THE BRANDON CONSERVATORY.
Captain Lake did look in at the Lodge in the morning, and remained an hour in conference with Mr. Jos. Larkin. I suppose everything went off pleasantly. For although Stanley Lake looked very pale and vicious as he walked down to the iron gate of the Lodge among the evergreens and bass-mats, the good attorney's countenance shone with a serene and heavenly light, so pure and bright, indeed, that I almost wonder his dazzled servants, sitting along the wall while he read and expounded that morning, did not respectfully petition that a veil, after the manner of Moses, might be suspended over the seraphic effulgence.
Somehow his 'Times' did not interest him at breakfast; these parliamentary wrangles, commercial speculations, and foreign disputes, are they not, after all, but melancholy and dreary records of the merest worldliness; and are there not moments when they become almost insipid? Jos. Larkin tossed the paper upon the sofa. French politics, relations with Russia, commercial treaties, party combinations, how men can so wrap themselves up in these things!
And he smiled ineffable pity over the crumpled newspaper—on the poor souls in that sort of worldly limbo. In which frame of mind he took from his coat pocket a copy of Captain Lake's marriage settlement, and read over again a covenant on the captain's part that, with respect to this particular estate of Five Oaks, he would do no act, and execute no agreement, deed, or other instrument whatsoever, in any wise affecting the same, without the consent in writing of the said Dorcas Brandon; and a second covenant binding him and the trustees of the settlement against executing any deed, &c., without a similar consent; and especially directing, that in the event of alienating the estate, the said Dorcas must be made an assenting party to the deed.
He folded the deed, and replaced it in his pocket with a peaceful smile and closed eyes, murmuring—
'I'm much mistaken if the gray mare's the better horse in that stud.'
He laughed gently, thinking of the captain's formidable and unscrupulous nature, exhibitions of which he could not fail to remember.
'No, no, Miss Dorkie won't give us much trouble.'
He used to call her 'Miss Dorkie,' playfully to his clerks. It gave him consideration, he fancied. And now with this Five Oaks to begin with—£1,400 a year—a great capability, immensely improvable, he would stake half he's worth on making it more than £2,000 within five years; and with other things at his back, an able man like him might before long look as high as she. And visions of the grand jury rose dim and splendid—an heiress and a seat for the county; perhaps he and Lake might go in together, though he'd rather be associated with the Hon. James Cluttworth, or young Lord Griddlestone. Lake, you see, wanted weight, and, nothwithstanding his connections, was, it could not be denied, a new man in the county.
So Wylder, Lake, and Jos. Larkin had each projected for himself, pretty much the same career; and probably each saw glimmering in the horizon the golden round of a coronet. And I suppose other modest men are not always proof against similar flatteries of imagination.
Jos. Larkin had also the vicar's business and reversion to attend to. The Rev. William Wylder had a letter containing three lines from him at eight o'clock, to which he sent an answer, whereupon the solicitor despatched a special messenger, one of his clerks to Dollington, with a letter to the sheriff's deputy, from whom he received duly a reply, which necessitated a second letter with a formal undertaking, to which came another reply; whereupon he wrote to Burlington, Smith, and Co., acquainting them respectfully, in diplomatic fashion, with the attitude which affairs had assumed.
With this went a private and confidential, non-official, note to Smith, desiring him to answer stiffly and press for an immediate settlement, and to charge costs fairly, as Mr. William Wylder would have ample funds to liquidate them. Smith knew what fairly meant, and his entries went down accordingly. By the same post went up to the same firm a proposition—an afterthought—sanctioned by a second miniature correspondence with his client, now sailing before the wind, to guarantee them against loss consequent against staying the execution in the sheriff's hands for a fortnight, which, if they agreed to, they were further requested to send a draft of the proposed undertaking by return, at foot of which, in pencil, he wrote, 'N.B.—Yes.'
This arrangement necessitated his providing himself with a guarantee from the vicar; and so the little account as between the vicar and Jos. Larkin, solicitor, and the vicar and Messrs. Burlington, Smith, and Co., solicitors, grew up and expanded with a tropical luxuriance.
About the same time—while Mr. Jos. Larkin, I mean, was thinking over Miss Dorkie's share in the deed, with a complacent sort of interest, anticipating a struggle, but sure of victory—that beautiful young lady was walking slowly from flower to flower, in the splendid conservatory which projects southward from the house, and rears itself in glacial arches high over the short sward and flowery patterns of the outer garden of Brandon. The unspeakable sadness of wounded pride was on her beautiful features, and there was a fondness in the gesture with which she laid her fingers on these exotics and stooped over them, which gave to her solitude a sentiment of the pathetic.
From the high glass doorway, communicating with the drawing-rooms, at the far end, among towering ranks of rare and gorgeous flowers, over the encaustic tiles, and through this atmosphere of perfume, did Captain Stanley Lake, in his shooting coat, glide, smiling, toward his beautiful young wife.
She heard the door close, and looking half over her shoulder, in a low tone indicating surprise, she merely said:
'Oh!' receiving him with a proud sad look.
'Yes, Dorkie, I'm here at last. I've been for some weeks so insufferably busy,' and he laid his white hand lightly over his eyes, as if they and the brain within were alike weary.
'How charming this place is—the temple of Flora, and you the divinity!'
And he kissed her cheek.
'I'm now emancipated for, I hope, a week or two. I've been so stupid and inattentive. I'm sure, Dorkie, you must think me a brute. I've been shut up so in the library, and keeping such tiresome company—you've no idea; but I think you'll say it was time well spent, at least I'm sure you'll approve the result; and now that I have collected the facts, and can show you, darling, exactly what the chances are, you must consent to hear the long story, and when you have heard, give me your advice.'
Dorcas smiled, and only plucked a little flowery tendril from a plant that hung in a natural festoon above her.
'I assure you, darling, I am serious; you must not look so incredulous; and it is the more provoking, because I love you so. I think I have a right to your advice, Dorkie.'
'Why don't you ask Rachel, she's cleverer than I, and you are more in the habit of consulting her?'
'Now, Dorkie is going to talk her wicked nonsense over again, as if I had never answered it. What about Radie? I do assure you, so far from taking her advice, and thinking her an oracle, as you suppose, I believe her in some respects very little removed from a fool.'
'I think her very clever, on the contrary,' said Dorcas, enigmatically.
'Well, she is clever in some respects; she is gay, at least she used to be, before she fell into that transcendental parson's hands—I mean poor dear William Wylder; and she can be amusing, and talks very well, but she has no sense—she is utterly Quixotic—she is no more capable of advising than a child.'
'I should not have fancied that, although you say so, Stanley.' she answered carelessly, adding a geranium to her bouquet.
'You are thinking, I know, because you have seen us once or twice talking together——'
Stanley paused, not knowing exactly how to construct the remainder of his sentence.
Dorcas added another blossom.
'I think that blue improves it wonderfully. Don't you?'
'The blue? Oh yes, certainly.'
'And now that little star of yellow will make it perfect,' said Dorcas.
'Yes—yellow—quite perfect,' said Stanley. 'But when you saw Rachel and me talking together, or rather Rachel talking to me, I do assure you, Dorcas, upon my sacred honour, one half of what she said I do not to this moment comprehend, and the whole was based on the most preposterous blunder; and I will tell you in a little time everything about it. I would this moment—I'd be delighted—only just until I have got a letter which I expect—a letter, I assure you, nothing more—and until I have got it, it would be simply to waste your time and patience to weary you with any such—any such.'
'Secret,' said Dorcas.
'Secret, then, if you will have it so,' retorted Stanley, suddenly, with one of those glares that lasted for just one fell moment; but he instantly recovered himself. 'Secret—yes—but no secret in the evil sense—a secret only awaiting the evidence which I daily expect, and then to be stated fully and frankly to you, my only darling, and as completely blown to the winds.'
Dorcas looked in his strange face with her proud, sad gaze, like one guessing at a funereal allegory.
He kissed her cheek again, placing one arm round her slender waist, and with his other hand taking hers.
'Yes, Dorcas, my beloved, my only darling, you will yet know all it has cost me to retain from you even this folly; and when you have heard all—which upon my soul and honour, you shall the moment I am enabled to prove all—you will thank me for having braved your momentary displeasure, to spare you a great deal of useless and miserable suspense. I trust you, Dorcas, in everything implicitly. Why won't you credit what I say?'
'I don't urge you—I never have—to reveal that which you describe so strangely as a concealment, yet no secret; as an absurdity, and yet fraught with miserable suspense.'
'Ah, Dorcas, why will you misconstrue me? Why will you not believe me? I long to tell you this, which, after all, is an utter absurdity, a thousand times more than you can desire to hear it; but my doing so now, unfortified by the evidence I shall have in a very few days, would be attended with a danger which you will then understand. Won't you trust me?'
'And now for my advice,' said Dorcas, smiling down in her mysterious way upon a crimson exotic near her feet.
'Yes, darling, thank you. In sober earnest, your advice,' answered Lake; 'and you must advise me. Several of our neighbours—the Hillyards, the Ledwiches, the Wyndermeres, and ever so many more—have spoken to me very strongly about contesting the county, on the old Whig principles, at the election which is now imminent. There is not a man with a chance of acceptance to come forward, if I refuse. Now, you know what even moderate success in the House, when family and property go together, may accomplish. There are the Dodminsters. Do you think they would ever have got their title by any other means? There are the Forresters——'
'I know it all, Stanley; and at once I say, go on. I thought you must have formed some political project, Mr. Wealdon has been with you so often; but you tell me nothing, Stanley.'
'Not, darling, till I know it myself. This plan, for instance, until you spoke this moment, was but a question, and one which I could not submit until I had seen Wealdon, and heard how matters stood, and what chances of success I should really have. So, darling, you have it all; and I am so glad you advise me to go on. It is five-and-thirty years since anyone connected with Brandon came forward. But it will cost a great deal of money, Dorkie.'
'Yes, I know. I've always heard it cost my uncle and Sir William Camden fifteen thousand pounds.'
'Yes, it will be expensive, Wealdon thinks—very, this time. The other side will spend a great deal of money. It often struck me as a great mistake, that, where there is a good income, and a position to be maintained, there is not a little put by every year to meet cases like this—what they call a reserve fund in trading companies.'
'I do not think there is much money. You know, Stanley.'
'Whatever there is, is under settlement, and we cannot apply it, Dorkie. The only thing to be done, it strikes me, is to sell a part of Five Oaks.'
'I'll not sell any property, Stanley.'
'And what do you propose, then?'
'I don't know. I don't understand these things. But there are ways of getting money by mortgages and loans, and paying them off, without losing the property.'
'I've the greatest possible objection to raising money in that way. It is, in fact, the first step towards ruin; and nobody has ever done it who has not regretted that he did not sell instead.'
'I won't sell Five Oaks, Stanley,' said the young lady, seriously.
'I only said a part,' replied Stanley.
'I won't sell at all.'
'Oh? And I won't mortgage,' said Stanley. 'Then the thing can't go on?'
'I can't help it.'
'But I'm resolved it shall,' answered Stanley.
'I tell you, Stanley, plainly, I will not sell. The Brandon estate shall not be diminished in my time.'
'Why, you perverse idiot, don't you perceive you impair the estate as much by mortgaging as by selling, with ten times the ultimate danger. I tell you I won't mortgage, and you shall sell.'
'This, Sir, is the first time I have been spoken to in such terms.'
'And why do you contradict and thwart me upon business of which I know something and you nothing? What object on earth can I have in impairing the estate? I've as deep an interest in it as you. It is perfectly plain we should sell; and I am determined we shall. Come now, Dorcas—I'm sorry—I'm such a brute, you know, when I'm vexed. You mustn't be angry; and if you'll be a good girl, and trust me in matters of business——'
'Stanley, I tell you plainly once more, I never will consent to sell one acre of the Brandon estates.'
'Then we'll see what I can do without you, Dorkie,' he said in a pleasant, musing way.
He was now looking down, with his sly, malign smile; and Dorcas could almost fancy two yellow lights reflected upon the floor.
'I shall protect the property of my family, Sir, from your folly or your machinations; and I shall write to Chelford, as my trustee, to come here to advise me.'
'And I snap my fingers at you both, and meet you with defiance;' and Stanley's singular eyes glared upon her for a few seconds.
Dorcas turned in her grand way, and walked slowly toward the door.
'Stay a moment, I'm going,' said Stanley, overtaking and confronting her near the door. 'I've only one word. I don't think you quite know me. It will be an evil day for you, Dorkie, when you quarrel with me.'
He looked steadily on her, smiling for a second or two more, and then glided from the conservatory.
It was the first time Dorcas had seen Stanley Lake's features in that translated state which indicated the action of his evil nature, and the apparition haunted her for many a day and night.