Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LIV


For a month and three days Mr. Jos. Larkin was left to ruminate without any new light upon the dusky landscape now constantly before his eyes. At the end of that time a foreign letter came for him to the Lodge. It was not addressed in Mark Wylder's hand—not the least like it. Mark's was a bold, free hand, and if there was nothing particularly elegant, neither was there anything that could be called vulgar in it. But this was a decidedly villainous scrawl—in fact it was written as a self-educated butcher might pen a bill. There was nothing impressed on the wafer, but a poke of something like the ferrule of a stick.

The interior corresponded with the address, and the lines slanted confoundedly. It was, however, on the whole, better spelled and expressed than the penmanship would have led one to expect. It said—

'MISTER LARKINS,—Respeckted Sir, I write you, Sir, to let you know has how there is no more Chance you shud ear of poor Mr. Mark Wylder—of hose orrible Death I make bold to acquainte you by this writing—which is Secret has yet from all—he bing Hid, and made away with in the dark. It is only Right is family shud know all, and his sad ending—wich I will tell before you, Sir, in full, accorden to my Best guess, as bin the family Lawyer (and, Sir, you will find it usful to Tell this in secret to Capten Lake, of Brandon Hall—But not on No account to any other). It is orrible, Sir, to think a young gentleman, with everything the world can give, shud be made away with so crewel in the dark. Though you do not rekelect me, Sir, I know you well, Mr. Larkins, haven seen you hoffen when a boy. I wud not wish, Sir, no noise made till I cum—which I am returning hoame, and will then travel to Gylingden strateways to see you.

Sir, your obedient servant,


This epistle disturbed Mr. Jos. Larkin profoundly. He could recollect no such name as James Dutton. He did not know whether to believe this letter or not. He could not decide what present use to make of it, nor whether to mention it to Captain Lake, nor, if he did so, how it was best to open the matter.

Captain Lake, he was confident, knew James Dutton—why, otherwise, should that person have desired his intelligence communicated to him. At least it proved that Dutton assumed the captain to be specially interested in what concerned Mark Wylder's fate; and in so far it confirmed his suspicions of Lake. Was it better to wait until he had seen Dutton, and heard his story, before hinting at his intelligence and his name—or was it wiser to do that at once, and watch its effect upon the gallant captain narrowly, and trust to inspiration and the moment for striking out the right course.

If this letter was true there was not a moment to be lost in bringing the purchase of the vicar's reversion to a point. The possibilities were positively dazzling. They were worth risking something. I am not sure that Mr. Larkin's hand did not shake a little as he took the statement of title again out of the Wylder tin box No. 2.

Now, under the pressure of this enquiry, a thing struck Mr. Larkin, strangely enough, which he had quite overlooked before. There were certain phrases in the will of the late Mr. Wylder, which limited a large portion of the great estate in strict settlement. Of course an attorney's opinion upon a question of real property is not conclusive. Still they can't help knowing something of the barrister's special province; and these words were very distinct—in fact, they stunted down the vicar's reversion in the greater part of the property to a strict life estate.

Long did the attorney pore over his copy of the will, with his finger and thumb closed on his under lip. The language was quite explicit—there was no way out of it. It was strictly a life estate. How could he have overlooked that? His boy, indeed, would take an estate tail—and could disentail whenever—if ever—he came of age. But that was in the clouds. Mackleston-on-the-Moor, however, and the Great Barnford estate, were unaffected by these limitations; and the rental which he now carefully consulted, told him these jointly were in round numbers worth 2,300l. a year, and improvable.

This letter of Dutton's, to be sure, may turn out to be all a lie or a blunder. But it may prove to be strictly true; and in that case it will be every thing that the deeds should be executed and the purchase completed before the arrival of this person, and the public notification of Mark Wylder's death.

'What a world it is, to be sure!' thought Mr. Larkin, as he shook his long head over Dutton's letter. 'How smoothly and simply everything would go, if only men would stick to truth! Here's this letter—how much time and trouble it costs me—how much opportunity possibly sacrificed, simply by reason of the incurable mendacity of men.' And he knocked the back of his finger bitterly on the open page.

Another thought now struck him for the first time. Was there no mode of 'hedging,' so that whether Mark Wylder were living or dead the attorney should stand to win?

Down came the Brandon boxes. The prudent attorney turned the key in the door, and forth came the voluminous marriage settlement of Stanley Williams Lake, of Slobberligh, in the county of Devon, late captain, &c., &c. of the second part, and Dorcas Adderley Brandon, of Brandon Hall, in the county of &c., &c. of the second part, and so forth. And as he read this pleasant composition through, he two or three times murmured approvingly, 'Yes—yes—yes.' His recollection had served him quite rightly. There was the Five Oaks estate, specially excluded from settlement, worth 1,400l. a year; but it was conditioned that the said Stanley Williams Lake was not to deal with the said lands, except with the consent in writing of the said Dorcas, &c., who was to be a consenting party to the deed.

If there was really something 'unsound in the state of Lake's relations,' and that he could be got to consider Lawyer Larkin as a friend worth keeping, that estate might be had a bargain—yes, a great bargain.

Larkin walked off to Brandon, but there he learned that Captain Brandon Lake as he now chose to call himself, had gone that morning to London.

'Business, I venture to say, and he went into that electioneering without ever mentioning it either.'

So thought Larkin, and he did not like this. It looked ominous, and like an incipient sliding away of the Brandon business, Well, no matter, all things worked together for good. It was probably well that he should not be too much shackled with considerations of that particular kind in the important negotiation about Five Oaks.

That night he posted a note to Burlington, Smith, and Co., and by Saturday night's post there came down to the sheriff an execution for 123l. and some odd shillings, upon a judgment on a warrant to confess, at the suit of that firm, for costs and money advanced, against the poor vicar, who never dreamed, as he conned over his next day's sermon with his solitary candle, that the blow had virtually descended, and that his homely furniture, the silver spoons his wife had brought him, and the two shelves half full of old books which he had brought her, and all the rest of their little frugal trumpery, together with his own thin person, had passed into the hands of Messrs. Burlington, Smith, and Co.

The vicar on his way to the chapel passed Mr. Jos. Larkin on the green—not near enough to speak—only to smile and wave his hand kindly, and look after the good attorney with one of those yearning grateful looks, which cling to straws upon the drowning stream of life.

The sweet chapel bell was just ceasing to toll as Mr. Jos. Larkin stalked under the antique ribbed arches of the little aisle. Slim and tall, he glided, a chastened dignity in his long upturned countenance, and a faint halo of saint-hood round his tall bald head. Having whispered his orisons into his well-brushed hat and taken his seat, his dove-like eyes rested for a moment upon the Brandon seat.

There was but one figure in it—slender, light-haired, with his yellow moustache and pale face, grown of late a little fatter. Captain Brandon Lake was a very punctual church-goer since the idea of trying the county at the next election had entered his mind. Dorcas was not very well. Lord Chelford had taken his departure, and your humble servant, who pens these pages, had gone for a few days to Malwich. There was no guest just then at Brandon, and the captain sat alone on that devotional dais, the elevated floor of the great oaken Brandon seat.

There were old Brandon and Wylder monuments built up against the walls. Figures cut in stone, and painted and gilded in tarnished splendour, according to the gorgeous barbarism of Elizabeth's and the first James's age; tablets in brass, marble-pillared monuments, and a couple of life-sized knights, armed cap-à-pie, on their backs in the aisle.

There is a stained window in the east which connoisseurs in that branch of mediaeval art admire. There is another very fine one over the Brandon pew—a freak, perhaps, of some of those old Brandons or Wylders, who had a strange spirit of cynicism mingling in their profligacy and violence.

Reader, you have looked on Hans Holbein's 'Dance of Death,' that grim, phantasmal pageant, symbolic as a dream of Pharaoh; and perhaps you bear in mind that design called 'The Elector,' in which the Prince, emerging from his palace gate, with a cloud of courtiers behind, is met by a poor woman, her little child by the hand, appealing to his compassion, despising whom, he turns away with a serene disdain. Beneath, in black letter, is inscribed the text Princeps induetur maerore et quiescere faciam superbiam potentium—and gigantic Death lays his fingers on the great man's ermine tippet.

It is a copy of this, which, in very splendid colouring, fills the window that lights the Brandon state seat in the chapel. The gules and gold were reflected on the young man's head, and with a vain augury, the attorney read again the solemn words from Holy Writ, Princeps induetur maerore. The golden glare rested like a glory on his head; but there was also a gorgeous stain of blood that bathed his ear and temple. His head was busy enough at that moment, though it was quite still, and his sly eyes rested on his Prayer-book; for Sparks, the millionaire clothier, who had purchased Beverley, and was a potent voice in the Dollington Bank, and whose politics were doubtful, and relations amphibious, was sitting in the pew nearly opposite, and showed his red, fat face and white whiskers over the oak wainscoting.

Jos. Larkin, like the rest of the congregation, was by this time praying, his elbows on the edge of the pew, his hands clasped, his thumbs under his chin, and his long face and pink eyes raised heavenward, with now and then a gentle downward dropping of the latter. He was thinking of Captain Lake, who was opposite, and, like him, praying.

He was thinking how aristocratic he looked and how well, in externals, he became the Brandon seat; and there were one or two trifles in the captain's attitude and costume of which the attorney, who, as we know, was not only good, but elegant, made a note. He respected his audacity and his mystery, and he wondered intensely what was going on in that small skull under the light and glossy hair, and anxiously guessed how vitally it might possibly affect him, and wondered what his schemes were after the election—quiescere faciam superbiam potentium; and more darkly about his relations with Mark Wylder—Princeps induetur maerore.

His eye was on the window now and then it dropped, with a vague presage, upon the sleek head of the daring and enigmatical captain, reading the Litany, from 'battle, murder, and sudden death, good Lord deliver us,' and he almost fancied he saw a yellow skull over his shoulder glowering cynically on the Prayer-book. So the good attorney prayed on, to the edification of all who saw, and mothers in the neighbouring seats were specially careful to prevent their children from whispering or fidgeting.

When the service was over Captain Lake went across to Mr. Sparks, and asked him to come to Brandon to lunch. But the clothier could not, and his brougham whirled him away to Naunton Friars. So Stanley Lake walked up the little aisle toward the communion table, thinking, and took hold of the railing that surrounded the brass monument of Sir William de Braundon, and seemed to gaze intently on the effigy, but was really thinking profoundly of other matters and once or twice his sly sidelong glance stole ominously to Jos. Larkin, who was talking at the church door with the good vicar.

In fact, he was then and there fully apprising him of his awful situation; and poor William Wylder looking straight at him, with white face and damp forehead, was listening stunned, and hardly understanding a word he said, and only the dreadful questions rising to his mouth, 'Can anything be done? Will the people come to-day?'

Mr. Larkin explained the constitutional respect for the Sabbath.

'It would be better, Sir—the publicity of an arrest' (it was a hard word to utter) 'in the town would be very painful—it would be better I think, that I should walk over to the prison—it is only six miles—and see the authorities there, and give myself up.'

And his lip quivered; he was thinking of the leave-taking—of poor Dolly and little Fairy.

'I've a great objection to speak of business to-day,' said Mr. Larkin, holily; 'but I may mention that Burlington and Smith have written very sternly; and the fact is, my dear Sir, we must look the thing straight in the face; they are determined to go through with it; and you know my opinion all along about the fallacy—you must excuse me, seeing all the trouble it has involved you in—the infatuation of hesitating about the sale of that miserable reversion, which they could have disposed of on fair terms. In fact, Sir, they look upon it that you don't want to pay them and of course, they are very angry.'

'I'm sure I was wrong. I'm such a fool!'

'I must only go to the Sheriff the first thing the morning and beg of him to hold over that thing, you know, until I have heard from Burlington and Smith; and I suppose I may say to them that you see the necessity of disposing of the reversion, and agree to sell it if it be not too late.'

The vicar assented; indeed, he had grown, under this urgent pressure, as nervously anxious to sell as he had been to retain it.

'And they can't come to-day?'

'Certainly not.'

And poor William Wylder breathed again in the delightful sense of even momentary escape, and felt he could have embraced his preserver.

'I'll be very happy to see you to-morrow, if you can conveniently look in—say at twelve, or half-past, to report progress.'

So that was arranged; and again in the illusive sense of deliverance, the poor vicar's hopes brightened and expanded. Hitherto his escapes had not led to safety, and he was only raised from the pit to be sold to the Ishmaelites.


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