Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXVIII


But this sort of musing and wonderment leads to nothing; and Mr. Jos. Larkin being an active-minded man, and practical withal, in a little while shook it off, and from his breast-pocket took a tiny treasure of a pocket-book, in which were some bank-notes, precious memoranda in pencil, and half-a-dozen notes and letters, bearing upon cases and negotiations on which, at this juncture, he was working.

Into these he got, and now and then brought out a letter bearing on some point of speculation, and read it through, and then closed his eyes for three minutes at a time, and thought. But he had not his tin boxes there; and, with a man of his stamp, speculation, which goes upon guess as to dates and quantities, which are all ascertainable by reference to black and white, soon loses its interest. And the evidence in his pocket being pretty soon exhausted, he glanced again at his companion over the way.

He had not moved all this while. He had a high stand-up collar to the cape he wore, which covered his cheeks and nose and outside was loosely swathed a large, cream-coloured, cashmere handkerchief. The battered felt hat covered his forehead and eyebrows, and left, in fact, but a narrow streak of separation between.

Through this, however, for the first time, Jos. Larkin now saw the glitter of a pair of eyes gazing at him, he fancied. At all events there was the glitter, and the gentleman was awake.

Jos. returned the gentleman's gaze. It was his lofty aristocratic stare; and he expected to see the glittering lights that peeped through the dark chink between brim and collar shut up under its rebuke. But nothing of the kind took place, and the ocular exercises of the attorney were totally ineffectual.

If the fellow knew that his fixed stare was observed through his narrow embrasure—and Larkin thought he could hardly be insensible to the reproof of his return fire—he must be a particularly impertinent person. It would be ridiculous, however, to continue a contest of this kind; so the attorney lowered the window and looked out. Then he pulled it up, and took to his newspaper again, and read the police cases, and a very curious letter from a poor-house doctor, describing a boy who was quite blind in daylight, but could see very fairly by gas or candle light, and then he lighted upon a very odd story, and said to be undergoing special sifting at the hands of Sir Samuel Squailes, of a policeman on a certain beat, in Fleet Street, not far from Temple Bar, who every night saw, at or about the same hour, a certain suspicious-looking figure walk along the flag-way and enter a passage. Night after night he pursued this figure, but always lost it in the same passage. On the last occasion, however, he succeeded in keeping him in view, and came up with him in a court, when he was rewarded with a sight of such a face as caused him to fall to the ground in a fit. This was the Clampcourt ghost, and I believe he was left in that debatable state, and never after either exploded or confirmed.

So having ended all these studies, the attorney lifted up his eyes again, as he lowered his newspaper, and beheld the same glittering gaze fixed upon him through the same horizontal cranny.

He fancied the eyes were laughing. He could not be sure, of course, but at all events the persistent stare was extremely, and perhaps determinedly, impertinent. Forgetting the constitutional canon through which breathes the genuine spirit of British liberty, he felt for a moment that he was such a king as that cat had no business to look at; and he might, perhaps, have politely intimated something of the kind, had not the enveloped offender made a slight and lazy turn which, burying his chin still deeper in his breast, altogether concealed his eyes, and so closed the offensive scrutiny.

In making this change in his position, slight as it was, the gentleman in the superfluous clothing reminded Mr. Jos. Larkin very sharply for an instant of—somebody. There was the rub; who could it be?

The figure was once more a mere mountain of rug. What was the peculiarity in that slight movement—something in the knee? something in the elbow? something in the general character?

Why had he not spoken to him? The opportunity, for the present, was past. But he was now sure that his fellow-traveller was an acquaintance, who had probably recognised him. Larkin—except when making a mysterious trip at election times, or in an emergency, in a critical case—was a frank, and as he believed could be a fascinating compagnon de voyage, such and so great was his urbanity on a journey. He rather liked talking with people; he sometimes heard things not wholly valueless, and once or twice had gathered hints in this way, which saved him trouble, or money, which is much the same thing. Therefore upon principle he was not averse from that direst of bores, railway conversation.

And now they slackened speed, with a long, piercing whistle, and came to a standstill at 'East Haddon' (with a jerk upon the last syllable), 'East Haddon, East Haddon,' as the herald of the station declared, and Lawyer Larkin sat straight up, very alert, with a budding smile, ready to blow out into a charming radiance the moment his fellow-traveller rose perpendicular, as was to be expected, and peeped from his window.

But he seemed to know intuitively that Larkin intended telling him, apropos of the station, that story of the Haddon property, and Sir James Wotton's will, which as told by the good attorney and jumbled by the clatter, was perhaps a little dreary. At all events he did not stir, and carefully abstained from wakening, and in a few seconds more they were again in motion.

They were now approaching Shillingsworth, where the attorney was to get out, and put up for the night, having a deed with him to be executed in that town, and so sweetening his journey with this small incident of profit.

Now, therefore, looking at his watch, and consulting his time table, he got his slim valise from under on top of the seat before him, together with his hat-case, despatch-box, stick, and umbrella, and brushed off with his handkerchief some of the gritty railway dust that lay drifted in exterior folds and hollows of his coat, rebuttoned that garment with precision, arranged his shirt-collar, stuffed his muffler into his coat-pocket, and made generally that rude sacrifice to the graces with which natty men precede their exit from the dust and ashes of this sort of sepulture.

At this moment he had just eight minutes more to go, and the glitter of the pair of eyes, staring between the muffler and the rim of the hat, met his view once more.

Mr. Larkin's cigar-case was open in his hand in a moment, and with such a smile as a genteel perfumer offers his wares with, he presented it toward the gentleman who was built up in the stack of garments.

He merely shook his head with the slightest imaginable nod and a wave of a pudgy hand in a soiled dog-skin glove, which emerged for a second from under a cape, in token that he gratefully declined the favour.

Mr. Larkin smiled and shrugged regretfully, and replaced the case in his coat pocket. Hardly five minutes remained now. Larkin glanced round for a topic.

'My journey is over for the present, Sir, and perhaps you would find these little things entertaining.'

And he tendered with the same smile 'Punch,' the 'Penny Gleaner,' and 'Gray's Magazine,' a religious serial. They were, however, similarly declined in pantomime.

'He's not particularly polite, whoever he is,' thought Mr. Larkin, with a sniff. However, he tried the effect of a direct observation. So getting one seat nearer, he said:—

'Wonderful place Shillingsworth, Sir; one does not really, until one has visited it two or three times over, at all comprehend its wealth and importance; and how justly high it deserves to hold its head amongst the provincial emporia of our productive industry.'

The shapeless traveller in the corner touched his ear with his pudgy dogskin fingers, and shook his hand and head a little, in token either that he was deaf, or the noise such as to prevent his hearing, and in the next moment the glittering eyes closed, and the pantomimist appeared to be asleep.

And now, again, the train subsided to a stand-still, and Shillingsworth resounded through the night air, and Larkin scrambled forward to the window, by which sat the enveloped gentleman, and called the porter, and, with many unheeded apologies, pulled out his various properties, close by the knees of the tranquil traveller. So, Mr. Larkin was on the platform, and his belongings stowed away against the wall of the station-house.

He made an enquiry of the guard, with whom he was acquainted, about his companion; but the guard knew nothing of the 'party,' neither did the porter, to whom the guard put a similar question.

So, as Larkin walked down the platform, the whistle sounded and the train glided forward, and as it passed him, the gentleman in the cloak and queer hat was looking out. A lamp shone full on him. Mr. Larkin's heart stood still for a moment, and then bounded up as if it would choke him.

'It's him, by ——!' and Mr. Larkin, forgetting syntax, and propriety, and religion, all together, and making a frantic race to keep up with the train, shouted—

'Stop it, stop it—hollo!—stop—stop—ho, stop!'

But he pleaded with the winds; and before he had reached the end of the platform, the carriage windows were flying by him with the speed of wheel-spokes, and the end of the coupé, with its red lantern, sailed away through the cutting.

'Forgot summat, Sir,' said the porter, touching his hat.

'Yes—signal—stop him, can you?'

The porter only scratched his head, under his cap, and smiled sheepishly after the train. Jos. Larkin knew, the next moment, he had talked nonsense.

'I—I—yes—I have—have you an engine here:—express—I'll pay anything.'

But, no, there was 'no engine—not nearer than the junction, and she might not be spared.'

'How far is the junction?'

'Nineteen and a-half.'

'Nineteen miles! They'll never bring me there, by horse, under two hours, they are so cursed tedious. Why have not you a spare engine at a place like this? Shillingsworth! Nice management! Are you certain? Where's the station-master?'

All this time he kept staring after the faint pulsations on the air that indicated the flight of the engine.

But it would not do. The train—the image upon earth of the irrevocable, the irretrievable—was gone, neither to be overtaken nor recalled. The telegraph was not then, as now, whispering secrets all over England, at the rate of two hundred miles a second, and five shillings per twenty words. Larkin would have given large money for an engine, to get up with the train that was now some five miles on its route, at treble, quadruple, the common cost of such a magical appliance; but all was vain. He could only look and mutter after it wildly. Vain to conjecture for what station that traveller in the battered hat was bound! Idle speculation! Mere distraction!

Only that Mr. Larkin was altogether the man he was, I think he would have cursed freely.


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