THE ACE OF HEARTS.
'So you are going to London—to-morrow, is not it?' said Captain Lake, when on the green of Gylingden where visitors were promenading, and the militia bands playing lusty polkas, he met Mr. Jos. Larkin, in lavender trousers and kid gloves, new hat, metropolitan black frock-coat, and shining French boots—the most elegant as well as the most Christian of provincial attorneys.
'Ah, yes—I think—should my engagements permit—of starting early to-morrow. The fact is, Captain Lake, our poor friend the vicar, you know, the Rev. William Wylder, has pressing occasion for some money, and I can't leave him absolutely in the hands of Burlington and Smith.'
'No, of course—quite so,' said Lake, with that sly smile which made every fellow on whom it lighted somehow fancy that the captain had divined his secret. 'Very honest fellows, with good looking after—eh?'
The attorney laughed a little awkwardly, with his pretty pink blush over his long face.
'Well, I'm far from saying that, but it is their business, you know, to take care of their client; and it would not do to give them the handling of mine. Can I do anything, Captain Lake, for you while in town?'
'Nothing on earth, thank you very much. But I am thinking of doing something for you. You've interested yourself a great deal about Mark Wylder's movements.'
'Not more than my duty clearly imposed.'
'Yes; but notwithstanding it will operate, I'm afraid, as you will presently see, rather to his prejudice. For to prevent your conjectural interference from doing him a more serious mischief, I will now, and here, if you please, divulge the true and only cause of his absconding. It is fair to mention, however, that your knowing it will make you fully as odious to him as I am—and that, I assure you, is very odious indeed. There were four witnesses beside myself—Lieutenant-Colonel Jermyn, Sir James Carter, Lord George Vanbrugh, and Ned Clinton.
'Witnesses! Captain Lake. Do you allude to a legal matter?' enquired Larkin, with his look of insinuating concern and enquiry.
'Quite the contrary—a very lawless matter, indeed. These four gentlemen, beside myself, were present at the occurrence. But perhaps you've heard of it?' said the captain, 'though that's not likely.'
'Not that I recollect, Captain Lake,' answered Jos. Larkin.
'Well, it is not a thing you'd forget easily—and indeed it was a very well kept secret, as well as an ugly one,' and Lake smiled in his sly quizzical way.
'And where, Captain Lake, did it occur, may I enquire?' said Larkin, with his charming insinuation.
'You may, and you shall hear—in fact, I'll tell you the whole thing. It was at Gray's Club, in Pall Mall. The whist party were old Jermyn, Carter, Vanbrugh, and Wylder. Clinton and I were at piquet, and were disturbed by a precious row the old boys kicked up. Jermyn and Carter were charging Mark Wylder, in so many words, with not playing fairly—there was an ace of hearts on the table played by him, and before three minutes they brought it home—and in fact it was quite clear that poor dear Mark had helped himself to it in quite an irregular way.'
'Oh, dear, Captain Lake, oh, dear, how shocking—how inexpressibly shocking! Is not it melancholy?' said Larkin, in his finest and most pathetic horror.
'Yes; but don't cry till I've done,' said Lake, tranquilly. 'Mark tried to bully, but the cool old heads were too much for him, and he threw himself at last entirely on our mercy—and very abject he became, poor thing.'
'How well the mountains look! I am afraid we shall have rain to-morrow.'
Larkin uttered a short groan.
'So they sent him into the small card-room, next that we were playing in. I think we were about the last in the club—it was past three o'clock—and so the old boys deliberated on their sentence. To bring the matter before the committee were utter ruin to Mark, and they let him off, on these conditions—he was to retire forthwith from the club; he was never to play any game of cards again; and, lastly, he was never more to address any one of the gentlemen who were present at his detection. Poor dear devil!—how he did jump at the conditions;—and provided they were each and all strictly observed, it was intimated that the occurrence should be kept secret. Well, you know, that was letting poor old Mark off in a coach; and I do assure you, though we had never liked one another, I really was very glad they did not move his expulsion—which would have involved his quitting the service—and I positively don't know how he could have lived if that had occurred.'
'I do solemnly assure you, Captain Lake, what you have told me has beyond expression amazed, and I will say, horrified me,' said the attorney, with a slow and melancholy vehemence. 'Better men might have suspected something of it—I do solemnly pledge my honour that nothing of the kind so much as crossed my mind—not naturally suspicious, I believe, but all the more shocked, Captain Lake, on that account'
'He was poor then, you see, and a few pounds were everything to him, and the temptation immense; but clumsy fellows ought not to try that sort of thing. There's the highway—Mark would have made a capital garrotter.'
The attorney groaned, and turned up his eyes. The band was playing 'Pop goes the weasel,' and old Jackson, very well dressed and buckled up, with a splendid smile upon his waggish, military countenance, cried, as he passed, with a wave of his hand, 'How do, Lake—how do, Mr. Larkin—beautiful day!'
'I've no wish to injure Mark; but it is better that you should know at once, than go about poking everywhere for information.'
'I do assure you——'
'And having really no wish to hurt him,' pursued the captain, 'and also making it, as I do, a point that you shall repeat this conversation as little as possible, I don't choose to appear singular, as your sole informant, and I've given you here a line to Sir James Carter—he's member, you know, for Huddlesbury. I mention, that Mark, having broken his promise, and played for heavy stakes, too, both on board his ship, and at Plymouth and Naples, which I happen to know; and also by accosting me, whom, as one of the gentlemen agreeing to impose these conditions, he was never to address, I felt myself at liberty to mention it to you, holding the relation you do to me as well as to him, in consequence of the desirableness of placing you in possession of the true cause of his absconding, which was simply my telling him that I would not permit him, slurred as he was, to marry a lady who was totally ignorant of his actual position; and, in fact, that unless he withdrew, I must acquaint the young lady's guardian of the circumstances.'
There was quite enough probability in this story to warrant Jos. Larkin in turning up his eyes and groaning. But in the intervals, his shrewd eyes searched the face of the captain, not knowing whether to believe one syllable of what he related.
I may as well mention here, that the attorney did present the note to Sir J. Carter with which Captain Lake had furnished him; indeed, he never lost an opportunity of making the acquaintance of a person of rank; and that the worthy baronet, so appealed to, and being a blunt sort of fellow, and an old acquaintance of Stanley's, did, in a short and testy sort of way, corroborate Captain Lake's story, having previously conditioned that he was not to be referred to as the authority from whom Mr. Larkin had learned it.
The attorney and Captain Brandon Lake were now walking side by side over the more sequestered part of the green.
'And so,' said the captain, coming to a stand-still, 'I'll bid you good-bye, Larkin; what stay, I forgot to ask, do you make in town?'
'Only a day or two.'
'You'll not wait for the division on Trawler's motion?'
'Oh, dear, no. I calculate I'll be here again, certainly, in three days' time. And, I suppose, Captain Lake, you received my note?'
'You mean just now? Oh, yes; of course it is all right; but one day is as good as another; and you have got my agreement signed.'
'Pardon me, Captain Brandon Lake; the fact is, one day, in this case, does not answer as well as another, for I must have drafts of the deeds prepared by my conveyancer in town, and the note is indispensable. Perhaps, if there is any difficulty, you will be so good as to say so, and I shall then be in a position to consider the case in its new aspect.'
'What the devil difficulty can there be, Sir? I can't see it, any more than what hurry can possibly exist about it,' said Lake, stung with a momentary fury. It seemed as though everyone was conspiring to perplex and torment him; and he, like the poor vicar, though for very different reasons, had grown intensely anxious to sell. He had grown to dread the attorney, since the arrival of Dutton's letter. He suspected that his journey to London had for its object a meeting with that person. He could not tell what might be going on in the dark. But the possibility of such a conjunction might well dismay him.
On the other hand, the more Mr. Larkin relied upon the truth of Dutton's letter, the cooler he became respecting the purchase of Five Oaks. It was, of course, a very good thing; but not his first object. The vicar's reversion in that case was everything; and of it he was now sure.
'There is no difficulty about the note, Sir; it contains but four lines, and I've given you the form. No difficulty can exist but in the one quarter; and the fact is,' he added, steadily, 'unless I have that note before I leave to-morrow-morning, I'll assume that you wish to be off, Captain Lake, and I will adapt myself to circumstances.'
'You may have it now,' said the captain, with a fierce carelessness. 'D—d nonsense! Who could have fancied any such stupid hurry? Send in the morning, and you shall have it.' And the captain rather savagely turned away, skirting the crowd who hovered about the band, in his leisurely and now solitary ramble.
The captain was sullen that evening at home. He was very uncomfortable. His heart was failing him for the things that were coming to pass. One of his maniacal tempers, which had often before thrown him, as it were, 'off the rails,' was at the bottom of his immediate troubles. This proneness to sudden accesses of violence and fury was the compensation which abated the effect of his ordinary craft and self-command.
He had done all he could to obviate the consequences of his folly in this case. He hoped the attorney might not succeed in discovering Jim Dutton's whereabouts. At all events, he had been beforehand, and taken measures to quiet that person's dangerous resentment. But it was momentous in the critical state of things to give this dangerous attorney a handsome share in his stake—to place him, as he had himself said, 'in the same boat,' and enlist all his unscrupulous astuteness in maintaining his title: and if he went to London disappointed, and that things turned out unluckily about Dutton, it might be a very awful business indeed.
Dinner had been a very dull tête-à-tête. Dorcas sat stately and sad—looking from the window toward the distant sunset horizon, piled in dusky gold and crimson clouds, against the faded, green sky—a glory that is always melancholy and dreamy. Stanley sipped his claret, his eyes upon the cloth. He raised them and looked out, too; and the ruddy light tinted his pale features.
A gleam of good humour seemed to come with it, and he said,
'I was just thinking, Dorkie, that for you and me, alone, these great rooms are a little dreary. Suppose we have tea in the tapestry room.'
'The Dutch room, Stanley—I think so—I should like it very well. So, I am certain, would Rachel. I've written to her to come. I hope she will. I expect her at nine. The brougham will be with her. She wrote such an odd note to-day, addressed to you; but I opened it. Here it is.'
She did not watch his countenance, or look in his direction, as he read it. She addressed herself, on the contrary, altogether to her Liliputian white lap-dog, Snow, and played with his silken ears; and chatted with him as ladies will.
A sealed envelope broken. That scoundrel, Larcom, knew perfectly it was meant for me. He was on the point of speaking his mind, which would hardly have been pleasant to hear, upon this piece of detective impertinence of his wife's. He could have smashed all the glass upon the table. But he looked serene, and leaned back with the corner of Rachel's note between two fingers. It was a case in which he clearly saw he must command himself.