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Wylder's Hand
by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
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'Do you think, Mr. Larkin, you can write that strong letter to stay proceedings which you intended yesterday?'

The attorney shook his head, and said, with a sad sort of dryness—'I can't see my way to it.'

The vicar's heart sank with a flutter, and then swelled, and sank another bit, and his forehead flushed.

There was a silence.

'You see, Mr. Wylder, I relied, in fact, altogether upon this a—arrangement; and I don't see that any thing is likely to come of it.'

The attorney spoke in the same dry and reserved way, and there was a shadow on his long face.

'I have forfeited his good-will somehow—he has ceased to take any interest in my wretched affairs; I am abandoned, and must be ruined.'

These dreadful thoughts filled in another silence; and then the vicar said—

'I am afraid I have, quite unintentionally, offended you, Mr. Larkin—perhaps in my ignorance of business; and I feel that I should be quite ruined if I were to forfeit your good offices; and, pray tell me, if I have said anything I ought not.'

'Oh, no—nothing, I assure you,' replied Mr. Larkin, with a lofty and gentle dryness. 'Only, I think, I have, perhaps, a little mistaken the relation in which I stood, and fancied, wrongly, it was in the light somewhat of a friend as well as of a professional adviser; and I thought, perhaps, I had rather more of your confidence than I had any right to, and did not at first see the necessity of calling in Lord Chelford, whose experience of business is necessarily very limited, to direct you. You remember, my dear Mr. Wylder, that I did not at all invite these relations; and I don't think you will charge me with want of zeal in your business.'

'Oh! my dear Mr. Larkin, my dear Sir, you have been my preserver, my benefactor—in fact, under Heaven, very nearly my last and only hope.'

'Well, I had hoped I was not remiss or wanting in diligence.'

And Mr. Larkin took his seat in his most gentlemanlike fashion, crossing his long legs, and throwing his tall head back, raising his eyebrows, and letting his mouth languidly drop a little open.

'My idea was, that Lord Chelford would see more clearly what was best for little Fairy. I am so very slow and so silly about business, and you so much my friend—I have found you so—that you might think only of me.'

'I should, of course, consider the little boy,' said Mr. Larkin, condescendingly; 'a most interesting child. I'm very fond of children myself, and should, of course, put the entire case—as respected him as well as yourself—to the best of my humble powers before you. Is there any thing else just now you think of, for time presses, and really we have ground to apprehend something unpleasant to-morrow. You ought not, my dear Sir—pray permit me to say—you really ought not to have allowed it to come to this.'

The poor vicar sighed profoundly, and shook his head, a contrite man. They both forgot that it was arithmetically impossible for him to have prevented it, unless he had got some money.

'Perhaps,' said the vicar, brightening up suddenly, and looking in the attorney's eyes for answer, 'Perhaps something might be done with the reversion, as a security, to borrow a sufficient sum, without selling.'

The attorney shook his high head, and whiskers gray and foxy, and meditated with the seal of his pencil case between his lips.

'I don't see it,' said he, with another shake of that long head.

'I don't know that any lender, in fact, would entertain such a security. If you wish it I will write to Burlington, Smith, and Company, about it—they are largely in policies and post-obits.'

'It is very sad—very sad, indeed. I wish so much, my dear Sir, I could be of use to you; but you know the fact is, we solicitors seldom have the command of our own money; always in advance—always drained to the uttermost shilling, and I am myself in the predicament you will see there.'

And he threw a little note from the Dollington Bank to Jos. Larkin, Esq., The Lodge, Gylingden, announcing the fact that he had overdrawn his account certain pounds, shillings, and pence, and inviting him forthwith to restore the balance.

The vicar read it with a vague comprehension, and in his cold fingers shook the hand of his fellow sufferer. Less than fifty pounds would not do! Oh, where was he to turn? It was quite hopeless, and poor Larkin pressed too!

Now, there was this consolation in 'poor Larkin's case,' that although he was quite run aground, and a defaulter in the Dollington Bank to the extent of 7l. 12s. 4d., yet in that similar institution, which flourished at Naunton, only nine miles away, there stood to his name the satisfactory credit of 564l. 11s. 7d. One advantage which the good attorney derived from his double account with the rival institutions was, that whenever convenient he could throw one of these certificates of destitution and impotence sadly under the eyes of a client in want of money like poor Will Wylder.

The attorney had no pleasure in doing people ill turns. But he had come to hear the distresses of his clients as tranquilly as doctors do the pangs of their patients. As he stood meditating near his window, he saw the poor vicar, with slow limbs and downcast countenance, walk under his laburnums and laurustinuses towards his little gate, and suddenly stop and turn round, and make about a dozen quick steps, like a man who has found a bright idea, towards the house, and then come to a thoughtful halt, and so turn and recommence his slow march of despair homeward.

At five o'clock—it was dark now—there was a tread on the door-steps, and a double tattoo at the tiny knocker. It was the 'lawyer.'

Mr. Larkin entered the vicar's study, where he was supposed to be busy about his sermon.

'My dear Sir; thinking about you—and I have just heard from an old humble friend, who wants high interest, and of course is content to take security somewhat personal in its nature. I have written already. He's in the hands of Burlington, Smith, and Company. I have got exactly 55l. since I saw you, which makes me all right at Dollington; and here's my check for 50l. which you can send—or perhaps I had better send by this night's post—to those Cambridge people. It settles that; and you give me a line on this stamp, acknowledging the 50l. on account of money to be raised on your reversion. So that's off your mind, my dear Sir.'

'Oh, Mr. Larkin—my—my—you don't know, Sir, what you have done for me—the agony—oh, thank God! what a friend is raised up.'

And he clasped and wrung the long hands of the attorney, and I really think there was a little moisture in that gentleman's pink eyes for a moment or two.

When he was gone the vicar returned from the door-step, radiant—not to the study but to the parlour.

'Oh, Willie, darling, you look so happy—you were uneasy this evening,' said his little ugly wife, with a beautiful smile, jumping up and clasping him.

'Yes, darling, I was—very uneasy; but thank God, it is over.'

And they cried and smiled together in that delightful embrace, while all the time little Fairy, with a paper cap on his head, was telling them half-a-dozen things together, and pulling Wapsie by the skirts.

Then he was lifted up and kissed, and smiled on by that sunshine only remembered in the sad old days—parental love. And there was high festival kept in the parlour that night. I am told six crumpets, and a new egg apiece besides at tea, to make merry with, and stories and little songs for Fairy. Willie was in his old college spirits. It was quite delightful; and little Fairy was up a great deal too late; and the vicar and his wife had quite a cheery chat over the fire, and he and she both agreed he would make a handsome sum by Eusebius.

Thus, if there are afflictions, there are also comforts: great consolations, great chastisements. There is a comforter, and there is a chastener. Every man must taste of death: every man must taste of life. It shall not be all bitter nor all sweet for any. It shall be life. The unseen ministers of a stupendous equity have their eyes and their hands about every man's portion; 'as it is written, he that had gathered much had nothing over; and he that had gathered little had no lack.'

It is the same earth for all; the same earth for the dead, great and small; dust to dust. The same earth for the living. 'Thorns, also, and thistles shall it bring forth,' and God provides the flowers too.



CHAPTER XLVI.

DEBATE AND INTERRUPTION.

Rachel beheld the things which were coming to pass like an awful dream. She had begun to think, and not without evidence, that Dorcas, for some cause or caprice, had ceased to think of Stanley as she once did. And the announcement, without preparation or apparent courtship, that her brother had actually won this great and beautiful heiress, and that, just emerged from the shades of death, he, a half-ruined scapegrace, was about to take his place among the magnates of the county, and, no doubt, to enter himself for the bold and splendid game of ambition, the stakes of which were now in his hand, towered before her like an incredible and disastrous illusion of magic.

Stanley's uneasiness lest Rachel's conduct should compromise them increased. He grew more nervous about the relations between him and Mark Wylder, in proportion as the world grew more splendid and prosperous for him.

Where is the woman who will patiently acquiesce in the reserve of her husband who shares his confidence with another? How often had Stanley Lake sworn to her there was no secret; that he knew nothing of Mark Wylder beyond the charge of his money, and making a small payment to an old Mrs. Dutton, in London, by his direction, and that beyond this, he was as absolutely in the dark as she or Chelford.

What, then, did Rachel mean by all that escaped her, when he was in danger?

'How the — could he tell? He really believed she was a little—ever so little—crazed. He supposed she, like Dorcas, fancied he knew everything about Wylder. She was constantly hinting something of the kind; and begging of him to make a disclosure—disclosure of what? It was enough to drive one mad, and would make a capital farce. Rachel has a ridiculous way of talking like an oracle, and treating as settled fact every absurdity she fancies. She is very charming and clever, of course, so long as she speaks of the kind of thing she understands. But when she tries to talk of serious business—poor Radie! she certainly does talk such nonsense! She can't reason; she runs away with things. It is the most tiresome thing you can conceive.'

'But you have not said, Stanley, that she does not suspect the truth.'

'Of course, I say it; I have said it. I swear it, if you like. I've said plainly, and I'm ready to swear it. Upon my honour and soul I know no more of his movements, plans, or motives, than you do. If you reflect you must see it. We were never good friends, Mark and I. It was no fault of mine, but I never liked him; and he, consequently, I suppose, never liked me. There was no intimacy or confidence between us. I was the last man on earth he would have consulted with. Even Larkin, his own lawyer, is in the dark. Rachel knows all this. I have told her fifty times over, and she seems to give way at the moment. Indeed the thing is too plain to be resisted. But as I said, poor Radie, she can't reason; and by the time I see her next, her old fancy possesses her. I can't help it; because with more reluctance than I can tell, I at length consent, at Larkin's entreaty, I may say, to bank and fund his money.'

But Dorcas's mind retained its first impression. Sometimes his plausibilities, his vehemence, and his vows disturbed it for a time; but there it remained like the picture of a camera obscura, into which a momentary light has been admitted, unseen for a second, but the images return with the darkness, and group themselves in their old colours and places again. Whatever it was Rachel probably knew it. There was a painful confidence between them; and there was growing in Dorcas's mind a feeling towards Rachel which her pride forbade her to define.

She did not like Stanley's stealthy visits to Redman's Farm; she did not like his moods or looks after those visits, of which he thought she knew nothing. She did not know whether to be pleased or sorry that Rachel had refused to reside at Brandon; neither did she like the stern gloom that overcast Rachel's countenance when Stanley was in the room, nor those occasional walks together, up and down the short yew walk, in which Lake looked so cold and angry, and Rachel so earnest. What was this secret? How dared her husband mask from her what he confided to another? How dared Rachel confer with him—influence him, perhaps, under her very eye, walking before the windows of Brandon—that Brandon which was hers, and to which she had taken Stanley, passing her gate a poor and tired wayfarer of the world, and made him—what? Oh, mad caprice! Oh, fit retribution!

A wild voice was talking this way, to-and-fro, and up and down, in the chambers of memory. But she would not let it speak from her proud lips. She smiled, and to outward seeming, was the same; but Rachel felt that the fashion of her countenance towards her was changed.

Since her marriage she had not hinted to Rachel the subject of their old conversations: burning beneath her feeling about it was now a deep-rooted anger and jealousy. Still she was Stanley's sister, and to be treated accordingly. The whole household greeted her with proper respect, and Dorcas met her graciously, and with all the externals of kindness. The change was so little, that I do not think any but she and Rachel saw it; and yet it was immense.

There was a dark room, a sort of ante-room, to the library, with only two tall and narrow windows, and hung with old Dutch tapestries, representing the battles and sieges of men in periwigs, pikemen, dragoons in buff coats, and musketeers with matchlocks—all the grim faces of soldiers, generals, drummers, and the rest, grown pale and dusky by time, like armies of ghosts.

Rachel had come one morning to see Dorcas, and, awaiting her appearance, sat down in this room. The door of the library opened, and she was a little surprised to see Stanley enter.

'Why, Stanley, they told me you were gone to Naunton.'

'Oh! did they? Well, you see, I'm here, Radie.'

Somehow he was not very well pleased to see her.

'I think you'll find Dorcas in the drawing-room, or else in the conservatory,' he added.

'I am glad, Stanley, I happened to meet you. Something must be done in the matter I spoke of immediately. Have you considered it?'

'Most carefully,' said Stanley, quietly.

'But you have done nothing.'

'It is not a thing to be done in a moment.'

'You can, if you please, do a great deal in a moment'

'Certainly; but I may repent it afterwards.'

'Stanley, you may regret postponing it, much more.'

'You have no idea, Rachel, how very tiresome you've grown.'

'Yes, Stanley, I can quite understand it. It would have been better for you, perhaps for myself, I had died long ago.'

'Well, that is another thing; but in the meantime, I assure you, Rachel, you are disposed to be very impertinent.'

'Very impertinent; yes, indeed, Stanley, and so I shall continue to be until——'

'Pray how does it concern you? I say it is no business on earth of yours.'

Stanley Lake was growing angry.

'Yes, Stanley, it does concern me.'

'That is false.'

'True, true, Sir. Oh, Stanley, it is a load upon my conscience—a mountain—a mountain between me and my hopes. I can't endure the misery to which you would consign me; you shall do it—immediately, too' (she stamped wildly as she said it), 'and if you hesitate, Stanley, I shall be compelled to speak, though the thought of it makes me almost mad with terror.'

'What is he to do, Rachel?' said Dorcas, standing near the door.

It was a very awkward pause. The splendid young bride was the only person on the stage who looked very much as usual. Stanley turned his pale glare of fury from Rachel to Dorcas, and Dorcas said again,

'What is it, Rachel, darling?'

Rachel, with a bright blush on her cheeks, stepped quickly up to her, put her arms about her neck and kissed her, and over her shoulder she cried to her brother—

'Tell her, Stanley.'

And so she quickly left the room and was gone.

'Well, Dorkie, love, what's the matter?' said Stanley sharply, at last breaking the silence.

'I really don't know—you, perhaps, can tell,' answered she coldly.

'You have frightened Rachel out of the room, for one thing,' answered he with a sneer.

'I simply asked her what she urged you to do—I think I have a claim to know. It is strange so reasonable a question from a wife should scare your sister from the room.'

'I don't quite see that—for my part, I don't think anything strange in a woman. Rachel has been talking the rankest nonsense, in the most unreasonable temper conceivable; and because she can't persuade me to accept her views of what is Christian and sensible, she threatens to go mad—I think that is her phrase.'

'I don't think Rachel is a fool,' said Dorcas, quietly, her eye still upon Stanley.

'Neither do I—when she pleases to exert her good sense—but she can, when she pleases, both talk and act like a fool.'

'And pray, what does she want you to do, Stanley?'

'The merest nonsense.'

'But what is it?'

'I really can hardly undertake to say I very well understand it myself, and I have half-a-dozen letters to write; and really if I were to stay here and try to explain, I very much doubt whether I could. Why don't you ask her? If she has any clear ideas on the subject I don't see why she should not tell you. For my part, I doubt if she understands herself—I certainly don't.'

Dorcas smiled bitterly.

'Mystery already—mystery from the first. I am to know nothing of your secrets. You confer and consult in my house—you debate and decide upon matters most nearly concerning, for aught I know, my interests and my happiness—certainly deeply affecting you, and therefore which I have a right to know; and my entering the room is the signal for silence—a guilty silence—for departure and for equivocation. Stanley, you are isolating me. Beware—I may entrench myself in that isolation. You are choosing your confidant, and excluding me; rest assured you shall have no confidence of mine while you do so.'

Stanley Lake looked at her with a gaze at once peevish and inquisitive.

'You take a wonderfully serious view of Rachel's nonsense.'

'I do.'

'Certainly, you women have a marvellous talent for making mountains of molehills—you and Radie are adepts in the art. Never was a poor devil so lectured about nothing as I between you. Come now, Dorkie, be a good girl—you must not look so vexed.'

'I'm not vexed.'

'What then?'

'I'm only thinking.'

She said this with the same bitter smile. Stanley Lake looked for a moment disposed to break into one of his furies, but instead he only laughed his unpleasant laugh.

'Well, I'm thinking too, and I find it quite possible to be vexed at the same time. I assure you, Dorcas, I really am busy; and it is too bad to have one's time wasted in solemn lectures about stuff and nonsense. Do make Rachel explain herself, if she can—I have no objection, I assure you; but I must be permitted to decline undertaking to interpret that oracle.' And so saying, Stanley Lake glided into the library and shut the door with an angry clap.

Dorcas did not deign to look after him. She had heard his farewell address, looking from the window at the towering and sombre clumps of her ancestral trees—pale, proud, with perhaps a peculiar gleam of resentment—or malignity—in her exquisite features.

So she stood, looking forth on her noble possessions—on terraces—'long rows of urns'—noble timber—all seen in slanting sunlight and long shadows—and seeing nothing but the great word FOOL! in letters of flame in the air before her.



CHAPTER XLVII.

A THREATENING NOTICE.

Stanley Lake was not a man to let the grass grow under his feet when an object was to be gained. It was with a sure prescience that Mark Wylder's letter had inferred that Stanley Lake would aspire to the representation either of the county or of the borough of Dollington. His mind was already full of these projects.

Electioneering schemes are conducted, particularly at their initiation, like conspiracies—in fact, they are conspiracies, and therefore there was nothing remarkable in the intense caution with which Stanley Lake set about his. He was not yet 'feeling his way.' He was only preparing to feel his way.

All the data, except the muster-roll of electors, were in nubibus—who would retire—who would step forward, as yet altogether in the region of conjecture. There are men to whom the business of elections—a life of secrecy, excitement, speculation, and combat—has all but irresistible charms; and Tom Wealdon, the Town Clerk, was such a spirit.

A bold, frank, good-humoured fellow—he played at elections as he would at cricket. Every faculty of eye, hand, and thought—his whole heart and soul in the game. But no ill-will—no malevolence in victory—no sourness in defeat. A successful coup made Tom Wealdon split with laughing. A ridiculous failure amused him nearly as much. He celebrated his last great defeat with a pic-nic in the romantic scenery of Nolton, where he and his comrades in disaster had a roaring evening, and no end of 'chaff' When he and Jos. Larkin carried the last close contest at Dollington, by a majority of two, he kicked the crown out of the grave attorney's chimney-pot, and flung his own wide-awake into the river. He did not show much; his official station precluded prominence. He kept in the background, and did his spiriting gently. But Tom Wealdon, it was known—as things are known without evidence—was at the bottom of all the clever dodges, and long-headed manoeuvres. When, therefore, Mr. Larkin heard from the portly and veracious Mr. Larcom, who was on very happy relations with the proprietor of the Lodge, that Tom Wealdon had been twice quietly to Brandon to lunch, and had talked an hour alone with the captain in the library each time; and that they seemed very 'hernest like, and stopped of talking directly he (Mr. Larcom) entered the room with the post-bag'—the attorney knew very well what was in the wind.

Now, it was not quite clear what was right—by which the good attorney meant prudent—under the circumstances. He was in confidential—which meant lucrative—relations with Mark Wylder. Ditto, ditto with Captain Lake, of Brandon. He did not wish to lose either. Was it possible to hold to both, or must he cleave only to one and despise the other?

Wylder might return any day, and Tom Wealdon would probably be one of the first men whom he would see. He must 'hang out the signal' in 'Galignani.' Lake could never suspect its meaning, even were he to see it. There was but one risk in it, which was in the coarse perfidy of Mark Welder himself, who would desire no better fun, in some of his moods, than boasting to Lake of the whole arrangement in Jos. Larkin's presence.

However, on the whole, it was best to obey Mark Wylder's orders, and accordingly 'Galignani' said: 'Mr. Smith will take notice that the other party is desirous to purchase, and becoming very pressing.'

In the meantime Lake was pushing his popularity among the gentry with remarkable industry, and with tolerable success. Wealdon's two little visits explained perfectly the active urbanities of Captain Stanley Lake.

About three weeks after the appearance of the advertisement in 'Galignani,' one of Mark Wylder's letters reached Larkin. It was dated from Geneva(!) and said:—

'DEAR LARKIN,—I saw my friend Smith here in the cafe, who has kept a bright look out, I dare say; and tells me that Captain Stanley Lake is thinking of standing either for the county or for Dollington. I will thank you to apprise him that I mean to take my choice first; and please hand him the enclosed notice open as you get it; and, if you please, to let him run his eye also over this note to you, as I have my own reasons for wishing him to know that you have seen it.

'This is all I will probably trouble you about elections for some months to come, or, at least, weeks. It being time enough when I go back, and no squalls a-head just now at home, though foreign politics look muggy enough.

'I have nothing particular at present about tenants or timber, except the three acres of oak behind Farmer Tanby's—have it took down. Thomas Jones and me went over it last September, and it ought to bring near 3,000l. I must have a good handful of money by May next.

'Yours, my dear Larkin,

'Very truly,

'MARK WYLDER.'

Folded in this was a thin slip of foreign paper, on which were traced these lines:—

'Private.

'DEAR LARKIN,—Don't funk the interview with the beast Lake—a hyaena has no pluck in him. When he reads what I send him by your hand, he'll be as mild as you please. Parkes must act for me as usual—no bluster about giving up. Lake's afraid of yours,

'M. W.'

Within was what he called his 'notice' to Stanley Lake, and it was thus conceived:—

'Private.

'DEAR LAKE—I understand you are trying to make all safe for next election in Dollington or the county. Now, understand at once, that I won't permit that. There is not a country gentleman on the grand jury who is not your superior; and there is no extremity I will not make you feel—and you know what I mean—if you dare despise this first and not unfriendly warning.

'Yours truly,

'MARK WYLDER.'

Now there certainly was need of Wylder's assurance that nothing unpleasant should happen to the conscious bearer of such a message to an officer and a gentleman. Jos. Larkin did not like it. Still there was a confidence in his own conciliatory manners and exquisite tact. Something, too, might be learned by noting Lake's looks, demeanour, and language under this direct communication from the man to whom his relations were so mysterious.

Larkin looked at his watch; it was about the hour when he was likely to find Lake in his study. The attorney withdrew the little private enclosure, and slipt it, with a brief endorsement, into the neat sheaf of Wylder's letters, all similarly noted, and so locked it up in the iron safe. He intended being perfectly ingenuous with Lake, and showing him that he had 'no secrets—no concealments—all open as the day'—by producing the letter in which the 'notice' was enclosed, and submitting it for Captain Lake's perusal.

When Lawyer Larkin reached the dim chamber, with the Dutch tapestries, where he had for a little while to await Captain Lake's leisure, he began to anticipate the scene now so immediately impending more uncomfortably than before. The 'notice' was, indeed, so outrageous in its spirit, and so intolerable in its language, that, knowing something of Stanley's wild and truculent temper, he began to feel a little nervous about the explosion he was about to provoke.

The Brandon connection, one way or other, was worth to the attorney in hard cash between five and six hundred a-year. In influence, and what is termed 'position,' it was, of course, worth a great deal more. It would be a very serious blow to lose this. He did not, he hoped, care for money more than a good man ought; but such a loss, he would say, he could not afford.

Precisely the same, however, was to be said of his connection with Mark Wylder; and in fact, of late years, Mr. Jos. Larkin, of the Lodge, had begun to put by money so fast that he was growing rapidly to be a very considerable man indeed. 'Everything,' as he said, 'was doing very nicely;' and it would be a deplorable thing to mar, by any untoward act, this pilgrim's quiet and prosperous progress.

In this stage of his reverie he was interrupted by a tall, powdered footman, in the Brandon livery, who came respectfully to announce that his master desired to see Mr. Larkin.

Larkin's soul sneered at this piece of state. Why could he not put his head in at the door and call him? But still I think it impressed him, and that, diplomatically, Captain Lake was in the right to environ himself with the ceremonial of a lord of Brandon.

'Well, Larkin, how d'ye do? Anything about Raikes's lease?' said the great Captain Lake, rising from behind his desk, with his accustomed smile, and extending his gentlemanlike hand.

'No, Sir—nothing, Captain Lake. He has not come, and I don't think we should show any anxiety about it,' replied the attorney, taking the captain's thin hand rather deferentially. 'I've had—a—such a letter from my—my client, Mr. Mark Wylder. He writes in a violent passion, and I'm really placed in a most disagreeable position.'

'Won't you sit down?'

'A—thanks—a—well I thought, on the whole, having received the letter and the enclosure, which I must say very much surprises me—very much indeed.' And Larkin looked reprovingly on an imaginary Mark Wylder, and shook his head a good deal.

'He has not appointed another man of business?'

'Oh, dear, no,' said Larkin, quickly, with a faint, supercilious smile. 'No, nothing of that kind. The thing—in fact, there has been some gossiping fellow. Do you happen to know a person at all versed in Gylingden matters—or, perhaps, a member of your club—named Smith?'

'Smith? I don't, I think, recollect any particular Smith, just at this moment. And what is Smith doing or saying?'

'Why, he has been talking over election matters. It seems Wylder—Mr. Wylder—has met him in Geneva, from whence he dates; and he says—he says—oh, here's the letter, and you'll see it all there.'

He handed it to Lake, and kept his eye on him while he read it. When he saw that Lake, who bit his lip during the perusal, had come to the end, by his glancing up again at the date, Larkin murmured—

'Something, you see, has gone wrong with him. I can't account for the temper otherwise—so violent.'

'Quite so,' said Lake, quietly; 'and where is the notice he speaks of here?'

'Why, really, Captain Lake, I did not very well know, it is such a production—I could not say whether you would wish it presented; and in any case you will do me the justice to understand that I, for my part—I really don't know how to speak of it.

'Quite so,' repeated Lake, softly, taking the thin, neatly folded piece of paper which Larkin, with a sad inclination of his body, handed to him.

Lake, under the 'lawyer's' small, vigilant eyes, quietly read Mark Wylder's awful threatenings through, twice over, and Larkin was not quite sure whether there was any change of countenance to speak of as he did so.

'This is dated the 29th,' said Lake, in the same quiet tone; 'perhaps you will be so good as to write a line across it, stating the date of your handing it to me.'

'I—of course—I can see no objection. I may mention, I suppose, that I do so at your request.'

And Larkin made a neat little endorsement to that effect, and he felt relieved. The hyaena certainly was not showing fight.

'And now, Mr. Larkin, you'll admit, I think, that I've exhibited no ill-temper, much less violence, under the provocation of that note.'

'Certainly; none whatever, Captain Lake.'

'And you will therefore perceive that whatever I now say, speaking in cool blood, I am not likely to recede from.'

Lawyer Larkin bowed.

'And may I particularly ask that you will so attend to what I am about to say, as to be able to make a note of it for Mr. Welder's consideration?'

'Certainly, if you desire; but I wish to say that in this particular matter I beg it may be clearly understood that Mr. Wylder is in no respect more my client than you, Captain Lake, and that I merely act as a most reluctant messenger in the matter.'

'Just so,' said Captain Lake.

'Now, as to my thinking of representing either county or borough,' he resumed, after a little pause, holding Mark Wylder's 'notice' between his finger and thumb, and glancing at it from time to time, as a speaker might at his notes, 'I am just as well qualified as he in every respect; and if it lies between him and me, I will undoubtedly offer myself, and accompany my address with the publication of this precious document which he calls his notice—the composition, in all respects, of a ruffian—and which will inspire every gentleman who reads it with disgust, abhorrence, and contempt. His threat I don't understand. I despise his machinations. I defy him utterly; and the time is coming when, in spite of his manoeuvring, I'll drive him into a corner and pin him to the wall. He very well knows that flitting and skulking from place to place, like an escaped convict, he is safe in writing what insults he pleases through the post. I can't tell how or where to find him. He is not only no gentleman, but no man—a coward as well as a ruffian. But his game of hide-and-seek cannot go on for ever; and when next I can lay my hand upon him, I'll make him eat that paper on his knees, and place my heel upon his neck.'

The peroration of this peculiar invective was emphasised by an oath, at which the half-dozen short grizzled hairs that surmounted the top of Mr. Jos. Larkin's shining bald head no doubt stood up in silent appeal.

The attorney was standing during this sample of Lake's parliamentary rhetoric a little flushed, for he did not know the moment when a blue flicker from the rhetorical thunder-storm might splinter his own bald head, and for ever end his connection with Brandon.

There was a silence, during which pale Captain Lake locked up Mark Wylder's warning, and the attorney twice cleared his voice.

'I need hardly say, Captain Lake, how I feel in this business. I——'

'Quite so,' said the captain, in his soft low tones. 'I assure you I altogether acquit you of sympathy with any thing so utterly ruffianly,' and he took the hand of the relieved attorney with a friendly condescension. 'The only compensation I exact for your involuntary part in the matter is that you distinctly convey the tenor of my language to Mr. Wylder, on the first occasion on which he affords you an opportunity of communicating with him. And as to my ever again acting as his trustee;—though, yes, I forgot'—he made a sudden pause, and was lost for a minute in annoyed reflection—'yes, I must for a while. It can't last very long; he must return soon, and I can't well refuse to act until at least some other arrangement is made. There are quite other persons and I can't allow them to starve.'

So saying, he rose, with his peculiar smile, and extended his hand to signify that the conference was at an end.

'And I suppose,' he said, 'we are to regard this little conversation, for the present, as confidential?'

'Certainly, Captain Lake, and permit me to say that I fully appreciate the just and liberal construction which you have placed upon my conduct—a construction which a party less candid and honourably-minded than yourself might have failed to favour me with.'

And with this pretty speech Larkin took his hat, and gracefully withdrew.



CHAPTER XLVIII.

IN WHICH I GO TO BRANDON, AND SEE AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE IN THE TAPESTRY ROOM.

To my surprise, a large letter, bearing the Gylingden postmark, and with a seal as large as a florin, showing, had I examined the heraldry, the Brandon arms with the Lake bearings quartered thereon, and proving to be a very earnest invitation from Stanley Lake, found me in London just about this time.

I paused, I was doubtful about accepting it, for the business of the season was just about to commence in earnest, and the country had not yet assumed its charms. But I now know very well that from the first it was quite settled that down I should go. I was too curious to see the bride in her new relations, and to observe something of the conjugal administration of Lake, to allow anything seriously to stand in the way of my proposed trip.

There was a postscript to Lake's letter which might have opened my eyes as to the motives of this pressing invitation, which I pleased myself by thinking, though penned by Captain Lake, came in reality from his beautiful young bride.

This small appendix was thus conceived:—

'P.S.—Tom Wealdon, as usual, deep in elections, under the rose, begs you kindly to bring down whatever you think to be the best book or books on the subject, and he will remit to your bookseller. Order them in his name, but bring them down with you.'

So I was a second time going down to Brandon as honorary counsel, without knowing it. My invitations, I fear, were obtained, if not under false pretences, at least upon false estimates, and the laity rated my legal lore too highly.

I reached Brandon rather late. The bride had retired for the night. I had a very late dinner—in fact a supper—in the parlour. Lake sat with me chatting, rather cleverly, not pleasantly. Wealdon was at Brandon about sessions business, and as usual full of election stratagems and calculations. Stanley volunteered to assure me he had not the faintest idea of looking for a constituency. I really believe—and at this distance of time I may use strong language in a historical sense—that Captain Lake was the greatest liar I ever encountered with. He seemed to do it without a purpose—by instinct, or on principle—and would contradict himself solemnly twice or thrice in a week, without seeming to perceive it. I dare say he lied always, and about everything. But it was in matters of some moment that one perceived it.

What object could he gain, for instance, by the fib he had just told me? On second thoughts this night he coolly apprised me that he had some idea of sounding the electors. So, my meal ended, we went into the tapestry room where, the night being sharp, a pleasant bit of fire burned in the grate, and Wealdon greeted me.

My journey, though by rail, and as easy as that of the Persian gentleman who skimmed the air, seated on a piece of carpet, predisposed me to sleep. Such volumes of fine and various country air, and such an eight hours' procession of all sorts of natural pictures are not traversed without effect. Sitting in my well-stuffed chair, my elbows on the cushioned arms, the conversation of Lake and the Town Clerk now and then grew faint, and their faces faded away, and little 'fyttes' and fragments of those light and pleasant dreams, like fairy tales, which visit such stolen naps, superseded with their picturesque and musical illusions the realities and recollections of life.

Once or twice a nod a little too deep or sudden called me up. But Lake was busy about the Dollington constituency, and the Town Clerk's bluff face was serious and thoughtful. It was the old question about Rogers, the brewer, and whether Lord Adleston and Sir William could not get him; or else it had gone on to the great railway contractor, Dobbs, and the question how many votes his influence was really worth; and, somehow, I never got very far into the pros and cons of these discussions, which soon subsided into the fairy tale I have mentioned, and that sweet perpendicular sleep—all the sweeter, like everything else, for being contraband and irregular.

For one bout—I fancy a good deal longer than the others—my nap was much sounder than before, and I opened my eyes at last with the shudder and half horror that accompany an awakening from a general chill—a dismal and frightened sensation.

I was facing a door about twenty feet distant, which exactly as I opened my eyes, turned slowly on its hinges, and the figure of Uncle Lorne, in his loose flannel habiliments, ineffaceably traced upon my memory, like every other detail of that ill-omened apparition, glided into the room, and crossing the thick carpet with long, soft steps, passed near me, looking upon me with a malign sort of curiosity for some two or three seconds, and sat down by the declining fire, with a side-long glance still fixed upon me.

I continued gazing on this figure with a dreadful incredulity, and the indistinct feeling that it must be an illusion—and that if I could only wake up completely, it would vanish.

The fascination was disturbed by a noise at the other end of the room, and I saw Lake standing close to him, and looking both angry and frightened. Tom Wealdon looking odd, too, was close at his elbow, and had his hand on Lake's arm, like a man who would prevent violence. I do not know in the least what had passed before, but Lake said—

'How the devil did he come in?'

'Hush!'was all that Tom Wealdon said, looking at the gaunt spectre with less of fear than inquisitiveness.

'What are you doing here, Sir?' demanded Lake, in his most unpleasant tones.

'Prophesying,' answered the phantom.

'You had better write your prophecies in your room, Sir—had not you?—and give them to the Archbishop of Canterbury to proclaim, when they are finished; we are busy here just now, and don't require revelations, if you please.'

The old man lifted up his long lean finger, and turned on him with a smile which I hate even to remember.

'Let him alone,' whispered the Town Clerk, in a significant whisper, 'don't cross him, and he'll not stay long.'

'You're here, a scribe,' murmured Uncle Lorne, looking upon Tom Wealdon.

'Aye, Sir, a scribe and a Pharisee, a Sadducee and a publican, and a priest, and a Levite,' said the functionary, with a wink at Lake. 'Thomas Wealdon, Sir; happy to see you, Sir, so well and strong, and likely to enlighten the religious world for many a day to come. It's a long time, Sir, since I had the honour of seeing you; and I'm always, of course, at your command.'

'Pshaw!' said Lake, angrily.

The Town Clerk pressed his arm with a significant side nod and a wink, which seemed to say, 'I understand him; can't you let me manage him?'

The old man did not seem to hear what they said; but his tall figure rose up, and he extended the fingers of his left hand close to the candle for a few seconds, and then held them up to his eyes, gazing on his finger-tips, with a horrified sort of scrutiny, as if he saw signs and portents gathered there, like Thomas Aquinas' angels at the needles' points, and then the same cadaverous grin broke out over his features.

'Mark Wylder is in an evil plight,' said he.

'Is he?' said Lake, with a sly scoff, though he seemed to me a good deal scared. 'We hear no complaints, however, and fancy he must be tolerably comfortable notwithstanding.'

'You know where he is,' said Uncle Lorne.

'Aye, in Italy; everyone knows that,' answered Lake.

'In Italy,' said the old man, reflectively, as if trying to gather up his ideas, 'Italy. Oh! yes, Vallombrosa—aye, Italy, I know it well.'

'So do we, Sir; thank you for the information,' said Lake, who nevertheless appeared strangely uneasy.

'He has had a great tour to make. It is nearly accomplished now; when it is done, he will be like me, humano major. He has seen the places which you are yet to see.'

'Nothing I should like better; particularly Italy,' said Lake.

'Yes,' said Uncle Lorne, lifting up slowly a different finger at each name in his catalogue. 'First, Lucus Mortis; then Terra Tenebrosa; next, Tartarus; after that, Terra Oblivionis; then Herebus; then Barathrum; then Gehenna, and then Stagium Ignis.'

'Of course,' acquiesced Lake, with an ugly sneer, and a mock bow.

'And to think that all the white citizens were once men and women!' murmured Uncle Lorne, with a scowl.

'Quite so,' whispered Lake.

'I know where he is,' resumed the old man, with his finger on his long chin, and looking down upon the carpet.

'It would be very convenient if you would favour us with his address,' said Stanley, with a gracious sneer.

'I know what became of him,' continued the oracle.

'You are more in his confidence than we are,' said Lake.

'Don't be frightened—but he's alive; I think they'll make him mad. It is a frightful plight. Two angels buried him alive in Vallombrosa by night; I saw it, standing among the lotus and hemlock. A negro came to me, a black clergyman with white eyes, and remained beside me; and the angels imprisoned Mark; they put him on duty forty days and forty nights, with his ear to the river listening for voices; and when it was over we blessed them; and the clergyman walked with me a long while, to-and-fro, to-and-fro upon the earth, telling me the wonders of the abyss.'

'And is it from the abyss, Sir, he writes his letters?' enquired the Town Clerk, with a wink at Lake.

'Yes, yes, very diligent; it behoves him; and his hair is always standing straight on his head for fear. But he'll be sent up again, at last, a thousand, a hundred, ten and one, black marble steps, and then it will be the other one's turn. So it was prophesied by the black magician.'

'I thought, Sir, you mentioned just now he was a clergyman,' suggested Mr. Wealdon, who evidently enjoyed this wonderful yarn.

'Clergyman and magician both, and the chief of the lying prophets with thick lips. He'll come here some night and see you,' said Uncle Lorne, looking with a cadaverous apathy on Lake, who was gazing at him in return, with a sinister smile.

'Maybe it was a vision, Sir,' suggested the Town Clerk.

'Yes, Sir; a vision, maybe,' echoed the cavernous tones of the old man; 'but in the flesh or out of the flesh, I saw it.'

'You have had revelations, Sir, I've heard,' said Stanley's mocking voice.

'Many,' said the seer; 'but a prophet is never honoured. We live in solitude and privations—the world hates us—they stone us—they cut us asunder, even when we are dead. Feel me—I'm cold and white all over—I died too soon—I'd have had wings now only for that pistol. I'm as white as Gehazi, except on my head, when that blood comes.'

Saying which, he rose abruptly, and with long jerking steps limped to the door, at which, I saw, in the shade, the face of a dark-featured man, looking gloomily in.

When he reached the door Uncle Lorne suddenly stopped and faced us, with a countenance of wrath and fear, and threw up his arms in an attitude of denunciation, but said nothing. I thought for a moment the gigantic spectre was about to rush upon us in an access of frenzy; but whatever the impulse, it subsided—or was diverted by some new idea; his countenance changed, and he beckoned as if to some one in the corner of the room behind us, and smiled his dreadful smile, and so left the apartment.

'That d—d old madman is madder than ever,' said Lake, in his fellest tones, looking steadfastly with his peculiar gaze upon the closed door. 'Jermyn is with him, but he'll burn the house or murder some one yet. It's all d—d nonsense keeping him here—did you see him at the door?—he was on the point of assailing some of us. He ought to be in a madhouse.'

'He used to be very quiet,' said the Town Clerk, who knew all about him.

'Oh! very quiet—yes, of course, very quiet, and quite harmless to people who don't live in the house with him, and see him but once in half-a-dozen years; but you can't persuade me it is quite so pleasant for those who happen to live under the same roof, and are liable to be intruded upon as we have been to-night every hour of their existence.'

'Well, certainly it is not pleasant, especially for ladies,' admitted the Town Clerk.

'No, not pleasant—and I've quite made up my mind it sha'n't go on. It is too absurd, really, that such a monstrous thing should be enforced; I'll get a private Act, next Session, and regulate those absurd conditions in the will. The old fellow ought to be under restraint; and I rather think it would be better for himself that he were.'

'Who is he?' I asked, speaking for the first time.

'I thought you had seen him before now,' said Lake.

'So I have, but quite alone, and without ever learning who he was,' I answered.

'Oh! He is the gentleman, Julius, for whom in the will, under which we take, those very odd provisions are made—such as I believe no one but a Wylder or a Brandon would have dreamed of. It is an odd state of things to hold one's estate under condition of letting a madman wander about your house and place, making everybody in it uncomfortable and insecure and exposing him to the imminent risk of making away with himself, either by accident or design. I happen to know what Mark Wylder would have done—for he spoke very fiercely on the subject—perhaps he consulted you?'

'No.'

'No? well, he intended locking him quietly into the suite of three apartments, you know, at the far end of the old gallery, and giving him full command of the mulberry garden by the little private stair, and putting a good iron door to it; so that "my beloved brother, Julius, at present afflicted in mind" (Lake quoted the words of the will, with an unpleasant sneer), should have had his apartments and his pleasure grounds quite to himself.'

'And would that arrangement of Mr. Wylder's have satisfied the conditions of the will?' said the Town Clerk.

'I rather think, with proper precautions, it would. Mark Wylder was very shrewd, and would not have run himself into a fix,' answered Lake. 'I don't know any man shrewder; he is, certainly.'

And Lake looked at us, as he added these last words, in turn, with a quick, suspicious glance, as if he had said something rash, and doubted whether we had observed it.

After a little more talk, Lake and the Town Clerk resumed their electioneering conference, and the lists of electors were passed under their scrutiny, name by name, like slides under the miscroscope.

There is a great deal in nature, physical and moral, that had as well not be ascertained. It is better to take things on trust, with something of distance and indistinctness. What we gain in knowledge by scrutiny is sometimes paid for in a ghastly sort of disgust. It is marvellous in a small constituency of 300 average souls, what a queer moral result one of these business-like and narrow investigations which precede an election will furnish. How you find them rated and classified—what odd notes you make to them in the margin; and after the trenchant and rapid vivisection, what sinister scars and seams remain, and how gaunt and repulsive old acquaintances stand up from it.

The Town Clerk knew the constituency of Dollington at his fingers' ends; and Stanley Lake quietly enjoyed, as certain minds will, the nefarious and shabby metamorphosis which every now and then some familiar and respectable burgess underwent, in the spell of half-a-dozen dry sentences whispered in his ear; and all this minute information is trustworthy and quite without malice.

I went to my bed-room, and secured the door, lest Uncle Lorne, or Julius, should make me another midnight visit. So that mystery was cleared up. Neither ghost nor spectral illusion, but flesh and blood—though in my mind there has always been a horror of a madman akin to the ghostly or demoniac.

I do not know how late Tom Wealdon and Stanley Lake sat up over their lists; but I dare say they were in no hurry to leave them, for a dissolution was just then expected, and no time was to be lost.

When I saw Tom Wealdon alone next day in the street of Gylingden, he walked a little way with me, and, said Tom, with a grave wink—

'Don't let the captain up there be hard on the poor old gentleman. He's quite harmless—he would not hurt a fly. I know all about him; for Jack Ford and I spent five weeks in the Hall, about twelve years ago, when the family were away and thought the keeper was not kind to him. He's quite gentle, and sometimes he'd make you die o' laughing. He fancies, you know, he's a prophet; and says he's that old Sir Lorne Brandon that shot himself in his bed-room. Well, he is a rum one; and we used to draw him out—poor Jack and me. I never laughed so much, I don't think, in the same time, before or since. But he's as innocent as a child—and you know them directions in the will is very strong; and they say Jos. Larkin does not like the captain a bit too well—and he has the will off, every word of it; and I think, if Captain Lake does not take care, he may get into trouble; and maybe it would not be amiss if you gave him a hint.'

Tom Wealdon, indeed, was a good-natured fellow: and if he had had his way, I think the world would have gone smoothly enough with most people.



CHAPTER XLIX.

LARCOM, THE BUTLER, VISITS THE ATTORNEY.

Now I may as well mention here an occurrence which, seeming very insignificant, has yet a bearing upon the current of this tale, and it is this. About four days after the receipt of the despatches to which the conference of Captain Lake and the attorney referred, there came a letter from the same prolific correspondent, dated 20th March, from Genoa, which altogether puzzled Mr. Larkin. It commenced thus:—

'Genoa: 20th march.

'DEAR LARKIN,—I hope you did the three commissions all right. Wealdon won't refuse, I reckon—but don't let Lake guess what the 150l. is for. Pay Martin for the job when finished; it is under 60l.. mind; and get it looked at first.'

There was a great deal more, but these were the passages which perplexed Larkin. He unlocked the iron safe, and took out the sheaf of Wylder's letters, and conned the last one over very carefully.

'Why,' said he, holding the text before his eyes in one hand and with the fingers of the other touching the top of his bald forehead, 'Tom Wealdon is not once mentioned in this, nor in any of them; and this palpably refers to some direction. And 150l.?—no such sum has been mentioned. And what is this job of Martin's? Is it Martin of the China Kilns, or Martin of the bank? That, too, plainly refers to a former letter—not a word of the sort. This is very odd indeed.'

Larkin's finger-tips descended over his eyebrow, and scratched in a miniature way there for a few seconds, and then his large long hand descended further to his chin, and his under-lip was, as usual in deep thought, fondled and pinched between his finger and thumb.

'There has plainly been a letter lost, manifestly. I never knew anything wrong in this Gylingden office. Driver has been always correct; but it is hard to know any man for certain in this world. I don't think the captain would venture anything so awfully hazardous. I really can't suspect so monstrous a thing; but, unquestionably, a letter has been lost—and who's to take it?'

Larkin made a fuller endorsement than usual on this particular letter, and ruminated over the correspondence a good while, with his lip between his finger and thumb, and a shadow on his face, before he replaced it in its iron drawer.

'It is not a thing to be passed over,' murmured the attorney, who had come to a decision as to the first step to be taken, and he thought with a qualm of the effect of one of Wylder's confidential notes getting into Captain Lake's hands.

While he was buttoning his walking boots, with his foot on the chair before the fire, a tap at his study door surprised him. A hurried glance on the table satisfying him that no secret paper or despatch lay there, he called—

'Come in.'

And Mr. Larcom, the grave butler of Brandon, wearing outside his portly person a black garment then known as a 'zephyr,' a white choker, and black trousers, and well polished, but rather splay shoes, and, on the whole, his fat and serious aspect considered, being capable of being mistaken for a church dignitary, or at least for an eminent undertaker, entered the room with a solemn and gentlemanlike reverence.

'Oh, Mr. Larcom! a message, or business?' said Mr. Larkin, urbanely.

'Not a message, Sir; only an enquiry about them few shares,' answered Mr. Larcom, with another serene reverence, and remaining standing, hat in hand, at the door.

'Oh, yes; and how do you do, Mr. Larcom? Quite well, I trust. Yes—about the Naunton Junction. Well, I'm happy to tell you—but pray take a chair—that I have succeeded, and the directors have allotted you five shares; and it's your own fault if you don't make two ten-and-six a share. The Chowsleys are up to six and a-half, I see here,' and he pointed to the 'Times.' Mr. Larcom's fat face smiled, in spite of his endeavour to keep it under. It was part of his business to look always grave, and he coughed, and recovered his gravity.

'I'm very thankful, Sir,' said Mr. Larcom, 'very.'

'But do sit down, Mr. Larcom—pray do,' said the attorney, who was very gracious to Larcom. 'You'll get the scrip, you know, on executing, but the shares are allotted. They sent the notice for you here. And—and how are the family at Brandon—all well, I trust?'

Mr. Larcom blew his nose.

'All, Sir, well.'

'And—and let me give you a glass of sherry, Mr. Larcom, after your walk. I can't compete with the Brandon sherry, Mr. Larcom. Wonderful fine wine that!—but still I'm told this is not a bad wine notwithstanding.'

Larcom received it with grave gratitude, and sipped it, and spoke respectfully of it.

'And—and any news in that quarter of Mr. Mark Wylder—any—any surmise? I—you know—I'm interested for all parties.'

'Well, Sir, of Mr. Wylder, I can't say as I know no more than he's been a subjek of much unpleasant feelin', which I should say there has been a great deal of angry talk since I last saw you, Sir, between Miss Lake and the capting.'

'Ah, yes, you mentioned something of the kind; and your own impression, that Captain Lake, which I trust may turn out to be so, knows where Mr. Mark Wylder is at present staying.'

'I much misdoubt, Sir, it won't turn out to be no good story for no one,' said Mr. Larcom, in a low and sad tone, and with a long shake of his head.

'No good story—hey? How do you mean, Larcom?'

'Well, Sir, I know you won't mention me, Mr. Larkin.'

'Certainly not—go on.'

'When people gets hot a-talking they won't mind a body comin' in; and that's how the capting and Miss Rachel Lake they carried on their dispute like, though me coming into the room.'

'Just so; and what do you found your opinion about Mr. Mark Wylder on?'

'Well, Sir, I could not hear more than a word now and a sentince again; and pickin' what meaning I could out of what Miss Lake said, and the capting could not deny, I do suspeck, Sir, most serious, as how they have put Mr. Mark Wylder into a mad-house; and that's how I think it's gone with him; an' you'll never see him out again if the capting has his will.'

'Do you mean to say you actually think he's shut up in a madhouse at this moment?' demanded the attorney; his little pink eyes opened quite round, and his lank cheeks and tall forehead flushed, at the rush of wild ideas that whirred round him, like a covey of birds at the startling suggestion.

The butler nodded gloomily. Larkin continued to stare on him in silence, with his round eyes, for some seconds after.

'In a mad-house! Pooh, pooh! incredible! Pooh! impossible—quite impossible. Did either Miss Lake or the captain use the word mad-house?'

'Well, no.'

Or any other word—lunatic asylum, or a—bedlam, or—or any other word meaning the same thing?'

'Well, I can't say, Sir, as I remember; but I rayther think not. I only know for certain, I took it so; and I do believe as how Mr. Mark Wylder is confined in a mad-house, and the captain knows all about it, and won't do nothing to get him out.'

'H'm—very odd—very strange; but it is only from the general tenor of what passed, by a sort of guess work, you have arrived at that conclusion?'

Larcom assented.

'Well, Mr. Larcom, I think you have been led into an erroneous conclusion. Indeed, I may mention I have reason to think so—in fact, to know that such is the case. What you mention to me, you know, as a friend of the family, and holding, as I do, a confidential position—in fact, a very confidential one—alike in relation to Mr. Wylder and to the family of Brandon Hall, is of course sacred; and anything that comes from you, Mr. Larcom, is never heard in connection with your name beyond these walls. And let me add, it strikes me as highly important, both in the interests of the leading individuals in this unpleasant business, and also as pertaining to your own comfort and security, that you should carefully avoid communicating what you have just mentioned to any other party. You understand?'

Larcom did understand perfectly, and so this little visit ended.

Mr. Larkin took a turn or two up and down the room thinking. He stopped, with his fingertips to his eyebrow, and thought more. Then he took another turn, and stopped again, and threw back his head, and gazed for a while on the ceiling, and then he stood for a time at the window, with his lip between his finger and thumb.

No, it was a mistake; it could not be. It was Mark Wylder's penmanship—he could swear to it. There was no trace of madness in his letters, nor of restraint. It was not possible even that he was wandering from place to place under the coercion of a couple of keepers. No; Wylder was an energetic and somewhat violent person, with high animal courage, and would be sure to blow up and break through any such machination. No, no; with Mark Wylder it was quite out of the question—altogether visionary and impracticable. Persons like Larcom do make such absurd blunders, and so misapprehend the conversation of educated people.

Nothwithstanding all which, there remained in his mind an image of Mark Wylder, in the straw and darkness of a solitary continental mad-house—squalid, neglected, and becoming gradually that which he was said to be. And he always shaped him somehow after the outlines of a grizzly print he remembered in his boyish days, of a maniac chained in a Sicilian cell, grovelling under the lash of a half-seen gaoler, and with his teeth buried in his own arm.

Quite impossible! Mark Wylder was the last man in the world to submit to physical coercion. The idea, besides, could not be reconciled with the facts of the case. It was all a blundering chimera.

Mr. Larkin walked down direct to Gylingden, and paid a rather awful visit to Mr. Driver, of the post-office. A foreign letter, addressed to him, had most positively been lost. He had called to mention the circumstance, lest Mr. Driver should be taken by surprise by official investigation. Was it possible that the letter had been sent by mistake to Brandon—to Captain Lake? Lake and Larkin, you know, might be mistaken. At all events, it would be well to make your clerks recollect themselves. (Mr. Larkin knew that Driver's 'clerks' were his daughters.) It is not easy to meet with a young fellow that is quite honest. But if they knew that they would be subjected to a sifting examination on oath, on the arrival of the commissioner, they might possibly prefer finding the letter, in which case there would be no more about it. Mr. Driver knew him (Mr. Larkin), and he might tell his young men if they got the letter for him they should hear no more of it.

The people of Gylingden knew very well that, when the rat-like glitter twinkled in Mr. Larkin's eyes, and the shadow came over his long face, there was mischief brewing.



CHAPTER L.

NEW LIGHTS.

A few days later 'Jos. Larkin, Esq., The Lodge, Gylingden,' received from London a printed form, duly filled in, and with the official signature attached, informing him that enquiry having been instituted in consequence of his letter, no result had been obtained.

The hiatus in his correspondence caused Mr. Larkin extreme uneasiness. He had a profound distrust of Captain Lake. In fact, he thought him capable of everything. And if there should turn out to be anything not quite straight going on at the post-office of Gylingden—hitherto an unimpeached institution—he had no doubt whatsoever that that dark and sinuous spirit was at the bottom of it.

Still it was too prodigious, and too hazardous to be probable; but the captain had no sort of principle, and a desperately strong head. There was not, indeed, when they met yesterday, the least change or consciousness in the captain's manner. That, in another man, would have indicated something; but Stanley Lake was so deep—such a mask—in him it meant nothing.

Mr. Larkin's next step was to apply for a commissioner to come down and investigate. But before he had time to take this step, an occurrence took place to arrest his proceedings. It was the receipt of a foreign letter, of which the following is an exact copy:—

'VENICE: March 28.

'DEAR LARKIN,—I read a rumour of a dissolution during the recess. Keep a bright look out. Here's three things for you:—

'1. Try and get Tom Wealdon. He is a sina que non. [Mark's Latin was sailor-like.]

'2. Cash the enclosed order for 150l. more, for the same stake.

'3. Tell Martin the tiles I saw in August last will answer for the cow-house; and let him put them down at once.

'In haste,

'Yours truly,

'M. WYLDER.'

Enclosed was an order on Lake for 150l.

When Larkin got this he was in his study.

'Why—why—this—positively this is the letter. How's this?'

And Mr. Larkin looked as much scared and astonished as if a spirit rose up before him.

'This is the letter—aye, this is the letter.'

He repeated this from time to time as he turned it over and looked at the postmark, and back again at the letter, and looked up at the date, and down at the signature, and read the note through.

'Yes, this is it—here it is—this is it. There's no doubt whatever—this is the letter referred to in the last—Wealdon, Martin, and the 150l.'

And the attorney took out his keys, looking pale and stern, like a man about to open the door upon a horror, and unlocked his safe, and took out the oft-consulted and familiar series—letters tied up and bearing the label, 'Mark Wylder, Esq.'

'Aye, here it is, Genoa, 20th, and this, Venice, 28th. Yes, the postmarks correspond; yet the letter from Genoa, dated 20th, refers back to the letter from Venice, written eight days later! the— Well—I can't comprehend—how in the name of—how in the name——'

He placed the two letters on his desk, and read them over, and up and down, and pondered darkly over them.

'It is Mark Wylder's writing—I'll swear to it. What on earth can he mean? He can't possibly want to confuse us upon dates, as well as places, because that would simply render his letters, for purposes of business, nugatory, and there are many things he wishes attended to.'

Jos. Larkin rose from his desk, ruminating, and went to the window, and placed the letter against the pane. I don't think he had any definite motive in doing this, but something struck him that he had not remarked before.

There was something different in the quality of the ink that wrote the number of the date, 28th, from that used in the rest of the letter.

'What can that mean?' muttered Larkin, with a sort of gasp at his discovery; and shading his eyes with his hand, he scrutinised the numerals—'28th,' again;—'a totally different ink!

He took the previous letter, frowned on it fiercely from his rat-like eyes, and then with an ejaculation, as like an oath as so good a man could utter, he exclaimed,

'I have it!'

Then came a pause, and he said—

'Both alike!—blanks left when the letters were written, and the dates filled in afterward—not the same hand I think—no, not the same—positively a different hand.'

Then Jos. Larkin examined these mysterious epistles once more.

'There may be something in what Larcom said—a very great deal, possibly. If he was shut up somewhere they could make him write a set of these letters off at a sitting, and send them from place to place to be posted, to make us think he was travelling, and prevent our finding where they keep him. Here it is plain there was a slip in posting the wrong one first.'

Trepanned, kidnapped, hid away in the crypts of some remote mad-house—reduced to submission by privation and misery—a case as desperate as that of a prisoner in the Inquisition. What could be the motive for this elaborate and hideous fraud? Would it not be a more convenient course, as well as more merciful to put him to death? The crime would hardly be greater. Why should he be retained in that ghastly existence?

Well, if Stanley Lake were at the bottom of this horrid conspiracy, he certainly had a motive in clearing the field of his rival. And then—for the attorney had all the family settlements present to his mind—there was this clear motive for prolonging his life, that by the slip in the will under which Dorcas Brandon inherited, the bulk of her estate would terminate with the life of Mark Wylder; and this other motive too existed for retaining him in the house of bondage, that by preventing his marriage, and his having a family to succeed him, the reversion of his brother William was reduced to a certainty, and would become a magnificent investment for Stanley Lake whenever he might choose to purchase. Upon that purchase, however, the good attorney had cast his eye. He thought he now began to discern the outlines of a gigantic and symmetrical villainy emerging through the fog. If this theory were right, William Wylder's reversion was certain to take effect; and it was exasperating that the native craft and daring of this inexperienced captain should forestall so accomplished a man of business as Jos. Larkin.

The attorney began to hate Stanley Lake as none but a man of that stamp can hate the person who mars a scheme of aggrandisement. But what was he to do exactly? If the captain had his eye on the reversion, it would require nice navigation to carry his plan successfully through.

On the other hand, it was quite possible that Wylder was a free agent, and yet, for purposes of secrecy, employing another person to post his letters at various continental towns; and this blunder might just as well have happened in this case, as in any other that supposed the same machinery.

On the whole, then, it was a difficult question. But there were Larcom's conclusions about the mad-house to throw into the balance. And though, as respected Mark Wylder, they were grisly, the attorney would not have been sorry to be quite sure that they were sound. What he most needed were ascertained data. With these his opportunities were immense.

Mr. Larkin eyed the Wylder correspondence now with a sort of reverence that was new to him. There was something supernatural and talismanic in the mystery. The sheaf of letters lay before him on the table, like Cornelius Agrippa's 'bloody book'—a thing to conjure with. What prodigies might it not accomplish for its happy possessor, if only he could read it aright, and command the spirits which its spells might call up before him? Yes, it was a stupendous secret. Who knew to what it might conduct? There was a shade of guilt in his tamperings with it, akin to the black art, which he felt without acknowledging. This little parcel of letters was, in its evil way, a holy thing. While it lay on the table, the room became the holy of holies in his dark religion; and the lank attorney, with tall bald head, shaded face, and hungry dangerous eyes, a priest or a magician.

The attorney quietly bolted his study door, and stood erect, with his hands in his pockets, looking sternly down on the letters. Then he took a little gazetteer off a tiny shelf near the bell-rope, where was a railway guide, an English dictionary, a French ditto, and a Bible, and with his sharp penknife he deftly sliced from its place in the work of reference the folded map of Europe.

It was destined to illustrate the correspondence, and Larkin sat down before it and surveyed, with a solemn stare, the wide scene of Mark Wylder's operations, as a general would the theatre of his rival's strategy.

Referring to the letters as he proceeded, with a sharp pen in red ink, he made his natty little note upon each town or capital in succession, from which Wylder had dated a despatch. Boulogne, for instance, a neat little red cross over the town, and beneath, '12th October, 1854;' Brighton, ditto, '20th October, 1854;' Paris, ditto, '17th November, 1854;' Marseilles, ditto, '26th November, 1854;' Frankfurt, ditto, '22nd February, 1855;' Geneva, ditto, '10th March, 1855;' Genoa, ditto, '20th March, 1855;' Venice, ditto, '28th March, 1855.'

I may here mention that in the preceding notation I have marked the days and months exactly, but the years fancifully.

I don't think that Mr. Larkin had read the 'Wandering Jew.' He had no great taste for works of fancy. If he had he might have been reminded, as he looked down upon the wild field of tactics just noted by his pen, of that globe similarly starred all over with little red crosses, which M. Rodin was wont to consult.

Now he was going into this business as he did into others, methodically. He, therefore, read what his gazetteer had to say about these towns and cities, standing, for better light, at the window. But though, the type being small, his eyes were more pink than before, he was nothing wiser, the information being of that niggardly historical and statistical kind which availed nothing in his present scrutiny. He would get Murray's handbooks, and all sorts of works—he was determined to read it up. He was going into this as into a great speculative case, in which he had a heavy stake, with all his activity, craft, and unscrupulousness. It might be the making of him.

His treasure—his oracle—his book of power, the labelled parcel of Wylder's letters, with the annotated map folded beside them—he replaced in their red-taped ligature in his iron safe, and with Chubb's key in his pocket, took his hat and cane—the day was fine—and walked forth for Brandon and the captain's study.

A pleasant day, a light air, a frosty sun. On the green the vicar, with his pretty boy by the hand, passed him, not a hundred yards off, like a ship at sea. There was a waving of hands, and smiles, and a shouted 'beautiful day.'

'What a position that poor fellow has got himself into!' good Mr. Larkin thought, with a shrug of compassion, to himself. 'That reversion! Why it's nothing—I really don't know why I think about it at all. If it were offered me this moment, positively I would not have it. Anything certain—any thing would be better.'

Little Fairy grew grave, in spite of the attorney's smiles, whenever he saw him. He was now saying—as holding his 'Wapsie's' hand, he capered round in front, looking up in his face—

'Why has Mr. Larkin no teeth when he laughs? Is he ever angry when he laughs—is he, Wapsie—oh, Wapsie, is he? Would you let him whip me, if I was naughty? I don't like him. Why does mamma say he is a good man, Wapsie?'

'Because, little man, he is a good man,' said the vicar, recalled by the impiety of the question. 'The best friend that Wapsie ever met with in his life.'

'But you would not give me to him, Wapsie?'

'Give you, darling! no—to no one but to God, my little man; for richer, for poorer, you're my own—your Wapsie's little man.'

And he lifted him up, and carried him in his arms against his loving heart, and the water stood in his eyes, as he laughed fondly into that pretty face.

But 'little man' by this time was struggling to get down and give chase to a crow grubbing near them for dainties, with a muddy beak, and 'Wapsie's' eyes followed, smiling, the wild vagaries of his little Fairy.

In the mean time Mr. Larkin had got among the noble trees of Brandon, and was approaching the lordly front of the Hall. His mind was busy. He had not very much fact to go upon. His theories were built chiefly of vapour, and every changing light or breath, therefore, altered their colouring and outlines.

'Maybe Mark Wylder is mad, and wandering in charge of a keeper; maybe he is in some mad doctor's house, and not mad; maybe in England, and there writes these letters which are sent from one continental town to another to be posted, and thus the appearance of locomotion is kept up. Perhaps he has been inveigled into the hands of ruffians, and is living as it were under the vault of an Inquisition, and compelled to write what ever his gaolers dictate. Maybe he writes not under physical but moral coercion. Be the fact how it may, those Lakes, brother and sister, have a guilty knowledge of the affair.

'I will be firm—it is my duty to clear this matter up, if I can—we must do as we would be done by.'



CHAPTER LI.

A FRACAS IN THE LIBRARY.

It was still early in the day. Larcom received him gravely in the hall. Captain Lake was at home, as usual, up to one o'clock in the library—the most diligent administrator that Brandon had perhaps ever known.

'Well, Larkin—letters, letters perpetually, you see. Quite well, I hope? Won't you sit down—no bad news? You look rather melancholy. Your other client is not ill—nothing sad about Mark Wylder, I hope?'

'No—nothing sad, Captain Lake—nothing—but a good deal that is strange.'

'Oh, is there?' said Lake, in his soft tones, leaning forward in his easy chair, and looking on the shining points of his boots.

'I have found out a thing, Captain Lake, which will no doubt interest you as much as it does me. It will lead, I think, to a much more exact guess about Mr. Mark Wylder.'

There was a sturdy emphasis in the attorney's speech which was far from usual, and indicated something.

'Oh! you have? May one hear it?' said Lake, in the same silken tone, and looking down, as before, on his boots.

'I've discovered something about his letters,' said the attorney, and paused.

'Satisfactory, I hope?' said Lake as before.

'Foul play, Sir.'

'Foul play—is there? What is he doing now?' said Lake in the same languid way, his elbows on the arms of his chair, stooping forward, and looking serenely on the floor, like a man who is tired of his work, and enjoys his respite.

'Why, Captain Lake, the matter is this—it amounts, in fact, to fraud. It is plain that the letters are written in batches—several at a time—and committed to some one to carry from town to town, and post, having previously filled in dates to make them correspond with the exact period of posting them.'

The attorney's searching gaze was fixed on the captain, as he said this, with all the significance consistent with civility; but he could not observe the slightest indication of change. I dare say the captain felt his gaze upon him, and he undoubtedly heard his emphasis, but he plainly did not take either to himself.

'Indeed! that is very odd,' said Captain Lake.

'Very odd;' echoed the attorney.

It struck Mr. Larkin that his gallant friend was a little overacting, and showing perhaps less interest in the discovery than was strictly natural.

'But how can you show it?' said Lake with a slight yawn. 'Wylder is such a fellow. I don't the least pretend to understand him. It may be a freak of his.'

'I don't think, Captain Lake, that is exactly a possible solution here. I don't think, Sir, he would write two letters, one referring back to the other, at the same time, and post and date the latter more than a week before the other.'

'Oh!' said Lake, quietly, for the first time exhibiting a slight change of countenance, and looking peevish and excited; yes, that certainly does look very oddly.'

'And I think, Captain Lake, it behoves us to leave no stone unturned to sift this matter to the bottom.'

'With what particular purpose, I don't quite see,' said Lake. 'Don't you think possibly Mark Wylder might think us very impertinent?'

'I think, Captain Lake, on the contrary, we might be doing that gentleman the only service he is capable of receiving, and I know we should be doing something toward tracing and exposing the machinations of a conspiracy.'

'A conspiracy! I did not quite see your meaning. Then, you really think there is a conspiracy—formed by him or against him, which?'

'Against him, Captain Lake. Did the same idea never strike you?'

'Not, I think, that I can recollect.'

'In none of your conversations upon the subject with—with members of your family?' continued the attorney with a grave significance.

'I say, Sir, I don't recollect,' said Lake, glaring for an instant in his face very savagely. 'And it seems to me, that sitting here, you fancy yourself examining some vagrant or poacher at Gylingden sessions. And pray, Sir, have you no evidence in the letters you speak of but the insertion of dates, and the posting them in inverse order, to lead you to that strong conclusion?'

'None, as supplied by the letters themselves,' answered Larkin, a little doggedly, 'and I venture to think that is rather strong.'

'Quite so, to a mind like yours,' said Lake, with a faint gleam of his unpleasant smile thrown upon the floor, 'but other men don't see it; and I hope, at all events, there's a likelihood that Mark Wylder will soon return and look after his own business—I'm quite tired of it, and of' (he was going to say you)—'of everything connected with it.'

'This delay is attended with more serious mischief. The vicar, his brother, had a promise of money from him, and is disappointed—in very great embarrassments; and, in fact, were it not for some temporary assistance, which I may mention—although I don't speak of such things—I afforded him myself, he must have been ruined.'

'It is very sad,' said Lake; 'but he ought not to have married without an income.'

'Very true, Captain Lake—there's no defending that—it was wrong, but the retribution is terrible,' and the righteous man shook his tall head.

'Don't you think he might take steps to relieve himself considerably?'

'I don't see it, Captain Lake,' said the attorney, sadly and drily.

'Well, you know best; but are not there resources?'

'I don't see, Captain Lake, what you point at.'

'I'll give him something for his reversion, if he chooses, and make him comfortable for his life.'

The attorney, somehow, didn't seem to take kindly to this proposition. We know he had imagined for himself some little flirtation on this behalf, and cherished a secret tendre for the same reversion. Perhaps he had other plans, too. At all events it flashed the same suspicion of Lake upon his mind again; and he said—

'I don't know, Sir, that the Reverend Mr. Wylder would entertain anything in the nature of a sale of his reversion. I rather think the contrary. I don't think his friends would advise it.'

'And why not? It was never more than a contingency; and now they say Mark Wylder is married, and has children; they tell me he was seen at Ancona?' said Lake tranquilly.

'They tell you! who are they?' said the attorney, and his dove's eyes were gone again, and the rat's eyes unequivocally looking out of the small pink lids.

'They—they,' repeated Captain Lake. 'Why, of course, Sir, I use the word in its usual sense—that is, there was a rumour when I was last in town, and I really forget who told me. Some one, two, or three, perhaps.'

'Do you think it's true, Sir?' persisted Mr. Larkin.

'No, Sir, I don't,' said Captain Lake, fixing his eyes for a moment with a frank stare on the attorney's face; 'but it is quite possible it may be true.'

'If it is, you know, Sir,' said Jos. Larkin, 'the reversion would be a bad purchase at a halfpenny. I don't believe it either, Sir,' resumed the attorney, after a little interval; 'and I could not advise the party you named, Sir, to sell his remainder for a song.'

'You'll advise as you please, Sir, and no doubt not without sufficient reason,' retorted Captain Lake.

There was a suspicion of a sneer—not in his countenance, not in his tone, not necessarily in his words—but somehow a suspicion, which stung the attorney like a certainty, and a pinkish flush tinged his forehead.

Perhaps Mr. Larkin had not yet formed any distinct plans, and was really in considerable dubitation. But as we know, perceiving that the situation of affairs, like all uncertain conjunctures, offered manifestly an opportunity for speculation, he was, perhaps, desirous, like our old friend, Sindbad, of that gleam of light which might show him the gold and precious stones with which the floor of the catacomb was strewn.

'You see, Captain Lake, to speak quite frankly—there's nothing like being perfectly frank and open—although you have not treated me with confidence, which, of course, was not called for in this particular instance—I may as well say, in passing, that I have no doubt on my mind you know a great deal more than you care to tell about the fate of Mr. Mark Wylder. I look upon it, Sir, that that party has been made away with.'

'Old villain!' exclaimed Lake, starting up, with a sudden access of energy, and his face looked whiter still than usual—perhaps it was only the light.

'It won't do, Sir,' said Larkin, with a sinister quietude. 'I say there's been foul play. I think, Sir, you've got him into some foreign mad-house, or place of confinement, and I won't stop till it's sifted to the bottom. It is my duty, Sir.'

Captain Lake's slender hand sprang on the attorney's collar, coat and waistcoat together, and his knuckles, hard and sharp, were screwed against Mr. Larkin's jaw-bone, as he shook him, and his face was like a drift of snow, with two yellow fires glaring in it.

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