Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LI


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Foul play, Sir.'

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

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

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

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

'Very odd;' echoed the attorney.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was ferine and spectral, and so tremendously violent, that the long attorney, expecting nothing of the sort, was thrown out of his balance against the chimneypiece.

'You d—d old miscreant! I'll pitch you out of the window.'

'I—I say, let go. You're mad, Sir,' said the attorney, disengaging himself with a sudden and violent effort, and standing, with the back of a tall chair grasped in both hands, and the seat interposed between himself and Captain Lake. He was twisting his neck uncomfortably in his shirt collar, and for some seconds was more agitated, in a different way, than his patron was.

The fact was, that Mr. Larkin had a little mistaken his man. He had never happened before to see him in one of his violent moods, and fancied that his apathetic manner indicated a person more easily bullied. There was something, too, in the tone and look of Captain Lake which went a good way to confound and perplex his suspicions, and he half fancied that the masterstroke he had hazarded was a rank and irreparable blunder. Something of this, I am sure, appeared in his countenance, and Captain Lake looked awfully savage, and each gentleman stared the other full in the face, with more frankness than became two such diplomatists.

'Allow me to speak a word, Captain Lake.'

'You d—d old miscreant!' repeated the candescent captain.

'Allow me to say, you misapprehend.'

'You infernal old cur!'

'I mean no imputation upon you, Sir. I thought you might have committed a mistake—any man may; perhaps you have. I have acted, Captain Lake, with fidelity in all respects to you, and to every client for whom I've been concerned. Mr. Wylder is my client, and I was bound to say I was not satisfied about his present position, which seems to me unaccountable, except on the supposition that he is under restraint of some sort. I never said you were to blame; but you may be in error respecting Mr. Wylder. You may have taken steps, Captain Lake, under a mistake. I never went further than that. On reflection, you'll say so. I didn't upon my honour.'

'Then you did not mean to insult me, Sir,' said Lake.

'Upon my honour, and conscience, and soul, Captain Lake,' said the attorney, stringing together, in his vindication, all the articles he was assumed most to respect, 'I am perfectly frank, I do assure you. I never supposed for an instant more than I say. I could not imagine—I am amazed you have so taken it.'

'But you think I exercise some control or coercion over my cousin, Mr. Mark Wylder. He's not a man, I can tell you, wherever he is, to be bullied, no more than I am. I don't correspond with him. I have nothing to do with him or his affairs; I wash my hands of him.'

Captain Lake turned and walked quickly to the door, but came back as suddenly.

'Shake hands, Sir. We'll forget it. I accept what you say; but don't talk that way to me again. I can't imagine what the devil put such stuff in your head. I don't care twopence. No one's to blame but Wylder himself. I say I don't care a farthing. Upon my honour, I quite see—I now acquit you. You could not mean what you seemed to say; and I can't understand how a sensible man like you, knowing Mark Wylder, and knowing me, Sir, could use such—such ambiguous language. I have no more influence with him, and can no more affect his doings, or what you call his fate—and, to say the truth, care about them no more than the child unborn. He's his own master, of course. What the devil can you have been dreaming of. I don't even get a letter from him. He's nothing to me.'

'You have misunderstood me; but that's over, Sir. I may have spoken with warmth, fearing that you might be acting under some cruel misapprehension—that's all; and you don't think worse of me, I'm very sure, Captain Lake, for a little indiscreet zeal on behalf of a gentleman who has treated me with such unlimited confidence as Mr. Wylder. I'd do the same for you, Sir; it's my character.'

The two gentlemen, you perceive, though still agitated, were becoming reasonable, and more or less complimentary and conciliatory; and the masks which an electric gust had displaced for a moment, revealing gross and somewhat repulsive features, were being readjusted, while each looked over his shoulder.

I am sorry to say that when that good man, Mr. Larkin, left his presence, Captain Lake indulged in a perfectly blasphemous monologue. His fury was excited to a pitch that was very nearly ungovernable; and after it had exhibited itself in the way I have said, Captain Lake opened a little despatch-box, and took therefrom a foreign letter, but three days received. He read it through: his ill-omened smile expanded to a grin that was undisguisedly diabolical. With a scissors he clipt his own name where it occurred from the thin sheet, and then, in red ink and Roman capitals, he scrawled a line or two across the interior of the letter, enclosed it in an envelope, directed it, and then rang the bell.

He ordered the tax-cart and two horses to drive tandem. The captain was rather a good whip, and he drove at a great pace to Dollington, took the train on to Charteris, there posted his letter, and so returned; his temper continuing savage all that evening, and in a modified degree in the same state for several days after.


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