Miss Brandon took old Tamar's hand gently and pressed it. I suppose she was glad and took this way of showing it; and tall, beautiful, graceful, in rustling silks, she glided into the tiny drawing-room silently, and sate down softly by the window, looking out upon the flowers and the falling leaves, mottled in light and shadow.
We have been accustomed to see another girl—bright and fair-haired Rachel Lake—in the small rooms of Redman's Farm; but Dorcas only in rich and stately Brandon Hall—the beautiful 'genius loci' under lofty ceilings, curiously moulded in the first James's style—amid carved oak and richest draperies, tall china vases, paintings, and cold white statues; and somehow in this low-roofed room, so small and homely, she looks like a displaced divinity—an exile under Juno's jealousy from the cloudy splendours of Olympus—dazzlingly melancholy, and 'humano major' among the meannesses and trumperies of earth.
So there came a step and a little rustling of feminine draperies, the small door opened, and Rachel entered, with her hand extended, and a pale smile of welcome.
Women can hide their pain better than we men, and bear it better, too, except when shame drops fire into the dreadful chalice. But poor Rachel Lake had more than that stoical hypocrisy which enables the tortured spirits of her sex to lift a pale face through the flames and smile.
She was sanguine, she was genial and companionable, and her spirits rose at the sight of a friendly face. This transient spring and lighting up are beautiful—a glamour beguiling our senses. It wakens up the frozen spirit of enjoyment, and leads the sad faculties forth on a wild forgetful frolic.
'Rachel, dear, I'm so glad to see you,' said Dorcas, placing her arms gently about her neck, and kissing her twice or thrice. There was something of sweetness and fondness in her tones and manner, which was new to Rachel, and comforting, and she returned the greeting as kindly, and felt more like her former self. 'You have been more ill than I thought, darling, and you are still far from quite recovered.'
Rachel's pale and sharpened features and dilated eye struck her with a painful surprise.
'I shall soon be as well as I am ever likely to be—that is, quite well,' answered Rachel. 'You have been very kind. I've heard of your coming here, and sending, so often.'
They sat down side by side, and Dorcas held her hand.
'Maybe, Rachel dear, you would like to drive a little?'
'No, darling, not yet; it is very good of you.'
'You have been so ill, my poor Rachel.'
'Ill and troubled, dear—troubled in mind, and miserably nervous.'
Poor Rachel! her nature recoiled from deceit, and she told, at all events, as much of the truth as she dared.
Dorcas's large eyes rested upon her with a grave enquiry, and then Miss Brandon looked down in silence for a while on the carpet, and was thinking a little sternly, maybe, and with a look of pain, still holding Rachel's hand, she said, with a sad sort of reproach in her tone,
'Rachel, dear, you have not told my secret?'
'No, indeed, Dorcas—never, and never will; and I think, though I have learned to fear death, I would rather die than let Stanley even suspect it.'
She spoke with a sudden energy, which partook of fear and passion, and flushed her thin cheek, and made her languid eyes flash.
'Thank you, Rachel, my Cousin Rachel, my only friend. I ought not to have doubted you,' and she kissed her again. 'Chelford had a note from Mr. Wylder this morning—another note—his coming delayed, and something of his having to see some person who is abroad,' continued Dorcas, after a little pause. 'You have heard, of course, of Mr. Wylder's absence?'
'Yes, something—everything,' said Rachel, hurriedly, looking frowningly at a flower which she was twirling in her fingers.
'He chose an unlucky moment for his departure. I meant to speak to him and end all between us; and I would now write, but there is no address to his letters. I think Lady Chelford and her son begin to think there is more in this oddly-timed journey of Mr. Wylder's than first appeared. When I came into the parlour this morning I knew they were speaking of it. If he does not return in a day or two, Chelford, I am sure, will speak to me, and then I shall tell him my resolution.'
'Yes,' said Rachel.
'I don't understand his absence. I think they are puzzled, too. Can you conjecture why he is gone?'
Rachel made no answer, but rose with a dreamy look, as if gazing at some distant object among the dark masses of forest trees, and stood before the window so looking across the tiny garden.
'I don't think, Rachel dear, you heard me?' said Dorcas.
'Can I conjecture why he is gone?' murmured Rachel, still gazing with a wild kind of apathy into distance. 'Can I? What can it now be to you or me—why? Yes, we sometimes conjecture right, and sometimes wrong; there are many things best not conjectured about at all—some interesting, some abominable, some that pass all comprehension: I never mean to conjecture, if I can help it, again.'
And the wan oracle having spoken, she sate down in the same sort of abstraction again beside Dorcas, and she looked full in her cousin's eyes.
'I made you a voluntary promise, Dorcas, and now you will make me one. Of Mark Wylder I say this: his name has been for years hateful to me, and recently it has become frightful; and you will promise me simply this, that you will never ask me to speak again about him. Be he near, or be he far, I regard his very name with horror.'
Dorcas returned her gaze with one of haughty amazement; and Rachel said,
'Well, Dorcas, you promise?'
'You speak truly, Rachel, you have a right to my promise: I give it.'
'Dorcas, you are changed; have I lost your love for asking so poor a kindness?'
'I'm only disappointed, Rachel; I thought you would have trusted me, as I did you.'
'It is an antipathy—an antipathy I cannot get over, dear Dorcas; you may think it a madness, but don't blame me. Remember I am neither well nor happy, and forgive what you cannot like in me. I have very few to love me now, and I thought you might love me, as I have begun to love you. Oh! Dorcas, darling, don't forsake me; I am very lonely here and my spirits are gone and I never needed kindness so much before.'
And she threw her arms round her cousin's neck, and brave Rachel at last burst into tears.
Dorcas, in her strange way, was moved.
'I like you still, Rachel; I'm sure I'll always like you. You resemble me, Rachel: you are fearless and inflexible and generous. That spirit belongs to the blood of our strange race; all our women were so. Yes, Rachel, I do love you. I was wounded to find you had thoughts you would not trust to me; but I have made the promise, and I'll keep it; and I love you all the same.'
'Thank you, Dorcas, dear. I like to call you cousin—kindred is so pleasant. Thank you, from my heart, for your love; you will never know, perhaps, how much it is to me.'
The young queen looked on her kindly, but sadly, through her large, strange eyes, clouded with a presage of futurity, and she kissed her again, and said—
'Rachel, dear, I have a plan for you and me: we shall be old maids, you and I, and live together like the ladies of Llangollen, careless and happy recluses. I'll let Brandon and abdicate. We will make a little tour together, when all this shall have blown over, in a few weeks, and choose our retreat; and with the winter's snow we'll vanish from Brandon, and appear with the early flowers at our cottage among the beautiful woods and hills of Wales. Will you come, Rachel?'
At sight of this castle or cottage in the air, Rachel lighted up. The little whim had something tranquillising and balmy. It was escape—flight from Gylingden—flight from Brandon—flight from Redman's Farm: they and all their hated associations would be far behind, and that awful page in her story, not torn out, indeed, but gummed down as it were, and no longer glaring and glowering in her eyes every moment of her waking life.
So she smiled upon the picture painted on the clouds; it was the first thing that had interested her for days. It was a hope. She seized it; she clung to it. She knew, perhaps, it was the merest chimera; but it rested and consoled her imagination, and opened, in the blackness of her sky, one small vista, through whose silvery edge the blue and stars of heaven were visible.
CAPTAIN LAKE LOOKS IN AT NIGHTFALL.
In the queer little drawing-room of Redman's Farm it was twilight, so dense were the shadows from the great old chestnuts that surrounded it, before the sun was well beneath the horizon; and you could, from its darkened window, see its red beams still tinting the high grounds of Willerston, visible through the stems of the old trees that were massed in the near foreground.
A figure which had lost its energy—a face stamped with the lines and pallor of a dejection almost guilty—with something of the fallen grace and beauty of poor Margaret, as we see her with her forehead leaning on her slender hand, by the stirless spinning-wheel—the image of a strange and ineffaceable sorrow, sat Rachel Lake.
Tamar might glide in and out; her mistress did not speak; the shadows deepened round her, but she did look up, nor call, in the old cheerful accents, for lights. No more roulades and ringing chords from the piano—no more clear spirited tones of the lady's voice sounded through the low ceilings of Redman's Farm, and thrilled with a haunting melody the deserted glen, wherein the birds had ended their vesper songs and gone to rest.
A step was heard at the threshold—it entered the hall; the door of the little chamber opened, and Stanley Lake entered, saying in a doubtful, almost timid way—
'It is I, Radie, come to thank you, and just to ask you how you do, and to say I'll never forget your kindness; upon my honour, I never can.'
Rachel shuddered as the door opened, and there was a ghastly sort of expectation in her look. Imperfectly as it was seen, he could understand it. She did not bid him welcome or even speak. There was a silence.
'Now, you're not angry with me, Radie dear; I venture to say I suffer more than you: and how could I have anticipated the strange turn things have taken? You know how it all came about, and you must see I'm not really to blame, at least in intention, for all this miserable trouble; and even if I were, where's the good in angry feeling or reproaches now, don't you see, when I can't mend it? Come, Radie, let by-gones be by-gones. There's a good girl; won't you?'
'Aye, by-gones are by-gones; the past is, indeed, immutable, and the future is equally fixed, and more dreadful.'
'Come, Radie; a clever girl like you can make your own future.'
'And what do you want of me now?' she asked, with a fierce cold stare.
'But I did not say I wanted anything.'
'Of course you do, or I should not have seen you. Mark me though, I'll go no further in the long route of wickedness you seem to have marked out for me. I'm sacrificed, it is true, but I won't renew my hourly horrors, and live under the rule of your diabolical selfishness.'
'Say what you will, but keep your temper—will you?' he answered, more like his angry self. But he checked the rising devil within him, and changed his tone; he did not want to quarrel—quite the reverse.
'I don't know really, Radie, why you should talk as you do. I don't want you to do anything—upon my honour I don't—only just to exercise your common sense—and you have lots of sense, Radie. Don't you think people have eyes to see, and ears and tongues in this part of the world? Don't you know very well, in a small place like this, they are all alive with curiosity? and if you choose to make such a tragedy figure, and keep moping and crying, and all that sort of thing, and look so funeste and miserable, you'll be sure to fix attention and set the whole d—d place speculating and gossiping? and really, Radie, you're making mountains of mole-hills. It is because you live so solitary here, and it is such a gloomy out-o'-the-way spot—so awfully dark and damp, nobody could be well here, and you really must change. It is the very temple of blue-devilry, and I assure you if I lived as you do I'd cut my throat before a month—you mustn't. And old Tamar, you know, such a figure! The very priestess of despair. She gives me the horrors, I assure you, whenever I look at her; you must not keep her, she's of no earthly use, poor old thing; and, you know, Radie, we're not rich enough—you and I—to support other people. You must really place yourself more cheerfully, and I'll speak to Chelford about Tamar. There's a very nice place—an asylum, or something, for old women—near—(Dollington he was going to say, but the associations were not pleasant)—near some of those little towns close to this, and he's a visitor, or governor, or whatever they call it. It is really not fair to expect you or me to keep people like that.'
'She has not cost you much hitherto, Stanley, and she will give you very little trouble hereafter. I won't part with Tamar.'
'She has not cost me much?' said Lake, whose temper was not of a kind to pass by anything. 'No; of course, she has not. I can't afford a guinea. You're poor enough; but in proportion to my expenses—a woman, of course, can live on less than half what a man can—I'm a great deal poorer than you; and I never said I gave her sixpence—did I? I have not got it to give, and I don't think she's fool enough to expect it; and, to say the truth, I don't care. I only advise you. There are some cheerful little cottages near the green, in Gylingden, and I venture to think, this is one of the very gloomiest and most uncomfortable places you could have selected to live in.'
Rachel looked drearily toward the window and sighed—it was almost a groan.
'It was cheerful always till this frightful week changed everything. Oh! why, why, why did you ever come?' She threw back her pale face, biting her lip, and even in that deepening gloom her small pearly teeth glimmered white; and then she burst into sobs and an agony of tears.
Captain Lake knew something of feminine paroxysms. Rachel was not given to hysterics. He knew this burst of anguish was unaffected. He was rather glad of it. When it was over he expected clearer weather and a calm. So he waited, saying now and then a soothing word or two.
'There—there—there, Radie—there's a good girl. Never mind—there—there.' And between whiles his mind, which, in truth, had a good deal upon it, would wander and pursue its dismal and perplexed explorations, to the unheard accompaniment of her sobs.
He went to the door, but it was not to call for water, or for old Tamar. On the contrary, it was to observe whether she or the girl was listening. But the house, though small, was built with thick partition walls, and sounds were well enclosed in the rooms to which they belonged.
With Rachel this weakness did not last long. It was a gust—violent—soon over; and the 'o'er-charged' heart and brain were relieved. And she pushed open the window, and stood for a moment in the chill air, and sighed, and whispered a word or two over the closing flowers of her little garden toward the darkening glen, and with another great sigh closed the window, and returned.
'Can I do anything, Radie? You're better now. I knew you would be. Shall I get some water from your room?'
'No, Stanley; no, thank you. I'm very well now,' she said, gently.
'Yes, I think so. I knew you'd be better.' And he patted her shoulder with his soft hand; and then followed a short silence.
'I wish you were more pleasantly lodged, Radie; but we can speak of that another time.'
'Yes—you're right. This place is dreadful, and its darkness dreadful; but light is still more dreadful now, and I think I'll change; but, as you say, there is time enough to think of all that.'
'Quite so—time enough. By-the-bye, Radie, you mentioned our old servant, whom my father thought so highly of—Jim Dutton—the other evening. I've been thinking of him, do you know, and I should like to find him out. He was a very honest fellow, and attached, and a clever fellow, too, my father thought; and he was a good judge. Hadn't you a letter from his mother lately? You told me so, I think; and if it is not too much trouble, dear Radie, would you allow me to see it?'
Rachel opened her desk, and silently selected one of those clumsy and original missives, directed in a staggering, round hand, on paper oddly shaped and thick, such as mixes not naturally with the aristocratic fabric, on which crests and ciphers are impressed, and placed it in her brother's hand.
'But you can't read it without light,' said Rachel.
'No; but there's no hurry. Does she say where she is staying, or her son?'
'Both, I think,' answered Rachel, languidly; 'but he'll never make a servant for you—he's a rough creature, she says, and was a groom. You can't remember him, nor I either.'
'Perhaps—very likely;' and he put the letter in his pocket.
'I was thinking, Rachel, you could advise me, if you would, you are so clever, you know.'
'Advise!' said Rachel, softly; but with a wild and bitter rage ringing under it. 'I did advise when it was yet time to profit by advice. I bound you even by a promise to take it, but you know how it ended. You don't want my advice.'
'But really I do, Radie. I quite allow I was wrong—worse than wrong—but where is the use of attacking me now, when I'm in this dreadful fix? I took a wrong step; and what I now have to do is to guard myself, if possible, from what I'm threatened with.'
She fancied she saw his pale face grow more bloodless, even in the shadow where he sat.
'I know you too well, Stanley. You want no advice. You never took advice—you never will. Your desperate and ingrained perversity has ruined us both.'
'I wish you'd let me know my own mind. I say I do—(and he uttered an unpleasant exclamation). Do you think I'll leave matters to take their course, and sit down here to be destroyed? I'm no such idiot. I tell you I'll leave no stone unturned to save myself; and, in some measure, you too, Radie. You don't seem to comprehend the tremendous misfortune that menaces me—us—you and me.'
And he cursed Mark Wylder with a gasp of hatred not easily expressed.
She winced at the name, and brushed her hand to her ear.
'Don't—don't—don't,' she said, vehemently.
'Well, what the devil do you mean by refusing to help me, even with a hint? I say—I know—all the odds are against us. It is sometimes a long game; but unless I'm sharp, I can't escape what's coming. I can't—you can't—sooner or later. It is in motion already—d— him—it's coming, and you expect me to do everything alone.'
'I repeat it, Stanley,' said Rachel, with a fierce cynicism in her low tones, 'you don't want advice; you have formed your plan, whatever it is, and that plan you will follow, and no other, though men and angels were united to dissuade you.'
There was a pause here, and a silence for a good many seconds.
'Well, perhaps, I have formed an outline of a plan, and it strikes me as very well I have—for I don't think you are likely to take that trouble. I only want to explain it, and get your advice, and any little assistance you can give me; and surely that is not unreasonable?'
'I have learned one secret, and am exposed to one danger. I have taken—to save you—it may be only a respite—one step, the remembrance of which is insupportable. But I was passive. I am fallen from light into darkness. There ends my share in your confidence and your fortunes. I will know no more secrets—no more disgrace; do what you will, you shall never use me again.'
'Suppose these heroics of yours, Miss Radie, should contribute to bring about—to bring about the worst,' said Stanley, with a sneer, through which his voice trembled.
'Let it come—my resolution is taken.'
Stanley walked to the window, and in his easy way, as he would across a drawing-room to stand by a piano, and he looked out upon the trees, whose tops stood motionless against the darkened sky, like masses of ruins. Then he came back as gently as he had gone, and stood beside his sister; she could not see his yellow eyes now as he stood with his back to the window.
'Well, Radie, dear—you have put your hand to the plough, and you sha'n't turn back now.'
'No—you sha'n't turn back now.'
'You seem, Sir, to fancy that I have no right to choose for myself,' said Miss Rachel, spiritedly.
'Now, Radie, you must be reasonable—who have I to advise with?'
'Not me, Stanley—keep your plots and your secrets to yourself. In the guilty path you have opened for me one step more I will never tread.'
'Excuse me, Radie, but you're talking like a fool.'
'I am not sorry you think so—you can't understand motives higher than your own.'
'You'll see that you must, though. You'll see it in a little while. Self-preservation, dear Radie, is the first law of nature.'
'For yourself, Stanley; and for me, self-sacrifice,' she retorted, bitterly.
'Well, Radie, I may as well tell you one thing that I'm resolved to carry out,' said Lake, with a dreamy serenity, looking on the dark carpet.
'I'll hear no secret, Stanley.'
'It can't be long a secret, at least from you—you can't help knowing it,' he drawled gently. 'Do you recollect, Radie, what I said that morning when I first called here, and saw you?'
'Perhaps I do, but I don't know what you mean,' answered she.
'I said, Mark Wylder——'
'Don't name him,' she said, rising and approaching him swiftly.
'I said he should go abroad, and so he shall,' said Lake, in a very low tone, with a grim oath.
'Why do you talk that way? You terrify me,' said Rachel, with one hand raised toward his face with a gesture of horror and entreaty, and the other closed upon his wrist.
'I say he shall, Radie.'
'Has he lost his wits? I can't comprehend you—you frighten me, Stanley. You're talking wildly on purpose, I believe, to terrify me. You know the state I'm in—sleepless—half wild—all alone here. You're talking like a maniac. It's cruel—it's cowardly.'
'I mean to do it—you'll see.'
Suddenly she hurried by him, and in a moment was in the little kitchen, with its fire and candle burning cheerily. Stanley Lake was at her shoulder as she entered, and both were white with agitation.
Old Tamar rose up affrighted, her stiff arms raised, and uttered a blessing. She did not know what to make of it. Rachel sat down upon one of the kitchen chairs, scarce knowing what she did, and Stanley Lake halted near the threshold—gazing for a moment as wildly as she, with the ghost of his sly smile on his smooth, cadaverous face.
'What ails her—is she ill, Master Stanley?' asked the old woman, returning with her white eyes the young man's strange yellow glare.
'I—I don't know—maybe—give her some water,' said Lake.
'Glass of water—quick, child,' cried old Tamar to Margery.
'Put it on the table,' said Rachel, collected now, but pale and somewhat stern.
'And now, Stanley, dear,' said she, for just then she was past caring for the presence of the servants, 'I hope we understand one another—at least, that you do me. If not, it is not for want of distinctness on my part; and I think you had better leave me for the present, for, to say truth, I do not feel very well.'
'Good-night, Radie—good-night, old Tamar. I hope, Radie, you'll be better—every way—when next I see you. Good-night.'
He spoke in his usual clear low tones, and his queer ambiguous smile was there still; and, hat in hand, with his cane in his fingers, he made another glance and a nod over his shoulder, at the threshold, and then glided forth into the little garden, and so to the mill-road, down which, at a swift pace, he walked towards the village.
CAPTAIN LAKE FOLLOWS TO LONDON.
Wylder's levanting in this way was singularly disconcerting. The time was growing short. He wrote with a stupid good-humour, and an insolent brevity which took no account of Miss Brandon's position, or that (though secondary in awkwardness) of her noble relatives. Lord Chelford plainly thought more than he cared to say; and his mother, who never minced matters, said perhaps more than she quite thought.
Chelford was to give the beautiful heiress away. But the receiver of this rich and peerless gift—like some mysterious knight who, having carried all before him in the tourney, vanishes no one knows whither, when the prize is about to be bestowed, and whom the summons of the herald and the call of the trumpet follow in vain—had escaped them.
'Lake has gone up to town this morning—some business with his banker about his commission—and he says he will make Wylder out on his arrival, and write to me,' said Lord Chelford.
Old Lady Chelford glanced across her shoulder at Dorcas, who leaned back in a great chair by the window, listlessly turning over a book.
'She's a strange girl, she does not seem to feel her situation—a most painful and critical one. That low, coarse creature must be looked up somehow.'
'Lake knows where he is likely to be found, and will see him, I dare say, this evening—perhaps in time to write by to-night's post.'
So, in a quiet key, Miss Dorcas being at a distance, though in the same room, the dowager and her son discussed this unpleasant and very nervous topic.
That evening Captain Lake was in London, comfortably quartered in a private hotel, in one of the streets off Piccadilly. He went to his club and dined better than he had done for many days. He really enjoyed his three little courses—his pint of claret, his cup of cafe noir, and his chasse; the great Babylon was his Jerusalem, and his spirit found rest there.
He was renovated and refreshed, his soul was strengthened, and his countenance waxed cheerful, and he began to feel like himself again, under the brown canopy of metropolitan smoke, and among the cabs and gaslights.
After dinner he got into a cab, and drove to Mark Wylder's club. Was he there?—No. Had he been there to-day?—No. Or within the last week?—No; not for two months. He had left his address, and was in the country. The address to which his letters were forwarded was 'The Brandon Arms, Gylingden.'
So Captain Lake informed that functionary that his friend had come up to town, and asked him again whether he was quite certain that he had not called there, or sent for his letters.—No; nothing of the sort. Then Captain Lake asked to see the billiard-marker, who was likely to know something about him. But he knew nothing. He certainly had not been at the 'Lark's Nest,' which was kept by the marker's venerable parent, and was a favourite haunt of the gay lieutenant.
Then our friend Stanley, having ruminated for a minute, pencilled a little note to Mark, telling him that he was staying at Muggeridge's Hotel, 7, Hanover Street, Piccadilly, and wished most particularly to see him for a few minutes; and this he left with the hall-porter to give him should he call.
Then Lake got into his cab again, having learned that he had lodgings in St. James's Street when he did not stay at the club, and to these he drove. There he saw Mrs. M'Intyre, a Caledonian lady, at this hour somewhat mellow and talkative; but she could say nothing to the purpose either. Mr. Wylder had not been there for nine weeks and three days; and would owe her, on Saturday next, twenty-five guineas. So here, too, he left a little note to the same purpose; and re-entering his cab, he drove a long way, and past St. Paul's, and came at last to a court, outside which he had to dismount from his vehicle, entering the grimy quadrangle through a narrow passage. He had been there that evening before, shortly after his arrival, with old Mother Dutton, as he called her, about her son, Jim.
Jim was in London, looking for a situation, all which pleased Captain Lake; and he desired that she should send him to his hotel to see him in the morning.
But being in some matters of a nervous and impatient temperament, he had come again, as we see, hoping to find Jim there, and to anticipate his interview of the morning.
The windows, however, were dark, and a little research satisfied Captain Lake that the colony was in bed. In fact, it was by this time half-past eleven o'clock, and working-people don't usually sit up to that hour. But our friend, Stanley Lake, was one of those persons who think that the course of the world's affairs should bend a good deal to their personal convenience, and he was not pleased with these unreasonable working-people who had gone to their beds, and brought him to this remote and grimy amphitheatre of black windows for nothing. So, wishing them the good-night they merited, he re-entered his cab, and drove rapidly back again towards the West-end.
This time he went to a somewhat mysterious and barricadoed place, where in a blaze of light, in various rooms, gentlemen in hats, and some in great coats, were playing roulette or hazard; and I am sorry to say, that our friend, Captain Lake, played first at one and then at the other, with what success exactly I don't know. But I don't think it was very far from four o'clock in the morning when he let himself into his family hotel with that latchkey, the cock's tail of Micyllus, with which good-natured old Mrs. Muggeridge obliged the good-looking captain.
Captain Lake having given orders the evening before, that anyone who might call in the morning, and ask to see him, should be shown up to his bed-room sans ceremonie, was roused from deep slumber at a quarter past ten, by a knock at his door, and a waiter's voice.
'Who's that?' drawled Captain Lake, rising, pale and half awake, on his elbow, and not very clear where he was.
'The man, Sir, as you left a note for yesterday, which he desires to see you?'
'Tell him to step in.'
So out went the waiter in pumps, and the sound of thick shoes was audible on the lobby, and a sturdier knock sounded on the door.
'Come in,' said the captain.
And Jim Dutton entered the room, and, closing the door, made, at the side of the bed, his reverence, consisting of a nod and a faint pluck at the lock of hair over his forehead.
Now Stanley Lake had, perhaps, expected to see some one else; for though this was a very respectable-looking fellow for his walk in life, the gay young officer stared full at him, with a frightened and rather dreadful countenance, and actually sprung from his bed at the other side, with an ejaculation at once tragic and blasphemous.
The man plainly had not expected to produce any such result, and looked very queer. Perhaps he thought something had occurred to affect his personal appearance; perhaps some doubt about the captain's state of health, and misgiving as to delirium tremens may have flickered over his brain.
They were staring at one another across the bed, the captain in his shirt.
At last the gallant officer seemed to discover things as they were, for he said—
'Jim Dutton, by Jove!'
The oath was not so innocent; but it was delivered quietly; and then the captain drew a long breath, and then, still staring at him, he laughed a ghastly little laugh, also quietly.
'And so it is you, Jim,' said the captain. 'And how do you do—quite well, Jim—and out of place? You've been hurt in the foot, eh? so old your—Mrs. Dutton tells me, but that won't signify. I was dreaming when you came in; not quite awake yet, hardly; just wait a bit till I get my slippers on; and this—' So into his red slippers he slid, and got his great shawl dressing-gown, such as fine gentlemen then wore, about his slender person, and knotted the silken cords with depending tassels, and greeted Jim Dutton again in very friendly fashion, enquiring very particularly how he had been ever since, and what his mother was doing; and I'm afraid not listening to Jim's answers as attentively as one might have expected.
Whatever may have been his intrinsic worth, Jim was not polished, and spoke, moreover, an uncouth dialect, which broke out now and then. But he was in a sort of way attached to the Lake family, the son of an hereditary tenant on that estate which had made itself wings, and flown away like the island of Laputa. It could not be said to be love; it was a sort of traditionary loyalty; a sentiment, however, not altogether unserviceable.
When they had talked together for a while, the captain said—
'The fact is, it is not quite on me you would have to attend; the situation, perhaps, is better. You have no objection to travel. You have been abroad, you know; and of course wages and all that will be in proportion.'
Well, Jim had not any objection to speak of.
'What's wanted is a trustworthy man, perfectly steady, you see, and a fellow who knows how to hold his tongue.'
The last condition, perhaps, struck the man as a little odd; he looked a little confusedly, and he conveyed that he would not like to be in anything that was not quite straight.
'Quite straight, Sir!' repeated Stanley Lake, looking round on him sternly; 'neither should I, I fancy. You are to suppose the case of a gentleman who is nursing his estate—you know what that means—and wants to travel, and keep quite quiet, and who requires a steady, trustworthy man to look after him, in such a way as I shall direct, with very little trouble and capital pay. I have a regard for you, Dutton; and seeing so good a situation was to be had, and thinking you the fittest man I know, I wished to serve you and my friend at the same time.'
Dutton became grateful and docile upon this.
'There are reasons, quite honourable I need not tell you, which make it necessary, James Dutton, that the whole of this affair should be kept perfectly to ourselves; you are not to repeat one syllable I say to you to your mother, do you mind, or to any other person living. The gentleman is liberal, and if you can just hold your tongue, you will have little trouble in satisfying him upon all other points. But if you can't be quite silent, you had better, I frankly tell you, decline the situation, excellent in all respects as it is.'
'I'm a man, Sir, as can be close enough.'
'So much the better. You don't drink?'
Dutton coloured a little and coughed and said—
'You have your papers?'
'We must be satisfied as to your sobriety, Dutton. Come back at half-past eleven and I'll see you, and bring your papers; and, do you see, you are not to talk, you understand; only you may say, if anyone presses, that I am thinking of hiring you to attend on a gentleman, whose name you don't yet know, who's going to travel. That's all.'
So Jim Dutton made his bow, and departed; and Captain Lake continued to watch the door for some seconds after his departure, as if he could see his retreating figure through it. And, said he, with an oath, and his hand to his forehead, over his eyebrow—
'It is the most unaccountable thing in nature!'
Then, after a reverie of some seconds, the young gentleman applied himself energetically to his toilet; and coming down to his sitting-room, he looked into his morning paper, and then into the street, and told the servant as he sate down to breakfast, that he expected a gentleman named Wylder to call that morning, and to be sure to show him up directly.
Captain Lake's few hours' sleep, contrary to popular ideas about gamesters' slumbers, had been the soundest and the most natural which he had enjoyed for a good many nights. He was refreshed. At Gylingden and Brandon he had been simulating Captain Stanley Lake—being, in truth, something quite different—with a vigilant histrionic effort which was awfully exhausting, and sometimes nearly intolerable. Here the captain was perceptibly stealing into his old ways and feelings. His spirit revived; something like confidence in the future, and a possibility even of enjoying the present, was struggling visibly through the cold fog that environed him. Reason has, after all, so little to do with our moods. The weather, the scene, the stomach, how pleasantly they deal with facts—how they supersede philosophy, and even arithmetic, and teach us how much of life is intoxication and illusion.
Still there was the sword of Damocles over his pineal gland. D—— that sheer, cold blade! D—— him that forged it! Still there was a great deal of holding in a horse-hair. Had not salmon, of I know not how many pounds' weight, been played and brought to land by that slender towage. There is the sword, a burnished piece of cutlery, weighing just so many pounds; and the horsehair has sufficed for an hour, and why not for another—and soon? Hang moping and nonsense! Waiter, another pint of Chian; and let the fun go forward.
So the literal waiter knocked at the door. 'A person wanted to see Captain Lake. No, it was not Mr. Wylder. It was the man who had been here in the morning—Dutton is his name.'
'And so it is really half-past eleven?' said Lake, in a sleepy surprise. 'Let him come in.'
And so in comes Jim Dutton again, to hear particulars, and have, as he hopes, his engagement ratified.
LAWYER LARKIN'S MIND BEGINS TO WORK.
That morning Lake's first report upon his inquisition into the whereabouts of Mark Wylder—altogether disappointing and barren—reached Lord Chelford in a short letter; and a similar one, only shorter, found Lawyer Larkin in his pleasant breakfast parlour.
Now this proceeding of Mr. Wylder's, at this particular time, struck the righteous attorney, and reasonably, as a very serious and unjustifiable step. There was, in fact, no way of accounting for it, that was altogether complimentary to his respected and nutritious client. Yes; there was something every way very serious in the affair. It actually threatened the engagement which was so near its accomplishment. Some most powerful and mysterious cause must undoubtedly be in operation to induce so sharp a 'party,' so keen after this world's wealth, to risk so huge a prize. Whatever eminent qualities Mark Wylder might be deficient in, the attorney very well knew that cunning was not among the number.
'It is nothing of the nature of debt—plenty of money. It is nothing that money can buy off easily either, though he does not like parting with it. Ten—twenty to one—it is the old story—some unfortunate female connection—some ambiguous relation, involving a doubtful marriage.'
And Josiah Larkin turned up his small pink eyes, and shook his tall, bald head gently, and murmured, as he nodded it—
'The sins of his youth find him out; the sins of his youth.'
And he sighed; and his long palms were raised, and waved, or rather paddled slowly to the rhythm of the sentiment.
If the butchers' boy then passing saw that gaunt and good attorney, standing thus in his bow-window, I am sure he thought he was at his devotions and abated his whistling as he went by.
After this Mr. Larkin's ruminations darkened, and grew, perhaps, less distinct. He had no particular objection to a mystery. In fact, he rather liked it, provided he was admitted to confidence. A mystery implied a difficulty of a delicate and formidable sort; and such difficulties were not disadvantageous to a clever and firm person, who might render himself very necessary to an embarrassed principal with plenty of money.
Mr. Larkin had a way of gently compressing his under-lip between his finger and thumb—a mild pinch, a reflective caress—when contemplations of this nature occupied his brain. The silver light of heaven faded from his long face, a deep shadow of earth came thereon, and his small, dove-like eyes grew intense, hungry, and rat-like.
Oh! Lawyer Larkin, your eyes, though very small, are very sharp. They can read through the outer skin of ordinary men, as through a parchment against the light, the inner writing, and spell out its meanings. How is it that they fail to see quite through one Jos. Larkin, a lawyer of Gylingden? The layover of Gylingden is somehow two opaque for them, I almost think. Is he really too deep for you? Or is it that you don't care to search him too narrowly, or have not time? or as men in money perplexities love not the scrutiny of their accounts or papers, you don't care to tire your eyes over the documents in that neatly japanned box, the respectable lawyer's conscience?
If you have puzzled yourself, you have also puzzled me. I don't quite know what to make of you. I've sometimes thought you were simply an impostor, and sometimes simply the dupe of your own sorceries. The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Some men, with a piercing insight into the evil of man's nature, have a blurred vision for their own moralities. For them it is not easy to see where wisdom ends and guile begins—what wiles are justified to honour, and what partake of the genius of the robber, and where lie the delicate boundaries between legitimate diplomacy and damnable lying. I am not sure that Lawyer Larkin did not often think himself very nearly what he wished the world to think him—an 'eminent Christian.' What an awful abyss is self delusion.
Lawyer Larkin was, on the whole, I dare say, tolerably well pleased with the position, as he would have said, of his spiritual interest, and belonged to that complacent congregation who said, 'I am rich and have need of nothing;' and who, no doubt, opened their eyes wide enough, and misdoubted the astounding report of their ears, when the judge thundered, 'Thou art wretched and miserable, and poor and blind and naked.'
When Jos. Larkins had speculated thus, and built rich, but sombre, castles in the air, for some time longer, he said quietly to himself—
And then he ordered his dog-cart, and drove off to Dollington, and put up at Johnson's Hotel, where Stanley Lake had slept on the night of his sister's return from London. The people there knew the lawyer very well; of course, they quite understood his position. Mr. Johnson, the proprietor, you may be sure, does not confound him with the great squires, the baronets, and feudal names of the county; but though he was by comparison easy in his company, with even a dash of familiarity, he still respected Mr. Larkin as a man with money, and a sort of influence, and in whose way, at election and other times, it might lie to do his house a good or an ill turn.
Mr. Larkin got into a little brown room, looking into the inn garden, and called for some luncheon, and pen and ink, and had out a sheaf of law papers he had brought with him, tied up in professional red tape; and asked the waiter, with a grand smile and recognition, how he did; and asked him next for his good friend, Mr. Johnson; and trusted that business was improving; and would be very happy to see him for two or three minutes, if he could spare time.
So, in due time, in came the corpulent proprietor, and Lawyer Larkin shook hands with him, and begged him to sit down, like a man who confers a distinction; and assured him that Lord Edward Buxleigh, whom he had recommended to stay at the house for the shooting, had been very well pleased with the accommodation—very highly so indeed—and his lordship had so expressed himself when they had last met at Sir Hugh Huxterley's, of Hatch Court.
The good lawyer liked illuminating his little narratives, compliments, and reminiscences with plenty of armorial bearings and heraldic figures, and played out his court-cards in easy and somewhat overpowering profusion.
Then he enquired after the two heifers that Mr. Johnson was so good as to feed for him on his little farm; and then he mentioned that his friend, Captain Lake, who was staying with him at his house at Gylingden, was also very well satisfied with his accommodation, when he, too, at Lawyer Larkin's recommendation, had put up for a night at Johnson's Hotel; and it was not every house which could satisfy London swells of Captain Lake's fashion and habits, he could tell him.
Then followed some conversation which, I dare say, interested the lawyer more than be quite showed in Mr. Johnson's company. For when that pleased and communicative host had withdrawn, Jos. Larkin made half-a-dozen little entries in his pocket-book, with 'Statement of Mr. William Johnson,' and the date of their conversation, at the head of the memorandum.
So the lawyer, having to run on as far as Charteris by the goods-train, upon business, walked down to the station, where, having half-an-hour to wait, he fell into talk with the station-master, whom he also knew, and afterwards with Tom Christmas, the porter; and in the waiting-room he made some equally business-like memoranda, being certain chips and splinters struck off the clumsy talk of these officials, and laid up in the lawyer's little private museum, for future illustration and analysis.
By the time his little book was again in the bottom of his pocket, the train had arrived, and doors swung open and clapt and people got in and out to the porter's accompaniment of 'Dollington—Dollington—Dollington!' and Lawyer Larkin took his place, and glided away to Charteris, where he had a wait of two hours for the return train, and a good deal of barren talk with persons at the station, rewarded by one or two sentences worth noting, and accordingly duly entered in the same little pocket-book.
Thus was the good man's day consumed; and when he mounted his dog-cart, at Dollington, wrapped his rug about his legs, whip and reins in hand, and the ostler buckled the apron across, the sun was setting redly behind the hills; and the air was frosty, and the night dark, as he drew up before his own door-steps, near Gylingden. A dozen lines of one of these pages would suffice to contain the fruits of his day's work; and yet the lawyer was satisfied, and even pleased with it, and eat his late dinner very happily; and though dignified, of course, was more than usually mild and gracious with all his servants that evening, and 'expounded at family prayers' in a sense that was liberal and comforting; and went to bed after a calm and pleased review of his memoranda, and slept the sleep of the righteous.
MARK WYLDER'S SUBMISSION.
Every day the position grew more critical and embarrassing. The day appointed for the nuptials was now very near, and the bridegroom not only out of sight but wholly untraceable. What was to be done?
A long letter from Stanley Lake told Lord Chelford, in detail, all the measures adopted by that energetic young gentleman for the discovery of the truant knight:—
'I have been at his club repeatedly, as also at his lodgings—still his, though he has not appeared there since his arrival in town. The billiard-marker at his club knows his haunts; and I have taken the liberty to employ, through him, several persons who are acquainted with his appearance, and, at my desire, frequent those places with a view to discovering him, and bringing about an interview with me.
'He was seen, I have reason to believe, a day or two before my arrival here, at a low place called the "Miller's Hall," in the City, where members of the "Fancy" resort, at one of their orgies, but not since. I have left notes for him wherever he is likely to call, entreating an interview.
'On my arrival I was sanguine about finding him; but I regret to say my hopes have very much declined, and I begin to think he must have changed his quarters. If you have heard from him within the last few days, perhaps you will be so kind as to send me the envelope of his letter, which, by its postmark, may possibly throw some light or hint some theory as to his possible movements. He is very clever; and having taken this plan of concealing his residence, will conduct it skilfully. If the case were mine I should be much tempted to speak with the detective authorities, and try whether they might not give their assistance, of course without eclat. But this is, I am aware, open to objection, and, in fact, would not be justifiable, except under the very peculiar urgency of the case.
'Will you be so good as to say what you think upon this point; also, to instruct me what you authorise me to say should I be fortunate enough to meet him. At present I am hardly in a position to say more than an acquaintance—never, I fear, very cordial on his part—would allow; which, of course, could hardly exceed a simple mention of your anxiety to be placed in communication with him.
'If I might venture to suggest, I really think a peremptory alternative should be presented to him. Writing, however, in ignorance of what may since have passed at Brandon, I may be assuming a state of things which, possibly, no longer exists. Pray understand that in any way you please to employ me, I am entirely at your command. It is also possible, though I hardly hope it, that I may be able to communicate something definite by this evening's post.
'I do not offer any conjectures as to the cause of this very embarrassing procedure on his part; and indeed I find a great difficulty in rendering myself useful, with any likelihood of really succeeding, without at the same exposing myself to an imputation of impertinence. You will easily see how difficult is my position.
'Whatever may be the cause of Mark Wylder's present line of conduct, it appears to me that if he really did attend that meeting at the "Miller's Hall," there cannot be anything very serious weighing upon his spirits. My business will detain me here, I rather think, three days longer.'
By return of post Lord Chelford wrote to Stanley Lake:—
'I am so very much obliged to you for all the trouble you have taken. The measures which you have adopted are, I think, most judicious; and I should not wish, on consideration, to speak to any official person. I think it better to trust entirely to the means you have already employed. Like you, I do not desire to speculate as to the causes of Wylder's extraordinary conduct; but, all the circumstances considered, I cannot avoid concluding, as you do, that there must be some very serious reason for it. I enclose a note, which, perhaps, you will be so good as to give him, should you meet before you leave town.'
The note to Mark Wylder was in these terms:—
'DEAR WYLDER,—I had hoped to see you before now at Brandon. Your unexplained absence longer continued, you must see, will impose on me the necessity of offering an explanation to Miss Brandon's friends, of the relations, under these strange circumstances, in which you and she are to be assumed to stand. You have accounted in no way for your absence. You have not even suggested a postponement of the day fixed for the completion of your engagement to that young lady; and, as her guardian, I cannot avoid telling her, should I fail to hear explicitly from you within three days from this date, that she is at liberty to hold herself acquitted of her engagement to you. I do not represent to you how much reason everyone interested by relationship in that young lady has to feel offended at the disrespect with which you have treated her. Still hoping, however, that all may yet be explained,
'I remain, my dear Wylder, yours very truly,
Lord Chelford had not opened the subject to Dorcas. Neither had old Lady Chelford, although she harangued her son upon it as volubly and fiercely as if he had been Mark Wylder in person, whenever he and she were tete-a-tete. She was extremely provoked, too, at Dorcas's evident repose under this astounding treatment, and was enigmatically sarcastic upon her when they sat together in the drawing-room.
She and her son were, it seemed, not only to think and act, but to feel also, for this utterly immovable young lady! The Brandons, in her young days, were not wanting in spirit. No; they had many faults, but they were not sticks or stones. They were not to be taken up and laid down like wax dolls; they could act and speak. It would not have been safe to trample upon them; and they were not less beautiful for being something more than pictures and statues.
This evening, in the drawing-room, there were two very pretty ormolu caskets upon the little marble table.
'A new present from Mark Wylder,' thought Lady Chelford, as these objects met her keen glance. 'The unceremonious bridegroom has, I suppose, found his way back with a peace-offering in his hand.' And she actually peered through her spectacles into the now darkened corners of the chamber, half expecting to discover the truant Wylder awaiting there the lecture she was well prepared to give him; but the square form and black whiskers of the prodigal son were not discernible there.
'So, so, something new, and very elegant and pretty,' said the old lady aloud, holding her head high, and looking as if she were disposed to be propitiated. 'I think I can risk a conjecture. Mr. Wylder is about to reappear, and has despatched these heralds of his approach, no doubt suitably freighted, to plead for his reacceptance into favour. You have heard, then, from Mr. Wylder, my dear Dorcas?'
'No, Lady Chelford,' said the young lady with a grave serenity, turning her head leisurely towards her.
'No? Oh, then where is my son? He, perhaps, can explain; and pray, my dear, what are these?'
'These caskets contain the jewels which Mr. Wylder gave me about six weeks since. I had intended restoring them to him; but as his return is delayed, I mean to place them in Chelford's hands; because I have made up my mind, a week ago, to put an end to this odious engagement. It is all over.'
Lady Chelford stared at the audacious young lady with a look of incensed amazement for some seconds, unable to speak.
'Upon my word, young lady! vastly fine and independent! You chasser Mr. Wylder without one moment's notice, and without deigning to consult me, or any other person capable of advising you. You are about to commit as gross and indelicate a breach of faith as I recollect anywhere to have heard of. What will be thought?—what will the world say?—what will your friends say? Will you be good enough to explain yourself? I'll not undertake your excuses, I promise you.'
'Excuses! I don't think of excuses, Lady Chelford; no person living has a right to demand one.'
'Very tragic, young lady, and quite charming!' sneered the dowager angrily.
'Neither one nor the other, I venture to think; but quite true, Lady Chelford,' answered Miss Brandon, haughtily.
'I don't believe you are serious, Dorcas,' said Lady Chelford, more anxiously, and also more gently. 'I can't suppose it. I'm an old woman, my dear, and I sha'n't trouble you very long. I can have no object in misleading you, and you have never experienced from me anything but kindness and affection. I think you might trust me a little, Dorcas—but that, of course, is for you, you are your own mistress now—but, at least, you may reconsider the question you propose deciding in so extraordinary a way. I allow you might do much better than Mark Wylder, but also worse. He has not a title, and his estate is not enough to carry the point a force d'argent; I grant all that. But together the estates are more than most titled men possess; and the real point is the fatal slip in your poor uncle's will, which makes it so highly important that you and Mark should be united; bear that in mind, dear Dorcas. I look for his return every day—every hour, indeed—and no doubt his absence will turn out to have been unavoidable. You must not act precipitately, and under the influence of mere pique. His absence, I will lay my life, will be satisfactorily accounted for; he has set his heart upon this marriage, and I really think you will almost drive him mad if you act as you threaten.'
'You have, indeed, dear Lady Chelford, been always very kind to me, and I do trust you,' replied this beautiful heiress, turning her large shadowy eyes upon the dowager, and speaking in slow and silvery accents, somehow very melancholy. 'I dare say it is very imprudent, and I don't deny that Mr. Wylder may have reason to complain of me, and the world will not spare me either; but I have quite made up my mind, and nothing can ever change me; all is over between me and Mr. Wylder—quite over—for ever.'
'Upon my life, young lady, this is being very sharp, indeed. Mr. Wylder's business detains him a day or two longer than he expected, and he is punished by a final dismissal!'
The old lady's thin cheeks were flushed, and her eyes shot a reddish light, and altogether she made an angry sight. It was hardly reasonable. She had been inveighing against Miss Brandon's apathy under Wylder's disrespect, and now that the young lady spoke and acted too, she was incensed. She had railed upon Wylder, in no measured terms, herself, and even threatened, as the proper measure, that very step which Dorcas had announced; and now she became all at once the apologist of this insolent truant, and was ready to denounce her unreasonable irritation.
'So far, dear Lady Chelford, from provoking me to this decision, his absence is, I assure you, the sole reason of my having delayed to inform him of it.'
'And I assure you, Miss Brandon, I sha'n't undertake to deliver your monstrous message. He will probably be here to-morrow. You have prepared an agreeable surprise for him. You shall have the pleasure of administering it yourself, Miss Brandon. For my part, I have done my duty, and here and now renounce all responsibility in the future management of your affairs.'
Saying which, she rose, in a stately and incensed way, and looking with flashing eyes over Dorcas's head to a far corner of the apartment, without another word she rustled slowly and majestically from the drawing-room.
She was a good deal shocked, and her feelings quite changed, however, when next morning the post brought a letter to Chelford from Mark Wylder, bearing the Boulogne postmark. It said—
'Don't get riled; but the fact is I don't see my way out of my present business'—(this last word was substituted for another, crossed out, which looked like 'scrape')—'for a couple of months, maybe. Therefore, you see, my liberty and wishes being at present interfered with, it would be very hard lines if poor Dorcas should be held to her bargain. Therefore, I will say this—she is quite free for me. Only, of course, I don't decline to fulfil my part whenever at liberty. In the meantime I return the miniature, with her hair in it, which I constantly wore about me since I got it. But I have no right to it any longer, till I know her decision. Don't be too hard on me, dear Chelford. It is a very old lark has got me into this present vexation. In the meantime, I wish to make it quite clear what I mean. Not being able by any endeavour'—(here a nautical phrase scratched out, and 'endeavour' substituted)—'of mine to be up to time, and as these are P.P. affairs, I must only forfeit. I mean, I am at the lady's disposal, either to fulfil my engagement the earliest day I can, or to be turned adrift. That is all I can say.
'In more trouble than you suppose, I remain, dear Chelford, yours, whatever you may think, faithfully,
HOW MARK WYLDER'S DISAPPEARANCE AFFECTED HIS FRIENDS.
Lady Chelford's wrath was now turned anew upon Wylder—and the inconvenience of having no visible object on which to expend it was once more painfully felt. Railing at Mark Wylder was, alas! but beating the air. The most crushing invective was—thanks to his adroit mystification—simply a soliloquy. Poor Lady Chelford, who loved to give the ingenious youngsters of both sexes, when occasion invited, a piece of her mind, was here—in the case of this vulgar and most provoking delinquent—absolutely tongue-tied! If it had been possible to tell Wylder what she thought of him it would, perhaps, have made her more tolerable than she was for some days after the arrival of that letter, to other members of the family.
The idea of holding Miss Brandon to this engagement, and proroguing her nuptials from day to day, to convenience the bridegroom—absent without explanation—was of course quite untenable. Fortunately, the marriage, considering the antiquity and the territorial position of the two families who were involved, was to have been a very quiet affair indeed—no festivities—no fire-works—nothing of the nature of a county gala—no glare or thunder—no concussion of society—a dignified but secluded marriage.
This divested the inevitable dissolution of these high relations of a great deal of its eclat and ridicule.
Of course there was abundance of talk. Scarce a man or woman in the shire but had a theory or a story—sometimes bearing hard on the lady, sometimes on the gentleman; still it was an abstract breach of promise, and would have much improved by some outward and visible sign of disruption and disappointment. Some concrete pageantries to be abolished and removed; flag-staffs, for instance, and banners, marquees, pyrotechnic machinery, and long tiers of rockets, festoons of evergreens, triumphal arches with appropriate mottoes, to come down and hide themselves away, would have been pleasant to the many who like a joke, and to the few, let us hope, who love a sneer.
But there were no such fopperies to hurry off the stage disconcerted. In the autumnal sun, among the embrowned and thinning foliage of the noble trees, Brandon Hall looked solemn, sad and magnificent, as usual, with a sort of retrospective serenity, buried in old-world glories and sorrows, and heeding little the follies and scandals of the hour.
In the same way Miss Brandon, with Lord and Lady Chelford, was seen next Sunday, serene and unchanged, in the great carved oak Brandon pew, raised like a dais two feet at least above the level of mere Christians, who frequented the family chapel. There, among old Wylder and Brandon tombs—some painted stone effigies of the period of Elizabeth and the first James, and some much older—stone and marble knights praying on their backs with their spurs on, and said to have been removed nearly three hundred years ago from the Abbey of Naunton Friars, when that famous monastery began to lose its roof and turn into a picturesque ruin, and by-gone generations of Wylders and Brandons had offered up their conspicuous devotions, with—judging from their heathen lives—I fear no very remarkable efficacy.
Here then, next Sunday afternoon, when the good vicar, the Rev. William Wylder, at three o'clock, performed his holy office in reading-desk and pulpit, the good folk from Gylingden assembled in force, saw nothing noticeable in the demeanour or appearance of the great Brandon heiress. A goddess in her aerial place, haughty, beautiful, unconscious of human gaze, and seen as it were telescopically by mortals from below. No shadow of trouble on that calm marble beauty, no light of joy, but a serene superb indifference.
Of course there was some satire in Gylingden; but, in the main, it was a loyal town, and true to its princess. Mr. Wylder's settlements were not satisfactory, it was presumed, or the young lady could not bring herself to like him, or however it came to pass, one way or another, that sprig of willow inevitably to be mounted by hero or heroine upon such equivocal occasions was placed by the honest town by no means in her breast, but altogether in his button-hole.
Gradually, in a more authentic shape, information traceable to old Lady Chelford, through some of the old county families who visited at Brandon, made it known that Mr. Wylder's affairs were not at present by any means in so settled a state as was supposed; and that a long betrothal not being desirable on the whole, Miss Brandon's relatives thought it advisable that the engagement should terminate, and had so decided, Mr. Wylder having, very properly, placed himself absolutely in their hands.
As for Mark, it was presumed he had gone into voluntary banishment, and was making the grand tour in the spirit of that lackadaisical gentleman in the then fashionable song, who says:—
From sport to sport they hurry me, To banish my regret, And if they win a smile from me, They think that I forget.
It was known to be quite final, and as the lady evinced no chagrin and affected no unusual spirits, but held, swanlike and majestic, the even tenor of her way, there was, on the whole, little doubt anywhere that the gentleman had received his conge, and was hiding his mortification and healing his wounds in Paris or Vienna, or some other suitable retreat.
But though the good folk of Gylingden, in general, cared very little how Mark Wylder might have disposed of himself, there was one inhabitant to whom his absence was fraught with very serious anxiety and inconvenience. This was his brother, William, the vicar.
Poor William, sound in morals, free from vice, no dandy, a quiet, bookish, self-denying mortal, was yet, when he took holy orders and quitted his chambers at Cambridge, as much in debt as many a scamp of his college. He had been, perhaps, a little foolish and fanciful in the article of books, and had committed a serious indiscretion in the matter of a carved oak bookcase; and, worse still, he had published a slender volume of poems, and a bulkier tome of essays, scholastic and theologic, both which ventures, notwithstanding their merits, had turned out unhappily; and worse still, he had lent that costly loan, his sign manual, on two or three occasions, to friends in need, and one way or another found that, on winding up and closing his Cambridge life, his assets fell short of his liabilities very seriously.
The entire amount it is true was not very great. A pupil or two, and a success with his work 'On the Character and Inaccuracies of Eusebius,' would make matters square in a little time. But his advertisements for a resident pupil had not been answered; they had cost him something, and he had not any more spare bread just then to throw upon the waters. So the advertisements for the present were suspended; and the publishers, somehow, did not take kindly to Eusebius, who was making the tour of that fastidious and hard-hearted fraternity.
He had staved off some of his troubles by a little loan from an insurance company, but the premium and the instalments were disproportioned to his revenue, and indeed very nearly frightful to contemplate. The Cambridge tradesmen were growing minatory; and there was a stern person who held a renewal of one of his old paper subsidies to the necessities of his scampish friend Clarkson, who was plainly a difficult and awful character to deal with.
Dreadful as were the tradesmen's peremptory and wrathful letters, the promptitude and energy of this latter personage were such as to produce a sense of immediate danger so acute that the scared vicar opened his dismal case to his Brother Mark.
Mark, sorely against the grain, and with no good grace, at last consented to advance L300 in this dread emergency, and the vicar blessed his benefactor, and in his closet on his knees, shed tears of thankfulness over his deliverance, and the sky opened and the flowers locked bright, and life grew pleasant once more.
But the L300 were not yet in his pocket, and Mark had gone away; and although of course the loan was sure to come, the delay—any delay in his situation—was critical and formidable. Here was another would-be correspondent of Mark's foiled for want of his address. Still he would not believe it possible that he could forget his promise, or shut up his bowels of mercy, or long delay the remittance which he knew to be so urgently needed.
In the meantime, however, a writ reached the hand of the poor Vicar of Naunton Friars, who wrote in eager and confused terror to a friend in the Middle Temple on the dread summons, and learned that he was now 'in court,' and must 'appear,' or suffer judgment by default.
The end was that he purchased a respite of three months, by adding thirty pounds to his debt, and so was thankful for another deliverance, and was confident of the promised subsidy within a week, or at all events a fortnight, or, at worst, three months was a long reprieve—and the subsidy must arrive before the emergency.
In this there can be no dismay; My ships come home a month before the day.
When the 'service' was over, the neighbourly little congregation, with a sprinkling of visitors to Gylingden, for sake of its healing waters, broke up, and loitered in the vicinity of the porch, to remark on the sermon or the weather, and ask one another how they did, and to see the Brandon family enter their carriage and the tall, powdered footman shut the door upon them, and mount behind, and move off at a brilliant pace, and with a glorious clangour and whirl of dust; and, this incident over, they broke up gradually into little groups, in Sunday guise, and many colours, some for a ramble on the common, and some to tea, according to the primitive hours that ruled old Gylingden.
The vicar, and John Hughes, clerk and sexton, were last out; and the reverend gentleman, thin and tall, in white necktie, and black, a little threadbare, stood on the steps of the porch, in a sad abstraction. The red autumnal sun nearing the edge of the distant hills,
Looked through the horizontal misty air Shorn of its beams—
and lighted the thin and gentle features of the vicar with a melancholy radiance. The sound of the oak door closing heavily behind him and John Hughes, and the key revolving in the lock recalled him, and with a sigh and a smile, and a kindly nod to John, he looked up and round on the familiar and pretty scenery undecided. It was not quite time to go home; his troubles were heavy upon him, too, just then; they have their paroxysms like ague; and the quiet of the road, and the sweet air and sunshine, tempted him to walk off the chill and fever of the fit.
As he passed the little cottage where old Widow Maddock lay sick, Rachael Lake emerged. He was not glad. He would rather have had his sad walk in his own shy company. But there she was—he could not pass her by; so he stopped, and lifted his hat, and greeted her; and then they shook hands. She was going his way. He looked wistfully on the little hatch of old Widow Maddock's cottage; for he felt a pang of reproach at passing her door; but there was no comfort then in his thoughts, only a sense of fear and hopeless fatigue.
'How is poor old Mrs. Maddock?' he asked; 'you have been visiting the sick and afflicted, and I was passing by; but, indeed, if I were capable at this moment I should not fail to see her, poor creature.'
There was something apologetic and almost miserable in his look as he said this.
'She is not better; but you have been very good to her, and she is very grateful; and I am glad,' said Rachel, 'that I happened to light on you.'
And she paused. They were by this time walking side by side; and she glanced at him enquiringly; and he thought that the handsome girl looked rather thin and pale.
'You once said,' Miss Lake resumed, 'that sooner or later I should be taught the value of religion, and would learn to prize my great privileges; and that for some spirits the only approach to the throne of mercy was through great tribulation. I have often thought since of those words, and they have begun, for me, to take the spirit of a prophecy—sometimes that is—but at others they sound differently—like a dreadful menace—as if my afflictions were only to bring me to the gate of life to find it shut.'
'Knock, and it shall be opened,' said the vicar; but the comfort was sadly spoken, and he sighed.
'But is not there a time, Mr. Wylder, when He shall have shut to the door, and are there not some who, crying to him to open, shall yet remain for ever in outer darkness?'
'I see, dear Miss Lake, that your mind is at work—it is a good influence—at work upon the great, theme which every mortal spirit ought to be employed upon.'
'My fears are at work; my mind is altogether dark and turbid; I am sometimes at the brink of despair.'
'Take comfort from those fears. There is hope in that despair;' and he looked at her with great interest in his gentle eyes.
She looked at him, and then away toward the declining sun, and she said despairingly—
'I cannot comprehend you.'
'Come!' said he, 'Miss Lake, bethink you; was there not a time—and no very distant one—when futurity caused you no anxiety, and when the subject which has grown so interesting, was altogether distasteful to you. The seed of the Word is received at length into good ground; but a grain of wheat will bring forth no fruit unless it die first. The seed dies to outward sense, and despair follows; but the principle of life is working in it, and it will surely grow, and bring forth fruit—thirty, sixty, an hundredfold—be not dismayed. The body dies, and the Lord of life compares it to the death of the seed in the earth; and then comes the palingenesis—the rising in glory. In like manner He compares the reception of the principle of eternal life into the soul to the dropping of a seed into the earth; it follows the general law of mortality. It too dies—such a death as the children of heaven die here—only to germinate afresh with celestial power and beauty.'
Miss Lake's way lay by a footpath across a corner of the park to Redman's Dell. So they crossed the stile, and still conversing, followed the footpath under the hedgerow of the pretty field, and crossing another stile, entered the park.
IN BRANDON PARK.
To me, from association, no doubt, that park has always had a melancholy character. The ground undulates beautifully, and noble timber studs it in all varieties of grouping; and now, as when I had seen the ill-omened form of Uncle Lorne among its solitudes, the descending sun shone across it with a saddened glory, tipping with gold the blades of grass and the brown antlers of the distant deer.
Still pursuing her solemn and melancholy discourse, the young lady followed the path, accompanied by the vicar.
'True,' said the vicar, 'your mind is disturbed, but not by doubt. No; it is by truth.' He glanced aside at the tarn where I had seen the phantom, and by which their path now led them—'You remember Parnell's pretty image?
'So when a smooth expanse receives imprest Calm nature's image on its watery breast, Down bend the banks, the trees depending grow, And skies beneath with answering colours glow; But if a stone the gentle scene divide, Swift ruffling circles curl on every side, And glimmering fragments of a broken sun, Banks, trees, and skies, in thick disorder run.'
'But, as I said, it is not a doubt that agitates your mind—that is well represented by the "stone," that subsides and leaves the pool clear, it maybe, but stagnant as before. Oh, no; it is an angel who comes down and troubles the water.'
'What a heavenly evening!' said a low, sweet voice, but with something insidious in it, close at his shoulder.
With a start, Rachel glanced back, and saw the pale, peculiar face of her brother. His yellow eyes for a moment gleamed into hers, and then on the vicar, and, with his accustomed smile, he extended his hand.
'How do you do?—better, I hope, Radie? How are you, William?'
Rachel grew deadly pale, and then flushed, and then was pale again.
'I thought, Stanley, you were in London.'
'So I was; but I arrived here this morning; I'm staying for a few days at the Lodge—Larkin's house; you're going home, I suppose, Radie?'
'Yes—oh, yes—but I don't know that I'll go this way. You say you must return to Gylingden now, Mr. Wylder; I think I'll turn also, and go home that way.'
'Nothing would give me greater pleasure,' said the vicar, truly as well as kindly, for he had grown interested in their conversation; 'but I fear you are tired'—he looked very kindly on her pale face—'and you know it will cost you a walk of more than two miles.'
'I forgot—yes—I believe I am a little tired; I'm afraid I have led you, too, farther than you intended.' She fancied that her sudden change of plan on meeting her brother would appear odd.
'I'll see you a little bit on your way home, Radie,' said Stanley.
It was just what she wished to escape. She was more nervous, though not less courageous than formerly. But the old, fierce, defiant spirit awoke. Why should she fear Stanley, or what could it be to her whether he was beside her in her homeward walk?
So the vicar made his adieux there, and began, at a brisker pace, to retrace his steps toward Gylingden; and she and Stanley, side by side, walked on toward Redman's Dell.
'What a charming park! and what delightful air, Radie; and the weather so very delicious. They talk of Italian evenings; but there is a pleasant sharpness in English evenings quite peculiar. Is not there just a little suspicion of frost—don't you think so—not actually cold, but crisp and sharp—unspeakably exhilarating; now really, this evening is quite celestial.'
'I've just been listening to a good man's conversation, and I wish to reflect upon it,' said Rachel, very coldly.
'Quite so; that is, of course, when you are alone,' answered Stanley, serenely. 'William was always a very clever fellow to talk—very well read in theology—is not he?—yes, he does talk very sweetly and nobly on religion; it is a pity he is not quite straight, or at least more punctual, in his money affairs.'
'He is distressed for money? William Wylder is distressed for money! Do you mean that?' said Rachel, turning a tone of sudden surprise and energy, almost horror, turning full upon him, and stopping short.
'Oh, dear! no—not the least distressed that I ever heard of,' laughed Stanley coldly—'only just a little bit roguish, maybe.'
'That's so like you, Stanley,' said the young lady, with a quiet scorn, resuming her onward walk.
'How very beautiful that clump of birch trees is, near the edge of the slope there; you really can't imagine, who are always here, how very intensely a person who has just escaped from London enjoys all this.'
'I don't think, Stanley,' said the young lady coldly, and looking straight before her as she walked, 'you ever cared for natural scenery—or liked the country—and yet you are here. I don't think you ever loved me, or cared whether I was alone or in company; and yet seeing—for you did see it—that I would now rather be alone, you persist in walking with me, and talking of trees and air and celestial evenings, and thinking of something quite different. Had not you better turn back to Gylingden, or the Lodge, or wherever you mean to pass the evening, and leave me to my quiet walk and my solitude?'
'In a few minutes, dear Radie—you are so odd. I really believe you think no one can enjoy a ramble like this but yourself.'
'Come, Stanley, what do you want?' said his sister, stopping short, and speaking with the flush of irritation on her cheek—'do you mean to walk to Redman's Dell, or have you anything unpleasant to say?'
'Neither, I hope,' said the captain, with his sleepy smile, his yellow eyes resting on the innocent grass blades before him.
'I don't understand you, Stanley. I am always uncomfortable when you are near me. You stand there like an evil spirit, with some purpose which I cannot divine; but you shall not ensnare me. Go your own way, why can't you? Pursue your own plots—your wicked plots; but let me rest. I will be released, Sir, from your presence.'
'Really this is very fine, Radie, considering how we are related; I'm Mephistopheles, I suppose, and you Margaret, or some other simple heroine—rebuking the fiend in the majesty of your purity.'
And indeed in the reddish light, and in that lonely and solemn spot, the slim form of the captain, pale, sneering, with his wild eyes, confronting the beautiful light-haired girl, looked not quite unlike a type of the jaunty fiend he was pleased to suppose himself.
'I tell you, Stanley, I feel that you design employing me in some of your crooked plans. I have horrible reasons, as you know, for avoiding you, and so I will. I hope I may never desire to see you alone again, but if I do, it shall not be to receive, but to impose commands. You had better return to Gylingden, and leave me.'
'So I will, dear Radie, by-and-by,' said he, with his amused smile.
'That is, you won't until you have said what you meditate. Well, then, as it seems I must hear it, pray speak at once, standing where we are, and quickly, for the sun will soon go down, and one step more I will not walk with you.'
'Well, Radie, you are pleased to be whimsical; and, to say truth, I was thinking of saying a word or two, just about as idea that has been in my mind some time, and which you half divined—you are so clever—the first day I saw you at Redman's Farm. You know you fancied I was thinking of marrying.'
'I don't remember that I said so, but I thought it. You mentioned Caroline Beauchamp, but I don't see how your visit here could have been connected with that plan.'
'But don't you think, Radie, I should do well to marry, that is, assuming everything to be suitable?'
'Well, perhaps, for yourself, Stanley; but——'
'Yes, of course,' said Lake; 'but the unfortunate girl, you were going to say—thank you. She's, of course, very much to be pitied, and you have my leave to pity her as much as you please.'
'I do pity her,' said Rachel.
'Thank you, again,' said Stanley; 'but seriously, Radie, you can be, I think, very essentially of use to me in this affair, and you must not refuse.'
'Now, Stanley, I will cut this matter short. I can't serve you. I won't. I don't know the young lady, and I don't mean to make her acquaintance.'
'But I tell you that you can serve me,' retorted Stanley, with a savage glare, and features whitened with passion, 'and you shall serve me; and you do know the young lady intimately.'
'I say, Sir, I do not,' replied Rachel, haughtily and fiercely.
'She is Dorcas Brandon; you know her, I believe. I came down here to marry her. I had made up my mind when I saw you first and I'll carry my point; I always do. She does not like me, maybe; but she shall. I never yet resolved to make a woman like me, and failed. You need not look so pale; and put on that damned affected look of horror. I may be wild, and—and what you please, but I'm no worse than that brute, Mark Wylder, and you never turned up your eyes when he was her choice; and I knew things about him that ought to have damned him, and she's well rid of a branded rascal. And now, Rachel, you know her, and you must say a good word for me. I expect your influence, and if you don't use it, and effectually, it will be worse for you. You women understand one another, and how to get a fellow favourably into one another's thoughts. So, listen to me, this is a vital matter; indeed, it is, Radie. I have lost a lot of money, like a—fool, I suppose; well, it is gone, and this marriage is indispensable. I must go in for it, it is life or death; and if I fail through your unkindness (here he swore an impious oath) I'll end all with a pistol, and leave a letter to Chelford, disclosing everything concerning you, and me, and Mark Wylder.'