It was ferine and spectral, and so tremendously violent, that the long attorney, expecting nothing of the sort, was thrown out of his balance against the chimneypiece.
'You d—d old miscreant! I'll pitch you out of the window.'
'I—I say, let go. You're mad, Sir,' said the attorney, disengaging himself with a sudden and violent effort, and standing, with the back of a tall chair grasped in both hands, and the seat interposed between himself and Captain Lake. He was twisting his neck uncomfortably in his shirt collar, and for some seconds was more agitated, in a different way, than his patron was.
The fact was, that Mr. Larkin had a little mistaken his man. He had never happened before to see him in one of his violent moods, and fancied that his apathetic manner indicated a person more easily bullied. There was something, too, in the tone and look of Captain Lake which went a good way to confound and perplex his suspicions, and he half fancied that the masterstroke he had hazarded was a rank and irreparable blunder. Something of this, I am sure, appeared in his countenance, and Captain Lake looked awfully savage, and each gentleman stared the other full in the face, with more frankness than became two such diplomatists.
'Allow me to speak a word, Captain Lake.'
'You d—d old miscreant!' repeated the candescent captain.
'Allow me to say, you misapprehend.'
'You infernal old cur!'
'I mean no imputation upon you, Sir. I thought you might have committed a mistake—any man may; perhaps you have. I have acted, Captain Lake, with fidelity in all respects to you, and to every client for whom I've been concerned. Mr. Wylder is my client, and I was bound to say I was not satisfied about his present position, which seems to me unaccountable, except on the supposition that he is under restraint of some sort. I never said you were to blame; but you may be in error respecting Mr. Wylder. You may have taken steps, Captain Lake, under a mistake. I never went further than that. On reflection, you'll say so. I didn't upon my honour.'
'Then you did not mean to insult me, Sir,' said Lake.
'Upon my honour, and conscience, and soul, Captain Lake,' said the attorney, stringing together, in his vindication, all the articles he was assumed most to respect, 'I am perfectly frank, I do assure you. I never supposed for an instant more than I say. I could not imagine—I am amazed you have so taken it.'
'But you think I exercise some control or coercion over my cousin, Mr. Mark Wylder. He's not a man, I can tell you, wherever he is, to be bullied, no more than I am. I don't correspond with him. I have nothing to do with him or his affairs; I wash my hands of him.'
Captain Lake turned and walked quickly to the door, but came back as suddenly.
'Shake hands, Sir. We'll forget it. I accept what you say; but don't talk that way to me again. I can't imagine what the devil put such stuff in your head. I don't care twopence. No one's to blame but Wylder himself. I say I don't care a farthing. Upon my honour, I quite see—I now acquit you. You could not mean what you seemed to say; and I can't understand how a sensible man like you, knowing Mark Wylder, and knowing me, Sir, could use such—such ambiguous language. I have no more influence with him, and can no more affect his doings, or what you call his fate—and, to say the truth, care about them no more than the child unborn. He's his own master, of course. What the devil can you have been dreaming of. I don't even get a letter from him. He's nothing to me.'
'You have misunderstood me; but that's over, Sir. I may have spoken with warmth, fearing that you might be acting under some cruel misapprehension—that's all; and you don't think worse of me, I'm very sure, Captain Lake, for a little indiscreet zeal on behalf of a gentleman who has treated me with such unlimited confidence as Mr. Wylder. I'd do the same for you, Sir; it's my character.'
The two gentlemen, you perceive, though still agitated, were becoming reasonable, and more or less complimentary and conciliatory; and the masks which an electric gust had displaced for a moment, revealing gross and somewhat repulsive features, were being readjusted, while each looked over his shoulder.
I am sorry to say that when that good man, Mr. Larkin, left his presence, Captain Lake indulged in a perfectly blasphemous monologue. His fury was excited to a pitch that was very nearly ungovernable; and after it had exhibited itself in the way I have said, Captain Lake opened a little despatch-box, and took therefrom a foreign letter, but three days received. He read it through: his ill-omened smile expanded to a grin that was undisguisedly diabolical. With a scissors he clipt his own name where it occurred from the thin sheet, and then, in red ink and Roman capitals, he scrawled a line or two across the interior of the letter, enclosed it in an envelope, directed it, and then rang the bell.
He ordered the tax-cart and two horses to drive tandem. The captain was rather a good whip, and he drove at a great pace to Dollington, took the train on to Charteris, there posted his letter, and so returned; his temper continuing savage all that evening, and in a modified degree in the same state for several days after.
AN OLD FRIEND LOOKS INTO THE GARDEN AT REDMAN'S FARM.
Lady Chelford, with one of those sudden changes of front which occur in female strategy, on hearing that Stanley Lake was actually accepted by Dorcas, had assailed both him and his sister, whom heretofore she had a good deal petted and distinguished, with a fury that was startling. As respects Rachel, we know how unjust was the attack.
And when the dowager opened her fire on Rachel, the young lady replied with a spirit and dignity to which she was not at all accustomed.
So soon as Dorcas obtained a hearing, which was not for sometime—for she, 'as a miserable and ridiculous victim and idiot,' was nearly as deep in disgrace as those 'shameless harpies the Lakes'—she told the whole truth as respected all parties with her superb and tranquil frankness.
Lady Chelford ordered her horses, and was about to leave Brandon next morning. But rheumatism arrested her indignant flight; and during her week's confinement to her room, her son contrived so that she consented to stay for 'the odious ceremony,' and was even sourly civil to Miss Lake, who received her advances quite as coldly as they were made.
To Miss Lake, Lord Chelford, though not in set terms, yet in many pleasant ways, apologised for his mother's impertinence. Dorcas had told him also the story of Rachel's decided opposition to the marriage.
He was so particularly respectful to her—he showed her by the very form into which he shaped his good wishes that he knew how frankly she had opposed the marriage—how true she had been to her friend Dorcas—and she understood him and was grateful.
In fact, Lord Chelford, whatever might be his opinion of the motives of Captain Lake and the prudence of Dorcas, was clearly disposed to make the best of the inevitable, and to stamp the new Brandon alliance with what ever respectability his frank recognition could give it.
Old Lady Chelford's bitter and ominous acquiescence also came, and the presence of mother and son at the solemnity averted the family scandal which the old lady's first access of frenzy threatened.
This duty discharged, she insisted, in the interest of her rheumatism, upon change of air; and on arriving at Duxley, was quite surprised to find Lady Dulhampton and her daughters there upon a similar quest.
About the matrimonial likelihoods of gentlemen with titles and estates Fame, that most tuft-hunting of divinities, is always distending her cheeks, and blowing the very finest flourishes her old trumpet affords.
Lord Chelford was not long away when the story of Lady Constance was again alive and vocal. It reached old Jackson through his sister, who was married to the brother of the Marquis of Dulhampton's solicitor. It reached Lake from Tom Twitters, of his club, who kept the Brandon Captain au courant of the town-talk; and it came to Dorcas in a more authentic fashion, though mysteriously, and rather in the guise of a conundrum than of a distinct bit of family intelligence, from no less a person than the old Dowager Lady Chelford herself.
Stanley Lake, who had begun to entertain hopes for Rachel in that direction, went down to Redman's Farm, and, after his bleak and bitter fashion, rated the young lady for having perversely neglected her opportunities and repulsed that most desirable parti. In this he was intensely in earnest, for the connection would have done wonders for Captain Lake in the county.
Rachel met this coarse attack with quiet contempt; told him that Lord Chelford had, she supposed, no idea of marrying out of his own rank; and further, that he, Captain Lake, must perfectly comprehend, if he could not appreciate, the reasons which would for ever bar any such relation.
But Rachel, though she treated the subject serenely in this interview, was sadder and more forlorn than ever, and lay awake at night, and, perhaps, if we knew all, shed some secret tears; and then with time came healing of these sorrows.
It was a fallacy, a mere chimera, that was gone; an impracticability too. She had smiled at it as such when Dorcas used to hint at it; but are there no castles in the clouds which we like to inhabit, although we know them altogether air-built, and whose evaporation desolates us?
Rachel's talks with the vicar were frequent; and poor little Mrs. William Wylder, who knew not the reason of his visits, fell slowly, and to the good man's entire bewilderment, into a chronic jealousy. It expressed itself enigmatically; it was circumlocutory, sad, and mysterious.
'Little Fairy was so pleased with his visit to Redman's Farm to-day. He told me all about it; did not you, little man? But still you love poor old mamma best of all; you would not like to have a new mamma. Ah, no; you'd rather have your poor old, ugly Mussie. I wish I was handsome, my little man, and clever; but wishing is vain.'
'Ah! Willie, there was a time when you could not see how ugly and dull your poor foolish little wife was; but it could not last for ever. How did it happen—oh, how?—you such a scholar, so clever, so handsome, my beautiful Willie—how did you ever look down on poor wretched me?'
'I think it will be fine, Willie, and Miss Lake will expect you at Redman's Farm; and little Fairy will go too; yes, you'd like to go, and mamma will stay at home, and try to be useful in her poor miserable way,' and so on.
The vicar, thinking of other things, never seeing the reproachful irony in all this, would take it quite literally, assent sadly, and with little Fairy by the hand, set forth for Redman's Farm; and the good little body, to the amazement of her two maids, would be heard passionately weeping in the parlour in her forsaken state.
At last there came a great upbraiding, a great eclaircissement, and laughter, and crying, and hugging; and the poor little woman, quite relieved, went off immediately, in her gratitude, to Rachel, and paid her quite an affectionate little visit.
Jealousy is very unreasonable. But have we no compensation in this, that the love which begets it is often as unreasonable? Look in the glass, and then into your own heart, and ask your conscience, next, 'Am I really quite a hero, or altogether so lovely, as I am beloved?' Keep the answer to yourself, but be tender with the vehement follies of your jealous wife. Poor mortals! It is but a short time we have to love, and be jealous, and love again.
One night, after a long talk in the morning with good William Wylder, and great dejection following, all on a sudden, Rachel sat up in her bed, and in a pleasant voice, and looking more like herself than she had for many months, she said—
'I think I have found the true way out of my troubles, Tamar. At every sacrifice to be quite honest; and to that, Tamar, I have made up my mind at last, thank God. Come, Tamar, and kiss me, for I am free once more.'
So that night passed peacefully.
Rachel—a changed Rachel still—though more like her early self, was now in the tiny garden of Redman's Farm. The early spring was already showing its bright green through the brown of winter, and sun and shower alternating, and the gay gossiping of sweet birds among the branches, were calling the young creation from its slumbers. The air was so sharp, so clear, so sunny, the mysterious sense of coming life so invigorating, and the sounds and aspect of nature so rejoicing, that Rachel with her gauntlets on, her white basket of flower seeds, her trowel, and all her garden implements beside her, felt her own spring of life return, and rejoiced in the glad hour that shone round her.
Lifting up her eyes, she saw Lord Chelford looking over the little gate.
'What a charming day,' said he, with his pleasant smile, raising his hat, 'and how very pleasant to see you at your pretty industry again.'
As Rachel came forward in her faded gardening costume, an old silk shawl about her shoulders, and hoodwise over her head, somehow very becoming, there was a blush—he could not help seeing it—on her young face, and for a moment her fine eyes dropped, and she looked up, smiling a more thoughtful and a sadder smile than in old days. The picture of that smile so gay and fearless, and yet so feminine, rose up beside the sadder smile that greeted him now, and he thought of Ondine without and Ondine with a soul.
'I am afraid I am a very impertinent—at least a very inquisitive—wayfarer; but I could not pass by without a word, even at the risk of interrupting you. And the truth is, I believe, if it had not been for that chance of seeing and interrupting you, I should not have passed through Redman's Dell to-day.'
He laughed a little as he said this; and held her hands some seconds longer than is strictly usual in such a greeting.
'You are staying at Brandon?' said Rachel, not knowing exactly what to say.
'Yes; Dorcas, who is always very good to me, made me promise to come whenever I was at Drackley. I arrived yesterday, and they tell me you stay so much at home, that possibly you might not appear in the upper world for two or three days; so I had not patience, you see.'
It was now Rachel's turn to laugh a musical little roulade; but somehow her talk was neither so gay, nor so voluble, as it used to be. She liked to listen; she would not for the world their little conversation ended before its time; but there was an unwonted difficulty in finding anything to say.
'It is quite true; I am more a stay-at-home than I used to be. I believe we learn to prize home more the longer we live.'
'What a wise old lady! I did not think of that; I have only learned that whatever is most prized is hardest to find.'
'And spring is come again,' continued Rachel, passing by this little speech, 'and my labours recommence. And though the day is longer, there is more to do in it, you see.'
'I don't wonder at your being a stay-at-home, for, to my eyes, it is the prettiest spot of earth in all the world; and if you find it half as hard to leave it as I do, your staying here is quite accounted for.'
This little speech, also, Rachel understood quite well, though she went on as if she did not.
'And this little garden costs, I assure you, a great deal of wise thought. In sowing my annuals I have so much to forecast and arrange; suitability of climate, for we have sun and shade here, succession of bloom and contrast of colour, and ever so many other important things.'
'I can quite imagine it, though it did not strike me before,' he said, looking on her with a smile of pleasant and peculiar interest, which somehow gave a reality to this playful talk. 'It is quite true; and I should not have thought of it—it is very pretty,' and he laughed a gentle little laugh, glancing over the tiny garden.
'But, after all, there is no picture of flowers, or still life, or even of landscape, that will interest long. You must be very solitary here at times—that is, you must have a great deal more resource than I, or, indeed, almost anyone I know, or this solitude must at times be oppressive. I hope so, at least, for that would force you to appear among us sometimes.'
'No, I am not lonely—that is, not lonelier than is good for me. I have such a treasure of an old nurse—poor old Tamar—who tells me stories, and reads to me, and listens to my follies and temper, and sometimes says very wise things, too; and the good vicar comes often—this is one of his days—with his beautiful little boy, and talks so well, and answers my follies and explains all my perplexities, and is really a great help and comfort.'
'Yes,' said Lord Chelford, with the same pleasant smile, 'he told me so; and seems so pleased to have met with so clever a pupil. Are you coming to Brandon this evening? Lake asked William Wylder, perhaps he will be with us. I do hope you will come. Dorcas says there is no use in writing; but that you know you are always welcome. May I say you'll come?'
Rachel smiled sadly on the snow-drops at her feet, and shook her head a little.
'No, I must stay at home this evening—I mean I have not spirits to go to Brandon. Thank Dorcas very much from me—that is, if you really mean that she asked me.'
'I am so sorry—I am so disappointed,' said Lord Chelford, looking gravely and enquiringly at her. He began, I think, to fancy some estrangement there. 'But perhaps to-morrow—perhaps even to-day—you may relent, you know. Don't say it is impossible.'
Rachel smiled on the ground, as before; and then, with a little sigh and a shake of her head, said—
'Well, I must tell Dorcas she was right—you are very inexorable and cruel.'
'I am very cruel to keep you here so long—and I, too, am forgetting the vicar, who will be here immediately, and I must meet him in a costume less like the Woman of Endor.'
Lord Chelford, leaning on the little wicket, put his arm over, and she gave him her hand again.
'Good-bye,' said Rachel.
'Well, I suppose I, too, must say good-bye; and I'll say a great deal more,' said he, in a peculiar, odd tone, that was very firm, and yet indescribably tender. And he held her slender hand, from which she had drawn the gauntlet, in his. 'Yes, Rachel, I will—I'll say everything. We are old friends now—you'll forgive me calling you Rachel—it may be perhaps the last time.'
Rachel was standing there with such a beautiful blush, and downcast eyes, and her hand in his.
'I liked you always, Rachel, from the first moment I saw you—I liked you better and better—indescribably—indeed, I do; and I've grown to like you so, that if I lose you, I think I shall never be the same again.'
There was a very little pause, the blush was deeper, her eyes lower still.
'I admire you, Rachel—I like your character—I have grown to love you with all my heart and mind—quite desperately, I think. I know there are things against me—there are better-looking fellows than I—and—and a great many things—and I know very well that you will judge for yourself—quite differently from other girls; and I can't say with what fear and hope I await what you may say; but this you may be sure of, you will never find anyone to love you better, Rachel—I think so well—and—and now—that is all. Do you think you could ever like me?'
But Rachel's hand, on a sudden, with a slight quiver, was drawn from his.
'Lord Chelford, I can't describe how grateful I am, and how astonished, but it could never be—no—never.'
'Rachel, perhaps you mean my mother—I have told her everything—she will receive you with all the respect you so well deserve; and with all her faults, she loves me, and will love you still more.'
'No, Lord Chelford, no.' She was pale now, and looking very sadly in his eyes. 'It is not that, but only that you must never, never speak of it again.'
'Oh! Rachel, darling, you must not say that—I love you so—so desperately, you don't know.'
'I can say nothing else, Lord Chelford. My mind is quite made up—I am inexpressibly grateful—you will never know how grateful—but except as a friend—and won't you still be my friend?—I never can regard you.'
Rachel was so pale that her very lips were white as she spoke this in a melancholy but very firm way.
'Oh, Rachel, it is a great blow—maybe if you thought it over!—I'll wait any time.'
'No, Lord Chelford, I'm quite unworthy of your preference; but time cannot change me—and I am speaking, not from impulse, but conviction. This is our secret—yours and mine—and we'll forget it; and I could not bear to lose your friendship—you'll be my friend still—won't you? Good-bye.'
'God bless you, Rachel!' And he hurriedly kissed the hand she had placed in his, and without a word more, or looking back, he walked swiftly down the wooded road towards Gylingden.
So, then, it had come and gone—gone for ever.
'Margery, bring the basket in; I think a shower is coming.'
And she picked up her trowel and other implements, and placed them in the porch, and glanced up towards the clouds, as if she saw them, and had nothing to think of but her gardening and the weather, and as if her heart was not breaking.
THE VICAR'S COMPLICATIONS, WHICH LIVELY PEOPLE HAD BETTER NOT READ.
William Wylder's reversion was very tempting. But Lawyer Larkin knew the value of the precious metals, and waited for more data. The more he thought over his foreign correspondence, and his interview with Lake, the more steadily returned upon his mind the old conviction that the gallant captain was deep in the secret, whatever it might be.
Whatever his motive—and he always had a distinct motive, though sometimes not easily discoverable—he was a good deal addicted now to commenting, in his confidential talk, with religious gossips and others, upon the awful state of the poor vicar's affairs, his inconceivable prodigality, the unaccountable sums he had made away with, and his own anxiety to hand over the direction of such a hopeless complication of debt, and abdicate in favour of any competent skipper the command of the water-logged and foundering ship.
'Why, his Brother Mark could get him cleverly out of it—could not he?' wheezed the pork-butcher.
'More serious than you suppose,' answered Larkin, with a shake of his head.
'It can't go beyond five hundred, or say nine hundred—eh, at the outside?'
'Nine hundred—say double as many thousand, and I'm afraid you'll be nearer the mark. You'll not mention, of course, and I'm only feeling my way just now, and speaking conjecturally altogether; but I'm afraid it is enormous. I need not remind you not to mention.'
I cannot, of course, say how Mr. Larkin's conjectures reached so prodigious an elevation, but I can now comprehend why it was desirable that this surprising estimate of the vicar's liabilities should prevail. Mr. Jos. Larkin had a weakness for enveloping much of what he said and wrote in an honourable mystery. He liked writing private or confidential at top of his notes, without apparent right or even reason to impose either privacy or confidence upon the persons to whom he wrote. There was, in fact, often in the good attorney's mode of transacting business just a soupcon or flavour of an arriere pensee of a remote and unseen plan, which was a little unsatisfactory.
Now, with the vicar he was imperative that the matter of the reversion should be strictly confidential—altogether 'sacred,' in fact.
'You see, the fact is, my dear Mr. Wylder, I never meddle in speculative things. It is not a class of business that I like or would touch with one of my fingers, so to speak,' and he shook his head gently; 'and I may say, if I were supposed to be ever so slightly engaged in these risky things, it would be the ruin of me. I don t like, however, sending you into the jaws of the City sharks—I use the term, my dear Mr. Wylder, advisedly—and I make a solitary exception in your case; but the fact is, if I thought you would mention the matter, I could not touch it even for you. There's Captain Lake, of Brandon, for instance—I should not be surprised if I lost the Brandon business the day after the matter reached his ears. All men are not like you and me, my dear Mr. Wylder. The sad experience of my profession has taught me that a suspicious man of the world, without religion, my dear Mr. Wylder,' and he lifted his pink eyes, and shook his long head and long hands in unison—'without religion—will imagine anything. They can't understand us.'
Now, the fifty pounds which good Mr. Larkin had procured for the improvident vicar, bore interest, I am almost ashamed to say, at thirty per cent. per annum, and ten per cent. more the first year. But you are to remember that the security was altogether speculative; and Mr. Larkin, of course, made the best terms he could.
Annual premium on a policy for L100 [double insurance } L s. d. being insisted upon by lender, to cover contingent ex- } 10 0 0 penses, and life not insurable, a delicacy of the lungs } being admitted, on the ordinary scale] }
Annuity payable to lender, clear of premium, the } 7 10 0 security being unsatisfactory } ——————— L17 10 0
Ten pounds of which (the premium), together with four pounds ten shillings for expenses, &c. were payable in advance. So that thirty-two pounds, out of his borrowed fifty, were forfeit for these items within a year and a month. In the meantime the fifty pounds had gone, as we know, direct to Cambridge; and he was called upon to pay forthwith ten pounds for premium, and four pounds ten shillings for 'expenses.' Quod impossibile.
The attorney had nothing for it but to try to induce the lender to let him have another fifty pounds, pending the investigation of title—another fifty, of which he was to get, in fact, eighteen pounds. Somehow, the racking off of this bitter vintage from one vessel into another did not seem to improve its quality. On the contrary, things were growing decidedly more awful.
Now, there came from Messrs. Burlington and Smith a peremptory demand for the fourteen pounds ten shillings, and an equally summary one for twenty-eight pounds fourteen shillings and eight pence, their costs in this matter.
When the poor vicar received this latter blow, he laid the palm of his hand on the top of his head, as if to prevent his brain from boiling over. Twenty-eight pounds fourteen shillings and eight pence! Quod impossibile. again.
When he saw Larkin, that conscientious guardian of his client's interests scrutinised the bill of costs very jealously, and struck out between four and five pounds. He explained to the vicar the folly of borrowing insignificant and insufficient sums—the trouble, and consequently the cost, of which were just as great as of an adequate one. He was determined, if he could, to pull him through this. But he must raise a sufficient sum, for the expense of going into title would be something; and he would write sharply to Burlington, Smith, and Co., and had no doubt the costs would be settled for twenty-three pounds. And Mr. Jos. Larkin's opinion upon the matter was worthy of respect, inasmuch as he was himself, under the rose, the 'Co.' of that firm, and ministered its capital.
'The fact is you must, my dear Mr. Wylder, make an effort. It won't do peddling and tinkering in such a case. You will be in a worse position than ever, unless you boldly raise a thousand pounds—if I can manage such a transaction upon a security of the kind. Consolidate all your liabilities, and keep a sum in hand. You are well connected—powerful relatives—your brother has Huxton, four hundred, a year, whenever old—the—the present incumbent goes—and there are other things beside—but you must not allow yourself to be ruined through timidity; and if you go to the wall without an effort, and allow yourself to be slurred in public, what becomes of your chance of preferment?'
And now 'title' went up to Burlington, Smith, and Co. to examine and approve; and from that firm, I am sorry to say, a bill of costs was coming, when deeds were prepared and all done, exceeding three hundred and fifty pounds; and there was a little reminder from good Jos. Larkin for two hundred and fifty pounds more. This, of course, was to await Mr. Wylder's perfect convenience. The vicar knew him—he never pressed any man. Then there would be insurances in proportion; and interest, as we see, was not trifling. And altogether, I am afraid, our friend the vicar was being extricated in a rather embarrassing fashion.
Now, I have known cases in which good-natured debauchees have interested themselves charitably in the difficulties of forlorn families; and I think I knew, almost before they suspected it, that their generous interference was altogether due to one fine pair of eyes, and a pretty tournure, in the distressed family circle. Under a like half-delusion, Mr. Jos. Larkin, in the guise of charity, was prosecuting his designs upon the vicar's reversion, and often most cruelly and most artfully, when he frankly fancied his conduct most praiseworthy.
And really I do not myself know, that, considering poor William's liabilities and his means, and how many chances there were against that reversion ever becoming a fact, that I would not myself have advised his selling it, if a reasonable price were obtainable.
'All this power will I give thee,' said the Devil, 'and the glory of them; for that is delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will I give it.' The world belongs to the rascals. It is like 'the turf,' where, everyone admits, an honest man can hardly hold his own. Jos. Larkin looked down on the seedy and distracted vicar from an immense moral elevation. He heard him talk of religion with disgust. He owed him costs, and, beside, costs also to Burlington, Smith, and Co. Was there not Talkative in 'Pilgrim's Progress?' I believe there are few things more provoking than that a man who owes you money, and can't pay the interest, should pretend to religion to your face, except, perhaps, his giving sixpence in charity.
The attorney was prosperous. He accounted for it by his attributes, and the blessing that waits on industry and integrity. He did not see that luck and selfishness had anything to do with it. No man ever failed but through his own fault—none ever succeeded but by his deservings. The attorney was in a position to lecture the Rev. Mr. Wylder. In his presence, religion, in the vicar's mouth, was an impertinence.
The vicar, on the other hand, was all that we know. Perhaps, in comparison, his trial is, in some sort, a blessing; and that there is no greater snare than the state of the man with whom all goes smoothly, and who mistakes his circumstances for his virtues.
The poor vicar and his little following were got pretty well into the Furcae Caudinae. Mr. Jos. Larkin, if he did not march him out, to do him justice, had had no hand in primarily bringing him there. There was no reason, however, why the respectable lawyer should not make whatever was to be fairly made of the situation. The best thing for both was, perhaps, that the one should sell and the other buy the reversion. Larkin had no apprehensions about the nature of the dealing. He was furnished with an excellent character—his cheques were always honoured—his 'tots' always unexceptionable—his vouchers never anything but exact. He had twice been publicly complimented in this sense, when managing Lord Hedgerow's estate. No man had, I believe, a higher reputation in his walk—few men were more formidable. I think it was Lawyer Larkin's private canon, in his dealings with men, that everything was moral that was not contrary to an Act of Parliament.
BRANDON CHAPEL ON SUNDAY.
For a month and three days Mr. Jos. Larkin was left to ruminate without any new light upon the dusky landscape now constantly before his eyes. At the end of that time a foreign letter came for him to the Lodge. It was not addressed in Mark Wylder's hand—not the least like it. Mark's was a bold, free hand, and if there was nothing particularly elegant, neither was there anything that could be called vulgar in it. But this was a decidedly villainous scrawl—in fact it was written as a self-educated butcher might pen a bill. There was nothing impressed on the wafer, but a poke of something like the ferrule of a stick.
The interior corresponded with the address, and the lines slanted confoundedly. It was, however, on the whole, better spelled and expressed than the penmanship would have led one to expect. It said—
'MISTER LARKINS,—Respeckted Sir, I write you, Sir, to let you know has how there is no more Chance you shud ear of poor Mr. Mark Wylder—of hose orrible Death I make bold to acquainte you by this writing—which is Secret has yet from all—he bing Hid, and made away with in the dark. It is only Right is family shud know all, and his sad ending—wich I will tell before you, Sir, in full, accorden to my Best guess, as bin the family Lawyer (and, Sir, you will find it usful to Tell this in secret to Capten Lake, of Brandon Hall—But not on No account to any other). It is orrible, Sir, to think a young gentleman, with everything the world can give, shud be made away with so crewel in the dark. Though you do not rekelect me, Sir, I know you well, Mr. Larkins, haven seen you hoffen when a boy. I wud not wish, Sir, no noise made till I cum—which I am returning hoame, and will then travel to Gylingden strateways to see you.
Sir, your obedient servant,
This epistle disturbed Mr. Jos. Larkin profoundly. He could recollect no such name as James Dutton. He did not know whether to believe this letter or not. He could not decide what present use to make of it, nor whether to mention it to Captain Lake, nor, if he did so, how it was best to open the matter.
Captain Lake, he was confident, knew James Dutton—why, otherwise, should that person have desired his intelligence communicated to him. At least it proved that Dutton assumed the captain to be specially interested in what concerned Mark Wylder's fate; and in so far it confirmed his suspicions of Lake. Was it better to wait until he had seen Dutton, and heard his story, before hinting at his intelligence and his name—or was it wiser to do that at once, and watch its effect upon the gallant captain narrowly, and trust to inspiration and the moment for striking out the right course.
If this letter was true there was not a moment to be lost in bringing the purchase of the vicar's reversion to a point. The possibilities were positively dazzling. They were worth risking something. I am not sure that Mr. Larkin's hand did not shake a little as he took the statement of title again out of the Wylder tin box No. 2.
Now, under the pressure of this enquiry, a thing struck Mr. Larkin, strangely enough, which he had quite overlooked before. There were certain phrases in the will of the late Mr. Wylder, which limited a large portion of the great estate in strict settlement. Of course an attorney's opinion upon a question of real property is not conclusive. Still they can't help knowing something of the barrister's special province; and these words were very distinct—in fact, they stunted down the vicar's reversion in the greater part of the property to a strict life estate.
Long did the attorney pore over his copy of the will, with his finger and thumb closed on his under lip. The language was quite explicit—there was no way out of it. It was strictly a life estate. How could he have overlooked that? His boy, indeed, would take an estate tail—and could disentail whenever—if ever—he came of age. But that was in the clouds. Mackleston-on-the-Moor, however, and the Great Barnford estate, were unaffected by these limitations; and the rental which he now carefully consulted, told him these jointly were in round numbers worth 2,300l. a year, and improvable.
This letter of Dutton's, to be sure, may turn out to be all a lie or a blunder. But it may prove to be strictly true; and in that case it will be every thing that the deeds should be executed and the purchase completed before the arrival of this person, and the public notification of Mark Wylder's death.
'What a world it is, to be sure!' thought Mr. Larkin, as he shook his long head over Dutton's letter. 'How smoothly and simply everything would go, if only men would stick to truth! Here's this letter—how much time and trouble it costs me—how much opportunity possibly sacrificed, simply by reason of the incurable mendacity of men.' And he knocked the back of his finger bitterly on the open page.
Another thought now struck him for the first time. Was there no mode of 'hedging,' so that whether Mark Wylder were living or dead the attorney should stand to win?
Down came the Brandon boxes. The prudent attorney turned the key in the door, and forth came the voluminous marriage settlement of Stanley Williams Lake, of Slobberligh, in the county of Devon, late captain, &c., &c. of the second part, and Dorcas Adderley Brandon, of Brandon Hall, in the county of &c., &c. of the second part, and so forth. And as he read this pleasant composition through, he two or three times murmured approvingly, 'Yes—yes—yes.' His recollection had served him quite rightly. There was the Five Oaks estate, specially excluded from settlement, worth 1,400l. a year; but it was conditioned that the said Stanley Williams Lake was not to deal with the said lands, except with the consent in writing of the said Dorcas, &c., who was to be a consenting party to the deed.
If there was really something 'unsound in the state of Lake's relations,' and that he could be got to consider Lawyer Larkin as a friend worth keeping, that estate might be had a bargain—yes, a great bargain.
Larkin walked off to Brandon, but there he learned that Captain Brandon Lake as he now chose to call himself, had gone that morning to London.
'Business, I venture to say, and he went into that electioneering without ever mentioning it either.'
So thought Larkin, and he did not like this. It looked ominous, and like an incipient sliding away of the Brandon business, Well, no matter, all things worked together for good. It was probably well that he should not be too much shackled with considerations of that particular kind in the important negotiation about Five Oaks.
That night he posted a note to Burlington, Smith, and Co., and by Saturday night's post there came down to the sheriff an execution for 123l. and some odd shillings, upon a judgment on a warrant to confess, at the suit of that firm, for costs and money advanced, against the poor vicar, who never dreamed, as he conned over his next day's sermon with his solitary candle, that the blow had virtually descended, and that his homely furniture, the silver spoons his wife had brought him, and the two shelves half full of old books which he had brought her, and all the rest of their little frugal trumpery, together with his own thin person, had passed into the hands of Messrs. Burlington, Smith, and Co.
The vicar on his way to the chapel passed Mr. Jos. Larkin on the green—not near enough to speak—only to smile and wave his hand kindly, and look after the good attorney with one of those yearning grateful looks, which cling to straws upon the drowning stream of life.
The sweet chapel bell was just ceasing to toll as Mr. Jos. Larkin stalked under the antique ribbed arches of the little aisle. Slim and tall, he glided, a chastened dignity in his long upturned countenance, and a faint halo of saint-hood round his tall bald head. Having whispered his orisons into his well-brushed hat and taken his seat, his dove-like eyes rested for a moment upon the Brandon seat.
There was but one figure in it—slender, light-haired, with his yellow moustache and pale face, grown of late a little fatter. Captain Brandon Lake was a very punctual church-goer since the idea of trying the county at the next election had entered his mind. Dorcas was not very well. Lord Chelford had taken his departure, and your humble servant, who pens these pages, had gone for a few days to Malwich. There was no guest just then at Brandon, and the captain sat alone on that devotional dais, the elevated floor of the great oaken Brandon seat.
There were old Brandon and Wylder monuments built up against the walls. Figures cut in stone, and painted and gilded in tarnished splendour, according to the gorgeous barbarism of Elizabeth's and the first James's age; tablets in brass, marble-pillared monuments, and a couple of life-sized knights, armed cap-a-pie, on their backs in the aisle.
There is a stained window in the east which connoisseurs in that branch of mediaeval art admire. There is another very fine one over the Brandon pew—a freak, perhaps, of some of those old Brandons or Wylders, who had a strange spirit of cynicism mingling in their profligacy and violence.
Reader, you have looked on Hans Holbein's 'Dance of Death,' that grim, phantasmal pageant, symbolic as a dream of Pharaoh; and perhaps you bear in mind that design called 'The Elector,' in which the Prince, emerging from his palace gate, with a cloud of courtiers behind, is met by a poor woman, her little child by the hand, appealing to his compassion, despising whom, he turns away with a serene disdain. Beneath, in black letter, is inscribed the text 'Princeps induetur maerore et quiescere faciam superbiam potentium'—and gigantic Death lays his fingers on the great man's ermine tippet.
It is a copy of this, which, in very splendid colouring, fills the window that lights the Brandon state seat in the chapel. The gules and gold were reflected on the young man's head, and with a vain augury, the attorney read again the solemn words from Holy Writ, 'Princeps induetur maerore.' The golden glare rested like a glory on his head; but there was also a gorgeous stain of blood that bathed his ear and temple. His head was busy enough at that moment, though it was quite still, and his sly eyes rested on his Prayer-book; for Sparks, the millionaire clothier, who had purchased Beverley, and was a potent voice in the Dollington Bank, and whose politics were doubtful, and relations amphibious, was sitting in the pew nearly opposite, and showed his red, fat face and white whiskers over the oak wainscoting.
Jos. Larkin, like the rest of the congregation, was by this time praying, his elbows on the edge of the pew, his hands clasped, his thumbs under his chin, and his long face and pink eyes raised heavenward, with now and then a gentle downward dropping of the latter. He was thinking of Captain Lake, who was opposite, and, like him, praying.
He was thinking how aristocratic he looked and how well, in externals, he became the Brandon seat; and there were one or two trifles in the captain's attitude and costume of which the attorney, who, as we know, was not only good, but elegant, made a note. He respected his audacity and his mystery, and he wondered intensely what was going on in that small skull under the light and glossy hair, and anxiously guessed how vitally it might possibly affect him, and wondered what his schemes were after the election—quiescere faciam superbiam potentium; and more darkly about his relations with Mark Wylder—Princeps induetur maerore.
His eye was on the window now and then it dropped, with a vague presage, upon the sleek head of the daring and enigmatical captain, reading the Litany, from 'battle, murder, and sudden death, good Lord deliver us,' and he almost fancied he saw a yellow skull over his shoulder glowering cynically on the Prayer-book. So the good attorney prayed on, to the edification of all who saw, and mothers in the neighbouring seats were specially careful to prevent their children from whispering or fidgeting.
When the service was over Captain Lake went across to Mr. Sparks, and asked him to come to Brandon to lunch. But the clothier could not, and his brougham whirled him away to Naunton Friars. So Stanley Lake walked up the little aisle toward the communion table, thinking, and took hold of the railing that surrounded the brass monument of Sir William de Braundon, and seemed to gaze intently on the effigy, but was really thinking profoundly of other matters and once or twice his sly sidelong glance stole ominously to Jos. Larkin, who was talking at the church door with the good vicar.
In fact, he was then and there fully apprising him of his awful situation; and poor William Wylder looking straight at him, with white face and damp forehead, was listening stunned, and hardly understanding a word he said, and only the dreadful questions rising to his mouth, 'Can anything be done? Will the people come to-day?'
Mr. Larkin explained the constitutional respect for the Sabbath.
'It would be better, Sir—the publicity of an arrest' (it was a hard word to utter) 'in the town would be very painful—it would be better I think, that I should walk over to the prison—it is only six miles—and see the authorities there, and give myself up.'
And his lip quivered; he was thinking of the leave-taking—of poor Dolly and little Fairy.
'I've a great objection to speak of business to-day,' said Mr. Larkin, holily; 'but I may mention that Burlington and Smith have written very sternly; and the fact is, my dear Sir, we must look the thing straight in the face; they are determined to go through with it; and you know my opinion all along about the fallacy—you must excuse me, seeing all the trouble it has involved you in—the infatuation of hesitating about the sale of that miserable reversion, which they could have disposed of on fair terms. In fact, Sir, they look upon it that you don't want to pay them and of course, they are very angry.'
'I'm sure I was wrong. I'm such a fool!'
'I must only go to the Sheriff the first thing the morning and beg of him to hold over that thing, you know, until I have heard from Burlington and Smith; and I suppose I may say to them that you see the necessity of disposing of the reversion, and agree to sell it if it be not too late.'
The vicar assented; indeed, he had grown, under this urgent pressure, as nervously anxious to sell as he had been to retain it.
'And they can't come to-day?'
And poor William Wylder breathed again in the delightful sense of even momentary escape, and felt he could have embraced his preserver.
'I'll be very happy to see you to-morrow, if you can conveniently look in—say at twelve, or half-past, to report progress.'
So that was arranged; and again in the illusive sense of deliverance, the poor vicar's hopes brightened and expanded. Hitherto his escapes had not led to safety, and he was only raised from the pit to be sold to the Ishmaelites.
THE CAPTAIN AND THE ATTORNEY CONVERSE AMONG THE TOMBS.
I cannot tell whether that slender, silken machinator, Captain Lake, loitered in the chapel for the purpose of talking to or avoiding Jos. Larkin, who was standing at the doorway, in sad but gracious converse with the vicar.
He was certainly observing him from among the tombs in his sly way. And the attorney, who had a way, like him, of noting things without appearing to see them, was conscious of it, and was perhaps decided by this trifle to accost the gallant captain.
So he glided up the short aisle with a sad religious smile, suited to the place, and inclined his lank back and his tall bald head toward the captain in ceremonious greeting as he approached.
'How d'ye do, Larkin? The fog makes one cough a little this evening.'
Larkin's answer, thanks, and enquiries, came gravely in return. And with the same sad smile he looked round on the figures, some marble, some painted stone, of departed Brandons and Wylders, with garrulous epitaphs, who surrounded them in various costumes, quite a family group, in which the attorney was gratified to mingle.
'Ancestry, Captain Lake—your ancestry—noble assemblage—monuments and timber. Timber like the Brandon oaks, and monuments like these—these are things which, whatever else he may acquire, the novus homo, Captain Brandon Lake—the parvenu—can never command.'
Mr. Jos. Larkin had a smattering of school Latin, and knew half-a-dozen French words, which he took out on occasion.
'Certainly our good people do occupy some space here; more regular attendants in church, than, I fear, they formerly were; and their virtues more remarked, perhaps, than before the stone-cutter was instructed to publish them with his chisel,' answered Lake, with one of his quiet sneers.
'Beautiful chapel this, Captain Lake—beautiful chapel, Sir,' said the attorney, again looking round with a dreary smile of admiration. But though his accents were engaging and he smiled—of course, a Sabbath-day smile—yet Captain Lake perceived that it was not the dove's but the rat's eyes that were doing duty under that tall bald brow.
'Solemn thoughts, Sir—solemn thoughts, Captain Lake—silent mentors, eloquent monitors!' And he waved his long lank hand toward the monumental groups.
'Yes,' said Lake, in the same mocking tone, that was low and sweet, and easily mistaken for something more amiable. 'You and they go capitally together—so solemn, and eloquent, and godly—capital fellows! I'm not half good enough for such company—and the place is growing rather cold—is not it?'
'A great many Wylders, Sir—a great many Wylders.' And the attorney dropped his voice, and paused at this emphasis, pointing a long finger toward the surrounding effigies.
Captain Lake, after his custom, glared a single full look upon the attorney, sudden as the flash of a pair of guns from their embrasures in the dark; and he said quietly, with a wave of his cane in the same direction—
'Yes, a precious lot of Wylders.'
'Is there a Wylder vault here, Captain Brandon Lake?'
'Hanged if I know!—what the devil's that to you or me, Sir?' answered the captain, with a peevish sullenness.
'I was thinking, Captain Lake, whether in the event of its turning out that Mr. Mark Wylder was dead, it would be thought proper to lay his body here?'
'Dead, Sir!—and what the plague puts that in your head? You are corresponding with him—aren't you?'
'I'll tell you exactly how that is, Captain Lake. May I take the liberty to ask you for one moment to look up?'
As between these two gentlemen, this, it must be allowed, was an impertinent request. But Captain Lake did look up, and there was something extraordinarily unpleasant in his yellow eyes, as he fixed them upon the contracted pupils of the attorney, who, nothing daunted, went on—
'Pray, excuse me—thank you, Captain Lake—they say one is better heard when looked at than when not seen; and I wish to speak rather low, for reasons.'
Each looked the other in the eyes, with that uncertain and sinister gaze which has a character both of fear and menace.
'I have received those letters, Captain Lake, of which I spoke to you when I last had the honour of seeing you, as furnishing, in certain circumstances connected with them, grave matter of suspicion, since when I have not received one with Mr. Wylder's signature. But I have received, only the other day, a letter from a new correspondent—a person signing himself James Dutton—announcing his belief that Mr. Mark Wylder is dead—is dead—and has been made away with by foul means; and I have arranged, immediately on his arrival, at his desire, to meet him professionally, and to hear the entire narrative, both of what he knows and of what he suspects.'
As Jos. Larkin delivered this with stern features and emphasis, the captain's countenance underwent such a change as convinced the attorney that some indescribable evil had befallen Mark Wylder, and that Captain Brandon Lake had a guilty knowledge thereof. With this conviction came a sense of superiority and a pleasant confidence in his position, which betrayed itself in a slight frown and a pallid smile, as he looked steadily in the young man's face, with his small, crafty, hungry eyes.
Lake knew that his face had betrayed him. He had felt the livid change of colour, and that twitching at his mouth and cheek which he could not control. The mean, tyrannical, triumphant gaze of the attorney was upon him, and his own countenance was his accuser.
Lake ground his teeth, and returned Jos. Larkin's intimidating smirk with a look of fury, which—for he now believed he held the winning cards—did not appal him.
Lake cleared his throat twice, but did not find his voice, and turned away and read half through the epitaph on Lady Mary Brandon, which is a pious and somewhat puritanical composition. I hope it did him good.
'You know, Sir,' said Captain Lake, but a little huskily, turning about and smiling at last, 'that Mark Wylder is nothing to me. We don't correspond: we have not corresponded. I know—upon my honour and soul, Sir—nothing on earth about him—what he's doing, where he is, or what's become of him. But I can't hear a man of business like you assert, upon what he conceives to be reliable information—situated as the Brandon title is—depending, I mean, in some measure, upon his life—that Mark Wylder is no more, without being a good deal shocked.'
'I quite understand, Sir—quite, Captain Lake. It is very serious, Sir, very; but I can't believe it has gone that length, quite. I shall know more, of course, when I've seen James Dutton. I can't think, I mean, he's been made away with in that sense; nor how that could benefit anyone; and I'd much rather, Captain Lake, move in this matter—since move I must—in your interest—I mean, as your friend and man of business—than in any way, Captain Lake, that might possibly involve you in trouble.'
'You are my man of business—aren't you? and have no grounds for ill-will—eh?' said the captain, drily.
'No ill-will certainly—quite the reverse. Thank Heaven, I think I may truly say, I bear ill-will to no man living; and wish you, Captain Lake, nothing but good, Sir—nothing but good.'
'Except a hasty word or two, I know no reason you should not,' said the captain, in the same tone.
'Quite so. But, Captain Brandon Lake, there is nothing like being completely above-board—it has been my rule through life; and I will say—it would not be frank and candid to say anything else—that I have of late been anything but satisfied with the position which, ostensibly your professional adviser and confidential man of business, I have occupied. Have I been consulted?—I put it to you; have I been trusted? Has there been any real confidence, Captain Lake, upon your part? You have certainly had relations with Mr. Mark Wylder—correspondence, for anything I know. You have entertained the project of purchasing the Reverend William Wylder's reversion; and you have gone into electioneering business, and formed connections of that sort, without once doing me the honour to confer with me on the subject. Now, the plain question is, do you wish to retain my services?'
'Certainly,' said Captain Lake, biting his lip, with a sinister little frown.
'Then, Captain Lake, upon the same principle, and speaking quite above-board, you must dismiss at once from your mind the idea that you can do so upon the terms you have of late seen fit to impose. I am speaking frankly when I say there must be a total change. I must be in reality what I am held out to the world as being—your trusted, and responsible, and sole adviser. I don't aspire to the position—I am willing at this moment to retire from it; but I never yet knew a divided direction come to good. It is an office of great responsibility, and I for one will not consent to touch it on any other conditions than those I have taken the liberty to mention.'
'These are easily complied with—in fact I undertake to show you they have never been disturbed,' answered Lake, rather sullenly. 'So that being understood—eh?—I suppose we have nothing particular to add?'
And Captain Lake extended his gloved hand to take leave.
But the attorney looked down and then up, with a shadow on his face, and his lip in his finger and thumb, and he said—
'That's all very well, and a sine qua non, so far as it goes! but, my dear Captain Lake, let us be plain. You must see, my dear Sir, with such rumours, possibly about to get afloat, and such persons about to appear, as this James Dutton, that matters are really growing critical, and there's no lack of able solicitors who would on speculation, undertake a suit upon less evidence, perhaps, than may be forthcoming, to upset your title, under the will, through Mrs. Dorcas Brandon Lake—your joint title—in favour of the reversioner.'
Lake only bit his lip and shook his head. The attorney knew, however, that the danger was quite appreciated, and went on—
'You will, therefore, want a competent man—who has the papers at his fingers' ends, and knows how to deal ably—ably, Sir, with a fellow of James Dutton's stamp—at your elbow. The fact is, to carry you safely through you will need pretty nearly the undivided attention of a well-qualified, able, and confidential practitioner; and I need not say, such a man is not to be had for nothing.'
Lake nodded a seeming assent, which seemed to say, 'I have found it so.'
'Now, my dear Captain Lake, I just mention this—I put it before you—that is, because you know the county is not to be contested for nothing—and you'll want a very serious sum of money for the purpose, and possibly a petition—and I can, one way or another, make up, with an effort, about L15,000l. Now it strikes me that it would be a wise thing for you—the wisest thing, perhaps, my dear Captain Lake, you ever did—to place me in the same boat with yourself.'
'I don't exactly see.'
'I'll make it quite clear.' The attorney's tall forehead had a little pink flush over it at this moment, and he was looking down a little and poking the base of Sir William de Braundon's monument with the point of his umbrella. 'I wish, Captain Lake, to be perfectly frank, and, as I said, above-board. You'll want the money, and you must make up your mind to sell Five Oaks.'
Captain Lake shifted his foot, as if he had found it on a sudden on a hot flag.
'Sell Five Oaks—that's fourteen hundred a year,' said he.
'Hardly so much, but nearly, perhaps.'
'Forty-three thousand pounds were offered for it. Old Chudworth offered that about ten years ago.'
'Of course, Captain Lake, if you are looking for a fancy price from me I must abandon the idea. I was merely supposing a dealing between friends, and in that sense I ventured to name the extreme limit to which I could go. Little more than five per cent, for my money, if I insure—and possibly to defend an action before I've been six months in possession. I think my offer will strike you as a great one, considering the posture of affairs. Indeed, I apprehend, my friends will hardly think me justified in offering so much.'
The sexton was walking back and forward near the door, making the best clatter he decently could, and wondering the Captain and Lawyer Larkin could find no better place to talk in than the church.
'In a moment—in a moment,' said the lawyer, signalling to him to be quiet, as loftily as if chapel, hall, and sexton were his private property.
It was one of those moments into which a good deal of talk is fitted, and which seem somewhat of the longest to those who await its expiration.
The chapel was growing dark, and its stone and marble company of bygone Wylders and Brandons were losing themselves in shadow. Part of the periwig and cheek of Sir Marcus Brandon still glimmered whitish, as at a little distance did also the dim marble face and arm of the young Countess of Lydingworth, mourning these hundred and thirty years over her dead baby. Sir William Wylder, in ruff, rosettes, and full dress of James I.'s fashion, on his back, defunct, with children in cloaks kneeling at head and foot, was hardly distinguishable; and the dusky crimson and tarnished gold had gone out of view till morning. The learned Archbishop Brandon, a cadet, who filled the see of York in his day, and was the only unexceptionably godly personage of that long line, was praying, as usual, at his desk—perhaps to the saints and Virgin, for I believe he was before the Reformation—in beard and skull-cap, as was evident from the black profile of head and uplifted hands, against the dim sky seen through the chapel window. A dusky glow from the west still faintly showed Hans Holbein's proud 'Elector,' in the Brandon window, fading, with Death himself, and the dread inscription, 'Princeps induetur maerore,' into utter darkness.
The ice once broken, Jos. Larkin urged his point with all sorts of arguments, always placing the proposed transaction in the most plausible lights and attitudes, and handling his subject in round and flowing sentences. This master of persuasion was not aware that Captain Lake was arguing the question for himself, on totally different grounds, and that it was fixed in his mind pretty much in these terms:—
'That old villain wants an exorbitant bribe—is he worth it?'
He knew what the lawyer thought he did not know—that Five Oaks was held by the lawyers to be possibly without those unfortunate limitations which affected all the rest of the estate. It was only a moot-point; but the doubt had led Mr. Jos. Larkin to the selection.
'I'll look in upon you between eight and nine in the morning, and I'll say yes or no then,' said the captain, as they parted under the old stone porch, the attorney with a graceful inclination, a sad smile, and a wave of his hand—the captain with his hands in the pockets of his loose coat, and a sidelong glance from his yellow eyes.
The sky, as he looked toward Brandon, was draped in black cloud, intensely black, meeting a black horizon—except for one little rent of deep crimson which showed westward behind those antique gables and lordly trees, like a lake of blood.
THE BRANDON CONSERVATORY.
Captain Lake did look in at the Lodge in the morning, and remained an hour in conference with Mr. Jos. Larkin. I suppose everything went off pleasantly. For although Stanley Lake looked very pale and vicious as he walked down to the iron gate of the Lodge among the evergreens and bass-mats, the good attorney's countenance shone with a serene and heavenly light, so pure and bright, indeed, that I almost wonder his dazzled servants, sitting along the wall while he read and expounded that morning, did not respectfully petition that a veil, after the manner of Moses, might be suspended over the seraphic effulgence.
Somehow his 'Times' did not interest him at breakfast; these parliamentary wrangles, commercial speculations, and foreign disputes, are they not, after all, but melancholy and dreary records of the merest worldliness; and are there not moments when they become almost insipid? Jos. Larkin tossed the paper upon the sofa. French politics, relations with Russia, commercial treaties, party combinations, how men can so wrap themselves up in these things!
And he smiled ineffable pity over the crumpled newspaper—on the poor souls in that sort of worldly limbo. In which frame of mind he took from his coat pocket a copy of Captain Lake's marriage settlement, and read over again a covenant on the captain's part that, with respect to this particular estate of Five Oaks, he would do no act, and execute no agreement, deed, or other instrument whatsoever, in any wise affecting the same, without the consent in writing of the said Dorcas Brandon; and a second covenant binding him and the trustees of the settlement against executing any deed, &c., without a similar consent; and especially directing, that in the event of alienating the estate, the said Dorcas must be made an assenting party to the deed.
He folded the deed, and replaced it in his pocket with a peaceful smile and closed eyes, murmuring—
'I'm much mistaken if the gray mare's the better horse in that stud.'
He laughed gently, thinking of the captain's formidable and unscrupulous nature, exhibitions of which he could not fail to remember.
'No, no, Miss Dorkie won't give us much trouble.'
He used to call her 'Miss Dorkie,' playfully to his clerks. It gave him consideration, he fancied. And now with this Five Oaks to begin with—L1,400 a year—a great capability, immensely improvable, he would stake half he's worth on making it more than L2,000 within five years; and with other things at his back, an able man like him might before long look as high as she. And visions of the grand jury rose dim and splendid—an heiress and a seat for the county; perhaps he and Lake might go in together, though he'd rather be associated with the Hon. James Cluttworth, or young Lord Griddlestone. Lake, you see, wanted weight, and, nothwithstanding his connections, was, it could not be denied, a new man in the county.
So Wylder, Lake, and Jos. Larkin had each projected for himself, pretty much the same career; and probably each saw glimmering in the horizon the golden round of a coronet. And I suppose other modest men are not always proof against similar flatteries of imagination.
Jos. Larkin had also the vicar's business and reversion to attend to. The Rev. William Wylder had a letter containing three lines from him at eight o'clock, to which he sent an answer, whereupon the solicitor despatched a special messenger, one of his clerks to Dollington, with a letter to the sheriff's deputy, from whom he received duly a reply, which necessitated a second letter with a formal undertaking, to which came another reply; whereupon he wrote to Burlington, Smith, and Co., acquainting them respectfully, in diplomatic fashion, with the attitude which affairs had assumed.
With this went a private and confidential, non-official, note to Smith, desiring him to answer stiffly and press for an immediate settlement, and to charge costs fairly, as Mr. William Wylder would have ample funds to liquidate them. Smith knew what fairly meant, and his entries went down accordingly. By the same post went up to the same firm a proposition—an afterthought—sanctioned by a second miniature correspondence with his client, now sailing before the wind, to guarantee them against loss consequent against staying the execution in the sheriff's hands for a fortnight, which, if they agreed to, they were further requested to send a draft of the proposed undertaking by return, at foot of which, in pencil, he wrote, 'N.B.—Yes.'
This arrangement necessitated his providing himself with a guarantee from the vicar; and so the little account as between the vicar and Jos. Larkin, solicitor, and the vicar and Messrs. Burlington, Smith, and Co., solicitors, grew up and expanded with a tropical luxuriance.
About the same time—while Mr. Jos. Larkin, I mean, was thinking over Miss Dorkie's share in the deed, with a complacent sort of interest, anticipating a struggle, but sure of victory—that beautiful young lady was walking slowly from flower to flower, in the splendid conservatory which projects southward from the house, and rears itself in glacial arches high over the short sward and flowery patterns of the outer garden of Brandon. The unspeakable sadness of wounded pride was on her beautiful features, and there was a fondness in the gesture with which she laid her fingers on these exotics and stooped over them, which gave to her solitude a sentiment of the pathetic.
From the high glass doorway, communicating with the drawing-rooms, at the far end, among towering ranks of rare and gorgeous flowers, over the encaustic tiles, and through this atmosphere of perfume, did Captain Stanley Lake, in his shooting coat, glide, smiling, toward his beautiful young wife.
She heard the door close, and looking half over her shoulder, in a low tone indicating surprise, she merely said:
'Oh!' receiving him with a proud sad look.
'Yes, Dorkie, I'm here at last. I've been for some weeks so insufferably busy,' and he laid his white hand lightly over his eyes, as if they and the brain within were alike weary.
'How charming this place is—the temple of Flora, and you the divinity!'
And he kissed her cheek.
'I'm now emancipated for, I hope, a week or two. I've been so stupid and inattentive. I'm sure, Dorkie, you must think me a brute. I've been shut up so in the library, and keeping such tiresome company—you've no idea; but I think you'll say it was time well spent, at least I'm sure you'll approve the result; and now that I have collected the facts, and can show you, darling, exactly what the chances are, you must consent to hear the long story, and when you have heard, give me your advice.'
Dorcas smiled, and only plucked a little flowery tendril from a plant that hung in a natural festoon above her.
'I assure you, darling, I am serious; you must not look so incredulous; and it is the more provoking, because I love you so. I think I have a right to your advice, Dorkie.'
'Why don't you ask Rachel, she's cleverer than I, and you are more in the habit of consulting her?'
'Now, Dorkie is going to talk her wicked nonsense over again, as if I had never answered it. What about Radie? I do assure you, so far from taking her advice, and thinking her an oracle, as you suppose, I believe her in some respects very little removed from a fool.'
'I think her very clever, on the contrary,' said Dorcas, enigmatically.
'Well, she is clever in some respects; she is gay, at least she used to be, before she fell into that transcendental parson's hands—I mean poor dear William Wylder; and she can be amusing, and talks very well, but she has no sense—she is utterly Quixotic—she is no more capable of advising than a child.'
'I should not have fancied that, although you say so, Stanley.' she answered carelessly, adding a geranium to her bouquet.
'You are thinking, I know, because you have seen us once or twice talking together——'
Stanley paused, not knowing exactly how to construct the remainder of his sentence.
Dorcas added another blossom.
'I think that blue improves it wonderfully. Don't you?'
'The blue? Oh yes, certainly.'
'And now that little star of yellow will make it perfect,' said Dorcas.
'Yes—yellow—quite perfect,' said Stanley. 'But when you saw Rachel and me talking together, or rather Rachel talking to me, I do assure you, Dorcas, upon my sacred honour, one half of what she said I do not to this moment comprehend, and the whole was based on the most preposterous blunder; and I will tell you in a little time everything about it. I would this moment—I'd be delighted—only just until I have got a letter which I expect—a letter, I assure you, nothing more—and until I have got it, it would be simply to waste your time and patience to weary you with any such—any such.'
'Secret,' said Dorcas.
'Secret, then, if you will have it so,' retorted Stanley, suddenly, with one of those glares that lasted for just one fell moment; but he instantly recovered himself. 'Secret—yes—but no secret in the evil sense—a secret only awaiting the evidence which I daily expect, and then to be stated fully and frankly to you, my only darling, and as completely blown to the winds.'
Dorcas looked in his strange face with her proud, sad gaze, like one guessing at a funereal allegory.
He kissed her cheek again, placing one arm round her slender waist, and with his other hand taking hers.
'Yes, Dorcas, my beloved, my only darling, you will yet know all it has cost me to retain from you even this folly; and when you have heard all—which upon my soul and honour, you shall the moment I am enabled to prove all—you will thank me for having braved your momentary displeasure, to spare you a great deal of useless and miserable suspense. I trust you, Dorcas, in everything implicitly. Why won't you credit what I say?'
'I don't urge you—I never have—to reveal that which you describe so strangely as a concealment, yet no secret; as an absurdity, and yet fraught with miserable suspense.'
'Ah, Dorcas, why will you misconstrue me? Why will you not believe me? I long to tell you this, which, after all, is an utter absurdity, a thousand times more than you can desire to hear it; but my doing so now, unfortified by the evidence I shall have in a very few days, would be attended with a danger which you will then understand. Won't you trust me?'
'And now for my advice,' said Dorcas, smiling down in her mysterious way upon a crimson exotic near her feet.
'Yes, darling, thank you. In sober earnest, your advice,' answered Lake; 'and you must advise me. Several of our neighbours—the Hillyards, the Ledwiches, the Wyndermeres, and ever so many more—have spoken to me very strongly about contesting the county, on the old Whig principles, at the election which is now imminent. There is not a man with a chance of acceptance to come forward, if I refuse. Now, you know what even moderate success in the House, when family and property go together, may accomplish. There are the Dodminsters. Do you think they would ever have got their title by any other means? There are the Forresters——'
'I know it all, Stanley; and at once I say, go on. I thought you must have formed some political project, Mr. Wealdon has been with you so often; but you tell me nothing, Stanley.'
'Not, darling, till I know it myself. This plan, for instance, until you spoke this moment, was but a question, and one which I could not submit until I had seen Wealdon, and heard how matters stood, and what chances of success I should really have. So, darling, you have it all; and I am so glad you advise me to go on. It is five-and-thirty years since anyone connected with Brandon came forward. But it will cost a great deal of money, Dorkie.'
'Yes, I know. I've always heard it cost my uncle and Sir William Camden fifteen thousand pounds.'
'Yes, it will be expensive, Wealdon thinks—very, this time. The other side will spend a great deal of money. It often struck me as a great mistake, that, where there is a good income, and a position to be maintained, there is not a little put by every year to meet cases like this—what they call a reserve fund in trading companies.'
'I do not think there is much money. You know, Stanley.'
'Whatever there is, is under settlement, and we cannot apply it, Dorkie. The only thing to be done, it strikes me, is to sell a part of Five Oaks.'
'I'll not sell any property, Stanley.'
'And what do you propose, then?'
'I don't know. I don't understand these things. But there are ways of getting money by mortgages and loans, and paying them off, without losing the property.'
'I've the greatest possible objection to raising money in that way. It is, in fact, the first step towards ruin; and nobody has ever done it who has not regretted that he did not sell instead.'
'I won't sell Five Oaks, Stanley,' said the young lady, seriously.
'I only said a part,' replied Stanley.
'I won't sell at all.'
'Oh? And I won't mortgage,' said Stanley. 'Then the thing can't go on?'
'I can't help it.'
'But I'm resolved it shall,' answered Stanley.
'I tell you, Stanley, plainly, I will not sell. The Brandon estate shall not be diminished in my time.'
'Why, you perverse idiot, don't you perceive you impair the estate as much by mortgaging as by selling, with ten times the ultimate danger. I tell you I won't mortgage, and you shall sell.'
'This, Sir, is the first time I have been spoken to in such terms.'
'And why do you contradict and thwart me upon business of which I know something and you nothing? What object on earth can I have in impairing the estate? I've as deep an interest in it as you. It is perfectly plain we should sell; and I am determined we shall. Come now, Dorcas—I'm sorry—I'm such a brute, you know, when I'm vexed. You mustn't be angry; and if you'll be a good girl, and trust me in matters of business——'
'Stanley, I tell you plainly once more, I never will consent to sell one acre of the Brandon estates.'
'Then we'll see what I can do without you, Dorkie,' he said in a pleasant, musing way.
He was now looking down, with his sly, malign smile; and Dorcas could almost fancy two yellow lights reflected upon the floor.
'I shall protect the property of my family, Sir, from your folly or your machinations; and I shall write to Chelford, as my trustee, to come here to advise me.'
'And I snap my fingers at you both, and meet you with defiance;' and Stanley's singular eyes glared upon her for a few seconds.
Dorcas turned in her grand way, and walked slowly toward the door.
'Stay a moment, I'm going,' said Stanley, overtaking and confronting her near the door. 'I've only one word. I don't think you quite know me. It will be an evil day for you, Dorkie, when you quarrel with me.'
He looked steadily on her, smiling for a second or two more, and then glided from the conservatory.
It was the first time Dorcas had seen Stanley Lake's features in that translated state which indicated the action of his evil nature, and the apparition haunted her for many a day and night.
CONCERNING A NEW DANGER WHICH THREATENED CAPTAIN STANLEY LAKE.
The ambitious captain walked out, sniffing, white, and incensed. There was an air of immovable resolution in the few words which Dorcas had spoken which rather took him by surprise. The captain was a terrorist. He acted instinctively on the theory that any good that was to be got from human beings was to be extracted from their fears. He had so operated on Mark Wylder; and so sought to coerce his sister Rachel. He had hopes, too, of ultimately catching the good attorney napping, and leading him too, bound and docile, into his ergastulum, although he was himself just now in jeopardy from that quarter. James Dutton, too. Sooner or later he would get Master Jim into a fix, and hold him also spell-bound in the same sort of nightmare.
It was not from malice. The worthy attorney had much more of that leaven than he. Stanley Lake did not care to smash any man, except such as stood in his way. He had a mercantile genius, and never exercised his craft, violence and ferocity, on men or objects, when no advantage was obtainable by so doing. When, however, fortune so placed them that one or other must go to the wall, Captain Stanley Lake was awfully unscrupulous. But, having disabled, and struck him down, and won the stakes, he would have given what remained of him his cold, white hand to shake, or sipped claret with him at his own table, and told him stories, and entertained him with sly, sarcastic sallies, and thought how he could make use of him in an amicable way.
But Stanley Lake's cold, commercial genius, his craft and egotism, were frustrated occasionally by his temper, which, I am afraid, with all its external varnish, was of the sort which is styled diabolical. People said also, what is true of most terrorists, that he was himself quite capable of being frightened; and also, that he lied with too fertile an audacity: and, like a man with too many bills afloat, forgot his endorsements occasionally, and did not recognise his own acceptances when presented after an interval. Such were some of this dangerous fellow's weak points. But on the whole it was by no means a safe thing to cross his path; and few who did so came off altogether scathless.
He pursued his way with a vague feeling of danger and rage, having encountered an opposition of so much more alarming a character than he had anticipated, and found his wife not only competent ferre aspectum to endure his maniacal glare and scowl, but serenely to defy his violence and his wrath. He had abundance of matter for thought and perturbation, and felt himself, when the images of Larcom, Larkin, and Jim Dutton crossed the retina of his memory, some thrill of the fear which 'hath torment'—the fear of a terrible coercion which he liked so well to practise in the case of others.
In this mood he paced, without minding in what direction he went, under those great rows of timber which over-arch the pathway leading toward Redman's Dell—the path that he and Mark Wylder had trod in that misty moonlight walk on which I had seen them set out together.
Before he had walked five minutes in this direction, he was encountered by a little girl in a cloak, who stopped and dropped a courtesy. The captain stopped also, and looked at her with a stare which, I suppose, had something forbidding in it, for the child was frightened. But the wild and menacing look was unconscious, and only the reflection of the dark speculations and passions which were tumbling and breaking in his soul.
'Well, child,' said he, gently, 'I think I know your face, but I forget your name.'
'Little Margery, please Sir, from Miss Lake at Redman's Farm,' she replied with a courtesy.
'Oh! to be sure, yes. And how is Miss Rachel?'
'Very bad with a headache, please, Sir.'
'Is she at home?'
'Yes, Sir, please.'
'Yes, Sir, please—a note for you, Sir;' and she produced a note, rather, indeed, a letter.
'She desired me, Sir, please, to give it into your own hand, if I could, and not to leave it, please, Sir, unless you were at home when I reached.'
He read the direction, and dropped it unopened into the pocket of his shooting coat. The peevish glance with which he eyed it betrayed a presentiment of something unpleasant.
'Any answer required?'
'No, Sir, please—only to leave it.'
'And Miss Lake is quite well?'
'No, Sir, please—a bad headache to-day.'
'Oh! I'm very sorry, indeed. Tell her so. She is at home, is she?'
'Very well; that's all. Say I am very sorry to hear she is suffering; and if I can find time, I hope to see her to-day; and remember to say I have not read her letter, but if I find it requires an answer, it shall have one.'
He looked round like a man newly awakened, and up among the great boughs and interlacing foliage of the noble trees, and the child made him two courtesies, and departed towards Redman's Farm.
Lake sauntered back slowly toward the Hall. On his way, a rustic seat under the shadow invited him, and he sat down, drawing Rachel's letter from his pocket.
What a genius they have for teasing! How women do contrive to waste our time and patience over nonsense! How ingeniously perverse their whimsies are! I do believe Beelzebub employs them still, as he did in Eden, for the special plague of us, poor devils. Here's a lecture or an exhortation from Miss Radie, and a quantity of infinitely absurd advice, all which I am to read and inwardly digest, and discuss with her whenever she pleases. I've a great mind to burn it quietly.'
But he applied his match, instead, to his cigar; and having got it well lighted, he leaned back, and broke the seal, and read this letter, which, I suspect, notwithstanding his preliminary thoughts, he fancied might contain matter of more practical import:—
'I write to you, my beloved and only brother, Stanley, in an altered state of mind, and with clearer views of duty than, I think, I have ever had before.'
'Just as I conjectured,' muttered Stanley, with a bitter smile, as he shook the ashes off the top of his cigar—'a woman's homily.'
He read on, and a livid frown gradually contracted his forehead as he did so.
'I do not know, Stanley, what your feelings may be. Mine have been the same ever since that night in which I was taken into a confidence so dreadful. The circumstances are fearful; but far more dreadful to me, the mystery in which I have lived ever since. I sometimes think I have only myself to blame. But you know, my poor brother, why I consented, and with what agony. Ever since, I have lived in terror, and worse, in degradation. I did not know, until it was too late, how great was my guilt. Heaven knows, when I consented to that journey, I did not comprehend its full purpose, though I knew enough to have warned me of my danger, and undertook it in great fear and anguish of mind. I can never cease to mourn over my madness. Oh! Stanley, you do not know what it is to feel, as I do, the shame and treachery of my situation; to try to answer the smiles of those who, at least, once loved me, and to take their hands; to kiss Dorcas and good Dolly; and feel that all the time I am a vile impostor, stained incredibly, from whom, if they knew me, they would turn in horror and disgust. Now, Stanley, I can bear anything but this baseness—anything but the life-long practice of perfidy—that, I will not and cannot endure. Dorcas must know the truth. That there is a secret jealously guarded from her, she does know—no woman could fail to perceive that; and there are few, Stanley, who would not prefer the certainty of the worst, to the anguish of such relations of mystery and reserve with a husband. She is clever, she is generous, and has many noble qualities. She will see what is right, and do it. Me she may hate, and must despise; but that were to me more endurable than friendship gained on false pretences. I repeat, therefore, Stanley, that Dorcas must know the whole truth. Do not suppose, my poor brother, that I write from impulse—I have deeply thought on the subject.'
'Deeply,' repeated Stanley, with a sneer.
'And the more I reflect, the more am I convinced—if you will not tell her, Stanley, that I must. But it will be wiser and better, terrible as it may be, that the revelation should come from you, whom she has made her husband. The dreadful confidence would be more terrible from any other. Be courageous then, Stanley; you will be happier when you have disclosed the truth, and released, at all events, one of your victims.
'Your sorrowful and only sister,
On finishing the letter, Stanley rose quickly to his feet. He had become gradually so absorbed in reading it, that he laid his cigar unconsciously beside him, and suffered it to go out. With downcast look, and an angry contortion, he tore the sheets of note-paper across, and was on the point of reducing them to a thousand little snow flakes, and giving them to the wind, when, on second thoughts, he crumpled them together, and thrust them into his breast pocket.