RACHEL LAKE BEFORE THE ACCUSER.
Twilight was darker in Redman's Dell than anywhere else. But dark as it was, there was still light enough to enable Rachel, as she hurried across the little garden, on her return from Brandon, to see a long white face, and some dim outline of the figure to which it belonged, looking out upon her from the window of her little drawing-room.
But no, it could not be; who was there to call at so odd an hour? She must have left something—a bag, or a white basket upon the window-sash. She was almost startled, however, as she approached the porch, to see it nod, and a hand dimly waved in token of greeting.
Tamar was in the kitchen. Could it be Stanley! But faint as the outline was she saw, she fancied that it was a taller person than he. She felt a sort of alarm, in which there was some little mixture of the superstitious, and she pushed open the door, not entering the room, but staring in toward the window, where against the dim, external light, she clearly saw, without recognising it, a tall figure, greeting her with mop and moe.
'Who is that?' cried Miss Lake, a little sharply.
'It is I, Miss Lake, Mr. Josiah Larkin, of the Lodge,' said that gentleman, with what he meant to be an air of dignified firmness, and looking very like a tall constable in possession; 'I have taken the liberty of presenting myself, although, I fear, at a somewhat unseasonable hour, but in reference to a little business, which, unfortunately, will not, I think, bear to be deferred.'
'No bad news, Mr. Larkin, I hope—nothing has happened. The Wylders are all well, I hope?'
'Quite well, so far as I am aware,' answered the attorney, with a grim politeness; 'perfectly. Nothing has occurred, as yet at least, affecting the interests of that family; but something is—I will not say threatened—but I may say mooted, which, were any attempt seriously made to carry it into execution, would, I regret to say, involve very serious consequences to a party whom for, I may say, many reasons, I should regret being called upon to affect unpleasantly.'
'And pray, Mr. Larkin, can I be of any use?'
'Every use, Miss Lake, and it is precisely for that reason that I have taken the liberty of waiting upon you, at what, I am well aware, is a somewhat unusual hour.'
'Perhaps, Mr. Larkin, you would be so good as to call in the morning—any hour you appoint will answer me,' said the young lady, a little stiffly. She was still standing at the door, with her hand upon the brass handle.
'Pardon me, Miss Lake, the business to which I refer is really urgent.'
'Very urgent, Sir, if it cannot wait till to-morrow morning.'
'Very true, quite true, very urgent indeed,' replied the attorney, calmly; 'I presume, Miss Lake, I may take a chair?'
'Certainly, Sir, if you insist on my listening to-night, which I should certainly decline if I had the power.'
'Thank you, Miss Lake.' And the attorney took a chair, crossing one leg over the other, and throwing his head back as he reclined in it with his long arm over the back—the 'express image,' as he fancied, of a polished gentleman, conducting a diplomatic interview with a clever and high-bred lady.
'Then it is plain, Sir, I must hear you to-night,' said Miss Lake, haughtily.
'Not that, exactly, Miss Lake, but only that I must speak to-night—in fact, I have no choice. The subject of our conference really is, as you will find, an urgent one, and to-morrow morning, which we should each equally prefer, would be possibly too late—too late, at least, to obviate a very painful situation.'
'You will make it, I am sure, as short as you can, Sir,' said the young lady, in the same tone.
'Exactly my wish, Miss Lake,' replied Mr. Jos. Larkin.
'Bring candles, Margery.'
And so the little drawing-room was illuminated; and the bald head of the tall attorney, and the gloss on his easy, black frock-coat, and his gold watch-chain, and the long and large gloved hand, depending near the carpet, with the glove of the other in it. And Mr. Jos. Larkin rose with a negligent and lordly case, and placed a chair for Miss Lake, so that the light might fall full upon her features, in accordance with his usual diplomatic arrangement, which he fancied, complacently, no one had ever detected; he himself resuming his easy pose upon his chair, with his back, as much as was practicable, presented to the candles, and the long, bony fingers of the arm which rested on the table, negligently shading his observing little eyes, and screening off the side light from his expressive features.
These arrangements, however, were disconcerted by Miss Lake's sitting down at the other side of the table, and quietly requesting Mr. Larkin to open his case.
'Why, really, it is hardly a five minutes' matter, Miss Lake. It refers to the vicar, the Rev. William Wylder, and his respectable family, and a proposition which he, as my client, mentioned to me this evening. He stated that you had offered to advance a sum of 600l. for the liquidation of his liabilities. It will, perhaps, conduce to clearness to dispose of this part of the matter first. May I therefore ask, at this stage, whether the Rev. William Wylder rightly conceived you, when he so stated your meaning to me?'
'Yes, certainly, I am most anxious to assist them with that little sum, which I have now an opportunity of procuring.'
'A—exactly—yes—well, Miss Lake, that is, of course, very kind of you—very kind, indeed, and creditable to your feelings; but, as Mr. William Wylder's solicitor, and as I have already demonstrated to him, I must now inform you, that the sum of six hundred pounds would be absolutely useless in his position. No party, Miss Lake, in his position, ever quite apprehends, even if he could bring himself fully to state, the aggregate amount of his liabilities. I may state, however, to you, without betraying confidence, that ten times that sum would not avail to extricate him, even temporarily, from his difficulties. He sees the thing himself now; but drowning men will grasp, we know, at straws. However, he does see the futility of this; and, thanking you most earnestly, he, through me, begs most gratefully to decline it. In fact, my dear Miss Lake—it is awful to contemplate—he has been in the hands of sharks, harpies, my dear Madam; but I'll beat about for the money, in the way of loan, if possible, and, one way or another, I am resolved, if the thing's to be done, to get him straight.'
There was here a little pause, and Mr. Larkin, finding that Miss Lake had nothing to say, simply added—
'And so, for these reasons, and with these views, my dear Miss Lake, we beg, most respectfully, and I will say gratefully, to decline the proffered advance, which, I will say, at the same time, does honour to your feelings.'
'I am sorry,' said Miss Lake, 'you have had so much trouble in explaining so simple a matter. I will call early to-morrow, and see Mr. Wylder.'
'Pardon me,' said the attorney, 'I have to address myself next to the second portion of your offer, as stated to me by Mr. W. Wylder, that which contemplates a residence in his house, and in the respectable bosom, I may say, of that, in many respects, unblemished family.'
Miss Lake stared with a look of fierce enquiry at the attorney.
'The fact is, Miss Lake, that that is an arrangement which under existing circumstances I could not think of advising. I think, on reflection, you will see, that Mr. Wylder—the Reverend William Wylder and his lady—could not for one moment seriously entertain it, and that I, who am bound to do the best I can for them, could not dream of advising it.'
'I fancy it is a matter of total indifference, Sir, what you may and what you may not advise in a matter quite beyond your province—I don't in the least understand, or desire to understand you—and thinking your manner impertinent and offensive, I beg that you will now be so good as to leave my house.'
Miss Rachel was very angry—although nothing but her bright colour and the vexed flash of her eye showed it.
'I were most unfortunate—most unfortunate indeed, Miss Lake, if my manner could in the least justify the strong and undue language in which you have been pleased to characterise it. But I do not resent—it is not my way—"beareth all things," Miss Lake, "beareth all things"—I hope I try to practise the precept; but the fact of being misunderstood shall not deter me from the discharge of a simple duty.'
'If it is part of your duty, Sir, to make yourself intelligible, may I beg that you will do it without further delay.'
'My principal object in calling here was to inform you, Miss Lake, that you must quite abandon the idea of residing in the vicar's house, as you proposed, unless you wish me to state explicitly to him and to Mrs. Wylder the insurmountable objections which exist to any such arrangement. Such a task, Miss Lake, would be most painful to me. I hesitate to discuss the question even with you; and if you give me your word of honour that you quite abandon that idea, I shall on the instant take my leave, and certainly, for the present, trouble you no further upon a most painful subject.'
'And now, Sir, as I have no intention whatever of tolerating your incomprehensibly impertinent interference, and don't understand your meaning in the slightest degree, and do not intend to withdraw the offer I have made to good Mrs. Wylder, you will I hope perceive the uselessness of prolonging your visit, and be so good as to leave me in unmolested possession of my poor residence.'
'If I wished to do you an injury, Miss Lake, I should take you at your word. I don't—I wish to spare you. Your countenance, Miss Lake—you must pardon my frankness, it is my way—your countenance tells only too plainly that you now comprehend my allusion.'
There was a confidence and significance in the attorney's air and accent, and a peculiar look of latent ferocity in his evil countenance, which gradually excited her fears, and fascinated her gaze.
'Now, Miss Lake, we are sitting here in the presence of Him who is the searcher of hearts, and before whom nothing is secret—your eye is upon mine and mine on yours—and I ask you, do you remember the night of the 29th of September last?'
That mean, pale, taunting face! the dreadful accents that vibrated within her! How could that ill-omened man have divined her connection with the incidents—the unknown incidents—of that direful night? The lean figure in the black frock-coat, and black silk waistcoat, with that great gleaming watch-chain, the long, shabby, withered face, and flushed, bald forehead; and those paltry little eyes, in their pink setting, that nevertheless fascinated her like the gaze of a serpent. How had that horrible figure come there—why was this meeting—whence his knowledge? An evil spirit incarnate he seemed to her. She blanched before it—every vestige of colour fled from her features—she stared—she gaped at him with a strange look of imbecility—and the long face seemed to enjoy and protract its triumph.
Without removing his gaze he was fumbling in his pocket for his note-book, which he displayed with a faint smile, grim and pallid.
'I see you do remember that night—as well you may, Miss Lake,' he ejaculated, in formidable tones, and with a shake of his bald head.
'Now, Miss Lake, you see this book. It contains, Madam, the skeleton of a case. The bones and joints, Ma'am, of a case. I have it here, noted and prepared. There is not a fact in it without a note of the name and address of the witness who can prove it—the witness—observe me.'
Then there was a pause of a few seconds, during which he still kept her under his steady gaze.
'On that night, Miss Lake, the 29th September, you drove in Mr. Mark Wylder's tax-cart to the Dollington station, where, notwithstanding your veil, and your caution, you were seen and recognised. The same occurred at Charteris. You accompanied Mr. Mark Wylder in his midnight flight to London, Miss Lake. Of your stay in London I say nothing. It was protracted to the 2nd October, when you arrived in the down train at Dollington at twelve o'clock at night, and took a cab to the "White House," where you were met by a gentleman answering the description of your brother, Captain Lake. Now, Miss Lake, I have stated no particulars, but do you think that knowing all this, and knowing the fraud by which your absence was covered, and perfectly understanding, as every man conversant with this sinful world must do, the full significance of all this, I could dream of permitting you, Miss Lake, to become domesticated as an inmate in the family of a pure-minded, though simple and unfortunate clergyman?'
'It may become my duty,' he resumed, 'to prosecute a searching enquiry, Madam, into the circumstances of Mr. Mark Wylder's disappearance. If you have the slightest regard for your own honour, you will not precipitate that measure, Miss Lake; and so sure as you persist in your unwarrantable design of residing in that unsuspecting family, I will publish what I shall then feel called upon by my position to make known; for I will be no party to seeing an innocent family compromised by admitting an inmate of whose real character they have not the faintest suspicion, and I shall at once set in motion a public enquiry into the circumstances of Mr. Mark Wylder's disappearance.'
Looking straight in his face, with the same expression of helplessness, she uttered at last a horrible cry of anguish that almost thrilled that callous Christian.
'I think I'm going mad!'
And she continued staring at him all the time.
'Pray compose yourself, Miss Lake—there's no need to agitate yourself—nothing of all this need occur if you do not force it upon me—nothing. I beg you'll collect yourself—shall I call for water, Miss Lake?'
The fact is the attorney began to apprehend hysterics, or something even worse, and was himself rather frightened. But Rachel was never long overwhelmed by any shock—fear was not for her—her brave spirit stood her in stead; and nothing rallied her so surely as the sense that an attempt was being made to intimidate her.
'What have I heard—what have I endured? Listen to me, you cowardly libeller. It is true that I was at Dollington, and at Charteris, on the night you name. Also true that I went to London. Your hideous slander is garnished with two or three bits of truth, but only the more villainous for that. All that you have dared to insinuate is utterly false. Before Him who judges all, and knows all things—utterly and damnably false!'
The attorney made a bow—it was his best. He did not imitate a gentleman happily, and was never so vulgar as when he was finest.
One word of her wild protest he did not believe. His bow was of that grave but mocking sort which was meant to convey it. Perhaps if he had accepted what she said it might have led him to new and sounder conclusions. Here was light, but it glared and flashed in vain for him.
Miss Lake was naturally perfectly frank. Pity it was she had ever had a secret to keep! These frank people are a sore puzzle to gentlemen of Lawyer Larkin's quaint and sagacious turn of mind. They can't believe that anybody ever speaks quite the truth: when they hear it—they don't recognise it, and they wonder what the speaker is driving at. The best method of hiding your opinion or your motives from such men, is to tell it to them. They are owls. Their vision is formed for darkness, and light blinds them.
Rachel Lake rang her bell sharply, and old Tamar appeared.
'Show Mr.—Mr.—; show him to the door,' said Miss Lake.
The attorney rose, made another bow, and threw back his head, and moved in a way that was oppressively gentlemanlike to the door, and speedily vanished at the little wicket. Old Tamar holding her candle to lighten his path, as she stood, white and cadaverous, in the porch.
'She's a little bit noisy to-night,' thought the attorney, as he descended the road to Gylingden; 'but she'll be precious sober by to-morrow morning—and I venture to say we shall hear nothing more of that scheme of hers. A reputable inmate, truly, and a pleasant éclaircissement (this was one of his French words, and pronounced by him with his usual accuracy, precisely as it is spelt)—a pleasant éclaircissement—whenever that London excursion and its creditable circumstances come to light.'