew my friend, Mr. Larkin, would be only too glad of an opinion in this difficulty from you,' threw in the vicar.
The opinion came—very clear, very quiet, very unpleasant—dead against Mr. Larkin's view, and concluding with the remark that he thought there was more in the affair than had yet come to light.
'I don't see exactly how, my lord,' said Mr. Larkin, a little loftily, and redder than usual.
'Nor do I, Mr. Larkin, at present; but the sum offered is much too small, and the amount of costs and other drawbacks utterly monstrous, and the result is, after deducting all these claims, including your costs, Mr. Larkin——'
Here Mr. Larkin threw up his chin a little, smiling, and waving his long hand, and saying, 'Oh! as to mine,' in a way that plainly expressed, 'They are merely put down for form's sake. It is playing at costs. You know Jos. Larkin—he never so much as dreamed of looking for them.'
'There remain hardly nine hundred and fifty pounds applicable to the payment of the Reverend Mr. Wylder's debts—a sum which would have been ample, before this extraordinary negotiation was commenced, to have extricated him from all his pressing difficulties, and which I would have been only too happy at being permitted to advance, and which, and a great deal more, Miss Lake, whose conduct has been more than kind—quite noble—wished to place in your client's hands.'
'That,' said the attorney, flushing a little, 'I believe to have been technically impossible; and it was accompanied by a proposition which was on other grounds untenable.'
'You mean Miss Lake's proposed residence here—an arrangement, it appears to me, every way most desirable.'
'I objected to it on, I will say, moral grounds, my lord. It is painful to me to disclose what I know, but that young lady accompanied Mr. Mark Wylder, my lord, in his midnight flight from Dollington, and remained in London, under, I presume, his protection for some time.'
'That statement, Sir, is, I happen to know, utterly contrary to fact. The young lady you mention never even saw Mr. Mark Wylder, since she took leave of him in the drawing-room at Brandon; and I state this not in vindication of her, but to lend weight to the caution I give you against ever again presuming to connect her name with your surmises.'
The peer's countenance was so inexpressibly stern, and his eyes poured such a stream of fire upon the attorney, that he shrank a little, and looked down upon his great fingers which were drumming, let us hope, some sacred music upon the table.
'I am truly rejoiced, my lord, to hear you say so. Except to the young party herself, and in this presence, I have never mentioned it; and I can show you the evidence on which my conclusions rested.'
'Thank you—no Sir; my evidence is conclusive.'
I don't know what Mr. Larkin would have thought of it; it was simply Rachel's letter to her friend Dolly Wylder on the subject of the attorney's conference with her at Redman's Farm. It was a frank and passionate denial of the slander, breathing undefinably, but irresistibly, the spirit of truth.
'Then am I to understand, in conclusion,' said the attorney, that defying all consequences, the Rev. Mr. Wylder refuses to execute the deed of sale?'
'Certainly,' said Lord Chelford, taking this reply upon himself.
'You know, my dear Mr. Wylder, I told you from the first that Messrs. Burlington and Smith were, in fact, a very sharp house; and I fear they will execute any powers they possess in the most summary manner.' The attorney's eye was upon the vicar as he spoke, but Lord Chelford answered.
'The powers you speak of are quite without parallel in a negotiation to purchase; and in the event of their hazarding such a measure, the Rev. Mr. Wylder will apply to a court of equity to arrest their proceedings. My own solicitor is retained in the case.'
Mr. Larkin's countenance darkened and lengthened visibly, and his eyes assumed their most unpleasant expression, and there was a little pause, during which, forgetting his lofty ways, he bit his thumb-nail rather viciously.
'Then I am to understand, my lord, that I am superseded in the management of this case?' said the attorney at last, in a measured way, which seemed to say, 'you had better think twice on this point.'
'Certainly, Mr. Larkin,' said the viscount.
'I'm not the least surprised, knowing, I am sorry to say, a good deal of the ways of the world, and expecting very little gratitude, for either good will or services.' This was accompanied with a melancholy sneer directed full upon the poor vicar, who did not half understand the situation, and looked rather guilty and frightened. 'The Rev. Mr. Wylder very well knows with what reluctance I touched the case—a nasty case; and I must be permitted to add, that I am very happy to be quite rid of it, and only regret the manner in which my wish has been anticipated, a discourtesy which I attribute, however, to female influence.'
The concluding sentence was spoken with a vile sneer and a measured emphasis directed at Lord Chelford, who coloured with a sudden access of indignation, and stood stern and menacing, as the attorney, with a general bow to the company, and a lofty nonchalance, made his exit from the apartment.
Captain Lake was sinking very fast next morning. He made a statement to Chelford, who was a magistrate for the county, I suppose to assist the coroner's inquest. He said that on the night of Mark Wylder's last visit to Brandon, he had accompanied him from the Hall; that Mark had seen some one in the neighbourhood of Gylingden, a person pretending to be his wife, or some near relative of hers, as well as he, Captain Lake, could understand, and was resolved to go to London privately, and have the matter arranged there. He waited near the 'White House,' while he, Stanley Lake, went to Gylingden and got his tax-cart at his desire. He could give particulars as to that. Captain Lake overtook him, and he got in and was driven to Dollington, where he took the up-train. That some weeks afterwards he saw him at Brighton; and the night before last, by appointment, in the grounds of Brandon; and that he understood Larkin had some lights to throw upon the same subject.
The jury were not sworn until two o'clock. The circumstances of the discovery of the body were soon established. But the question which next arose was very perplexed—was the body that of Mr. Mark Wylder? There could be no doubt as to a general resemblance; but, though marvellously preserved, in its then state, certainty was hardly attainable. But there was a perfectly satisfactory identification of the dress and properties of the corpse as those of Mr. Mark Wylder. On the other hand there was the testimony of Lord Chelford, who put Captain Lake's deposition in evidence, as also the testimony of Larkin, and the equally precise evidence of Larcom, the butler.
The proceedings had reached this point when an occurrence took place which startled Lord Chelford, Larkin, Larcom, and every one in the room who was familiar with Mark Wylder's appearance.
A man pushed his way to the front of the crowd, and for a moment it seemed that Mark Wylder stood living before them.
'Who are you?' said Lord Chelford.
'Jim Dutton, Sir; I come by reason of what I read in the "Chronicle" over night, about Mr. Mark Wylder being found.'
'Do you know anything of him?' asked the coroner.
'Nowt,' answered the man bluffly, 'only I writ to Mr. Larkin, there, as I wanted to see him. I remember him well when I was a boy. I seed him in the train from Lunnon t'other night; and he seed me on the Shillingsworth platform, and I think he took me for some one else. I was comin' down to see the Captain at Brandon—and seed him the same night.'
'Why have you come here?' asked the coroner.
'Thinkin' I might be mistook,' answered the man. 'I was twice here in England, and three times abroad.'
'Mr. Mark Wylder,' answered he.
'It is a wonderful likeness,' said Lord Chelford.
Larkin stared at him with his worst expression; and Larcom, I think, thought he was the devil.
I was as much surprised as any for a few seconds. But there were points of difference—Jim Dutton was rather a taller and every way a larger man than Mark Wylder. His face, too, was broader and coarser, but in features and limbs the relative proportions were wonderfully preserved. It was such an exaggerated portrait as a rustic genius might have executed upon a sign-board. He had the same black, curly hair, and thick, black whiskers: and the style of his dress being the same, helped the illusion. In fact, it was a rough, but powerful likeness—startling at the moment—unexceptionable at a little distance—but which failed on a nearer and exacter examination. There was, beside, a scar, which, however, was not a very glaring inconsistency, although it was plainly of a much older standing than the date of Mark's disappearance. All that could be got from Jim Dutton was that 'he thought he might be mistook' and so attended. But respecting Mr. Mark Wylder he could say 'nowt.' He knew 'nowt.'
Lord Chelford was called away at this moment by an urgent note. It was to request his immediate attendance at Redman's Farm, to see Captain Lake, who was in a most alarming state. The hand was Dorcas's—and Lord Chelford jumped into the little pony carriage which awaited him at the door of the 'Silver Lion.'
When he reached Redman's Farm, Captain Lake could not exert himself sufficiently to speak for nearly half-an-hour. At the end of that time he was admitted into the tiny drawing-room in which the captain lay. He was speaking with difficulty.
'Did you see Buddle, just now?'
'No, not since morning.'
'He seems to have changed—bad opinion—unless he has a law object—those d—d doctors—never can know. Dorcas thinks—I'll do no good. Don't you think—he may have an object—and not believe I'm in much danger? You don't?'
Lake's hand, with which he clutched and pulled Chelford's, was trembling.
'You must reflect, my dear Lake, how very severe are the injuries you have sustained. You certainly are in danger—great danger.'
Lake became indescribably agitated, and uttered some words, not often on his lips, that sounded like desperate words of supplication. Not that seaworthy faith which floats the spirit through the storm, but fragments of its long-buried wreck rolled up from the depths and flung madly on the howling shore.
'I'd like to see Rachel,' at last he said, holding Chelford's hand in both his, very hard. 'She's clever—and I don't think she gives me up yet, no—a drink!—and they think I'm more hurt than I really am—Buddle, you know—only an apothecary—village;' and he groaned.
His old friend, Sir Francis Seddley, summoned by the telegraph, was now gliding from London along the rails for Dollington station; but another—a pale courier—on the sightless coursers of the air, was speeding with a different message to Captain Stanley Lake, in the small and sombre drawing-room in Redman's Dell.
I had promised Chelford to run up to Redman's Farm, and let him know if the jury arrived at a verdict during his absence. They did so; finding that the body was that of Marcus Wylder, Esquire, of Raddiston, and 'that he had come by his death in consequence of two wounds inflicted with a sharp instrument, in the region of the heart, by some person or persons unknown, at a period of four weeks since or upwards.'
Chelford was engaged in the sick room, as I understood, in conference with the patient. It was well to have heard, without procrastination, what he had to say; for next morning, at a little past four o'clock, he died.
A nurse who had been called in from the county infirmary, said he made a very happy ending. He mumbled to himself, in his drowsy state, as she was quite sure, in prayer; and he made a very pretty corpse when he was laid out, and his golden hair looked so nice, and he was all so slim and shapely.
Rachel and Dorcas were sitting in the room with him—not expecting the catastrophe then. Both tired; both silent; the nurse dozing a little in her chair, near the bed's head; and Lake said, in his clear, low tone, on a sudden, just as he spoke when perfectly well—
'Quite a mistake, upon my honour.'
As a clear-voiced sentence sometimes speaks out in sleep, followed by silence, so no more was heard after this—no more for ever. The nurse was the first to perceive 'the change.'
'There's a change, Ma'am'—and there was a pause. 'I'm afraid, Ma'am, he's gone,' said the nurse.
Both ladies, in an instant, were at the bedside, looking at the peaked and white countenance, which was all they were ever again to see of Stanley; the yellow eyes and open mouth.
Rachel's agony broke forth in a loud, wild cry. All was forgotten and forgiven in that tremendous moment.
'Oh! Stanley, Stanley!—brother, brother, oh, brother!'
There was the unchanged face, gaping its awful farewell of earth. All over!—never to stir more.
'Is he dead?' said Dorcas, with the peculiar sternness of agony.
There could be no doubt. It was a sight too familiar to deceive the nurse.
And Dorcas closed those strange, wild eyes that had so fatally fascinated her, and then she trembled, without speaking or shedding a tear. Her looks alarmed the nurse, who, with Rachel's help, persuaded her to leave the room. And then came one of those wild scenes which close such tragedies—paroxysms of despair and frantic love, over that worthless young man who lay dead below stairs; such as strike us sometimes with a desolate scepticism, and make us fancy that all affection is illusion, and perishable with the deceits and vanities of earth.
WE TAKE LEAVE OF OUR FRIENDS.
The story which, in his last interview with Lord Chelford, Stanley Lake had related, was, probably, as near the truth as he was capable of telling.
On the night when Mark Wylder had left Brandon in his company they had some angry talk; Lake's object being to induce Mark to abandon his engagement with Dorcas Brandon. He told Stanley that he would not give up Dorcas, but that he, Lake, must fight him, and go to Boulogne for the purpose, and they should arrange matters so that one or other must fall. Lake laughed quietly at the proposition, and Mark retorted by telling him he would so insult him, if he declined, as to compel a meeting. When they reached that lonely path near the flight of stone steps, Stanley distinctly threatened his companion with a disclosure of the scandalous incident in the card-room of the club, which he afterwards related, substantially as it had happened, to Jos. Larkin. When he took this decisive step, Lake's nerves were strung, I dare say, to a high pitch of excitement. Mark Wylder, he knew, carried pistols, and, all things considered, he thought it just possible he might use them. He did not, but he struck Lake with the back of his hand in the face, and Lake, who walked by his side, with his fingers on the handle of a dagger in his coat pocket, instantly retorted with a stab, which he repeated as Mark fell.
He solemnly averred that he never meant to have used the dagger, except to defend his life. That he struck in a state of utter confusion, and when he saw Mark dead, with his feet on the path, and his head lying over the edge, he would have given a limb almost to bring him back. The terror of discovery and ruin instantly supervened.
He propped the body against the bank, and tried to stanch the bleeding. But there could be no doubt that he was actually dead. He got the body easily down the nearly precipitous declivity. Lake was naturally by no means wanting in resource, and a certain sort of coolness, which supervened when the momentary distraction was over.
He knew it would not do to leave the body so, among the rocks and brambles. He recollected that only fifty yards back they had passed a spade and pick, lying, with some other tools, by the side of the path, near that bit of old wall which was being removed. Like a man doing things in a dream, without thought or trouble, only waiting and listening for a moment before he disturbed them, he took away the implements which he required; and when about to descend, a sort of panic and insurmountable disgust seized him; and in a state of supernatural dismay, he felt for a while disposed to kill himself. In that state it was he reached Redman's Farm, and his interview with Rachel occurred. It was the accidental disclosure of the blood, in which his shirt sleeve was soaked, that first opened Rachel's eyes to the frightful truth.
After her first shock, all her terrors were concentrated on the one point—Stanley's imminent danger. He must be saved. She made him return; she even accompanied him as far as the top of the rude flight of steps I have mentioned so often, and there awaited his return—the condition imposed by his cowardice—and made more dreadful by the circumstance that they had heard retreating footsteps along the walk, and Stanley saw the tall figure of Uncle Julius or Lorne, as he called himself, turning the far corner.
There was a long wait here, lest he should return; but he did not appear, and Stanley—though I now believe observed by this strange being—executed his horrible task, replaced the implements, and returned to Rachel, and with her to Redman's Farm; where—his cool cunning once more ascendant—he penned those forgeries, closing them with Mark Wylder's seal, which he compelled his sister—quite unconscious of all but that their despatch by post, at the periods pencilled upon them, was essential to her wretched brother's escape. It was the success of this, his first stratagem, which suggested that long series of frauds which, with the aid of Jim Dutton, selected for his striking points of resemblance to Mark Wylder, had been carried on for so long with such consummate art in a different field.
It was Lake's ungoverned fury, when Larkin discovered the mistake in posting the letters in wrong succession, which so nearly exploded his ingenious system. He wrote in terms which roused Jim Dutton's wrath. Jim had been spinning theories about the reasons of his mysterious, though very agreeable occupation, and announced them broadly in his letter to Larkin. But he had cooled by the time he reached London, and the letter from Lake, received at his mother's and appointing the meeting at Brandon, quieted that mutiny.
I never heard that Jim gave any member of the family the least trouble afterward. He handed to Lord Chelford a parcel of those clever and elaborate forgeries, with which Lake had last furnished him, with a pencilled note on each, directing the date and town at which it was to be despatched. Years after, when Jim was emigrating, I believe Lord Chelford gave him a handsome present.
Lord Chelford was advised by the friend whom he consulted that he need not make those painful particulars public, affecting only a dead man, and leading to no result.
Lake admitted that Rachel had posted the letters in London, believing them to be genuine, for he pretended that they were Wylder's. It is easy to look grave over poor Rachel's slight, and partly unconscious, share in the business of the tragedy. But what girl of energy and strong affections would have had the melancholy courage to surrender her brother to public justice under the circumstances? Lord Chelford, who knew all, says that she 'acted nobly.'
'Now, Joseph, being a just man, was minded to put her away privily.' The law being what? That she was to be publicly stigmatised and punished. His justice being what? Simply that he would have her to be neither—but screened and parted 'with privily.' Let the Pharisees who would have summum jus against their neighbours, remember that God regards the tender and compassionate, who forbears, on occasion, to put the law in motion, as the just man.
The good vicar is a great territorial magnate now; but his pleasures and all his ways are still simple. He never would enter Brandon as its master, and never will, during Dorcas Brandon's lifetime. And although with her friend, Rachel Lake, she lives abroad, chiefly in Italy and Switzerland, Brandon Hall, by the command of its proprietor, lies always at her disposal.
I don't know whether Rachel Lake will ever marry. The tragic shadow of her life has not chilled Lord Chelford's strong affection. Neither does the world know or suspect anything of the matter. Old Tamar died three years since, and lies in the pretty little churchyard of Gylingden. And Mark's death is, by this time, a nearly forgotten mystery.
Jos. Larkins's speculations have not turned out luckily. The trustees of Wylder, a minor, tried, as they were advised they must, his title to Five Oaks, by ejectment. A point had been overlooked—as sometimes happens—and Jos. Larkin was found to have taken but an estate for the life of Mark Wylder, which terminated at his decease. The point was carried on to the House of Lords, but the decision of 'the court below' was ultimately affirmed.
The flexible and angry Jos. Larkin then sought to recoup himself out of the assets of the deceased captain; but here he failed. In his cleverness—lest the inadequate purchase-money should upset his bargain—he omitted the usual covenant guaranteeing the vendor's title to sell the fee-simple, and recited, moreover, that, grave doubts existing on the point, it was agreed that the sum paid should not exceed twelve years' purchase. Jos. then could only go upon the point that it was known to Lake at the period of the sale that Mark Wylder was dead. Unluckily, however, for Jos.'s case, one of his clever letters, written during the negotiation, turned up, and was put in evidence, in which he pressed Captain Lake with the fact, that he, the purchaser, was actually in possession of information to the effect that Mark was dead, and that he was, therefore, buying under a liability of having his title litigated, with a doubtful result, the moment he should enter into possession. This shut up the admirable man, who next tried a rather bold measure, directed against the Reverend William Wylder. A bill was filed by Messrs. Burlington and Smith, to compel him to execute a conveyance to their client—on the terms of the agreement. The step was evidently taken on the calculation that he would strike, and offer a handsome compromise; but Lord Chelford was at his elbow—the suit was resisted. Messrs. Burlington and Smith did not care to run the awful risk which Mr. Larkin, behind the scenes, invited them to accept for his sake. There was first a faltering; then a bold renunciation and exposure of Mr. Jos. Larkin by the firm, who, though rather lamely, exonerated themselves as having been quite taken in by the Gylingden attorney.
Mr. Jos. Larkin had a holy reliance upon his religious reputation, which had always stood him in stead. But a worldly judge will sometimes disappoint the expectations of the Christian suitor; and the language of the Court, in commenting upon Mr. Jos. Larkin, was, I am sorry to say, in the highest degree offensive—'flagitious,' 'fraudulent,' and kindred epithets, were launched against that tall, bald head, in a storm that darkened the air and obliterated the halo that usually encircled it. He was dismissed, in a tempest, with costs. He vanished from court, like an evil spirit, into the torture-chamber of taxation.
The whole structure of rapine and duplicity had fallen through with a dismal crash. Shrewd fellows wondered, as they always do, when a rash game breaks down, at the infatuation of the performer. But the cup of his tribulation was not yet quite full. Jos. Larkin's name was ultimately struck from the roll of solicitors and attorneys, and there were minute and merciless essays in the papers, surrounding his disgrace with a dreadful glare. People say he has not enough left to go on with. He had lodgings somewhere near Richmond, as Howard Larkin, Esq., and is still a religious character. I am told that he shifts his place of residence about once in six months, and that he has never paid one shilling of rent for any, and has sometimes positively received money for vacating his abode. So substantially valuable is a thorough acquaintance with the capabilities of the law. I saw honest Tom Wealdon about a fortnight ago—grown stouter and somewhat more phlegmatic by time, but still the same in good nature and inquisitiveness. From him I learned that Jos. Larkin is likely to figure once more in the courts about some very ugly defalcations in the cash of the Penningstal Mining Company, and that this time the persecutions of that eminent Christian are likely to take a different turn, and, as Tom said, with a gloomy shrewdness, to end in 'ten years penal.'
Some summers ago, I was, for a few days, in the wondrous city of Venice. Everyone knows something of the enchantment of the Italian moon, the expanse of dark and flashing blue, and the phantasmal city, rising like a beautiful spirit from the waters. Gliding near the Lido—where so many rings of Doges lie lost beneath the waves—I heard the pleasant sound of female voices upon the water—and then, with a sudden glory, rose a sad, wild hymn, like the musical wail of the forsaken sea:—
The spouseless Adriatic mourns her lord.
The song ceased. The gondola which bore the musicians floated by—a slender hand over the gunwale trailed its fingers in the water. Unseen I saw Rachel and Dorcas, beautiful in the sad moonlight, passed so near we could have spoken—passed me like spirits—never more, it may be, to cross my sight in life.