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

I think Rachel Lake was as near fainting as ever lady was, without actually swooning. It was well they had stopped just by the stem of a great ash tree, against which Rachel leaned for some seconds, with darkness before her eyes, and the roar of a whirlpool in her ears.

After a while, with two or three gasps, she came to herself. Lake had been railing on all this time, and his voice, which, in ill-temper, was singularly bleak and terrible, was again in her ears the moment she recovered her hearing.

'I do not care to quarrel; there are many reasons why we should not,' Lake said in his peculiar tones. 'You have some of my secrets, and you must have more; it can't be helped, and, I say, you must. I've been very foolish. I'll give up play. It has brought me to this. I've had to sell out. I've paid away all I could, and given bills for the rest; but I can't possibly pay them, don't you see; and if things go to the worst, I tell you I'll not stay. I don't want to make my bow just yet, and I've no wish to injure you; but I'll do as I have said (he swore again), and Chelford shall have a distinct statement under my hand of everything that has happened. I don't suppose you wish to be accessory to all this, and therefore it behoves you, Rachel, to do what you can to prevent it. One woman can always influence another, and you are constantly with Dorcas. You'll do all you can; I'm sure you will; and you can do a great deal. I know it; I'll do as much for you, Radie! Anything you like.'

For the first time her brother stood before her in a really terrible shape; she felt his villainy turning with a cowardly and merciless treason upon her forlorn self. Sacrificed for him, and that sacrifice used by him to torture, to extort, perhaps to ruin. She quailed for a minute in the presence of this gigantic depravity and cruelty. But Rachel was a brave lass, and rallied quickly.

'After all I have done and suffered!' said she, with a faint smile of unimaginable bitterness; 'I did not think that human wickedness could produce such a brother as you are.'

'Well, it is no news what you think of me, and not much matter, either. I don't see that I am a worse brother than you are a sister.' Stanley Lake was speaking with a livid intensity. 'You see how I'm placed; a ruined man, with a pistol to my head; what you can do to save me may amount to nothing, but it may be everything, and you say you won't try! Now I say you shall, and with every energy and faculty you possess, or else abide the consequences.'

'And I tell you, Sir,' replied Rachel, 'I know you; you are capable of anything but of hurting yourself. I'll never be your slave; though, if I pleased, I might make you mine. I scorn your threats—I defy you.'

Stanley Lake looked transported, and the yellow fires of his deep-set eyes glared on her, while his lips moved to speak, but not a word came, and it became a contortion; he grasped the switch in his hand as if to strike her.

'Take care, Sir, Lord Chelford's coming,' said the young lady, haughtily, with a contracted glance of horror fixed on Lake.

Lake collected himself. He was a man who could do it pretty quickly; but he had been violently agitated, and the traces of his fury could not disappear in a moment.

Lord Chelford was, indeed, approaching, only a few hundred yards away.

'Take my arm,' said Lake.

And Rachel mechanically, as story-tellers say, placed her slender gloved hand upon his arm—the miscreant arm that had been so nearly raised to strike her; and they walked along, brother and sister, in the Sabbath sunset light, to meet him.



CHAPTER XXXI.

IN REDMAN'S DELL.

Lord Chelford raised his hat, smiling: 'I am so very glad I met you, I was beginning to feel so solitary!' he placed himself beside Miss Lake. 'I've had such a long walk across the park. How do you do, Lake? when did you come?'

And so on—Lake answering and looking wonderfully as usual.

I think Lord Chelford perceived there was something amiss between the young people, for his eye rested on Rachel with a momentary look of enquiry, unconscious, no doubt, and quickly averted, and he went on chatting pleasantly; but he looked, once or twice, a little hard at Stanley Lake. I don't think he had an extraordinarily good opinion of that young gentleman. He seldom expressed an ill one of anybody, and then it was in very measured language. But though he never hinted at an unfavourable estimate of the captain, his intimacies with him were a little reserved; and I think I have seen him, even when he smiled, look the least little bit in the world uncomfortable, as if he did not quite enter into the captain's pleasantries.

They had not walked together very far, when Stanley recollected that he must take his leave, and walk back to Gylingden; and so the young lady and Lord Chelford were left to pursue their way towards Redman's Farm together.

It would have been a more unaccountable proceeding on the part of Stanley Lake, and a more romantic situation, if Rachel and his lordship had not had before two or three little accidental rambles together in the grounds and gardens of Brandon. There was nothing quite new in the situation, therefore; and Rachel was for a moment indescribably relieved by Stanley's departure.

The shock of her brief interview with her brother over, reflection assured her, knowing all she did, that Stanley's wooing would prosper, and so this cause of quarrel had really nothing in it; no, nothing but a display of his temper and morals—not very astonishing, after all—and, like an ugly picture or a dreadful dream, in no way to affect her after-life, except as an odious remembrance.

Therefore, little by little, like a flower that has been bruised, in the tranquillising influences about her, the young lady got up, expanded, and grew like herself again—not like enough, indeed, to say much, but to listen and follow his manly, refined, and pleasant talk, every moment with a pang, that had yet something pleasurable in it, contrasting the quiet and chivalric tone of her present companion, with the ferocious duplicity of the sly, smooth terrorist who had just left her side.

It was rather a marked thing—as lean Mrs. Loyd, of Gylingden, who had two thin spinsters with pink noses under her wing, remarked—this long walk of Lord Chelford and Miss Lake in the park; and she enjoined upon her girls the propriety of being specially reserved in their intercourse with persons of Lord Chelford's rank; not that they were much troubled with dangers from any such quarter. Miss Lake had, she supposed, her own notions, and would act as she pleased; but she owned for her part she preferred the old fashion, and thought the men did also; and was sure, too, that young ladies lost nothing by a little reserve and modesty.

Now something of this, no doubt, passed in the minds of Lord Chelford and his pretty companion. But what was to be done? That perverse and utterly selfish brother, Stanley Lake, had chosen to take his leave. Lord Chelford could not desert the young lady, and would it have been a very nice delicacy in Miss Lake to make her courtesy in the middle of the park, and protest against pursuing their walk together any further?

Lord Chelford was a lively and agreeable companion; but there was something unusually gentle, almost resembling tenderness, in his manner. She was so different from her gay, fiery self in this walk—so gentle; so subdued—and he was more interested by her, perhaps, than he had ever been before.

The sun just touched the verge of the wooded uplands, as the young people began to descend the slope of Redman's Dell.

'How very short!' Lord Chelford paused, with a smile, at these words. 'I was just going to say how short the days have grown, as if it had all happened without notice, and contrary to the almanac; but really the sun sets cruelly early this evening, and I am so very sorry our little walk is so soon to end.'

There was not much in this little speech, but it was spoken in a low, sweet voice; and Rachel looked down on the ferns before her feet, as they walked on side by side, not with a smile, but with a blush, and that beautiful look of gratification so becoming and indescribable. Happy that moment—that enchanted moment of oblivion and illusion! But the fitful evening breeze came up through Redman's Dell, with a gentle sweep over the autumnal foliage. Sudden as a sigh, and cold; in her ear it sounded like a whisper or a shudder, and she lifted up her eyes and saw the darkening dell before her; and with a pang, the dreadful sense of reality returned. She stopped, with something almost wild in her look. But with an effort she smiled, and said, with a little shiver, 'The air has grown quite chill, and the sun nearly set; we loitered, Stanley and I, a great deal too long in the park, but I am now at home, and I fear I have brought you much too far out of your way already; good-bye.' And she extended her hand.

'You must not dismiss your escort here. I must see you through the enchanted dell—it is only a step—and then I shall return with a good conscience, like a worthy knight, having done my devoir honestly.'

She looked down the dell, with a dark and painful glance, and then she said a few words of hesitating apology and acquiescence, and in a few minutes more they parted at the little wicket of Redman's Farm. They shook hands. He had a few pleasant, lingering words to say. She paused as he spoke at the other side of that little garden door. She seemed to like those lingering sentences—and hung upon them—and even smiled but in her eyes there was a vague and melancholy pleading—a wandering and unfathomable look that pained him.

They shook hands again—it was the third time—and then she walked up the little gravel walk, hardly a dozen steps, and disappeared within the door of Redman's Farm, without turning another parting look on Lord Chelford, who remained at the little paling—expecting one, I think—to lift his hat and say one more parting word.

She turned into the little drawing-room at the left, and, herself unseen, did take that last look, and saw him go up the road again towards Brandon. The shadows and mists of Redman's Dell anticipated night, and it was already deep twilight there.

On the table there lay a letter which Margery had brought from the post-office. So Rachel lighted her candles and read it with very little interest, for it concerned a world towards which she had few yearnings. There was just one sentence which startled her attention: it said, 'We shall soon be at Knowlton—for Christmas, I suppose. It is growing too wintry for mamma near the sea, though I like it better in a high wind than in a calm; and a gale is such fun—such a romp. The Dulhamptons have arrived: the old Marchioness never appears till three o'clock, and only out in the carriage twice since they came. I can't say I very much admire Lady Constance, though she is to be Chelford's wife. She has fine eyes—and I think no other good point—much too dark for my taste—but they say clever;' and not another word was there on this subject.

'Lady Constance! arranged, I suppose, by Lady Chelford—no great dot—and an unamiable family—an odious family—nothing to recommend her but her rank.'

So ruminated Rachel Lake as she looked out on her shadowy garden, and tapped a little feverish tattoo with her finger on the window pane; and she meditated a great while, trying to bring back distinctly her recollection of Lady Constance, and also vaguely conjecturing who had arranged the marriage, and how it had come about.

'Chelford cannot like her. It is all Lady Chelford's doing. Can I have mistaken the name?'

But no. Nothing could be more perfectly distinct than 'Chelford,' traced in her fair correspondent's very legible hand.

'He treats the young lady very coolly,' thought Rachel, forgetting, perhaps, that his special relations to Dorcas Brandon had compelled his stay in that part of the world.

Mingled with this criticism, was a feeling quite unavowed even to herself—a sore feeling that Lord Chelford had been—and this she never admitted to herself before—more particular—no, not exactly that—but more something or other—not exactly expressible in words, in his approaches to her, than was consistent with his situation. But then she had been very guarded; not stiff or prudish, indeed, but frank and cold enough with him, and that was comforting.

Still there was a sense of wonder—a great blank, and something of pain in the discovery—yes, pain—though she smiled a faint blushing smile—alone as she was; and then came a deep sigh; and then a sort of start.

'Rachel, Rachel, is it possible?' murmured the young lady, with the same dubious smile, looking down upon the ground, and shaking her head. 'Yes, I do really think you had begun to like Lord Chelford—only begun, the least little insidious bit; but thank you, wild Bessie Frankleyn, you have quite opened my eyes. Rachel, Rachel, girl! what a fool you were near becoming!'

She looked like her old pleasant self during this little speech—arch and fresh, and still smiling—she looked up and sighed, and then her dark look returned, and she said dismally,

'What utter madness!'

And leaned for a while with her fingers upon the window sash; and when she turned to old Tamar, who brought in her tiny tea equipage, it seemed as if the shadow of the dell, into which she had been vacantly gazing, still rested on her face.

'Not here, Tamar; I'll drink tea in my room; and you must bring your tea-cup, too, and we'll take it together. I am—I think I am—a little nervous, darling, and you won't leave me?'

So they sat down together in her chamber. It was a cheery little bed-room, when the shutters were closed, and the fire burning brightly in the grate.

'My good Tamar will read her chapters aloud. I wish I could enjoy them like you. I can only wish. You must pray for me, Tamar. There is a dreadful image—and I sometimes think a dreadful being always near me. Though the words you read are sad and awful, they are also sweet, like funeral music a long way off, and they tranquillise me without making me better, as the harping of David did the troubled and forsaken King Saul.'

So the old nurse mounted her spectacles, glad of the invitation, and began to read. Her reading was very, slow, and had other faults too, being in that sing-song style to which some people inexplicably like to read Holy Writ; but it was reverent and distinct, and I have heard worse even in the reading desk.

'Stop,' said Rachel suddenly, as she reached about the middle of the chapter.

The old woman looked up, with her watery eyes wide open, and there was a short pause.

'I beg your pardon, dear Tamar, but you must first tell me that story you used to tell me long ago of Lady Ringdove, that lived in Epping Forest, to whom the ghost came and told something she was never to reveal, and who slowly died of the secret, growing all the time more and more like the spectre; and besought the priest when she was dying, that he would have her laid in the abbey vault, with her mouth open, and her eyes and ears sealed, in token that her term of slavery was over, that her lips might now be open, and that her eyes were to see no more the dreadful sight, nor her ears to hear the frightful words that used to scare them in her life-time; and then, you remember, whenever afterwards they opened the door of the vault, the wind entering in, made such moanings in her hollow mouth, and declared things so horrible that they built up the door of the vault, and entered it no more. Let me have the entire story, just as you used to tell it.'

So old Tamar, who knew it was no use disputing a fancy of her young mistress, although on Sunday night she would have preferred other talk, recounted her old tale of wonder.

'Yes, it is true—a true allegory, I mean, Tamar. Death will close the eyes and ears against the sights and sounds of earth; but even the tomb secures no secrecy. The dead themselves declare their dreadful secrets, open-mouthed, to the winds. Oh, Tamar! turn over the pages, and try to find some part which says where safety and peace may be found at any price; for sometimes I think I am almost bereft of—reason.'



CHAPTER XXXII.

MR. LARKIN AND THE VICAR.

The good vicar was not only dismayed but endangered by his brother's protracted absence. It was now the first week in November. Bleak and wintry that ungenial month set in at Gylingden; and in accord with the tempestuous and dismal weather the fortunes of the Rev. William Wylder were darkened and agitated.

This morning a letter came at breakfast, by post, and when he had read it, the poor vicar grew a little white, and he folded it very quietly and put it in his waistcoat pocket, and patted little Fairy on the head. Little Fairy was asking him a question all this time, very vehemently, 'How long was Jack's sword that he killed the giants with?' and several times to this distinct question he received only the unsatisfactory reply, 'Yes, my darling;' and at last, when little Fairy mounted his knee, and hugging the abstracted vicar round the neck, urged his question with kisses and lamentations, the parson answered with a look of great perplexity, and only half recalled, said, 'Indeed, little man, I don't know. How long, you say, was Jack's sword? Well, I dare say it was as long as the umbrella.' He got up, with the same perplexed and absent look, as he said this, and threw an anxious glance about the room, as if looking for something he had mislaid.

'You are not going to write now, Willie, dear?' expostulated his good little wife, 'you have not tasted your tea yet.'

'I have, indeed, dear; haven't I? Well, I will.'

And, standing, he drank nearly half the cup she had poured out for him, and set it down, and felt in his pocket, she thought, for his keys.

'Are you looking for anything, Willie, darling? Your keys are in my basket.'

'No, darling; no, darling—nothing. I have everything I want. I think I must go to the Lodge and see Mr. Larkin, for a moment.'

'But you have eaten nothing,' remonstrated his partner; 'you must not go until you have eaten something.'

'Time enough, darling; I can't wait—I sha'n't be away twenty minutes—time enough when I come back.'

'Have you heard anything of Mark, darling?' she enquired eagerly.

'Of Mark? Oh, no!—nothing of Mark.' And he added with a deep sigh, 'Oh, dear! I wonder he does not write—no, nothing of Mark.'

She followed him into the hall.

'Now, Willie darling, you must not go till you have had your breakfast—you will make yourself ill—indeed you will—do come back, just to please me, and eat a little first.'

'No, darling; no, my love—I can't, indeed. I'll be back immediately; but I must catch Mr. Larkin before he goes out. It is only a little matter—I want to ask his opinion—and—oh! here is my stick—and I'll return immediately.'

'And I'll go with you,' cried little Fairy.

'No, no, little man; I can't take you—no, it is business—stay with mamma, and I'll be back again in a few minutes.'

So, spite of Fairy's clamours and the remonstrances of his fond, clinging little wife, with a hurried kiss or two, away he went alone, at a very quick pace, through the high street of Gylingden, and was soon in the audience chamber of the serious, gentleman attorney.

The attorney rose with a gaunt and sad smile of welcome—begged Mr. Wylder, with a wave of his long hand, to be seated—and then seating himself and crossing one long thigh over the other, he threw his arm over the back of his chair, and leaning back with what he conceived to be a graceful and gentlemanly negligence—with his visitor full in the light of the window and his own countenance in shadow, the light coming from behind—a diplomatic arrangement which he affected—he fixed his small, pink eyes observantly upon him, and asked if he could do anything for Mr. William Wylder.

'Have you heard anything since, Mr. Larkin? Can you conjecture where his address may now be?' asked the vicar, a little abruptly.

'Oh! Mr. Mark Wylder, perhaps, you refer to?'

'Yes; my brother, Mark.'

Mr. Larkin smiled a sad and simple smile, and shook his head.

'No, indeed—not a word—it is very sad, and involves quite a world of trouble—and utterly inexplicable; for I need not tell you, in my position, it can't be pleasant to be denied all access to the client who has appointed me to act for him, nor conducive to the apprehension of his wishes upon many points, which I should much prefer not being left to my discretion. It is really, as I say, inexplicable, for Mr. Mark Wylder must thoroughly see all this: he is endowed with eminent talents for business, and must perfectly appreciate the embarrassment in which the mystery with which he surrounds the place of his abode must involve those whom he has appointed to conduct his business.'

'I have heard from him this morning,' resumed the lawyer; 'he was pleased to direct a power of attorney to me to receive his rents and sign receipts; and he proposes making Lord Viscount Chelford and Captain Lake trustees, to fund his money or otherwise invest it for his use, and'—

'Has he—I beg pardon—but did he mention a little matter in which I am deeply—indeed, vitally interested?' The vicar paused.

'I don't quite apprehend; perhaps if you were to frame your question a little differently, I might possibly—a—you were saying'—

'I mean a matter of very deep interest to me,' said the poor vicar, colouring a little, 'though no very considerable sum, viewed absolutely; but, under my unfortunate circumstances, of the most urgent importance—a loan of three hundred pounds—did he mention it?'

Again Mr. Larkin shook his head, with the same sad smile.

'But, though we do not know how to find him, he knows very well where to find us—and, as you are aware, we hear from him constantly—and no doubt he recollects his promise, and will transmit the necessary directions all in good time.'

'I earnestly hope he may,' and the poor cleric lifted up his eyes unconsciously and threw his hope into the form of a prayer. 'For, to speak frankly, Mr. Larkin, my circumstances are very pressing. I have just heard from Cambridge, and find that my good friend, Mr. Mountain, the bookseller, has been dead two months, and his wife—he was a widower when I knew him, but it would seem has married since—is his sole executrix, and has sold the business, and directed two gentlemen—attorneys—to call in all the debts due to him—peremptorily—and they say I must pay before the 15th; and I have, absolutely, but five pounds in the world, until March, when my half-year will be paid. And indeed, only that the tradespeople here are so very kind, we should often find it very difficult to manage.'

'Perhaps,' said Mr. Larkin, blandly, 'you would permit me to look at the letter you mention having received from the solicitors at Cambridge?'

'Oh, thank you, certainly; here it is,' said William Wylder, eagerly, and he gazed with his kind, truthful eyes upon the attorney's countenance as he glanced over it, trying to read something of futurity therein.

'Foukes and Mauley,' said Mr. Larkin. 'I have never had but one transaction with them; they are not always pleasant people to deal with. Mind, I don't say anything affecting their integrity—Heaven forbid; but they certainly did take rather what I would call a short turn with us on the occasion to which I refer. You must be cautious; indeed, my dear Sir, very cautious. The fifteenth—just ten clear days. Well, you know you have till then to look about you; and you know we may any day hear from your brother, directing the loan to be paid over to you. And now, my dear and reverend friend, you know me, I hope,' continued Mr. Larkin, very kindly, as he handed back the letter; 'and you won't attribute what I say to impertinent curiosity; but your brother's intended advance of three hundred pounds can hardly have had relation only to this trifling claim upon you. There are, no doubt—pardon me—several little matters to be arranged; and considerable circumspection will be needed, pending your brother's absence, in dealing with the persons who are in a position to press their claims unpleasantly. You must not trifle with these things. And let me recommend you seeing your legal adviser, whoever he is, immediately.'

'You mean,' said the vicar, who was by this time very much flushed, 'a gentleman of your profession, Mr. Larkin. Do you really think—well, it has frequently crossed my mind—but the expense, you know; and although my affairs are in a most unpleasant and complicated state, I am sure that everything would be perfectly smooth if only I had received the loan my kind brother intends, and which, to be sure, as you say, any day I may receive.'

'But, my dear Sir, do you really mean to say that you would pay claims from various quarters—how old is this, for instance?—without examination!'

The vicar looked very blank.

'I—this—well, this I certainly do owe; it has increased a little with interest, though good Mr. Mountain never charged more than six per cent. It was, I think, about fifteen pounds—books—I am ashamed to say how long ago; about a work which I began then, and laid aside—on Eusebius; but which is now complete, and will, I hope, eventually repay me.'

'Were you of age, my dear Sir, when he gave you these books on credit? Were you twenty-one years of age?'

'Oh! no; not twenty; but then I owe it, and I could not, as s a Christian man, you know, evade my debts.'

'Of course; but you can't pay it at present, and it may be highly important to enable you to treat this as a debt of honour, you perceive. Suppose, my dear Sir, they should proceed to arrest you, or to sequestrate the revenue of your vicarage. Now, see, my dear Sir, I am, I humbly hope, a Christian man; but you will meet with men in every profession—and mine is no exception—disposed to extract the last farthing which the law by its extremest process will give them. And I really must tell you, frankly, that if you dream of escaping the most serious consequences, you must at once place yourself and your affairs in the hands of a competent man of business. It will probably be found that you do not in reality owe sixty pounds of every hundred claimed against you.'

'Oh, Mr. Larkin, if I could induce you.'

Mr. Larkin smiled a melancholy smile, and shook his head.

'My dear Sir, I only wish I could; but my hands are so awfully full,' and he lifted them up and shook them, and shook his tall, bald head at the same time, and smiled a weary smile. 'Just look there,' and he waved his fingers in the direction of the Cyclopean wall of tin boxes, tier above tier, each bearing, in yellow italics, the name of some country gentleman, and two baronets among the number; 'everyone of them laden with deeds and papers. You can't have a notion—no one has—what it is.'

'I see, indeed,' murmured the honest vicar, in a compassionating tone, and quite entering into the spirit of Mr. Larkin's mournful appeal, as if the being in large business was the most distressing situation in which an attorney could well find himself.

'It was very unreasonable of me to think of troubling you with my wretched affairs; but really I do not know very well where to turn, or whom to speak to. Maybe, my dear Sir, you can think of some conscientious and Christian practitioner who is not so laden with other people's cares and troubles as you are. I am a very poor client, and indeed more trouble than I could possibly be gain to anyone. But there may be some one; pray think; ten days is so short a time, and I can do nothing.'

Mr. Larkin stood at the window ruminating, with his left hand in his breeches pocket, and his right, with finger and thumb pinching his under lip, after his wont, and the despairing accents of the poor vicar's last sentence still in his ear.

'Well,' he said hesitatingly, 'it is not easy, at a moment's notice, to point out a suitable solicitor; there are many, of course, very desirable gentlemen, but I feel it, my dear Sir, a very serious responsibility naming one for so peculiar a matter. But you shall not, in the meantime, go to the wall for want of advice. Rely upon it, we'll do the best we can for you,' he continued, in a patronising way, with his chin raised, and extending his hand kindly to shake that of the parson. 'Yes, I certainly will—you must have advice. Can you give me two hours to-morrow evening—say to tea—if you will do me the honour. My friend, Captain Lake, dines at Brandon to-morrow. He's staying here with me, you are aware, on a visit; but we shall be quite by ourselves, say at seven o'clock. Bring all your papers, and I'll get at the root of the business, and see, if possible, in each particular case, what line is best to be adopted.'

'How can I thank you, my dear Sir,' cried gentle William Wylder, his countenance actually beaming with delight and gratitude—a brighter look than it had worn for many weeks.

'Oh, don't—pray don't mention it. I assure you, it is a happiness to me to be of any little use; and, really, I don't see how you could possibly hold your own among the parties who are pressing you without professional advice.'

'I feel,' said the poor vicar, and his eyes filled as he smiled, and his lip quivered a little—'I feel as if my prayer for direction and deliverance were answered at last. Oh! my dear Sir, I have suffered a great deal; but something assures me I am rescued, and shall have a quiet mind once more—I am now in safe and able hands.' And he shook the safe and able, and rather large, hands of the amiable attorney in both his.

'You make too much of it, my dear Sir. I should at any time be most happy to advise you,' said Mr. Larkin, with a lofty and pleased benevolence, 'and with great pleasure, provisionally, until we can hit upon a satisfactory solicitor with a little more time at his disposal, I undertake the management of your case.'

'Thank Heaven!' again said the vicar, who had not let go his hands. 'And it is so delightful to have for my guide a Christian man, who, even were I so disposed, would not lend himself to an unworthy or questionable defence; and although at this moment it is not in my power to reward your invaluable assistance——'

'Now really, my dear Sir, I must insist—no more of this, I beseech you. I do most earnestly insist that you promise me you will never mention the matter of professional remuneration more, until, at least, I press it, which, rely upon it, will not be for a good while.'

The attorney's smile plainly said, that his 'good while' meant in fact 'never.'

'This is, indeed, unimaginable kindness. How have I deserved so wonderful a blessing!'

'And I have no doubt,' said the attorney, fondling the vicar's arm in his large hand, 'that these claims will ultimately be reduced fully thirty per cent. I had once a good deal of professional experience in this sort of business; and, oh! my dear Sir, it is really melancholy!' and up went his small pink eyes in a pure horror, and his hands were lifted at the same time; 'but we will bring them to particulars; and you may rely upon it, you will have a much longer time, at all events, than they are disposed to allow you.'



CHAPTER XXXIII.

THE LADIES ON GYLINGDEN HEATH.

Just at this moment they became aware of a timid little tapping which had been going on at the window during the latter part of this conference, and looking up, the attorney and the vicar saw 'little Fairy's' violet eyes peering under his light hair, with its mild, golden shadow, and the odd, sensitive smile, at once shy and arch; his cheeks were wet with tears, and his pretty little nose red, though he was smiling; and he drew his face aside among the jessamine, when he saw the gaunt attorney directing his patronising smile upon him.

'I beg pardon,' said the vicar, rising with a sudden smile, and going to the window. 'It is my little man. Fairy! Fairy! What has brought you here; my little man?'

Fairy glanced, still smiling, but very shamefacedly at the grand attorney, and in his little fist he held a pair of rather seedy gloves to the window pane.

'So I did. I protest I forgot my gloves. Thank you, little man. Who is with you? Oh! I see. That is right.'

The maid ducked a short courtesy.

'Indeed, Sir, please, Master Fairy was raising the roof (a nursery phrase, which implied indescribable bellowing), and as naughty as could be, until missis allowed him to come after you.'

'Oh! my little man, you must not do that. Ask nicely, you know; always quietly, like a little gentleman.'

'But, oh! Wapsie, your hands would be cold;' and he held the gloves to him against the glass.

'Well, darling, thank you; you are a kind little man, and I'll be with you in a moment,' said the vicar, smiling very lovingly on his naughty little man.

'Mr. Larkin,' said he, turning very gratefully to the attorney 'you can lay this Christian comfort to your kind heart, that you have made mine a hundredfold lighter since I entered this blessed room; indeed, you have lifted a mountain from it by the timely proffer of your invaluable assistance.'

Again the attorney waved off, with a benignant and humble smile, rather oppressive to see, all idea of obligation, and accompanied his grateful client to the glass door of his little porch, where Fairy was already awaiting him with the gloves in his hand.

'I do believe,' said the good vicar, as he walked down what Mr. Larkin called 'the approach,' and looking up with irrepressible gratitude to the blue sky and the white clouds sailing over his head, 'if it be not presumption, I must believe that I have been directed hither—yes, darling, yes, my hands are warm' (this was addressed to little Fairy, who was clamouring for information on the point, and clinging to his arm as he capered by his side). 'What immense relief;' and he murmured another thanksgiving, and then quite hilariously—

'If little man would like to come with his Wapsie, we'll take such a nice little walk together, and we'll go and see poor Widow Maddock; and we'll buy three muffins on our way home, for a feast this evening; and we'll look at the pictures in the old French "Josephus;" and Mamma and I will tell stories; and I have a halfpenny to buy apples for little Fairy.'

The attorney stood at his window with a shadow on his face, and his small eyes a little contracted and snakelike, following the slim figure of the threadbare vicar and his golden-haired, dancing little comrade; and then he mounted a chair, and took down successively four of his japanned boxes; two of them, in yellow letters, bore respectively the label 'Brandon, No. 1,' and 'No. 2;' the other 'Wylder, No. 1,' and 'No. 2.'

He opened the 'Wylder' box first, and glanced through a neat little 'statement of title,' prepared for counsel when draughting the deed of settlement for the marriage which was never to take place.

'The limitations, let me see, is not there something that one might be safe in advancing a trifle upon—eh?—h'm—yes.'

And, with his lip in his finger and thumb, he conned over those remainders and reversions with a skilled and rapid eye.

Rachel Lake was glad to see the slender and slightly-stooped figure of the vicar standing that morning—his bright little boy by the hand—in the wicket of the tiny flower-garden of Redman's Farm. She went out quickly to greet him. The sick man likes the sound of his kind doctor's step on the stairs; and, be his skill much or little, trusts in him, and will even joke a little asthmatic joke, and smile a feeble hectic smile about his ailments, when he is present.

So they fell into discourse among the autumnal flowers and withered leaves; and, as the day was still and genial, they remained standing in the garden; and away went busy little 'Fairy,' smiling and chatting with Margery, to see the hens and chickens in the yard.

The physician, after a while, finds the leading features of most cases pretty much alike. He knows when inflammation may be expected and fever will supervene; he is not surprised if the patient's mind wanders a little at times; expects the period of prostration and the return of appetite; and has his measures and his palliatives ready for each successive phase of sickness and recovery. In like manner, too, the good and skilful parson comes by experience to know the signs and stages of the moral ailments and recoveries which some of them know how so tenderly and so wisely to care for. They, too, have ready—having often proved their consolatory efficacy—their febrifuges and their tonics, culled from that tree of life whose 'leaves are for the healing of the nations.'

Poor Rachel's hours were dark, and life had grown in some sort terrible, and death seemed now so real and near—aye, quite a fact—and, somehow, not unfriendly. But, oh! the immense futurity beyond, that could not be shirked, to which she was certainly going.

Death, and sleep so welcome! But, oh! that stupendous LIFE EVERLASTING, now first unveiled. She could only close her eyes and wring her hands. Oh! for some friendly voice and hand to stay her through the Valley of the Shadow of Death!

They talked a long while—Rachel chiefly a listener, and often quietly weeping; and, at last, a very kindly parting, and a promise from the simple and gentle vicar that he would often look in at Redman's Farm.

She watched his retreating figure as he and little Fairy walked down the tenebrose road to Gylingden, following them with a dismal gaze, as a benighted and wounded wayfarer in that 'Valley' would the pale lamp's disappearing that had for a few minutes, in a friendly hand, shone over his dreadful darkness.

And when, in fitful reveries, fancy turned for a moment to an earthly past and future, all there was a blank—the past saddened, the future bleak. She did not know, or even suspect, that she had been living in an aerial castle, and worshipping an unreal image, until, on a sudden, all was revealed in that chance gleam of cruel lightning, the line in that letter, which she read so often, spelled over, and puzzled over so industriously, though it was clear enough. How noble, how good, how bright and true, was that hero of her unconscious romance.

Well, no one else suspected that incipient madness—that was something; and brave Rachel would quite master it. Happy she had discovered it so soon. Besides, it was, even if Chelford were at her feet, a wild impossibility now; and it was well, though despair were in the pang, that she had, at last, quite explained this to herself.

As Rachel stood in her little garden, on the spot where she had bidden farewell to the vicar, she was roused from her vague and dismal reverie by the sound of a carriage close at hand. She had just time to see that it was a brougham, and to recognise the Brandon liveries, when it drew up at the garden wicket, and Dorcas called to her from the open window.

'I'm come, Rachel, expressly to take you with me; and I won't be denied.'

'You are very good, Dorcas; thank you, dear, very much; but I am not very well, and a very dull companion to-day.'

'You think I am going to bore you with visits. No such thing, I assure you. I have taken a fancy to walk on the common, that is all—a kind of longing; and you must come with me; quite to ourselves, you and I. You won't refuse me, darling; I know you'll come.'

Well, Rachel did go. And away they drove through the quiet town of Gylingden together, and through the short street on the right, and so upon the still quieter common.

This plain of green turf broke gradually into a heath; and an irregular screen of timber and underwood divided the common of Gylingden in sylvan fashion from the moor. The wood passed, Dorcas stopped the carriage, and the two young ladies descended. It was a sunny day, and the air still; and the open heath contrasted pleasantly with the sombre and confined scenery of Redman's Dell; and altogether Rachel was glad now that she had made the effort, and come with her cousin.

'It was good of you to come, Rachel,' said Miss Brandon; 'and you look tired; but you sha'n't speak more than you like; and I'll tell you all the news. Chelford is just returned from Brighton; he arrived this morning; and he and Lady Chelford will stay for the Hunt Ball. I made it a point. And he called at Hockley, on his way back, to see Sir Julius. Do you know him?'

'Sir Julius Hockley? No—I've heard of him only.'

'Well, they say he is wasting his property very fast; and I think him every way very nearly a fool; but Chelford wanted to see him about Mr. Wylder. Mark Wylder, you know, of course, has turned up again in England. His letter to Chelford, six weeks ago, was from Boulogne; but his last was from Brighton; and Sir Julius Hockley witnessed—I think they call it—that letter of attorney which Mark sent about a week since to Mr. Larkin; and Chelford, who is most anxious to trace Mark Wylder, having to surrender—I think they call it—a "trust" is not it—or something—I really don't understand these things—to him, and not being able to find out his address, Mr. Larkin wrote to Sir Julius, whom Chelford did not find at home, to ask him for a description of Mark, to ascertain whether he had disguised himself; and Sir Julius wrote to Chelford such an absurd description of poor Mark, in doggrel rhyme—so like—his odd walk, his great whiskers, and everything. Chelford does not like personalities, but he could not help laughing. Are you ill, darling?'

Though she was walking on beside her companion, Rachel looked on the point of fainting.

'My darling, you must sit down; you do look very ill. I forgot my promise about Mark Wylder. How stupid I have been! and perhaps I have distressed you.'

'No, Dorcas, I am pretty well; but I have been ill, and I am a little tired; and, Dorcas, I don't deny it, I am amazed, you tell me such things. That letter of attorney, or whatever it is, must not be acted upon. It is incredible. It is all horrible wickedness. Mark Wylder's fate is dreadful, and Stanley is the mover of all this. Oh! Dorcas, darling, I wish I could tell you everything. Some day I may be—I am sick and terrified.'

They had sat down, by this time, side by side, on the crisp bank. Each lady looked down, the one in suffering, the other in thought.

'You are better, darling; are not you better?' said Dorcas, laying her hand on Rachel's, and looking on her with a melancholy gaze.

'Yes, dear, better—very well'—answered Rachel, looking up but without an answering glance at her cousin.

'You blame your brother, Rachel, in this affair.'

'Did I? Well—maybe—yes, he is to blame—the miserable man—whom I hate to think of, and yet am always thinking of—Stanley well knows is not in a state to do it.'

'Don't you think, Rachel, remembering what I have confided to you, that you might be franker with me in this?'

'Oh, Dorcas! don't misunderstand me. If the secret were all my own—Heaven knows, hateful as it is, how boldly I would risk all, and throw myself on your fidelity or your mercy—I know not how you might view it; but it is different, Dorcas, at least for the present. You know me—you know how I hate secrets; but this is not mine—only in part—that is, I dare not tell it—but may be soon free—and to us all, dear Dorcas, a woful, woful, day will it be.'

'I made you a promise, Rachel,' said her beautiful cousin, gravely, and a little coldly and sadly, too; 'I will never break it again—it was thoughtless. Let us each try to forget that there is anything hidden between us.'

'If ever the time comes, dear Dorcas, when I may tell it to you, I don't know whether you will bless or hate me for having kept it so well; at all events, I think you'll pity me, and at last understand your miserable cousin.'

'I said before, Rachel, that I liked you. You are one of us, Rachel. You are beautiful, wayward, and daring, and one way or another, misfortune always waylays us; and I have, I know it, calamity before me. Death comes to other women in its accustomed way; but we have a double death. There is not a beautiful portrait in Brandon that has not a sad and true story. Early death of the frail and fair tenement of clay—but a still earlier death of happiness. Come, Rachel, shall we escape from the spell and the destiny into solitude? What do you think of my old plan of the valleys and lakes of Wales? a pretty foreign tongue spoken round us, and no one but ourselves to commune with, and books, and music. It is not, Radie, altogether jest. I sometimes yearn for it, as they say foreign girls do for convent life.'

'Poor Dorcas,' said Rachel, very softly, fixing her eyes upon her with a look of inexpressible sadness and pity.

'Rachel,' said Dorcas, 'I am a changeable being—violent, self-willed. My fate may be quite a different one from that which I suppose or you imagine. I may yet have to retract my secret.'

'Oh! would it were so—would to Heaven it were so.'

'Suppose, Rachel, that I had been deceiving you—perhaps deceiving myself—time will show.'

There was a wild smile on beautiful Dorcas's face as she said this, which faded soon into the proud serenity that was its usual character.

'Oh! Dorcas, if your good angel is near, listen to his warnings.'

'We have no good angels, my poor Rachel: what modern necromancers, conversing with tables, call "mocking spirits," have always usurped their place with us: singing in our drowsy ears, like Ariel—visiting our reveries like angels of light—being really our evil genii—ah, yes!'

'Dorcas, dear,' said Rachel, after both had been silent for a time, speaking suddenly, and with a look of pale and keen entreaty—'Beware of Stanley—oh! beware, beware. I think I am beginning to grow afraid of him myself.'

Dorcas was not given to sighing—but she sighed—gazing sadly across the wide, bleak moor, with her proud, apathetic look, which seemed passively to defy futurity—and then, for awhile, they were silent.

She turned, and caressingly smoothed the golden tresses over Rachel's frank, white forehead, and kissed them as she did so.

'You are better, darling; you are rested?' she said.

'Yes, dear Dorcas,' and she kissed the slender hand that smoothed her hair.

Each understood that the conversation on that theme was ended, and somehow each was relieved.



CHAPTER XXXIV.

SIR JULIUS HOCKLEY'S LETTER.

Jos. Larkin mentioned in his conversation with the vicar, just related, that he had received a power of attorney from Mark Wylder. Connected with this document there came to light a circumstance so very odd, that the reader must at once be apprised of it.

This legal instrument was attested by two witnesses, and bore date about a week before the interview, just related, between the vicar and Mr. Larkin. Here, then, was a fact established. Mark Wylder had returned from Boulogne, for the power of attorney had been executed at Brighton. Who were the witnesses? One was Thomas Tupton, of the Travellers' Hotel, Brighton.

This Thomas Tupton was something of a sporting celebrity, and a likely man enough to be of Mark's acquaintance.

The other witness was Sir Julius Hockley, of Hockley, an unexceptionable evidence, though a good deal on the turf.

Now our friend Jos. Larkin had something of the Red Indian's faculty for tracking his game, by hardly perceptible signs and tokens, through the wilderness; and this mystery of Mark Wylder's flight and seclusion was the present object of his keen and patient pursuit.

On receipt of the 'instrument,' therefore, he wrote by return of post, 'presenting his respectful compliments to Sir Julius Hockley, and deeply regretting that, as solicitor of the Wylder family, and the gentleman (sic) empowered to act under the letter of attorney, it was imperative upon him to trouble him (Sir Julius H.) with a few interrogatories, which he trusted he would have no difficulty in answering.'

The first was, whether he had been acquainted with Mr. Mark Wylder's personal appearance before seeing him sign, so as to be able to identify him. The second was, whether he (Mr. M.W.) was accompanied, at the time of executing the instrument, by any friend; and if so, what were the name and address of such friend. And the third was, whether he could communicate any information whatsoever respecting Mr. M.W.'s present place of abode?

The same queries were put in a somewhat haughty and peremptory way to the sporting hotel-keeper, who answered that Mr. Mark Wylder had been staying for a week at his house, about five months ago; and that he had seen him twice—once 'backing' Jonathan, when he beat the great American billiard-player; and another time, when he lent him his copy of 'Bell's Life,' in the coffee-room; and thus he was enabled to identify him. For the rest he could say nothing.

Sir Julius's reply was of the hoity-toity and rollicking sort, bordering in parts very nearly on nonsense, and generally impertinent. It reached Mr. Larkin as he sat at breakfast with his friend, Stanley Lake.

'Pray read your letters, and don't mind me, I entreat. Perhaps you will allow me to look at the "Times;" and I'll trouble you for the sardines.'

The postmark 'Hockley,' stared the lawyer in the face; and, longing to break the seal, he availed himself of the captain's permission. So Lake opened the 'Times;' and, as he studied its columns, I think he stole a glance or two over its margin at the attorney, now deep in the letter of Sir Julius Hockley.

He (Sir J.H.) 'presented his respects to Mr. Larkens, or Larkins, or Larkme, or Larkus—Sir J.H. is not able to read which or what; but he is happy to observe, at all events, that, end how he may, the gentleman begins with a "lark!" which Sir J.H. always does, when he can. Not being able to discover his terminal syllable, he will take the liberty of styling him by his sprightly beginning, and calling him shortly "Lark." As Sir J. never objected to a lark, the gentleman so designated introduces himself with a strong prejudice, in Sir J.'s mind, in his favour—so much so, that by way of a lark, Sir J. will answer Lark's questions, which are not, he thinks, very impertinent. The wildest of all Lark's questions refers to Wylder's place of abode, which Sir J. was never wild enough to think of asking after, and does not know; and so little was he acquainted with the gentleman, that he forgot he was an evangelist doing good under the style and title of Mark. Lark may, therefore, tell Mark, if he sees him, or his friends—Matthew, Luke, and John—that Sir Julius saw Mark only on two successive days, at the cricket-match, played between Paul's Eleven—the coincidence is remarkable—and the Ishmaelites (these, I am bound to observe, were literally the designations of the opposing sides); and that he had the honour of being presented to Mark—saint or sinner, as he may be—on the ground, by his, Sir J.H.'s, friend, Captain Stanley Lake, of the Guards.'

Here was an astounding fact. Stanley Lake had been in Mark Wylder's company only ten days ago, when that great match was played at Brighton! What a deep gentleman was that Stanley Lake, who sat at the other end of the table with the 'Times' before him. What a varnished rascal—what a matchless liar!

He had returned to Gylingden, direct, in all likelihood, from his conferences with Mark Wylder, to tell all concerned that it was vain endeavouring to trace him, and still offering his disinterested services in the pursuit.

No matter! We must take things coolly and cautiously. All this chicanery will yet break down, and the conspiracy, be it what it may, will be thoroughly exposed. Mystery is the shadow of guilt; and, most assuredly, thought Mr. Larkin, there is some infernal secret, well worth knowing, at the bottom of all this. You little think I have you here! and he slid Sir Julius Hockley's piece of rubbishy banter into his waistcoat pocket, and then opened and glanced at half-a-dozen other letters, in a cool, quick official way, endorsing a little note on the back of each with his gold, patent pencil. All Mr. Jos. Larkin's 'properties' were handsome and imposing, and he never played with children without producing his gold repeater, and making it strike, and exhibiting its wonders for their amusement, and the edification of the adults, whose presence, of course, he forgot.

'Paul's Eleven have challenged the Gipsies,' said Lake, languidly lifting his eyes from the paper. 'By-the-bye, are you anything of a cricketer? And they are to play at Hockley, Sir Julius Hockley's ground. You know Sir Julius, don't you?'

'Very slightly. I may say I have that honour, but we have never been thrown together; a mere—a—the slightest thing in the world.'

'Not schoolfellows——you are not an Eton man, eh?' said Lake.

'Oh no! My dear father' (the organist) 'would not send a boy of his to what he called an idle school. But my acquaintance with Sir Julius was a trifling matter. Hockley is a very pretty place, is not it?'

'A sweet place. A great match was played between those fellows at Brighton: Paul's Eleven beat fifteen of the Ishmaelites, about a fortnight since; but they have no chance with the Gipsies. It will be quite a hollow thing—a one-innings affair.'

'Have you ever seen Paul's Eleven play?' asked the lawyer, carelessly taking up the newspaper which Lake had laid down.

'I saw them play that match at Brighton, I mentioned just now, a few days ago.'

'Ah! did you?'

'Did not you know I was there?' said Lake, in rather a changed tone. Larkin looked up, and Lake laughed in his face quietly the most impertinent laugh he had ever seen or heard, with his yellow eyes fixed on the lawyer's pink little optics. 'I was there, and Hockley was there, and Mark Wylder was there—was not he?' and Lake stared and laughed, and the attorney stared; and Lake added, 'What a d—d cunning fellow you are; ha, ha, ha!'

Larkin was not easily put out, but he was disconcerted now; and his cheeks and forehead grew suddenly pink, and he coughed a little, and tried to throw a look of mild surprise into his face.

'Why, you have this moment had a letter from Hockley. Don't you think I knew his hand and the post-mark, and your look said quite plainly, "Here's news of my friend Stanley Lake and Mark Wylder." I had an uncle in the Foreign Office, and they said he would have been quite a distinguished diplomatist if he had lived; and I was said to have a good deal of his talent; and I really think I have brought my little evidences very prettily together, and jumped to a right conclusion—eh?'

A flicker of that sinister shadow I have sometimes mentioned crossed Larkin's face, and contracted his eyes, as he said, a little sternly—

'I have nothing on earth to conceal, Sir; I never had. All my conduct has been as open as the light; there's not a letter, Sir, I ever write or receive, that might not, so far as I am concerned, with my good will, lie open on that table for every visitor that comes in to read;—open as the day, Sir:' and the attorney waved his hand grandly.

'Hear, hear, hear,' said Lake, languidly, and tapping a little applause on the table, while he watched the solicitor's rhetoric with his sly, disconcerting smile.

'It was but conscientious, Captain Lake, that I should make particular enquiry respecting the genuineness of a legal instrument conferring such very considerable powers. How, on earth, Sir, could I have the slightest suspicion that you had seen my client, Mr. Wylder, considering the tenor of your letters and conversation? And I venture to say, Captain Lake, that Lord Chelford will be just as much surprised as I, when he hears it.'

Jos. Larkin, Esq., delivered this peroration from a moral elevation, all the loftier that he had a peer of the realm on his side. But peers did not in the least overawe Stanley Lake, who had been all his days familiar with those idols; and the moral altitudes of the attorney amused him vastly.

'But he'll not hear it; I won't tell him, and you sha'n't; because I don't think it would be prudent of us—do you?—to quarrel with Mark Wylder, and he does not wish our meeting known. It is nothing on earth to me; on the contrary, it rather places me in an awkward position keeping other people's secrets.'

The attorney made one of his slight, gentlemanlike bows, and threw back his head with a lofty and reserved look.

'I don't know, Captain Lake, that I would be quite justified in withholding the substance of Sir Julius Hockley's letter from Lord Chelford, consulted, as I have had the honour to be, by that nobleman. I shall, however, turn it over in my mind.'

'Don't the least mind me. In fact, I would rather tell it than not. And I can explain to Chelford why I could not mention the circumstance. Wylder, in fact, tied me down by a promise, and he'll be devilish angry with you; but, it seems, you don't very much mind that.'

He knew that Mr. Larkin did very much mind it; and the quick glance of the attorney could read nothing whatever in the captain's pallid face and downcast eyes, smiling on the points of his varnished boots.

'Of course, you know, Captain Lake, in alluding to the possibility of my making any communication to Lord Chelford, I limit myself strictly to the letter of Sir Julius Hockley, and do not, by any means, my dear Captain Lake, include the conversation which has just occurred, and the communication which you have volunteered to make me.'

'Oh! quite so,' said the captain, looking up suddenly, as was his way, with a momentary glare, like a man newly-waked from a narcotic doze.



CHAPTER XXXV.

THE HUNT BALL.

By this time your humble servant, the chronicler of these Gylingden annals, had taken his leave of magnificent old Brandon, and of its strangely interesting young mistress and was carrying away with him, as he flew along the London rails, the broken imagery of that grand and shivered dream. He was destined, however, before very long, to revisit these scenes; and in the meantime heard, in rude outline, the tenor of what was happening—the minute incidents and colouring of which were afterwards faithfully communicated.

I can, therefore, without break or blur, continue my description; and to say truth, at this distance of time, I have some difficulty—so well acquainted was I with the actors and the scenery—in determining, without consulting my diary, what portions of the narrative I relate from hearsay, and what as a spectator. But that I am so far from understanding myself, I should often be amazed at the sayings and doings of other people. As it is, I behold in myself an abyss, I gaze down and listen, and discover neither light nor harmony, but thunderings and lightnings, and voices and laughter, and a medley that dismays me. There rage the elements which God only can control. Forgive us our trespasses; lead us not into temptation; deliver us from the Evil One! How helpless and appalled we shut our eyes over that awful chasm.

I have long ceased, then, to wonder why any living soul does anything that is incongruous and unanticipated. And therefore I cannot say how Miss Brandon persuaded her handsome Cousin Rachel to go with her party, under the wing of Old Lady Chelford, to the Hunt Ball of Gylingden. And knowing now all that then hung heavy at the heart of the fair tenant of Redman's Farm, I should, indeed, wonder inexpressibly, were it not, as I have just said, that I have long ceased to wonder at any vagaries of myself or my fellow creatures.

The Hunt Ball is the great annual event of Gylingden. The critical process of 'coming out' is here consummated by the young ladies of that town and vicinage. It is looked back upon for one-half of the year, and forward to for the other. People date by it. The battle of Inkerman was fought immediately before the Hunt Ball. It was so many weeks after the Hunt Ball that the Czar Nicholas died. The Carnival of Venice was nothing like so grand an event. Its solemn and universal importance in Gylingden and the country round, gave me, I fancied, some notion of what the feast of unleavened bread must have been to the Hebrews and Jerusalem.

The connubial capabilities of Gylingden are positively wretched. When I knew it, there were but three single men, according even to the modest measure of Gylingden housekeeping, capable of supporting wives, and these were difficult to please, set a high price on themselves—looked the country round at long ranges, and were only wistfully and meekly glanced after by the frugal vestals of Gylingden, as they strutted round the corners, or smoked the pipe of apathy at the reading-room windows.

Old Major Jackson kept the young ladies in practice between whiles, with his barren gallantries and graces, and was, just so far, better than nothing. But, as it had been for years well ascertained that he either could not or would not afford to marry, and that his love passages, like the passages in Gothic piles that 'lead to nothing,' were not designed to terminate advantageously, he had long ceased to excite, even in that desolate region, the smallest interest.

Think, then, what it was, when Mr. Pummice, of Copal and Pummice, the splendid house-painters at Dollington, arrived with his artists and charwomen to give the Assembly Room its annual touching-up and bedizenment, preparatory to the Hunt Ball. The Gylingden young ladies used to peep in, and from the lobby observe the wenches dry-rubbing and waxing the floor, and the great Mr. Pummice, with his myrmidons, in aprons and paper caps, retouching the gilding.

It was a tremendous crisis for honest Mrs. Page, the confectioner, over the way, who, in legal phrase, had 'the carriage' of the supper and refreshments, though largely assisted by Mr. Battersby, of Dollington. During the few days' agony of preparation that immediately preceded this notable orgie, the good lady's countenance bespoke the magnitude of her cares. Though the weather was usually cold, I don't think she ever was cool during that period—I am sure she never slept—I don't think she ate—and I am afraid her religious exercises were neglected.

Equally distracting, emaciating, and godless, was the condition to which the mere advent of this festival reduced worthy Miss Williams, the dressmaker, who had more white muslin and young ladies on her hands than she and her choir of needle-women knew what to do with. During this tremendous period Miss Williams hardly resembled herself—her eyes dilated, her lips were pale, and her brow corrugated with deep and inflexible lines of fear and perplexity. She lived on bad tea—sat up all night—and every now and then burst into helpless floods of tears. But somehow, generally things came pretty right in the end. One way or another, the gay belles and elderly spinsters, and fat village chaperones, were invested in suitable costume by the appointed hour, and in a few weeks Miss Williams' mind recovered its wonted tone, and her countenance its natural expression.

The great night had now arrived. Gylingden was quite in an uproar. Rural families of eminence came in. Some in old-fashioned coaches; others, the wealthier, more in London style. The stables of the 'Brandon Arms,' of the 'George Inn,' of the 'Silver Lion,' even of the 'White House,' though a good way off, and generally every vacant standing for horses in or about the town were crowded; and the places of entertainment we have named, and minor houses of refection, were vocal with the talk of flunkeys, patrician with powdered heads, and splendent in variegated liveries.

The front of the Town Hall resounded with the ring of horse-hoofs, the crack of whips, the bawling of coachmen, the clank of carriage steps and clang of coach doors. A promiscuous mob of the plebs and profanum vulgus of Gylingden beset the door, to see the ladies—the slim and the young in white muslins and artificial flowers, and their stout guardian angels, of maturer years, in satins and velvets, and jewels—some real, and some, just as good, of paste. In the cloak-room such a fuss, unfurling of fans, and last looks and hurried adjustments.

When the Crutchleighs, of Clay Manor, a good, old, formal family, were mounting the stairs in solemn procession—they were always among the early arrivals—they heard a piano and a tenor performing in the supper-room.

Now, old Lady Chelford chose to patronise Mr. Page, the Dollington professor, and partly, I fancy, to show that she could turn things topsy-turvy in this town of Gylingden, had made a point, with the rulers of the feast, that her client should sing half-a-dozen songs in the supper-room before dancing commenced.

Mrs. Crutchleigh stayed her step upon the stairs abruptly, and turned, with a look of fierce surprise upon her lean, white-headed lord, arresting thereby the upward march of Corfe Crutchleigh, Esq., the hope of his house, who was pulling on his gloves, with his eldest spinster sister on his lank arm.

'There appears to be a concert going on; we came here to a ball. Had you not better enquire, Mr. Crutchleigh; it would seem we have made a mistake?'

Mrs. Crutchleigh was sensitive about the dignity of the family of Clay Manor; and her cheeks flushed above the rouge, and her eyes flashed severely.

'That's singing—particularly loud singing. Either we have mistaken the night, or somebody has taken upon him to upset all the arrangements. You'll be good enough to enquire whether there will be dancing to-night; I and Anastasia will remain in the cloak-room; and we'll all leave if you please, Mr. Crutchleigh, if this goes on.'

The fact is, Mrs. Crutchleigh had got an inkling of this performance, and had affected to believe it impossible; and, detesting old Lady Chelford for sundry slights and small impertinences, and envying Brandon and its belongings, was resolved not to be put down by presumption in that quarter.

Old Lady Chelford sat in an arm-chair in the supper-room, where a considerable audience was collected. She had a splendid shawl or two about her, and a certain air of demi-toilette, which gave the Gylingden people to understand that her ladyship did not look on this gala in the light of a real ball, but only as a sort of rustic imitation—curious, possibly amusing, and, like other rural sports, deserving of encouragement, for the sake of the people who made innocent holiday there.

Mr. Page, the performer, was a plump young man, with black whiskers, and his hair in oily ringlets, such as may be seen in the model wigs presented on smiling, waxen dandies, in Mr. Rose's front window at Dollington. He bowed and smiled in the most unexceptionable of white chokers and the dapperest of dress coats, and drew off the whitest imaginable pair of kid gloves, when he sat down to the piano, subsiding in a sort of bow upon the music-stool, and striking those few, brisk and noisy chords with which such artists proclaim silence and reassure themselves.

Stanley Lake, that eminent London swell, had attached himself as gentleman-in-waiting to Lady Chelford's household, and was perpetually gliding with little messages between her ladyship and the dapper vocalist of Dollington, who varied his programme and submitted to an occasional encore on the private order thus communicated.

'I told you Chelford would be here,' said Miss Brandon to Rachel, in a low tone, glancing at the young peer.

'I thought he had returned to Brighton. I fancied he might be—you know the Dulhamptons are at Brighton; and Lady Constance, of course, has a claim on his time and thoughts.'

Rachel smiled as she spoke, and was adjusting her bouquet, as Dorcas made answer—

'Lady Constance, my dear Radie! That, you know, was never more than a mere whisper; it was only Lady Chelford and the marchioness who talked it over—they would have liked it very well. But Chelford won't be managed or scolded into anything of the kind; and will choose, I think, for himself, and I fancy not altogether according to their ideas, when the time comes. And I assure you, dear Radie, there is not the least truth in that story about Lady Constance.'

Why should Dorcas be so earnest to convince her handsome cousin that there was nothing in this rumour? Rachel made no remark, and there was a little silence.

'I'm so glad I succeeded in bringing you here,' said Dorcas; 'Chelford made such a point of it; and he thinks you are losing your spirits among the great trees and shadows of Redman's Dell; and he made it quite a little cousinly duty that I should succeed.'

At this moment Mr. Page interposed with the energetic prelude of his concluding ditty. It was one of Tom Moore's melodies.

Rachel leaned back, and seemed to enjoy it very much. But when it was over, I think she would have found it difficult to say what the song was about.

Mr. Page had now completed his programme, and warned by the disrespectful violins from the gallery of the ball-room, whence a considerable caterwauling was already announcing the approach of the dance, he made his farewell flourish, and bow and, smiling, withdrew.



CHAPTER XXXVI.

THE BALL ROOM.

Rachel Lake, standing by the piano, turned over the leaves of the volume of 'Moore's Melodies' from which the artist in black whiskers and white waistcoat had just entertained his noble patroness and his audience.

Everyone has experienced, I suppose for a few wonderful moments, now and then, a glow of seemingly causeless happiness, in which the earth and its people are glorified—peace and sunlight rest on everything—the spirit of music and love is in the air, and the heart itself sings for joy. In the light of this celestial illusion she stood now by the piano, turning over the pages of poor Tom Moore, as I have said, when a low pleasant voice near her said—

'I was so glad to see that Dorcas had prevailed, and that you were here. We both agreed that you are too much a recluse in that Der Frieschutz Glen—at least, for your friends' pleasure; and owe it to us all to appear now and then in this upper world.'

'Excelsior, Miss Lake,' interposed dapper little Mr. Buttle, with a smirk; 'I think this little bit of music—it was got up, you know, by that old quiz, Dowager Lady Chelford—was really not so bad—a rather good idea, after all, Miss Lake. Don't you?'

Poor Mr. Buttle did not know Lord Chelford, and thus shooting his 'arrow o'er the house,' he 'hurt his brother.' Chelford turned away, and bowed and smiled to one or two friends at the other side of the room.

'Yes, the music was very pretty, and some of the songs were quite charmingly sung. I agree with you—we are very much obliged to Lady Chelford—that is her son, Lord Chelford.'

'Oh!' said Buttle, whose smirk vanished on the instant in a very red and dismal vacancy, 'I—I'm afraid he'll think me shockingly rude.' And in a minute more Buttle was gone.

Miss Lake again looked down upon the page, and as she did so, Lord Chelford turned and said—

'You are a worshipper of Tom Moore, Miss Lake?'

'An admirer, perhaps—certainly no worshipper. Yet, I can't say. Perhaps I do worship; but if so, it is a worship strangely mixed with contempt.' And she laughed a little. 'A kind of adoring which I fancy belongs properly to the lords of creation, and which we of the weaker sex have no right to practise.'

'Miss Lake is pleased to be ironical to-night,' he said, with a smile.

'Am I? I dare say. All women are. Irony is the weapon of cowardice, and cowardice the vice of weakness. Yet I think I was naturally bold and true. I hate cowardice and deception even in myself—I hate perfidy—I hate fraud.'

She tapped a little emphasis upon the floor with her white satin shoe, and her eyes flashed with a dark and angry meaning among the crowd at the other end of the room, as if for a second or two following an object to whom in some way the statement applied.

The strange bitterness of her tone, though it was low enough, and something wild, suffering, and revengeful in her look, though but momentary, and hardly definable, did not escape Lord Chelford, and he followed unconsciously the direction of her glance; but there was nothing there to guide him to a conclusion, and the good people who formed that polite and animated mob were in his eyes, one and all, quite below the level of tragedy, or even of melodrama.

'And yet, Miss Lake, we are all more or less cowards or deceivers—at least, to the extent of suppression. Who would speak the whole truth, or like to hear it?—not I, I know.'

'Nor I,' she said, quietly.

'And I do think, if people had no reserves, they would be very uninteresting,' he added.

She was looking, with a strange light upon her face—a smile, perhaps—upon the open pages of 'Moore's Melodies' as he spoke.

'I like a little puzzle and mystery—they surround our future and our past; and the present would be insipid, I think, without them. Now, I can't tell, Miss Lake, as you look on Tom Moore there, and I try to read your smile, whether you happen at this particular moment to adore or despise him.'

'Moore's is a daring morality—what do you think, for instance, of these lines?' she said, touching the verse with her bouquet.

Lord Chelford read—

I ask not, I know not, if guilt's in thy heart I but know that I love thee, whatever thou art.'

He laughed.

'Very passionate, but hardly respectable. I once knew,' he continued a little more gravely, 'a marriage made upon that principle, and not very audaciously either, which turned out very unhappily.'

'So I should conjecture,' she said, rising from her chair, rather drearily and abstractedly, 'and there is good old Lady Sarah. I must go and ask her how she does.' She paused for a moment, holding her bouquet drooping towards the floor, and looking with her clouded eyes down—down—through it; and then she looked up suddenly, with an odd, fierce smile, and she said bitterly enough—'and yet, if I were a man, and capable of loving, I could love no other way; because I suppose love to be a madness, and the sublimest and the most despicable of states. And I admire Moore for that flash of the fallen angelic—it is the sentiment of a hero and a madman—too base and too noble for this cool, wise world.'

She was already moving away, nebulous in hovering folds of snowy muslin. And she floated down like a cloud upon the ottoman, beside old Lady Sarah, and smiled and leaned towards her, and talked in her sweet, low, distinct accents. And Lord Chelford followed her, with a sad sort of smile, admiring her greatly.

Of course, non cuivis contigit, it was not every man's privilege to dance with the splendid Lady of Brandon. It was only the demigods who ventured within the circle. Her kinsman, Lord Chelford, did so; and now handsome Sir Harry Bracton, six feet high, so broad-shouldered and slim-waisted, his fine but not very wise face irradiated with indefatigable smiles, stood and conversed with her, with that jaunty swagger of his—his weight now on this side, now on that, squaring his elbows like a crack whip with four-in-hand, and wagging his perfumed tresses—boisterous, rollicking, beaming with immeasurable self-complacency.

Stanley Lake left old Lady Chelford's side, and glided to that of Dorcas Brandon.

'Will you dance this set—are you engaged, Miss Brandon?' he said, in low eager tones.

'Yes, to both questions,' answered she, with the faintest gleam of the conventional smile, and looking now gravely again at her bouquet.

'Well, the next possibly, I hope?'

'I never do that,' said the apathetic beauty, serenely.

Stanley looked as if he did not quite understand, and there was a little silence.

'I mean, I never engage myself beyond one dance. I hope you do not think it rude—but I never do.'

'Miss Brandon can make what laws she pleases for all here, and for some of us everywhere,' he replied, with a mortified smile and a bow.

At that moment Sir Harry Bracton arrived to claim her, and Miss Kybes—elderly and sentimental, and in no great request—timidly said, in a gobbling, confidential whisper—

'What a handsome couple they do make! Does not it quite realise your conception, Captain Lake, of young Lochinvar, you know, and his fair Helen—

So stately his form and so lovely her face—

You remember—

'That never a hall such a galliard did grace.

Is not it?'

'So it is, really; it did not strike me. And that "one cup of wine"—you recollect—which the hero drank; and, I dare say it made young Lochinvar a little noisy and swaggering, when he proposed "treading the measure"—is not that the phrase? Yes, really; it is a very pretty poetical parallel.'

And Miss Kybes was pleased to think that Captain Lake would be sure to report her elegant little compliment in the proper quarters, and that her incense had not missed fire.

When Miss Brandon returned, Lake was unfortunately on duty beside old Lady Chelford, whom it was important to propitiate, and who was in the middle of a story—an extraordinary favour from her ladyship; and he had the vexation to see Lord Chelford palpably engaging Miss Brandon for the next dance.

When she returned, she was a little tired, and doubtful whether she would dance any more—certainly not the next dance. So he resolved to lie in wait, and anticipate any new suitor who might appear.

His eyes, however, happened to wander, in an unlucky moment, to old Lady Chelford, who instantaneously signalled to him with her fan.

'— the woman,' mentally exclaimed Lake, telegraphing, at the same time, with a bow and a smile of deferential alacrity, and making his way through the crowd as deftly as he could; what a —— fool I was to go near her.'

So the captain had to assist at the dowager lady's supper; and not only so, but in some sort at her digestion also, which she chose should take place for some ten minutes in the chair that she occupied at the supper table.

When he escaped, Miss Brandon was engaged once more—and to Sir Harry Bracton, for a second time.

And moreover, when he again essayed his suit, the young lady had peremptorily made up her mind to dance no more that night.

'How can Dorcas endure that man,' thought Rachel, as she saw Sir Harry lead her to her seat, after a second dance. 'Handsome, but so noisy and foolish, and wicked; and is not he vulgar, too?'

But Dorcas was not demonstrative. Her likings and dislikings were always more or less enigmatical. Still Rachel Lake fancied that she detected signs, not only of tolerance, but of positive liking, in her haughty cousin's demeanour, and wondered, after all, whether Dorcas was beginning to like Sir Harry Bracton. Dorcas had always puzzled her—not, indeed, so much latterly—but this night the mystery began to darken once more.

Twice, for a moment, their eyes met; but only for a moment. Rachel knew that a tragedy might be—at that instant, and under the influence of that very spectacle—gathering its thunders silently in another part of the room, where she saw Stanley's pale, peculiar face; and although he appeared in nowise occupied by what was passing between Dorcas Brandon and Sir Harry, she perfectly well knew that nothing of it escaped him.

The sight of that pale face was a cold pang at her heart—a face prophetic of evil, at sight of which the dark curtain which hid futurity seemed to sway and tremble, as if a hand from behind was on the point of drawing it. Rachel sighed profoundly, and her eyes looked sadly through her bouquet on the floor.

'I'm very glad you came, Radie,' said a sweet voice, which somehow made her shiver, close to her ear. 'This kind of thing will do you good; and you really wanted a little fillip. Shall I take you to the supper-room?'

'No, Stanley, thank you; I prefer remaining.'

'Have you observed how Dorcas has treated me this evening?'

'No, Stanley; nothing unusual, is there?' answered Rachel, glancing uneasily round, lest they should be overheard.

'Well, I think she has been more than usually repulsive—quite marked; I almost fancy these Gylingden people, dull as they are, must observe it. I have a notion I sha'n't trouble Gylingden or her after to-morrow.'

Rachel glanced quickly at him. He was deadly pale, with his faint unpleasant smile; and he returned her glance for a second wildly, and then dropped his eyes to the ground.

'I told you,' he resumed again, after a short pause, and commencing with a gentle laugh, 'that she liked that fellow, Bracton.'

'You did say something, I think, of that, some time since,' said Rachel; 'but really——'

'But really, Radie, dear, you can't need any confirmation more than this evening affords. We both know Dorcas very well; she is not like other girls. She does not encourage fellows as they do; but if she did not like Bracton very well indeed, she would send him about his business. She has danced with him twice, on the contrary, and has suffered his agreeable conversation all the evening; and that from Dorcas Brandon means, you know, everything.'

'I don't know that it means anything. I don't see why it should; but I am very certain,' said Rachel, who, in the midst of this crowded, gossiping ball-room, was talking much more freely to Stanley, and also, strange to say, in more sisterly fashion, than she would have done in the little parlour of Redman's Farm; 'I am very certain, Stanley, that if this supposed preference leads you to abandon your wild pursuit of Dorcas, it will prevent more ruin than, perhaps, either of us anticipates; and, Stanley,' she added in a whisper, looking full in his eyes, which were raised for a moment to hers, 'it is hardly credible that you dare still to persist in so desperate and cruel a project.'

'Thank you,' said Stanley quietly, but the yellow lights glared fiercely from their sockets, and were then lowered instantly to the floor.

'She has been very rude to me to-night; and you have not been, or tried to be, of any earthly use to me; and I will take a decided course. I perfectly know what I'm about. You don't seem to be dancing. I have not either; we have both got something more serious, I fancy, to think of.'

And Stanley Lake glided slowly away, and was lost in the crowd. He went into the supper-room, and had a glass of seltzer water and sherry. He loitered at the table. His ruminations were dreary, I fancy, and his temper by no means pleasant; and it needed a good deal of that artificial command of countenance which he cultivated, to prevent his betraying something of the latter, when Sir Harry Bracton, talking loud and volubly as usual, swaggered into the supper-room, with Dorcas Brandon on his arm.



CHAPTER XXXVII.

THE SUPPER-ROOM.

It was rather trying, in this state of things, to receive from the triumphant baronet, with only a parenthetical 'Dear Lake, I beg your pardon,' a rough knock on the elbow of the hand that held his glass, and to be then summarily hustled out of his place. It was no mitigation of the rudeness, in Lake's estimate, that Sir Harry was so engrossed and elated as to seem hardly conscious of any existence but Miss Brandon's and his own.

Lake was subject to transient paroxysms of exasperation; but even in these be knew how to command himself pretty well before witnesses. His smile grew a little stranger, and his face a degree whiter, as he set down his glass, quietly glided a little away, and brushed off with his handkerchief the aspersion which his coat had suffered.

In a few minutes more Miss Brandon had left the supper-room leaning upon Lord Chelford's arm; and Sir Harry remained, with a glass of pink champagne, such as young fellows drink with a faith and comfort so wonderful, at balls and fetes champetres.

Sir Harry Bracton was already 'chaffing a bit,' as he expressed it, with the young lady who assisted in dispensing the good things across the supper-table, and was just calling up her blushes by a pretty parallel between her eyes and the sparkling quality of his glass, and telling her her mamma must have been sweetly pretty.

Now, Sir Harry's rudeness to Lake had not been, I am afraid, altogether accidental. The baronet was sudden and vehement in his affairs of the heart; but curable on short absences, and easily transferable. He had been vehemently enamoured of the heiress of Brandon a year ago and more; but during an absence Mark Wylder's suit grew up and prospered, and Sir Harry Bracton acquiesced; and, to say truth, the matter troubled his manly breast but little.

He had hardly expected to see her here in this rollicking, rustic gathering. She was, he thought, even more lovely than he remembered her. Beauty sometimes seen again does excel our recollections of it. Wylder had gone off the scene, as Mr. Carlyle says, into infinite space. Who could tell exactly the cause of his dismissal, and why the young lady had asserted her capricious resolve to be free?

There were pleasant theories adaptable to the circumstances; and Sir Harry cherished an agreeable opinion of himself; and so, all things favouring; the old flame blazed up wildly, and the young gentleman was more in love then, and for some weeks after the ball, than perhaps he had ever been before.

Now some men—and Sir Harry was of them—are churlish and ferocious over their loves, as certain brutes are over their victuals. In one of these tender paroxysms, when in the presence of his Dulcinea, the young baronet was always hot, short, and saucy with his own sex; and when his jealousy was ever so little touched, positively impertinent.

He perceived what other people did not, that Miss Brandon's eye once on that evening rested for a moment on Captain Lake with a peculiar expression of interest. This look was but once and momentary; but the young gentleman resented it, and brooded over it, every now and then, when the pale face of the captain crossed his eye; and two or three times, when the beautiful young lady's attention seemed unaccountably to wander from his agreeable conversation, he thought he detected her haughty eye moving in the same direction. So he looked that way too; and although he could see nothing noticeable in Stanley's demeanour, he could have felt it in his heart to box his ears.

Therefore, I don't think he was quite so careful as he might have been to spare Lake that jolt upon the elbow, which coming from a rival in a moment of public triumph was not altogether easy to bear like a Christian.

'Some grapes, please,' said Lake, to the young lady behind the table.

'Oh, uncle! Is that you, Lake?—beg pardon; but you are so like my poor dear uncle, Langton. I wish you'd let me adopt you for an uncle. He was such a pretty fellow, with his fat white cheeks and long nose, and he looked half asleep. Do, pray, Uncle Lake; I should like it so,' and the baronet, who was, I am afraid, what some people would term, perhaps, vulgar, winked over his glass at the blooming confectioner, who turned away and tittered over her shoulder at the handsome baronet's charming banter.

The girl having turned away to titter, forgot Lake's grapes; so he helped himself, and leaning against the table, looked superciliously upon Sir Harry, who was not to be deterred by the drowsy gaze of contempt with which the captain retorted his angry 'chaff.'

'Poor uncle died of love, or chicken pox, or something, at forty. You're not ailing, Nunkie, are you? You do look wofully sick though; too bad to lose a second uncle at the same early age. You're near forty, eh, Nunkie? and such a pretty fellow! You'll take care of me in your will, Nunkie, won't you? Come, what will you leave me; not much tin, I'm afraid.'

'No, not much tin,' answered Lake; 'but I'll leave you what you want more, my sense and decency, with a request that you will use them for my sake.'

'You're a devilish witty fellow, Lake; take care your wit don't get you into trouble,' said the baronet, chuckling and growing angrier, for he saw the Hebe laughing; and not being a ready man, though given to banter, he sometimes descended to menace in his jocularity.

'I was just thinking your dulness might do the same for you,' drawled Lake.

'When do you mean to pay Dawlings that bet on the Derby?' demanded Sir Harry, his face very red, and only the ghost of his smile grinning there. 'I think you'd better; of course it is quite easy.'

The baronet was smiling his best, with a very red face, and that unpleasant uncertainty in his contracted eyes which accompanies suppressed rage.

'As easy as that,' said Lake, chucking a little bunch of grapes full into Sir Harry Bracton's handsome face.

Lake recoiled a step; his face blanched as white as the cloth; his left arm lifted, and his right hand grasping the haft of a table-knife.

There was just a second in which the athletic baronet stood, as it were breathless and incredulous, and then his Herculean fist whirled in the air with a most unseemly oath: the girl screamed, and a crash of glass and crockery, whisked away by their coats, resounded on the ground.

A chair between Lake and Sir Harry impeded the baronet's stride, and his uplifted arm was caught by a gentleman in moustache, who held so fast that there was no chance of shaking it loose.

'D— it, Bracton; d— you, what the devil—don't be a—fool' and other soothing expressions escaped this peacemaker, as he clung fast to the young baronet's arm.

'The people—hang it!—you'll have all the people about you. Quiet—quiet—can't you, I say. Settle it quietly. Here I am.'

'Well, let me go; that will do,' said he, glowering furiously at Lake, who confronted him, in the same attitude, a couple of yards away. 'You'll hear,' and he turned away.

'I am at the "Brandon Arms" till to-morrow,' said Lake, with white lips, very quietly, to the gentleman in moustaches, who bowed slightly, and walked out of the room with Sir Harry.

Lake poured out some sherry in a tumbler, and drank it off. He was a little bit stunned, I think, in his new situation.

Except for the waiters, and the actors in it, it so happened that the supper-room was empty during this sudden fracas. Lake stared at the frightened girl, in his fierce abstraction. Then, with his wild gaze, he followed the line of his adversary's retreat, and shook his ears slightly, like a man at whose hair a wasp has buzzed.

'Thank you,' said he to the maid, suddenly recollecting himself, with a sort of smile; 'that will do. What confounded nonsense! He'll be quite cool again in five minutes. Never mind.'

And Lake pulled on his white glove, glancing down the file of silent waiters-some looking frightened, and some reserved—in white ties and waistcoats, and he glided out of the room—his mind somewhere else—like a somnambulist.

It was not perfectly clear to the gentlemen and ladies in charge of the ices, chickens, and champagne, between which of the three swells who had just left the room the quarrel was—it had come so suddenly, and was over so quickly, like a clap of thunder. Some had not seen any, and others only a bit of it, being busy with plates and ice-tubs; and the few who had seen it all did not clearly comprehend it—only it was certain that the row had originated in jealousy about Miss Jones, the pretty apprentice, who was judiciously withdrawn forthwith by Mrs. Page, the properest of confectioners.



CHAPTER XXXVIII.

AFTER THE BALL.

Lake glided from the feast with a sense of a tremendous liability upon him. There was no retreat. The morning—yes, the morning—what then? Should he live to see the evening? Sir Harry Bracton was the crack shot of Swivel's gallery. He could hit a walking-cane at fifteen yards, at the word. There he was, talking to old Lady Chelford. Very well; and there was that fellow with the twisted moustache—plainly an officer and a gentleman—twisting the end of one of them, and thinking profoundly, with his back to the wall, evidently considering his coming diplomacy with Lake's 'friend.' Aye, by-the-bye, and Lake's eye wandered in bewilderment among village dons and elderly country gentlemen, in search of that inestimable treasure.

These thoughts went whisking and whirling round in Captain Lake's brain, to the roar and clatter of the Joinville Polka, to which fifty pair of dancing feet were hopping and skimming over the floor.

'Monstrous hot, Sir—hey? ha, ha, by Jove!' said Major Jackson, who had just returned from the supper-room, where he had heard several narratives of the occurrence. 'Don't think I was so hot since the ball at Government House, by Jove, Sir, in 1828—awful summer that!'

The major was jerking his handkerchief under his florid nose and chin, by way of ventilation; and eyeing the young man shrewdly the while, to read what he might of the story in his face.

'Been in Calcutta, Lake?'

'No; very hot, indeed. Could I say just a word with you—this way a little. So glad I met you.' And they edged into a little nook of the lobby, where they had a few minutes' confidential talk, during which the major looked grave and consequential, and carried his head high, nodding now and then with military decision.

Major Jackson whispered an abrupt word or two in his ear, and threw back his head, eyeing Lake with grave and sly defiance. Then came another whisper and a wink; and the major shook his hand, briefly but hard, and the gentlemen parted.

Lake strolled into the ball-room, and on to the upper end, where the 'best' people are, and suddenly he was in Miss Brandon's presence.

'I've been very presumptuous, I fear, to-night, Miss Brandon, he said, in his peculiar low tones. 'I've been very importunate—I prized the honour I sought so very much, I forgot how little I deserved it. And I do not think it likely you'll see me for a good while—possibly for a very long time. I've therefore ventured to come, merely to say good-bye—only that, just—good-bye. And—and to beg that flower'—and he plucked it resolutely from her bouquet—'which I will keep while I live. Good-bye, Miss Brandon.'

And Captain Stanley Lake, that pale apparition, was gone.

I do not know at all how Miss Brandon felt at this instant; for I never could quite understand that strange lady. But I believe she looked a little pale as she gravely adjusted the flowers so audaciously violated by the touch of the cool young gentleman.

I can't say whether Miss Brandon deigned to follow him with her dark, dreamy gaze. I rather think not. And three minutes afterwards he had left the Town Hall.

The Brandon party did not stay very late. And they dropped Rachel at her little dwelling. How very silent Dorcas was, thought Rachel, as they drove from Gylingden. Perhaps others were thinking the same of Rachel.

Next morning, at half-past seven o'clock, a dozen or so of rustics, under command of Major Jackson, arrived at the back entrance of Brandon Hall, bearing Stanley Lake upon a shutter, with glassy eyes, that did not seem to see, sunken face, and a very blue tinge about his mouth.

The major fussed into the house, and saw and talked with Larcom, who was solemn and bland upon the subject, and went out, first, to make personal inspection of the captain, who seemed to him to be dying. He was shot somewhere in the shoulder or breast—they could not see exactly where, nor disturb him as he lay. A good deal of blood had flowed from him, upon the arm and side of one of the men who supported his head.

Lake said nothing—he only whispered rather indistinctly one word, 'water'—and was not able to lift his head when it came; and when they poured it into and over his lips, he sighed and closed his eyes.

'It is not a bad sign, bleeding so freely, but he looks devilish shaky, you see. I've seen lots of our fellows hit, you know, and I don't like his looks—poor fellow. You'd better see Lord Chelford this minute. He could not stand being brought all the way to the town. I'll run down and send up the doctor, and he'll take him on if he can bear it.'

Major Jackson did not run. Though I have seen with an astonishment that has never subsided, fellows just as old and as fat, and braced up, besides, in the inflexibilities of regimentals, keeping up at double quick, at the heads of their companies, for a good quarter of a mile, before the colonel on horseback mercifully called a halt.

He walked at his best pace, however, and indeed was confoundedly uneasy about his own personal liabilities.

The major surprised Doctor Buddle shaving. He popped in unceremoniously. The fat little doctor received him in drawers and a very tight web worsted shirt, standing by the window, at which dangled a small looking-glass.

'By George, Sir, they've been at mischief,' burst forth the major; and the doctor, razor in hand, listened with wide open eyes and half his face lathered, to the story. Before it was over the doctor shaved the unshorn side, and (the major still in the room) completed his toilet in hot haste.

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