I REVISIT BRANDON HALL.
Rachel Lake was courageous and energetic; and, when once she had taken a clear view of her duty, wonderfully persistent and impracticable. Her dreadful interview with Jos. Larkin was always in her mind. The bleached face, so meek, so cruel, of that shabby spectre, in the small, low parlour of Redman's Farm, was always before her. There he had spoken the sentences which made the earth tremble, and showed her distinctly the cracking line beneath her feet, which would gape at his word into the fathomless chasm that was to swallow her. But, come what might, she would not abandon the vicar and his little boy, and good Dolly, to the arts of that abominable magician.
The more she thought, the clearer her conviction. She had no one to consult with; she knew the risk of exasperating that tall man of God, who lived at the Lodge. But, determined to brave all, she went down to see Dolly and the vicar at home.
Poor Dolly was tired; she had been sitting up all night with sick little Fairy. He was better to-day; but last night he had frightened them so, poor little man! he began to rave about eleven o'clock; and more or less his little mind continued wandering until near six, when he fell into a sound sleep, and seemed better for it; and it was such a blessing there certainly was neither scarlatina nor small-pox, both which enemies had appeared on the northern frontier of Gylingden, and were picking down their two or three cases each in that quarter.
So Rachel first made her visit to little man, sitting up in his bed, very pale and thin, and looking at her, not with his pretty smile, but a languid, earnest wonder, and not speaking. How quickly and strikingly sickness tells upon children. Little man's frugal store of toys, chiefly the gifts of pleasant Rachel, wild beasts, Noah and his sons, and part of a regiment of foot soldiers, with the usual return of broken legs and missing arms, stood peacefully mingled upon the board across his bed which served as a platform.
But little man was leaning back; his fingers once so busy, lay motionless on the coverlet, and his tired eyes rested on the toys with a joyless, earnest apathy.
'Didn't play with them a minute,' said the maid.
'I'll bring him a new box. I'm going into the town; won't that be pretty?' said Rachel, parting his golden locks over the young forehead, and kissing him; and she took his little hand in hers—it was hot and dry.
'He looks better—a little better, don't you think; just a little better?' whispered his mamma, looking, as all the rest were, on that wan, sad little face.
But he really looked worse.
'Well, he can't look better, you know, dear, till there's a decided change. What does Doctor Buddle say?'
'He saw him yesterday morning. He thinks it's all from his stomach, and he's feverish; no meat. Indeed he won't eat anything, and you see the light hurts his eyes.
There was only a chink of the shutter open.
'But it is always so when he is ever so little ill, my precious little man; and I know if he thought it anything the least serious, Doctor Buddle would have looked in before now, he's so very kind.'
'I wish my darling could get a little sleep. He's very tired, nurse,' said Rachel.
'Yes'm, very tired'm; would he like his precious head lower a bit? No; very well, darling, we'll leave it so.'
'Dolly, darling, you and nurse must be so tired sitting up. I have a little wine at Redman's Farm. I got it, you remember, more than a year ago, when Stanley said he was coming to pay me a visit. I never take any, and a little would be so good for you and poor nurse. I'll send some to you.'
So coming down stairs Rachel said, 'Is the vicar at home?' Yes, he was in the study, and there they found him brushing his seedy hat, and making ready for his country calls in the neighbourhood of the town. The hour was dull without little Fairy; but he would soon be up and out again, and he would steal up now and see him. He could not go out without his little farewell at the bed-side, and he would bring him in some pretty flowers.
'You've seen little Fairy!' asked the good vicar, with a very anxious smile, 'and you think him better, dear Miss Lake, don't you?'
'Why, I can't say that, because you know, so soon as he's better, he'll be quite well; they make their recoveries all in a moment.'
'But he does not look worse?' said the vicar, lifting his eyes eagerly from his boot, which he was buttoning on the chair.
'Well, he does look more tired, but that must be till his recovery begins, which will be, please Heaven, immediately.'
'Oh, yes, my little man has had two or three attacks much more serious than this, and always shook them off so easily, I was reminding Dolly, always, and good Doctor Buddle assures us it is none of those horrid complaints.'
And so they talked over the case of the little man, who with Noah and his sons, and the battered soldiers and animals before him, was fighting, though they only dimly knew it, silently in his little bed, the great battle of life or death.
'Mr. Larkin came to me the evening before last,' said Rachel, and told me that the little sum I mentioned—now don't say a word till you have heard me—was not sufficient; so I want to tell you what I have quite resolved on. I have been long intending some time or other to change my place of residence, perhaps I shall go to Switzerland, and I have made up my mind to sell my rent-charge on the Dulchester estate. It will produce, Mr. Young says, a very large sum, and I wish to lend it to you, either all or as much as will make you quite comfortable—you must not refuse. I had intended leaving it to my dear little man up stairs; and you must promise me solemnly that you will not listen to the advice of that bad, cruel man, Mr. Larkin.'
'My dear Miss Lake, you misunderstood him. But what can I say—how can I thank you?' said the vicar, clasping her hand.
'A wicked and merciless man, I say,' repeated Miss Lake. 'From my observation of him, I am certain of two things—I am sure that he has some reason for thinking that your brother, Mark Wylder, is dead; and secondly, that he is himself deeply interested in the purchase of your reversion. I feel a little ill; Dolly, open the window.'
There was a silence for a little while, and Rachel resumed:—
'Now, William Wylder, I am convinced, that you and your wife (and she kissed Dolly), and your dear little boy, are marked out for plunder—the objects of a conspiracy; and I'll lose my life, but I'll prevent it.'
'Now, maybe, Willie, upon my word, perhaps, she's quite right; for, you know, if poor Mark is dead, then would not he have the estate now; is not that it, Miss Lake, and—and, you know, that would be dreadful, to sell it all for next to nothing, is not that what you mean, Miss Lake—Rachel dear, I mean.'
'Yes, Dolly, stripping yourselves of a splendid inheritance, and robbing your poor little boy. I protest, in the name of Heaven, against it, and you have no excuse now, William, with my offer before you; and, Dolly, it will be inexcusable wickedness in you, if you allow it.'
'Now, Willie dear, do you hear that—do you hear what she says?'
'But, Dolly darling—dear Miss Lake, there is no reason whatever to suppose that poor Mark is dead,' said the vicar, very pale.
'I tell you again, I am convinced the attorney believes it. He did not say so, indeed; but, cunning as he is, I think I've quite seen through his plot; and even in what he said to me, there was something that half betrayed him every moment. And, Dolly, if you allow this sale, you deserve the ruin you are inviting, and the remorse that will follow you to your grave.'
'Do you hear that, Willie?' said Dolly, with her hand on his arm.
'But, dear, it is too late—I have signed this—this instrument—and it is too late. I hope—God help me—I have not done wrong. Indeed, whatever happens, dear Miss Lake, may Heaven for ever bless you. But respecting good Mr. Larkin, you are, indeed, in error; I am sure you have quite misunderstood him. You don't know how kind—how disinterestedly good he has been; and now, my dear Miss Lake, it is too late—quite too late.'
'No; it is not too late. Such wickedness as that cannot be lawful—I won't believe the law allows it,' cried Rachel Lake. 'It is all a fraud—even if you have signed—all a fraud. You must procure able advice at once. Your enemy is that dreadful Mr. Larkin. Write to some good attorney in London. I'll pay everything.'
'But, dear Miss Lake, I can't,' said the vicar, dejectedly; 'I am bound in honour and conscience not to disturb it—I have written to Messrs. Burlington and Smith to that effect. I assure you, dear Miss Lake, we have not acted inconsiderately—nothing has been done without careful and deep consideration.'
'You must employ an able attorney immediately. You have been duped. Your little boy must not be ruined.'
'But—but I do assure you, I have so pledged myself by the letter I have mentioned, that I could not—no, it is quite impossible,' he added, as he recollected the strong and pointed terms in which he had pledged his honour and conscience to the London firm, to guarantee them against any such disturbance as Miss Lake was urging him to attempt.
'I am going into the town, Dolly, and so are you,' said Rachel, after a little pause. 'Let us go together.'
And to this Dolly readily assented; and the vicar, evidently much troubled in mind, having run up to the nursery to see his little man, the two ladies set out together. Rachel saw that she had made an impression upon Dolly, and was resolved to carry her point. So, in earnest terms, again she conjured her, at least, to lay the whole matter before some friend on whom she could rely; and Dolly, alarmed and eager, quite agreed with Rachel, that the sale must be stopped, and she would do whatever dear Rachel bid her.
'But do you think Mr. Larkin really supposes that poor Mark is dead?'
'I do, dear—I suspect he knows it.'
'And what makes you think that, Rachel, darling?'
'I can't define—I've no proofs to give you. One knows things, sometimes. I perceived it—and I think I can't be mistaken; and now I've said all, and pray ask me no more upon that point.'
Rachel spoke with a hurried and fierce impatience, that rather startled her companion.
It is wonderful that she showed her state of mind so little. There was, indeed, something feverish, and at times even fierce, in her looks and words. But few would have guessed her agony, as she pleaded with the vicar and his wife; or the awful sense of impending consequences that closed over her like the shadow of night, the moment the excitement of her pleading was over—'Rachel, are you mad?—Fly, fly, fly!' was always sounding in her ears. The little street of Gylingden, through which they were passing, looked strange and dream-like. And as she listened to Mrs. Crinkle's babble over the counter, and chose his toys for poor little 'Fairy,' she felt like one trifling on the way to execution.
But her warnings and entreaties, I have said, were not quite thrown away; for, although the vicar was inflexible, she had prevailed with his wife, who, at parting, again promised Rachel, that if she could do it, the sale should be stopped.
When I returned to Brandon, a few mornings later, Captain Lake received me joyfully at his solitary breakfast. He was in an intense electioneering excitement. The evening papers for the day before lay on the breakfast table.
'A move of some sort suspected—the opposition prints all hinting at tricks and ambuscades. They are whipping their men up awfully. Old Wattles, not half-recovered, went by the early train yesterday, Wealdon tells me. It will probably kill him. Stower went up the day before. Lee says he saw him at Charteris. He never speaks—only a vote—and a fellow that never appears till the minute.'
'Brittle, the member for Stoney-Muckford, was in the next carriage to me yesterday; and he's a slow coach, too,' I threw in. 'It does look as if the division was nearer than they pretend.'
'Just so. I heard from Gybes last evening—what a hand that fellow writes—only a dozen words—"Look out for squalls," and "keep your men in hand." I've sent for Wealdon. I wish the morning papers were come. I'm a quarter past eleven—what are you? The post's in at Dollington fifty minutes before we get our letters here. D—d nonsense—it's all that heavy 'bus of Driver's—I'll change that. They leave London at five, and get to Dollington at half-past ten, and Driver never has them in sooner than twenty minutes past eleven! D—d humbug! I'd undertake to take a dog-cart over the ground in twenty minutes.'
'Is Larkin here?' I asked.
'Oh, no—run up to town. I'm so glad he's away—the clumsiest dog in England—nothing clever—no invention—only a bully—the people hate him. Wealdon's my man. I wish he'd give up that town-clerkship—it can't be worth much, and it's in his way—I'd make it up to him somehow. Will you just look at that—it's the 'Globe'—only six lines, and tell me what you make of it?'
'It does look like it, certainly.'
'Wealdon and I have jotted down a few names here,' said Lake, sliding a list of names before me; 'you know some of them, I think—rather a strong committee; don't you think so? Those fellows with the red cross before have promised.'
'Yes; it's very strong—capital!' I said, crunching my toast. 'Is it thought the writs will follow the dissolution unusually quickly?'
'They must, unless they want a very late session. But it is quite possible the government may win—a week ago they reckoned upon eleven.'
And as we were talking the post arrived.
'Here they are!' cried Lake, and grasping the first morning paper he could seize on, he tore it open with a greater display of energy than I had seen that languid gentleman exhibit on any former occasion.