THE CAPTAIN EXPLAINS WHY MARK WYLDER ABSCONDED.
'How delicious these violets are!' said Stanley, leaning for a moment over the fragrant purple dome that crowned a china stand on the marble table they were passing. 'You love flowers, Dorkie. Every perfect woman is, I think, a sister of Flora's. You are looking pale—you have not been ill? No! I'm very glad you say so. Sit down for a moment and listen, darling. And first I'll tell you, upon my honour, what Rachel has been worrying me about.'
Dorcas sate beside him on the sofa, and he placed his slender arm affectionately round her waist.
'You must know, Dorkie, that before his sudden departure, Mark Wylder promised to lend William, his brother, a sum sufficient to relieve him of all his pressing debts.'
'Debts! I never knew before that he had any,' exclaimed Dorcas. 'Poor William! I am so sorry.'
'Well, he has, like other fellows, only he can't get away as easily, and he has been very much pressed since Mark went, for he has not yet lent him a guinea, and in fact Rachel says she thinks he is in danger of being regularly sold out. She does not say she knows it, but only that she suspects they are in a great fix about money.'
'Well, you must know that I was the sole cause of Mark Wylder's leaving the country.'
'Yes, I, Dorkie. I believe I thought I was doing a duty; but really I was nearly mad with jealousy, and simply doing my utmost to drive a rival from your presence. And yet, without hope for myself, desperately in love.'
Dorcas looked down and smiled oddly; it was a sad and bitter smile, and seemed to ask whither has that desperate love, in so short a time, flown?
'I know I was right. He was a stained man, and was liable at any moment to be branded. It was villainous in him to seek to marry you. I told him at last that, unless he withdrew, your friends should know all. I expected he would show fight, and that a meeting would follow; and I really did not much care whether I were killed or not. But he went, on the contrary, rather quietly, threatening to pay me off, however, though he did not say how. He's a cunning dog, and not very soft-hearted; and has no more conscience than that,' and he touched his finger to the cold summit of a marble bust.
'He is palpably machinating something to my destruction with an influential attorney on whom I keep a watch, and he has got some fellow named Dutton into the conspiracy; and not knowing how they mean to act, and only knowing how utterly wicked, cunning, and bloody-minded he is, and that he hates me as he probably never hated anyone before, I must be prepared to meet him, and, if possible, to blow up that Satanic cabal, which without money I can't. It was partly a mystification about the election; of course, it will be expensive, but nothing like the other. Are you ill, Dorkie?'
He might well ask, for she appeared on the point of fainting.
Dorcas had read and heard stories of men seemingly no worse than their neighbours—nay, highly esteemed, and praised, and liked—who yet were haunted by evil men, who encountered them in lonely places, or by night, and controlled them by the knowledge of some dreadful crime. Was Stanley—her husband—whose character she had begun to discern, whose habitual mystery was, somehow, tinged in her mind with a shade of horror, one of this two-faced, diabolical order of heroes?
Why should he dread this cabal, as he called it, even though directed by the malignant energy of the absent and shadowy Mark Wylder? What could all the world do to harm him in free England, if he were innocent, if he were what he seemed—no worse than his social peers?
Why should it be necessary to buy off the conspirators whom a guiltless man would defy and punish?
The doubt did not come in these defined shapes. As a halo surrounds a saint, a shadow rose suddenly, and enveloped pale, scented, smiling Stanley, with the yellow eyes. He stood in the centre of a dreadful medium, through which she saw him, ambiguous and awful; and she sickened.
'Are you ill, Dorkie, darling?' said the apparition in accents of tenderness. 'Yes, you are ill.'
And he hastily threw open the window, close to which they were sitting, and she quickly revived in the cooling air.
She saw his yellow eyes fixed upon her features, and his face wearing an odd expression—was it interest, or tenderness, or only scrutiny; to her there seemed a light of insincerity and cruelty in its pallor.
'You are better, darling; thank Heaven, you are better.'
'Yes—yes—a great deal better; it is passing away.'
Her colour was returning, and with a shivering sigh, she said—
'Oh? Stanley, you must speak truth; I am your wife. Do they know anything very bad—are you in their power?'
'Why, my dearest, what on earth could put such a wild fancy in your head?' said Lake, with a strange laugh, and, as she fancied, growing still paler. 'Do you suppose I am a highwayman in disguise, or a murderer, like—what's his name—Eugene Aram? I must have expressed myself very ill, if I suggested anything so tragical. I protest before Heaven, my darling, there is not one word or act of mine I need fear to submit to any court of justice or of honour on earth.'
He took her hand, and kissed it affectionately, and still fondling it gently between his, he resumed—
'I don't mean to say, of course, that I have always been better than other young fellows; I've been foolish, and wild, and—and—I've done wrong things, occasionally—as all young men will; but for high crimes and misdemeanors, or for melodramatic situations, I never had the slightest taste. There's no man on earth who can tell anything of me, or put me under any sort of pressure, thank Heaven; and simply because I have never in the course of my life done a single act unworthy of a gentleman, or in the most trifling way compromised myself. I swear it, my darling, upon my honour and soul, and I will swear it in any terms—the most awful that can be prescribed—in order totally and for ever to remove from your mind so amazing a fancy.'
And with a little laugh, and still holding her hand, he passed his arm round her waist, and kissed her affectionately.
'But you are perfectly right, Dorkie, in supposing that I am under very considerable apprehension from their machinations. Though they cannot slur our fair fame, it is quite possible they may very seriously affect our property. Mr. Larkin is in possession of all the family papers. I don't like it, but it is too late now. The estates have been back and forward so often between the Brandons and Wylders, I always fancy there may be a screw loose, or a frangible link somewhere, and he's deeply interested for Mark Wylder.'
'You are better, darling; I think you are better,' he said, looking in her face, after a little pause.
'Yes, dear Stanley, much better; but why should you suppose any plot against our title?'
'Mark Wylder is in constant correspondence with that fellow Larkin. I wish we were quietly rid of him, he is such an unscrupulous dog. I assure you, I doubt very much if the deeds are safe in his possession; at all events, he ought to choose between us and Mark Wylder. It is monstrous his being solicitor for both. The Wylders and Brandons have always been contesting the right to these estates, and the same thing may arise again any day.'
'But tell me, Stanley, how do you want to apply money? What particular good can it do us in this unpleasant uncertainty?'
'Well, Dorkie, believe me I have a sure instinct in matters of this kind. Larkin is plotting treason against us. Wylder is inciting him, and will reap the benefit of it. Larkin hesitates to strike, but that won't last long. In the meantime, he has made a distinct offer to buy Five Oaks. His doing so places him in the same interest with us; and, although he does not offer its full value, still I should sleep sounder if it were concluded; and the fact is, I don't think we are safe until that sale is concluded.'
Dorcas looked for a moment earnestly in his face, and then down, in thought.
'Now, Dorkie, I have told you all. Who is to advise you, if not your husband? Trust my sure conviction, and promise me, Dorcas, that you will not hesitate to join me in averting, by a sacrifice we shall hardly feel, a really stupendous blow.'
He kissed her hand, and then her lips, and he said—
'You will, Dorkie, I know you will. Give me your promise.'
'Stanley, tell me once more, are you really quite frank when you tell me that you apprehend no personal injury from these people—apart, I mean, from the possibility of Mr. Larkin's conspiring to impeach our rights in favour of Mr. Wylder?'
'Personal injury? None in life, my darling.'
'And there is really no secret—nothing—tell your wife—nothing you fear coming to light?'
'I swear again, nothing. Won't you believe me, darling?'
'Then, if it be so, Stanley, I think we should hesitate long before selling any part of the estate, upon a mere conjecture of danger. You or I may over-estimate that danger, being so nearly affected by it. We must take advice; and first, we must consult Chelford. Remember, Stanley, how long the estate has been preserved. Whatever may have been their crimes and follies, those who have gone before us never impaired the Brandon estate; and, without full consideration, without urgent cause, I, Stanley, will not begin.'
'Why, it is only Five Oaks, and we shall have the money, you forget,' said Stanley.
'Five Oaks is an estate in itself; and the idea of dismembering the Brandon inheritance seems to me like taking a plank from a ship—all will go down when that is done.'
'But you can't dismember it; it is only a life estate.'
'Well, perhaps so; but Chelford told me that one of the London people said he thought Five Oaks belonged to me absolutely.'
'In that case the inheritance is dismembered already.'
'I will have no share in selling the old estate, or any part of it, to strangers, Stanley, except in a case of necessity; and we must do nothing precipitately; and I must insist, Stanley, on consulting Chelford before taking any step. He will view the question more calmly than you or I can; and we owe him that respect, Stanley, he has been so very kind to us.'
'Chelford is the very last man whom I would think of consulting,' answered Stanley, with his malign and peevish look.
'And why?' asked Dorcas.
'Because he is quite sure to advise against it,' answered Stanley, sharply. 'He is one of those Quixotic fellows who get on very well in fair weather, while living with a duke or duchess, but are sure to run you into mischief when they come to the inns and highways of common life. I know perfectly, he would protest against a compromise. Discharge Larkin—fight him—and see us valiantly stript of our property by some cursed law-quibble; and think we ought to be much more comfortable so, than in this house, on the terms of a compromise with a traitor like Larkin. But I don't think so, nor any man of sense, nor anyone but a hairbrained, conceited knight-errant.'
'I think Chelford one of the most sensible as well as honourable men I know; and I will take no step in selling a part of our estate to that odious Mr. Larkin, without consulting him, and at least hearing what he thinks of it.'
Stanley's eyes were cast down—and he was nipping the struggling hairs of his light moustache between his lips—but he made no answer. Only suddenly he looked up, and said quietly,
'Very well. Good-bye for a little, Dorkie,' and he leaned over her and kissed her cheek, and then passed into the hall, where he took his hat and cane.
Larcom presented him with a note, in a sealed envelope. As he took it from the salver he recognised Larkin's very clear and large hand. I suspect that grave Mr. Larcom had been making his observations and conjectures thereupon.
The captain took it with a little nod, and a peevish side-glance. It said—
'MY DEAR CAPTAIN BRANDON LAKE,—Imperative business calls me to London by the early train to-morrow. Will you therefore favour me, if convenient, by the bearer, with the small note of consent, which must accompany the articles agreeing to sell.
'I remain, &c. &c. &c.'
Larkin's groom was waiting for an answer.
'Tell him I shall probably see Mr. Larkin myself,' said the captain, snappishly; and so he walked down to pretty little Gylingden.
On the steps of the reading-room stood old Tom Ruddle, who acted as marker in the billiard-room, treasurer, and book-keeper beside, and swept out the premises every morning, and went to and fro at the proper hours, between that literary and sporting institution and the post-office; and who, though seldom sober, was always well instructed in the news of the town.
'How do you do, old Ruddle—quite well?' asked the captain with a smile. 'Who have you got in the rooms?'
Well, Jos. Larkin was not there. Indeed he seldom showed in those premises, which he considered decidedly low, dropping in only now and then, like the great county gentlemen, on sessions days, to glance at the papers, and gossip on their own high affairs.
But Ruddle had seen Mr. Jos. Larkin on the green, not five minutes since, and thither the gallant captain bent his steps.