Honest Major Jackson was very uncomfortable. Of course, Buddle could not give any sort of opinion upon a case which he had not seen; but it described uglily, and the major consulted in broken hints, with an uneasy wink or two, about a flight to Boulogne.
'Well, it will be no harm to be ready; but take no step till I come back,' said the doctor, who had stuffed a great roll of lint and plaister, and some other medicinals, into one pocket, and his leather case of instruments, forceps, probe, scissors, and all the other steel and silver horrors, into the other; so he strutted forth in his great coat, unnaturally broad about the hips; and the major, 'devilish uncomfortable,' accompanied him at a smart pace to the great gate of Brandon. He did not care to enter, feeling a little guilty, although he explained on the way all about the matter. How devilish stiff Bracton's man was about it. And, by Jove, Sir! you know, what was to be said? for Lake, like a fool, chucked a lot of grapes in his face—for nothing, by George!'
The doctor, short and broad, was now stumping up the straight avenue, under the noble trees that roofed it over, and Major Jackson sauntered about in the vicinity of the gate, more interested in Lake's safety than he would have believed possible a day or two before.
Lord Chelford being an early man, was, notwithstanding the ball of the preceding night, dressing, when St. Ange, his Swiss servant, knocked at his door with a dozen pockethandkerchiefs, a bottle of eau-de-cologne, and some other properties of his metier.
St. Ange could not wait until he had laid them down, but broke out with—
'Oh, mi Lor!—qu'est-il arrive?—le pauvre capitaine! il est tue—il se meurt—he dies—d'un coup de pistolet. He comes de se battre from beating himself in duel—il a ete atteint dans la poitrine—le pauvre gentil-homme! of a blow of the pistol.'
And so on, the young nobleman gathering the facts as best he might.
'Is Larcom there?'
'In the gallery, mi lor.'
'Ask him to come in.'
So Monsieur Larcom entered, and bowed ominously.
'You've seen him, Larcom. Is he very much hurt?'
'He appears, my lord, to me, I regret to say, almost a-dying like.'
'Very weak? Does he speak to you?'
'Not a word, my lord. Since he got a little water he's quite quiet.'
'Poor fellow. Where have you put him?'
'In the housekeeper's lobby, my lord. I rather think he's a-dying. He looks uncommon bad, and I and Mrs. Esterbroke, the housekeeper, my lord, thought you would not like he should die out of doors.'
'Has she got your mistress's directions?'
'Miss Brandon is not called up, my lord, and Mrs. Esterbroke is unwillin' to halarm her; so she thought it better I should come for orders to your lordship; which she thinks also the poor young gentleman is certainly a-dying.'
'Is there any vacant bed-room near where you have placed him? What does Mrs. —— the housekeeper, say?'
'She thinks, my lord, the room hopposit, where Mr. Sledd, the architeck, slep, when 'ere, would answer very nice. It is roomy and hairy, and no steps. Major Jackson, who is gone to the town to fetch the doctor, my lord, says Mr. Lake won't a-bear carriage; and so the room on the level, my lord, would, perhaps, be more convenient.'
'Certainly; tell her so. I will speak to Miss Brandon when she comes down. How soon will the doctor be here?'
'From a quarter to half an hour, my lord.'
'Then tell the housekeeper to arrange as she proposes, and don't remove his clothes until the doctor comes. Everyone must assist. I know, St. Ange, you'll like to assist.'
So Larcom withdrew ceremoniously, and Lord Chelford hastened his toilet, and was down stairs, and in the room assigned by the housekeeper to the ill-starred Captain Lake, before Doctor Buddle had arrived.
It had already the dismal character of a sick chamber. Its light was darkened; its talk was in whispers; and its to-ings and fro-ings on tip-toe. An obsolete chambermaid had been already installed as nurse. Little Mrs. Esterbroke, the housekeeper, was fussing hither and thither about the room noiselessly.
So this gay, astute man of fashion had fallen into the dungeon of sudden darkness, and the custody of old women; and lay helpless in the stocks, awaiting the judgment of Buddle. Ridiculous little pudgy Buddle—how awful on a sudden are you grown—the interpreter of death in this very case. 'My case,' thought that seemingly listless figure on the bed; 'my case—I suppose it is fatal—I am to go out of this room in a long cloth-covered box. I am going to try, alone and for ever, the value of those theories of futurity and the unseen which I have quietly scouted all my days. Oh, that the prophet Buddle were here, to end my tremendous suspense, and to announce a reprieve from Heaven.'
While the wounded captain lay on the bed, with his clothes on, and the coverlet over him, and that clay-coloured apathetic face, with closed eyes, upon the pillow, without sigh or motion, not a whispered word escaped him; but his brain was appalled, and his heart died within him in the unspeakable horror of death.
Lord Chelford, too, having looked on Lake with silent, but awful misgivings, longed for the arrival of the doctor; and was listening and silent when Buddle's short step and short respiration were heard in the passage. So Larcom came to the door to announce the doctor in a whisper, and Buddle fussed into the room, and made his bow to Lord Chelford, and his brief compliments and condolences.
'Not asleep?' he enquired, standing by the bed.
The captain's lips moved a disclaimer, I suppose, but no sound came.
So the doctor threw open the window-shutters, and clipped Stanley Lake's exquisite coat ruthlessly through with his scissors, and having cleared the room of all useless hands, he made his examination.
It was a long visit. Buddle in the hall afterwards declined breakfast—he had a board to attend. He told Lord Chelford that the case was 'a very nasty one.'
In fact, the chances were against the captain, and he, Buddle, would wish a consultation with a London surgeon—whoever Lord Chelford lead most confidence in—Sir Francis Seddley, he thought, would be very desirable—but, of course, it was for the family to decide. If the messenger caught the quarter to eleven up train at Dollington, he would be in London at six, and could return with the doctor by the down mail train, and so reach Dollington at ten minutes past four next morning, which would answer, as he would not operate sooner.
As the doctor toddled towards Gylingden, with sympathetic Major Tackson by his side, before they entered the town they were passed by one of the Brandon men riding at a hard canter for Dollington.
'London?' shouted the doctor, as the man touched his hat in passing.
'Glad o' that,' said the major, looking after him.
'So am I,' said the learned Buddle. 'I don't see how we're to get the bullet out of him, without mischief. Poor devil, I'm afraid he'll do no good.'
The ladies that morning had tea in their rooms. It was near twelve o'clock when Lord Chelford saw Miss Brandon. She was in the conservatory amongst her flowers, and on seeing him stepped into the drawing-room.
'I hope, Dorcas, you are not angry with me. I've been, I'm afraid, very impertinent; but I was called on to decide for you, in your absence, and they all thought poor Lake could not be moved on to Gylingden without danger.'
'You did quite rightly, Chelford, and I thank you,' said Miss Brandon, coldly; and she seated herself, and continued—
'Pray, what does the doctor really say?'
'He speaks very seriously.'
'Does he think there is danger?'
'Very great danger.'
Miss Brandon looked down, and then, with a pale gaze suddenly in Chelford's face—
'He thinks he may die?' said she.
'Yes,' said Lord Chelford, in a very low tone, returning her gaze solemnly.
'And nobody to advise but that village doctor, Buddle—that's hardly credible, I think.'
'Pardon me. At his suggestion I have sent for Sir Francis Seddley, from town, and I hope he may arrive early to-morrow morning.'
'Why, Stanley Lake may die to-day.'
'He does not apprehend that. But it is necessary to remove the bullet, and the operation will be critical, and it is for that specially that Sir Francis is coming down.'
'It is to take place to-morrow, and he'll die in that operation. You know he'll die,' said Dorcas, pale and fierce.
'I assure you, Dorcas, I have been perfectly frank. He looks upon poor Lake as in very great danger—but that is all.'
'What brutes you men are!' said Dorcas, with a wild scorn in her look and accent, and her cheeks flushed with passion. 'You knew quite well last night there was to be this wicked duel in the morning—and you—a magistrate—a lord-lieutenant—what are you?—you connived at this bloody conspiracy—and he—your own cousin, Chelford—your cousin!'
Chelford looked at her, very much amazed.
'Yes; you are worse than Sir Harry Bracton—for you're no fool; and worse than that wicked old man. Major Jackson—who shall never enter these doors again—for he was employed—trusted in their brutal plans; but you had no excuse and every opportunity—and you have allowed your Cousin Stanley to be murdered.'
'You do me great injustice, Dorcas. I did not know, or even suspect that a hostile meeting between poor Lake and Bracton was thought of. I merely heard that there had been some trifling altercation in the supper-room; and when, intending to make peace between them, I alluded to it, just before we left, and Bracton said it was really nothing—quite blown over—and that he could not recollect what either had said. I was entirely deceived—you know I speak truth—quite deceived. They think it fair, you know, to dupe other people in such affairs; and I will also say,' he continued, a little haughtily, 'that you might have spared your censure until at least you had heard what I had to say.'
'I do believe you, Chelford; you are not vexed with me. Won't you shake hands?'
He took her hand with a smile.
'And now,' said she, 'Chelford, ought not we to send for poor Rachel: her only brother? Is not it sad?'
'Certainly; shall I ask my mother, or will you write?'
'I will write,' she said.
IN WHICH MISS RACHEL LAKE COMES TO BRANDON, AND DOCTOR BUDDLE CALLS AGAIN.
In about an hour afterwards, Rachel Lake arrived in the carriage which had been despatched for her with Dorcas's note.
She was a good deal muffled up, and looked very pale, and asked whether Miss Brandon was in her room, whither she glided rapidly up stairs. It was a sort of boudoir or dressing-room, with a few pretty old portraits and miniatures, and a number of Louis Quatorze looking-glasses hung round, and such pretty quaint cabriole gilt and pale green furniture.
Dorcas met her at the door, and they kissed silently.
'How is he, Dorcas?'
'Very ill, dear, I'm afraid—sit down, darling.'
Rachel was relieved, for in her panic she almost feared to ask if he were living.
'Is there immediate danger?'
'The doctor says not, but he is very much alarmed for to-morrow.'
'Oh! Dorcas, darling, he'll die; I know it. Oh! merciful Heaven! how tremendous.'
'You will not be so frightened in a little time. You have only just heard it, Rachel dearest, and you are startled. I was so myself.'
'I'd like to see him, Dorcas.'
'Sit here a little and rest, dear. The doctor will make his visit immediately, and then we can ask him. He's a good-natured little creature—poor old Buddle—and I am certain if it can safely be, he won't prevent it.'
'Where is he, darling—where is Stanley?'
So Dorcas described as well as she could.
'Oh, poor Stanley. Oh, Stanley—poor Stanley,' gasped Rachel, with white lips. 'You have no idea, Dorcas—no one can—how terrific it is. Oh, poor Stanley—poor Stanley.'
'Drink this water, darling; you must not be so excited.'
'Dorcas, say what the doctor may, see him I must.'
'There is time to think of that, darling.'
'Has he spoken to anyone?'
'Very little, I believe. He whispers a few words now and then—that is all.'
'Nothing to Chelford—nothing particular, I mean?'
'No—nothing—at least that I have heard of.'
'Did he wish to see no one?'
'No one, dear.'
'Not poor William Wylder?'
'No, dear. I don't suppose he cares more for a clergyman than for any other man; none of his family ever did, when they came to lie on a bed of sickness, or of death either.'
'No, no,' said Rachel, wildly; 'I did not mean to pray. I was not thinking of that; but William Wylder was different; and he did not mention me either?'
Dorcas shook her head.
'I knew it,' continued Rachel, with a kind of shudder. 'And tell me, Dorcas, does he know that he is in danger—such imminent danger?'
'That I cannot say, Rachel, dear. I don't believe doctors like to tell their patients so.'
There was a silence of some minutes, and Rachel, clasping her hands in an agony, said—
'Oh, yes—he's gone—he's certainly gone; and I remain alone under that dreadful burden.'
'Please, Miss Brandon, the doctor's down stairs with Captain Lake,' said the maid, opening the door.
'Is Lord Chelford with him?'
'Yes, Miss, please.'
'Then tell him I will be so obliged if he will come here for a moment, when the doctor is gone; and ask the doctor now, from me, how he thinks Captain Lake.'
In a little while the maid returned. Captain Lake was not so low, and rather better than this morning, the doctor said; and Rachel raised her eyes, and whispered an agitated thanksgiving. 'Was Lord Chelford coming?'
'His lordship had left the room when she returned, and Mr. Larcom said he was with Lawyer Larkin in the library.'
'Mr. Larkin can wait. Tell Lord Chelford I wish very much to see him here.'
So away went the maid again. A message in that great house was a journey; and there was a little space before they heard a knock at the door of Dorcas's pretty room, and Lord Chelford, duly invited, came in.
Lord Chelford was surprised to see Rachel, and held her hand, while he congratulated her on the more favourable opinion of the physician this afternoon; and then he gave them, as fully and exactly as he could, all the lights emitted by Dr. Buddle, and endeavoured to give his narrative as cheerful and confident an air as he could. Then, at length, he recollected that Mr. Larkin was waiting in the study.
'I quite forgot Mr. Larkin,' said he; 'I left him in the library, and I am so very glad we have had a pleasanter report upon poor Lake this evening; and I am sure we shall all feel more comfortable on seeing Sir Francis Seddley. He is such an admirable surgeon; and I feel sure he'll strike out something for our poor patient. I've known him hit upon such original expedients, and make such wonderful successes.'
So with a kind smile he left the room.
Then there was a long pause.
'Does he really think that Stanley will recover?' said Rachel.
'I don't know; I suppose he hopes it. I don't know, Rachel, what to think of anyone or anything. What wild beasts they are. How "swift to shed blood," as poor William Wylder said last Sunday. Have you any idea what they quarrelled about?'
'None in the world. It was that odious Sir Harry Bracton—was not it?'
'Why so odious, Rachel? How can you tell which was in the wrong? I only know he seems to be a better marksman than your poor brother.'
Rachel looked at her with something of haughty and surprised displeasure, but said nothing.
'You look at me, Radie, as if I were a monster—or monstress, I should say—whereas I am only a Brandon. Don't you remember how our great ancestor, who fought for the House of York, changed suddenly to Lancaster, and how Sir Richard left the King and took part with Cromwell, not for any particular advantage, I believe, or for any particular reason even, but for wickedness and wounded pride, perhaps.'
'I don't quite see your meaning, Dorcas. I can't understand how your pride has been hurt; but if Stanley had any, I can well imagine what torture it must have endured; wretched, wicked, punished fool!'
'You suspect what they fought about, Radie!'
Rachel made no answer.
'You do, Radie, and why do you dissemble with me?'
'I don't dissemble; I don't care to speak; but if you will have me say so, I do suspect—I think it must have originated in jealousy of you.'
'You look, Radie, as if you thought I had managed it—whereas I really did not care.'
'I do not understand you, Dorcas; but you appear to me very cruel, and you smile, as I say so.'
'I smile, because I sometimes think so myself.'
With a fixed and wrathful stare Rachel returned the enigmatical gaze of her beautiful cousin.
'If Stanley dies, Dorcas, Sir Harry Bracton shall hear of it. I'll lose my life, but he shall pay the forfeit of his crime.'
So saying, Rachel left the room, and gliding through passages, and down stairs, she knocked at Stanley's door. The old woman opened it.
'Ah, Dorothy! I'm so glad to see you here!' and she put a present in her hard, crumpled hand.
So, noiselessly, Rachel Lake, without more parley, stepped into the room, and closed the door. She was alone with Stanley With a beating heart, and a kind of chill stealing over her, by her brother's bed.
The room was not so dark that she could not see distinctly enough.
There lay her brother, such as he was—still her brother, on the bleak, neutral ground between life and death. His features, peaked and earthy, and that look, so new and peculiar, which does not savour of life upon them. He did not move, but his strange eyes gazed cold and earnest from their deep sockets upon her face in awful silence. Perhaps he thought he saw a phantom.
'Are you better, dear?' whispered Rachel.
His lips stirred and his throat, but he did not speak until a second effort brought utterance, and he murmured,
'Is that you, Radie?'
'Yes, dear. Are you better?'
'No. I'm shot. I shall die to-night. Is it night yet?'
'Don't despair, Stanley, dear. The great London doctor, Sir Francis Seddley, will be with you early in the morning, and Chelford has great confidence in him. I'm sure he will relieve you.'
'This is Brandon?' murmured Lake.
She thought he was going to say more, but he remained silent, and she recollected that he ought not to speak, and also that she had that to say which must be said.
Sharp, dark, and strange lay that familiar face upon the white pillow. The faintest indication of something like a peevish sneer; it might be only the lines of pain and fatigue; still it had that unpleasant character remaining fixed on its features.
'Oh, Stanley! you say you think you are dying. Won't you send for William Wylder and Chelford, and tell all you know of Mark?'
She saw he was about to say something, and she leaned her head near his lips, and she heard him whisper,—
'It won't serve Mark.'
'I'm thinking of you, Stanley—I'm thinking of you.'
To which he said either 'Yes' or 'So.' She could not distinguish.
'I view it now quite differently. You said, you know, in the park, you would tell Chelford; and I resisted, I believe, but I don't now. I had rather you did. Yes, Stanley, I conjure you to tell it all.'
The cold lips, with a livid halo round them, murmured, 'Thank you.'
It was a sneer, very shocking just then, perhaps; but unquestionably a sneer.
'Poor Stanley!' she murmured, with a kind of agony, looking down upon that changed face. 'One word more, Stanley. Remember, it's I, the only one on earth who stands near you in kindred, your sister, Stanley, who implores of you to take this step before it is too late; at least, to consider.'
He said something. She thought it was 'I'll think;' and then he closed his eyes. It was the only motion she had observed, his face lay just as it had done on the pillow. He had not stirred all the time she was there; and now that his eyelids closed, it seemed to say, our interview is over—the curtain has dropped; and so understanding it, with that one awful look that may be the last, she glided from the bed-side, told old Dorothy that he seemed disposed to sleep, and left the room.
There is something awful always in the spectacle of such a sick-bed as that beside which Rachel had just stood. But not quite so dreadful is the sight as are the imaginings and the despair of absence. So reassuring is the familiar spectacle of life, even in its subsidence, so long as bodily torture and mental aberration are absent.
In the meanwhile, on his return to the library, Lord Chelford found his dowager mother in high chat with the attorney, whom she afterwards pronounced 'a very gentlemanlike man for his line of life.'
The conversation, indeed, was chiefly that of Lady Chelford, the exemplary attorney contributing, for the most part, a polite acquiescence, and those reflections which most appositely pointed the moral of her ladyship's tale, which concerned altogether the vagaries of Mark Wylder—a subject which piqued her curiosity and irritated her passions.
It was a great day for Jos. Larkin; for by the time Lord Chelford returned the old lady had asked him to stay for dinner, which he did, notwithstanding his morning dress, to his great inward satisfaction, because he could henceforward mention, 'the other day, when I dined at Brandon,' or 'old Lady Chelford assured me, when last I dined at Brandon;' and he could more intimately speak of 'our friends at Brandon,' and 'the Brandon people,' and, in short, this dinner was very serviceable to the excellent attorney.
It was not very amusing this interchange of thought and feeling between Larkin and the dowager, upon a theme already so well ventilated as Mark Wylder's absconding, and therefore I let it pass.
After dinner, when the dowager's place knew her no more, Lord Chelford resumed his talk with Larkin.
'I am quite confirmed in the view I took at first,' he said. 'Wylder has no claim upon me. There are others on whom much more naturally the care of his money would devolve, and I think that my undertaking the office he proposes, under his present strange circumstances, might appear like an acquiescence in the extraordinary course he has taken, and a sanction generally of his conduct, which I certainly can't approve. So, Mr. Larkin, I have quite made up my mind. I have no business to undertake this trust, simple as it is.'
'I have only, my lord, to bow to your lordship's decision; at the same time I cannot but feel, my lord, how peculiar and painful is the position in which it places me. There are rents to be received by me, and sums handed over, to a considerable—I may say, indeed, a very large amount: and my friend Lake—Captain Lake—now, unhappily, in so very precarious a state, appears to dislike the office, also, and to anticipate annoyance, in the event of his consenting to act. Altogether, your lordship will perceive that the situation is one of considerable, indeed very great embarrassment, as respects me. There is, however, one satisfactory circumstance disclosed in his last letter. His return, he says, cannot be delayed beyond a very few months, perhaps weeks; and he states, in his own rough way, that he will then explain the motives of his conduct to the entire satisfaction of all those who are cognizant of the measures which he has adopted—no more claret, thanks—no more—a delicious wine—and he adds, it will then be quite understood that he has acted neither from caprice, nor from any motive other than self-preservation. I assure you, my lord, that is the identical phrase he employs—self-preservation. I all along suspected, or, rather, I mean, supposed, that Mr. Wylder had been placed in this matter under coercion—a—a threat.'
'A little more wine?' asked Lord Chelford, after another interval.
'No—no more, I thank you. Your lordship's very good, and the wine, I may say, excellent—delicious claret; indeed, quite so—ninety shillings a dozen, I should venture to say, and hardly to be had at that figure; but it grows late, I rather think, and the trustees of our little Wesleyan chapel—we've got a little into debt in that quarter, I am sorry to say—and I promised to advise with them this evening at nine o'clock. They have called me to counsel more than once, poor fellows; and so, with your lordship's permission, I'll withdraw.'
Lord Chelford walked with him to the steps. It was a beautiful night—very little moon, but that and the stars wonderfully clear and bright, and all things looking so soft and airy.
'Try one of these,' said the peer, presenting his cigar case.
Larkin, with a glow of satisfaction, took one of these noble cigars, and rolled it in his fingers, and smelt it.
'Fragrant—wonderfully fragrant!' he observed, meekly, with a connoisseur's shake of the head.
The night was altogether so charming that Lord Chelford was tempted. So he took his cap, and lighted his cigar, too, and strolled a little way with the attorney.
He walked under the solemn trees—the same under whose airy groyning Wylder and Lake had walked away together on that noteworthy night on which Mark had last turned his back upon the grand old gables and twisted chimneys of Brandon Hall.
This way was rather a round, it must be confessed, to the Lodge—Jos, Larkin's peaceful retreat. But a stroll with a lord was worth more than that sacrifice, and every incident which helped to make a colourable case of confidential relations at Brandon—a point in which the good attorney had been rather weak hitherto—was justly prized by that virtuous man.
If the trustees, Smith the pork-butcher, old Captain Snoggles, the Town Clerk, and the rest, had to wait some twenty minutes in the drawing-room at the Lodge, so much the better. An apology was, perhaps, the best and most modest shape into which he could throw the advertisement of his dinner at Brandon—his confidential talk with the proud old dowager, and his after-dinner ramble with that rising young peer, Lord Chelford. It would lead him gracefully into detail, and altogether the idea, the situation, the scene and prospect, were so soothing and charming, that the good attorney felt a silent exaltation as he listened to Lord Chelford's two or three delighted sentences upon the illimitable wonders and mysteries glimmering in the heavens above them.
The cigar was delicious, the air balmy and pleasant, his digestion happy, the society unexceptionably aristocratic—a step had just been gained, and his consideration in the town and the country round improved, by the occurrences of the evening, and his whole system, in consequence, in a state so serene, sweet and satisfactory, that I really believe there was genuine moisture in his pink, dove-like eyes, as he lifted them to the heavens, and murmured, 'Beautiful, beautiful!' And he mistook his sensations for a holy rapture and silent worship.
Cigars, like other pleasures, are transitory. Lord Chelford threw away his stump, tendered his case again to Mr. Larkin, and then took his leave, walking slowly homewards.
THE ATTORNEY'S ADVENTURES ON THE WAY HOME.
Mr. Jos. Larkin was now moving alone, under the limbs of the Brandon trees. He knew the path, as he had boasted to Lord Chelford, from his boyhood; and, as he pursued his way, his mind got upon the accustomed groove, and amused itself with speculations respecting the vagaries of Mark Wylder.
'I wonder what his lordship thinks. He was very close—very' ruminated Larkin; 'no distinct ideas about it possibly; and did not seem to wish to lead me to the subject. Can he know anything? Eh, can he possibly? Those high fellows are very knowing often—so much on the turf, and all that—very sharp and very deep.'
He was thinking of a certain noble lord in difficulties, who had hit a client of his rather hard, and whose affairs did not reflect much credit upon their noble conductor.
'Aye, I dare say, deep enough, and intimate with the Lakes. He expects to be home in two months' time. He's a deep fellow too; he does not like to let people know what he's about. I should not be surprised if he came to-morrow. Lake and Lord Chelford may both know more than they say. Why should they both object merely to receive and fund his money? They think he wants to get them into a fix—hey? If I'm to conduct his business, I ought to know it; if he keeps a secret from me, affecting all his business relations, like this, and driving him about the world like an absconding bankrupt, how can I advise him?'
All this drifted slowly through his mind, and each suggestion had its collateral speculations; and so it carried him pleasantly a good way on his walk, and he was now in the shadow of the dense copsewood that mantles the deep ravine which debouches into Redman's Dell.
The road was hardly two yards wide, and the wood walled it in, and overhung it occasionally in thick, irregular masses. As the attorney marched leisurely onward, he saw, or fancied that he saw, now and then, in uncertain glimpses, something white in motion among the trees beside him.
At first he did not mind; but it continued, and grew gradually unpleasant. It might be a goat, a white goat; but no, it was too tall for that. Had he seen it at all? Aye! there it was, no mistake now. A poacher, maybe? But their poachers were not of the dangerous sort, and there had not been a robber about Gylingden within the memory of man. Besides, why on earth should either show himself in that absurd way?
He stopped—he listened—he stared suspiciously into the profound darkness. Then he thought he heard a rustling of the leaves near him, and he hallooed, 'Who's there?' But no answer came.
So, taking heart of grace, he marched on, still zealously peering among the trees, until, coming to an opening in the pathway, he more distinctly saw a tall, white figure, standing in an ape-like attitude, with its arms extended, grasping two boughs, and stooping, as if peeping cautiously, as he approached.
The good attorney drew up and stared at this gray phantasm, saying to himself, 'Yes,' in a sort of quiet hiss.
He stopped in a horror, and as he gazed, the figure suddenly drew back and disappeared.
'Very pleasant this!' said the attorney, after a pause, recovering a little. 'What on earth can it be?'
Jos. Larkin could not tell which way it had gone. He had already passed the midway point, where this dark path begins to descend through the ravine into Redman's Dell. He did not like going forward—but to turn back might bring him again beside the mysterious figure. And though he was not, of course, afraid of ghosts, nor in this part of the world, of robbers, yet somehow he did not know what to make of this gigantic gray monkey.
So, not caring to stay longer, and seeing nothing to be gained by turning back, the attorney buttoned the top button of his coat, and holding his head very erect, and placing as much as he could of the path between himself and the side where the figure had disappeared, marched on steadily. It was too dark, and the way not quite regular enough, to render any greater speed practicable.
From the thicket, as he proceeded, he heard a voice—he had often shot woodcocks in that cover—calling in a tone that sounded in his ears like banter, 'Mark—Mark—Mark—Mark.'
He stopped, holding his breath, and the sound ceased.
'Well, this certainly is not usual,' murmured Mr. Larkin, who was a little more perturbed than perhaps he quite cared to acknowledge even to himself. 'Some fellow perhaps watching for a friend—or tricks, maybe.'
Then the attorney, trying his supercilious smile in the dark, listened again for a good while, but nothing was heard except those whisperings of the wind which poets speak of. He looked before him with his eyebrows screwed, in a vain effort to pierce the darkness, and the same behind him; and then after another pause, he began uncomfortably to move down the path once more.
In a short time the same voice, with the same uncertain echo among the trees, cried faintly, 'Mark—Mark,' and then a pause; then again, 'Mark—Mark—Mark,' and then it grew more distant, and sounded among the trees and reverberations of the glen like laughter.
'Who's there?' cried the attorney, in a tone rather ferocious from fright, and stamping on the path. But his summons and the provocation died away together in the profoundest silence.
Mr. Jos. Larkin did not repeat his challenge. This cry of 'Mark!' was beginning to connect itself uncomfortably in his mind with his speculations about his wealthy client, which in that solitude and darkness began to seem not so entirely pure and disinterested as he was in the habit of regarding them, and a sort of wood-demon, such as a queer little schoolfellow used long ago to read a tale about in an old German story-book, was now dogging his darksome steps, and hanging upon his flank with a vindictive design.
Jos. Larkin was not given to fancy, nor troubled with superstition. His religion was of a comfortable, punctual, business-like cast, which according with his genius—denied him, indeed, some things for which, in truth, he had no taste—but in no respect interfered with his main mission upon earth, which was getting money. He had found no difficulty hitherto in serving God and Mammon. The joint business prospered. Let us suppose it was one of those falterings of faith, which try the best men, that just now made him feel a little queer, and gave his thoughts about Mark Wylder, now grown habitual, that new and ghastly complexion which made the situation so unpleasant.
He wished himself more than once well out of this confounded pass, and listened nervously for a good while, and stared once more, half-frightened, in various directions, into the darkness.
'If I thought there could be anything the least wrong or reprehensible—we are all fallible—in my allowing my mind to turn so much upon my client, I can certainly say I should be very far from allowing it—I shall certainly consider it—and I may promise myself to decide in a Christian spirit, and if there be a doubt, to give it against myself.'
This resolution, which was, he trusted, that of a righteous man, was, I am afraid, the effect rather of fright than reflection, and employed in that sense somewhat in the manner of an exorcism—whispered rather to the ghost than to his conscience.
I am sure Larkin did not himself suppose this. On the contrary, he really believed, I am convinced, that he scouted the ghost, and had merely volunteered this salutary self-examination as an exercise of conscience. He could not, however, have doubted that he was very nervous—and that he would have been glad of the companionship even of one of the Gylingden shopkeepers, through this infested bit of wood.
Having again addressed himself to his journey, he was now approaching that part of the path where the trees recede a little, leaving a considerable space unoccupied at either side of his line of march. Here there was faint moonlight and starlight, very welcome; but a little in advance of him, where the copsewood closed in again, just above those stone steps which Lake and his sister Rachel had mounted together upon the night of the memorable rendezvous, he fancied that he again saw the gray figure cowering among the foremost stems of the wood.
It was a great shock. He stopped short—and as he stared upon the object, he felt that electric chill and rising of the hair which accompany supernatural panic.
As he gazed, however, it was gone. Yes. At all events, he could see it no more. Had he seen it there at all? He was in such an odd state he could not quite trust himself. He looked back hesitatingly. But he remembered how very long and dark the path that way was, and how unpleasant his adventures there had been. And although there was a chance that the gray monkey was lurking somewhere near the path, still there was now but a short space between him and the broad carriage track down Redman's Dell, and once upon that he considered himself almost in the street of Gylingden.
So he made up his mind, and marched resolutely onward, and had nearly reached that point at which the converging screen of thicket again overshadows the pathway, when close at his side he saw the tall, white figure push itself forward among the branches, and in a startling under-tone of enquiry, like a conspirator challenging his brother, a voice—the same which he had so often heard during this walk—cried over his shoulder,
Larkin sprung back a pace or two, turning his face full upon the challenger, who in his turn was perhaps affrighted, for the same voice uttered a sort of strangled shriek, and he heard the branches crack and rustle as he pushed his sudden retreat through them—leaving the attorney more horrified than ever.
No other sound but the melancholy soughing of the night-breeze, and the hoarse murmur of the stream rising from the stony channel of Redman's Dell, were now, or during the remainder of his walk through these haunted grounds, again audible.
So, with rapid strides passing the dim gables of Redman's Farm, he at length found himself, with a sense of indescribable relief, upon the Gylingden road, and could see the twinkling lights in the windows of the main street.
IN WHICH SIR FRANCIS SEDDLEY MANIPULATES.
At about two o'clock Buddle was called up, and spirited away to Brandon in a dog-cart. A haemorrhage, perhaps, a sudden shivering, and inflammation—a sinking, maybe, or delirium—some awful change, probably—for Buddle did not return.
Old Major Jackson heard of it, in his early walk, at Buddle's door. He had begun to grow more hopeful. But hearing this he walked home, and replaced the dress-coat and silk stockings he had ventured to remove, promptly in his valise, which he buckled down and locked—swallowed with agitated voracity some fragments of breakfast—got on his easy boots and gaiters—brushed his best hat, and locked it into its leather case—placed his rug, great-coat, and umbrella, and a rough walking-stick for service, and a gold-tipped, exquisite cane, for duty on promenades of fashion, neatly on top of his valise, and with his old white hat and shooting-coat on, looking and whistling as much as possible as usual, he popped carelessly into John Hobbs's stable, where he was glad to see three horses standing, and he mentally chose the black cob for his flight to Dollington.
'A bloodthirsty rascal that Bracton,' muttered the major. The expenses were likely to be awful, and some allowance was to be made for his state of mind.
He was under Doctor Buddle's porch, and made a flimsy rattle with his thin brass knocker. 'Maybe he has returned?' He did not believe it, though.
Major Jackson was very nervous, indeed. The up trains from Dollington were 'few and far between,' and that diddled Crutchleigh would be down on him the moment the breath was out of poor Lake. 'It was plain yesterday at the sessions that infernal woman (his wife) had been at him. She hates Bracton like poison, because he likes the Brandon people; and, by Jove, he'll have up every soul concerned. The Devil and his wife I call them. If poor Lake goes off anywhere between eleven and four o'clock, I'm nabbed, by George!'
The door was opened. The doctor peeped out of his parlour.
'Well?' enquired the major, confoundedly frightened.
'Pretty well, thank ye, but awfully fagged—up all night, and no use.'
'But how is he?' asked the major, with a dreadful qualm of dismay.
'Same as yesterday—no change—only a little bleeding last night—not arterial; venous you know—only venous.'
The major thought he spoke of the goddess, and though he did not well comprehend, said he was 'glad of it.'
'Think he'll do then?'
'He may—very unlikely though. A nasty case, as you can imagine.'
'He'll certainly not go, poor fellow, before four o'clock P.M. I dare say—eh?'
The major's soul was at the Dollington station, and was regulating poor Lake's departure by 'Bradshaw's Guide.'
'Who knows? We expect Sir Francis this morning. Glad to have a share of the responsibility off my shoulders, I can tell you. Come in and have a chop, will you?'
'No, thank you, I've had my breakfast.'
'You have, have you? Well, I haven't,' cried the doctor, with an agreeable chuckle, shaking the major's hand, and disappearing again into his parlour.
I found in my lodgings in London, on my return from Doncaster, some two months later, a copy of the county paper of this date, with a cross scrawled beside the piece of intelligence which follows. I knew that tremulous cross. It was traced by the hand of poor old Miss Kybes—with her many faults always kind to me. It bore the Brandon postmark, and altogether had the impress of authenticity. It said:—
'We have much pleasure in stating that the severe injury sustained four days since by Captain Stanley Lake, at the time a visitor at the Lodge, the picturesque residence of Josiah Larkin, Esq., in the vicinity of Gylingden, is not likely to prove so difficult of treatment or so imminently dangerous as was at first apprehended. The gallant gentleman was removed from the scene of his misadventure to Brandon Hall, close to which the accident occurred, and at which mansion his noble relatives, Lord Chelford and the Dowager Lady Chelford, are at present staying on a visit. Sir Francis Seddley came down express from London, and assisted by our skilful county practitioner, Humphrey Buddle, Esq., M.D. of Gylingden, operated most successfully on Saturday last, and we are happy to say the gallant patient has since been going on as favourably as could possibly have been anticipated. Sir Francis Seddley returned to London on Sunday afternoon.'
Within a week after the operation, Buddle began to talk so confidently about his patient, that the funereal cloud that overhung Brandon had almost totally disappeared, and Major Jackson had quite unpacked his portmanteau.
About a week after the 'accident' there came one of Mr. Mark Wylder's strange letters to Mr. Jos. Larkin. This time it was from Marseilles, and bore date the 27th November. It was much the longest he had yet received, and was in the nature of a despatch, rather than of those short notes in which he had hitherto, for the most part, communicated.
Like the rest of his letters it was odd, but written, as it seemed, in better spirits.
'Dear Larkin,—You will be surprised to find me in this port, but I think my secret cruise is nearly over now, and you will say the plan was a master-stroke, and well executed by a poor devil, with nobody to advise him. I am coiling such a web round them, and making it fast, as you may see a spider, first to this point and then to the other, that I won't leave my persecutors one solitary chance of escape. I'll draw it quietly round and round—closer and closer—till they can neither blow nor budge, and then up to the yardarm they go, with what breath is left in them. You don't know yet how I am dodging, or why my measures are taken; but I'll shorten your long face a good inch with a genuine broad grin when you learn how it all was. I may see you to tell the story in four weeks' time; but keep this close. Don't mention where I write from, nor even so much as my name. I have reasons for everything, which you may guess, I dare say, being a sharp chap; and it is not for nothing, be very sure, that I am running this queer rig, masquerading, hiding, and dodging, like a runaway forger, which is not pleasant anyway, and if you doubt it, only try; but needs must when the old boy drives. He is a clever fellow, no doubt, but has been sometimes out-witted before now. You must arrange about Chelford and Lake. I don't know where Lake is staying. I don't suppose at Brandon; but he won't stay in the country nor spend his money to please you or I. Therefore you must have him at your house—be sure—and I will square it with you; I think three pounds a week ought to do it very handsome. Don't be a muff and give him expensive wines—a pint of sherry is plenty between you; and when he dines at his club half-a-pint does him. I know; but if he costs you more, I hereby promise to pay it. Won't that do? Well, about Chelford: I have been thinking he takes airs, and maybe he is on his high-horse about that awkward business about Miss Brandon. But there is no reason why Captain Lake should object. He has only to hand you a receipt in my name for the amount of cheques you may give him, and to lodge a portion of it where I told him, and the rest to buy Consols; and I suppose he will expect payment for his no-trouble. Every fellow, particularly these gentlemanlike fellows, they have a pluck at you when they can. If he is at that, give him at the rate of a hundred a-year, or a hundred and fifty if you think he won't do for less; though 100l. ought to be a good deal to Lake; and tell him I have a promise of the adjutancy of the county militia, if he likes that; and I am sure of a seat in Parliament either for the county or for Dollington, as you know, and can do better for him then; and I rely on you, one way or another, to make him undertake it. And now for myself: I think my vexation is very near ended. I have not fired a gun yet, and they little think what a raking broadside I'll give them. Any of the county people you meet, tell them I'm making a little excursion on the Continent; and if they go to particularise, you may say the places I have been at. Don't let anyone know more. I wish there was any way of stopping that old she'—(it looked like dragon or devil—but was traced over with a cloud of flourishes, and only 'Lady Chelford's mouth' was left untouched). 'Don't expect to hear from me so long a yarn for some time again; and don't write. I don't stay long anywhere, and don't carry my own name—and never ask for letters at the post. I've a good glass, and can see pretty far, and make a fair guess enough what's going on aboard the enemy.
'I remain always,
'Ever yours truly,
'He hardly trusts Lake more than he does me, I presume,' murmured Mr. Larkin, elevating his tall bald head with an offended and supercilious air; and letting the thin, open letter fall, or rather throwing it with a slight whisk upon the table.
'No, I take leave to think he certainly does not. Lake has got private directions about the disposition of a portion of the money. Of course, if there are persons to be dealt with who are not pleasantly approachable by respectable professional people—in fact it would not suit me. It is really rather a compliment, and relieves me of the unpleasant necessity of saying—no.'
Yet Mr. Larkin was very sore, and curious, and in a measure, hated both Lake and Wylder for their secret confidences, and was more than ever resolved to get at the heart of Mark's mystery.
A PARAGRAPH IN THE COUNTY PAPER.
The nature of his injury considered, Captain Lake recovered with wonderful regularity and rapidity. In four weeks he was out rather pale and languid but still able to walk without difficulty, leaning on a stick, for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. In another fortnight he had made another great advance, had thrown away his crutch handled stick, and recovered flesh and vigour. In a fortnight more he had grown quite like himself again; and in a very few weeks more, I read in the same county paper, transmitted to me by the same fair hands, but this time not with a cross, but three distinct notes of admiration standing tremulously at the margin of the paragraph, the following to me for a time incredible, and very nearly to this day amazing, announcement:—
'MARRIAGE IN HIGH LIFE.
'The auspicious event so interesting to our county, which we have this day to announce, though for some time upon the tapis, has been attended with as little publicity as possible. The contemplated union between Captain Stanley Lake, late of the Guards, sole surviving son of the late General Williams Stanley Stanley Lake, of Plasrhwyn, and the beautiful and accomplished Miss Brandon, of Brandon Hall, in this county, was celebrated in the ancestral chapel of Brandon, situated within the manorial boundaries, in the immediate vicinity of the town of Gylingden, on yesterday. Although the marriage was understood to be strictly private—none but the immediate relations of the bride and bridegroom being present—the bells of Gylingden rang out merry peals throughout the day, and the town was tastefully decorated with flags, and brilliantly illuminated at night.
'A deputation of the tenantry of the Gylingden and the Longmoor estates, together with those of the Brandon estate, went in procession to Brandon Hall in the afternoon, and read a well-conceived and affectionate address, which was responded to in appropriate terms by Captain Lake, who received them, with his beautiful bride at his side, in the great gallery—perhaps the noblest apartment in that noble ancestral mansion. The tenantry were afterwards handsomely entertained under the immediate direction of Josiah Larkin, Esq., of the Lodge, the respected manager of the Brandon estates, at the "Brandon Arms," in the town of Gylingden. It is understood that the great territorial influence of the Brandon family will obtain a considerable accession in the estates of the bridegroom in the south of England.'
There was some more which I need not copy, being very like what we usually see on such occasions.
I read this piece of intelligence half a dozen times over during breakfast. 'How that beautiful girl has thrown herself away!' I thought. 'Surely the Chelfords, who have an influence there, ought to have exerted it to prevent her doing anything so mad. His estates in the south of England, indeed! Why, he can't have L300 a year clear from that little property in Devon. He is such a liar; and so absurd, as if he could succeed in deceiving anyone upon the subject.'
So I read the paragraph over again, and laid down the paper, simply saying, 'Well, certainly, that is disgusting!'
I had heard of his duel. It was also said that it had in some way had reference to Miss Brandon. But this was the only rumoured incident which would at all have prepared one for the occurrence. I tried to recollect anything particular in his manner—there was nothing; and she positively seemed to dislike him. I had been utterly mystified, and so, I presume, had all the other lookers-on.
Well! after all, 'twas no particular business of mine.
At the club, I saw it in the 'Morning Post;' and an hour after, old Joe Gabloss, that prosy Argus who knows everything, recounted the details with patient precision, and in legal phrase, 'put in' letters from two or three country houses proving his statement.
So there was no doubting it longer: and Captain Stanley Lake, late of Her Majesty's —— Regiment of Guards, idler, scamp, coxcomb, and the beautiful Dorcas Brandon, heiress of Brandon, were man and wife.
I wrote to my fair friend, Miss Kybes, and had an answer confirming, if that were needed, the public announcement, and mentioning enigmatically, that it had caused 'a great deal of conversation.'
The posture of affairs in the small world of Gylingden, except in the matter of the alliance just referred to, was not much changed.
Since the voluminous despatch from Marseilles, promising his return so soon, not a line had been received from Mark Wylder. He might arrive any day or night. He might possibly have received some unexpected check—if not checkmate, in that dark and deep game on which he seemed to have staked so awfully. Mr. Jos. Larkin sometimes thought one thing, sometimes another.
In the meantime, Captain Lake accepted the trust. Larkin at times thought there was a constant and secret correspondence going on between him and Mark Wylder, and that he was his agent in adjusting some complicated and villainous piece of diplomacy by means of the fund—secret-service money—which Mark had placed at his disposal.
He, Mr. Larkin, was treated like a child in this matter, and his advice never so much as asked, nor his professional honour accredited by the smallest act of confidence.
Sometimes his suspicions took a different turn, and he thought that Lake might be one of those 'persecutors' of whom Mark spoke with such mysterious hatred; and that the topic of their correspondence was, perhaps, some compromise, the subject or the terms of which would not bear the light.
Lake certainly made two visits to London, one of them of a week's duration. The attorney being a sharp, long-headed fellow, who knew very well what business was, knew perfectly well, too, that two or three short letters might have settled any legitimate business which his gallant friend had in the capital.
But Lake was now married, and under the incantation whistled over him by the toothless Archdeacon of Mundlebury, had sprung up into a county magnate, and was worth cultivating, and to be treated tenderly.
So the attorney's business was to smile and watch—to watch, and of course, to pray as heretofore—but specially to watch. He himself hardly knew all that was passing in his own brain. There are operations of physical nature which go on actively without your being aware of them; and the moral respiration, circulation, insensible perspiration, and all the rest of that peculiar moral system which exhibited its type in Jos. Larkin, proceeded automatically in the immortal structure of that gentleman.
Being very gentlemanlike in externals, with a certain grace, amounting very nearly to elegance, and having applied himself diligently to please the county people, that proud fraternity, remembering his father's estates, condoned his poverty, and took Captain Lake by the hand, and lifted him into their superb, though not very entertaining order.
There were solemn festivities at Brandon, and festive solemnities at the principal county houses in return. Though not much of a sportsman, Lake lent himself handsomely to all the sporting proceedings of the county, and subscribed in a way worthy of the old renown of Brandon Hall to all sorts of charities and galas. So he was getting on very pleasantly with his new neighbours, and was likely to stand very fairly in that dull, but not unfriendly society.
About three weeks after this great county marriage, there arrived, this time from Frankfort, a sharp letter, addressed to Jos. Larkin, Esq. It said:—
'My Dear Sir,—I think I have reason to complain. I have just seen by accident the announcement of the marriage at Brandon. I think as my friend, and a friend to the Brandon family, you ought to have done something to delay, if you could not stop it. Of course, you had the settlements, and devil's in it if you could not have beat about a while—it was not so quick with me—and not doubled the point in a single tack; and you know the beggar has next to nothing. Any way, it was your duty to have printed some notice that the thing was thought of. If you had put it, like a bit of news, in "Galignani," I would have seen it, and known what to do. Well, that ship's blew up. But I won't let all go. The cur will begin to try for the county or for Dollington. You must quietly stop that, mind; and if he persists, just you put an advertisement in "Galignani," saying Mr. Smith will take notice, that the other party is desirous to purchase, and becoming very pressing. Just you hoist that signal, and somebody will bear down, and blaze into him at all hazards—you'll see how. Things have not gone quite smooth with me since; but it won't be long till I run up my flag again, and take the command. Be perfectly civil with Stanley Lake till I come on board—that is indispensable; and keep this letter as close from every eye as sealed orders. You may want a trifle to balk S.L.'s electioneering, and there's an order on Lake for 200l. Don't trifle about the county and borough. He must have no footing in either till I return.
'Yours, dear Larkin,
'(but look after my business better),
The order on Lake, a little note, was enclosed:—
'Dear Lake,—I wish you joy, and all the good wishes going, as I could not make the prize myself.
'Be so good to hand my lawyer, Mr. Jos. Larkin, of the Lodge, Gylingden, 200l. sterling, on my account.
'Yours, dear Lake,
'23rd Feb., &c. &c.'
When Jos. Larkin presented this little order, it was in the handsome square room in which Captain Lake transacted business—a lofty apartment, wainscoted in carved oak, and with a great stone mantelpiece, with the Wylder arms, projecting in bold relief, in the centre, and a florid scroll, with 'RESURGAM' standing forth as sharp as the day it was chiselled nearly three hundred years before.
There was some other business—Brandon business—to be talked over first; and that exhausted, Mr. Larkin sat as usual, with one long thigh crossed upon the other—his arm thrown over the back of his chair, and his tall, bald head a little back, and his small mild eyes twinkling through their pink lids on the enigmatical captain, who had entered upon the march of ambition in a spirit so audacious and conquering.
'I had a line from Mr. Mark Wylder yesterday afternoon, as usual without any address but the postmark;' and good Mr. Larkin laughed a mild, little patient laugh, and lifted his open hand, and shook his head. 'It really is growing too absurd—a mere order upon you to hand me 200l. How I'm to dispose of it, I have not the faintest notion.'
And he laughed again; at the same time he gracefully poked the little note, between two fingers, to Captain Lake, who glanced full on him, for a second, as he took it.
'And how is Mark?' enquired Lake, with his odd, sly smile, as he scrawled a little endorsement on the order. 'Does he say anything?'
'No; absolutely nothing—he's a very strange client!' said Larkin, laughing again. 'There can be no objection, of course, to your reading it; and he thinks—he thinks—he'll be here soon again—oh, here it is.'
Mr. Larkin had been fumbling, first in his deep waistcoat, and then in his breast-pocket, as if for the letter, which was locked fast into the iron safe, with Chubb's patent lock, in his office at the Lodge. But it would not have done to have kept a secret from Captain Lake, of Brandon; and therefore his not seeing the note was a mere accident.
'Oh! no—stupid!—that's Mullett and Hock's. I have not got it with me; but it does not signify, for there's nothing in it. I hope I shall soon be favoured with his directions as to what to do with the money.'
'He's an odd fellow; and I don't know how he feels towards me; but on my part there is no feeling, I do assure you, but the natural desire to live on the friendly terms which our ties of family and our position in the county'—
Stanley Lake was writing the cheque for 200l. meanwhile, and handed it to Larkin; and as that gentleman penned a receipt, the captain continued—his eyes lowered to the little vellum-bound book in which he was now making an entry:—
'You have handed me a large sum, Mr. Larkin—3,276l. 11s. 4d. I undertook this, you know, on the understanding that it was not to go on very long; and I find my own business pretty nearly as much as I can manage. Is Wylder at all definite as to when we may expect his return?'
'Oh, dear no—quite as usual—he expects to be here soon; but that is all. I so wish I had brought his note with me; but I'm positive that is all.'
So, this little matter settled, the lawyer took his leave.
AN EVIL EYE LOOKS ON THE VICAR.
There were influences of a wholly unsuspected kind already gathering round the poor vicar, William Wylder; as worlds first begin in thinnest vapour, and whirl themselves in time into consistency and form, so do these dark machinations, which at times gather round unsuspecting mortals as points of revolution, begin nebulously and intangibly, and grow in volume and in density, till a colossal system, with its inexorable tendencies and forces, crushes into eternal darkness the centre it has enveloped.
Thou shalt not covet; thou shalt not cast an eye of desire; out of the heart proceed murders;—these dreadful realities shape themselves from so filmy a medium as thought!
Ever since his conference with the vicar, good Mr. Larkin had been dimly thinking of a thing. The good attorney's weakness was money. It was a speck at first; a metaphysical microscope of no conceivable power could have developed its exact shape and colour—a mere speck, floating, as it were, in a transparent kyst, in his soul—a mere germ—by-and-by to be an impish embryo, and ripe for action. When lust hath conceived it bringeth forth sin, and sin when it is finished bringeth forth death.
The vicar's troubles grew and gathered, as such troubles will; and the attorney gave him his advice; and the business of the Rev. William Wylder gradually came to occupy a good deal of his time. Here was a new reason for wishing to know really how Mark Wylder stood. William had undoubtedly the reversion of the estate; but the attorney suspected sometimes—just from a faint phrase which had once escaped Stanley Lake—as the likeliest solution, that Mark Wylder had made a left-handed marriage somehow and somewhere, and that a subterranean wife and family would emerge at an unlucky moment, and squat upon that remainder, and defy the world to disturb them. This gave to his plans and dealings in relation to the vicar a character of irresolution and caprice foreign to his character, which was grim and decided enough when his data were clear, and his object in sight.
William Wylder, meanwhile, was troubled, and his mind clouded by more sorrows than one.
Poor William Wylder had those special troubles which haunt nervous temperaments and speculative minds, when under the solemn influence of religion. What the great Luther called, without describing them, his 'tribulations'—those dreadful doubts and apathies which at times menace and darken the radiant fabric of faith, and fill the soul with nameless horrors. The worst of these is, that unlike other troubles, they are not always safely to be communicated to those who love us best. These terrors and dubitations are infectious. Other spiritual troubles, too, there are; and I suppose our good vicar was not exempt from them any more than other Christians.
The best man, the simplest man that ever lived, has his reserves. The conscious frailty of mortality owes that sad reverence to itself, and to the esteem of others. You can't be too frank and humble when you have wronged your neighbour; but keep your offences against God to yourself, and let your battle with your own heart be waged under the eye of Him alone. The frankness of the sentimental Jean Jacques Rousseau, and of my coarse friend, Mark Wylder, is but a damnable form of vicious egotism. A miserable sinner have I been, my friend, but details profit neither thee nor me. The inner man had best be known only to himself and his Maker. I like that good and simple Welsh parson, of Beaumaris, near two hundred years ago, who with a sad sort of humour, placed for motto under his portrait, done in stained glass, nunc primum transparui.
But the spiritual tribulation which came and went was probably connected with the dreadful and incessant horrors of his money trouble. The gigantic Brocken spectre projected from himself upon the wide horizon of his futurity.
The poor vicar! He felt his powers forsaking him. Hope, the life of action, was gone. Despair is fatalism, and can't help itself. The inevitable mountain was always on his shoulders. He could not rise—he could not stir. He could scarcely turn his head and look up beseechingly from the corners of his eyes.
Why is that fellow so supine? Why is his work so ill done, when he ought most to exert himself? He disgusts the world with his hang-dog looks. Alas! with the need for action, the power of action is gone. Despair—distraction—the Furies sit with him. Stunned, stupid, and wild—always agitated—it is not easy to compose his sermons as finely as heretofore. He is always jotting down little sums in addition and subtraction. The cares of the world—the miseries of what the world calls 'difficulties' and a 'struggle'—these were for the poor vicar;—the worst torture, for aught we know, which an average soul out of hell can endure. Other sorrows bear healing on their wings;—this one is the Promethean vulture. It is a falling into the hands of men, not of God. The worst is, that its tendencies are so godless. It makes men bitter; its promptings are blasphemous. Wherefore, He who knew all things, in describing the thorns which choke the word, places the cares of this world first, and after them the deceitfulness of riches and the lusts of other things. So if money is a root of evil, the want of it, with debt, is root, and stem, and branches.
But all human pain has its intervals of relief. The pain is suspended, and the system recruits itself to endure the coming paroxysm. An hour of illusion—an hour of sleep—an hour's respite of any sort, to six hours of pain—and so the soul, in anguish, finds strength for its long labour, abridged by neither death nor madness.
The vicar, with his little boy, Fairy, by the hand, used twice, at least, in the week to make, sometimes an hour's, sometimes only half an hours, visit at Redman's Farm. Poor Rachel Lake made old Tamar sit at her worsteds in the window of the little drawing-room while these conversations proceeded. The young lady was so intelligent that William Wylder was obliged to exert himself in controversy with her eloquent despair; and this combat with the doubts and terrors of a mind of much more than ordinary vigour and resource, though altogether feminine, compelled him to bestir himself, and so, for the time, found him entire occupation; and thus memory and forecast, and suspense, were superseded, for the moment, by absorbing mental action.
Rachel's position had not been altered by her brother's marriage. Dorcas had urged her earnestly to give up Redman's Farm, and take up her abode permanently at Brandon. This kindness, however, she declined. She was grateful, but no, nothing could move her. The truth was, she recoiled from it with a species of horror.
The marriage had been, after all, as great a surprise to Rachel as to any of the Gylingden gossips. Dorcas, knowing how Rachel thought upon it, had grown reserved and impenetrable upon the subject; indeed, at one time, I think, she had half made up her mind to fight the old battle over again and resolutely exercise this fatal passion. She had certainly mystified Rachel, perhaps was mystifying herself.
Rachel grew more sad and strange than ever after this marriage. I think that Stanley was right, and that living in that solitary and darksome dell helped to make her hypochondriac.
One evening Stanley Lake stood at her door.
'I was just thinking, dear Radie,' he said in his sweet low tones, which to her ear always bore a suspicion of mockery in them, 'how pretty you contrive to make this bright little garden at all times of the year—you have such lots of those evergreens, and ivy, and those odd flowers.'
'They call them immortelles in France,' said Rachel, in a cold strange tone, 'and make chaplets of them to lay upon the coffin-lids and the graves.'
'Ah, yes, to be sure, I have seen them there and in Pere la Chaise—so they do; they have them in all the cemeteries—I forgot that. How cheerful; how very sensible. Don't you think it would be a good plan to stick up a death's-head and cross-bones here and there, and to split up old coffin-lids for your setting-sticks, and get old Mowlders, the sexton, to bury your roots, and cover them in with a "dust to dust," and so forth, and plant a yew tree in the middle, and stick those bits of painted board, that look so woefully like gravestones, all round it, and then let old Tamar prowl about for a ghost? I assure you, Radie, I think you, all to nothing, the perversest fool I ever encountered or heard of in the course of my life.'
'Well, Stanley, suppose you do, I'll not dispute it. Perhaps you are right,' said Rachel, still standing at the door of her little porch.
'Perhaps,' he repeated with a sneer; 'I venture to say, most positively, I can't conceive any sane reason for your refusing Dorcas's entreaty to live with us at Brandon, and leave this triste, and unwholesome, and everyway objectionable place.'
'She was very kind, but I can't do it.'
'Yes, you can't do it, simply because it would be precisely the most sensible, prudent, and comfortable arrangement you could possibly make; you won't do it—but you can and will practise all the airs and fooleries of a bad melodrama. You have succeeded already in filling Dorcas's mind with surmise and speculation, and do you think the Gylingden people are either blind or dumb? You are taking, I've told you again and again, the very way to excite attention and gossip. What good can it possibly do you? You'll not believe until it happens, and when it does, you'd give your eyes you could undo it. It is so like you.'
'I have said how very kind I thought it of Dorcas to propose it. I can't explain to her all my reasons for declining; and to you I need not. But I cannot overcome my repugnance—and I won't try.'
'I wonder,' said Stanley, with a sly look of enquiry, 'that you who read the Bible—and a very good book it is no doubt—and believe in all sorts of things—'
'That will do, Stanley. I'm not so weak as you suppose.'
'You know, Radie, I'm a Sadducee and that sort of thing does not trouble me the least in the world. It is a little cold here. May we go into the drawing-room? You can't think how I hate this—house. We are always unpleasant in it.'
This auspicious remark he made taking off his hat, and placing it and his cane on her work-table.
But this was not a tempestuous conference by any means. I don't know precisely what they talked about. I think it was probably the pros and cons of that migration to Brandon, against which Rachel had pronounced so firmly.
'I can't do it, Stanley. My motives are unintelligible to you, I know, and you think me obstinate and stupid; but, be I what I may, my objections are insurmountable. And does it not strike you that my staying here, on the contrary, would—would tend to prevent the kind of conversation you speak of?'
'Not the least, dear Radie—that is, I mean, it could have no possible effect, unless the circumstances were first supposed, and then it could be of no appreciable use. And your way of life and your looks—for both are changed—are likely, in a little prating village, where every human being is watched and discussed incessantly, to excite conjecture; that is all, and that is every thing.'
It had grown dark while Stanley sat in the little drawing-room, and Rachel stood on her doorstep, and saw his figure glide away slowly into the thin mist and shadow, and turn upward to return to Brandon, by that narrow ravine where they had held rendezvous with Mark Wylder, on that ill-omened night when trouble began for all.
To Rachel's eyes, that disappearing form looked like the moping spirit of guilt and regret, haunting the scene of the irrevocable.
When Stanley took his leave after one of these visits—stolen visits, somehow, they always seemed to her—the solitary mistress of Redman's Farm invariably experienced the nervous reaction which follows the artificial calm of suppressed excitement. Something of panic or horror, relieved sometimes by a gush of tears—sometimes more slowly and painfully subsiding without that hysterical escape.
She went in and shut the door, and called Tamar. But Tamar was out of the way. She hated that little drawing-room in her present mood—its associations were odious and even ghastly; so she sat herself down by the kitchen fire, and placed her pretty feet—cold now—upon the high steel fender, and extended her cold hands towards the embers, leaning back in her rude chair.
And so she got the girl to light candles, and asked her a great many questions, and obliged her, in fact, to speak constantly though she seemed to listen but little. And when at last the girl herself, growing interested in her own narrative about a kidnapper, grew voluble and animated, and looked round upon the young lady at the crisis of the tale, she was surprised to remark, on a sudden, that she was gazing vacantly into the bars; and when Margery, struck by her fixed and melancholy countenance, stopped in the midst of a sentence, the young lady turned and gazed on her wistfully, with large eyes and pale face, and sighed heavily.
IN WHICH OLD TAMAR LIFTS UP HER VOICE IN PROPHECY.
Certainly Stanley Lake was right about Redman's Dell. Once the sun had gone down behind the distant hills, it was the darkest, the most silent, and the most solitary of nooks.
It was not, indeed, quite dark yet. The upper sky had still a faint gray twilight halo, and the stars looked wan and faint. But the narrow walk that turned from Redman's Dell was always dark in Stanley's memory; and Sadducees, although they believe neither in the resurrection nor the judgment, are no more proof than other men against the resurrections of memory and the penalties of association and of fear.
Captain Lake had many things to think of. Some pleasant enough as he measured pleasure, others troublesome. But as he mounted the stone steps that conducted the passenger up the steep acclivity to the upper level of the dark and narrow walk he was pursuing, one black sorrow met him and blotted out all the rest.
Captain Lake knew very well and gracefully practised the art of not seeing inconvenient acquaintances in the street. But here in this narrow way there met him full a hated shadow whom he would fain have 'cut,' by looking to right or left, or up or down, but which was not to be evaded—would not only have his salutation but his arm, and walked—a horror of great darkness, by his side—through this solitude.
Committed to a dreadful game, in which the stakes had come to exceed anything his wildest fears could have anticipated, from which he could not, according to his own canons, by any imaginable means recede—here was the spot where the dreadful battle had been joined, and his covenant with futurity sealed.
The young captain stood for a moment still on reaching the upper platform. A tiny brook that makes its way among briars and shingle to the more considerable mill-stream of Redman's Dell, sent up a hoarse babbling from the darkness beneath. Why exactly he halted there he could not have said. He glanced over his shoulder down the steps he had just scaled. Had there been light his pale face would have shown just then a malign anxiety, such as the face of an ill-conditioned man might wear, who apprehends danger of treading on a snake.
He walked on, however, without quickening his pace, waving very slightly from side to side his ebony walking-cane—thin as a pencil—as if it were a wand to beckon away the unseen things that haunt the darkness; and now he came upon the wider plateau, from which, the close copse receding, admitted something more of the light, faint as it was, that lingered in the heavens.
A tall gray stone stands in the centre of this space. There had once been a boundary and a stile there. Stanley knew it very well, and was not startled as the attorney was the other night when he saw it. As he approached this, some one said close in his ear,
'I beg your pardon, Master Stanley.'
He cowered down with a spring, as I can fancy a man ducking under a round-shot, and glanced speechlessly, and still in his attitude of recoil, upon the speaker.
'It's only me, Master Stanley—your poor old Tamar. Don't be afraid, dear.'
'I'm not afraid—woman. Tamar to be sure—why, of course, I know you; but what the devil brings you here?' he said.
Tamar was dressed just as she used to be when sitting in the open air at her knitting, except that over her shoulders she had a thin gray shawl. On her head was the same close linen nightcap, borderless and skull-like, and she laid her shrivelled, freckled hand upon his arm, and looking with an earnest and fearful gaze in his face she said—
'It has been on my mind this many a day to speak to you, Master Stanley; but whenever I meant to, summat came over me, and I couldn't.'
'Well, well, well,' said Lake, uneasily; 'I mean to call to-morrow, or next day, or some day soon, at Redman's Farm. I'll hear it then; this is no place, you know, Tamar, to talk in; besides I'm pressed for time, and can't stay now to listen.'
'There's no place like this, Master Stanley; it's so awful secret,' she said, with her hand still upon his arm.
'Secret! Why one place is as well as another; and what the devil have I to do with secrets? I tell you, Tamar, I'm in haste and can't stay. I won't stay. There!'
'Master Stanley, for the love of Heaven—you know what I'm going to speak of; my old bones have carried me here—'tis years since I walked so far. I'd walk till I dropped to reach you—but I'd say what's on my mind, 'tis like a message from heaven—and I must speak—aye, dear, I must.'
'But I say I can't stay. Who made you a prophet? You used not to be a fool, Tamar; when I tell you I can't, that's enough.'
Tamar did not move her fingers from the sleeve of his coat, on which they rested, and that thin pressure mysteriously detained him.
'See, Master Stanley, if I don't say it to you, I must to another,' she said.
'You mean to threaten me, woman,' said he with a pale, malevolent look.
'I'm threatening nothing but the wrath of God, who hears us.'
'Unless you mean to do me an injury, Tamar, I don't know what else you mean,' he answered, in a changed tone.
'Old Tamar will soon be in her coffin, and this night far in the past, like many another, and 'twill be everything to you, one day, for weal or woe, to hearken to her words now, Master Stanley.'
'Why, Tamar, haven't I told you I'm ready to listen to you. I'll go and see you—upon my honour I will—to-morrow, or next day, at the Dell; what's the good of stopping me here?'
'Because, Master Stanley, something told me 'tis the best place; we're quiet, and you're more like to weigh my words here—and you'll be alone for a while after you leave me, and can ponder my advice as you walk home by the path.'
'Well, whatever it is, I suppose it won't take very long to say—let us walk on to the stone there, and then I'll stop and hear it—but you must not keep me all night,' he said, very peevishly.
It was only twenty steps further on, and the woods receded round it, so as to leave an irregular amphitheatre of some sixty yards across; and Captain Lake, glancing from the corners of his eyes, this way and that, without raising or turning his face, stopped listlessly at the time-worn white stone, and turning to the old crone, who was by his side, he said,
'Well, then, you have your way; but speak low, please, if you have anything unpleasant to say.'
Tamar laid her hand upon his arm again; and the old woman's face afforded Stanley Lake no clue to the coming theme. Its expression was quite as usual—not actually discontent or peevishness, but crimped and puckered all over with unchanging lines of anxiety and suffering. Neither was there any flurry in her manner—her bony arm and discoloured hand, once her fingers lay upon his sleeve, did not move—only she looked very earnestly in his face as she spoke.
'You'll not be angry, Master Stanley, dear? though if you be, I can't help it, for I must speak. I've heard it all—I heard you and Miss Radie speak on the night you first came to see her, after your sickness; and I heard you speak again, by my room door, only a week before your marriage, when you thought I was asleep. So I've heard it all—and though I mayn't understand all the ins and outs on't, I know it well in the main. Oh, Master Stanley, Master Stanley! How can you go on with it?'
'Come, Tamar, what do you want of me? What do you mean? What the d— is it all about?'
'Oh! well you know, Master Stanley, what it's about.'
'Well, there is something unpleasant, and I suppose you have heard a smattering of it in your muddled way; but it is quite plain you don't in the least understand it, when you fancy I can do anything to serve anyone in the smallest degree connected with that disagreeable business—or that I am personally in the least to blame in it; and I can't conceive what business you had listening at the keyhole to your mistress and me, nor why I am wasting my time talking to an old woman about my affairs, which she can neither understand nor take part in.'
'Master Stanley, it won't do. I heard it—I could not help hearing. I little thought you had any such matter to speak—and you spoke so sudden like, I could not help it. You were angry, and raised your voice. What could old Tamar do? I heard it all before I knew where I was.'
'I really think, Tamar, you've taken leave of your wits—you are quite in the clouds. Come, Tamar, tell me, once for all—only drop your voice a little, if you please—what the plague has got into your old head. Come, I say, what is it?'
He stooped and leaned his ear to Tamar; and when she had done, he laughed. The laugh, though low, sounded wild and hollow in that dark solitude.
'Really, dear Tamar, you must excuse my laughing. You dear old witch, how the plague could you take any such frightful nonsense into your head? I do assure you, upon my honour, I never heard of so ridiculous a blunder. Only that I know you are really fond of us, I should never speak to you again. I forgive you. But listen no more to other people's conversation. I could tell you how it really stands now, only I have not time; but you'll take my word of honour for it, you have made the most absurd mistake that ever an old fool tumbled into. No, Tamar, I can't stay any longer now; but I'll tell you the whole truth when next I go down to Redman's Farm. In the meantime, you must not plague poor Miss Radie with your nonsense. She has too much already to trouble her, though of quite another sort. Good-night, foolish old Tamar.'
'Oh, Master Stanley, it will take a deal to shake my mind; and if it be so, as I say, what's to be done next—what's to be done—oh, what is to be done?'
'I say good-night, old Tamar; and hold your tongue, do you see?'
'Oh, Master Stanley, Master Stanley! my poor child—my child that I nursed!—anything would be better than this. Sooner or later judgment will overtake you, so sure as you persist in it. I heard what Miss Radie said; and is not it true—is not it cruel—is not it frightful to go on?'
'You don't seem to be aware, my good Tamar, that you have been talking slander all this while, and might be sent to gaol for it. There, I'm not angry—only you're a fool. Good-night.'
He shook her hand, and jerked it from him with suppressed fury, passing on with a quickened pace. And as he glided through the dark, towards splendid old Brandon, he ground his teeth, and uttered two or three sentences which no respectable publisher would like to print.
DEEP AND SHALLOW.
Lawyer Larkin's mind was working more diligently than anyone suspected upon this puzzle of Mark Wylder. The investigation was a sort of scientific recreation to him, and something more. His sure instinct told him it was a secret well worth mastering.
He had a growing belief that Lake, and perhaps he only—except Wylder himself—knew the meaning of all this mysterious marching and counter-marching. Of course, all sorts of theories were floating in his mind; but there was none that would quite fit all the circumstances. The attorney, had he asked himself the question, what was his object in these inquisitions, would have answered—'I am doing what few other men would. I am, Heaven knows, giving to this affair of my absent client's, gratuitously, as much thought and vigilance as ever I did to any case in which I was duly remunerated. This is self-sacrificing and noble, and just the conscientious conduct I should expect from myself.'
But there was also this consideration, which you failed to define.
'Yes; my respected client, Mr. Mark Wylder, is suffering under some acute pressure, applied perhaps by my friend Captain Lake. Why should not I share in the profit—if such there be—by getting my hand too upon the instrument of compression? It is worth trying. Let us try.'
The Reverend William Wylder was often at the Lodge now. Larkin had struck out a masterly plan. The vicar's reversion, a very chimerical contingency, he would by no means consent to sell. His little man—little Fairy—oh! no, he could not. The attorney only touched on this, remarking in a friendly way—
'But then, you know, it is so mere a shadow.'
This indeed, poor William knew very well. But though he spoke quite meekly, the attorney looked rather black, and his converse grew somewhat dry and short.
This sinister change was sudden, and immediately followed the suggestion about the reversion; and the poor vicar was a little puzzled, and began to consider whether he had said anything gauche or offensive—'it would be so very painful to appear ungrateful.'
The attorney had the statement of title in one hand, and leaning back in his chair, read it demurely in silence, with the other tapping the seal-end of his gold pencil-case between his lips.
'Yes,' said Mr. Larkin, mildly, 'it is so very shadowy—and that feeling, too, in the way. I suppose we had better, perhaps, put it aside, and maybe something else may turn up.' And the attorney rose grandly to replace the statement of title in its tin box, intimating thereby that the audience was ended.
But the poor vicar was in rather urgent circumstances just then, and his troubles had closed in recently with a noiseless, but tremendous contraction, like that iron shroud in Mr. Mudford's fine tale; and to have gone away into outer darkness, with no project on the stocks, and the attorney's countenance averted, would have been simply despair.
'To speak frankly,' said the poor vicar, with that hectic in his cheek that came with agitation, 'I never fancied that my reversionary interest could be saleable.'
'Neither is it, in all probability,' answered the attorney. 'As you are so seriously pressed, and your brother's return delayed, it merely crossed my mind as a thing worth trying.'
'It was very kind and thoughtful; but that feeling—the—my poor little man! However, I may be only nervous and foolish, and I think I'll speak to Lord Chelford about it.'
The attorney looked down, and took his nether lip gently between his finger and thumb. I rather think he had no particular wish to take Lord Chelford into council.
'I think before troubling his lordship upon the subject—if, indeed, on reflection, you should not think it would be a little odd to trouble him at all in reference to it—I had better look a little more carefully into the papers, and see whether anything in that direction is really practicable at all.'