A few days later 'Jos. Larkin, Esq., The Lodge, Gylingden,' received from London a printed form, duly filled in, and with the official signature attached, informing him that enquiry having been instituted in consequence of his letter, no result had been obtained.
The hiatus in his correspondence caused Mr. Larkin extreme uneasiness. He had a profound distrust of Captain Lake. In fact, he thought him capable of everything. And if there should turn out to be anything not quite straight going on at the post-office of Gylingden—hitherto an unimpeached institution—he had no doubt whatsoever that that dark and sinuous spirit was at the bottom of it.
Still it was too prodigious, and too hazardous to be probable; but the captain had no sort of principle, and a desperately strong head. There was not, indeed, when they met yesterday, the least change or consciousness in the captain's manner. That, in another man, would have indicated something; but Stanley Lake was so deep—such a mask—in him it meant nothing.
Mr. Larkin's next step was to apply for a commissioner to come down and investigate. But before he had time to take this step, an occurrence took place to arrest his proceedings. It was the receipt of a foreign letter, of which the following is an exact copy:—
'VENICE: March 28.
'DEAR LARKIN,—I read a rumour of a dissolution during the recess. Keep a bright look out. Here's three things for you:—
'1. Try and get Tom Wealdon. He is a sina que non. [Mark's Latin was sailor-like.]
'2. Cash the enclosed order for 150l. more, for the same stake.
'3. Tell Martin the tiles I saw in August last will answer for the cow-house; and let him put them down at once.
Enclosed was an order on Lake for 150l.
When Larkin got this he was in his study.
'Why—why—this—positively this is the letter. How's this?'
And Mr. Larkin looked as much scared and astonished as if a spirit rose up before him.
'This is the letter—aye, this is the letter.'
He repeated this from time to time as he turned it over and looked at the postmark, and back again at the letter, and looked up at the date, and down at the signature, and read the note through.
'Yes, this is it—here it is—this is it. There's no doubt whatever—this is the letter referred to in the last—Wealdon, Martin, and the 150l.'
And the attorney took out his keys, looking pale and stern, like a man about to open the door upon a horror, and unlocked his safe, and took out the oft-consulted and familiar series—letters tied up and bearing the label, 'Mark Wylder, Esq.'
'Aye, here it is, Genoa, 20th, and this, Venice, 28th. Yes, the postmarks correspond; yet the letter from Genoa, dated 20th, refers back to the letter from Venice, written eight days later! the— Well—I can't comprehend—how in the name of—how in the name——'
He placed the two letters on his desk, and read them over, and up and down, and pondered darkly over them.
'It is Mark Wylder's writing—I'll swear to it. What on earth can he mean? He can't possibly want to confuse us upon dates, as well as places, because that would simply render his letters, for purposes of business, nugatory, and there are many things he wishes attended to.'
Jos. Larkin rose from his desk, ruminating, and went to the window, and placed the letter against the pane. I don't think he had any definite motive in doing this, but something struck him that he had not remarked before.
There was something different in the quality of the ink that wrote the number of the date, 28th, from that used in the rest of the letter.
'What can that mean?' muttered Larkin, with a sort of gasp at his discovery; and shading his eyes with his hand, he scrutinised the numerals—'28th,' again;—'a totally different ink!
He took the previous letter, frowned on it fiercely from his rat-like eyes, and then with an ejaculation, as like an oath as so good a man could utter, he exclaimed,
'I have it!'
Then came a pause, and he said—
'Both alike!—blanks left when the letters were written, and the dates filled in afterward—not the same hand I think—no, not the same—positively a different hand.'
Then Jos. Larkin examined these mysterious epistles once more.
'There may be something in what Larcom said—a very great deal, possibly. If he was shut up somewhere they could make him write a set of these letters off at a sitting, and send them from place to place to be posted, to make us think he was travelling, and prevent our finding where they keep him. Here it is plain there was a slip in posting the wrong one first.'
Trepanned, kidnapped, hid away in the crypts of some remote mad-house—reduced to submission by privation and misery—a case as desperate as that of a prisoner in the Inquisition. What could be the motive for this elaborate and hideous fraud? Would it not be a more convenient course, as well as more merciful to put him to death? The crime would hardly be greater. Why should he be retained in that ghastly existence?
Well, if Stanley Lake were at the bottom of this horrid conspiracy, he certainly had a motive in clearing the field of his rival. And then—for the attorney had all the family settlements present to his mind—there was this clear motive for prolonging his life, that by the slip in the will under which Dorcas Brandon inherited, the bulk of her estate would terminate with the life of Mark Wylder; and this other motive too existed for retaining him in the house of bondage, that by preventing his marriage, and his having a family to succeed him, the reversion of his brother William was reduced to a certainty, and would become a magnificent investment for Stanley Lake whenever he might choose to purchase. Upon that purchase, however, the good attorney had cast his eye. He thought he now began to discern the outlines of a gigantic and symmetrical villainy emerging through the fog. If this theory were right, William Wylder's reversion was certain to take effect; and it was exasperating that the native craft and daring of this inexperienced captain should forestall so accomplished a man of business as Jos. Larkin.
The attorney began to hate Stanley Lake as none but a man of that stamp can hate the person who mars a scheme of aggrandisement. But what was he to do exactly? If the captain had his eye on the reversion, it would require nice navigation to carry his plan successfully through.
On the other hand, it was quite possible that Wylder was a free agent, and yet, for purposes of secrecy, employing another person to post his letters at various continental towns; and this blunder might just as well have happened in this case, as in any other that supposed the same machinery.
On the whole, then, it was a difficult question. But there were Larcom's conclusions about the mad-house to throw into the balance. And though, as respected Mark Wylder, they were grisly, the attorney would not have been sorry to be quite sure that they were sound. What he most needed were ascertained data. With these his opportunities were immense.
Mr. Larkin eyed the Wylder correspondence now with a sort of reverence that was new to him. There was something supernatural and talismanic in the mystery. The sheaf of letters lay before him on the table, like Cornelius Agrippa's 'bloody book'—a thing to conjure with. What prodigies might it not accomplish for its happy possessor, if only he could read it aright, and command the spirits which its spells might call up before him? Yes, it was a stupendous secret. Who knew to what it might conduct? There was a shade of guilt in his tamperings with it, akin to the black art, which he felt without acknowledging. This little parcel of letters was, in its evil way, a holy thing. While it lay on the table, the room became the holy of holies in his dark religion; and the lank attorney, with tall bald head, shaded face, and hungry dangerous eyes, a priest or a magician.
The attorney quietly bolted his study door, and stood erect, with his hands in his pockets, looking sternly down on the letters. Then he took a little gazetteer off a tiny shelf near the bell-rope, where was a railway guide, an English dictionary, a French ditto, and a Bible, and with his sharp penknife he deftly sliced from its place in the work of reference the folded map of Europe.
It was destined to illustrate the correspondence, and Larkin sat down before it and surveyed, with a solemn stare, the wide scene of Mark Wylder's operations, as a general would the theatre of his rival's strategy.
Referring to the letters as he proceeded, with a sharp pen in red ink, he made his natty little note upon each town or capital in succession, from which Wylder had dated a despatch. Boulogne, for instance, a neat little red cross over the town, and beneath, '12th October, 1854;' Brighton, ditto, '20th October, 1854;' Paris, ditto, '17th November, 1854;' Marseilles, ditto, '26th November, 1854;' Frankfurt, ditto, '22nd February, 1855;' Geneva, ditto, '10th March, 1855;' Genoa, ditto, '20th March, 1855;' Venice, ditto, '28th March, 1855.'
I may here mention that in the preceding notation I have marked the days and months exactly, but the years fancifully.
I don't think that Mr. Larkin had read the 'Wandering Jew.' He had no great taste for works of fancy. If he had he might have been reminded, as he looked down upon the wild field of tactics just noted by his pen, of that globe similarly starred all over with little red crosses, which M. Rodin was wont to consult.
Now he was going into this business as he did into others, methodically. He, therefore, read what his gazetteer had to say about these towns and cities, standing, for better light, at the window. But though, the type being small, his eyes were more pink than before, he was nothing wiser, the information being of that niggardly historical and statistical kind which availed nothing in his present scrutiny. He would get Murray's handbooks, and all sorts of works—he was determined to read it up. He was going into this as into a great speculative case, in which he had a heavy stake, with all his activity, craft, and unscrupulousness. It might be the making of him.
His treasure—his oracle—his book of power, the labelled parcel of Wylder's letters, with the annotated map folded beside them—he replaced in their red-taped ligature in his iron safe, and with Chubb's key in his pocket, took his hat and cane—the day was fine—and walked forth for Brandon and the captain's study.
A pleasant day, a light air, a frosty sun. On the green the vicar, with his pretty boy by the hand, passed him, not a hundred yards off, like a ship at sea. There was a waving of hands, and smiles, and a shouted 'beautiful day.'
'What a position that poor fellow has got himself into!' good Mr. Larkin thought, with a shrug of compassion, to himself. 'That reversion! Why it's nothing—I really don't know why I think about it at all. If it were offered me this moment, positively I would not have it. Anything certain—any thing would be better.'
Little Fairy grew grave, in spite of the attorney's smiles, whenever he saw him. He was now saying—as holding his 'Wapsie's' hand, he capered round in front, looking up in his face—
'Why has Mr. Larkin no teeth when he laughs? Is he ever angry when he laughs—is he, Wapsie—oh, Wapsie, is he? Would you let him whip me, if I was naughty? I don't like him. Why does mamma say he is a good man, Wapsie?'
'Because, little man, he is a good man,' said the vicar, recalled by the impiety of the question. 'The best friend that Wapsie ever met with in his life.'
'But you would not give me to him, Wapsie?'
'Give you, darling! no—to no one but to God, my little man; for richer, for poorer, you're my own—your Wapsie's little man.'
And he lifted him up, and carried him in his arms against his loving heart, and the water stood in his eyes, as he laughed fondly into that pretty face.
But 'little man' by this time was struggling to get down and give chase to a crow grubbing near them for dainties, with a muddy beak, and 'Wapsie's' eyes followed, smiling, the wild vagaries of his little Fairy.
In the mean time Mr. Larkin had got among the noble trees of Brandon, and was approaching the lordly front of the Hall. His mind was busy. He had not very much fact to go upon. His theories were built chiefly of vapour, and every changing light or breath, therefore, altered their colouring and outlines.
'Maybe Mark Wylder is mad, and wandering in charge of a keeper; maybe he is in some mad doctor's house, and not mad; maybe in England, and there writes these letters which are sent from one continental town to another to be posted, and thus the appearance of locomotion is kept up. Perhaps he has been inveigled into the hands of ruffians, and is living as it were under the vault of an Inquisition, and compelled to write what ever his gaolers dictate. Maybe he writes not under physical but moral coercion. Be the fact how it may, those Lakes, brother and sister, have a guilty knowledge of the affair.
'I will be firm—it is my duty to clear this matter up, if I can—we must do as we would be done by.'