HotFreeBooks.com
Wylder's Hand
by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

'Tamar!'

'Yes, Miss Rachel.'

'Why do you come so softly, Tamar? Do you know, you frightened me?'

'I thought I'd look in, Miss, before I went to bed, just to see if you wanted anything.'

'No—nothing, thank you, dear Tamar.'

'And I don't think, Miss Rachel, you are quite well to-night, though you are so gay—you're pale, dear; and there's something on your mind. Don't be thinking about Master Stanley; he's out of the army now, and I'm thankful for it; and make your mind easy about him; and would not it be better, dear, you went to your bed, you rise so early.'

'Very true, good old Tamar, but to-night I must write a letter—not a long one, though—and I assure you, I'm quite well. Good-night, Tamar.'

Tamar stood for a moment with her odd weird look upon her, and then bidding her good-night, glided stiffly away, shutting the door.

So Rachel sat down to her desk and began to write; but she could not get into the spirit of her letter; on the contrary, her mind wandered away, and she found herself listening, every now and then, and at last she fancied that old Tamar, about whom that dream, and her unexpected appearance at the door, had given her a sort of spectral feeling that night, was up and watching her; and the idea of this white sentinel outside her door excited her so unpleasantly, that she opened it, but found no Tamar there; and then she revisited the kitchen, but that was empty too, and the fire taken down. And, finally, she passed into the old woman's bed-chamber, whom she saw, her white head upon her pillow, dreaming again, perhaps. And so, softly closing her door, she left her to her queer visions and deathlike slumber.



CHAPTER XVII.

RACHEL LAKE SEES WONDERFUL THINGS BY MOONLIGHT FROM HER WINDOW.

Though Rachel was unfit for letter-writing, she was still more unfit for slumber. She leaned her temple on her hand, and her rich light hair half covered her fingers, and her amazing interview with Dorcas was again present with her, and the same feeling of bewilderment. The suddenness and the nature of the disclosures were dream-like and unreal, and the image of Dorcas remained impressed upon her sight; not like Dorcas, though the same, but something ghastly, wan, glittering, and terrible, like a priestess at a solitary sacrifice.

It was late now, not far from one o'clock, and around her the terrible silence of a still night. All those small sounds lost in the hum of midday life now came into relief—a ticking in the wainscot, a crack now and then in the joining of the furniture, and occasionally the tap of a moth against the window pane from outside, sounds sharp and odd, which made her wish the stillness of the night were not so intense.

As from her little table she looked listlessly through the window, she saw against the faint glow of the moonlight, the figure of a man who seized the paling and vaulted into the flower garden, and with a few swift, stumbling strides over the flower-beds, reached the window, and placing his pale face close to the glass, she saw his eyes glittering through it; he tapped—or rather beat on the pane with his fingers—and at the same time he said, repeatedly: 'Let me in; let me in.'

Her first impression, when she saw this person cross the little fence at the road-side was, that Mark Wylder was the man. But she was mistaken; the face and figure were Stanley Lake's.

She would have screamed in the extremity of her terror, but that her voice for some seconds totally failed her; and recognising her brother, though like Rhoda, in Holy Writ, she doubted whether it was not his angel, she rose up, and with an awful ejaculation, she approached the window.

'Let me in, Radie; d— you, let me in,' he repeated, drumming incessantly on the glass. There was no trace now of his sleepy jeering way. Rachel saw that something was very wrong, and beckoned him toward the porch in silence, and having removed the slender fastenings of the door, it opened, and he entered in a rush of damp night air. She took him by the hand, and he shook hers mechanically, like a man rescued from shipwreck, and plainly not recollecting himself well.

'Stanley, dear, what's the matter, in Heaven's name?' she whispered, so soon as she had got him into her little drawing-room.

'He has done it; d— him, he has done it,' gasped Stanley Lake.

He looked in her face with a glazed and ashy stare. His hat remained on his head, overshadowing his face; and his boots were soiled with clay, and his wrapping coat marked, here and there, with the green of the stems and branches of trees, through which he had made his way.

'I see, Stanley, you've had a scene with Mark Wylder; I warned you of your danger—you have had the worst of it.'

'I spoke to him. He took a course I did not expect. I'm not well.'

'You've broken your promise. I see you have used me. How base; how stupid!'

'How could I tell he was such a fiend?'

'I told you how it would be. He has frightened you,' said Rachel, herself frightened.

'D— him; I wish I had done as you said. I wish I had never come here. Give me a glass of wine. He has ruined me.'

'You cruel, wretched creature!' said Rachel, now convinced that he had compromised her as he threatened.

'Yes, I was wrong; I'm sorry; things have turned out different. Who's that?' said Lake, grasping her wrist.

'Who—where—Mark Wylder?'

'No; it's nothing, I believe.'

'Where is he? Where have you left him?'

'Up there, at the pathway, near the stone steps.'

'Waiting there?'

'Well, yes; and I don't think I'll go back, Radie.'

'You shall go back, Sir, and carry my message; or, no, I could not trust you. I'll go with you and see him, and disabuse him. How could you—how could you, Stanley?'

'It was a mistake, altogether; I'm sorry, but I could not tell there was such a devil on the earth.'

'Yes, I told you so. He has frightened you' said Rachel.

'He has, maybe. At any rate, I was a fool, and I think I'm ruined; and I'm afraid, Rachel, you'll be inconvenienced too.'

'Yes, you have made him savage and brutal; and between you, I shall be called in question, you wretched fool!'

Stanley was taking these hard terms very meekly for a savage young coxcomb like him. Perhaps they bore no very distinct meaning just then to his mind. Perhaps it was preoccupied with more exciting ideas; or, it may be, his agitation and fear cried 'amen' to the reproach; at all events, he only said, in a pettish but deprecatory sort of way—

'Well, where's the good of scolding? how can I help it now?'

'What's your quarrel? why does he wait for you there? why has he sent you here? It must concern me, Sir, and I insist on hearing it all.'

'So you shall, Radie; only have patience just a minute—and give me a little wine or water—anything.'

'There is the key. There's some wine in the press, I think.'

He tried to open it, but his hand shook. He saw his sister look at him, and he flung the keys on the table rather savagely, with, I dare say, a curse between his teeth.

There was running all this time in Rachel's mind, and had been almost since the first menacing mention of Wylder's name by her brother, an indistinct remembrance of something unpleasant or horrible. It may have been mere fancy, or it may have referred to something long ago imperfectly heard. It was a spectre of mist, that evaporated before she could fix her eyes on it, but was always near her elbow.

Rachel took the key with a faint gleam of scorn on her face and brought out the wine in silence.

He took a tall-stemmed Venetian glass that stood upon the cabinet, an antique decoration, and filled it with sherry—a strange revival of old service! How long was it since lips had touched its brim before, and whose? Lovers', maybe, and how. How long since that cold crystal had glowed with the ripples of wine? This, at all events, was its last service. It is an old legend of the Venetian glass—its shivering at touch of poison; and there are those of whom it is said, 'the poison of asps is under their lips.'

'What's that?' ejaculated Rachel, with a sudden shriek—that whispered shriek, so expressive and ghastly, that you, perhaps, have once heard in your life—and her very lips grew white.

'Hollo!' cried Lake. He was standing with his back to the window, and sprang forward, as pale as she, and grasped her, with a white leer that she never forgot, over his shoulder, and the Venice glass was shivered on the ground.

'Who's there?' he whispered.

And Rachel, in a whisper, ejaculated the awful name that must not be taken in vain.

She sat down. She was looking at him with a wild, stern stare, straight in the face, and he still holding her arm, and close to her.

'I see it all now,' she whispered.

'Who—what—what is it?' said he.

'I could not have fancied that,' she whispered with a gasp.

Stanley looked round him with pale and sharpened features.

'What the devil is it! If that scoundrel had come to kill us you could not cry out louder,' he whispered, with an oath. 'Do you want to wake your people up?'

'Oh! Stanley,' she repeated, in a changed and horror-stricken way. 'What a fool I've been. I see it at last; I see it all now,' and she waved her white hands together very slowly towards him, as mesmerisers move theirs.

There was a silence of some seconds, and his yellow ferine gaze met hers strangely.

'You were always a sharp girl, Radie, and I think you do see it,' he said at last, very quietly.

'The witness—the witness—the dreadful witness!' she repeated.

'I'll show you, though, it's not so bad as you fancy. I'm sorry I did not take your advice; but how, I say, could I know he was such a devil? I must go back to him. I only came down to tell you, because Radie, you know you proposed it yourself; you must come, too—you must, Radie.'

'Oh, Stanley, Stanley, Stanley!'

'Why, d— it, it can't be helped now; can it?' said he, with a peevish malignity. But she was right; there was something of the poltroon in him, and he was trembling.

'Why could you not leave me in peace, Stanley?'

'I can't go without you, Rachel. I won't; and if we don't we're both ruined,' he said, with a bleak oath.

'Yes, Stanley, I knew you were a coward,' she replied, fiercely and wildly.

'You're always calling names, d— you; do as you like. I care less than you think how it goes.'

'No, Stanley; you know me too well. Ah! No, you sha'n't be lost if I can help it.' Rachel shook her head as she spoke, with a bitter smile and a dreadful sigh.

Then they whispered together for three or four minutes, and Rachel clasped her jewelled fingers tight across her forehead, quite wildly, for a minute.

'You'll come then?' said Stanley.

She made no answer, and he repeated the question.

By this time she was standing; and without answering, she began mechanically to get on her cloak and hat.

'You must drink some wine first; he may frighten you, perhaps. You must take it, Rachel, or I'll not go.'

Stanley Lake was swearing, in his low tones, like a swell-mobsman to-night.

Rachel seemed to have made up her mind to submit passively to whatever he required. Perhaps, indeed, she thought there was wisdom in his advice. At all events she drank some wine.

Rachel Lake was one of those women who never lose their presence of mind, even under violent agitation, for long, and who generally, even when highly excited, see, and do instinctively, and with decision, what is best to be done; and now, with dilated eyes and white face, she walked noiselessly into the kitchen, listened there for a moment, then stole lightly to the servants' sleeping-room, and listened there at the door, and lastly looked in, and satisfied herself that both were still sleeping. Then as cautiously and swiftly she returned to her drawing-room, and closed the window-shutters and drew the curtain, and signalling to her brother they went stealthily forth into the night air, closing the hall-door, and through the little garden, at the outer gate of which they paused.

'I don't know, Rachel—I don't like it—I'm not fit for it. Go back again—go in and lock your door—we'll not go to him—you need not, you know. He may stay where he is—let him—I'll not return. I say, I'll see him no more. I'll get away. I'll consult Larkin—shall I? Though that won't do—he's in Wylder's interest—curse him. What had I best do? I'm not equal to it.'

'We must go, Stanley. You said right just now; be resolute—we are both ruined unless we go. You have brought it to that—you must come.'

'I'm not fit for it, I tell you—I'm not. You were right, Radie—I think I'm not equal to a business of this sort, and I won't expose you to such a scene. You're not equal to it either, I think,' and Lake leaned on the paling.

'Don't mind me—you haven't much hitherto. Go or stay, I'm equally ruined now, but not equally disgraced; and go we must, for it is your only chance of escape. Come, Stanley—for shame!'

In a few minutes more they were walking in deep darkness and silence, side by side, along the path, which diverging from the mill-road, penetrates the coppice of that sequestered gorge, along the bottom of which flows a tributary brook that finds its way a little lower down into the mill-stream. This deep gully in character a good deal resembles Redman's Glen, into which it passes, being fully as deep, and wooded to the summit at both sides, but much steeper and narrower, and therefore many shades darker.

They had now reached those rude stone steps, some ten or fifteen in number, which conduct the narrow footpath up a particularly steep acclivity, and here Lake lost courage again, for they distinctly heard the footsteps that paced the platform above.



CHAPTER XVIII.

MARK WYLDER'S SLAVE.

Nearly two hours had passed before they returned. As they did so, Rachel Lake went swiftly and silently before her brother. The moon had gone down, and the glen was darker than ever. Noiselessly they re-entered the little hall of Redman's Farm. The candles were still burning in the sitting-room, and the light was dazzling after the profound darkness in which they had been for so long.

Captain Lake did not look at all like a London dandy now. His dress was confoundedly draggled; the conventional countenance, too, was wanting. There was a very natural savagery and dejection there, and a wild leer in his yellow eyes.

Rachel sat down. No living woman ever showed a paler face, and she stared with a look that was sharp and stern upon the wainscot before her.

For some minutes they were silent; and suddenly, with an exceeding bitter cry, she stood up, close to him, seizing him in her tiny hands by the collar, and with wild eyes gazing into his, she said—

'See what you've brought me to—wretch, wretch, wretch!'

And she shook him with violence as she spoke. It was wonderful how that fair young face could look so terrible.

'There, Radie, there,' said Lake, disengaging her fingers. 'You're a little hysterical, that's all. It will be over in a minute; but don't make a row. You're a good girl, Radie. For Heaven's sake, don't spoil all by folly now.'

He was overawed and deprecatory.

'A slave! only think—a slave! Oh frightful, frightful! Is it a dream? Oh frightful, frightful! Stanley, Stanley, it would be mercy to kill me,' she broke out again.

'Now, Radie, listen to reason, and don't make a noise; you know we agreed, you must go, and I can't go with you.'

Lake was cooler by this time, and his sister more excited than before they went out.

'I used to be brave; my courage I think is gone; but who'd have imagined what's before me?'

Stanley walked to the window and opened the shutter a little. He forgot how dark it was. The moon had gone down. He looked at his watch and then at Rachel. She was sitting, and in no calmer state; serene enough in attitude, but the terribly wild look was unchanged. He looked at his watch again, and held it to his ear, and consulted it once more before he placed the tiny gold disk again in his pocket.

'This won't do,' he muttered.

With one of the candles in his hand he went out and made a hurried, peeping exploration, and soon, for the rooms were quickly counted in Redman's Farm, he found her chamber small, neat, simplex munditiis. Bright and natty were the chintz curtains, and the little toilet set out, not inelegantly, and her pet piping-goldfinch asleep on his perch, with his bit of sugar between the wires of his cage; her pillow so white and unpressed, with its little edging of lace. Were slumbers sweet as of old ever to know it more? What dreams were henceforward to haunt it? Shadows were standing about that lonely bed already. I don't know whether Stanley Lake felt anything of this, being very decidedly of the earth earthy. But there are times when men are translated from their natures, and forced to be romantic and superstitious.

When he came back to the drawing-room, a toilet bottle of eau de cologne in his hand, with her lace handkerchief he bathed her temples and forehead. There was nothing very brotherly in his look as he peered into her pale, sharp features, during the process. It was the dark and pallid scrutiny of a familiar of the Holy Office, bringing a victim back to consciousness.

She was quickly better.

'There, don't mind me,' she said sharply; and getting up she looked down at her dress and thin shoes, and seeming to recollect herself, she took the candle he had just set down, and went swiftly to her room.

Gliding without noise from place to place, she packed a small black leather bag with a few necessary articles. Then changed her dress quickly, put on her walking boots, a close bonnet and thick veil, and taking her purse, she counted over its contents, and then standing in the midst of the room looked round it with a great sigh, and a strange look, as if it was all new to her. And she threw back her veil, and going hurriedly to the toilet, mechanically surveyed herself in the glass. And she looked fixedly on the pale features presented to her, and said—

'Rachel Lake, Rachel Lake! what are you now?'

And so, with knitted brows and stern lips, a cadaveric gaze was returned on her from the mirror.

A few minutes later her brother, who had been busy down stairs, put his head in and asked—

'Will you come with me now, Radie, or do you prefer to wait here?'

'I'll stay here—that is, in the drawing-room,' she answered, and the face was withdrawn.

In the little hall Stanley looked again at his watch, and getting quietly out, went swiftly through the tiny garden, and once upon the mill-road, ran at a rapid pace down towards the town.

The long street of Gylingden stretched dim and silent before him. Slumber brooded over the little town, and his steps sounded sharp and hollow among the houses. He slackened his pace, and tapped sharply at the little window of that modest post-office, at which the young ladies in the pony carriage had pulled up the day before, and within which Luke Waggot was wont to sleep in a sort of wooden box that folded up and appeared to be a chest of drawers all day. Luke took care of Mr. Larkin's dogs, and groomed Mr. Wylder's horse, and 'cleaned up' his dog-cart, for Mark being close about money, and finding that the thing was to be done more cheaply that way, put up his horse and dog-cart in the post-office premises, and so evaded the livery charges of the 'Brandon Arms.'

But Luke was not there; and Captain Lake recollecting his habits and his haunt, hurried on to the 'Silver Lion,' which has its gable towards the common, only about a hundred steps away, for distances are not great in Gylingden. Here were the flow of soul and of stout, long pipes, long yarns, and tolerably long credits; and the humble scapegraces of the town resorted thither for the pleasures of a club-life, and often revelled deep into the small hours of the morning.

So Luke came forth.

D— it, where's the note?' said the captain, rummaging uneasily in his pockets.

'You know me—eh!'

'Captain Lake. Yes, Sir.'

'Well—oh! here it is.'

It was a scrap pencilled on the back of a letter—

'LUKE WAGGOT,

'Put the horse to and drive the dog-cart to the "White House." Look out for me there. We must catch the up mail train at Dollington. Be lively. If Captain Lake chooses to drive you need not come.

'M. WYLDER.'

'I'll drive,' said Captain Lake. 'Lose no time and I'll give you half-a-crown.'

Luke stuck on his greasy wideawake, and in a few minutes more the dog-cart was trundled out into the lane, and the horse harnessed, went between the shafts with that wonderful cheerfulness with which they bear to be called up under startling circumstances at unseasonable hours.

'Easily earned, Luke,' said Captain Lake, in his soft tones.

The captain had buttoned the collar of his loose coat across his face, and it was dark beside. But Luke knew his peculiar smile, and presumed it; so he grinned facetiously as he put the coin in his breeches pocket and thanked him; and in another minute the captain, with a lighted cigar between his lips, mounted to the seat, took the reins, the horse bounded off, and away rattled the light conveyance, sparks flying from the road, at a devil of a pace, down the deserted street of Gylingden, and quickly melted in darkness.

That night a spectre stood by old Tamar's bedside, in shape of her young mistress, and shook her by the shoulder, and stooping, said sternly, close in her face—

'Tamar, I'm going away—only for a few days; and mind this—I'd rather be dead than any creature living should know it. Little Margery must not suspect—you'll manage that. Here's the key of my bed-room—say I'm sick—and you must go in and out, and bring tea and drinks, and talk and whisper a little, you understand, as you might with a sick person, and keep the shutters closed; and if Miss Brandon sends to ask me to the Hall, say I've a headache, and fear I can't go. You understand me clearly, Tamar?'

'Yes, Miss Radie,' answered old Tamar, wonder-stricken, with a strange expression of fear in her face.

'And listen,' she continued, 'you must go into my room, and bring the message back, as if from me, with my love to Miss Brandon; and if she or Mrs. William Wylder, the vicar's wife, should call to see me, always say I'm asleep and a little better. You see exactly what I mean?'

'Yes, Miss,' answered Tamar, whose eyes were fixed in a sort of fascination, full on those of her mistress.

'If Master Stanley should call, he is to do just as he pleases. You used to be accurate, Tamar; may I depend upon you?'

'Yes, Ma'am, certainly.'

'If I thought you'd fail me now, Tamar, I should never come back. Good-night, Tamar. There—don't bless me. Good-night.'

When the light wheels of the dog-cart gritted on the mill-road before the little garden gate of Redman's Farm, the tall slender figure of Rachel Lake was dimly visible, standing cloaked and waiting by it. Silently she handed her little black leather bag to her brother, and then there was a pause. He stretched his hand to help her up.

In a tone that was icy and bitter, she said—

'To save myself I would not do it. You deserve no love from me—you've showed me none—never, Stanley; and yet I'm going to give the most desperate proof of love that ever sister gave—all for your sake; and it's guilt, guilt, but my fate, and I'll go, and you'll never thank me; that's all.'

In a moment more she sat beside him; and silent as the dead in Charon's boat, away they glided toward the 'White House which lay upon the high road to Dollington.

The sleepy clerk that night in the Dollington station stamped two first-class tickets for London, one of which was for a gentleman, and the other for a cloaked lady, with a very thick veil, who stood outside on the platform; and almost immediately after the scream of the engine was heard piercing the deep tatting, the Cyclopean red lamps glared nearer and nearer, and the palpitating monster, so stupendous and so docile, came smoothly to a stand-still before the trelliswork and hollyhocks of that pretty station.



CHAPTER XIX.

THE TARN IN THE PARK.

Next morning Stanley Lake, at breakfast with the lawyer, said—

'A pretty room this is. That bow window is worth all the pictures in Brandon. To my eye there is no scenery so sweet as this, at least to breakfast by. I don't love your crags and peaks and sombre grandeur, nor yet the fat, flat luxuriance of our other counties. These undulations, and all that splendid timber, and the glorious ruins on that hillock over there! How many beautiful ruins that picturesque old fellow Cromwell has left us.'

'You don't eat your breakfast, though,' said the attorney, with a charming smile of reproach.

'Ah, thank you; I'm a bad breakfaster; that is,' said Stanley, recollecting that he had made some very creditable meals at the same table, 'when I smoke so late as I did last night.'

'You drove Mr. Wylder to Dollington?'

'Yes; he's gone to town, he says—yes, the mail train—to get some diamonds for Miss Brandon—a present—that ought to have come the day before yesterday. He says they'll never have them in time unless he goes and blows them up. Are you in his secrets at all?'

'Something in his confidence, I should hope,' said Mr. Larkin, in rather a lofty and reserved way.

'Oh, yes, of course, in serious matters; but I meant other things. You know he has been a little bit wild; and ladies, you know, ladies will be troublesome sometimes; and to say truth, I don't think the diamonds have much to say to it.'

'Oh?—hem!—well, you know, I'm not exactly the confidant Mr. Wylder would choose, I suspect, in a case of that very painful, and, I will say, distressing character—I rather think—indeed, I hope not.'

'No, of course—I dare say—but I just fancied he might want a hint about the law of the matter.'

The gracious attorney glanced at his guest with a thoroughly business-like and searching eye.

'You don't think there's any really serious annoyance—you don't know the party?' said he.

'I?—Oh, dear, no. Wylder has always been very reserved with me. He told me nothing. If he had, of course I should not have mentioned it. I only conjecture, for he really did seem to have a great deal more on his mind; and he kept me walking back and forward, near the mill-road, a precious long time. And I really think once or twice he was going to tell me.'

'Oh! you think then, Mr. Lake, there may be some serious—a—a—well, I should hope not—I do most earnestly trust not.' This was said with upturned eyes and much unction. 'But do you happen, Captain Lake, to know of any of those unfortunate, those miserable connections which young gentlemen of fashion—eh? It's very sad. Still it often needs, as you say, professional advice to solve such difficulties—it is very sad—oh! is not it sad?'

'Pray, don't let it affect your spirits,' said Lake, who was leaning back in his chair, and looking on the carpet, about a yard before his lacquered boots, in his usual sly way. 'I may be quite mistaken, you know, but I wished you to understand—having some little experience of the world, I'd be only too happy to be of any use, if you thought my diplomacy could help poor Wylder out of his trouble—that is, if there really is any. But you don't know?'

'No,' said Mr. Larkin, thoughtfully; and thoughtful he continued for a minute or two, screwing his lips gently, as was his wont, while ruminating, his long head motionless, the nails of his long and somewhat large hand tapping on the arm of his chair, with a sharp glance now and then at the unreadable visage of the cavalry officer. It was evident his mind was working, and nothing was heard in the room for a minute but the tapping of his nails on the chair, like a death-watch.

'No,' said Mr. Larkin again, 'I'm not suspicious—naturally too much the reverse, I fear; but it certainly does look odd. Did he tell the family at Brandon?'

'Certainly not, that I heard. He may have mentioned it. But I started with him, and we walked together, under the impression that he was going, as usual, to the inn, the—what d'ye call it?—"Brandon Arms;" and it was a sudden thought—now I think of it—for he took no luggage, though to be sure I dare say he has got clothes and things in town.'

'And when does he return?'

'In a day or two, at furthest,' he said.

'I wonder what they'll think of it at Brandon?' said the attorney, with a cavernous grin of sly enquiry at his companion, which, recollecting his character, he softened into a sad sort of smile, and added, 'No harm, I dare say; and, after all, you know, why should there—any man may have business; and, indeed, it is very likely, after all, that he really went about the jewels. Men are too hasty to judge one another, my dear Sir; charity, let us remember, thinketh no evil.'

'By-the-bye,' said Lake, rather briskly for him, rummaging his pockets, 'I'm glad I remembered he gave me a little note to Chelford. Are any of your people going to Brandon this morning?'

'I'll send it,' said the lawyer, eyeing the little pencilled note wistfully, which Lake presented between two fingers.

'Yes, it is to Lord Chelford,' said the attorney, with a grand sort of suavity—he liked lords—placing it, after a scrutiny, in his waistcoat pocket.

'Don't you think it had best go at once?—there may be something requiring an answer, and your post leaves, doesn't it, at twelve?'

'Oh! an answer, is there?' said Mr. Larkin, drawing it from his pocket, and looking at it again with a perceptible curiosity.

'I really can't say, not having read it, but there may,' said Captain Lake, who was now and then a little impertinent, just to keep Mr. Larkin in his place, and perhaps to hint that he understood him.

'Read it! Oh, my dear Sir, my dear Captain Lake, how could you—but, oh! no—you could not suppose I meant such an idea—oh, dear—no, no. You and I have our notions about what's gentlemanlike and professional—a—and gentlemanlike, as I say—Heaven forbid.'

'Quite so!' said Captain Lake, gently.

'Though all the world does not think with us, I can tell you, things come before us in our profession. Oh, ho! ho!' and Mr. Larkin lifted up his pink eyes and long hands, and shook his long head, with a melancholy smile and a sigh like a shudder.

When at the later breakfast, up at Brandon, that irregular pencilled scroll reached Lord Chelford's hand, he said, as he glanced on the direction—

'This is Mark Wylder's; what does he say?'

'So Mark's gone to town,' he said; 'but he'll be back again on Saturday, and in the meantime desires me to lay his heart at your feet, Dorcas. Will you read the note?'

'No,' said Dorcas, quietly.

Lady Chelford extended her long, shrivelled fingers, on which glimmered sundry jewels, and made a little nod to her son, who gave it to her, with a smile. Holding her glasses to her eyes, the note at a distance, and her head rather back, she said—

'It is not a pretty billet,' and she read in a slow and grim way:—

'DEAR CHELFORD,—I'm called up to London just for a day. No lark, but honest business. I'll return on Saturday; and tell Dorcas, with dozens of loves, I would write to her, but have not a minute for the train.

'Yours, &c.

'M. WYLDER.'

'No; it is not pretty,' repeated the old lady; and, indeed, in no sense was it. Before luncheon Captain Lake arrived.

'So Wylder has run up to town,' I said, so soon as we had shaken hands in the hall.

'Yes; I drove him to Dollington last night; we just caught the up train.'

'He says he'll be back again on Saturday,' I said.

'Saturday, is it? He seemed to think—yes—it would be only a day or so. Some jewels, I think, for Dorcas. He did not say distinctly; I only conjecture. Lady Chelford and Miss Brandon, I suppose, in the drawing-room?'

So to the drawing-room he passed.

'How is Rachel? how is your sister, Captain Lake, have you seen her to-day?' asked old Lady Chelford, rather benignantly. She chose to be gracious to the Lakes. 'Only, for a moment, thank you. She has one of her miserable headaches, poor thing; but she'll be better, she says, in the afternoon, and hopes to come up here to see you, and Miss Brandon, this evening.'

Lord Chelford and I had a pleasant walk that day to the ruins of Willerton Castle. I find in my diary a note—'Chelford tells me it is written in old surveys, Wylderton, and was one of the houses of the Wylders. What considerable people those Wylders were, and what an antique stock.'

After this he wished to make a visit to the vicar, and so we parted company. I got into Brandon Park by the pretty gate near Latham.

It was a walk of nearly three miles across the park from this point to the Hall, and the slopes and hollows of this noble, undulating plain, came out grandly in the long shadows and slanting beams of evening. That yellow, level light has, in my mind, something undefinably glorious and melancholy, such as to make almost any scenery interesting, and my solitary walk was delightful.

People must love and sympathise very thoroughly, I think, to enjoy natural scenery together. Generally it is one of the few spectacles best seen alone. The silence that supervenes is indicative of the solitary character of the enjoyment. It is a poem and a reverie. I was quite happy striding in the amber light and soft, long shadows, among the ferns, the copsewood, and the grand old clumps of timber, exploring the undulations, and the wild nooks and hollows which have each their circumscribed and sylvan charm; a wonderful interest those little park-like broken dells have always had for me; dotted with straggling birch and oak, and here and there a hoary ash tree, with a grand and melancholy grace, dreaming among the songs of wild birds, in their native solitudes, and the brown leaves tipped with golden light, all breathing something of old-world romance—the poetry of bygone love and adventure—and stirring undefinable and delightful emotions that mingle unreality with sense, a music of the eye and spirit.

After many devious wanderings, I found, under shelter of a wonderful little hollow, in which lay, dim and still, a tarn, reflecting the stems of the trees that rose from its edge, in a way so clear and beautiful, that, with a smile and a sigh, I sat myself down upon a rock among the ferns, and fell into a reverie.

The image of Dorcas rose before me. There is a strange mystery and power in the apathetic, and in that unaffected carelessness, even defiance of opinion and criticism, which I had seen here for the first time, so beautifully embodied. I was quite sure she both thought and felt, and could talk, too, if she chose it. What tremendous self-reliance and disdain must form the basis of a female character, which accepted misapprehension and depreciation with an indifference so genuine as to scorn even the trifling exertion of disclosing its powers.

She could not possibly care for Wylder, any more than he cared for her. That odd look I detected in the mirror—what did it mean? and Wylder's confusion about Captain Lake—what was that? I could not comprehend the situation that was forming. I went over Wylder's history in my mind, and Captain Lake's—all I could recollect of it—but could find no clue, and that horrible visitation or vision! what was it?

This latter image had just glided in and taken its place in my waking dream, when I thought I saw reflected in the pool at my feet, the shape and face which I never could forget, of the white, long-chinned old man.

For a second I was unable, I think, to lift my eyes from the water which presented this cadaverous image.

But the figure began to move, and I raised my eyes, and saw it retreat, with a limping gait, into the thick copse before me, in the shadow of which it stopped and turned stiffly round, and directed on me a look of horror, and then withdrew.

It is all very fine laughing at me and my fancies. I do not think there are many men who in my situation would have felt very differently. I recovered myself; I shouted lustily after him to stay, and then in a sort of half-frightened rage, I pursued him; but I had to get round the pool, a considerable circuit. I could not tell which way he had turned on getting into the thicket; and it was now dusk, the sun having gone down during my reverie. So I stopped a little way in the copsewood, which was growing quite dark, and I shouted there again, peeping under the branches, and felt queer and much relieved that nothing answered or appeared.

Looking round me, in a sort of dream, I remembered suddenly what Wylder had told me of old Lorne Brandon, to whose portrait this inexplicable phantom bore so powerful a resemblance. He was suspected of having murdered his own son, at the edge of a tarn in the park. This tarn maybe—and with the thought the water looked blacker—and a deeper and colder shadow gathered over the ominous hollow in which I stood, and the rustling in the withered leaves sounded angrily.

I got up as quickly as might be to the higher grounds, and waited there for awhile, and watched for the emergence of the old man. But it did not appear; and shade after shade was spreading solemnly over the landscape, and having a good way to walk, I began to stride briskly along the slopes and hollows, in the twilight, now and then looking into vacancy, over my shoulder.

The little adventure, and the deepening shades, helped to sadden my homeward walk; and when at last the dusky outline of the Hall rose before me, it wore a sort of weird and haunted aspect.



CHAPTER XX.

CAPTAIN LAKE TAKES AN EVENING STROLL ABOUT GYLINGDEN.

Again I had serious thoughts of removing my person and effects to the Brandon Arms. I could not quite believe I had seen a ghost; but neither was I quite satisfied that the thing was altogether canny. The apparition, whatever it was, seemed to persecute me with a mysterious obstinacy; at all events, I was falling into a habit of seeing it; and I felt a natural desire to escape from the house which was plagued with its presence.

At the same time I had an odd sort of reluctance to mention the subject to my entertainers. The thing itself was a ghostly slur upon the house, and, to run away, a reproach to my manhood; and besides, writing now at a distance, and in the spirit of history, I suspect the interest which beauty always excites had a great deal to do with my resolve to hold my ground; and, I dare say, notwithstanding my other reasons, had the ladies at the Hall been all either old or ugly, I would have made good my retreat to the village hotel.

As it was, however, I was resolved to maintain my position. But that evening was streaked with a tinge of horror, and I more silent and distrait than usual.

The absence of an accustomed face, even though the owner be nothing very remarkable, is always felt; and Wylder was missed, though, sooth to say, not very much regretted. For the first time we were really a small party. Miss Lake was not there. The gallant captain, her brother, was also absent. The vicar, and his good little wife, were at Naunton that evening to hear a missionary recount his adventures and experiences in Japan, and none of the neighbours had been called in to fill the empty chairs.

Dorcas Brandon did not contribute much to the talk; neither, in truth, did I. Old Lady Chelford occasionally dozed and nodded sternly after tea, waking up and eyeing people grimly, as though enquiring whether anyone presumed to suspect her ladyship of having had a nap.

Chelford, I recollect, took a book, and read to us now and then, a snatch of poetry—I forget what. My book—except when I was thinking of the tarn and that old man I so hated—was Miss Brandon's exquisite and mysterious face.

That young lady was leaning back in her great oak chair, in which she looked like the heroine of some sad and gorgeous romance of the old civil wars of England, and directing a gaze of contemplative and haughty curiosity upon the old lady, who was unconscious of the daring profanation.

All on a sudden Dorcas Brandon said—

'And pray what do you think of marriage, Lady Chelford?'

'What do I think of marriage?' repeated the dowager, throwing back her head and eyeing the beautiful heiress through her gold spectacles, with a stony surprise, for she was not accustomed to be catechised by young people. 'Marriage?—why 'tis a divine institution. What can the child mean?'

'Do you think, Lady Chelford, it may be safely contracted, solely to join two estates?' pursued the young lady.

'Do I think it may safely be contracted, solely to join two estates?' repeated the old lady, with a look and carriage that plainly showed how entirely she appreciated the amazing presumption of her interrogatrix.

There was a little pause.

'Certainly,' replied Lady Chelford; 'that is, of course, under proper conditions, and with a due sense of its sacred character and a—a—obligations.'

'The first of which is love,' continued Miss Brandon; 'the second honour—both involuntary; and the third obedience, which springs from them.'

Old Lady Chelford coughed, and then rallying, said—

'Very good, Miss!'

'And pray, Lady Chelford, what do you think of Mr. Mark Wylder?' pursued Miss Dorcas.

'I don't see, Miss Brandon, that my thoughts upon that subject can concern anyone but myself,' retorted the old lady, severely, and from an awful altitude. 'And I may say, considering who I am—and my years—and the manner in which I am usually treated, I am a little surprised at the tone in which you are pleased to question me.'

These last terrible remarks totally failed to overawe the serene temerity of the grave beauty.

'I assumed, Lady Chelford, as you had interested yourself in me so far as to originate the idea of my engagement to Mr. Wylder, that you had considered these to me very important questions a little, and could give me satisfactory answers upon points on which my mind has been employed for some days; and, indeed, I think I've a right to ask that assistance of you.'

'You seem to forget, young lady, that there are times and places for such discussions; and that to Mr.—a—a—your visitor (a glance at me), it can't be very interesting to listen to this kind of—of—conversation, which is neither very entertaining, nor very wise.'

'I am answerable only for my part of it; and I think my questions very much to the purpose,' said the young lady, in her low, silvery tones.

'I don't question your good opinion, Miss Brandon, of your own discretion; but I can't see any profit in now discussing an engagement of more than two months' standing, or a marriage, which is fixed to take place only ten days hence. And I think, Sir (glancing again at me), it must strike you a little oddly, that I should be invited, in your presence, to discuss family matters with Miss Dorcas Brandon?'

Now, was it fair to call a peaceable inhabitant like me into the thick of a fray like this? I paused long enough to allow Miss Brandon to speak, but she did not choose to do so, thinking, I suppose, it was my business.

'I believe I ought to have withdrawn a little,' I said, very humbly; and old Lady Chelford at the word shot a gleam of contemptuous triumph at Miss Dorcas; but I would not acquiesce in the dowager's abusing my concession to the prejudice of that beautiful and daring young lady—'I mean, Lady Chelford, in deference to you, who are not aware, as Miss Brandon is, that I am one of Mr. Wylder's oldest and most intimate friends; and at his request, and with Lord Chelford's approval, have been advised with, in detail, upon all the arrangements connected with the approaching marriage.'

'I am not going, at present, to say any more upon these subjects, because Lady Chelford prefers deferring our conversation,' said this very odd young lady; 'but there is nothing which either she or I may say, which I wish to conceal from any friend of Mr. Wylder's.'

The idea of Miss Brandon's seriously thinking of withdrawing from her engagement with Mark Wylder, I confess never entered my mind. Lady Chelford, perhaps, knew more of the capricious and daring character of the ladies of the Brandon line than I, and may have discovered some signs of a coming storm in the oracular questions which had fallen so harmoniously from those beautiful lips. As for me, I was puzzled. The old viscountess was flushed (she did not rouge), and very angry, and, I think, uncomfortable, though she affected her usual supremacy. But the young lady showed no sign of excitement, and lay back in her chair in her usual deep, cold calm.

Lake's late smoking with Wylder must have disagreed with him very much indeed, for he seemed more out of sorts as night approached. He stole away from Mr. Larkin's trellised porch, in the dusk. He marched into the town rather quickly, like a man who has business on his hands; but he had none—for he walked by the 'Brandon Arms,' and halted, and stared at the post-office, as if he fancied he had something to say there. But no—there was no need to tap at the wooden window-pane. Some idle boys were observing the dandy captain, and he turned down the short lane that opened on the common, and sauntered upon the short grass.

Two or three groups, and an invalid visitor or two—for Gylingden boasts a 'spa'—were lounging away the twilight half-hours there. He seated himself on one of the rustic seats, and his yellow eyes wandered restlessly and vaguely along the outline of the beautiful hills. Then for nearly ten minutes he smoked—an odd recreation for a man suffering from the cigars of last night—and after that, for nearly as long again, he seemed lost in deep thought, his eyes upon the misty grass before him, and his small French boot beating time to the music of his thoughts.

Several groups passed close by him, in their pleasant circuit. Some wondered what might be the disease of that pale, peevish-looking gentleman, who sat there so still, languid, and dejected. Others set him down as a gentleman in difficulties of some sort, who was using Gylingden for a temporary refuge.

Others, again, supposed he might be that Major Craddock who had lost thirty thousand pounds on Vanderdecken the other day. Others knew he was staying with Mr. Larkin, and supposed he was trying to raise money at disadvantage, and remarked that some of Mr. Larkin's clients looked always unhappy, though they had so godly an attorney to deal with.

When Lake, with a little shudder, for it was growing chill, lifted up his yellow eyes suddenly, and recollected where he was, the common had grown dark, and was quite deserted. There were lights in the windows of the reading-room, and in the billiard-room beneath it; and shadowy figures, with cues in their hands, gliding hither and thither, across its uncurtained windows.

With a shrug, and a stealthy glance round him, Captain Lake started up. The instinct of the lonely and gloomy man unconsciously drew him towards the light, and he approached. A bat, attracted thither like himself, was flitting and flickering, this way and that, across the casement.

Captain Lake, waiting, with his hand on the door-handle, for the stroke, heard the smack of the balls, and the score called by the marker, and entered the hot, glaring room. Old Major Jackson, with his glass in his eye, was contending in his shirt-sleeves heroically with a Manchester bag-man, who was palpably too much for him. The double-chinned and florid proprietor of the 'Brandon Arms,' with a brandy-and-water familiarity, offered Captain Lake two to one on the game in anything he liked, which the captain declined, and took his seat on the bench.

He was not interested by the struggle of the gallant major, who smiled like a prize-fighter under his punishment. In fact, he could not have told the score at any point of the game; and, to judge by his face, was translated from the glare of that arena into a dark and splenetic world of his own.

When he wakened up, in the buzz and clack of tongues that followed the close of the game, Captain Lake glared round for a moment, like a man called up from sleep; the noise rattled and roared in his ears, the talk sounded madly, and the faces of the people excited and menaced him undefinably, and he felt as if he was on the point of starting to his feet and stamping and shouting. The fact is, I suppose, he was confoundedly nervous, dyspeptic, or whatever else it might be, and the heat and glare were too much for him.

So, out he went into the chill, fresh night-air, and round the corner into the quaint main-street of Gylingden, and walked down it in the dark, nearly to the last house by the corner of the Redman's Dell road, and then back again, and so on, trying to tire himself, I think; and every time he walked down the street, with his face toward London, his yellow eyes gleamed through the dark air, with the fixed gaze of a man looking out for the appearance of a vehicle. It, perhaps, indicated an anxiety and a mental look-out in that direction, for he really expected no such thing.

Then he dropped into the 'Brandon Arms,' and had a glass of brandy and water, and a newspaper, in the coffee-room; and then he ordered a 'fly,' and drove in it to Lawyer Larkin's house—'The Lodge,' it was called—and entered Mr. Larkin's drawing-room very cheerfully.

'How quiet you are here,' said the captain. 'I have been awfully dissipated since I saw you.'

'In an innocent way, my dear Captain Lake, you mean, of course—in an innocent way.'

'Oh! no; billiards, I assure you. Do you play?'

'Oh! dear no—not that I see any essential harm in the game as a game, for those, I mean, who don't object to that sort of thing; but for a resident here, putting aside other feelings—a resident holding a position—it would not do, I assure you. There are people there whom one could not associate with comfortably. I don't care, I hope, how poor a man may be, but do let him be a gentleman. I own to that prejudice. A man, my dear Captain Lake, whose father before him has been a gentleman (old Larkin, while in the flesh, was an organist, and kept a small day school at Dwiddleston, and his grandfather he did not care to enquire after), and who has had the education of one, does not feel himself at home, you know—I'm sure you have felt the same sort of thing yourself.'

'Oh! of course; and I had such a nice walk on the common first, and then a turn up and down before the 'Brandon Arms,' where at last I read a paper, and could not resist a glass of brandy and water, and, growing lazy, came home in a 'fly,' so I think I have had a very gay evening.

Larkin smiled benignantly, and would have said something no doubt worth hearing, but at that moment the door opened, and his old cook and elderly parlour-maid—no breath of scandal ever troubled the serene fair fame of his household, and everyone allowed that, in the prudential virtues, at least, he was nearly perfect—and Sleddon the groom, walked in, with those sad faces which, I suppose, were first learned in the belief that they were acceptable to their master.

'Oh!' said Mr. Larkin, in a low, reverential tone, and the smile vanished; 'prayers!'

'Well, then, if you permit me, being a little tired, I'll go to my bed-room.'

With a grave and affectionate interest, Mr. Larkin looked in his face, and sighed a little and said:—

'Might I, perhaps, venture to beg, just this one night——'

That chastened and entreating look it was hard to resist. But somehow the whole thing seemed to Lake to say, 'Do allow me this once to prescribe; do give your poor soul this one chance,' and Lake answered him superciliously and irreverently.

'No, thank you, no—any prayers I require I can manage for myself, thank you. Good-night.'

And he lighted a bed-room candle and left the room.

'What a beast that fellow is. I don't know why the d— I stay in his house.'

One reason was, perhaps, that it saved him nearly a guinea a day, and he may have had some other little reasons just then.

'Family prayers indeed! and such a pair of women—witches, by Jove!—and that rascally groom, and a hypocritical attorney! And the vulgar brute will be as rich as Croesus, I dare say.'

Here soliloquised Stanley Lake in that gentleman's ordinary vein. His momentary disgust had restored him for a few seconds to his normal self. But certain anxieties of a rather ghastly kind, and speculations as to what might be going on in London just then, were round him again, like armed giants, in another moment, and the riches or hypocrisy of his host were no more to him than those of Overreach or Tartuffe.



CHAPTER XXI.

IN WHICH CAPTAIN LAKE VISITS HIS SISTER'S SICK BED.

I suspect there are very few mere hypocrites on earth. Of course, I do not reckon those who are under compulsion to affect purity of manners and a holy integrity of heart—and there are such—but those who volunteer an extraordinary profession of holiness, being all the while conscious villains. The Pharisees, even while devouring widows' houses, believed honestly in their own supreme righteousness.

I am afraid our friend Jos. Larkin wore a mask. I am sure he often wore it when he was quite alone. I don't know indeed, that he ever took it off. He was, perhaps, content to see it, even when he looked in the glass, and had not a very distinct idea what the underlying features might be. It answers with the world; it almost answers with himself. Pity it won't do everywhere! 'When Moses went to speak with God,' says the admirable Hall, 'he pulled off his veil. It was good reason he should present to God that face which he had made. There had been more need of his veil to hide the glorious face of God from him than to hide his from God. Hypocrites are contrary to Moses. He showed his worst to men, his best to God; they show their best to men, their worst to God; but God sees both their veil and their face, and I know not whether He more hates their veil of dissimulation or their face of wickedness.'

Captain Lake wanted rest—sleep—quiet thoughts at all events. When he was alone he was at once in a state of fever and gloom, and seemed always watching for something. His strange eyes glanced now this way, now that, with a fierce restlessness—now to the window—now to the door—and you would have said he was listening intently to some indistinct and too distant conversation affecting him vitally, there was such a look of fear and conjecture always in his face.

He bolted his door and unlocked his dressing case, and from a little silver box in that glittering repository he took, one after the other, two or three little wafers of a dark hue, and placed them successively on his tongue, and suffered them to melt, and so swallowed them. They were not liquorice. I am afraid Captain Lake dabbled a little in opium. He was not a great adept—yet, at least—like those gentlemen who can swallow five hundred drops of laudanum at a sitting. But he knew the virtues of the drug, and cultivated its acquaintance, and was oftener under its influence than perhaps any mortal, except himself, suspected.

The greater part of mankind are, upon the whole, happier and more cheerful than they are always willing to allow. Nature subserves the majority. She smiled very brightly next morning. There was a twittering of small birds among the brown leaves and ivy, and a thousand other pleasant sounds and sights stirring in the sharp, sunny air. This sort of inflexible merry-making in nature seems marvellously selfish in the eyes of anxious Captain Lake. Fear hath torment—and fear is the worst ingredient in mental pain. This is the reason why suspense is so intolerable, and the retrospect even of the worst less terrible.

Stanley Lake would have given more than he could well afford that it were that day week, and he no worse off. Why did time limp so tediously away with him, prolonging his anguish gratuitously? He felt truculently, and would have murdered that week, if he could, in the midst of its loitering sunshine and gaiety.

There was a strange pain at his heart, and the pain of intense and fruitless calculation in his brain; and, as the Mahometan prays towards Mecca, and the Jew towards Jerusalem, so Captain Lake's morning orisons, whatsoever they were, were offered at the window of his bed-room toward London, from whence he looked for his salvation, or it might be the other thing—with a dreadful yearning.

He hated the fresh glitter of that morning scene. Why should the world be cheerful? It was a repast spread of which he could not partake, and it spited him. Yes; it was selfish—and hating selfishness—he would have struck the sun out of the sky that morning with his walking-cane, if he could, and draped the world in black.

He saw from his window the good vicar walk smiling by, in white choker and seedy black, his little boy holding by his fingers, and capering and wheeling in front, and smiling up in his face. They were very busy talking.

Little 'Fairy' used to walk, when parochial visits were not very distant, with his 'Wapsie;' how that name came about no one remembered, but the vicar answered to it more cheerily than to any other. The little man was solitary, and these rambles were a delight. A beautiful smiling little fellow, very exacting of attention—troublesome, perhaps; he was so sociable, and needed sympathy and companionship, and repaid it with a boundless, sensitive love. The vicar told him the stories of David and Goliath, and Joseph and his brethren, and of the wondrous birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the star that led the Wise Men, and the celestial song heard by the shepherds keeping their flocks by night, and snatches of 'Pilgrim's Progress'; and sometimes, when they made a feast and eat their pennyworth of cherries, sitting on the style, he treated him, I am afraid, to the profane histories of Jack the Giant-killer and the Yellow Dwarf; the vicar had theories about imagination, and fancied it was an important faculty, and that the Creator had not given children their unextinguishable love of stories to no purpose.

I don't envy the man who is superior to the society of children. What can he gain from children's talk? Is it witty, or wise, or learned? Be frank. Is it not, honestly, a mere noise and interruption—a musical cackling of geese, and silvery braying of tiny asses? Well, say I, out of my large acquaintance, there are not many men to whom I would go for wisdom; learning is better found in books, and, as for wit, is it always pleasant? The most companionable men are not always the greatest intellects. They laugh, and though they don't converse, they make a cheerful noise, and show a cheerful countenance.

There was not a great deal in Will Honeycomb, for instance; but our dear Mr. Spectator tells us somewhere that 'he laughed easily,' which I think quite accounts for his acceptance with the club. He was kindly and enjoying. What is it that makes your dog so charming a companion in your walks? Simply that he thoroughly likes you and enjoys himself. He appeals imperceptibly to your affections, which cannot be stirred—such is God's will—ever so lightly, without some little thrillings of happiness; and through the subtle absorbents of your sympathy he infuses into you something of his own hilarious and exulting spirit.

When Stanley Lake saw the vicar, the lines of his pale face contracted strangely, and his wild gaze followed him, and I don't think he breathed once until the thin smiling man in black, with the little gambolling bright boy holding by his hand, had passed by. He was thinking, you may be sure, of his Brother Mark.

When Lake had ended his toilet and stared in the glass, he still looked so haggard, that on greeting Mr. Larkin in the parlour, he thought it necessary to mention that he had taken cold in that confounded billiard-room last night, which spoiled his sleep, and made him awfully seedy that morning. Of course, his host was properly afflicted and sympathetic.

'By-the-bye, I had a letter this morning from that party—our common friend, Mr. W., you know,' said Larkin, gracefully.

'Well, what is he doing, and when does he come back? You mean Wylder, of course?'

'Yes; my good client, Mr. Mark Wylder. Permit me to assist you to some honey, you'll find it remarkably good, I venture to say; it comes from the gardens of Queen's Audley. The late marquis, you know, prided himself on his honey—and my friend, Thornbury, cousin to Sir Frederick Thornbury—I suppose you know him—an East Indian judge, you know—very kindly left it at Dollington for me, on his way to the Earl of Epsom's.'

'Thank you—delicious, I'm sure, it has been in such good company. May I see Wylder's note—that is, if there's no private business?'

'Oh, certainly.'

And, with Wylder's great red seal on the back of the envelope, the letter ran thus:—

'DEAR LARKIN,—I write in haste to save post, to say I shall be detained in town a few days longer than I thought. Don't wait for me about the parchments; I am satisfied. If anything crosses your mind, a word with Mr. De C. at the Hall, will clear all up. Have all ready to sign and seal when I come back—certainly, within a week.

'Yours sincerely,

'M. WYLDER,

'London.'

It was evidently written in great haste, with the broad-nibbed pen he liked; but notwithstanding the sort of swagger with which the writing marched across the page, Lake might have seen here and there a little quaver—indicative of something different from haste—the vibrations of another sort of flurry.

'"Certainly within a week," he writes. Does he mean he'll be here in a week or only to have the papers ready in a week?' asked Lake.

'The question, certainly, does arise. It struck me on the first perusal,' answered the attorney. 'His address is rather a wide one, too—London! Do you know his club, Captain Lake?'

'The Wanderers. He has left the United Service. Nothing for me, by-the-way?'

'No letter. No.'

'Tant mieux, I hate them,' said the captain. 'I wonder how my sister is this morning.'

'Would you like a messenger? I'll send down with pleasure to enquire.'

'Thank you, no; I'll walk down and see her.'

And Lake yawned at the window, and then took his hat and stick and sauntered toward Gylingden. At the post-office window he tapped with the silver tip of his cane, and told Miss Driver with a sleepy smile—

'I'm going down to Redman's Farm, and any letters for my sister, Miss Lake, I may as well take with me.'

Everybody 'in business' in the town of Gylingden, by this time, knew Captain Lake and his belongings—a most respectable party—a high man; and, of course, there was no difficulty. There was only one letter—the address was written—'Miss Lake, Redman's Farm, near Brandon Park, Gylingden,' in a stiff hand, rather slanting backwards.

Captain Lake put it in his paletot pocket, looked in her face gently, and smiled, and thanked her in his graceful way—and, in fact, left an enduring impression upon that impressible nature.

Turning up the dark road at Redman's Dell, the gallant captain passed the old mill, and, all being quiet up and down the road, he halted under the lordly shadow of a clump of chestnuts, and opened and read the letter he had just taken charge of. It contained only these words:—

'Wednesday.

'On Friday night, next, at half-past twelve.'

This he read twice or thrice, pausing between whiles. The envelope bore the London postmark. Then he took out his cigar case, selected a promising weed, and wrapping the laconic note prettily round one of his scented matches, lighted it, and the note flamed pale in the daylight, and dropped still blazing, at the root of the old tree he stood by, and sent up a little curl of blue smoke—an incense to the demon of the wood—and turned in a minute more into a black film, overrun by a hundred creeping sparkles; and having completed his mysterious incremation, he, with his yellow eyes, made a stolen glance around, and lighting his cigar, glided gracefully up the steep road, under the solemn canopy of old timber, to the sound of the moaning stream below, and the rustle of withered leaves about him, toward Redman's Farm.

As he entered the flower-garden, the jaundiced face of old Tamar, with its thousand small wrinkles and its ominous gleam of suspicion, was looking out from the darkened porch. The white cap, kerchief, and drapery, courtesied to him as he drew near, and the dismal face changed not.

'Well, Tamar, how do you do?—how are all? Where is that girl Margery?'

'In the kitchen, Master Stanley,' said she, courtesying again.

'Are you sure?' said Captain Lake, peeping toward that apartment over the old woman's shoulder.

'Certain sure, Master Stanley.'

'Well, come up stairs to your mistress's room,' said Lake, mounting the stairs, with his hat in his hand, and on tip-toe, like a man approaching a sick chamber.

There was something I think grim and spectral in this ceremonious ascent to the empty chamber. Children had once occupied that silent floor for there was a little balustraded gate across the top of the staircase.

'I keep this closed,' said old Tamar, 'and forbid her to cross it, lest she should disturb the mistress. Heaven forgive me!'

'Very good,' he whispered, and he peeped over the banister, and then entered Rachel's silent room, darkened with closed shutters, the white curtains and white coverlet so like 'the dark chamber of white death.'

He had intended speaking to Tamar there, but changed his mind, or rather could not make up his mind; and he loitered silently, and stood with the curtain in his gloved hand, looking upon the cold coverlet, as if Rachel lay dead there.

'That will do,' he said, awaking from his wandering thought. 'We'll go down now, Tamar.'

And in the same stealthy way, walking lightly and slowly, down the stairs they went, and Stanley entered the kitchen.

'How do you do, Margery? You'll be glad to hear your mistress is better. You must run down to the town, though, and buy some jelly, and you are to bring her back change of this.'

And he placed half-a-crown in her hand.

'Put on your bonnet and my old shawl, child; and take the basket, and come back by the side door,' croaked old Tamar.

So the girl dried her hands—she was washing the teacups—and in a twinkling was equipped and on her way to Gylingden.



CHAPTER XXII.

IN WHICH CAPTAIN LAKE MEETS A FRIEND NEAR THE WHITE HOUSE.

Lake had no very high opinion of men or women, gentle or simple.

'She listens, I dare say, the little spy,' said he.

'No, Master Stanley! She's a good little girl.'

'She quite believes her mistress is up stairs, eh?'

'Yes; the Lord forgive me—I'm deceiving her.'

He did not like the tone and look which accompanied this.

'Now, my good old Tamar, you really can't be such an idiot as to fancy there can be any imaginable wrong in keeping that prying little slut in ignorance of that which in no wise concerns her. This is a critical matter, do you see, and if it were known in this place that your young mistress had gone away as she has done—though quite innocently—upon my honour—I think it would blast her. You would not like, for a stupid crotchet, to ruin poor Radie, I fancy.'

'I'm doing just what you both bid me,' said the old woman.

'You sit up stairs chiefly?'

She nodded sadly.

'And keep the hall door shut and bolted?'

Again she nodded.

'I'm going up to the Hall, and I'll tell them she's much better, and that I've been in her room, and that, perhaps, she may go up to see them in the morning.'

Old Tamar shook her head and groaned.

'How long is all this to go on for, Master Stanley?'

'Why, d— you, Tamar, can't you listen?' he said, clutching her wrist in his lavender kid grasp rather roughly. 'How long—a very short time, I tell you. She'll be home immediately. I'll come to-morrow and tell you exactly—maybe to-morrow evening—will that do? And should they call, you must say the same; and if Miss Dorcas, Miss Brandon, you know—should wish to go up to see her, tell her she's asleep. Stop that hypocritical grimacing, will you. It is no part of your duty to tell the world what can't possibly concern them, and may bring your young mistress to—perdition. That does not strike me as any part of your religion.'

Tamar groaned again, and she said: 'I opened my Bible, Lord help me, three times to-day, Master Stanley, and could not go on. It's no use—I can't read it.'

'Time enough—I think you've read more than is good for you. I think you are half mad, Tamar; but think what you may, it must be done. Have not you read of straining at gnats and swallowing camels? You used not, I've heard, to be always so scrupulous, old Tamar.'

There was a vile sarcasm in his tone and look.

'It is not for the child I nursed to say that,' said Tamar.

There were scandalous stories of wicked old Tiberius—bankrupt, dead, and buried—compromising the fame of Tamar—not always a spectacled and cadaverous student of Holy Writ. These, indeed, were even in Stanley's childhood old-world, hazy, traditions of the servants' hall. But boys hear often more than is good, and more than gospel, who live in such houses as old General Lake, the old millionaire widower, kept.

'I did not mean anything, upon my honour, Tamar, that could annoy you. I only meant you used not to be a fool, and pray don't begin now; for I assure you Radie and I would not ask it if it could be avoided. You have Miss Radie's secret in your hands, I don't think you'd like to injure her, and you used to be trustworthy. I don't think your Bible teaches you anywhere to hurt your neighbour and to break faith.'

'Don't speak of the Bible now; but you needn't fear me, Master Stanley,' answered the old woman, a little sternly. 'I don't know why she's gone, nor why it's a secret—I don't, and I'd rather not. Poor Miss Radie, she never heard anything but what was good from old Tamar, whatever I might ha' bin myself, miserable sinners are we all; and I'll do as you bid me, and I have done, Master Stanley, howsoever it troubles my mind;' and now old Tamar's words spoke—that's all.

'Old Tamar is a sensible creature, as she always was. I hope I did not vex you, Tamar. I did not mean, I assure you; but we get rough ways in the army, I'm afraid, and you won't mind me. You never did mind little Stannie when he was naughty, you know.'

There was here a little subsidence in his speech. He was thinking of giving her a crown, but there were several reasons against it, so that handsome coin remained in his purse.

'And I forgot to tell you, Tamar, I've a ring for you in town—a little souvenir; you'll think it pretty—a gold ring, with a stone in it—it belonged to poor dear Aunt Jemima, you remember. I left it behind; so stupid!'

So he shook hands with old Tamar, and patted her affectionately on the shoulder, and he said:—

'Keep the hall-door bolted. Make any excuse you like: only it would not do for anyone to open it, and run up to the room as they might, so don't forget to secure the door when I go. I think that is all. Ta-ta, dear Tamar. I'll see you in the morning.'

As he walked down the mill-road toward the town, he met Lord Chelford on his way to make enquiry about Rachel at Redman's Farm; and Lake, who, as we know, had just seen his sister, gave him all particulars.

Chelford, like the lawyer, had heard from Mark Wylder that morning—a few lines, postponing his return. He merely mentioned it, and made no comment; but Lake perceived that he was annoyed at his unexplained absence.

Lake dined at Brandon that evening, and though looking ill, was very good company, and promised to bring an early report of Rachel's convalescence in the morning.

I have little to record of next day, except that Larkin received another London letter. Wylder plainly wrote in great haste, and merely said:—

'I shall have to wait a day or two longer than I yesterday thought, to meet a fellow from whom I am to receive something of importance, rather, as I think, to me. Get the deeds ready, as I said in my last. If I am not in Gylingden by Monday, we must put off the wedding for a week later—there is no help for it. You need not talk of this. I write to Chelford to say the same.'

This note was as unceremonious, and still shorter. Lord Chelford would have written at once to remonstrate with Mark on the unseemliness of putting off his marriage so capriciously, or, at all events, so mysteriously—Miss Brandon not being considered, nor her friends consulted. But Mark had a decided objection to many letters: he had no fancy to be worried, when he had made up his mind, by prosy remonstrances; and he shut out the whole tribe of letter-writers by simply omitting to give them his address.

His cool impertinence, and especially this cunning precaution, incensed old Lady Chelford. She would have liked to write him one of those terse, courteous, biting notes, for which she was famous; and her fingers, morally, tingled to box his ears. But what was to be done with mere 'London?' Wylder was hidden from mortal sight, like a heaven-protected hero in the 'Iliad,' and a cloud of invisibility girdled him.

Like most rustic communities, Gylingden and its neighbourhood were early in bed. Few lights burned after half-past ten, and the whole vicinity was deep in its slumbers before twelve o'clock.

At that dread hour, Captain Lake, about a mile on the Dollington, which was the old London road from Gylingden, was pacing backward and forward under the towering files of beech that overarch it at that point.

The 'White House' public, with a wide panel over its door, presenting, in tints subdued by time, a stage-coach and four horses in mid career, lay a few hundred yards nearer to Gylingden. Not a soul was stirring—not a sound but those, sad and soothing, of nature was to be heard.

Stanley Lake did not like waiting any more than did Louis XIV. He was really a little tired of acting sentry, and was very peevish by the time the ring of wheels and horse-hoofs approaching from the London direction became audible. Even so, he had a longer wait than he expected, sounds are heard so far by night. At last, however, it drew nearer—nearer—quite close—and a sort of nondescript vehicle—one horsed—loomed in the dark, and he calls—

'Hallo! there—I say—a passenger for the "White House?"'

At the same moment, a window of the cab—shall we call it—was let down, and a female voice—Rachel Lake's—called to the driver to stop.

Lake addressed the driver—

'You come from Johnson's Hotel—don't you—at Dollington?'

'Yes, Sir.'

'Well, I'll pay you half-fare to bring me there.'

'All right, Sir. But the 'oss, Sir, must 'av 'is oats fust.'

'Feed him here, then. They are all asleep in the "White House." I'll be with you in five minutes, and you shall have something for yourself when we get into Dollington.'

Stanley opened the door. She placed her hand on his, and stepped to the ground. It was very dark under those great trees. He held her hand a little harder than was his wont.

'All quite well, ever since. You are not very tired, are you? I'm afraid it will be necessary for you to walk to "Redman's Farm," dear Radie—but it is hardly a mile, I think—for, you see, the fellow must not know who you are; and I must go back with him, for I have not been very well—indeed I've been, I may say, very ill—and I told that fellow, Larkin, who has his eyes about him, and would wonder what kept me out so late, that I would run down to some of the places near for a change, and sleep a night there; and that's the reason, dear Radie, I can walk only a short way with you; but you are not afraid to walk a part of the way home without me? You are so sensible, and you have been, really, so very kind, I assure you I appreciate it, Radie—I do, indeed; and I'm very grateful—I am, upon my word.'

Rachel answered with a heavy sigh.



CHAPTER XXIII.

HOW RACHEL SLEPT THAT NIGHT IN REDMAN'S FARM.

'Allow me—pray do,' and he took her little bag from her hand. 'I hope you are not very tired, darling; you've been so very good; and you're not afraid—you know the place is so quiet—of the little walk by yourself. Take my arm; I'll go as far as I can, but it is very late you know—and you are sure you are not afraid?'

'I ought to be afraid of nothing now, Stanley, but I think I am afraid of everything.'

'Merely a little nervous—it's nothing—I've been wretchedly since, myself; but, I'm so glad you are home again; you shall have no more trouble, I assure you; and not a creature suspects you have been from home. Old Tamar has behaved admirably.'

Rachel sighed again and said—

'Yes—poor Tamar.'

'And now, dear, I'm afraid I must leave you—I'm very sorry; but you see how it is; keep to the shady side, close by the hedge, where the trees stop; but I'm certain you will meet no one. Tamar will tell you who has called—hardly anyone—I saw them myself every day at Brandon, and told them you were ill. You've been very kind, Radie; I assure you I'll never forget it. You'll find Tamar up and watching for you—I arranged all that; and I need not say you'll be very careful not to let that girl of yours hear anything. You'll be very quiet—she suspects nothing; and I assure you, so far as personal annoyance of any kind is concerned, you may be perfectly at ease. Good-night, Radie; God bless you, dear. I wish very much I could see you all the way, but there's a risk in it, you know. Good-night, dear Radie. By-the-bye, here's your bag; I'll take the rug, it's too heavy for you, and I may as well have it to Dollington.'

He kissed her cheek in his slight way, and left her, and was soon on his way to Dollington, where he slept that night—rather more comfortably than he had done since Rachel's departure.

Rachel walked on swiftly. Very tired, but not at all sleepy—on the contrary, excited and nervous, and rather relieved, notwithstanding that Stanley had left her to walk home alone.

It seemed to her that more than a month had passed since she saw the mill-road last. How much had happened! how awful was the change! Familiar objects glided past her, the same, yet the fashion of the countenance was altered; there was something estranged and threatening.

The pretty parsonage was now close by: in the dews of night the spirit of peace and slumbers smiled over it; but the sight of its steep roof and homely chimney-stacks smote with a shock at her brain and heart—a troubled moan escaped her. She looked up with the instinct of prayer, and clasped her hands on the handle of that little bag which had made the mysterious journey with her; a load which no man could lift lay upon her heart.

Then she commenced her dark walk up the mill-road—her hands still clasped, her lips moving in broken appeals to Heaven. She looked neither to the right nor to the left, but passed on with inflexible gaze and hasty steps, like one who crosses a plank over some awful chasm.

In such darkness Redman's dell was a solemn, not to say an awful, spot; and at any time, I think, Rachel, in a like solitude and darkness, would have been glad to see the red glimmer of old Tamar's candle proclaiming under the branches the neighbourhood of human life and sympathy.

The old woman, with her shawl over her head, sat listening for her young mistress's approach, on the little side bench in the trellised porch, and tottered hastily forth to meet her at the garden wicket, whispering forlorn welcomes, and thanksgivings, which Rachel answered only with a kiss.

Safe, safe at home! Thank Heaven at least for that. Secluded once more—hidden in Redman's Dell; but never again to be the same—the careless mind no more. The summer sunshine through the trees, the leafy songs of birds, obscured in the smoke and drowned in the discord of an untold and everlasting trouble.

The hall-door was now shut and bolted. Wise old Tamar had turned the key upon the sleeping girl. There was nothing to be feared from prying eyes and listening ears.

'You are cold, Miss Radie, and tired—poor thing! I lit a bit of fire in your room, Miss; would you like me to go up stairs with you, Miss?'

'Come.'

And so up stairs they went; and the young lady looked round with a strange anxiety, like a person seeking for something, and forgetting what; and, sitting down, she leaned her head on her hand with a moan, the living picture of despair.

'You've a headache, Miss Radie?' said the old woman, standing by her with that painful enquiry which sat naturally on her face.

'A heartache, Tamar.'

'Let me help you off with these things, Miss Radie, dear.'

The young lady did not seem to hear, but she allowed Tamar to remove her cloak and hat and handkerchief.

The old servant had placed the tea-things on the table, and what remained of that wine of which Stanley had partaken on the night from which the eclipse of Rachel's life dated. So, without troubling her with questions, she made tea, and then some negus, with careful and trembling hands.

'No,' said Rachel, a little pettishly, and put it aside.

'See now, Miss Radie, dear. You look awful sick and tired. You are tired to death and pale, and sorry, my dear child; and to please old Tamar, you'll just drink this.'

'Thank you, Tamar, I believe you are right.'

The truth was she needed it; and in the same dejected way she sipped it slowly; and then there was a long silence—the silence of a fatigue, like that of fever, near which sleep refuses to come. But she sat in that waking lethargy in which are sluggish dreams of horror, and neither eyes nor ears for that which is before us.

When at last with another great sigh she lifted her head, her eyes rested on old Tamar's face, at the other side of the fire-place, with a dark, dull surprise and puzzle for a moment, as if she could not tell why she was there, or where the place was; and then rising up, with piteous look in her old nurse's face, she said, 'Oh! Tamar, Tamar. It is a dreadful world.'

'So it is, Miss Radie,' answered the old woman, her glittering eyes returning her sad gaze wofully. 'Aye, so it is, sure!—and such it was and will be. For so the Scripture says—"Cursed is the ground for thy sake"—hard to the body—a vale of tears—dark to the spirit. But it is the hand of God that is upon you, and, like me, you will say at last, "It is good for me that I have been in trouble." Lie down, dear Miss Radie, and I'll read to you the blessed words of comfort that have been sealed for me ever since I saw you last. They have—but that's over.'

And she turned up her pallid, puckered face, and, with a trembling and knotted pair of hands uplifted, she muttered an awful thanksgiving.

Rachel said nothing, but her eyes rested on the floor, and, with the quiet obedience of her early childhood, she did as Tamar said. And the old woman assisted her to undress, and so she lay down with a sigh in her bed. And Tamar, her round spectacles by this time on her nose, sitting at the little table by her pillow, read, in a solemn and somewhat quavering voice, such comfortable passages as came first to memory.

Rachel cried quietly as she listened, and at last, worn out by many feverish nights, and the fatigues of her journey, she fell into a disturbed slumber, with many startings and sudden wakings, with cries and strange excitement.

Old Tamar would not leave her, but kept her seat in the high-backed arm-chair throughout the night, like a nurse—as indeed she was—in a sick chamber. And so that weary night limped tediously away, and morning dawned, and tipped the discoloured foliage of the glen with its glow, awaking the songs of all the birds, and dispersing the white mists of darkness. And Rachel with a start awoke, and sat up with a wild look and a cry—

'What is it?'

'Nothing, dear Miss Radie—only poor old Tamar.' And a new day had begun.



CHAPTER XXIV.

DORCAS BRANDON PAYS RACHEL A VISIT.

It was not very much past eleven that morning when the pony carriage from Brandon drew up before the little garden wicket of Redman's Farm.

The servant held the ponies' heads, and Miss Dorcas passed through the little garden, and met old Tamar in the porch.

'Better to-day, Tamar?' enquired this grand and beautiful young lady.

The sun glimmered through the boughs behind her; her face was in shade, and its delicate chiselling was brought out in soft reflected lights; and old Tamar looked on her in a sort of wonder, her beauty seemed so celestial and splendid.

Well, she was better, though she had had a bad night. She was up and dressed, and this moment coming down, and would be very happy to see Miss Brandon, if she would step into the drawing-room.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse