'There may be some use, a purpose in which neither my feelings nor interests have any part. I venture to say, Stanley, your plans are all for yourself. You want to extort some advantage from Wylder; and you think, in his present situation, about to marry Dorcas, you can use me for the purpose. Thank Heaven! Sir, you committed for once the rare indiscretion of telling the truth; and unless you make me the promise I require, I will take, before evening, such measures as will completely exculpate me. Once again, do you promise?'
'Yes, Radie; ha, ha! of course I promise.'
'Upon your honour?'
'Upon my honour—there.'
'I believe, you gentlemen dragoons observe that oath—I hope so. If you choose to break it you may give me some trouble, but you sha'n't compromise me. And now, Stanley, one word more. I fancy Mr. Wylder is a resolute man—none of the Wylders wanted courage.'
Captain Lake was by this time smiling his sly, sleepy smile upon his French boots.
'If you have formed any plan which depends upon frightening him, it is a desperate one. All I can tell you, Stanley, is this, that if I were a man, and an attempt made to extort from me any sort of concession by terror, I would shoot the miscreant who made it through the head, like a highwayman.'
'What the devil are you talking about?' said he.
'About your danger,' she answered. 'For once in your life listen to reason. Mark Wylder is as prompt as you, and has ten times your nerve and sense; you are more likely to have committed yourself than he. Take care; he may retaliate your threat by a counter move more dreadful. I know nothing of your doings, Stanley—Heaven forbid! but be warned, or you'll rue it.'
'Why, Radie, you know nothing of the world. Do you suppose I'm quite demented? Ask a gentleman for his estate, or watch, because I know something to his disadvantage! Why, ha, ha! dear Radie, every man who has ever been on terms of intimacy with another must know things to his disadvantage, but no one thinks of telling them. The world would not tolerate it. It would prejudice the betrayer at least as much as the betrayed. I don't affect to be angry, or talk romance and heroics, because you fancy such stuff; but I assure you—when will that old woman give me a cup of tea?—I assure you, Radie, there's nothing in it.'
Rachel made no reply, but she looked steadfastly and uneasily upon the enigmatical face and downcast eyes of the young man.
'Well, I hope so,' she said at last, with a sigh, and a slight sense of relief.
IN WHICH CAPTAIN LAKE TAKES HIS HAT AND STICK.
So the young people sitting in the little drawing-room of Redman's farm pursued their dialogue; Rachel Lake had spoken last, and it was the captain's turn to speak next.
'Do you remember Miss Beauchamp, Radie?' he asked rather suddenly, after a very long pause.
'Miss Beauchamp? Oh! to be sure; you mean little Caroline; yes, she must be quite grown up by this time—five years—she promised to be pretty. What of her?'
Rachel, very flushed and agitated still, was now trying to speak as usual.
'She is good-looking—a little coarse some people think,' resumed the young man; 'but handsome; black eyes—black hair—rather on a large scale, but certainly handsome. A style I admire rather, though it is not very refined, nor at all classic. But I like her, and I wish you'd advise me.' He was talking, after his wont, to the carpet.
'Oh?' she exclaimed, with a gentle sort of derision.
'You mean,' he said, looking up for a moment, with a sudden stare, 'she has got money. Of course she has; I could not afford to admire her if she had not; but I see you are not just now in a mood to trouble yourself about my nonsense—we can talk about it to-morrow; and tell me now, how do you get on with the Brandon people?'
Rachel was curious, and would, if she could, have recalled that sarcastic 'oh' which had postponed the story; but she was also a little angry, and with anger there was pride, which would not stoop to ask for the revelation which he chose to defer; so she said, 'Dorcas and I are very good friends; but I don't know very well what to make of her. Only I don't think she's quite so dull and apathetic as I at first supposed; but still I'm puzzled. She is either absolutely uninteresting, or very interesting indeed, and I can't say which.'
'Does she like you?' he asked.
'I really don't know. She tolerates me, like everything else; and I don't flatter her; and we see a good deal of one another upon those terms, and I have no complaint to make of her. She has some aversions, but no quarrels; and has a sort of laziness—mental, bodily, and moral—that is sublime, but provoking; and sometimes I admire her, and sometimes I despise her; and I do not yet know which feeling is the juster.'
'Surely she is woman enough to be fussed a little about her marriage?'
'Oh, dear, no! she takes the whole affair with a queenlike and supernatural indifference. She is either a fool or a very great philosopher, and there is something grand in the serene obscurity that envelopes her,' and Rachel laughed a very little.
'I must, I suppose, pay my respects; but to-morrow will be time enough. What pretty little tea-cups, Radie—quite charming—old cock china, isn't it? These were Aunt Jemima's, I think.'
'Yes; they used to stand on the little marble table between the windows.'
Old Tamar had glided in while they here talking, and placed the little tea equipage on the table unnoticed, and the captain was sipping his cup of tea, and inspecting the pattern, while his sister amused him.
'This place, I suppose, is confoundedly slow, is not it? Do they entertain the neighbours ever at Brandon?'
'Sometimes, when old Lady Chelford and her son are staying there.'
'But the neighbours can't entertain them, I fancy, or you. What a dreary thing a dinner party made up of such people must be—like "Aesop's Fables," where the cows and sheep converse.'
'And sometimes a wolf or a fox,' she said.
'Well, Radie, I know you mean me; but as you wish it, I'll carry my fangs elsewhere;—and what has become of Will Wylder?'
'Oh! he's in the Church!'
'Quite right—the only thing he was fit for;' and Captain Lake laughed like a man who enjoys a joke slily. 'And where is poor Billy quartered?'
'Not quite half a mile away; he has got the vicarage of Naunton Friars.'
'Oh, then, Will is not quite such a fool as we took him for.'
'It is worth just L180 a year! but he's very far from a fool.'
'Yes, of course, he knows Greek poets and Latin fathers, and all the rest of it. I don't mean he ever was plucked. I dare say he's the kind of fellow you'd like very well, Radie.' And his sly eyes had a twinkle in them which seemed to say, 'Perhaps I've divined your secret.'
'And so I do, and I like his wife, too, very much.'
'His wife! So William has married on L180 a year;' and the captain laughed quietly but very pleasantly again.
'On a very little more, at all events; and I think they are about the happiest, and I'm sure they are the best people in this part of the world.'
'Well, Radie, I'll see you to-morrow again. You preserve your good looks wonderfully. I wonder you haven't become an old woman here.'
And he kissed her, and went his way, with a slight wave of his hand, and his odd smile, as he closed the little garden gate after him.
He turned to his left, walking down towards the town, and the innocent green trees hid him quickly, and the gush and tinkle of the clear brook rose faint and pleasantly through the leaves, from the depths of the glen, and refreshed her ear after his unpleasant talk.
She was flushed, and felt oddly; a little stunned and strange, although she had talked lightly and easily enough.
'I forgot to ask him where he is staying: the Brandon Arms, I suppose. I don't at all like his coming down here after Mark Wylder; what can he mean? He certainly never would have taken the trouble for me. What can he want of Mark Wylder? I think he knew old Mr. Beauchamp. He may be a trustee, but that's not likely; Mark Wylder was not the person for any such office. I hope Stanley does not intend trying to extract money from him; anything rather than that degradation—than that villainy. Stanley was always impracticable, perverse, deceitful, and so foolish with all his cunning and suspicion—so very foolish. Poor Stanley. He's so unscrupulous; I don't know what to think. He said he could force Mark Wylder to leave the country. It must be some bad secret. If he tries and fails, I suppose he will be ruined. I don't know what to think; I never was so uneasy. He will blast himself, and disgrace all connected with him; and it is quite useless speaking to him.'
Perhaps if Rachel Lake had been in Belgravia, leading a town life, the matter would have taken no such dark colouring and portentous proportions. But living in a small old house, in a dark glen, with no companion, and little to occupy her, it was different.
She looked down the silent way he had so lately taken, and repeated, rather bitterly, 'My only brother! my only brother! my only brother!'
That young lady was not quite a pauper, though she may have thought so. Comparatively, indeed, she was; but not, I venture to think, absolutely. She had just that symmetrical three hundred pounds a year, which the famous Dean of St. Patrick's tells us he so 'often wished that he had clear.' She had had some money in the Funds besides, still more insignificant but this her Brother Stanley had borrowed and begged piecemeal, and the Consols were no more. But though something of a nun in her way of life, there was no germ of the old maid in her, and money was not often in her thoughts. It was not a bad dot; and her Brother Stanley had about twice as much, and therefore was much better off than many a younger son of a duke. But these young people, after the manner of men were spited with fortune; and indeed they had some cause. Old General Lake had once had more than ten thousand pounds a year, and lived, until the crash came, in the style of a vicious old prince. It was a great break up, and a worse fall for Rachel than for her brother, when the plate, coaches, pictures, and all the valuable effects' of old Tiberius went to the hammer, and he himself vanished from his clubs and other haunts, and lived only—a thin intermittent rumour—surmised to be in gaol, or in Guernsey, and quite forgotten soon, and a little later actually dead and buried.
I SEE THE RING OF THE PERSIAN MAGICIAN.
'That's a devilish fine girl,' said Mark Wylder.
He was sitting at this moment on the billiard table, with his coat off and his cue in his hand, and had lighted a cigar. He and I had just had a game, and were tired of it.
'Who?' I asked. He was looking on me from the corners of his eyes, and smiling in a sly, rakish way, that no man likes in another.
'Radie Lake—she's a splendid girl, by Jove! Don't you think so? and she liked me once devilish well, I can tell you. She was thin then, but she has plumped out a bit, and improved every way.'
Whatever else he was, Mark was certainly no beauty;—a little short he was, and rather square—one shoulder a thought higher than the other—and a slight, energetic hitch in it when he walked. His features in profile had something of a Grecian character, but his face was too broad—very brown, rather a bloodless brown—and he had a pair of great, dense, vulgar, black whiskers. He was very vain of his teeth—his only really good point—for his eyes were a small cunning, gray pair; and this, perhaps, was the reason why he had contracted his habit of laughing and grinning a good deal more than the fun of the dialogue always warranted.
This sea-monster smoked here as unceremoniously as he would have done in 'Rees's Divan,' and I only wonder he did not call for brandy-and-water. He had either grown coarser a great deal, or I more decent, during our separation. He talked of his fiancee as he might of an opera-girl almost, and was now discussing Miss Lake in the same style.
'Yes, she is—she's very well; but hang it, Wylder, you're a married man now, and must give up talking that way. People won't like it, you know; they'll take it to mean more than it does, and you oughtn't. Let us have another game.'
'By-and-by; what do you think of Larkin?' asked Wylder, with a sly glance from the corners of his eyes. 'I think he prays rather more than is good for his clients; mind I spell it with an 'a,' not with an 'e;' but hang it, for an attorney, you know, and such a sharp chap, it does seem to me rather a—a joke, eh?'
'He bears a good character among the townspeople, doesn't he? And I don't see that it can do him any harm, remembering that he has a soul to be saved.'
'Or the other thing, eh?' laughed Wylder. 'But I think he comes it a little too strong—two sermons last Sunday, and a prayer-meeting at nine o'clock?'
'Well, it won't do him any harm,' I repeated.
'Harm! O, let Jos. Larkin alone for that. It gets him all the religious business of the county; and there are nice pickings among the charities, and endowments, and purchases of building sites, and trust deeds; I dare say it brings him in two or three hundred a year, eh?' And Wylder laughed again. 'It has broken up his hard, proud heart,' he says; 'but it left him a devilish hard head, I told him, and I think it sharpens his wits.'
'I rather think you'll find him a useful man; and to be so in his line of business he must have his wits about him, I can tell you.'
'He amused me devilishly,' said Wylder, 'with a sort of exhortation he treated me to; he's a delightfully impudent chap, and gave me to understand I was a limb of the Devil, and he a saint. I told him I was better than he, in my humble opinion, and so I am, by chalks. I know very well I'm a miserable sinner, but there's mercy above, and I don't hide my faults. I don't set up for a light or a saint; I'm just what the Prayer-book says—neither more nor less—a miserable sinner. There's only one good thing I can safely say for myself—I am no Pharisee; that's all; I air no religious prig, puffing myself, and trusting to forms, making long prayers in the market-place' (Mark's quotations were paraphrastic), 'and thinking of nothing but the uppermost seats in the synagogue, and broad borders, and the praise of men—hang them, I hate those fellows.'
So Mark, like other men we meet with, was proud of being a Publican; and his prayer was—'I thank Thee that I am not as other men are, spiritually proud, formalists, hypocrites, or even as this Pharisee.'
'Do you wish another game?' I asked.
'Just now,' said Wylder, emitting first a thin stream of smoke, and watching its ascent. 'Dorcas is the belle of the county; and she likes me, though she's odd, and don't show it the way other girls would. But a fellow knows pretty well when a girl likes him, and you know the marriage is a sensible sort of thing, and I'm determined, of course, to carry it through; but, hang it, a fellow can't help thinking sometimes there are other things besides money, and Dorcas is not my style. Rachel's more that way; she's a tremendious fine girl, by Jove! and a spirited minx, too; and I think,' he added, with an oath, having first taken two puffs at his cigar, 'if I had seen her first, I'd have thought twice before I'd have got myself into this business.'
I only smiled and shook my head. I did not believe a word of it. Yet, perhaps, I was wrong. He knew very well how to take care of his money; in fact, compared with other young fellows, he was a bit of a screw. But he could do a handsome and generous thing for himself. His selfishness would expand nobly, and rise above his prudential considerations, and drown them sometimes; and he was the sort of person, who, if the fancy were strong enough, might marry in haste, and repent—and make his wife, too, repent—at leisure.
'What do you laugh at, Charlie?' said Wylder, grinning himself.
'At your confounded grumbling, Mark. The luckiest dog in England! Will nothing content you?'
'Why, I grumble very little, I think, considering how well off I am,' rejoined he, with a laugh.
'Grumble! If you had a particle of gratitude, you'd build a temple to Fortune—you're pagan enough for it, Mark.'
'Fortune has nothing to do with it,' says Mark, laughing again.
'Well, certainly, neither had you.'
'It was all the Devil. I'm not joking, Charlie, upon my word, though I'm laughing.' (Mark swore now and then, but I take leave to soften his oaths). 'It was the Persian Magician.'
'Come, Mark, say what you mean.'
'I mean what I say. When we were in the Persian Gulf, near six years ago, I was in command of the ship. The captain, you see, was below, with a hurt in his leg. We had very rough weather—a gale for two days and a night almost—and a heavy swell after. In the night time we picked up three poor devils in an open boat—. One was a Persian merchant, with a grand beard. We called him the magician, he was so like the pictures of Aladdin's uncle.'
'Why he was an African,' I interposed, my sense of accuracy offended.
'I don't care a curse what he was,' rejoined Mark; 'he was exactly like the picture in the story-books. And as we were lying off—I forget the cursed name of it—he begged me to put him ashore. He could not speak a word of English, but one of the fellows with him interpreted, and they were all anxious to get ashore. Poor devils, they had a notion, I believe, we were going to sell them for slaves, and he made me a present of a ring, and told me a long yarn about it. It was a talisman, it seems, and no one who wore it could ever be lost. So I took it for a keepsake; here it is,' and he extended his stumpy, brown little finger, and showed a thick, coarsely-made ring of gold, with an uncut red stone, of the size of a large cherry stone, set in it.
'The stone is a humbug,' said Wylder. 'It's not real. I showed it to Platten and Foyle. It's some sort of glass. But I would not part with it. I got a fancy into my head that luck would come with it, and maybe that glass stuff was the thing that had the virtue in it. Now look at these Persian letters on the inside, for that's the oddest thing about it. Hang it, I can't pull it off—I'm growing as fat as a pig—but they are like a queer little string of flowers; and I showed it to a clever fellow at Malta—a missionary chap—and he read it off slick, and what do you think it means: "I will come up again;"' and he swore a great oath. 'It's as true as you stand there—our motto. Is not it odd? So I got the "resurgam" you see there engraved round it, and by Jove! it did bring me up. I was near lost, and did rise again. Eh?'
Well, it certainly was a curious accident. Mark had plenty of odd and not unamusing lore. Men who beat about the world in ships usually have; and these 'yarns,' furnished, after the pattern of Othello's tales of Anthropophagites and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders, one of the many varieties of fascination which he practised on the fair sex. Only in justice to Mark, I must say that he was by no means so shameless a drawer of the long-bow as the Venetian gentleman and officer.
'When I got this ring, Charlie, three hundred a year and a London life would have been Peru and Paradise to poor Pill Garlick, and see what it has done for me.'
'Aye, and better than Aladdin's, for you need not rub it and bring up that confounded ugly genii; the slave of your ring works unseen.'
'So he does,' laughed Wylder, in a state of elation, 'and he's not done working yet, I can tell you. When the estates are joined in one, they'll be good eleven thousand a year; and Larkin says, with smart management, I shall have a rental of thirteen thousand before three years! And that's only the beginning, by George! Sir Henry Twisden can't hold his seat—he's all but broke—as poor as Job, and the gentry hate him, and he lives abroad. He has had a hint or two already, and he'll never fight the next election. D'ye see—hey?'
And Wylder winked and grinned, with a wag of his head.
'M.P.—eh? You did not see that before. I look a-head a bit, eh? and can take my turn at the wheel—eh?'
And he laughed with cunning exultation.
'Miss Rachel will find I'm not quite such a lubber as she fancies. But even then it is only begun. Come, Charlie, you used to like a bet. What do you say? I'll buy you that twenty-five guinea book of pictures—what's its name?—if you give me three hundred guineas one month after I'm a peer of Parliament. Hey? There's a sporting offer for you. Well! what do you say—eh?'
'You mean to come out as an orator, then?'
'Orator be diddled! Do you take me for a fool? No, Charlie; but I'll come out strong as a voter—that's the stuff they like—at the right side, of course, and that is the way to manage it. Thirteen thousand a year—the oldest family in the county—and a steady thick and thin supporter of the minister. Strong points, eh, Charlie? Well, do you take my offer?'
I laughed and declined, to his great elation, and just then the gong sounded and we were away to our toilets.
While making my toilet for dinner, I amused myself by conjecturing whether there could be any foundation in fact for Mark's boast, that Miss Brandon liked him. Women are so enigmatical—some in everything—all in matters of the heart. Don't they sometimes actually admire what is repulsive? Does not brutality in our sex, and even rascality, interest them sometimes? Don't they often affect indifference, and occasionally even aversion, where there is a different sort of feeling?
As I went down I heard Miss Lake chatting with her queen-like cousin near an open door on the lobby. Rachel Lake was, indeed, a very constant guest at the Hall, and the servants paid her much respect, which I look upon as a sign that the young heiress liked her and treated her with consideration; and indeed there was an insubordinate and fiery spirit in that young lady which would have brooked nothing less and dreamed of nothing but equality.
THE ACE OF HEARTS.
Who should I find in the drawing-room, talking fluently and smiling, after his wont, to old Lady Chelford, who seemed to receive him very graciously, for her at least, but Captain Stanley Lake!
I can't quite describe to you the odd and unpleasant sort of surprise which that very gentlemanlike figure, standing among the Brandon household gods at this moment, communicated to me. I thought of the few odd words and looks that had dropped from Wylder about him with an ominous pang as I looked, and I felt somehow as if there were some occult relation between that confused prelude of Wylder's and the Mephistophelean image that had risen up almost upon the spot where it was spoken. I glanced round for Wylder, but he was not there.
'You know Captain Lake?' said Lord Chelford, addressing me.
And Lake turned round upon me, a little abruptly, his odd yellowish eyes, a little like those of the sea-eagle, and the ghost of his smile that flickered on his singularly pale face, with a stern and insidious look, confronted me. There was something evil and shrinking in his aspect, which I felt with a sort of chill, like the commencing fascination of a serpent. I often thought since that he had expected to see Wylder before him.
The church-yard meteor expired, there was nothing in a moment but his ordinary smile of recognition.
'You're surprised to see me here,' he said in his very pleasing low tones.
'I lighted on him in the village; and I knew Miss Brandon would not forgive me if I allowed him to go away without coming here. (He had his hand upon Lake's shoulder.) They are cousins, you know; we are all cousins. I'm bad at genealogies. My mother could tell us all about it—we, Brandons, Lakes; Wylders, and Chelfords.'
At this moment Miss Brandon entered, with her brilliant Cousin Rachel. The blonde and the dark, it was a dazzling contrast.
So Chelford led Stanley Lake before the lady of the castle. I thought of the 'Fair Brunnisende,' with the captive knight in the hands of her seneschal before her, and I fancied he said something of having found him trespassing in her town, and brought him up for judgment. Whatever Lord Chelford said, Miss Brandon received it very graciously, and even with a momentary smile. I wonder she did not smile oftener, it became her so. But her greeting to Captain Lake was more than usually haughty and frozen, and her features, I fancied, particularly proud and pale. It seemed to me to indicate a great deal more than mere indifference—something of aversion, and nearer to a positive emotion than anything I had yet seen in that exquisitely apathetic face.
How was it that this man with the yellow eyes seemed to gleam from them an influence of pain or disturbance, wherever almost he looked.
'Shake hands with your cousin, my dear,' said old Lady Chelford, peremptorily. The little scene took place close to her chair; and upon this stage direction the little piece of by-play took place, and the young lady coldly touched the captain's hand, and passed on.
Young as he was, Stanley Lake was an old man of the world, not to be disconcerted, and never saw more than exactly suited him. Waiting in the drawing-room, I had some entertaining talk with Miss Lake. Her conversation was lively, and rather bold, not at all in the coarse sense, but she struck me as having formed a system of ethics and views of life, both good-humoured and sarcastic, and had carried into her rustic sequestration the melancholy and precocious lore of her early London experience.
When Lord Chelford joined us, I perceived that Wylder was in the room, and saw a very cordial greeting between him and Lake. The captain appeared quite easy and cheerful; but Mark, I thought, notwithstanding his laughter and general jollity, was uncomfortable; and I saw him once or twice, when Stanley's eye was not upon him, glance sharply on the young man with an uneasy and not very friendly curiosity.
At dinner Lake was easy and amusing. That meal passed off rather pleasantly; and when we joined the ladies in the drawing-room, the good vicar's enthusiastic little wife came to meet us, in one of her honest little raptures.
'Now, here's a thing worth your looking at! Did you ever see anything so bee-utiful in your life? It is such a darling little thing; and—look now—is not it magnificent?'
She arrested the file of gentlemen just by a large lamp, before whose effulgence she presented the subject of her eulogy—one of those costly trifles which announce the approach of Hymen, as flowers spring up before the rosy steps of May.
Well, it was pretty—French, I dare say—a little set of tablets—a toy—the cover of enamel, studded in small jewels, with a slender border of symbolic flowers, and with a heart in the centre, a mosaic of little carbuncles, rubies, and other red and crimson stones, placed with a view to light and shade.
'Exquisite, indeed!' said Lord Chelford. 'Is this yours, Mrs. Wylder?'
'Mine, indeed!' laughed poor little Mrs. Dorothy. 'Well, dear me, no, indeed;'—and in an earnest whisper close in his ear—'a present to Miss Brandon, and the donor is not a hundred miles away from your elbow, my lord!' and she winked slyly, and laughed, with a little nod at Wylder.
'Oh! I see—to be sure—really, Wylder, it does your taste infinite credit.'
'I'm glad you like it,' says Wylder, chuckling benignantly on it, over his shoulder. 'I believe I have a little taste that way; those are all real, you know, those jewels.'
'Oh, yes! of course. Have you seen it, Captain Lake?' And he placed it in that gentleman's fingers, who now took his turn at the lamp, and contemplated the little parallelogram with a gleam of sly amusement.
'What are you laughing at?' asked Wylder, a little snappishly.
'I was thinking it's very like the ace of hearts,' answered the captain softly, smiling on.
'Fie, Lake, there's no poetry in you,' said Lord Chelford, laughing.
'Well, now, though, really it is funny; it did not strike me before, but do you know, now, it is,' laughs out jolly Mrs. Dolly, 'isn't it. Look at it, do, Mr. Wylder—isn't it like the ace of hearts?'
Wylder was laughing rather redly, with the upper part of his face very surly, I thought.
'Never mind, Wylder, it's the winning card,' said Lord Chelford, laying his hand on his shoulder.
Whereupon Lake laughed quietly, still looking on the ace of hearts with his sly eyes.
And Wylder laughed too, more suddenly and noisily than the humour of the joke seemed quite to call for, and glanced a grim look from the corners of his eyes on Lake, but the gallant captain did not seem to perceive it; and after a few seconds more he handed it very innocently back to Mrs. Dorothy, only remarking—
'Seriously, it is very pretty, and appropriate.'
And Wylder, making no remark, helped himself to a cup of coffee, and then to a glass of Curacoa, and then looked industriously at a Spanish quarto of Don Quixote, and lastly walked over to me on the hearthrug.
'What the d— has he come down here for? It can't be for money, or balls, or play, and he has no honest business anywhere. Do you know?'
'Lake? Oh! I really can't tell; but he'll soon tire of country life. I don't think he's much of a sportsman.'
'Ha, isn't he? I don't know anything about him almost; but I hate him.'
'Why should you, though? He's a very gentlemanlike fellow and your cousin.'
'My cousin—the Devil's cousin—everyone's cousin. I don't know who's my cousin, or who isn't; nor you don't, who've been for ten years over those d—d papers; but I think he's the nastiest dog I ever met. I took a dislike to him at first sight long ago, and that never happened me but I was right.'
Wylder looked confoundedly angry and flustered, standing with his heels on the edge of the rug, his hands in his pockets, jingling some silver there, and glancing from under his red forehead sternly and unsteadily across the room.
'He's not a man for country quarters! he'll soon be back in town, or to Brighton,' I said.
'If he doesn't, I will. That's all.'
Just to get him off this unpleasant groove with a little jolt, I said—
'By-the-bye, Wylder, you know the pictures here; who is the tall man, with the long pale face, and wild phosphoric eyes? I was always afraid of him; in a long peruke, and dark red velvet coat, facing the hall-door. I had a horrid dream about him last night.'
'That? Oh, I know—that's Lorne Brandon. He was one of our family devils, he was. A devil in a family now and then is not such a bad thing, when there's work for him.' (All the time he was talking to me his angry little eyes were following Lake.) 'They say he killed his son, a blackguard, who was found shot, with his face in the tarn in the park. He was going to marry the gamekeeper's daughter, it was thought, and he and the old boy, who was for high blood, and all that, were at loggerheads about it. It was not proved, only thought likely, which showed what a nice character he was; but he might have done worse. I suppose Miss Partridge would have had a precious lot of babbies; and who knows where the estate would have been by this time.'
'I believe, Charlie,' he recommenced suddenly, 'there is not such an unnatural family on record as ours; is there? Ha, ha, ha! It's well to be distinguished in any line. I forget all the other good things he did; but he ended by shooting himself through the head in his bed-room, and that was not the worst thing ever he did.'
And Wylder laughed again, and began to whistle very low—not, I fancy, for want of thought, but as a sort of accompaniment thereto, for he suddenly said—
'And where is he staying?'
'I don't know; but I think he mentioned Larkins's house, didn't he? I'm not quite sure.'
'I suppose he this I'm made of money. By Jove! if he wants to borrow any I'll surprise him, the cur; I'll talk to him; ha, ha, ha!'
And Wylder chuckled angrily, and the small change in his pocket tinkled fiercely, as his eye glanced on the graceful captain, who was entertaining the ladies, no doubt, very agreeably in the distance.
IN WHICH LAKE UNDER THE TREES OF BRANDON, AND I IN MY CHAMBER, SMOKE OUR NOCTURNAL CIGARS.
Miss Lake declined the carriage to-night. Her brother was to see her home, and there was a leave-taking, and the young ladies whispered a word or two, and kissed, after the manner of their kind. To Captain Lake, Miss Brandon's adieux were as cold and haughty as her greeting.
'Did you see that?' said Wylder in my ear, with a chuckle; and, wagging his head, he added, rather loftily for him, 'Miss Brandon, I reckon, has taken your measure, Master Stanley, as well as I. I wonder what the deuce the old dowager sees in him. Old women always like rascals.'
And he added something still less complimentary.
I suppose the balance of attraction and repulsion was overcome by Miss Lake, much as he disliked Stanley, for Wylder followed them out with Lord Chelford, to help the young lady into her cloak and goloshes, and I found myself near Miss Brandon for the first time that evening, and much to my surprise she was first to speak, and that rather strangely.
'You seem to be very sensible, Mr. De Cresseron; pray tell me, frankly, what do you think of all this?'
'I am not quite sure, Miss Brandon, that I understand your question,' I replied, enquiringly.
'I mean of the—the family arrangements, in which, as Mr. Wylder's friend, you seem to take an interest?' she said.
'There can hardly be a second opinion, Miss Brandon; I think it a very wise measure,' I replied, much surprised.
'Very wise—exactly. But don't these very wise things sometimes turn out very foolishly? Do you really think your friend, Mr. Wylder, cares about me?'
'I take that for granted: in the nature of things it can hardly be otherwise,' I replied, a good deal startled and perplexed by the curious audacity of her interrogatory.
'It was very foolish of me to expect from Mr. Wylder's friend any other answer; you are very loyal, Mr. De Cresseron.'
And without awaiting my reply she made some remark which I forget to Lady Chelford, who sat at a little distance; and, appearing quite absorbed in her new subject, she placed herself close beside the dowager, and continued to chat in a low tone.
I was vexed with myself for having managed with so little skill a conversation which, opened so oddly and frankly, might have placed me on relations so nearly confidential, with that singular and beautiful girl. I ought to have rejoiced—but we don't always see what most concerns our peace. In the meantime I had formed a new idea of her. She was so unreserved, it seemed, and yet in this directness there was something almost contemptuous.
By this time Lord Chelford and Wylder returned; and, disgusted rather with myself, I ruminated on my want of general-ship.
In the meantime, Miss Lake, with her hand on her brother's arm, was walking swiftly under the trees of the back avenue towards that footpath which, through wild copse and broken clumps near the park, emerges upon the still darker road which passes along the wooded glen by the mills, and skirts the little paling of the recluse lady's garden.
They had not walked far, when Lake suddenly said—
'What do you think of all this, Radie—this particular version, I mean, of marriage, a-la-mode, they are preparing up there?' and he made a little dip of his cane towards Brandon Hall, over his shoulder. 'I really don't think Wylder cares twopence about her, or she about him,' and Stanley Lake laughed gently and sleepily.
'I don't think they pretend to like one another. It is quite understood. It was all, you know, old Lady Chelford's arrangement: and Dorcas is so supine, I believe she would allow herself to be given away by anyone, and to anyone, rather than be at the least trouble. She provokes me.'
'But I thought she liked Sir Harry Bracton: he's a good-looking fellow; and Queen's Bracton is a very nice thing, you know.'
'Yes, so they said; but that would, I think, have been worse. Something may be made of Mark Wylder. He has some sense and caution, has not he?—but Sir Harry is wickedness itself!'
'Why—what has Sir Harry done? That is the way you women run away with things! If a fellow's been a little bit wild, he's Beelzebub at once. Bracton's a very good fellow, I can assure you.'
The fact is, Captain Lake, an accomplished player, made a pretty little revenue of Sir Harry's billiards, which were wild and noisy; and liking his money, thought he liked himself—a confusion not uncommon.
'I don't know, and can't say, how you fine gentlemen define wickedness: only, as an obscure female, I speak according to my lights: and he is generally thought the wickedest man in this county.'
'Well, you know, Radie, women like wicked fellows: it is contrast, I suppose, but they do; and I'm sure, from what Bracton has said to me—I know him intimately—that Dorcas likes him, and I can't conceive why they are not married.'
'It is very happy, for her at least, they are not,' said Rachel, and a long silence ensued.
Their walk continued silent for the greater part, neither was quite satisfied with the other. But Rachel at last said—
'Stanley, you meditate some injury to Mark Wylder.'
'I, Radie?' he answered quietly, 'why on earth should you think so?'
'I saw you twice watch him when you thought no one observed you—and I know your face too well, Stanley, to mistake.'
'Now that's impossible, Radie; for I really don't think I once thought of him all this evening—except just while we were talking.'
'You keep your secret as usual, Stanley,' said the young lady.
'Really, Radie, you're quite mistaken. I assure you, upon my honour, I've no secret. You're a very odd girl—why won't you believe me?'
Miss Rachel only glanced across her mufflers on his face. There was a bright moonlight, broken by the shadows of overhanging boughs and withered leaves; and the mottled lights and shadows glided oddly across his pale features. But she saw that he was smiling his sly, sleepy smile, and she said quietly—
'Well, Stanley, I ask no more—but you don't deceive me.'
'I don't try to. If your feelings indeed had been different, and that you had not made such a point—you know—'
'Don't insult me, Stanley, by talking again as you did this morning. What I say is altogether on your own account. Mark my words, you'll find him too strong for you; aye, and too deep. I see very plainly that he suspects you as I do. You saw it, too, for nothing of that kind escapes you. Whatever you meditate, he probably anticipates it—you know best—and you will find him prepared. You have given him time enough. You were always the same, close, dark, and crooked, and wise in your own conceit. I am very uneasy about it, whatever it is. I can't help it. It will happen—and most ominously I feel that you are courting a dreadful retaliation, and that you will bring on yourself a great misfortune; but it is quite vain, I know, speaking to you.'
'Really, Radie, you're enough to frighten a poor fellow; you won't mind a word I say, and go on predicting all manner of mischief between me and Wylder, the very nature of which I can't surmise. Would you dislike my smoking a cigar, Radie?'
'Oh, no,' answered the young lady, with a little laugh and a heavy sigh, for she knew it meant silence, and her dark auguries grew darker.
To my mind there has always been something inexpressibly awful in family feuds. Mortal hatred seems to deepen and dilate into something diabolical in these perverted animosities. The mystery of their origin—their capacity for evolving latent faculties of crime—and the steady vitality with which they survive the hearse, and speak their deep-mouthed malignities in every new-born generation, have associated them somehow in my mind with a spell of life exceeding and distinct from human and a special Satanic action.
My chamber, as I have mentioned, was upon the third storey. It was one of many, opening upon the long gallery, which had been the scene, four generations back, of that unnatural and bloody midnight duel which had laid one scion of this ancient house in his shroud, and driven another a fugitive to the moral solitudes of a continental banishment.
Much of the day, as I told you, had been passed among the grisly records of these old family crimes and hatreds. They had been an ill-conditioned and not a happy race. When I heard the servant's step traversing that long gallery, as it seemed to the in haste to be gone, and when all grew quite silent, I began to feel a dismal sort of sensation, and lighted the pair of wax candles which I found upon the small writing table. How wonderful and mysterious is the influence of light! What sort of beings must those be who hate it?
The floor, more than anything else, showed the great age of the room. It was warped and arched all along by the wall between the door and the window. The portion of it which the carpet did not cover showed it to be oak, dark and rugged. My bed was unexceptionably comfortable, but, in my then mood, I could have wished it a great deal more modern. Its four posts were, like the rest of it, oak, well-nigh black, fantastically turned and carved, with a great urn-like capital and base, and shaped midway, like a gigantic lance-handle. Its curtains were of thick and faded tapestry. I was always a lover of such antiquities, but I confess at that moment I would have vastly preferred a sprightly modern chintz and a trumpery little French bed in a corner of the Brandon Arms. There was a great lowering press of oak, and some shelves, with withered green and gold leather borders. All the furniture belonged to other times.
I would have been glad to hear a step stirring, or a cough even, or the gabble of servants at a distance. But there was a silence and desertion in this part of the mansion which, somehow, made me feel that I was myself a solitary intruder on this level of the vast old house.
I shan't trouble you about my train of thoughts or fancies; but I began to feel very like a gentleman in a ghost story, watching experimentally in a haunted chamber. My cigar case was a resource. I was not a bit afraid of being found out. I did not even take the precaution of smoking up the chimney. I boldly lighted my cheroot. I peeped through the dense window curtain there were no shutters. A cold, bright moon was shining with clear sharp lights and shadows. Everything looked strangely cold and motionless outside. The sombre old trees, like gigantic hearse plumes, black and awful. The chapel lay full in view, where so many of the, strange and equivocal race, under whose ancient roof-tree I then stood, were lying under their tombstones.
Somehow, I had grown nervous. A little bit of plaster tumbled down the chimney, and startled me confoundedly. Then some time after, I fancied I heard a creaking step on the lobby outside, and, candle in hand, opened the door, and looked out with an odd sort of expectation, and a rather agreeable disappointment, upon vacancy.
IN WHICH UNCLE LORNE TROUBLES ME.
I was growing most uncomfortably like one of Mrs. Anne Radcliffe's heroes—a nervous race of demigods.
I walked like a sentinel up and down my chamber, puffing leisurely the solemn incense, and trying to think of the Opera and my essay on 'Paradise Lost,' and other pleasant subjects. But it would not do. Every now and then, as I turned towards the door, I fancied I saw it softly close. I can't the least say whether it was altogether fancy. It was with the corner, or as the Italians have it, the 'tail' of my eye that I saw, or imagined that I saw, this trifling but unpleasant movement.
I called out once or twice sharply—'Come in!' 'Who's there?' 'Who's that?' and so forth, without any sort of effect, except that unpleasant reaction upon the nerves which follows the sound of one's own voice in a solitude of this kind.
The fact is I did not myself believe in that stealthy motion of my door, and set it down to one of those illusions which I have sometimes succeeded in analysing—a half-seen combination of objects which, rightly placed in the due relations of perspective, have no mutual connection whatever.
So I ceased to challenge the unearthly inquisitor, and allowed him, after a while, serenely enough, to peep as I turned my back, or to withdraw again as I made my regular right-about face.
I had now got half-way in my second cheroot, and the clock clanged 'one.' It was a very still night, and the prolonged boom vibrated strangely in my excited ears and brain. I had never been quite such an ass before; but I do assure you I was now in an extremely unpleasant state. One o'clock was better, however, than twelve. Although, by Jove! the bell was 'beating one,' as I remember, precisely as that king of ghosts, old Hamlet, revisited the glimpses of the moon, upon the famous platform of Elsinore.
I had pondered too long over the lore of this Satanic family, and drunk very strong tea, I suppose. I could not get my nerves into a comfortable state, and cheerful thoughts refused to inhabit the darkened chamber of my brain. As I stood in a sort of reverie, looking straight upon the door, I saw—and this time there could be no mistake whatsoever—the handle—the only modern thing about it—slowly turned, and the door itself as slowly pushed about a quarter open.
I do not know what exclamation I made. The door was shut instantly, and I found myself standing at it, and looking out upon the lobby, with a candle in my hand, and actually freezing with foolish horror.
I was looking towards the stair-head. The passage was empty and ended in utter darkness. I glanced the other way, and thought I saw—though not distinctly—in the distance a white figure, not gliding in the conventional way, but limping off, with a sort of jerky motion, and, in a second or two, quite lost in darkness.
I got into my room again, and shut the door with a clap that sounded loudly and unnaturally through the dismal quiet that surrounded me, and stood with my hand on the handle, with the instinct of resistance.
I felt uncomfortable; and I would have secured the door, but there was no sort of fastening within. So I paused. I did not mind looking out again. To tell you the plain truth, I was just a little bit afraid. Then I grew angry at having been put into such remote, and, possibly, suspected quarters, and then my comfortable scepticism supervened. I was yet to learn a great deal about this visitation.
So, in due course having smoked my cheroot, I jerked the stump into the fire. Of course I could not think of depriving myself of candle-light; and being already of a thoughtful, old-bachelor temperament, and averse from burning houses, I placed one of my tall wax-lights in a basin on the table by my bed—in which I soon effected a lodgment, and lay with a comparative sense of security.
Then I heard two o'clock strike; but shortly after, as I suppose, sleep overtook me, and I have no distinct idea for how long my slumber lasted. The fire was very low when I awoke, and saw a figure—and a very odd one—seated by the embers, and stooping over the grate, with a pair of long hands expanded, as it seemed, to catch the warmth of the sinking fire.
It was that of a very tall old man, entirely dressed in white flannel—a very long spencer, and some sort of white swathing about his head. His back was toward me; and he stooped without the slightest motion over the fire-place, in the attitude I have described.
As I looked, he suddenly turned toward me, and fixed upon me a cold, and as it seemed, a wrathful gaze, over his shoulder. It was a bleached and a long-chinned face—the countenance of Lorne's portrait—only more faded, sinister, and apathetic. And having, as it were, secured its awful command over me by a protracted gaze, he rose, supernaturally lean and tall, and drew near the side of my bed.
I continued to stare upon this apparition with the most dreadful fascination I ever experienced in my life. For two or three seconds I literally could not move. When I did, I am not ashamed to confess, it was to plunge my head under the bed-clothes, with the childish instinct of terror; and there I lay breathless, for what seemed to me not far from ten minutes, during which there was no sound, nor other symptom of its presence.
On a sudden the bed-clothes were gently lifted at my feet, and I sprang backwards, sitting upright against the back of the bed, and once more under the gaze of that long-chinned old man.
A voice, as peculiar as the appearance of the figure, said:—
'You are in my bed—I died in it a great many years ago. I am Uncle Lorne; and when I am not here, a devil goes up and down in the room. See! he had his face to your ear when I came in. I came from Dorcas Brandon's bed-chamber door, where her evil angel told me a thing;—and Mark Wylder must not seek to marry her, for he will be buried alive if he does, and he will, maybe, never get up again. Say your prayers when I go out, and come here no more.'
He paused, as if these incredible words were to sink into my memory; and then, in the same tone, and with the same countenance, he asked—
'Is the blood on my forehead?'
I don't know whether I answered.
'So soon as a calamity is within twelve hours, the blood comes upon my forehead, as they found me in the morning—it is a sign.'
The old man then drew back slowly, and disappeared behind the curtains at the foot of the bed, and I saw no more of him during the rest of that odious night.
So long as this apparition remained before me, I never doubted its being supernatural. I don't think mortal ever suffered horror more intense. My very hair was dripping with a cold moisture. For some seconds I hardly knew where I was. But soon a reaction came, and I felt convinced that the apparition was a living man. It was no process of reason or philosophy, but simply I became persuaded of it, and something like rage overcame my terrors.
THE PONY CARRIAGE
So soon as daylight came, I made a swift cold water toilet, and got out into the open air, with a solemn resolution to see the hated interior of that bed-room no more. When I met Lord Chelford in his early walk that morning, I'm sure I looked myself like a ghost—at all events, very wild and seedy—for he asked me, more seriously than usual, how I was; and I think I would have told him the story of my adventure, despite the secret ridicule with which, I fancied, he would receive it, had it not been for a certain insurmountable disgust and horror which held me tongue-tied upon the affair.
I told him, however, that I had dreamed dreams, and was restless and uncomfortable in my present berth, and begged his interest with the housekeeper to have my quarters changed to the lower storey—quite resolved to remove to the 'Brandon Arms,' rather than encounter another such night as I had passed.
Stanley Lake did not appear that day; Wylder was glowering and abstracted—worse company than usual; and Rachel seemed to have quite passed from his recollection.
While Rachel Lake was, as usual, busy in her little garden that day, Lord Chelford, on his way to the town, by the pretty mill-road, took off his hat to her with a smiling salutation, and leaning on the paling, he said—
'I often wonder how you make your flowers grow here—you have so little sun among the trees—and yet, it is so pretty and flowery; it remains in my memory as if the sun were always shining specially on this little garden.'
Miss Lake laughed.
'I am very proud of it. They try not to blow, but I never let them alone till they do. See all my watering-pots, and pruning-scissors, my sticks, and bass-mat, and glass covers. Skill and industry conquer churlish nature—and this is my Versailles.'
'I don't believe in those sticks, and scissors, and watering-pots. You won't tell your secret; but I'm sure it's an influence—you smile and whisper to them.'
She smiled—without raising her eyes—on the flower she was tying up; and, indeed, it was such a smile as must have made it happy—and she said, gaily—
'You forget that Lord Chelford passes this way sometimes, and shines upon them, too.'
'No, he's a dull, earthly dog; and if he shines here, it is only in reflected light'
'Margery, child, fetch me the scissors.'
And a hobble-de-hoy of a girl, with round eyes, and a long white-apron, and bare arms, came down the little walk, and—eyeing the peer with an awful curiosity—presented the shears to the charming Atropos, who clipped off the withered blossoms that had bloomed their hour, and were to cumber the stalk no more.
'Now, you see what art may do; how passee this creature was till I made her toilet, and how wonderfully the poor old beauty looks now,' and she glanced complacently at the plant she had just trimmed.
'Well, it is young again and beautiful; but no—I have no faith in the scissors; I still believe in the influence—from the tips of your fingers, your looks, and tones. Flowers, like fairies, have their favourites, whom they smile on and obey; and I think this is a haunted glen—trees, flowers, all have an intelligence and a feeling—and I am sure you see wonderful things, by moonlight, from your window.'
With a strange meaning echo, those words returned to her afterwards—'I'm sure you see wonderful things, by moonlight, from your window.'
But no matter; the winged words—making pleasant music—flew pleasantly away, now among transparent leaves and glimmering sun; by-and-by, in moonlight, they will return to the casement piping the same tune, in ghostly tones.
And as they chatted in this strain, Rachel paused on a sudden, with upraised hand, listening pleasantly.
'I hear the pony-carriage; Dorcas is coming,' she said.
And the tinkle of tiny wheels, coming down the road, was audible.
'There's a pleasant sense of adventure, too, in the midst of your seclusion. Sudden arrivals and passing pilgrims, like me, leaning over the paling, and refreshed by the glimpse the rogue steals of this charming oratory. Yes; here comes the fair Brunnisende.'
And he made his salutation. Miss Brandon smiled from under her gipsy-hat very pleasantly for her.
'Will you come with me for a drive, Radie?' she asked.
'Yes, dear—delighted. Margery, bring my gloves and cloak.' And she unpinned the faded silk shawl that did duty in the garden, and drew off her gauntlets, and showed her pretty hands; and Margery popped her cloak on her shoulders, and the young lady pulled on her gloves. All ready in a moment, like a young lady of energy; and chatting merrily she sat down beside her cousin, who held the reins. As there were no more gates to open, Miss Brandon dismissed the servant, who stood at the ponies' heads, and who, touching his hat with his white glove, received his conge, and strode with willing steps up the road.
'Will you take me for your footman as far as the town?' asked Lord Chelford; so, with permission, up he jumped behind, and away they whirled, close over the ground, on toy wheels ringing merrily on the shingle, he leaning over the back and chatting pleasantly with the young ladies as they drove on.
They drew up at the Brandon Arms, and little girls courtesied at doors, and householders peeped from their windows, not standing close to the panes, but respectfully back, at the great lady and the nobleman, who was now taking his leave.
And next they pulled up at that official rendezvous, with white-washed front—and 'post-office,' in white letters on a brown board over its door, and its black, hinged window-pane, through which Mr. Driver—or, in his absence, Miss Anne Driver—answered questions, and transacted affairs officially.
In the rear of this establishment were kept some dogs of Lawyer Larkin's; and just as the ladies arrived, that person emerged, looking overpoweringly gentlemanlike, in a white hat, gray paletot, lavender trowsers, and white riding gloves. He was in a righteous and dignified way pleased to present himself in so becoming a costume, and moreover in good company, for Stanley Lake was going with him to Dutton for a day's sport, which neither of them cared for. But Stanley hoped to pump the attorney, and the attorney, I'm afraid, liked being associated with the fashionable captain; and so they were each pleased in the way that suited them.
The attorney, being long as well as lank, had to stoop under the doorway, but drew himself up handsomely on coming out, and assumed his easy, high-bred style, which, although he was not aware of it, was very nearly insupportable, and smiled very engagingly, and meant to talk a little about the weather; but Miss Brandon made him one of her gravest and slightest bows, and suddenly saw Mrs. Brown at her shop door on the other side, and had a word to say to her.
And now Stanley Lake drew up in the tax-cart, and greeted the ladies, and told them how he meant to pass the day; and the dogs being put in, and the attorney, I'm afraid a little spited at his reception, in possession of the reins, they drove down the little street at a great pace, and disappeared round the corner; and in a minute more the young ladies, in the opposite direction, resumed their drive. The ponies, being grave and trustworthy, and having the road quite to themselves, needed little looking after, and Miss Brandon was free to converse with her companion.
'I think, Rachel, you have a lover,' she said.
'Only a bachelor, I'm afraid, as my poor Margery calls the young gentleman who takes her out for a walk on a Sunday, and I fear means nothing more.'
'This is the second time I've found Chelford talking to you, Rachel, at the door of your pretty little garden.'
'Suppose, some fine day, he should put his hand over the paling, and take yours, and make you a speech.'
'You romantic darling,' she said, 'don't you know that peers and princes have quite given over marrying simple maidens of low estate for love and liking, and understand match-making better than you or I; though I could give a tolerable account of myself, after the manner of the white cat in the story, which I think is a pattern of frankness and modest dignity. I'd say with a courtesy—"Think not, prince, that I have always been a cat, and that my birth is obscure; my father was king of six kingdoms, and loved my mother tenderly," and so forth.'
'Rachel, I like you,' interrupted the dark beauty, fixing her large eyes, from which not light, but, as it were, a rich shadow fell softly on her companion. It was the first time she had made any such confession. Rachel returned her look as frankly, with an amused smile, and then said, with a comic little toss of her head—
'Well, Dorcas, I don't see why you should not, though I don't know why you say so.'
'You're not like other people; you don't complain, and you're not bitter, although you have had great misfortunes, my poor Rachel.'
There be ladies, young and old, who, the moment they are pitied, though never so cheerful before, will forthwith dissolve in tears. But that was not Rachel's way; she only looked at her with a good-humoured but grave curiosity for a few seconds, and then said, with rather a kindly smile—
'And now, Dorcas, I like you.'
Dorcas made no answer, but put her arm round Rachel's neck, and kissed her; Dorcas made two kisses of it, and Rachel one, but it was cousinly and kindly; and Rachel laughed a soft little laugh after it, looking amused and very lovingly on her cousin; but she was a bold lass, and not given in anywise to the melting mood, and said gaily, with her open hand still caressingly on Dorcas's waist—
'I make a very good nun, Dorcas, as I told Stanley the other day. I sometimes, indeed, receive a male visitor, at the other side of the paling, which is my grille; but to change my way of life is a dream that does not trouble me. Happy the girl—and I am one—who cannot like until she is first beloved. Don't you remember poor, pale Winnie, the maid who used to take us on our walks all the summer at Dawling; how she used to pluck the leaves from the flowers, like Faust's Marguerite, saying, "He loves me a little—passionately, not at all." Now if I were loved passionately, I might love a little; and if loved a little—it should be not at all.'
They had the road all to themselves, and were going at a walk up an ascent, so the reins lay loosely on the ponies' necks and Dorcas looked with an untold meaning in her proud face, on her cousin, and seemed on the point of speaking, but she changed her mind.
'And so Dorcas, as swains are seldom passionately in love with so small a pittance as mine, I think I shall mature into a queer old maid, and take all the little Wylders, masters and misses, with your leave, for their walks, and help to make their pinafores.' Whereupon Miss Dorcas put her ponies into a very quick trot, and became absorbed in her driving.
IN WHICH VARIOUS PERSONS GIVE THEIR OPINIONS OF CAPTAIN STANLEY LAKE.
'Stanley is an odd creature,' said Rachel, so soon as another slight incline brought them to a walk; 'I can't conceive why he has come down here, or what he can possibly want of that disagreeable lawyer. They have got dogs and guns, and are going, of course, to shoot; but he does not care for shooting, and I don't think Mr. Larkin's society can amuse him. Stanley is clever and cunning, I think, but he is neither wise nor frank. He never tells me his plans, though he must know—he does know—I love him; yes, he's a strange mixture of suspicion and imprudence. He's wonderfully reserved. I am certain he trusts no one on earth, and at the same time, except in his confidences, he's the rashest man living. If he were like Lord Chelford, or even like our good vicar—not in piety, for poor Stanley's training, like my own, was sadly neglected there—I mean in a few manly points of character, I should be quite happy, I think, in my solitary nook.'
'Is he so very odd?' said Miss Brandon, coldly.
'I only know he makes me often very uncomfortable,' answered Rachel. 'I never mind what he tells me, for I think he likes to mislead everybody; and I have been two often duped by him to trust what he says. I only know that his visit to Gylingden must have been made with some serious purpose, and his ideas are all so rash and violent.'
'He was at Donnyston for ten days, I think, when I was there, and seemed clever. They had charades and proverbes dramatiques. I'm no judge, but the people who understood it, said he was very good.'
'Oh! yes he is clever; I knew he was at Donnyston, but he did not mention he had seen you there; he only told me he had met you pretty often when you were at Lady Alton's last season.'
'Yes, in town,' she answered, a little drily.
While these young ladies are discussing Stanley Lake, I may be permitted to mention my own estimate of that agreeable young person.
Captain Lake was a gentleman and an officer, and of course an honourable man; but somehow I should not have liked to buy a horse from him. He was very gentlemanlike in appearance, and even elegant; but I never liked him, although he undoubtedly had a superficial fascination. I always thought, when in his company, of old Lord Holland's silk stocking with something unpleasant in it. I think, in fact, he was destitute of those fine moral instincts which are born with men, but never acquired; and in his way of estimating his fellow men, and the canons of honour, there was occasionally perceptible a faint flavour of the villainous, and an undefined savour, at times, of brimstone. I know also that when his temper, which was nothing very remarkable, was excited, he could be savage and brutal enough; and I believe he had often been violent and cowardly in his altercations with his sister—so, at least, two or three people, who were versed in the scandals of the family, affirmed. But it is a censorious world, and I can only speak positively of my own sensations in his company. His morality, however, I suppose, was quite good enough for the world, and he had never committed himself in any of those ways of which that respectable tribunal takes cognizance.
'So that d—d fellow Lake is down here still; and that stupid, scheming lubber, Larkin, driving him about in his tax-cart, instead of minding his business. I could not see him to-day. That sort of thing won't answer me; and he is staying at Larkin's house, I find.' Wylder was talking to me on the door steps after dinner, having in a rather sulky way swallowed more than his usual modicum of Madeira, and his remarks were delivered interruptedly—two or three puffs of his cigar interposed between each sentence.
'I suppose he expects to be asked to the wedding. He may expect—ha, ha, ha! You don't know that lad as I do.'
Then there came a second cigar, and some little time in lighting, and full twenty enjoyable puffs before he resumed.
'Now, you're a moral man, Charlie, tell me really what you think of a fellow marrying a girl he does not care that for,' and he snapt his fingers. 'Just for the sake of her estate—it's the way of the world, of course, and all that—but, is not it a little bit shabby, don't you think? Eh? Ha, ha, ha!'
'I'll not debate with you, Wylder, on that stupid old question. It's the way of the world, as you say, and there's an end of it.'
'They say she's such a beauty! Well, so I believe she is, but I can't fancy her. Now you must not be angry. I'm not a poet like you—book-learned, you know; and she's too solemn by half, and grand. I wish she was different. That other girl, Rachel—she's a devilish handsome craft. I wish almost she was not here at all, or I wish she was in Dorcas's shoes.'
'Nonsense, Wylder! stop this stuff; and it is growing cold throw away that cigar, and come in.'
'In a minute. No, I assure you, I'm not joking. Hang it! I must talk to some one. I'm devilish uncomfortable about this grand match. I wish I had not been led into it I don't think I'd make a good husband to any woman I did not fancy, and where's the good of making a girl unhappy, eh?'
'Tut, Wylder, you ought to have thought of all that before. I don't like your talking in this strain when you know it is too late to recede; besides, you are the luckiest fellow in creation. Upon my word, I don't know why the girl marries you; you can't suppose that she could not marry much better, and if you have not made up your mind to break off, of which the world would form but one opinion, you had better not speak in that way any more.'
'Why, it was only to you, Charlie, and to tell you the truth, I do believe it is the best thing for me; but I suppose every fellow feels a little queer when he is going to be spliced, a little bit nervous, eh? But you are right—and I'm right, and we are all right—it is the best thing for us both. It will make a deuced fine estate; but hang it! you know a fellow's never satisfied. And I suppose I'm a bit put out by that disreputable dog's being here—I mean Lake; not that I need care more than Dorcas, or anyone else; but he's no credit to the family, you see, and I never could abide him. I've half a mind, Charlie, to tell you a thing; but hang it! you're such a demure old maid of a chap. Will you have a cigar?'
'Well, I believe two's enough for me,' and he looked up at the stars.
'I've a notion of running up to town, only for a day or two, before this business comes off, just on the sly; you'll not mention it, and I'll have a word with Lake, quite friendly, of course; but I'll shut him up, and that's all. I wonder he did not dine here to-day. Did you ever see so pushing a brute?'
So Wylder chucked away his cigar, and stood for a minute with his hands in his pockets looking up at the stars, as if reading fortunes there.
I had an unpleasant feeling that Mark Wylder was about some mischief—a suspicion that some game of mine and countermine was going on between him and Lake, to which I had no clue whatsoever.
Mark had the frankness of callosity, and could recount his evil deeds and confess his vices with hilarity and detail, and was prompt to take his part in a lark, and was a remarkably hard hitter, and never shrank from the brunt of the row; and with these fine qualities, and a much superior knowledge of the ways of the flash world, had commanded my boyish reverence and a general popularity among strangers. But, with all this, he could be as secret as the sea with which he was conversant, and as hard as a stonewall, when it answered his purpose. He had no lack of cunning, and a convenient fund of cool cruelty when that stoical attribute was called for. Years, I dare say, and a hard life and profligacy, and command, had not made him less selfish or more humane, or abated his craft and resolution.
If one could only see it, the manoeuvring and the ultimate collision of two such generals as he and Lake would be worth observing.
I dare say my last night's adventure tended to make me more nervous and prone to evil anticipation. And although my quarters had been changed to the lower storey, I grew uncomfortable as it waxed late, and half regretted that I had not migrated to the 'Brandon Arms.'
Uncle Lorne, however, made me no visit that night. Once or twice I fancied something, and started up in my bed. It was fancy, merely. What state had I really been in, when I saw that long-chinned apparition of the pale portrait? Many a wiser man than I had been mystified by dyspepsia and melancholic vapours.
DORCAS SHOWS HER JEWELS TO MISS LAKE.
Stanley Lake and his sister dined next day at Brandon. Under the cold shadow of Lady Chelford, the proprieties flourished, and generally very little else. Awful she was, and prompt to lecture young people before their peers, and spoke her mind with fearful directness and precision. But sometimes she would talk, and treat her hearers to her recollections, and recount anecdotes with a sort of grim cleverness, not wholly unamusing.
She did not like Wylder, I thought, although she had been the inventor and constructor of the family alliance of which he was the hero. I did not venture to cultivate her; and Miss Brandon had been, from the first, specially cold and repellent to Captain Lake. There was nothing very genial or promising, therefore, in the relations of our little party, and I did not expect a very agreeable evening.
Notwithstanding all this, however, our dinner was, on the whole, much pleasanter than I anticipated. Stanley Lake could be very amusing; but I doubt if our talk would quite stand the test of print. I often thought if one of those artists who photograph language and thought—the quiet, clever 'reporters,' to whom England is obliged for so much of her daily entertainment, of her social knowledge, and her political safety, were, pencil in hand, to ensconce himself behind the arras, and present us, at the close of the agreeable banquet, with a literal transcript of the feast of reason, which we give and take with so much complacency—whether it would quite satisfy us upon reconsideration.
When I entered the drawing-room after dinner, Lord Chelford was plainly arguing a point with the young ladies, and by the time I drew near, it was Miss Lake's turn to speak.
'Flattering of mankind, I am sure, I have no talent for; and without flattering and wheedling you'll never have conjugal obedience. Don't you remember Robin Hood? how—
'The mother of Robin said to her husband, My honey, my love, and my dear.'
And all this for leave to ride with her son to see her own brother at Gamwell.'
'I remember,' said Dorcas, with a smile. 'I wonder what has become of that old book, with its odd little woodcuts.
'And he said, I grant thee thy boon, gentle Joan! Take one of my horses straightway.'
'Well, though the book is lost, we retain the moral, you see,' said Rachel with a little laugh; 'and it has always seemed to me that if it had not been necessary to say, "my honey, my love, and my dear," that good soul would not have said it, and you may be pretty sure that if she had not, and with the suitable by-play too, she might not have ridden to Gamwell that day.'
'And you don't think you could have persuaded yourself to repeat that little charm, which obtained her boon and one of his horses straightway?' said Lord Chelford.
'Well, I don't know what a great temptation and a contumacious husband might bring one to; but I'm afraid I'm a stubborn creature, and have not the feminine gift of flattery. If, indeed, he felt his inferiority and owned his dependence, I think I might, perhaps, have called him "my honey, my love, and my dear," and encouraged and comforted him; but to buy my personal liberty, and the right to visit my brother at Gamwell—never!'
And yet she looked, Lord Chelford thought, very goodhumoured and pleasant, and he fancied a smile from her might do more with some men than all gentle Joan's honeyed vocabulary.
'I own,' said Lord Chelford, laughing, 'that, from prejudice, I suppose, I am in favour of the apostolic method, and stand up for the divine right of my sex; but then, don't you see, it is your own fault, if you make it a question of right, when you may make it altogether one of fascination?'
'Who, pray, is disputing the husband's right to rule?' demanded old Lady Chelford unexpectedly.
'I am very timidly defending it against very serious odds,' answered her son.
'Tut, tut! my dears, what's all this; you must obey your husbands,' cried the dowager, who put down nonsense with a high hand, and had ruled her lord with a rod of iron.
'That's no tradition of the Brandons,' said Miss Dorcas, quietly.
'The Brandons—pooh! my dear—it is time the Brandons should grow like other people. Hitherto, the Brandon men have all, without exception, been the wickedest in all England, and the women the handsomest and the most self-willed. Of course the men could not be obeyed in all things, nor the women disobeyed. I'm a Brandon myself, Dorcas, so I've a right to speak. But the words are precise—honour and obey—and obey you must; though, of course you may argue a point, if need be, and let your husband hear reason.'
And, having ruled the point, old Lady Chelford leaned back and resumed her doze.
There was no longer anything playful in Dorcas's look. On the contrary, something fierce and lurid, which I thought wonderfully becoming; and after a little she said—
'I promised, Rachel, to show you my jewels. Come now—will you?—and see them.'
And she placed Rachel's hand on her arm, and the two young ladies departed.
'Are you well, dear?' asked Rachel when they reached her room.
Dorcas was very pale, and her gaze was stern, and something undefinably wild in her quietude.
'What day of the month is this?' said Dorcas.
'The eighth—is not it?—yes, the eighth,' answered Rachel.
'And our marriage is fixed for the twenty-second—just a fortnight hence. I am going to tell you, Rachel, what I have resolved on.'
'How really beautiful these diamonds are!—quite superb.'
'Yes,' said Dorcas, opening the jewel-cases, which she had taken from her cabinet, one after the other.
'And these pearls! how very magnificent! I had no idea Mark Wylder's taste was so exquisite.'
'Yes, very magnificent, I suppose.'
'How charming—quite regal—you will look, Dorcas!'
Dorcas smiled strangely, and her bosom heaved a little, Rachel thought. Was it elation, or was there not something wildly bitter gleaming in that smile?
'I must look a little longer at these diamonds.'
'As long, dear, as you please. You are not likely, Rachel, to see them again.'
From the blue flash of the brilliants Rachel in honest amazement raised her eyes to her cousin's face. The same pale smile was there; the look was oracular and painful. Had she overheard a part of that unworthy talk of Wylder's at the dinner-table, the day before, and mistaken Rachel's share in the dialogue?
And Dorcas said—
'You have heard of the music on the waters that lures mariners to destruction. The pilot leaves the rudder, and leans over the prow, and listens. They steer no more, but drive before the wind; and what care they for wreck or drowning?'
I suppose it was the same smile; but in Rachel s eyes, as pictures will, it changed its character with her own change of thought, and now it seemed the pale rapt smile of one who hears music far off, or sees a vision.
'Rachel, dear, I sometimes think there is an evil genius attendant on our family,' continued Dorcas in the same subdued tone, which, in its very sweetness, had so sinister a sound in Rachel's ear. 'From mother to child, from child to grandchild, the same influence continues; and, one after another, wrecks the daughters of our family—a wayward family, and full of misery. Here I stand, forewarned, with my eyes open, determinedly following in the funereal footsteps of those who have gone their way before me. These jewels all go back to Mr. Wylder. He never can be anything to me. I was, I thought, to build up our house. I am going, I think, to lay it in the dust. With the spirit of the insane, I feel the spirit of a prophetess, too, and I see the sorrow that awaits me. You will see.'
'Dorcas, darling, you are certainly ill. What is the matter?'
'No, dear Rachel, not ill, only maybe agitated a little. You must not touch the bell—listen to me; but first promise, so help you Heaven, you will keep my secret.'
'I do promise, indeed Dorcas, I swear I'll not repeat one word you tell me.'
'It has been a vain struggle. I know he's a bad man, a worthless man—selfish, cruel, maybe. Love is not blind with me, but quite insane. He does not know, nor you, nor anyone; and now, Rachel, I tell you what was unknown to all but myself and Heaven—looking neither for counsel, nor for pity, nor for sympathy, but because I must, and you have sworn to keep my secret. I love your brother. Rachel, you must try to like me.'
She threw her arms round her cousin's neck, and Rachel felt in her embrace the vibration of an agony.
She was herself so astonished that for a good while she could hardly collect her thoughts or believe her senses. Was it credible? Stanley! whom she had received with a coldness, if not aversion, so marked, that, if he had a spark of Rachel's spirit, he would never have approached her more! Then came the thought—perhaps they understood one another, and that was the meaning of Stanley's unexpected visit?
'Well, Dorcas, dear, I am utterly amazed. But does Stanley—he can hardly hope?'
Dorcas removed her arms from her cousin's neck; her face was pale, and her cheeks wet with tears, which she did not wipe away.
'Sit down by me, Rachel. No, he does not like me—that is—I don't know; but, I am sure, he can't suspect that I like him. It was my determination it should not be. I resolved, Rachel, quite to extinguish the madness; but I could not. It was not his doing, nor mine, but something else. There are some families, I think, too wicked for Heaven to protect, and they are given over to the arts of those who hated them in life and pursue them after death; and this is the meaning of the curse that has always followed us. No good will ever happen us, and I must go like the rest.'
There was a short silence, and Rachel gazed on the carpet in troubled reflection, and then, with an anxious look, she took her cousin's hand, and said—
'Dorcas, you must think of this no more. I am speaking against my brother's interest. But you must not sacrifice yourself, your fortune, and your happiness, to a shadow; whatever his means are, they hardly suffice for his personal expenses—indeed, they don't suffice, for I have had to help him. But that is all trifling compared with other considerations. I am his sister, and, though he has shown little love for me, I am not without affection—and strong affection—for him; but I must and will speak frankly. You could not, I don't think anyone could be happy with Stanley for her husband. You don't know him: he's profligate; he's ill-tempered; he's cold; he's selfish; he's secret. He was a spoiled boy, totally without moral education; he might, perhaps, have been very different, but he is what he is, and I don't think he'll ever change.'
'He may be what he will. It is vain reasoning with that which is not reason; the battle is over; possibly he may never know, and that might be best for both—but be it how it may, I will never marry anyone else.'
'Dorcas, dear, you must not speak to Lady Chelford, or to Mark Wylder, to-night. It is too serious a step to be taken in haste.'
'There has been no haste, Rachel, and there can be no change.'
'And what reason can you give?'
'None; no reason,' said Dorcas, slowly.
'Wylder would have been suitable in point of wealth. Not so well, I am sure, as you might have married; but neither would he be a good husband, though not so bad as Stanley; and I do not think that Mark Wylder will quietly submit to his disappointment.'
'It was to have been simply a marriage of two estates. It was old Lady Chelford's plan. I have now formed mine, and all that's over. Let him do what he will—I believe a lawsuit is his worst revenge—I'm indifferent.'
Just then a knock came to the chamber door.
'Come in,' said Miss Brandon: and her maid entered to say that the carriage, please Ma'am, was at the door to take Miss Lake home.
'I had no idea it was so late,' said Rachel.
'Stay, dear, don't go for a moment. Jones, bring Miss Lake's cloak and bonnet here. And now, dear,' she said, after a little pause, 'you'll remember your solemn promise?'
'I never broke my word, dear Dorcas; your secret is safe.'
'And, Rachel, try to like me.'
'I love you better, Dorcas, than I thought I ever could. Good-night, dear.'
And the young ladies parted with a kiss, and then another.
'JENNY, PUT THE KETTLE ON.'
Old Lady Chelford, having despatched a sharp and unceremonious message to her young kinswoman, absent without leave, warning her, in effect, that if she returned to the drawing-room it would be to preside, alone, over gentlemen, departed, somewhat to our secret relief.
Upon this, on Lord Chelford's motion, in our forlorn condition, we went to the billiard-room, and there, under the bright lights, and the gay influence of that wonderful game, we forgot our cares, and became excellent friends apparently—'cuts,' 'canons,' 'screws,' 'misses,' 'flukes'—Lord Chelford joked, Wylder 'chaffed,' even Lake seemed to enjoy himself; and the game proceeded with animation and no lack of laughter, beguiling the watches of the night; and we were all amazed, at length, to find how very late it was. So we laid down our cues, with the customary ejaculations of surprise.
We declined wine and water, and all other creature comforts. Wylder and Lake had a walk before them, and we bid Lord Chelford 'good-night' in the passage, and I walked with them through the deserted and nearly darkened rooms.
Our talk grew slow, and our spirits subsided in this changed and tenebrose scenery. The void and the darkness brought back, I suppose, my recollection of the dubious terms on which these young men stood, and a feeling of the hollowness and delusion of the genial hours just passed under the brilliant lights, together with an unpleasant sense of apprehension.
On coming out upon the door-steps we all grew silent.
The moon was low, and its yellow disk seemed, as it sometimes does, dilated to a wondrous breadth, as its edge touched the black outline of the distant woods. I half believe in presentiments, and I felt one now, in the chill air, the sudden silence, and the watchful gaze of the moon. I suspect that Wylder and Lake, too, felt something of the same ominous qualm, for I thought their faces looked gloomy in the light, as they stood together buttoning their loose wrappers and lighting their cigars.
With a 'good-night, good-night,' we parted, and I heard their retreating steps crunching along the walk that led to Redman's Hollow, and by Miss Rachel's quiet habitation. I heard no talking, such as comes between whiffs with friendly smokers, side by side; and, silent as mutes at a funeral, they walked on, and soon the fall of their footsteps was heard no more, and I re-entered the hall and shut the door. The level moonlight was shining through the stained heraldic window, and fell bright on the portrait of Uncle Lorne, at the other end, throwing a patch of red, like a stain, on one side of its pale forehead.
I had forgot, at the moment, that the ill-omened portrait hung there, and a sudden horror smote me. I thought of what my vision said of the 'blood upon my forehead,' and, by Jove! there it was!
At this moment the large white Marseilles waistcoat of grave Mr. Larcom appeared, followed by a tall powdered footman, and their candles and business-like proceedings frightened away the phantoms. So I withdrew to my chamber, where, I am glad to say, I saw nothing of Uncle Lorne.
Miss Lake, as she drove that night toward Gylingden, said little to the vicar's wife, whose good husband had been away to Friars, making a sick-call, and she prattled on very merrily about his frugal little tea awaiting his late return, and asked her twice on the way home whether it was half-past nine, for she did not boast a watch; and in the midst of her prattle was peeping at the landmarks of their progress.
'Oh, I'm so glad—here's the finger post, at last!' and then—'Well, here we are at the "Cat and Fiddle;" I thought we'd never pass it.'
And, at last, the brougham stopped at the little garden-gate, at the far end of the village; and the good little mamma called to her maid-of-all-work from the window—
'Has the master come yet, Becky?'
'No, Ma'am, please.'
And I think she offered up a little thanksgiving, she so longed to give him his tea herself; and then she asked—
'Is our precious mannikin asleep?' Which also being answered happily, as it should be, she bid her fussy adieux, with a merry smile, and hurried, gabbling amicably with her handmaid, across the little flower-garden; and Miss Lake was shut in and drove on alone, under the thick canopy of old trees, and up the mill-road, lighted by the flashing lamps, to her own little precincts, and was, in turn, at home—solitary, triste, but still her home.
'Get to your bed, Margery, child, you are sleepy,' said the young lady kindly to her queer little maid-of-honour. Rachel was one of those persons who, no matter what may be upon their minds, are quickly impressible by the scenes in which they find themselves. She stepped into her little kitchen—always a fairy kitchen, so tiny, so white, so raddled, and shining all over with that pleasantest of all effulgence—burnished tins, pewters, and the homely decorations of the dresser—and she looked all round and smiled pleasantly, and kissed old Tamar, and said—
'So, my dear old fairy, here's your Cinderella home again from the ball, and I've seen nothing so pretty as this since I left Redman's Farm. How white your table is, how nice your chairs; I wish you'd change with me and let me be cook week about; and, really the fire is quite pleasant to-night. Come, make a cup of tea, and tell us a story, and frighten me and Margery before we go to our beds. Sit down, Margery, I'm only here by permission. What do you mean by standing?' And the young lady, with a laugh, sat down, looking so pleased, and good-natured, and merry, that even old Tamar was fain to smile a glimmering smile; and little Margery actively brought the tea-caddy; and the kettle, being in a skittish singing state, quickly went off in a boil, and Tamar actually made tea in her brown tea-pot.
'Oh, no; the delf cups and saucers;—it will be twice as good in them;' and as the handsome mistress of the mansion, sitting in the deal chair, loosened her cloak and untied her bonnet, she chatted away, to the edification of Margery and the amusement of both.
This little extemporised bivouac, as it were, with her domestics, delighted the young belle. Vanity of vanities, as Mr. Thackeray and King Solomon cry out in turn. Silver trays and powdered footmen, and Utrecht, velvet upholstery—miserable comforters! What saloon was ever so cheery as this, or flashed all over in so small a light so splendidly, or yielded such immortal nectar from chased teapot and urn, as this brewed in brown crockery from the roaring kettle?
So Margery, sitting upon her stool in the background—for the Queen had said it, and sit she must—and grinning from ear to ear, in a great halo of glory, partook of tea.
'Well, Tamar, where's your story?' said the young lady.
'Story! La! bless you, dear Miss Radie, where should I find a story? My old head's a poor one to remember,' whimpered white Tamar.
'Anything, no matter what—a ghost or a murder.'
Old Tamar shook her head.
'Or an elopement?'
Another shake of the head.
'Or a mystery—or even a dream?'
'Well—a dream! Sometimes I do dream. I dreamed how Master Stanley was coming, the night before.'
'You did, did you? Selfish old thing! and you meant to keep it all to yourself. What was it?'
Tamar looked anxiously and suspiciously in the kitchen fire, and placed her puckered hand to the side of her white linen cap.
'I dreamed, Ma'am, the night before he came, a great fellow was at the hall-door.'
'Yes, Ma'am, this hall-door. So muffled up I could not see his face; and he pulls out a letter all over red.'
'Aye, Miss; a red letter.'
'No, Miss, red paper, written with black, and directed for you.'
'And so, Miss, in my dream, I gave it you in the drawing-room; and you opened it, and leaned your hand upon your head, sick-like, reading it. I never saw you read a letter so serious-like before. And says you to me, Miss, "It's all about Master Stanley; he is coming." And sure enough, here he was quite unexpected, next morning.'
'And was there no more?' asked Miss Lake.
'No more, Miss. I awoke just then.'
'It is odd,' said Miss Lake, with a little laugh. 'Had you been thinking of him lately?'
'Not a bit, Ma'am. I don't know when.'
'Well, it certainly is very odd.'
At all events, it had glanced upon a sensitive recollection unexpectedly. The kitchen was only a kitchen now; and the young lady, on a sudden, looked thoughtful—perhaps a little sad. She rose; and old Tamar got up before her, with her scared, secret look, clothed in white—the witch, whose word had changed all, and summoned round her those shapes, which threw their indistinct shadows on the walls and faces around.
'Light the candles in the drawing-room, Margery, and then, child, go to your bed,' said the young lady, awakening from an abstraction. 'I don't mind dreams, Tamar, nor fortune-tellers—I've dreamed so many good dreams, and no good ever came of them. But talking of Stanley reminds me of trouble and follies that I can't help, or prevent. He has left the army, Tamar, and I don't know what his plans are.'
'Ah! poor child; he was always foolish and changeable, and a deal too innocent for them wicked officer-gentlemen; and I'm glad he's not among them any longer to learn bad ways—I am.'
So, the drawing-room being prepared, Rachel bid Tamar and little Margery good-night, and the sleepy little handmaid stumped off to her bed; and white old Tamar, who had not spoken so much for a month before, put on her solemn round spectacles, and by her dipt candle read her chapter in the ponderous Bible she had thumbed so well, and her white lips told over the words as she read them in silence.
Old Tamar, I always thought, had seen many untold things in her day, and some of her recollections troubled her, I dare say; and she held her tongue, and knitted her white worsteds when she could sit quiet—which was most hours of the day; and now and then when evil remembrances, maybe, gathered round her solitude, she warned them off with that book of power—so that my recollection of her is always the same white-clad, cadaverous old woman, with a pair of barnacles on her nose, and her look of secrecy and suffering turned on the large print of that worn volume, or else on the fumbling-points of her knitting-needles.
It was a small house, this Redman's Farm, but very silent, for all that, when the day's work was over; and very solemn, too, the look-out from the window among the colonnades of tall old trees, on the overshadowed earth, and through them into deepest darkness; the complaining of the lonely stream far down is the only sound in the air.
There was but one imperfect vista, looking down the glen, and this afforded no distant view—only a downward slant in the near woodland, and a denser background of forest rising at the other side, and to-night mistily gilded by the yellow moon-beams, the moon herself unseen.
Rachel had opened her window-shutters, as was her wont when the moon was up, and with her small white hands on the window-sash, looked into the wooded solitudes, lost in haunted darkness in every direction but one, and there massed in vaporous and discoloured foliage, hardly more distinct, or less solemn.
'Poor old Tamar says her prayers, and reads her Bible; I wish I could. How often I wish it. That good, simple vicar—how unlike his brother—is wiser, perhaps, than all the shrewd people that smile at him. He used to talk to me; but I've lost that—yes—I let him understand I did not care for it, and so that good influence is gone from me—graceless creature. No one seemed to care, except poor old Tamar, whether I ever said a prayer, or heard any good thing; and when I was no more than ten years old, I refused to say my prayers for her. My poor father. Well, Heaven help us all.'
So she stood in the same sad attitude, looking out upon the shadowy scene, in a forlorn reverie.
Her interview with Dorcas remained on her memory like an odd, clear, half-horrible dream. What a dazzling prospect it opened for Stanley; what a dreadful one might it not prepare for Dorcas. What might not arise from such a situation between Stanley and Mark Wylder, each in his way a worthy representative of the ill-conditioned and terrible race whose blood he inherited? Was this doomed house of Brandon never to know repose or fraternity?
Was it credible? Had it actually occurred, that strange confession of Dorcas Brandon's? Could anything be imagined so mad—so unaccountable? She reviewed Stanley in her mind's eye. She was better acquainted, perhaps, with his defects than his fascinations, and too familiar with both to appreciate at all their effect upon a stranger.
'What can she see in him? There's nothing remarkable in Stanley, poor fellow, except his faults. There are much handsomer men than he, and many as amusing—and he with no estate.'
She had heard of charms and philtres. How could she account for this desperate hallucination?
Rachel was troubled by a sort of fear to-night, and the low fever of an undefined expectation was upon her. She turned from the window, intending to write two letters, which she had owed too long—young ladies' letters—for Miss Lake, like many of her sex, as I am told, had several little correspondences on her hands; and as she turned, with a start, she saw old Tamar standing in the door-way, looking at her.