Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LV


I cannot tell whether that slender, silken machinator, Captain Lake, loitered in the chapel for the purpose of talking to or avoiding Jos. Larkin, who was standing at the doorway, in sad but gracious converse with the vicar.

He was certainly observing him from among the tombs in his sly way. And the attorney, who had a way, like him, of noting things without appearing to see them, was conscious of it, and was perhaps decided by this trifle to accost the gallant captain.

So he glided up the short aisle with a sad religious smile, suited to the place, and inclined his lank back and his tall bald head toward the captain in ceremonious greeting as he approached.

'How d'ye do, Larkin? The fog makes one cough a little this evening.'

Larkin's answer, thanks, and enquiries, came gravely in return. And with the same sad smile he looked round on the figures, some marble, some painted stone, of departed Brandons and Wylders, with garrulous epitaphs, who surrounded them in various costumes, quite a family group, in which the attorney was gratified to mingle.

'Ancestry, Captain Lake—your ancestry—noble assemblage—monuments and timber. Timber like the Brandon oaks, and monuments like these—these are things which, whatever else he may acquire, the novus homo, Captain Brandon Lake—the parvenu—can never command.'

Mr. Jos. Larkin had a smattering of school Latin, and knew half-a-dozen French words, which he took out on occasion.

'Certainly our good people do occupy some space here; more regular attendants in church, than, I fear, they formerly were; and their virtues more remarked, perhaps, than before the stone-cutter was instructed to publish them with his chisel,' answered Lake, with one of his quiet sneers.

'Beautiful chapel this, Captain Lake—beautiful chapel, Sir,' said the attorney, again looking round with a dreary smile of admiration. But though his accents were engaging and he smiled—of course, a Sabbath-day smile—yet Captain Lake perceived that it was not the dove's but the rat's eyes that were doing duty under that tall bald brow.

'Solemn thoughts, Sir—solemn thoughts, Captain Lake—silent mentors, eloquent monitors!' And he waved his long lank hand toward the monumental groups.

'Yes,' said Lake, in the same mocking tone, that was low and sweet, and easily mistaken for something more amiable. 'You and they go capitally together—so solemn, and eloquent, and godly—capital fellows! I'm not half good enough for such company—and the place is growing rather cold—is not it?'

'A great many Wylders, Sir—a great many Wylders.' And the attorney dropped his voice, and paused at this emphasis, pointing a long finger toward the surrounding effigies.

Captain Lake, after his custom, glared a single full look upon the attorney, sudden as the flash of a pair of guns from their embrasures in the dark; and he said quietly, with a wave of his cane in the same direction—

'Yes, a precious lot of Wylders.'

'Is there a Wylder vault here, Captain Brandon Lake?'

'Hanged if I know!—what the devil's that to you or me, Sir?' answered the captain, with a peevish sullenness.

'I was thinking, Captain Lake, whether in the event of its turning out that Mr. Mark Wylder was dead, it would be thought proper to lay his body here?'

'Dead, Sir!—and what the plague puts that in your head? You are corresponding with him—aren't you?'

'I'll tell you exactly how that is, Captain Lake. May I take the liberty to ask you for one moment to look up?'

As between these two gentlemen, this, it must be allowed, was an impertinent request. But Captain Lake did look up, and there was something extraordinarily unpleasant in his yellow eyes, as he fixed them upon the contracted pupils of the attorney, who, nothing daunted, went on—

'Pray, excuse me—thank you, Captain Lake—they say one is better heard when looked at than when not seen; and I wish to speak rather low, for reasons.'

Each looked the other in the eyes, with that uncertain and sinister gaze which has a character both of fear and menace.

'I have received those letters, Captain Lake, of which I spoke to you when I last had the honour of seeing you, as furnishing, in certain circumstances connected with them, grave matter of suspicion, since when I have not received one with Mr. Wylder's signature. But I have received, only the other day, a letter from a new correspondent—a person signing himself James Dutton—announcing his belief that Mr. Mark Wylder is dead—is dead—and has been made away with by foul means; and I have arranged, immediately on his arrival, at his desire, to meet him professionally, and to hear the entire narrative, both of what he knows and of what he suspects.'

As Jos. Larkin delivered this with stern features and emphasis, the captain's countenance underwent such a change as convinced the attorney that some indescribable evil had befallen Mark Wylder, and that Captain Brandon Lake had a guilty knowledge thereof. With this conviction came a sense of superiority and a pleasant confidence in his position, which betrayed itself in a slight frown and a pallid smile, as he looked steadily in the young man's face, with his small, crafty, hungry eyes.

Lake knew that his face had betrayed him. He had felt the livid change of colour, and that twitching at his mouth and cheek which he could not control. The mean, tyrannical, triumphant gaze of the attorney was upon him, and his own countenance was his accuser.

Lake ground his teeth, and returned Jos. Larkin's intimidating smirk with a look of fury, which—for he now believed he held the winning cards—did not appal him.

Lake cleared his throat twice, but did not find his voice, and turned away and read half through the epitaph on Lady Mary Brandon, which is a pious and somewhat puritanical composition. I hope it did him good.

'You know, Sir,' said Captain Lake, but a little huskily, turning about and smiling at last, 'that Mark Wylder is nothing to me. We don't correspond: we have not corresponded. I know—upon my honour and soul, Sir—nothing on earth about him—what he's doing, where he is, or what's become of him. But I can't hear a man of business like you assert, upon what he conceives to be reliable information—situated as the Brandon title is—depending, I mean, in some measure, upon his life—that Mark Wylder is no more, without being a good deal shocked.'

'I quite understand, Sir—quite, Captain Lake. It is very serious, Sir, very; but I can't believe it has gone that length, quite. I shall know more, of course, when I've seen James Dutton. I can't think, I mean, he's been made away with in that sense; nor how that could benefit anyone; and I'd much rather, Captain Lake, move in this matter—since move I must—in your interest—I mean, as your friend and man of business—than in any way, Captain Lake, that might possibly involve you in trouble.'

'You are my man of business—aren't you? and have no grounds for ill-will—eh?' said the captain, drily.

'No ill-will certainly—quite the reverse. Thank Heaven, I think I may truly say, I bear ill-will to no man living; and wish you, Captain Lake, nothing but good, Sir—nothing but good.'

'Except a hasty word or two, I know no reason you should not,' said the captain, in the same tone.

'Quite so. But, Captain Brandon Lake, there is nothing like being completely above-board—it has been my rule through life; and I will say—it would not be frank and candid to say anything else—that I have of late been anything but satisfied with the position which, ostensibly your professional adviser and confidential man of business, I have occupied. Have I been consulted?—I put it to you; have I been trusted? Has there been any real confidence, Captain Lake, upon your part? You have certainly had relations with Mr. Mark Wylder—correspondence, for anything I know. You have entertained the project of purchasing the Reverend William Wylder's reversion; and you have gone into electioneering business, and formed connections of that sort, without once doing me the honour to confer with me on the subject. Now, the plain question is, do you wish to retain my services?'

'Certainly,' said Captain Lake, biting his lip, with a sinister little frown.

'Then, Captain Lake, upon the same principle, and speaking quite above-board, you must dismiss at once from your mind the idea that you can do so upon the terms you have of late seen fit to impose. I am speaking frankly when I say there must be a total change. I must be in reality what I am held out to the world as being—your trusted, and responsible, and sole adviser. I don't aspire to the position—I am willing at this moment to retire from it; but I never yet knew a divided direction come to good. It is an office of great responsibility, and I for one will not consent to touch it on any other conditions than those I have taken the liberty to mention.'

'These are easily complied with—in fact I undertake to show you they have never been disturbed,' answered Lake, rather sullenly. 'So that being understood—eh?—I suppose we have nothing particular to add?'

And Captain Lake extended his gloved hand to take leave.

But the attorney looked down and then up, with a shadow on his face, and his lip in his finger and thumb, and he said—

'That's all very well, and a sine qua non, so far as it goes! but, my dear Captain Lake, let us be plain. You must see, my dear Sir, with such rumours, possibly about to get afloat, and such persons about to appear, as this James Dutton, that matters are really growing critical, and there's no lack of able solicitors who would on speculation, undertake a suit upon less evidence, perhaps, than may be forthcoming, to upset your title, under the will, through Mrs. Dorcas Brandon Lake—your joint title—in favour of the reversioner.'

Lake only bit his lip and shook his head. The attorney knew, however, that the danger was quite appreciated, and went on—

'You will, therefore, want a competent man—who has the papers at his fingers' ends, and knows how to deal ably—ably, Sir, with a fellow of James Dutton's stamp—at your elbow. The fact is, to carry you safely through you will need pretty nearly the undivided attention of a well-qualified, able, and confidential practitioner; and I need not say, such a man is not to be had for nothing.'

Lake nodded a seeming assent, which seemed to say, 'I have found it so.'

'Now, my dear Captain Lake, I just mention this—I put it before you—that is, because you know the county is not to be contested for nothing—and you'll want a very serious sum of money for the purpose, and possibly a petition—and I can, one way or another, make up, with an effort, about £15,000l. Now it strikes me that it would be a wise thing for you—the wisest thing, perhaps, my dear Captain Lake, you ever did—to place me in the same boat with yourself.'

'I don't exactly see.'

'I'll make it quite clear.' The attorney's tall forehead had a little pink flush over it at this moment, and he was looking down a little and poking the base of Sir William de Braundon's monument with the point of his umbrella. 'I wish, Captain Lake, to be perfectly frank, and, as I said, above-board. You'll want the money, and you must make up your mind to sell Five Oaks.'

Captain Lake shifted his foot, as if he had found it on a sudden on a hot flag.

'Sell Five Oaks—that's fourteen hundred a year,' said he.

'Hardly so much, but nearly, perhaps.'

'Forty-three thousand pounds were offered for it. Old Chudworth offered that about ten years ago.'

'Of course, Captain Lake, if you are looking for a fancy price from me I must abandon the idea. I was merely supposing a dealing between friends, and in that sense I ventured to name the extreme limit to which I could go. Little more than five per cent, for my money, if I insure—and possibly to defend an action before I've been six months in possession. I think my offer will strike you as a great one, considering the posture of affairs. Indeed, I apprehend, my friends will hardly think me justified in offering so much.'

The sexton was walking back and forward near the door, making the best clatter he decently could, and wondering the Captain and Lawyer Larkin could find no better place to talk in than the church.

'In a moment—in a moment,' said the lawyer, signalling to him to be quiet, as loftily as if chapel, hall, and sexton were his private property.

It was one of those moments into which a good deal of talk is fitted, and which seem somewhat of the longest to those who await its expiration.

The chapel was growing dark, and its stone and marble company of bygone Wylders and Brandons were losing themselves in shadow. Part of the periwig and cheek of Sir Marcus Brandon still glimmered whitish, as at a little distance did also the dim marble face and arm of the young Countess of Lydingworth, mourning these hundred and thirty years over her dead baby. Sir William Wylder, in ruff, rosettes, and full dress of James I.'s fashion, on his back, defunct, with children in cloaks kneeling at head and foot, was hardly distinguishable; and the dusky crimson and tarnished gold had gone out of view till morning. The learned Archbishop Brandon, a cadet, who filled the see of York in his day, and was the only unexceptionably godly personage of that long line, was praying, as usual, at his desk—perhaps to the saints and Virgin, for I believe he was before the Reformation—in beard and skull-cap, as was evident from the black profile of head and uplifted hands, against the dim sky seen through the chapel window. A dusky glow from the west still faintly showed Hans Holbein's proud 'Elector,' in the Brandon window, fading, with Death himself, and the dread inscription, 'Princeps induetur maerore,' into utter darkness.

The ice once broken, Jos. Larkin urged his point with all sorts of arguments, always placing the proposed transaction in the most plausible lights and attitudes, and handling his subject in round and flowing sentences. This master of persuasion was not aware that Captain Lake was arguing the question for himself, on totally different grounds, and that it was fixed in his mind pretty much in these terms:—

'That old villain wants an exorbitant bribe—is he worth it?'

He knew what the lawyer thought he did not know—that Five Oaks was held by the lawyers to be possibly without those unfortunate limitations which affected all the rest of the estate. It was only a moot-point; but the doubt had led Mr. Jos. Larkin to the selection.

'I'll look in upon you between eight and nine in the morning, and I'll say yes or no then,' said the captain, as they parted under the old stone porch, the attorney with a graceful inclination, a sad smile, and a wave of his hand—the captain with his hands in the pockets of his loose coat, and a sidelong glance from his yellow eyes.

The sky, as he looked toward Brandon, was draped in black cloud, intensely black, meeting a black horizon—except for one little rent of deep crimson which showed westward behind those antique gables and lordly trees, like a lake of blood.


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