Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LIX


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, £27,000, 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!'


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