Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LVIII


So soon as the letter which had so surprised and incensed Stanley Lake was despatched, and beyond recall, Rachel, who had been indescribably agitated before, grew all at once calm. She knew that she had done right. She was glad the die was cast, and that it was out of her power to retract.

She kneeled at her bedside, and wept and prayed, and then went down and talked with old Tamar, who was knitting in the shade by the porch.

Then the young lady put on her bonnet and cloak, and walked down to Gylingden, with an anxious, but still a lighter heart, to see her friend, Dolly Wylder.

Dolly received her in a glad sort of fuss.

'I'm so glad to see you, Miss Lake.'

'Call me Rachel; and won't you let me call you Dolly?'

'Well, Rachel, dear,' replied Dolly, laughing, 'I'm delighted you're come; I have such good news—but I can't tell it till I think for a minute—I must begin at the beginning.'

'Anywhere, everywhere, only if it is good news, let me hear it at once. I'll be sure to understand.'

'Well, Miss—I mean Rachel, dear—you know—I may tell you now—the vicar—my dear Willie—he and I—we've been in great trouble—oh, such trouble—Heaven only knows—' and she dried her eyes quickly—'money, my dear—' and she smiled with a bewildered shrug—'some debts at Cambridge—no fault of his—you can't imagine what a saving darling he is—but these were a few old things that mounted up with interest, my dear—you understand—and law costs—oh, you can't think—and indeed, dear Miss—well, Rachel—I forgot—I sometimes thought we must be quite ruined.'

'Oh, Dolly, dear,' said Rachel, very pale, 'I feared it. I thought you might be troubled about money. I was not sure, but I was afraid; and, to say truth, it was partly to try your friendship with a question on that very point that I came here, and not indeed, Dolly, dear, from impertinent curiosity, but in the hope that maybe you might allow me to be of some use.'

'How wonderfully good you are! How friends are raised up!' and with a smile that shone like an April sun through her tears, she stood on tiptoe, and kissed the tall young lady, who—not smiling, but with a pale and very troubled face—bowed down and returned her kiss.

'You know, dear, before he went, Mark promised to lend dear Willie a large sum of money. Well, he went away in such a hurry, that he never thought of it; and though he constantly wrote to Mr. Larkin—you have no idea, my dear Miss Lake, what a blessed angel that man is—oh! such a friend as has been raised up to us in that holy and wise man, words cannot express; but what was I saying?—oh, yes—Mark, you know—it was very kind, but he has so many things on his mind it quite escaped him—and he keeps, you know, wandering about on the Continent, and never gives his address; so he, can't, you see, be written to; and the delay—but, Rachel, darling, are you ill?'

She rang the bell, and opened the window, and got some water.

'My darling, you walked too fast here. You were very near fainting.'

'No, dear—nothing—I am quite well now—go on.'

But she did not go on immediately, for Rachel was trembling in a kind of shivering fit, which did not pass away till after poor Dolly, who had no other stimulant at command, made her drink a cup of very hot milk.

'Thank you, darling. You are too good to me, Dolly. Oh! Dolly, you are too good to me.'

Rachel's eyes were looking into hers with a careworn, entreating gaze, and her cold hand was pressed on the back of Dolly's.

Nearly ten minutes passed before the talk was renewed.

'Well, now, what do you think—that good man, Mr. Larkin, just as things were at the worst, found a way to make everything—oh, blessed mercy!—the hand of Heaven, my dear—quite right again—and we'll be so happy. Like a bird I could sing, and fly almost—a foolish old thing—ha! ha! ha!—such an old goose!' and she wiped her eyes again.

'Hush! is that Fairy? Oh, no, it is only Anne singing. Little man has not been well yesterday and to-day. He won't eat, and looks pale, but he slept very well, my darling man; and Doctor Buddle—I met him this morning—so kindly took him into his room, and examined him, and says it may be nothing at all, please Heaven,' and she sighed, smiling still.

'Dear little Fairy—where is he?' asked Rachel, her sad eyes looking toward the door.

'In the study with his Wapsie. Mrs. Woolaston, she is such a kind soul, lent him such a beautiful old picture book—"Woodward's Eccentricities" it is called—and he's quite happy—little Fairy, on his little stool at the window.'

'No headache or fever?' asked Miss Lake cheerfully, though, she knew not why, there seemed something ominous in this little ailment.

'None at all; oh, none, thank you; none in the world. I'd be so frightened if there was. But, thank Heaven, Doctor Buddle says there's nothing to make us at all uneasy. My blessed little man! And he has his canary in the cage in the window, and his kitten to play with in the study. He's quite happy.'

'Please Heaven, he'll be quite well to-morrow—the darling little man,' said Rachel, all the more fondly for that vague omen that seemed to say, 'He's gone.'

'Here's Mr. Larkin!' cried Dolly, jumping up, and smiling and nodding at the window to that long and natty apparition, who glided to the hall-door with a sad smile, raising his well-brushed hat as he passed, and with one grim glance beyond Mrs. Wylder, for his sharp eye half detected another presence in the room.

He was followed, not accompanied—for Mr. Larkin knew what a gentleman he was—by a young and bilious clerk, with black hair and a melancholy countenance, and by old Buggs—his conducting man—always grinning, whose red face glared in the little garden like a great bunch of hollyhocks. He was sober as a judge all the morning, and proceeded strictly on the principle of business first, and pleasure afterward. But his orgies, when off duty, were such as to cause the good attorney, when complaints reached him, to shake his head, and sigh profoundly, and sometimes to lift up his mild eyes and long hands; and, indeed, so scandalous an appendage was Buggs, that if he had been less useful, I believe the pure attorney, who, in the uncomfortable words of John Bunyan, 'had found a cleaner road to hell,' would have cashiered him long ago.

'There is that awful Mr. Buggs,' said Dolly, with a look of honest alarm. 'I often wonder so Christian a man as Mr. Larkin can countenance him. He is hardly ever without a black eye. He has been three nights together without once putting off his clothes—think of that; and, my dear, on Friday week he fell through the window of the Fancy Emporium, at two o'clock in the morning; and Doctor Buddle says if the cut on his jaw had been half an inch lower, he would have cut some artery, and lost his life—wretched man!'

'They have come about law business, Dolly!' enquired the young lady, who had a profound, instinctive dread of Mr. Larkin.

'Yes, my dear; a most important windfall. Only for Mr. Larkin, it never could have been accomplished, and, indeed, I don't think it would ever have been thought of.'

'I hope he has some one to advise him,' said Miss Lake, anxiously. 'I—I think Mr. Larkin a very cunning person; and you know your husband does not understand business.'

'Is it Mr. Larkin, my dear? Mr. Larkin! Why, my dear, if you knew him as we do, you'd trust your life in his hands.'

'But there are people who know him still better; and I think they fancy he is a very crafty man. I do not like him myself, and Dorcas Brandon dislikes him too; and, though I don't think we could either give a reason—I don't know, Dolly, but I should not like to trust him.'

'But, my dear, he is an excellent man, and such a friend, and he has managed all this most troublesome business so delightfully. It is what they call a reversion.'

'William Wylder is not selling his reversion?' said Rachel, fixing a wild and startled look on her companion.

'Yes, reversion, I am sure, is the name. And why not, dear? It is most unlikely we should ever get a farthing of it any other way, and it will give us enough to make us quite happy.'

'But, my darling, don't you know the reversion under the will is a great fortune? He must not think of it;' and up started Rachel, and before Dolly could interpose or remonstrate, she had crossed the little hall, and entered the homely study, where the gentlemen were conferring.

William Wylder was sitting at his desk, and a large sheet of law scrivenery, on thick paper, with a stamp in the corner, was before him. The bald head of the attorney, as he leaned over him, and indicated an imaginary line with his gold pencil-case, was presented toward Miss Lake as she entered.

The attorney had just said 'there, please,' in reply to the vicar's question, 'Where do I write my name?' and red Buggs, grinning with his mouth open, like an over-heated dog, and the sad and bilious young gentleman, stood by to witness the execution of the cleric's autograph.

Tall Jos. Larkin looked up, smiling with his mouth also a little open, as was his wont when he was particularly affable. But the rat's eyes were looking at her with a hungry suspicion, and smiled not.

'William Wylder, I am so glad I'm in time,' said Rachel, rustling across the room.

'There,' said the attorney, very peremptorily, and making a little furrow in the thick paper with the seal end of his pencil.

'Stop, William Wylder, don't sign; I've a word to say—you must pause.'

'If it affects our business, Miss Lake, I do request that you address yourself to me; if not, may I beg, Miss Lake, that you will defer it for a moment.'

'William Wylder, lay down that pen; as you love your little boy, lay it down, and hear me,' continued Miss Lake.

The vicar looked at her with his eyes wide open, puzzled, like a man who is not quite sure whether he may not be doing something wrong.

'I—really, Miss Lake—pardon me, but this is very irregular, and, in fact, unprecedented!' said Jos. Larkin. 'I think—I suppose, you can hardly be aware, Ma'am, that I am here as the Rev. Mr. Wylder's confidential solicitor, acting solely for him, in a matter of a strictly private nature.'

The attorney stood erect, a little flushed, with that peculiar contraction, mean and dangerous, in his eyes.

'Of course, Mr. Wylder, if you, Sir, desire me to leave, I shall instantaneously do so; and, indeed, unless you proceed to sign, I had better go, as my time is generally, I may say, a little pressed upon, and I have, in fact, some business elsewhere to attend to.'

'What is this law-paper?' demanded Rachel, laying the tips of her slender fingers upon it.

'Am I to conclude that you withdraw from your engagement?' asked Mr. Larkin. 'I had better, then, communicate with Burlington and Smith by this post; as also with the sheriff, who has been very kind.'

'Oh, no!—oh, no, Mr. Larkin!—pray, I'm quite ready to sign.'

'Now, William Wylder, you sha'n't sign until you tell me whether this is a sale of your reversion.'

The young lady had her white hand firmly pressed upon the spot where he was to sign, and the ring that glittered on her finger looked like a talisman interposing between the poor vicar and the momentous act he was meditating.

'I think, Miss Lake, it is pretty plain you are not acting for yourself here—you have been sent, Ma'am,' said the attorney, looking very vicious, and speaking a little huskily and hurriedly; 'I quite conceive by whom.'

'I don't know what you mean, Sir,' replied Miss Lake, with grave disdain.

'You have been commissioned, Ma'am, I venture to think, to come here to watch the interests of another party.'

'I say, Sir, I don't in the least comprehend you.'

'I think it is pretty obvious, Ma'am—Miss Lake, I beg pardon—you have had some conversation with your brother,' answered the attorney, with a significant sneer.

'I don't know what you mean, Sir, I repeat. I've just heard, in the other room, from your wife, William Wylder, that you were about selling your reversion in the estates, and I want to know whether that is so; for if it be, it is the act of a madman, and I'll prevent it, if I possibly can.'

'Upon my word! possibly'—said the vicar, his eyes very wide open, and looking with a hesitating gaze from Rachel to the attorney—'there may be something in it which neither you nor I know; does it not strike you—had we not better consider?'

'Consider what, Sir?' said the attorney, with a snap, and losing his temper somewhat. 'It is simply, Sir, that this young lady represents Captain Lake, who wishes to get the reversion for himself.'

'That is utterly false, Sir!' said Miss Lake, flashing and blushing with indignation. 'You, William, are a gentleman; and such inconceivable meanness cannot enter your mind.'

The attorney, with what he meant to be a polished sarcasm, bowed and smiled toward Miss Lake.

Pale little Fairy, sitting before his 'picture-book,' was watching the scene with round eyes and round mouth, and that mixture of interest, awe, and distress, with which children witness the uncomprehended excitement and collision of their elders.

'My dear Miss Lake, I respect and esteem you; you quite mistake, I am persuaded, my good friend Mr. Larkin; and, indeed, I don't quite comprehend; but if it were so, and that your brother really wished—do you think he does, Mr. Larkin?—to buy the reversion, he might think it more valuable, perhaps.'

'I can say with certainty, Sir, that from that quarter you would get nothing like what you have agreed to take; and I must say, once for all, Sir, that—quite setting aside every consideration of honour and of conscience, and of the highly prejudicial position in which you would place me as a man of business, by taking the very short turn which this young lady, Miss Lake, suggests—your letters amount to an equitable agreement to sell, which, on petition, the court would compel you to do.'

'So you see, my dear Miss Lake, there is no more to be said,' said the vicar, with a careworn smile, looking upon Rachel's handsome face.

'Now, now, we are all friends, aren't we?' said poor Dolly, who could not make anything of the debate, and was staring, with open mouth, from one speaker to another. 'We are all agreed, are not we? You are all so good, and fond of Willie, that you are actually ready almost to quarrel for him.' But her little laugh produced no echo, except a very joyless and flushed effort from the attorney, as he looked up from consulting his watch.

'Eleven minutes past three,' said he, 'and I've a meeting at my house at half-past: so, unless you complete that instrument now, I regret to say I must take it back unfinished, and the result may be to defeat the arrangement altogether, and if the consequences should prove serious, I, at least, am not to blame.'

'Don't sign, I entreat, I implore of you. William Wylder, you shan't.'

'But, my dear Miss Lake, we have considered everything, and Mr. Larkin and I agree that my circumstances are such as to make it inevitable.'

'Really, this is child's play; there, if you please,' said the attorney, once more.

Rachel Lake, during the discussion, had removed her hand. The faintly-traced line on which the vicar was to sign was now fairly presented to him.

'Just in your usual way,' murmured Mr. Larkin.

So the vicar's pen was applied, but before he had time to trace the first letter of his name, Rachel Lake resolutely snatched the thick, bluish sheet of scrivenery, with its handsome margins, and red ink lines, from before him, and tore it across and across, with the quickness of terror, and in fewer seconds than one could fancy, it lay about the floor and grate in pieces little bigger than dominoes.

The attorney made a hungry snatch at the paper, over William Wylder's shoulder, nearly bearing that gentleman down on his face, but his clutch fell short.

'Hallo! Miss Lake, Ma'am—the paper!'

But wild words were of no avail. The whole party, except Rachel, were aghast. The attorney's small eye glanced over the ground and hearthstone, where the bits were strewn, like

Ladies' smocks, all silver white,
That paint the meadows with delight.

He had nothing for it but to submit to fortune with his best air. He stood erect; a slanting beam from the window glimmered on his tall, bald head, and his face was black and menacing as the summit of a thunder-crowned peak.

'You are not aware, Miss Lake, of the nature of your act, and of the consequences to which you have exposed yourself, Madam. But that is a view of the occurrence in which, except as a matter of deep regret, I cannot be supposed to be immediately interested. I will mention, however, that your interference, your violent interference, Madam, may be attended with most serious consequences to my reverend client, for which, of course, you constituted yourself fully responsible, when you entered on the course of unauthorised interference, which has resulted in destroying the articles of agreement, prepared with great care and labour, for his protection; and retarding the transmission of the document, by at least four-and-twenty hours, to London. You may, Madam, I regret to observe, have ruined my client.'

'Saved him, I hope.'

'And run yourself, Madam, into a very serious scrape.'

'Upon that point you have said quite enough, Sir. Dolly, William, don't look so frightened; you'll both live to thank me for this.'

All this time little Fairy, unheeded, was bawling in great anguish of soul, clinging to Rachel's dress, and crying—'Oh! he'll hurt her—he'll hurt her—he'll hurt her. Don't let him—don't let him. Wapsie, don't let him. Oh! the frightle man!—don't let him—he'll hurt her—the frightle man!' And little man's cheeks were drenched in tears, and his wee feet danced in an agony of terror on the floor, as, bawling, he tried to pull his friend Rachel into a corner.

'Nonsense, little man,' cried his father, with quick reproof, on hearing this sacrilegious uproar. 'Mr. Larkin never hurt anyone; tut, tut; sit down, and look at your book.'

But Rachel, with a smile of love and gratification, lifted the little man up in her arms, and kissed him; and his thin, little legs were clasped about her waist, and his arms round her neck, and he kissed her with his wet face, devouringly, blubbering 'the frightle man—you doatie!—the frightle man!'

'Then, Mr. Wylder, I shall have the document prepared again from the draft. You'll see to that, Mr. Buggs, please; and perhaps it will be better that you should look in at the Lodge.'

When he mentioned the Lodge, it was in so lofty a way that a stranger would have supposed it something very handsome indeed, and one of the sights of the county.

'Say, about nine o'clock to-morrow morning. Farewell, Mr. Wylder, farewell. I regret the enhanced expense—I regret the delay—I regret the risk—I regret, in fact, the whole scene. Farewell, Mrs. Wylder.' And with a silent bow to Rachel—perfectly polished, perfectly terrible—he withdrew, followed by the sallow clerk, and by that radiant scamp, old Buggs, who made them several obeisances at the door.

'Oh, dear Miss Lake—Rachel, I mean—Rachel, dear, I hope it won't be all off. Oh, you don't know—Heaven only knows—the danger we are in. Oh, Rachel, dear, if this is broken off, I don't know what is to become of us—I don't know.'

Dolly spoke quite wildly, with her hands on Rachel's shoulders. It was the first time she had broken down, the first time, at least, the vicar had seen her anything but cheery, and his head sank, and it seemed as if his last light had gone out, and he was quite benighted.

'Do you think,' said he, 'there is much danger of that? Do you really think so?'

'Now, don't blame me,' said Miss Lake, 'and don't be frightened till you have heard me. Let us sit down here—we shan't be interrupted—and just answer your wretched friend, Rachel, two or three questions, and hear what she has to say.'

Rachel was flushed and excited, and sat with the little boy still in her arms.

So, in reply to her questions, the vicar told her frankly how he stood; and Rachel said—'Well, you must not think of selling your reversion. Oh! think of your little boy—think of Dolly—if you were taken away from her.'

'But,' said Dolly, 'Mr. Larkin heard from Captain Lake that Mark is privately married, and actually has, he says, a large family; and he, you know, has letters from him, and Mr. Larkin thinks, knows more than anyone else about him; and if that were so, none of us would ever inherit the property. So'—

'Do they say that Mark is married? Nothing can be more false. I know it is altogether a falsehood. He neither is nor ever will be married. If my brother dared say that in my presence, I would make him confess, before you, that he knows it cannot be. Oh! my poor little Fairy—my poor Dolly—my poor good friend, William! What shall I say? I am in great distraction of mind.' And she hugged and kissed the pale little boy, she herself paler.

'Listen to me, good and kind as you are. You are never to call me your friend, mind that. I am a most unhappy creature forced by circumstances to be your enemy, for a time—not always. You have no conception how, and may never even suspect. Don't ask me, but listen.'

Wonder stricken and pained was the countenance with which the vicar gazed upon her, and Dolly looked both frightened and perplexed.

'I have a little more than three hundred a-year. There is a little annuity charged on Sir Hugh Landon's estate, and his solicitor has written, offering me six hundred pounds for it. I will write to-night accepting that offer, and you shall have the money to pay those debts which have been pressing so miserably upon you. Don't thank—not a word—but listen. I would so like, Dolly, to come and live with you. We could unite our incomes. I need only bring poor old Tamar with me, and I can give up Redman's Farm in September next. I should be so much happier; and I think my income and yours joined would enable us to live without any danger of getting into debt. Will you agree to this, Dolly, dear; and promise me, William Wylder, that you will think no more of selling that reversion, which may be the splendid provision of your dear little boy. Don't thank me—don't say anything now; and oh! don't reject my poor entreaty. Your refusal would almost make me mad. I would try, Dolly, to be of use. I think I could. Only try me.'

She fancied she saw in Dolly's face, under all her gratitude, some perplexity and hesitation, and feared to accept a decision then. So she hurried away, with a hasty and kind good-bye.

A fortnight before, I think, during Dolly's jealous fit, this magnificent offer of Rachel's would, notwithstanding the dreadful necessities of the case, have been coldly received by the poor little woman. But that delusion was quite cured now—no reserve, or doubt, or coldness left behind. And Dolly and the vicar felt that Rachel's noble proposal was the making of them.


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