'Here it is,' said the captain. 'Beaten'—then came an oath—'three votes—how the devil was that?—there it is, by Jove—no mistake—majority against ministers, three! Is that the "Times?" What does it say?'
'A long leader—no resignation—immediate dissolution. That is what I collect from it.'
'How on earth could they have miscalculated so! Swivell, I see, voted in the majority; that's very odd; and, by Jove, there's Surplice, too, and he's good for seven votes. Why his own paper was backing the ministers! What a fellow that is! That accounts for it all. A difference of fourteen votes.'
And thus we went on, discussing this unexpected turn of luck, and reading to one another snatches of the leading articles in different interests upon the subject.
Then Lake, recollecting his letters, opened a large-sealed envelope, with S.C.G. in the corner.
'This is from Gybes—let us see. Oh! before the division. "It looks a little fishy," he says—well, so it does—"We may take the division to-night. Should it prove adverse, you are to expect an immediate dissolution; this on the best authority. I write to mention this, as I may be too much hurried to-morrow."'
We were discussing this note when Wealdon arrived.
'Well, captain; great news, Sir. The best thing, I take it, could have happened ministers, ha, ha, ha! A rotten house—down with it—blow it up—three votes only—but as good as three hundred for the purpose—of the three hundred, grant but three, you know—of course, they don't think of resigning.'
'Oh, dear, no—an immediate dissolution. Read that,' said Lake, tossing Gybes' note to him.
'Ho, then, we'll have the writs down hot and heavy. We must be sharp. The sheriff's all right; that's a point. You must not lose an hour in getting your committee together, and printing your address.'
'Who's on the other side?'
'You'll have Jennings, of course; but they are talking of four different men, already, to take Sir Harry Twisden's place. He'll resign; that's past a doubt now. He has his retiring address written; Lord Edward Mordun read it; and he told FitzStephen on Sunday, after church, that he'd never sit again.'
'Here, by Jove, is a letter from Mowbray,' said Lake, opening it. 'All about his brother George. Hears I'm up for the county. Lord George ready to join and go halves. What shall I say?'
'Could not have a better man. Tell him you desire no better, and will bring it at once before your committee; and let him know, the moment they meet; and tell him I say he knows Wealdon pretty well—he may look on it as settled. That will be a spoke in Sir Harry's wheel.'
'Sir Harry who?' said Lake.
'Bracton. I think it's only to spoil your game, you see,' answered Wealdon.
'Abundance of malice; but I don't think he's countenanced?'
'He'll try to get the start of you; and if he does, one or other must go to the wall; for Lord George is too strong to be shook out. Do you get forward at once; that's your plan, captain.'
Then the captain recurred to his letters, which were a larger pack than usual this morning, chatting all the time with Wealdon and me on the tremendous topic, and tossing aside every letter that did not bear on the coming struggle.
'Who can this be?' said Lake, looking at the address of one of these. 'Very like my hand,' and he examined the seal. It was only a large wafer-stamp, so he broke it open, and drew out a shabby, very ill-written scroll. He turned suddenly away, talking the while, but with his eyes upon the note, and then he folded, or rather crumpled it up, and stuffed it into his pocket, and continued his talk; but it was now plain to me there was something more on his mind, and he was thinking of the shabby letter he had just received.
But, no matter; the election was the pressing topic, and Lake was soon engaged in it again.
There was now a grand coup under discussion—the forestalling of all the horses and vehicles along the line of railway, and in all the principal posting establishments throughout the county.
'They'll want to keep it open for a bid from the other side. It is a heavy item any way; and if you want to engage them now, you'll have to give double what they got last time.'
But Lake was not to be daunted. He wanted the seat, and would stick at nothing to secure it; and so, Wealdon got instructions, in his own phrase, to go the whole animal.
As I could be of no possible use in local details, I left the council of war sitting, intending a stroll in the grounds.
In the hall, I met the mistress of the house, looking very handsome, but with a certain witch-like beauty, very pale, something a little haggard in her great, dark eyes, and a strange, listening look. Was it watchfulness? was it suspicion? She was dressed gravely but richly, and received me kindly—and, strange to say, with a smile that, yet, was not joyful.
'I hope she is happy. Lake is such a beast; I hope he does not bully her.'
In truth, there were in her exquisite features the traces of that mysterious misery and fear which seemed to fall wherever Stanley Lake's ill-omened confidences were given.
I walked down one of the long alleys, with tall, close hedges of beech, as impenetrable as cloister walls to sight, and watched the tench basking and flickering in the clear pond, and the dazzling swans sailing majestically along.
What a strange passion is ambition, I thought. Is it really the passion of great minds, or of little. Here is Lake, with a noble old place, inexhaustible in variety; with a beautiful, and I was by this time satisfied, a very singular and interesting woman for his wife, who must have married him for love, pure and simple; a handsome fortune; the power to bring his friends—those whom he liked, or who amused him—about him, and to indulge luxuriously every reasonable fancy, willing to forsake all, and follow the beck of that phantom. Had he knowledge, public talents, training? Nothing of the sort. Had he patriotism, any one noble motive or fine instinct to prompt him to public life? The mere suggestion was a sneer. It seemed to me, simply, that Stanley Lake was a lively, amusing, and even intelligent man, without any internal resource; vacant, peevish, with an unmeaning passion for corruption and intrigue, and the sort of egotism which craves distinction. So I supposed.
Yet, with all its weakness, there was a dangerous force in the character which, on the whole, inspired an odd mixture of fear and contempt. I was bitten, however, already, by the interest of the coming contest. It is very hard to escape that subtle and intoxicating poison. I wondered what figure Stanley would make as a hustings orator, and what impression in his canvass. The latter, I was pretty confident about. Altogether, curiosity, if no deeper sentiment, was highly piqued; and I was glad I happened to drop in at the moment of action, and wished to see the play out.
At the door of her boudoir, Rachel Lake met Dorcas.
'I am so glad, Radie, dear, you are come. You must take off your things, and stay. You must not leave me to-night. We'll send home for whatever you want; and you won't leave me, Radie, I'm certain.'
'I'll stay, dear, as you wish it,' said Rachel, kissing her.
'Did you see Stanley? I have not seen him to-day,' said Dorcas.
'No, dear; I peeped into the library, but he was not there; and there are two men writing in the Dutch room, very busily,'
'It must be about the election.'
'What election, dear?' asked Rachel.
'There is going to be an election for the county, and—only think—he intends coming forward. I sometimes think he is mad, Radie.'
'I could not have supposed such a thing. If I were he, I think I should fly to the antipodes. I should change my name, sear my features with vitriol, and learn another language. I should obliterate my past self altogether; but men are so different, so audacious—some men, at least—and Stanley, ever since his ill-omened arrival at Redman's Farm, last autumn, has amazed and terrified me.'
'I think, Radie, we have both courage—you have certainly; you have shown it, darling, and you must cease to blame yourself; I think you a heroine, Radie; but you know I see with the wild eyes of the Brandons.'
'I am grateful, Dorcas, that you don't hate me. Most women I am sure would abhor me—yes, Dorcas—abhor me.'
'You and I against the world, Radie!' said Dorcas, with a wild smile and a dark admiration in her look, and kissing Rachel again. 'I used to think myself brave; it belongs to women of our blood; but this is no common strain upon courage, Radie. I've grown to fear Stanley somehow like a ghost; I fear it is even worse than he says,' and she looked with a horrible enquiry into Rachel's eyes.
'So do I, Dorcas,' said Rachel, in a firm low whisper, returning her look as darkly.
'What's done cannot be undone,' said Rachel, sadly, after a little pause, unconsciously quoting from a terrible soliloquy of Shakespeare.
'I know what you mean, Radie; and you warned me, with a strange second-sight, before the evil was known to either of us. It was an irrevocable step, and I took it, not seeing all that has happened, it is true; but forewarned. And this I will say, Radie, if I had known the worst, I think even that would not have deterred me. It was madness—it is madness, for I love him still. Rachel, though I know him and his wickedness, and am filled with horror—I love him desperately.'
'I am very glad,' said Rachel, 'that you do know everything. It is so great a relief to have companionship. I often thought I must go mad in my solitude.'
'Poor Rachel! I think you wonderful—I think you a heroine—I do, Radie; you and I are made for one another—the same blood—something of the same wild nature; I can admire you, and understand you, and will always love you.'
'I've been with William Wylder and Dolly. That wicked attorney, Mr. Larkin, is resolved on robbing them. I wish they had anyone able to advise them. Stanley I am sure could save them; but he does not choose to do it. He was always so angry when I urged him to help them, that I knew it would be useless asking him; I don't think he knows what Mr. Larkin has been doing; but, Dorcas, I am afraid the very same thought has been in his mind.'
'I hope not, Radie,' and Dorcas sighed deeply. 'Everything is so wonderful and awful in the light that has come.'
That morning, poor William Wylder had received a letter from Jos. Larkin, Esq., mentioning that he had found Messrs. Burlington and Smith anything but satisfied with him—the vicar. What exactly he had done to disoblige them he could not bring to mind. But Jos. Larkin told him that he had done all in his power 'to satisfy them of the bonâ fide character' of his reverend client's dealings from the first. But 'they still express themselves dissatisfied upon the point, and appear to suspect a disposition to shilly-shally.' I have said 'all I could to disabuse them of the unpleasant prejudice; but I think I should hardly be doing my duty if I were not to warn you that you will do wisely to exhibit no hesitation in the arrangements by which your agreement is to be carried out, and that in the event of your showing the slightest disposition to qualify the spirit of your strong note to them, or in anywise disappointing their client, you must be prepared, from what I know of the firm, for very sharp practice indeed.'
What could they do to him, or why should they hurt him, or what had he done to excite either the suspicion or the temper of the firm? They expected their client, the purchaser, in a day or two. He was already grumbling at the price, and certainly would stand no trifling. Neither would Messrs. Burlington and Smith, who, he must admit, had gone to very great expense in investigating title, preparing deeds, &c., and who were noted as a very expensive house. He was aware that they were in a position to issue an execution on the guarantee for the entire amount of their costs; but he thought so extreme a measure would hardly be contemplated, notwithstanding their threats, unless the purchaser were to withdraw or the vendor to exhibit symptoms of—he would not repeat their phrase—irresolution in his dealing. He had, however, placed the vicar's letter in their hands, and had accompanied it with his own testimony to the honour and character of the Rev. William Wylder, which he was happy to say seemed to have considerable weight with Messrs. Burlington and Smith. There was also this passage, 'Feeling acutely the anxiety into which the withdrawal of the purchaser must throw you—though I trust nothing of that sort may occur—I told them that rather than have you thrown upon your beam-ends by such an occurrence, I would myself step in and purchase on the terms agreed on. This will, I trust, quiet them on the subject of their costs, and also prevent any low dodging on the part of the purchaser.'
This letter would almost seem to have been written with a supernatural knowledge of what was passing in Gylingden, and was certainly well contrived to prevent the vicar from wavering.
But all this time the ladies are conversing in Dorcas's boudoir.
'This election frightens me, Radie—everything frightens me now—but this is so audacious. If there be powers either in heaven or hell, it seems like a defiance and an invocation. I am glad you are here, Radie—I have grown so nervous—so superstitious, I believe; watching always for signs and omens. Oh, darling, the world's ghastly for me now.'
'I wish, Dorcas, we were away—as you used to say—in some wild and solitary retreat, living together—two recluses—but all that is visionary—quite visionary now.'
'You know, Rachel, the world must not see this—we will carry our heads high. Wicked men, and brave and suffering women—that is the history of our family—and men and women always quite unlike the rest of the world—unlike the human race; and somehow they interest me unspeakably. I wish I knew more about those proud, forlorn beauties, whose portraits are fading on the walls. Their spirit, I am sure, is in us, Rachel; and their pictures and traditions have always supported me. When I was a little thing, I used to look at them with a feeling of melancholy and mystery. They were in my eyes, reserved prophetesses, who could speak, if they would, of my own future.'
'A poor support, Dorcas—a broken reed. I wish we could find another—the true one, in the present, and in the coming time.'
Dorcas smiled faintly, and I think there was a little gleam of a ghastly satire in it. I am afraid that part of her education which deals with futurity had been neglected.
'I am more likely to turn into a Lady Macbeth than a dévote,' said she, coldly, with the same painful smile. 'I found myself last night sitting up in my bed, talking in the dark about it.'
There was a silence for a time, and Rachel said,—
'It is growing late, Dorcas.'
'But you must not go, Rachel—you must stay and keep me company—you must, indeed, Radie,' said Dorcas.
'So I will,' she answered; 'but I must send a line to old Tamar; and I promised Dolly to go down to her to-night, if that darling little boy should be worse—I am very unhappy about him.'
'And is he in danger, the handsome little fellow?' said Dorcas.
'Very great danger, I fear,' said Rachel. 'Doctor Buddle has been very kind—but he is, I am afraid, more desponding than poor William or Dolly imagines—Heaven help them!'
'But children recover wonderfully. What is his ailment?'
'Gastric fever, the doctor says. I had a foreboding of evil the moment I saw him—before the poor little man was put to his bed.'
Dorcas rang the bell.
'Now, Radie, if you wish to write, sit down here—or if you prefer a message, Thomas can take one very accurately; and he shall call at the vicar's, and see Dolly, and bring us word how the dear little boy is. And don't fancy, darling, I have forgotten what you said to me about duty—though I would call it differently—only I feel so wild, I can think of nothing clearly yet. But I am making up my mind to a great and bold step, and when I am better able, I will talk it over with you—my only friend, Rachel.'
And she kissed her.