IN THE DUTCH ROOM.
His heart misgave him. He felt that a crisis was coming; and he read—
'I cannot tell you, my poor brother, how miserable I am. I have just learned that a very dangerous person has discovered more about that dreadful evening than we believed known to anybody in Gylingden. I am subjected to the most agonising suspicions and insults. Would to Heaven I were dead! But living, I cannot endure my present state of mind longer. To-morrow morning I will see Dorcas—poor Dorcas!—and tell her all. I am weary of urging you, in vain, to do so. It would have been much better. But although, after that interview, I shall, perhaps, never see her more, I shall yet be happier, and, I think, relieved from suspense, and the torments of mystery. So will she. At all events, it is her right to know all—and she shall.
'YOUR OUTCAST AND MISERABLE SISTER.'
On Stanley's lips his serene, unpleasant smile was gleaming, as he closed the note carelessly. He intended to speak, but his voice caught. He cleared it, and sipped a little claret.
'For a clever girl she certainly does write the most wonderful rubbish. Such an effusion! And she sends it tossing about, from hand to hand, among the servants. I've anticipated her, however, Dorkie.' And he took her hand and kissed it. 'She does not know I've told you all myself.'
Stanley went to the library, and Dorcas to the conservatory, neither very happy, each haunted by an evil augury, and a sense of coming danger. The deepening shadow warned Dorcas that it was time to repair to the Dutch room, where she found lights and tea prepared.
In a few minutes more the library door opened and Stanley Lake peeped in.
'Radie not come yet?' said he entering. 'We certainly are much pleasanter in this room, Dorkie, more, in proportion, than we two should have been in the drawing-room.'
He seated himself beside her, drawing his chair very close to hers, and taking her hand in his. He was more affectionate this evening than usual. What did it portend? she thought. She had already begun to acquiesce in Rachel's estimate of Stanley, and to fancy that whatever he did it was with an unacknowledged purpose.
'Does little Dorkie love me?' said Lake, in a sweet undertone.
There was reproach, but love too, in the deep soft glance she threw upon him.
'You must promise me not to be frightened at what I am going to tell you,' said Lake.
She heard him with sudden panic, and a sense of cold stole over her. He looked like a ghost—quite white—smiling. She knew something was coming—the secret she had invoked so long—and she was appalled.
'Don't be frightened, darling. It is necessary to tell you; but it is really not much when you hear me out. You'll say so when you have quite heard me. So you won't be frightened?'
She was gazing straight into his wild yellow eyes, fascinated, with a look of expecting terror.
'You are nervous, darling,' he continued, laying his hand on hers. 'Shall we put it off for a little? You are frightened.'
'Not much frightened, Stanley,' she whispered.
'Well, we had better wait. I see, Dorcas, you are frightened and nervous. Don't keep looking at me; look at something else, can't you? You make yourself nervous that way. I promise, upon my honour, I'll not say a word about it till you bid me.'
'I know, Stanley—I know.'
'Then, why won't you look down, or look up, or look any way you please, only don't stare at me so.'
'Yes—oh, yes,' and she shut her eyes.
'I'm sorry I began,' he said, pettishly. 'You'll make a fuss. You've made yourself quite nervous; and I'll wait a little.'
'Oh! no, Stanley, now—for Heaven's sake, now. I was only a little startled; but I am quite well again. Is it anything about marriage? Oh, Stanley, in mercy, tell me was there any other engagement?'
'Nothing, darling—nothing on earth of the sort;' and he spoke with an icy little laugh. 'Your poor soldier is altogether yours, Dorkie,' and he kissed her cheek.
'Thank God for that!' said Dorcas, hardly above her breath.
'What I have to say is quite different, and really nothing that need affect you; but Rachel has made such a row about it. Fifty fellows, I know, are in much worse fixes; and though it is not of so much consequence, still I think I should not have told you; only, without knowing it, you were thwarting me, and helping to get me into a serious difficulty by your obstinacy—or what you will—about Five Oaks.'
Somehow trifling as the matter was, Stanley seemed to grow more and more unwilling to disclose it, and rather shrank from it now.
'Now, Dorcas, mind, there must be no trifling. You must not treat me as Rachel has. If you can't keep a secret—for it is a secret—say so. Shall I tell you?'
'Yes, Stanley—yes. I'm your wife.'
'Well, Dorcas, I told you something of it; but only a part, and some circumstances I did intentionally colour a little; but I could not help it, unless I had told everything; and no matter what you or Rachel may say, it was kinder to withhold it as long as I could.'
He glanced at the door, and spoke in a lower tone.
And so, with his eyes lowered to the table at which he sat, glancing ever and anon sideways at the door, and tracing little figures with the tip of his finger upon the shining rosewood, he went on murmuring his strange and hateful story in the ear of his wife.
It was not until he had spoken some three or four minutes that Dorcas suddenly uttered a wild scream, and started to her feet. And Stanley also rose precipitately, and caught her in his arms, for she was falling.
As he supported her in her chair, the library door opened, and the sinister face of Uncle Lorne looked in, and returned the captain's stare with one just as fixed and horrified.
'Hush!' whispered Uncle Lorne, and he limped softly into the room, and stopped about three yards away, 'she is not dead, but sleepeth.'
'Hallo! Larcom,' shouted Lake.
'I tell you she's dreaming the same dream that I dreamt in the middle of the night.'
'Mark's on leave to-night, in uniform; his face is flattened against the window. This is his lady, you know.'
'Hallo! D— you—are you there?' shouted the captain, very angry.
'I saw Mark following you like an ape, on all-fours; such nice white teeth! grinning at your heels. But he can't bite yet—ha, ha, ha! Poor Mark!'
'Will you be so good, Sir, as to touch the bell?' said Lake, changing his tone.
He was afraid to remove his arm from Dorcas, and he was splashing water from a glass upon her face and forehead.
'No—no. No bell yet—time enough—ding, dong. You say, dead and gone.'
Captain Lake cursed him and his absent keeper between his teeth; still in a rather flurried way, prosecuting his conjugal attentions.
'There was no bell for poor Mark; and he's always listening, and stares so. A cat may look, you know.'
'Can't you touch the bell, Sir? What are you standing there for?' snarled Lake, with a glare at the old man. He looked as if he could have murdered him.
'Standing between the living and the dead!'
'Here, Reuben, here; where the devil have you been—take him away. He has terrified her. By —— he ought to be shot.'
The keeper silently slid his arm into Uncle Lorne's, and, unresisting, the old man talking to himself the while, drew him from the room.
Larcom, about to announce Miss Lake, and closely followed by that young lady, passed the grim old phantom on the lobby.
'Be quick, you are wanted there,' said the attendant as he passed.
Dorcas, pale as marble, sighing deeply again and again, her rich black hair drenched in water, which trickled over her cheeks, like the tears and moisture of agony, was recovering. There was water spilt on the table, and the fragments of a broken glass upon the floor.
The moment Rachel saw her, she divined what had happened, and, gliding over, she placed her arm round her.
'You're better, darling. Open the window, Stanley. Send her maid.'
'Aye, send her maid,' cried Captain Lake to Larcom. 'This is your d—d work. A nice mess you have made of it among you.'
'Are you better, Dorcas?' said Rachel.
'Yes—much better. I'm glad, darling, I understand you now. Radie, kiss me.'
Next morning, before early family prayers, while Mr. Jos. Larkin was locking the despatch box which was to accompany him to London Mr. Larcom arrived at the Lodge.
He had a note for Mr. Larkin's hand, which he must himself deliver; and so he was shown into that gentleman's official cabinet, and received with the usual lofty kindness.
'Well, Mr. Larcom, pray sit down. And can I do anything for you, Mr. Larcom?' said the good attorney, waving his long hand toward a vacant chair.
'A note, Sir.'
'Oh, yes; very well.' And the tall attorney rose, and, facing the rural prospect at his window, with his back to Mr. Larcom, he read, with a faint smile, the few lines, in a delicate hand, consenting to the sale of Five Oaks.
He had to look for a time at the distant prospect to allow his smile to subside, and to permit the conscious triumph which he knew beamed through his features to discharge itself and evaporate in the light and air before turning to Mr. Larcom, which he did with an air of sudden recollection.
'Ah—all right, I was forgetting; I must give you a line.'
So he did, and hid away the note in his despatch-box, and said—
'The family all quite well, I hope?' whereat Larcom shook his head.
'My mistress'—he always called her so, and Lake the capting—'has been takin' on hoffle, last night, whatever come betwixt 'em. She was fainted outright in her chair in the Dutch room; and he said it was the old gentleman—Old Flannels, we calls him, for shortness—but lor' bless you, she's too used to him to be frightened, and that's only a make-belief; and Miss Dipples, her maid, she says as how she was worse up stairs, and she's made up again with Miss Lake, which she was very glad, no doubt, of the making friends, I do suppose; but it's a bin a bad row, and I suspeck amost he's used vilins.'
'Compulsion, I suppose; you mean constraint?' suggested Larkin, very curious.
'Well, that may be, Sir, but I amost suspeck she's been hurted somehow. She got them crying fits up stairs, you know; and the capting, he's hoffle bad-tempered this morning, and he never looked near her once, after his sister came; and he left them together, talking and crying, and he locked hisself into the library, like one as knowed he'd done something to be ashamed on, half the night.'
'It's not happy, Larcom, I'm much afraid; it's not happy,' and the attorney rose, shaking his tall bald head, and his hands in his pockets, and looked down in meditation.
'In the Dutch room, after tea, I suppose?' said the attorney.
'Before tea, Sir, just as Miss Lake harrived in the brougham.'
And so on. But there was no more to be learned, and Mr. Larcom returned and attended the captain very reverentially at his solitary breakfast.
Mr. Jos. Larkin was away for London. And a very serene companion he was, if not very brilliant. Everything was going perfectly smoothly with him. A celestial gratitude glowed and expanded within his breast. His angling had been prosperous hitherto, but just now he had made a miraculous draught, and his nets and his heart were bursting. Delightful sentiment, the gratitude of a righteous man; a man who knows that his heart is not set upon the things of the world; who has, like King Solomon, made wisdom his first object, and who finds riches added thereto!
There was no shadow of self-reproach to slur the sunny landscape. He had made a splendid purchase from Captain Lake it was true. He drew his despatch-box nearer to him affectionately, as he thought on the precious records it contained. But who in this wide-awake world was better able to take care of himself than the gallant captain? If it were not the best thing for the captain, surely it would not have been done. Whom have I defrauded? My hands are clean! He had made a still better purchase from the vicar; but what would have become of the vicar if he had not been raised up to purchase? And was it not speculative, and was it not possible that he should lose all that money, and was it not, on the whole, the wisest thing that the vicar, under his difficulties, could have been advised to do?
So reasoned the good attorney, as with a languid smile and a sigh of content, his long hand laid across the cover of the despatch-box by his side, he looked forth through the plate-glass window upon the sunny fields and hedgerows that glided by him, and felt the blessed assurance, 'look, whatsoever he doeth it shall prosper,' mingling in the hum of surrounding nature. And as his eyes rested on the flying diorama of trees, and farmsteads, and standing crops, and he felt already the pride of a great landed proprietor, his long fingers fiddled pleasantly with the rough tooling of his morocco leather box; and thinking of the signed articles within, it seemed as though an angelic hand had placed them there while he slept, so wondrous was it all; and he fancied under the red tape a label traced in the neatest scrivenery, with a pencil of light, containing such gratifying testimonials to his deserts, 'as well done good and faithful servant,' 'the saints shall inherit the earth,' and so following; and he sighed again in the delicious luxury of having secured both heaven and mammon. And in this happy state, and volunteering all manner of courtesies, opening and shutting windows, lending his railway guide and his newspapers whenever he had an opportunity, he at length reached the great London terminus, and was rattling over the metropolitan pavement, with his hand on his despatch-box, to his cheap hotel near the Strand.