His excitement was too intense for foul terms, or even blasphemy. With the edge of his nether lip nipped in his teeth, and his clenched hands in his pockets, he walked through the forest trees to the park, and in his solitudes hurried onward as if his life depended on his speed. Gradually he recovered his self-possession. He sat down under the shade of a knot of beech trees, overlooking that ill-omened tarn, which we have often mentioned, upon a lichen-stained rock, his chin resting on his clenched hand, his elbow on his knee, and the heel of his other foot stamping out bits of the short, green sod.
'That d—d girl deserves to be shot for her treachery,' was the first sentence that broke from his white lips.
It certainly was an amazing outrage upon his self-esteem, that the secret which was the weapon of terror by which he meant to rule his sister Rachel, should, by her slender hand, be taken so easily from his grasp, and lifted to crush him.
The captain's plans were not working by any means so smoothly as he had expected. That sudden stab from Jos. Larkin, whom he always despised, and now hated—whom he believed to be a fifth-rate, pluckless rogue, without audacity, without invention; whom he was on the point of tripping up, that he should have turned short and garotted the gallant captain, was a provoking turn of fortune.
That when a dire necessity subjugated his will, his contempt, his rage, and he inwardly decided that the attorney's extortion must be submitted to, his wife—whom he never made any account of in the transaction, whom he reckoned carelessly on turning about as he pleased, by a few compliments and cajoleries—should have started up, cold and inflexible as marble, in his path, to forbid the payment of the black mail, and expose him to the unascertained and formidable consequences of Dutton's story, and the disappointed attorney's vengeance—was another stroke of luck which took him altogether by surprise.
And to crown all, Miss Radie had grown tired of keeping her own secret, and must needs bring to light the buried disgraces which all concerned were equally interested in hiding away for ever.
Stanley Lake's position, if all were known, was at this moment formidable enough. But he had been fifty times over, during his brief career, in scrapes of a very menacing kind; once or twice, indeed, of the most alarming nature. His temper, his craft, his impetus, were always driving him into projects and situations more or less critical. Sometimes he won, sometimes he failed; but his audacious energy hitherto had extricated him. The difficulties of his present situation were, however, appalling, and almost daunted his semi-diabolical energies.
From Rachel to Dorcas, from Dorcas to the attorney, and from him to Dutton, and back again, he rambled in the infernal litany he muttered over the inauspicious tarn, among the enclosing banks and undulations, and solitary and lonely woods.
'Lake Avernus,' said a hollow voice behind him, and a long grisly hand was laid on his shoulder.
A cold breath of horror crept from his brain to his heel, as he turned about and saw the large, blanched features and glassy eyes of Uncle Lorne bent over him.
'Oh, Lake Avernus, is it?' said Lake, with an angry sneer, and raising his hat with a mock reverence.
'Ay! it is the window of hell, and the spirits in prison come up to see the light of it. Did you see him looking up?' said Uncle Lorne, with his pallid smile.
'Oh! of course—Napoleon Bonaparte leaning on old Dr. Simcock's arm,' answered Lake.
It was odd, in the sort of ghastly banter in which he played off this old man, how much hatred was perceptible.
'No—not he. It is Mark Wylder,' said Uncle Lorne; 'his face comes up like a white fish within a fathom of the top—it makes me laugh. That's the way they keep holiday. Can you tell by the sky when it is holiday in hell? I can.'
And he laughed, and rubbed his long fingers together softly.
'Look! ha! ha!—Look! ha! ha! ha!—Look!' he resumed pointing with his cadaverous forefinger towards the middle of the pool.
'I told you this morning it was a holiday,' and he laughed very quietly to himself.
'Look how his nostrils go like a fish's gills. It is a funny way for a gentleman, and he's a gentleman. Every fool knows the Wylders are gentlemen—all gentlemen in misfortune. He has a brother that is walking about in his coffin. Mark has no coffin; it is all marble steps; and a wicked seraph received him, and blessed him till his hair stood up. Let me whisper you.'
'No, not just at this moment, please,' said Lake, drawing away, disgusted, from the maniacal leer and titter of the gigantic old man.
'Aye, aye—another time—some night there's aurora borealis in the sky. You know this goes under ground all the way to Vallambrosa?'
'Thank you; I was not aware: that's very convenient. Had you not better go down and speak to your friend in the water?'
'Young man, I bless you for remembering,' said Uncle Lorne, solemnly. 'What was Mark Wylder's religion, that I may speak to him comfortably?'
'An Anabaptist, I conjecture, from his present situation,' replied Lake.
'No, that's in the lake of fire, where the wicked seraphim and cherubim baptise, and anabaptise, and hold them under, with a great stone laid across their breasts. I only know two of their clergy—the African vicar, quite a gentleman, and speaks through his nose; and the archbishop with wings; his face is so burnt, he's all eyes and mouth, and on one hand has only one finger, and he tickles me with it till I almost give up the ghost. The ghost of Miss Baily is a lie, he said, by my soul; and he likes you—he loves you. Shall I write it all in a book, and give it you? I meet Mark Wylder in three places sometimes. Don't move, till I go down; he's as easily frightened as a fish.'
And Uncle Lorne crept down the bank, tacking, and dodging, and all the time laughing softly to himself; and sometimes winking with a horrid, wily grimace at Stanley, who fervently wished him at the bottom of the tarn.
'I say,' said Stanley, addressing the keeper, whom by a beck he had brought to his side, 'you don't allow him, surely, to go alone now?'
'No, Sir—since your order, Sir,' said the stern, reserved official.
'Nor to come into any place but this—the park, I mean?'
'And do you mind, try and get him home always before nightfall. It is easy to frighten him. Find out what frightens him, and do it or say it. It is dangerous, don't you see? and he might break his d—d neck any time among those rocks and gullies, or get away altogether from you in the dark.'
So the keeper, at the water's brink, joined Uncle Lorne, who was talking, after his fashion, into the dark pool. And Stanley Lake—a general in difficulties—retraced his steps toward the park gate through which he had come, ruminating on his situation and resources.
MISS RACHEL LAKE BECOMES VIOLENT.
So soon as the letter which had so surprised and incensed Stanley Lake was despatched, and beyond recall, Rachel, who had been indescribably agitated before, grew all at once calm. She knew that she had done right. She was glad the die was cast, and that it was out of her power to retract.
She kneeled at her bedside, and wept and prayed, and then went down and talked with old Tamar, who was knitting in the shade by the porch.
Then the young lady put on her bonnet and cloak, and walked down to Gylingden, with an anxious, but still a lighter heart, to see her friend, Dolly Wylder.
Dolly received her in a glad sort of fuss.
'I'm so glad to see you, Miss Lake.'
'Call me Rachel; and won't you let me call you Dolly?'
'Well, Rachel, dear,' replied Dolly, laughing, 'I'm delighted you're come; I have such good news—but I can't tell it till I think for a minute—I must begin at the beginning.'
'Anywhere, everywhere, only if it is good news, let me hear it at once. I'll be sure to understand.'
'Well, Miss—I mean Rachel, dear—you know—I may tell you now—the vicar—my dear Willie—he and I—we've been in great trouble—oh, such trouble—Heaven only knows—' and she dried her eyes quickly—'money, my dear—' and she smiled with a bewildered shrug—'some debts at Cambridge—no fault of his—you can't imagine what a saving darling he is—but these were a few old things that mounted up with interest, my dear—you understand—and law costs—oh, you can't think—and indeed, dear Miss—well, Rachel—I forgot—I sometimes thought we must be quite ruined.'
'Oh, Dolly, dear,' said Rachel, very pale, 'I feared it. I thought you might be troubled about money. I was not sure, but I was afraid; and, to say truth, it was partly to try your friendship with a question on that very point that I came here, and not indeed, Dolly, dear, from impertinent curiosity, but in the hope that maybe you might allow me to be of some use.'
'How wonderfully good you are! How friends are raised up!' and with a smile that shone like an April sun through her tears, she stood on tiptoe, and kissed the tall young lady, who—not smiling, but with a pale and very troubled face—bowed down and returned her kiss.
'You know, dear, before he went, Mark promised to lend dear Willie a large sum of money. Well, he went away in such a hurry, that he never thought of it; and though he constantly wrote to Mr. Larkin—you have no idea, my dear Miss Lake, what a blessed angel that man is—oh! such a friend as has been raised up to us in that holy and wise man, words cannot express; but what was I saying?—oh, yes—Mark, you know—it was very kind, but he has so many things on his mind it quite escaped him—and he keeps, you know, wandering about on the Continent, and never gives his address; so he, can't, you see, be written to; and the delay—but, Rachel, darling, are you ill?'
She rang the bell, and opened the window, and got some water.
'My darling, you walked too fast here. You were very near fainting.'
'No, dear—nothing—I am quite well now—go on.'
But she did not go on immediately, for Rachel was trembling in a kind of shivering fit, which did not pass away till after poor Dolly, who had no other stimulant at command, made her drink a cup of very hot milk.
'Thank you, darling. You are too good to me, Dolly. Oh! Dolly, you are too good to me.'
Rachel's eyes were looking into hers with a careworn, entreating gaze, and her cold hand was pressed on the back of Dolly's.
Nearly ten minutes passed before the talk was renewed.
'Well, now, what do you think—that good man, Mr. Larkin, just as things were at the worst, found a way to make everything—oh, blessed mercy!—the hand of Heaven, my dear—quite right again—and we'll be so happy. Like a bird I could sing, and fly almost—a foolish old thing—ha! ha! ha!—such an old goose!' and she wiped her eyes again.
'Hush! is that Fairy? Oh, no, it is only Anne singing. Little man has not been well yesterday and to-day. He won't eat, and looks pale, but he slept very well, my darling man; and Doctor Buddle—I met him this morning—so kindly took him into his room, and examined him, and says it may be nothing at all, please Heaven,' and she sighed, smiling still.
'Dear little Fairy—where is he?' asked Rachel, her sad eyes looking toward the door.
'In the study with his Wapsie. Mrs. Woolaston, she is such a kind soul, lent him such a beautiful old picture book—"Woodward's Eccentricities" it is called—and he's quite happy—little Fairy, on his little stool at the window.'
'No headache or fever?' asked Miss Lake cheerfully, though, she knew not why, there seemed something ominous in this little ailment.
'None at all; oh, none, thank you; none in the world. I'd be so frightened if there was. But, thank Heaven, Doctor Buddle says there's nothing to make us at all uneasy. My blessed little man! And he has his canary in the cage in the window, and his kitten to play with in the study. He's quite happy.'
'Please Heaven, he'll be quite well to-morrow—the darling little man,' said Rachel, all the more fondly for that vague omen that seemed to say, 'He's gone.'
'Here's Mr. Larkin!' cried Dolly, jumping up, and smiling and nodding at the window to that long and natty apparition, who glided to the hall-door with a sad smile, raising his well-brushed hat as he passed, and with one grim glance beyond Mrs. Wylder, for his sharp eye half detected another presence in the room.
He was followed, not accompanied—for Mr. Larkin knew what a gentleman he was—by a young and bilious clerk, with black hair and a melancholy countenance, and by old Buggs—his conducting man—always grinning, whose red face glared in the little garden like a great bunch of hollyhocks. He was sober as a judge all the morning, and proceeded strictly on the principle of business first, and pleasure afterward. But his orgies, when off duty, were such as to cause the good attorney, when complaints reached him, to shake his head, and sigh profoundly, and sometimes to lift up his mild eyes and long hands; and, indeed, so scandalous an appendage was Buggs, that if he had been less useful, I believe the pure attorney, who, in the uncomfortable words of John Bunyan, 'had found a cleaner road to hell,' would have cashiered him long ago.
'There is that awful Mr. Buggs,' said Dolly, with a look of honest alarm. 'I often wonder so Christian a man as Mr. Larkin can countenance him. He is hardly ever without a black eye. He has been three nights together without once putting off his clothes—think of that; and, my dear, on Friday week he fell through the window of the Fancy Emporium, at two o'clock in the morning; and Doctor Buddle says if the cut on his jaw had been half an inch lower, he would have cut some artery, and lost his life—wretched man!'
'They have come about law business, Dolly!' enquired the young lady, who had a profound, instinctive dread of Mr. Larkin.
'Yes, my dear; a most important windfall. Only for Mr. Larkin, it never could have been accomplished, and, indeed, I don't think it would ever have been thought of.'
'I hope he has some one to advise him,' said Miss Lake, anxiously. 'I—I think Mr. Larkin a very cunning person; and you know your husband does not understand business.'
'Is it Mr. Larkin, my dear? Mr. Larkin! Why, my dear, if you knew him as we do, you'd trust your life in his hands.'
'But there are people who know him still better; and I think they fancy he is a very crafty man. I do not like him myself, and Dorcas Brandon dislikes him too; and, though I don't think we could either give a reason—I don't know, Dolly, but I should not like to trust him.'
'But, my dear, he is an excellent man, and such a friend, and he has managed all this most troublesome business so delightfully. It is what they call a reversion.'
'William Wylder is not selling his reversion?' said Rachel, fixing a wild and startled look on her companion.
'Yes, reversion, I am sure, is the name. And why not, dear? It is most unlikely we should ever get a farthing of it any other way, and it will give us enough to make us quite happy.'
'But, my darling, don't you know the reversion under the will is a great fortune? He must not think of it;' and up started Rachel, and before Dolly could interpose or remonstrate, she had crossed the little hall, and entered the homely study, where the gentlemen were conferring.
William Wylder was sitting at his desk, and a large sheet of law scrivenery, on thick paper, with a stamp in the corner, was before him. The bald head of the attorney, as he leaned over him, and indicated an imaginary line with his gold pencil-case, was presented toward Miss Lake as she entered.
The attorney had just said 'there, please,' in reply to the vicar's question, 'Where do I write my name?' and red Buggs, grinning with his mouth open, like an over-heated dog, and the sad and bilious young gentleman, stood by to witness the execution of the cleric's autograph.
Tall Jos. Larkin looked up, smiling with his mouth also a little open, as was his wont when he was particularly affable. But the rat's eyes were looking at her with a hungry suspicion, and smiled not.
'William Wylder, I am so glad I'm in time,' said Rachel, rustling across the room.
'There,' said the attorney, very peremptorily, and making a little furrow in the thick paper with the seal end of his pencil.
'Stop, William Wylder, don't sign; I've a word to say—you must pause.'
'If it affects our business, Miss Lake, I do request that you address yourself to me; if not, may I beg, Miss Lake, that you will defer it for a moment.'
'William Wylder, lay down that pen; as you love your little boy, lay it down, and hear me,' continued Miss Lake.
The vicar looked at her with his eyes wide open, puzzled, like a man who is not quite sure whether he may not be doing something wrong.
'I—really, Miss Lake—pardon me, but this is very irregular, and, in fact, unprecedented!' said Jos. Larkin. 'I think—I suppose, you can hardly be aware, Ma'am, that I am here as the Rev. Mr. Wylder's confidential solicitor, acting solely for him, in a matter of a strictly private nature.'
The attorney stood erect, a little flushed, with that peculiar contraction, mean and dangerous, in his eyes.
'Of course, Mr. Wylder, if you, Sir, desire me to leave, I shall instantaneously do so; and, indeed, unless you proceed to sign, I had better go, as my time is generally, I may say, a little pressed upon, and I have, in fact, some business elsewhere to attend to.'
'What is this law-paper?' demanded Rachel, laying the tips of her slender fingers upon it.
'Am I to conclude that you withdraw from your engagement?' asked Mr. Larkin. 'I had better, then, communicate with Burlington and Smith by this post; as also with the sheriff, who has been very kind.'
'Oh, no!—oh, no, Mr. Larkin!—pray, I'm quite ready to sign.'
'Now, William Wylder, you sha'n't sign until you tell me whether this is a sale of your reversion.'
The young lady had her white hand firmly pressed upon the spot where he was to sign, and the ring that glittered on her finger looked like a talisman interposing between the poor vicar and the momentous act he was meditating.
'I think, Miss Lake, it is pretty plain you are not acting for yourself here—you have been sent, Ma'am,' said the attorney, looking very vicious, and speaking a little huskily and hurriedly; 'I quite conceive by whom.'
'I don't know what you mean, Sir,' replied Miss Lake, with grave disdain.
'You have been commissioned, Ma'am, I venture to think, to come here to watch the interests of another party.'
'I say, Sir, I don't in the least comprehend you.'
'I think it is pretty obvious, Ma'am—Miss Lake, I beg pardon—you have had some conversation with your brother,' answered the attorney, with a significant sneer.
'I don't know what you mean, Sir, I repeat. I've just heard, in the other room, from your wife, William Wylder, that you were about selling your reversion in the estates, and I want to know whether that is so; for if it be, it is the act of a madman, and I'll prevent it, if I possibly can.'
'Upon my word! possibly'—said the vicar, his eyes very wide open, and looking with a hesitating gaze from Rachel to the attorney—'there may be something in it which neither you nor I know; does it not strike you—had we not better consider?'
'Consider what, Sir?' said the attorney, with a snap, and losing his temper somewhat. 'It is simply, Sir, that this young lady represents Captain Lake, who wishes to get the reversion for himself.'
'That is utterly false, Sir!' said Miss Lake, flashing and blushing with indignation. 'You, William, are a gentleman; and such inconceivable meanness cannot enter your mind.'
The attorney, with what he meant to be a polished sarcasm, bowed and smiled toward Miss Lake.
Pale little Fairy, sitting before his 'picture-book,' was watching the scene with round eyes and round mouth, and that mixture of interest, awe, and distress, with which children witness the uncomprehended excitement and collision of their elders.
'My dear Miss Lake, I respect and esteem you; you quite mistake, I am persuaded, my good friend Mr. Larkin; and, indeed, I don't quite comprehend; but if it were so, and that your brother really wished—do you think he does, Mr. Larkin?—to buy the reversion, he might think it more valuable, perhaps.'
'I can say with certainty, Sir, that from that quarter you would get nothing like what you have agreed to take; and I must say, once for all, Sir, that—quite setting aside every consideration of honour and of conscience, and of the highly prejudicial position in which you would place me as a man of business, by taking the very short turn which this young lady, Miss Lake, suggests—your letters amount to an equitable agreement to sell, which, on petition, the court would compel you to do.'
'So you see, my dear Miss Lake, there is no more to be said,' said the vicar, with a careworn smile, looking upon Rachel's handsome face.
'Now, now, we are all friends, aren't we?' said poor Dolly, who could not make anything of the debate, and was staring, with open mouth, from one speaker to another. 'We are all agreed, are not we? You are all so good, and fond of Willie, that you are actually ready almost to quarrel for him.' But her little laugh produced no echo, except a very joyless and flushed effort from the attorney, as he looked up from consulting his watch.
'Eleven minutes past three,' said he, 'and I've a meeting at my house at half-past: so, unless you complete that instrument now, I regret to say I must take it back unfinished, and the result may be to defeat the arrangement altogether, and if the consequences should prove serious, I, at least, am not to blame.'
'Don't sign, I entreat, I implore of you. William Wylder, you shan't.'
'But, my dear Miss Lake, we have considered everything, and Mr. Larkin and I agree that my circumstances are such as to make it inevitable.'
'Really, this is child's play; there, if you please,' said the attorney, once more.
Rachel Lake, during the discussion, had removed her hand. The faintly-traced line on which the vicar was to sign was now fairly presented to him.
'Just in your usual way,' murmured Mr. Larkin.
So the vicar's pen was applied, but before he had time to trace the first letter of his name, Rachel Lake resolutely snatched the thick, bluish sheet of scrivenery, with its handsome margins, and red ink lines, from before him, and tore it across and across, with the quickness of terror, and in fewer seconds than one could fancy, it lay about the floor and grate in pieces little bigger than dominoes.
The attorney made a hungry snatch at the paper, over William Wylder's shoulder, nearly bearing that gentleman down on his face, but his clutch fell short.
'Hallo! Miss Lake, Ma'am—the paper!'
But wild words were of no avail. The whole party, except Rachel, were aghast. The attorney's small eye glanced over the ground and hearthstone, where the bits were strewn, like
Ladies' smocks, all silver white, That paint the meadows with delight.
He had nothing for it but to submit to fortune with his best air. He stood erect; a slanting beam from the window glimmered on his tall, bald head, and his face was black and menacing as the summit of a thunder-crowned peak.
'You are not aware, Miss Lake, of the nature of your act, and of the consequences to which you have exposed yourself, Madam. But that is a view of the occurrence in which, except as a matter of deep regret, I cannot be supposed to be immediately interested. I will mention, however, that your interference, your violent interference, Madam, may be attended with most serious consequences to my reverend client, for which, of course, you constituted yourself fully responsible, when you entered on the course of unauthorised interference, which has resulted in destroying the articles of agreement, prepared with great care and labour, for his protection; and retarding the transmission of the document, by at least four-and-twenty hours, to London. You may, Madam, I regret to observe, have ruined my client.'
'Saved him, I hope.'
'And run yourself, Madam, into a very serious scrape.'
'Upon that point you have said quite enough, Sir. Dolly, William, don't look so frightened; you'll both live to thank me for this.'
All this time little Fairy, unheeded, was bawling in great anguish of soul, clinging to Rachel's dress, and crying—'Oh! he'll hurt her—he'll hurt her—he'll hurt her. Don't let him—don't let him. Wapsie, don't let him. Oh! the frightle man!—don't let him—he'll hurt her—the frightle man!' And little man's cheeks were drenched in tears, and his wee feet danced in an agony of terror on the floor, as, bawling, he tried to pull his friend Rachel into a corner.
'Nonsense, little man,' cried his father, with quick reproof, on hearing this sacrilegious uproar. 'Mr. Larkin never hurt anyone; tut, tut; sit down, and look at your book.'
But Rachel, with a smile of love and gratification, lifted the little man up in her arms, and kissed him; and his thin, little legs were clasped about her waist, and his arms round her neck, and he kissed her with his wet face, devouringly, blubbering 'the frightle man—you doatie!—the frightle man!'
'Then, Mr. Wylder, I shall have the document prepared again from the draft. You'll see to that, Mr. Buggs, please; and perhaps it will be better that you should look in at the Lodge.'
When he mentioned the Lodge, it was in so lofty a way that a stranger would have supposed it something very handsome indeed, and one of the sights of the county.
'Say, about nine o'clock to-morrow morning. Farewell, Mr. Wylder, farewell. I regret the enhanced expense—I regret the delay—I regret the risk—I regret, in fact, the whole scene. Farewell, Mrs. Wylder.' And with a silent bow to Rachel—perfectly polished, perfectly terrible—he withdrew, followed by the sallow clerk, and by that radiant scamp, old Buggs, who made them several obeisances at the door.
'Oh, dear Miss Lake—Rachel, I mean—Rachel, dear, I hope it won't be all off. Oh, you don't know—Heaven only knows—the danger we are in. Oh, Rachel, dear, if this is broken off, I don't know what is to become of us—I don't know.'
Dolly spoke quite wildly, with her hands on Rachel's shoulders. It was the first time she had broken down, the first time, at least, the vicar had seen her anything but cheery, and his head sank, and it seemed as if his last light had gone out, and he was quite benighted.
'Do you think,' said he, 'there is much danger of that? Do you really think so?'
'Now, don't blame me,' said Miss Lake, 'and don't be frightened till you have heard me. Let us sit down here—we shan't be interrupted—and just answer your wretched friend, Rachel, two or three questions, and hear what she has to say.'
Rachel was flushed and excited, and sat with the little boy still in her arms.
So, in reply to her questions, the vicar told her frankly how he stood; and Rachel said—'Well, you must not think of selling your reversion. Oh! think of your little boy—think of Dolly—if you were taken away from her.'
'But,' said Dolly, 'Mr. Larkin heard from Captain Lake that Mark is privately married, and actually has, he says, a large family; and he, you know, has letters from him, and Mr. Larkin thinks, knows more than anyone else about him; and if that were so, none of us would ever inherit the property. So'—
'Do they say that Mark is married? Nothing can be more false. I know it is altogether a falsehood. He neither is nor ever will be married. If my brother dared say that in my presence, I would make him confess, before you, that he knows it cannot be. Oh! my poor little Fairy—my poor Dolly—my poor good friend, William! What shall I say? I am in great distraction of mind.' And she hugged and kissed the pale little boy, she herself paler.
'Listen to me, good and kind as you are. You are never to call me your friend, mind that. I am a most unhappy creature forced by circumstances to be your enemy, for a time—not always. You have no conception how, and may never even suspect. Don't ask me, but listen.'
Wonder stricken and pained was the countenance with which the vicar gazed upon her, and Dolly looked both frightened and perplexed.
'I have a little more than three hundred a-year. There is a little annuity charged on Sir Hugh Landon's estate, and his solicitor has written, offering me six hundred pounds for it. I will write to-night accepting that offer, and you shall have the money to pay those debts which have been pressing so miserably upon you. Don't thank—not a word—but listen. I would so like, Dolly, to come and live with you. We could unite our incomes. I need only bring poor old Tamar with me, and I can give up Redman's Farm in September next. I should be so much happier; and I think my income and yours joined would enable us to live without any danger of getting into debt. Will you agree to this, Dolly, dear; and promise me, William Wylder, that you will think no more of selling that reversion, which may be the splendid provision of your dear little boy. Don't thank me—don't say anything now; and oh! don't reject my poor entreaty. Your refusal would almost make me mad. I would try, Dolly, to be of use. I think I could. Only try me.'
She fancied she saw in Dolly's face, under all her gratitude, some perplexity and hesitation, and feared to accept a decision then. So she hurried away, with a hasty and kind good-bye.
A fortnight before, I think, during Dolly's jealous fit, this magnificent offer of Rachel's would, notwithstanding the dreadful necessities of the case, have been coldly received by the poor little woman. But that delusion was quite cured now—no reserve, or doubt, or coldness left behind. And Dolly and the vicar felt that Rachel's noble proposal was the making of them.
AN ENEMY IN REDMAN'S DELL.
Jos. Larkin grew more and more uncomfortable about the unexpected interposition of Rachel Lake as the day wore on. He felt, with an unerring intuition, that the young lady both despised and suspected him. He also knew that she was impetuous and clever, and he feared from that small white hand a fatal mischief—he could not tell exactly how—to his plans.
Jim Dutton's letter had somehow an air of sobriety and earnestness, which made way with his convictions. His doubts and suspicions had subsided, and he now believed, with a profound moral certainty, that Mark Wylder was actually dead, within the precincts of a mad-house or of some lawless place of detention abroad. What was that to the purpose? Dutton might arrive at any moment. Low fellows are always talking; and the story might get abroad before the assignment of the vicar's interest. Of course there was something speculative in the whole transaction, but he had made his book well, and by his 'arrangement' with Captain Lake, whichever way the truth lay, he stood to win. So the attorney had no notion of allowing this highly satisfactory arithmetic to be thrown into confusion by the fillip of a small gloved finger.
On the whole he was not altogether sorry for the delay. Everything worked together he knew. One or two covenants and modifications in the articles had struck him as desirable, on reading the instrument over with William Wylder. He also thought a larger consideration should be stated and acknowledged as paid, say 22,000l. The vicar would really receive just 2,200l. 'Costs' would do something to reduce the balance, for Jos. Larkin was one of those oxen who, when treading out corn, decline to be muzzled. The remainder was—the vicar would clearly understand—one of those ridiculous pedantries of law, upon which our system of crotchets and fictions insisted. And William Wylder, whose character, simply and sensitively honourable, Mr. Larkin appreciated, was to write to Burlington and Smith a letter, for the satisfaction of their speculative and nervous client, pledging his honour, as a gentleman, and his conscience, as a Christian, that in the event of the sale being completed, he would never do, countenance, or permit, any act or proceeding, whatsoever, tending on any ground to impeach or invalidate the transaction.
'I've no objection—have I?—to write such a letter,' asked the vicar of his adviser.
'Why, I suppose you have no intention of trying to defeat your own act, and that is all the letter would go to. I look on it as wholly unimportant, and it is really not a point worth standing upon for a second.'
So that also was agreed to.
Now while the improved 'instrument' was in preparation, the attorney strolled down in the evening to look after his clerical client, and keep him 'straight' for the meeting at which he was to sign the articles next day.
It was by the drowsy faded light of a late summer's evening that he arrived at the quaint little parsonage. He maintained his character as 'a nice spoken gentleman,' by enquiring of the maid who opened the door how the little boy was. 'Not so well—gone to bed—but would be better, everyone was sure, in the morning.' So he went in and saw the vicar, who had just returned with Dolly from a little ramble. Everything promised fairly—the quiet mind was returning—the good time coming—all the pleasanter for the storms and snows of the night that was over.
'Well, my good invaluable friend, you will be glad—you will rejoice with us, I know, to learn that, after all, the sale of our reversion is unnecessary.'
The attorney allowed his client to shake him by both hands, and he smiled a sinister congratulation as well as he could, grinning in reply to the vicar's pleasant smile as cheerfully as was feasible, and wofully puzzled in the meantime. Had James Dutton arrived and announced the death of Mark—no; it could hardly be that—decency had not yet quite taken leave of the earth; and stupid as the vicar was, he would hardly announce the death of his brother to a Christian gentleman in a fashion so outrageous. Had Lord Chelford been invoked, and answered satisfactorily? Or Dorcas—or had Lake, the diabolical sneak, interposed with his long purse, and a plausible hypocrisy of kindness, to spoil Larkin's plans? All these fanciful queries flitted through his brain as the vicar's hands shook both his, and he laboured hard to maintain the cheerful grin with which he received the news, and his guileful rapacious little eyes searched narrowly the countenance of his client.
So after a while, Dolly assisting, and sometimes both talking together, the story was told, Rachel blessed and panegyrised, and the attorney's congratulations challenged and yielded once more. But there was something not altogether joyous in Jos. Larkin's countenance, which struck the vicar, and he said—
'You don't see any objection?' and paused.
'Objection? Why, objection, my dear Sir, is a strong word; but I fear I do see a difficulty—in fact, several difficulties. Perhaps you would take a little turn on the green—I must call for a moment at the reading-room—and I'll explain. You'll forgive me, I hope, Mrs. Wylder,' he added, with a playful condescension, 'for running away with your husband, but only for a few minutes—ha, ha!'
The shadow was upon Jos. Larkin's face, and he was plainly meditating a little uncomfortably, as they approached the quiet green of Gylingden.
'What a charming evening,' said the vicar, making an effort at cheerfulness.
'Delicious evening—yes,' said the attorney, throwing back his long head, and letting his mouth drop. But though his face was turned up towards the sky, there was a contraction and a darkness upon it, not altogether heavenly.
'The offer,' said the attorney, beginning rather abruptly, 'is no doubt a handsome offer at the first glance, and it may be well meant. But the fact is, my dear Mr. Wylder, six hundred pounds would leave little more than a hundred remaining after Burlington and Smith have had their costs. You have no idea of the expense and trouble of title, and the inevitable costliness, my dear Sir, of all conveyancing operations. The deeds, I have little doubt, in consequence of the letter you directed me to write, have been prepared—that is, in draft, of course—and then, my dear Sir, I need not remind you, that there remain the costs to me—those, of course, await your entire convenience—but still it would not be either for your or my advantage that they should be forgotten in the general adjustment of your affairs, which I understand you to propose.'
The vicar's countenance fell. In fact, it is idle to say that, being unaccustomed to the grand scale on which law costs present themselves on occasion, he was unspeakably shocked and he grew very pale and silent on hearing these impressive sentences.
'And as to Miss Lake's residing with you—I speak now, you will understand, in the strictest confidence, because the subject is a painful one; as to her residing with you, as she proposes, Miss Lake is well aware that I am cognizant of circumstances which render any such arrangement absolutely impracticable. I need not, my dear Sir, be more particular—at present, at least. In a little time you will probably be made acquainted with them, by the inevitable disclosures of time, which, as the wise man says, "discovers all things."'
'But—but what'—stammered the pale vicar, altogether shocked and giddy.
'You will not press me, my dear Sir; you'll understand that, just now, I really cannot satisfy any particular enquiry. Miss Lake has spoken, in charity I will hope and trust, without thought. But I am much mistaken, or she will herself, on half-an-hour's calm consideration, see the moral impossibilities which interpose between her, to me, most amazing plan and its realisation.'
There was a little pause here, during which the tread of their feet on the soft grass alone was audible.
'You will quite understand,' resumed the attorney, 'the degree of confidence with which I make this communication; and you will please, specially not to mention it to any person whatsoever. I do not except, in fact, any. You will find, on consideration, that Miss Lake will not press her residence upon you. No; I've no doubt Miss Lake is a very intelligent person, and, when not excited, will see it clearly.'
The attorney's manner had something of that reserve, and grim sort of dryness, which supervened whenever he fancied a friend or client on whom he had formed designs was becoming impracticable. Nothing affected him so much as that kind of unkindness.
Jos. Larkin took his leave a little abruptly. He did not condescend to ask the vicar whether he still entertained Miss Lake's proposal. He had not naturally a pleasant temper—somewhat short, dark, and dangerous, but by no means noisy. This temper, an intense reluctance ever to say 'thank you,' and a profound and quiet egotism, were the ingredients of that 'pride' on which—a little inconsistently, perhaps, in so eminent a Christian—he piqued himself. It must be admitted, however, that his pride was not of that stamp which would prevent him from listening to other men's private talk, or reading their letters, if anything were to be got by it; or from prosecuting his small spites with a patient and virulent industry; or from stripping a man of his possessions, and transferring them to himself by processes from which most men would shrink.
'Well,' thought the vicar, 'that munificent offer is unavailing, it seems. The sum insufficient, great as it is; and other difficulties in the way.'
He was walking homewards, slowly and dejectedly; and was now beginning to feel alarm lest the purchase of the reversion should fail. The agreement was to have gone up to London by this day's mail, and now could not reach till the day after to-morrow—four-and-twenty hours later than was promised. The attorney had told him it was a 'touch-and-go affair,' and the whole thing might be off in a moment; and if it should miscarry what inevitable ruin yawned before him? Oh, the fatigue of these monotonous agitations—this never-ending suspense! Oh, the yearning unimaginable for quiet and rest! How awfully he comprehended the reasonableness of the thanksgiving which he had read that day in the churchyard—'We give Thee hearty thanks for that it hath pleased Thee to deliver this our brother out of the miseries of this sinful world.'
With the attorney it was different. Making the most of his height, which he fancied added much to the aristocratic effect of his presence, with his head thrown back, and swinging his walking cane easily between his finger and thumb by his side, he strode languidly through the main street of Gylingden, in the happy belief that he was making a sensation among the denizens of the town.
And so he moved on to the mill-road, on which he entered, and was soon deep in the shadows of Redman's Dell.
He opened the tiny garden-gate of Redman's Farm, looking about him with a supercilious benevolence, like a man conscious of bestowing a distinction. He was inwardly sensible of a sort of condescension in entering so diminutive and homely a place—a kind of half amusing disproportion between Jos. Larkin, Esq., of the Lodge, worth, already, L27,000, and on the high road to greatness, and the trumpery little place in which he found himself.
Old Tamar was sitting in the porch, with her closed Bible upon her knees; there was no longer light to read by. She rose up, like the 'grim, white woman who haunts yon wood,' before him.
Her young lady had walked up to Brandon, taking the little girl with her, and she supposed would be back again early.
Mr. Larkin eyed her for a second to ascertain whether she was telling lies. He always thought everyone might be lying. It was his primary impression here. But there was a recluse and unearthly character in the face of the crone which satisfied him that she would never think of fencing with such weapons with him.
Very good. Mr. Larkin would take a short walk, and as his business was pressing, he would take the liberty of looking in again in about half-an-hour, if she thought her mistress would be at home then.
So, although the weird white woman who leered after him so strangely as he walked with his most lordly air out of the little garden, and down the darkening road towards Gylingden, could not say, he resolved to make trial again.
In the meantime Rachel had arrived at Brandon Hall. Dorcas—whom, if the truth were spoken, she would rather not have met—encountered her on the steps. She was going out for a lonely, twilight walk upon the terrace, where many a beautiful Brandon of other days, the sunshine of whose smile glimmered only on the canvas that hung upon those ancestral walls, and whose sorrows were hid in the grave and forgotten by the world, had walked in other days, in the pride of beauty, or in the sadness of desertion.
Dorcas paused upon the door-steps, and received her sister-in-law upon that elevation.
'Have you really come all this way, Rachel, to see me this evening?' she said, and something of sarcasm thrilled in the cold, musical tones.
'No, Dorcas,' said Rachel, taking her proffered hand in the spirit in which it was given, and with the air rather of a defiance than of a greeting; 'I came to see my brother.'
'You are frank, at all events, Rachel, and truth is better than courtesy; but you forget that your brother could not have returned so soon.'
'Returned?' said Rachel; 'I did not know he had left home.'
'It's strange he should not have consulted you. I, of course, knew nothing of it until he had been more than an hour upon his journey.'
Rachel Lake made no answer but a little laugh.
'He'll return to-morrow; and perhaps your meeting may still be in time. I was thinking of a few minutes' walk upon the terrace, but you are fatigued: you had better come in and rest.'
'No, Dorcas, I won't go in.'
'But, Rachel, you are tired; you must come in with me, and drink tea, and then you can go home in the brougham,' said Dorcas, more kindly.
'No, Dorcas, no; I will not drink tea nor go in; but I am tired, and as you are so kind, I will accept your offer of the carriage.'
Larcom had, that moment, appeared in the vestibule, and received the order.
'I'll sit in the porch, if you will allow me, Dorcas; you must not lose your walk.'
'Then you won't come into the house, you won't drink tea with me, and you won't join me in my little walk; and why not any of these?'
Dorcas smiled coldly, and continued,
'Well, I shall hear the carriage coming to the door, and I'll return and bid you good-night. It is plain, Rachel, you do not like my company.'
'True, Dorcas, I do not like your company. You are unjust; you have no confidence in me; you prejudge me without proof; and you have quite ceased to love me. Why should I like your company?'
Dorcas smiled a proud and rather sad smile at this sudden change from the conventional to the passionate; and the direct and fiery charge of her kinswoman was unanswered.
She stood meditating for a minute.
'You think I no longer love you, Rachel, as I did. Perhaps young ladies' friendships are never very enduring; but, if it be so, the fault is not mine.'
'No, Dorcas, the fault is not yours, nor mine. The fault is in circumstances. The time is coming, Dorcas, when you will know all, and, maybe, judge me mercifully. In the meantime, Dorcas, you cannot like my company, because you do not like me; and I do not like yours, just because, in spite of all, I do love you still; and in yours I only see the image of a lost friend. You may be restored to me soon—maybe never—but till then, I have lost you.'
'Well,' said Dorcas, 'it may be there is a wild kind of truth in what you say, Rachel, and—no matter—time, as you say, and light—I don't understand you, Rachel; but there is this in you that resembles me—we both hate hypocrisy, and we are both, in our own ways, proud. I'll come back, when I hear the carriage, and see you for a moment, as you won't stay, or come with me, and bid you good-bye.'
So Dorcas went her way; and alone, on the terrace, looking over the stone balustrade—over the rich and sombre landscape, dim and vaporous in the twilight—she still saw the pale face of Rachel—paler than she liked to see it. Was she ill?—and she thought how lonely she would be if Rachel were to die—how lonely she was now. There was a sting of compunction—a yearning—and then started a few bitter and solitary tears.
In one of the great stone vases, that are ranged along the terrace, there flourished a beautiful and rare rose. I forget its name. Some of my readers will remember. It is first to bloom—first to wither. Its fragrant petals were now strewn upon the terrace underneath. One blossom only remained untarnished, and Dorcas plucked it, and with it in her fingers, she returned to the porch where Rachel remained.
'You see, I have come back a little before my time,' said Dorcas. 'I have just been looking at the plant you used to admire so much, and the leaves are shed already, and it reminded me of our friendship, Radie; but I am sure you are right; it will all bloom again, after the winter, you know, and I thought I would come back, and say that, and give you this relic of the bloom that is gone—the last token,' and she kissed Rachel, as she placed it in her fingers, 'a token of remembrance and of hope.'
'I will keep it, Dorkie. It was kind of you,' and their eyes met regretfully.
'And—and, I think, I do trust you, Radie,' said the heiress of Brandon; 'and I hope you will try to like me on till—till spring comes, you know. And, I wish,' she sighed softly, 'I wish we were as we used to be. I am not very happy; and—here's the carriage.'
And it drew up close to the steps, and Rachel entered; and her little handmaid of up in the seat behind; and Dorcas and Rachel kissed their hands, and smiled, and away the carriage glided; and Dorcas, standing on the steps, looked after it very sadly. And when it disappeared, she sighed again heavily, still looking in its track; and I think she said 'Darling!'
RACHEL LAKE BEFORE THE ACCUSER.
Twilight was darker in Redman's Dell than anywhere else. But dark as it was, there was still light enough to enable Rachel, as she hurried across the little garden, on her return from Brandon, to see a long white face, and some dim outline of the figure to which it belonged, looking out upon her from the window of her little drawing-room.
But no, it could not be; who was there to call at so odd an hour? She must have left something—a bag, or a white basket upon the window-sash. She was almost startled, however, as she approached the porch, to see it nod, and a hand dimly waved in token of greeting.
Tamar was in the kitchen. Could it be Stanley! But faint as the outline was she saw, she fancied that it was a taller person than he. She felt a sort of alarm, in which there was some little mixture of the superstitious, and she pushed open the door, not entering the room, but staring in toward the window, where against the dim, external light, she clearly saw, without recognising it, a tall figure, greeting her with mop and moe.
'Who is that?' cried Miss Lake, a little sharply.
'It is I, Miss Lake, Mr. Josiah Larkin, of the Lodge,' said that gentleman, with what he meant to be an air of dignified firmness, and looking very like a tall constable in possession; 'I have taken the liberty of presenting myself, although, I fear, at a somewhat unseasonable hour, but in reference to a little business, which, unfortunately, will not, I think, bear to be deferred.'
'No bad news, Mr. Larkin, I hope—nothing has happened. The Wylders are all well, I hope?'
'Quite well, so far as I am aware,' answered the attorney, with a grim politeness; 'perfectly. Nothing has occurred, as yet at least, affecting the interests of that family; but something is—I will not say threatened—but I may say mooted, which, were any attempt seriously made to carry it into execution, would, I regret to say, involve very serious consequences to a party whom for, I may say, many reasons, I should regret being called upon to affect unpleasantly.'
'And pray, Mr. Larkin, can I be of any use?'
'Every use, Miss Lake, and it is precisely for that reason that I have taken the liberty of waiting upon you, at what, I am well aware, is a somewhat unusual hour.'
'Perhaps, Mr. Larkin, you would be so good as to call in the morning—any hour you appoint will answer me,' said the young lady, a little stiffly. She was still standing at the door, with her hand upon the brass handle.
'Pardon me, Miss Lake, the business to which I refer is really urgent.'
'Very urgent, Sir, if it cannot wait till to-morrow morning.'
'Very true, quite true, very urgent indeed,' replied the attorney, calmly; 'I presume, Miss Lake, I may take a chair?'
'Certainly, Sir, if you insist on my listening to-night, which I should certainly decline if I had the power.'
'Thank you, Miss Lake.' And the attorney took a chair, crossing one leg over the other, and throwing his head back as he reclined in it with his long arm over the back—the 'express image,' as he fancied, of a polished gentleman, conducting a diplomatic interview with a clever and high-bred lady.
'Then it is plain, Sir, I must hear you to-night,' said Miss Lake, haughtily.
'Not that, exactly, Miss Lake, but only that I must speak to-night—in fact, I have no choice. The subject of our conference really is, as you will find, an urgent one, and to-morrow morning, which we should each equally prefer, would be possibly too late—too late, at least, to obviate a very painful situation.'
'You will make it, I am sure, as short as you can, Sir,' said the young lady, in the same tone.
'Exactly my wish, Miss Lake,' replied Mr. Jos. Larkin.
'Bring candles, Margery.'
And so the little drawing-room was illuminated; and the bald head of the tall attorney, and the gloss on his easy, black frock-coat, and his gold watch-chain, and the long and large gloved hand, depending near the carpet, with the glove of the other in it. And Mr. Jos. Larkin rose with a negligent and lordly case, and placed a chair for Miss Lake, so that the light might fall full upon her features, in accordance with his usual diplomatic arrangement, which he fancied, complacently, no one had ever detected; he himself resuming his easy pose upon his chair, with his back, as much as was practicable, presented to the candles, and the long, bony fingers of the arm which rested on the table, negligently shading his observing little eyes, and screening off the side light from his expressive features.
These arrangements, however, were disconcerted by Miss Lake's sitting down at the other side of the table, and quietly requesting Mr. Larkin to open his case.
'Why, really, it is hardly a five minutes' matter, Miss Lake. It refers to the vicar, the Rev. William Wylder, and his respectable family, and a proposition which he, as my client, mentioned to me this evening. He stated that you had offered to advance a sum of 600l. for the liquidation of his liabilities. It will, perhaps, conduce to clearness to dispose of this part of the matter first. May I therefore ask, at this stage, whether the Rev. William Wylder rightly conceived you, when he so stated your meaning to me?'
'Yes, certainly, I am most anxious to assist them with that little sum, which I have now an opportunity of procuring.'
'A—exactly—yes—well, Miss Lake, that is, of course, very kind of you—very kind, indeed, and creditable to your feelings; but, as Mr. William Wylder's solicitor, and as I have already demonstrated to him, I must now inform you, that the sum of six hundred pounds would be absolutely useless in his position. No party, Miss Lake, in his position, ever quite apprehends, even if he could bring himself fully to state, the aggregate amount of his liabilities. I may state, however, to you, without betraying confidence, that ten times that sum would not avail to extricate him, even temporarily, from his difficulties. He sees the thing himself now; but drowning men will grasp, we know, at straws. However, he does see the futility of this; and, thanking you most earnestly, he, through me, begs most gratefully to decline it. In fact, my dear Miss Lake—it is awful to contemplate—he has been in the hands of sharks, harpies, my dear Madam; but I'll beat about for the money, in the way of loan, if possible, and, one way or another, I am resolved, if the thing's to be done, to get him straight.'
There was here a little pause, and Mr. Larkin, finding that Miss Lake had nothing to say, simply added—
'And so, for these reasons, and with these views, my dear Miss Lake, we beg, most respectfully, and I will say gratefully, to decline the proffered advance, which, I will say, at the same time, does honour to your feelings.'
'I am sorry,' said Miss Lake, 'you have had so much trouble in explaining so simple a matter. I will call early to-morrow, and see Mr. Wylder.'
'Pardon me,' said the attorney, 'I have to address myself next to the second portion of your offer, as stated to me by Mr. W. Wylder, that which contemplates a residence in his house, and in the respectable bosom, I may say, of that, in many respects, unblemished family.'
Miss Lake stared with a look of fierce enquiry at the attorney.
'The fact is, Miss Lake, that that is an arrangement which under existing circumstances I could not think of advising. I think, on reflection, you will see, that Mr. Wylder—the Reverend William Wylder and his lady—could not for one moment seriously entertain it, and that I, who am bound to do the best I can for them, could not dream of advising it.'
'I fancy it is a matter of total indifference, Sir, what you may and what you may not advise in a matter quite beyond your province—I don't in the least understand, or desire to understand you—and thinking your manner impertinent and offensive, I beg that you will now be so good as to leave my house.'
Miss Rachel was very angry—although nothing but her bright colour and the vexed flash of her eye showed it.
'I were most unfortunate—most unfortunate indeed, Miss Lake, if my manner could in the least justify the strong and undue language in which you have been pleased to characterise it. But I do not resent—it is not my way—"beareth all things," Miss Lake, "beareth all things"—I hope I try to practise the precept; but the fact of being misunderstood shall not deter me from the discharge of a simple duty.'
'If it is part of your duty, Sir, to make yourself intelligible, may I beg that you will do it without further delay.'
'My principal object in calling here was to inform you, Miss Lake, that you must quite abandon the idea of residing in the vicar's house, as you proposed, unless you wish me to state explicitly to him and to Mrs. Wylder the insurmountable objections which exist to any such arrangement. Such a task, Miss Lake, would be most painful to me. I hesitate to discuss the question even with you; and if you give me your word of honour that you quite abandon that idea, I shall on the instant take my leave, and certainly, for the present, trouble you no further upon a most painful subject.'
'And now, Sir, as I have no intention whatever of tolerating your incomprehensibly impertinent interference, and don't understand your meaning in the slightest degree, and do not intend to withdraw the offer I have made to good Mrs. Wylder, you will I hope perceive the uselessness of prolonging your visit, and be so good as to leave me in unmolested possession of my poor residence.'
'If I wished to do you an injury, Miss Lake, I should take you at your word. I don't—I wish to spare you. Your countenance, Miss Lake—you must pardon my frankness, it is my way—your countenance tells only too plainly that you now comprehend my allusion.'
There was a confidence and significance in the attorney's air and accent, and a peculiar look of latent ferocity in his evil countenance, which gradually excited her fears, and fascinated her gaze.
'Now, Miss Lake, we are sitting here in the presence of Him who is the searcher of hearts, and before whom nothing is secret—your eye is upon mine and mine on yours—and I ask you, do you remember the night of the 29th of September last?'
That mean, pale, taunting face! the dreadful accents that vibrated within her! How could that ill-omened man have divined her connection with the incidents—the unknown incidents—of that direful night? The lean figure in the black frock-coat, and black silk waistcoat, with that great gleaming watch-chain, the long, shabby, withered face, and flushed, bald forehead; and those paltry little eyes, in their pink setting, that nevertheless fascinated her like the gaze of a serpent. How had that horrible figure come there—why was this meeting—whence his knowledge? An evil spirit incarnate he seemed to her. She blanched before it—every vestige of colour fled from her features—she stared—she gaped at him with a strange look of imbecility—and the long face seemed to enjoy and protract its triumph.
Without removing his gaze he was fumbling in his pocket for his note-book, which he displayed with a faint smile, grim and pallid.
'I see you do remember that night—as well you may, Miss Lake,' he ejaculated, in formidable tones, and with a shake of his bald head.
'Now, Miss Lake, you see this book. It contains, Madam, the skeleton of a case. The bones and joints, Ma'am, of a case. I have it here, noted and prepared. There is not a fact in it without a note of the name and address of the witness who can prove it—the witness—observe me.'
Then there was a pause of a few seconds, during which he still kept her under his steady gaze.
'On that night, Miss Lake, the 29th September, you drove in Mr. Mark Wylder's tax-cart to the Dollington station, where, notwithstanding your veil, and your caution, you were seen and recognised. The same occurred at Charteris. You accompanied Mr. Mark Wylder in his midnight flight to London, Miss Lake. Of your stay in London I say nothing. It was protracted to the 2nd October, when you arrived in the down train at Dollington at twelve o'clock at night, and took a cab to the "White House," where you were met by a gentleman answering the description of your brother, Captain Lake. Now, Miss Lake, I have stated no particulars, but do you think that knowing all this, and knowing the fraud by which your absence was covered, and perfectly understanding, as every man conversant with this sinful world must do, the full significance of all this, I could dream of permitting you, Miss Lake, to become domesticated as an inmate in the family of a pure-minded, though simple and unfortunate clergyman?'
'It may become my duty,' he resumed, 'to prosecute a searching enquiry, Madam, into the circumstances of Mr. Mark Wylder's disappearance. If you have the slightest regard for your own honour, you will not precipitate that measure, Miss Lake; and so sure as you persist in your unwarrantable design of residing in that unsuspecting family, I will publish what I shall then feel called upon by my position to make known; for I will be no party to seeing an innocent family compromised by admitting an inmate of whose real character they have not the faintest suspicion, and I shall at once set in motion a public enquiry into the circumstances of Mr. Mark Wylder's disappearance.'
Looking straight in his face, with the same expression of helplessness, she uttered at last a horrible cry of anguish that almost thrilled that callous Christian.
'I think I'm going mad!'
And she continued staring at him all the time.
'Pray compose yourself, Miss Lake—there's no need to agitate yourself—nothing of all this need occur if you do not force it upon me—nothing. I beg you'll collect yourself—shall I call for water, Miss Lake?'
The fact is the attorney began to apprehend hysterics, or something even worse, and was himself rather frightened. But Rachel was never long overwhelmed by any shock—fear was not for her—her brave spirit stood her in stead; and nothing rallied her so surely as the sense that an attempt was being made to intimidate her.
'What have I heard—what have I endured? Listen to me, you cowardly libeller. It is true that I was at Dollington, and at Charteris, on the night you name. Also true that I went to London. Your hideous slander is garnished with two or three bits of truth, but only the more villainous for that. All that you have dared to insinuate is utterly false. Before Him who judges all, and knows all things—utterly and damnably false!'
The attorney made a bow—it was his best. He did not imitate a gentleman happily, and was never so vulgar as when he was finest.
One word of her wild protest he did not believe. His bow was of that grave but mocking sort which was meant to convey it. Perhaps if he had accepted what she said it might have led him to new and sounder conclusions. Here was light, but it glared and flashed in vain for him.
Miss Lake was naturally perfectly frank. Pity it was she had ever had a secret to keep! These frank people are a sore puzzle to gentlemen of Lawyer Larkin's quaint and sagacious turn of mind. They can't believe that anybody ever speaks quite the truth: when they hear it—they don't recognise it, and they wonder what the speaker is driving at. The best method of hiding your opinion or your motives from such men, is to tell it to them. They are owls. Their vision is formed for darkness, and light blinds them.
Rachel Lake rang her bell sharply, and old Tamar appeared.
'Show Mr.—Mr.—; show him to the door,' said Miss Lake.
The attorney rose, made another bow, and threw back his head, and moved in a way that was oppressively gentlemanlike to the door, and speedily vanished at the little wicket. Old Tamar holding her candle to lighten his path, as she stood, white and cadaverous, in the porch.
'She's a little bit noisy to-night,' thought the attorney, as he descended the road to Gylingden; 'but she'll be precious sober by to-morrow morning—and I venture to say we shall hear nothing more of that scheme of hers. A reputable inmate, truly, and a pleasant eclaircissement (this was one of his French words, and pronounced by him with his usual accuracy, precisely as it is spelt)—a pleasant eclaircissement—whenever that London excursion and its creditable circumstances come to light.'
IN WHICH DAME DUTTON IS VISITED.
Duly next morning the rosy-fingered Aurora drew the gold and crimson curtains of the east, and the splendid Apollo, stepping forth from his chamber, took the reins of his unrivalled team, and driving four-in-hand through the sky, like a great swell as he is, took small note of the staring hucksters and publicans by the road-side, and sublimely overlooked the footsore and ragged pedestrians that crawl below his level. It was, in fact, one of those brisk and bright mornings which proclaim a universal cheerfulness, and mock the miseries of those dismal wayfarers of life, to whom returning light is a renewal of sorrow, who, bowing toward the earth, resume their despairing march, and limp and groan under heavy burdens, until darkness, welcome, comes again, and their eyelids drop, and they lie down with their loads on, looking up a silent supplication, and wishing that death would touch their eyelids in their sleep, and their journey end where they lie.
Captain Lake was in London this morning. We know he came about electioneering matters; but he had not yet seen Leverett. Perhaps on second thoughts he rightly judged that Leverett knew no more than he did of the matter. It depended on the issue of the great debate that was drawing nigh. The Minister himself could not tell whether the dissolution was at hand; and could no more postpone it, when the time came, than he could adjourn an eclipse.
Notwithstanding the late whist party of the previous night, the gallant captain made a very early toilet. With his little bag in his hand, he went down stairs, thinking unpleasantly, I believe, and jumped into the Hansom that awaited him at the door, telling the man to go to the —— station. They had hardly turned the corner, however, when he popped his head forward and changed the direction.
He looked at his watch. He had quite time to make his visit, and save the down-train after.
He did not know the City well. Many men who lived two hundred miles away, and made a flying visit only once in three years, knew it a great deal better than the London-bred rake who had lived in the West-end all his days.
Captain Lake looked peevish and dangerous, as he always did, when he was anxious. In fact he did not know what the next ten minutes might bring him. He was thinking what had best be done in any and every contingency. Was he still abroad, or had he arrived? was he in Shive's Court, or, cursed luck! had he crossed him yesterday by the down-train, and was he by this time closeted with Larkin in the Lodge? Lake, so to speak, stood at his wicket, and that accomplished bowler, Fortune, ball in hand, at the other end; will it be swift round-hand, or a slow twister, or a shooter, or a lob? Eye and hand, foot and bat, he must stand tense, yet flexible, lithe and swift as lightning, ready for everything—cut, block, slip, or hit to leg. It was not altogether pleasant. The stakes were enormous! and the suspense by no means conducive to temper.
Lake fancied that the man was driving wrong, once or twice, and was on the point of cursing him to that effect, from the window. But at last, with an anxious throb at his heart, he recognised the dingy archway, and the cracked brown marble tablet over the keystone, and he recognised Shive's Court.
So forth jumped the captain, so far relieved, and glided into the dim quadrangle, with its square of smoky sky overhead; and the prattle of children playing on the flags, and the scrape of a violin from a window, were in his ears, but as it were unheard. He was looking up at a window, with a couple of sooty scarlet geraniums in it. This was the court where Dame Dutton dwelt. He glided up her narrow stair and let himself in by the latch; and with his cane made a smacking like a harlequin's sword upon the old woman's deal table, crying: 'Mrs. Dutton; Mrs. Dutton. Is Mrs. Dutton at home?'
The old lady, who was a laundress, entered, in a short blue cotton wrapper, wiping the suds from her shrunken but sinewy arms with her apron, and on seeing the captain, her countenance, which was threatening, became very reverential indeed.
'How d'ye do, Mrs. Dutton? Quite well. Have you heard lately from Jim?'
'You'll see him soon, however, and give him this note, d'ye see, and tell him I was here, asking about you and him, and very well, and glad if I can serve him again? don't forget that, very glad. Where will you keep that note? Oh! your tea-caddy, not a bad safe; and see, give him this, it's ten pounds. You won't forget; and you want a new gown, Mrs. Dutton. I'd choose it thyself, only I'm such a bad judge; but you'll choose it for me, won't you? and let me see it on you when next I come,' and with a courtesy and a great beaming smile on her hot face, she accepted the five-pound note, which he placed in her hand.
In another moment the captain was gone. He had just time to swallow a cup of coffee at the 'Terminus Hotel,' and was gliding away towards the distant walls of Brandon Hall.
He had a coupe all to himself. But he did not care for the prospect. He saw Lawyer Larkin, as it were, reflected in the plate-glass, with his hollow smile and hungry eyes before him, knowing more than he should do, paying him compliments, and plotting his ruin.
'Everything would have been quite smooth only for that d—— fellow. The Devil fixed him precisely there for the express purpose of fleecing and watching, and threatening him—perhaps worse. He hated that sly, double-dealing reptile of prey—the arachnida of social nature—the spiders with which also naturalists place the scorpions. I dare say Mr. Larkin would have had as little difficulty in referring the gallant captain to the same family.
While Stanley Lake is thus scanning the shabby, but dangerous image of the attorney in the magic mirror before him, that eminent limb of the law was not inactive in the quiet town of Gylingden. Under ordinary circumstances his 'pride' would have condemned the vicar to a direful term of suspense, and he certainly would not have knocked at the door of the pretty little gabled house at the Dollington end of the town for many days to come. The vicar would have had to seek out the attorney, to lie in wait for and to woo him.
But Jos. Larkin's pride, like all his other passions—except his weakness for the precious metals—was under proper regulation. Jim Dutton might arrive at any moment, and it would not do to risk his publishing the melancholy intelligence of Mark Wylder's death before the transfer of the vicar's reversion; and to prevent that risk the utmost promptitude was indispensable.
At nine o'clock, therefore, he presented himself, attended by his legal henchmen as before.
'Another man might not have come here, Mr. Wylder, until his presence had been specially invited, after the—the——' when he came to define the offence it was not very easy to do so, inasmuch as it consisted in the vicar's having unconsciously very nearly escaped from his fangs; 'but let that pass. I have had, I grieve to say, by this morning's post a most serious letter from London;' the attorney shook his head, while searching his pocket. 'I'll read just a passage or two if you'll permit me; it comes from Burlington and Smith. I protest I have forgot it at home; however, I may mention, that in consequence of the letter you authorised me to write, and guaranteed by your bond, on which they have entered judgment, they have gone to the entire expense of drawing the deeds, and investigating title, and they say that the purchaser will positively be off, unless the articles are in their office by twelve o'clock to-morrow; and, I grieve to say, they add, that in the event of the thing falling through, they will issue execution for the amount of their costs, which, as I anticipated, a good deal exceeds four hundred pounds. I have, therefore, my dear Mr. Wylder, casting aside all unpleasant feeling, called to entreat you to end and determine any hesitation you may have felt, and to execute without one moment's delay the articles which are prepared, and which must be in the post-office within half an hour.'
Then Mr. Jos. Larkin entered pointedly and briefly into Miss Lake's offer, which he characterised as 'wholly nugatory, illusory, and chimerical;' told him he had spoken on the subject, yesterday evening, to the young lady, who now saw plainly that there really was nothing in it, and that she was not in a position to carry out that part of her proposition, which contemplated a residence in the vicar's family.
This portion of his discourse he dismissed rather slightly and mysteriously; but he contrived to leave upon the vicar's mind a very painful and awful sort of uncertainty respecting the young lady of whom he spoke.
Then he became eloquent on the madness of further indecision in a state of things so fearfully menacing, freely admitting that it would have been incomparably better for the vicar never to have moved in the matter, than, having put his hand to the plough, to look back as he had been doing. If he declined his advice, there was no more to be said, but to bow his head to the storm, and that ponderous execution would descend in wreck and desolation.
So the vicar, very much flushed, in panic and perplexity, and trusting wildly to his protesting lawyer's guidance, submitted. Buggs and the bilious youngster entered with the deed, and the articles were duly executed, and the vicar signed also a receipt for the fanciful part of the consideration, and upon it and the deed he endorsed a solemn promise, in the terms I have mentioned before, that he would never take any step to question, set aside, or disturb the purchase, or any matter connected therewith.
Then the attorney, now in his turn flushed and very much elated, congratulated the poor vicar on his emancipation from his difficulties; and 'now that it was all done and over, told him, what he had never told him before, that, considering the nature of the purchase, he had got a splendid price for it.'
The good man had also his agreement from Lake to sell Five Oaks.
The position of the good attorney, therefore, in a commercial point of view, was eminently healthy and convenient. For less than half the value of Five Oaks alone, he was getting that estate, and a vastly greater one beside, to be succeeded to on Mark Wylder's death.
No wonder, then, that the good attorney was more than usually bland and happy that day. He saw the pork-butcher in his back-parlour, and had a few words to say about the chapel-trust, and his looks and talk were quite edifying. He met two little children in the street, and stopped and smiled as he stooped down to pat them on the heads, and ask them whose children they were, and gave one of them a halfpenny. And he sat afterwards, for nearly ten minutes, with lean old Mrs. Mullock, in her little shop, where toffey, toys, and penny books for young people were sold, together with baskets, tea-cups, straw-mats, and other adult ware; and he was so friendly and talked so beautifully, and although, as he admitted in his lofty way, 'there might be differences in fortune and position,' yet were we not all members of one body? And he talked upon this theme till the good lady, marvelling how so great a man could be so humble, was called to the receipt of custom, on the subject of 'paradise' and 'lemon-drops,' and the heavenly-minded attorney, with a celestial condescension, recognised his two little acquaintances of the street, and actually adding another halfpenny to his bounty—escaped, with a hasty farewell and a smile, to the street, as eager to evade the thanks of the little people, and the admiration of Mrs. Mullock.
It is not to be supposed, that having got one momentous matter well off his mind, the good attorney was to be long rid of anxieties. The human mind is fertile in that sort of growth. As well might the gentleman who shaves suppose, as his fingers glide, after the operation, over the polished surface of his chin—factus ad unguem—that he may fling his brush and strop into the fire, and bury his razor certain fathoms in the earth. No! One crop of cares will always succeed another—not very oppressive, nor in any wise grand, perhaps—worries, simply, no more; but needing a modicum of lather, the looking glass, the strop, the diligent razor, delicate manipulation, and stealing a portion of our precious time every day we live; and this must go on so long as the state of man is imperfect, and plenty of possible evil in futurity.
The attorney must run up to London for a day or two. What if that mysterious, and almost illegible brute, James Dutton, should arrive while he was away. Very unpleasant, possibly! For the attorney intended to keep that gentleman very quiet. Sufficient time must be allowed to intervene to disconnect the purchase of the vicar's remainder from the news of Mark Wylder's demise. A year and a-half, maybe, or possibly a year might do. For if the good attorney was cautious, he was also greedy, and would take possession as early as was safe. Therefore arrangements were carefully adjusted to detain that important person, in the event of his arriving; and a note, in the good attorney's hand, inviting him to remain at the Lodge till his return, and particularly requesting that 'he would kindly abstain from mentioning to anyone, during his absence, any matter he might intend to communicate to him in his professional capacity or otherwise.'
This, of course, was a little critical, and made his to-morrow's journey to London a rather anxious prospect.
In the meantime our friend, Captain Lake, arrived in a hired fly, with his light baggage, at the door of stately Brandon. So soon as the dust and ashes of railway travel were removed, the pale captain, in changed attire, snowy cambric, and with perfumed hair and handkerchief, presented himself before Dorcas.
'Now, Dorkie, darling, your poor soldier has come back, resolved to turn over a new leaf, and never more to reserve another semblance of a secret from you,' said he, so soon as his first greeting was over. 'I long to have a good talk with you, Dorkie. I have no one on earth to confide in but you. I think,' he said, with a little sigh, 'I would never have been so reserved with you, darling, if I had had anything pleasant to confide; but all I have to say is triste and tiresome—only a story of difficulties and petty vexations. I want to talk to you, Dorkie. Where shall it be?'
They were in the great drawing-room, where I had first seen Dorcas Brandon and Rachel Lake, on the evening on which my acquaintance with the princely Hall was renewed, after an interval of so many years.
'This room, Stanley, dear?'
'Yes, this room will answer very well,' he said, looking round. 'We can't be overheard, it is so large. Very well, darling, listen.'
THE CAPTAIN EXPLAINS WHY MARK WYLDER ABSCONDED.
'How delicious these violets are!' said Stanley, leaning for a moment over the fragrant purple dome that crowned a china stand on the marble table they were passing. 'You love flowers, Dorkie. Every perfect woman is, I think, a sister of Flora's. You are looking pale—you have not been ill? No! I'm very glad you say so. Sit down for a moment and listen, darling. And first I'll tell you, upon my honour, what Rachel has been worrying me about.'
Dorcas sate beside him on the sofa, and he placed his slender arm affectionately round her waist.
'You must know, Dorkie, that before his sudden departure, Mark Wylder promised to lend William, his brother, a sum sufficient to relieve him of all his pressing debts.'
'Debts! I never knew before that he had any,' exclaimed Dorcas. 'Poor William! I am so sorry.'
'Well, he has, like other fellows, only he can't get away as easily, and he has been very much pressed since Mark went, for he has not yet lent him a guinea, and in fact Rachel says she thinks he is in danger of being regularly sold out. She does not say she knows it, but only that she suspects they are in a great fix about money.'
'Well, you must know that I was the sole cause of Mark Wylder's leaving the country.'
'Yes, I, Dorkie. I believe I thought I was doing a duty; but really I was nearly mad with jealousy, and simply doing my utmost to drive a rival from your presence. And yet, without hope for myself, desperately in love.'
Dorcas looked down and smiled oddly; it was a sad and bitter smile, and seemed to ask whither has that desperate love, in so short a time, flown?
'I know I was right. He was a stained man, and was liable at any moment to be branded. It was villainous in him to seek to marry you. I told him at last that, unless he withdrew, your friends should know all. I expected he would show fight, and that a meeting would follow; and I really did not much care whether I were killed or not. But he went, on the contrary, rather quietly, threatening to pay me off, however, though he did not say how. He's a cunning dog, and not very soft-hearted; and has no more conscience than that,' and he touched his finger to the cold summit of a marble bust.
'He is palpably machinating something to my destruction with an influential attorney on whom I keep a watch, and he has got some fellow named Dutton into the conspiracy; and not knowing how they mean to act, and only knowing how utterly wicked, cunning, and bloody-minded he is, and that he hates me as he probably never hated anyone before, I must be prepared to meet him, and, if possible, to blow up that Satanic cabal, which without money I can't. It was partly a mystification about the election; of course, it will be expensive, but nothing like the other. Are you ill, Dorkie?'
He might well ask, for she appeared on the point of fainting.
Dorcas had read and heard stories of men seemingly no worse than their neighbours—nay, highly esteemed, and praised, and liked—who yet were haunted by evil men, who encountered them in lonely places, or by night, and controlled them by the knowledge of some dreadful crime. Was Stanley—her husband—whose character she had begun to discern, whose habitual mystery was, somehow, tinged in her mind with a shade of horror, one of this two-faced, diabolical order of heroes?
Why should he dread this cabal, as he called it, even though directed by the malignant energy of the absent and shadowy Mark Wylder? What could all the world do to harm him in free England, if he were innocent, if he were what he seemed—no worse than his social peers?
Why should it be necessary to buy off the conspirators whom a guiltless man would defy and punish?
The doubt did not come in these defined shapes. As a halo surrounds a saint, a shadow rose suddenly, and enveloped pale, scented, smiling Stanley, with the yellow eyes. He stood in the centre of a dreadful medium, through which she saw him, ambiguous and awful; and she sickened.
'Are you ill, Dorkie, darling?' said the apparition in accents of tenderness. 'Yes, you are ill.'
And he hastily threw open the window, close to which they were sitting, and she quickly revived in the cooling air.
She saw his yellow eyes fixed upon her features, and his face wearing an odd expression—was it interest, or tenderness, or only scrutiny; to her there seemed a light of insincerity and cruelty in its pallor.
'You are better, darling; thank Heaven, you are better.'
'Yes—yes—a great deal better; it is passing away.'
Her colour was returning, and with a shivering sigh, she said—
'Oh? Stanley, you must speak truth; I am your wife. Do they know anything very bad—are you in their power?'
'Why, my dearest, what on earth could put such a wild fancy in your head?' said Lake, with a strange laugh, and, as she fancied, growing still paler. 'Do you suppose I am a highwayman in disguise, or a murderer, like—what's his name—Eugene Aram? I must have expressed myself very ill, if I suggested anything so tragical. I protest before Heaven, my darling, there is not one word or act of mine I need fear to submit to any court of justice or of honour on earth.'
He took her hand, and kissed it affectionately, and still fondling it gently between his, he resumed—
'I don't mean to say, of course, that I have always been better than other young fellows; I've been foolish, and wild, and—and—I've done wrong things, occasionally—as all young men will; but for high crimes and misdemeanors, or for melodramatic situations, I never had the slightest taste. There's no man on earth who can tell anything of me, or put me under any sort of pressure, thank Heaven; and simply because I have never in the course of my life done a single act unworthy of a gentleman, or in the most trifling way compromised myself. I swear it, my darling, upon my honour and soul, and I will swear it in any terms—the most awful that can be prescribed—in order totally and for ever to remove from your mind so amazing a fancy.'
And with a little laugh, and still holding her hand, he passed his arm round her waist, and kissed her affectionately.
'But you are perfectly right, Dorkie, in supposing that I am under very considerable apprehension from their machinations. Though they cannot slur our fair fame, it is quite possible they may very seriously affect our property. Mr. Larkin is in possession of all the family papers. I don't like it, but it is too late now. The estates have been back and forward so often between the Brandons and Wylders, I always fancy there may be a screw loose, or a frangible link somewhere, and he's deeply interested for Mark Wylder.'
'You are better, darling; I think you are better,' he said, looking in her face, after a little pause.
'Yes, dear Stanley, much better; but why should you suppose any plot against our title?'
'Mark Wylder is in constant correspondence with that fellow Larkin. I wish we were quietly rid of him, he is such an unscrupulous dog. I assure you, I doubt very much if the deeds are safe in his possession; at all events, he ought to choose between us and Mark Wylder. It is monstrous his being solicitor for both. The Wylders and Brandons have always been contesting the right to these estates, and the same thing may arise again any day.'
'But tell me, Stanley, how do you want to apply money? What particular good can it do us in this unpleasant uncertainty?'
'Well, Dorkie, believe me I have a sure instinct in matters of this kind. Larkin is plotting treason against us. Wylder is inciting him, and will reap the benefit of it. Larkin hesitates to strike, but that won't last long. In the meantime, he has made a distinct offer to buy Five Oaks. His doing so places him in the same interest with us; and, although he does not offer its full value, still I should sleep sounder if it were concluded; and the fact is, I don't think we are safe until that sale is concluded.'
Dorcas looked for a moment earnestly in his face, and then down, in thought.
'Now, Dorkie, I have told you all. Who is to advise you, if not your husband? Trust my sure conviction, and promise me, Dorcas, that you will not hesitate to join me in averting, by a sacrifice we shall hardly feel, a really stupendous blow.'
He kissed her hand, and then her lips, and he said—
'You will, Dorkie, I know you will. Give me your promise.'
'Stanley, tell me once more, are you really quite frank when you tell me that you apprehend no personal injury from these people—apart, I mean, from the possibility of Mr. Larkin's conspiring to impeach our rights in favour of Mr. Wylder?'
'Personal injury? None in life, my darling.'
'And there is really no secret—nothing—tell your wife—nothing you fear coming to light?'
'I swear again, nothing. Won't you believe me, darling?'
'Then, if it be so, Stanley, I think we should hesitate long before selling any part of the estate, upon a mere conjecture of danger. You or I may over-estimate that danger, being so nearly affected by it. We must take advice; and first, we must consult Chelford. Remember, Stanley, how long the estate has been preserved. Whatever may have been their crimes and follies, those who have gone before us never impaired the Brandon estate; and, without full consideration, without urgent cause, I, Stanley, will not begin.'
'Why, it is only Five Oaks, and we shall have the money, you forget,' said Stanley.
'Five Oaks is an estate in itself; and the idea of dismembering the Brandon inheritance seems to me like taking a plank from a ship—all will go down when that is done.'
'But you can't dismember it; it is only a life estate.'
'Well, perhaps so; but Chelford told me that one of the London people said he thought Five Oaks belonged to me absolutely.'
'In that case the inheritance is dismembered already.'
'I will have no share in selling the old estate, or any part of it, to strangers, Stanley, except in a case of necessity; and we must do nothing precipitately; and I must insist, Stanley, on consulting Chelford before taking any step. He will view the question more calmly than you or I can; and we owe him that respect, Stanley, he has been so very kind to us.'
'Chelford is the very last man whom I would think of consulting,' answered Stanley, with his malign and peevish look.
'And why?' asked Dorcas.
'Because he is quite sure to advise against it,' answered Stanley, sharply. 'He is one of those Quixotic fellows who get on very well in fair weather, while living with a duke or duchess, but are sure to run you into mischief when they come to the inns and highways of common life. I know perfectly, he would protest against a compromise. Discharge Larkin—fight him—and see us valiantly stript of our property by some cursed law-quibble; and think we ought to be much more comfortable so, than in this house, on the terms of a compromise with a traitor like Larkin. But I don't think so, nor any man of sense, nor anyone but a hairbrained, conceited knight-errant.'
'I think Chelford one of the most sensible as well as honourable men I know; and I will take no step in selling a part of our estate to that odious Mr. Larkin, without consulting him, and at least hearing what he thinks of it.'
Stanley's eyes were cast down—and he was nipping the struggling hairs of his light moustache between his lips—but he made no answer. Only suddenly he looked up, and said quietly,
'Very well. Good-bye for a little, Dorkie,' and he leaned over her and kissed her cheek, and then passed into the hall, where he took his hat and cane.
Larcom presented him with a note, in a sealed envelope. As he took it from the salver he recognised Larkin's very clear and large hand. I suspect that grave Mr. Larcom had been making his observations and conjectures thereupon.
The captain took it with a little nod, and a peevish side-glance. It said—
'MY DEAR CAPTAIN BRANDON LAKE,—Imperative business calls me to London by the early train to-morrow. Will you therefore favour me, if convenient, by the bearer, with the small note of consent, which must accompany the articles agreeing to sell.
'I remain, &c. &c. &c.'
Larkin's groom was waiting for an answer.
'Tell him I shall probably see Mr. Larkin myself,' said the captain, snappishly; and so he walked down to pretty little Gylingden.
On the steps of the reading-room stood old Tom Ruddle, who acted as marker in the billiard-room, treasurer, and book-keeper beside, and swept out the premises every morning, and went to and fro at the proper hours, between that literary and sporting institution and the post-office; and who, though seldom sober, was always well instructed in the news of the town.
'How do you do, old Ruddle—quite well?' asked the captain with a smile. 'Who have you got in the rooms?'
Well, Jos. Larkin was not there. Indeed he seldom showed in those premises, which he considered decidedly low, dropping in only now and then, like the great county gentlemen, on sessions days, to glance at the papers, and gossip on their own high affairs.
But Ruddle had seen Mr. Jos. Larkin on the green, not five minutes since, and thither the gallant captain bent his steps.
THE ACE OF HEARTS.
'So you are going to London—to-morrow, is not it?' said Captain Lake, when on the green of Gylingden where visitors were promenading, and the militia bands playing lusty polkas, he met Mr. Jos. Larkin, in lavender trousers and kid gloves, new hat, metropolitan black frock-coat, and shining French boots—the most elegant as well as the most Christian of provincial attorneys.
'Ah, yes—I think—should my engagements permit—of starting early to-morrow. The fact is, Captain Lake, our poor friend the vicar, you know, the Rev. William Wylder, has pressing occasion for some money, and I can't leave him absolutely in the hands of Burlington and Smith.'
'No, of course—quite so,' said Lake, with that sly smile which made every fellow on whom it lighted somehow fancy that the captain had divined his secret. 'Very honest fellows, with good looking after—eh?'
The attorney laughed a little awkwardly, with his pretty pink blush over his long face.
'Well, I'm far from saying that, but it is their business, you know, to take care of their client; and it would not do to give them the handling of mine. Can I do anything, Captain Lake, for you while in town?'
'Nothing on earth, thank you very much. But I am thinking of doing something for you. You've interested yourself a great deal about Mark Wylder's movements.'
'Not more than my duty clearly imposed.'
'Yes; but notwithstanding it will operate, I'm afraid, as you will presently see, rather to his prejudice. For to prevent your conjectural interference from doing him a more serious mischief, I will now, and here, if you please, divulge the true and only cause of his absconding. It is fair to mention, however, that your knowing it will make you fully as odious to him as I am—and that, I assure you, is very odious indeed. There were four witnesses beside myself—Lieutenant-Colonel Jermyn, Sir James Carter, Lord George Vanbrugh, and Ned Clinton.