THE MEETING IN THE LONG POND ALLEY.
I suppose there were few waking heads at this hour in all the wide parish of Gylingden, though many a usually idle one was now busy enough about the great political struggle which was to muster its native forces, both in borough and county, and agitate these rural regions with the roar and commotion of civil strife.
But generals must sleep like other men; and even Tom Wealdon was snoring in the fairy land of dreams.
The night was very still—a sharp night, with a thin moon, like a scimitar, hanging bright in the sky, and a myriad of intense stars blinking in the heavens, above the steep roofs and spiral chimneys of Brandon Hall, and the ancient trees that surrounded it.
It was late in the night, as we know. The family, according to their custom, had sought their slumbers early; and the great old house was perfectly still.
One pair, at least, of eyes, however, were wide open; one head busy; and one person still in his daily costume. This was Mr. Larcom—the grave major domo, the bland and attached butler. He was not busy about his plate, nor balancing the cellar book, nor even perusing his Bible.
He was seated in that small room or closet which he had, years ago, appropriated as his private apartment. It is opposite the housekeeper's room—a sequestered, philosophic retreat. He dressed in it, read his newspaper there, and there saw his select acquaintance. His wardrobe stood there. The iron safe in which he kept his keys, filled one of its nooks. He had his two or three shelves of books in the recess; not that he disturbed them much, but they were a grave and gentlemanlike property, and he liked them for their binding, and the impression they produced on his visitors. There was a meditative fragrance of cigars about him, and two or three Havannah stumps under the grate.
The fact is, he was engaged over a letter, the writing of which, considering how accomplished a gentleman he was, he had found rather laborious and tedious. The penmanship was, I am afraid, clumsy, and the spelling here and there, irregular. It was finished however, and he was now reading it over with care.
It was thus expressed:—
'RESPECTET SIR,—In accordens with your disier, i av took my pen to say a fue words. There has cum a leter for a sertun persen this morning, with a Lundun posmark, and i do not now hand nor sele, but bad writting, which i have not seen wot contanes, but I may, for as you told me offen, you are anceus for welfare of our famly, as i now to be no more than trewth, so I am anceus to ascest you Sir, wich my conseynce is satesfid, but leter as trubeled a sertun persen oufull, hoo i new was engry, and look oufull put about, wich do not offen apen, and you may sewer there is sumthing in wind, he is alday so oufull peefish, you will not thing worse of me speeken plane as yo disier, there beeing a deel to regret for frends of the old famly i feer in a sertun resent marrege, if I shud lern be chance contense of letter i will sewer rite you.—i Remane your humbel servant,
Just as grave Mr. Larcom had ended the perusal of this bulletin, he heard a light step on the stair, at the end of the passage, which made his manly heart jump unpleasantly within his fat ribs. He thrust the unfolded letter roughly into the very depths of his breeches pocket, and blew out both candles; and then listened, as still as a mouse.
What frightened him was the certainty that the step, which he well knew, was Stanley Lake's. And Stanley being a wideawake and violent person, and his measures sharp and reckless, Mr. Larcom cherished a nervous respect for him.
He listened; the captain's step came lightly to the foot of the stairs, and paused. Mr. Larcom prepared to be fast asleep in the chair, in the event of the captain's making a sudden advance, and entering his sanctum. But this movement was not executed.
There was a small door at the foot of the stairs. It shut with a spring lock, of which Captain Lake had a latch-key. Mr. Larcom accidentally had another—a cylindrical bit of steel, with a hinge in the end of it, and a few queer wards.
Now, of this little door he heard the two iron bolts stealthily drawn, and then the handle of the spring lock turned, and the door cautiously opened, and as gently closed.
Mr. Larcom's fears now naturally subsided, and curiosity as naturally supervened. He drew near his window; and it was well he had extinguished his lights, for as he did so, Captain Lake's light figure, in a gray paletot and cloth cap, glided by like a spirit in the faint moonlight.
This phenomenon excited the profoundest interest in the corresponding friend of the family, who, fumbling his letter between his finger and thumb in his breeches' pocket, standing on tip-toe, with mouth agape, and his head against the shutter, followed the receding figure with a greedy stare.
Mr. Larcom had no theory whatsoever to account for this procedure on the part of his master. It must be something very extraordinary, and well worth investigating—of course, for the benefit of the family—which could have evoked the apparition which had just crossed his window. With his eyes close to the window pane, he saw his master glide swiftly along the short terrace which covers this side of the house, and disappear down the steps, like a spectre sinking into the earth.
It is a meeting, thought Mr. Larcom, taking courage, for he already felt something of the confidence and superiority of possessing a secret; and as quickly as might be, the trustworthy man, with his latch-key in his pocket, softly opened the portal through which the object of his anxiety had just emerged, closed the door behind him, and stood listening intently in the recess of the entrance, where he heard the now more careless step of the captain, treading, as he thought, the broad yew-walk, which turns at a right angle at the foot of the terrace step. The black yew hedge was a perfect screen.
Here was obviously resented a chance of obtaining the command of a secret of greater or less importance. It was a considerable stake to play for, and well worth a trifling risk.
He did not hesitate to follow—but with the soft tread of a polite butler, doing his offices over the thick carpet of a drawing-room—and it was in his mind—'Suppose he does discover me, what then? I'm as much surprised as he! Thomas Brewen, the footman, who is under notice to leave, has twice, to the captain's knowledge, played me the same trick, and stole out through the gunroom window at night, and denied it afterwards; so I sat up to detect him, and hearing the door open, and a step, I pursued, and find I've made a mistake; and beg pardon with proper humility—supposing the master is on the same errand—what can he say? It will bring me a present, and a hint to say nothing of my having seen him in the yew-walk at this hour.'
Of course he did not run through all this rigmarole in detail; but the situation, the excuse, and the result, were present to his mind, and filled him with a comfortable assurance.
Therefore, with decision and caution, he followed Captain Lake's march, and reaching the yew-walk, he saw the slim figure in the cap and paletot turn the corner, and enter the broad walk between the two wall-like beech hedges, which led direct to the first artificial pond—a long, narrow parallelogram, round which the broad walk passed in two straight lines, fenced with the towering beech hedges, shorn as smooth as the walls of a nunnery.
When the butler reached the point at which Captain Lake had turned, he found himself all at once within fifty steps of that eccentric gentleman, who was talking, but in so low a tone, that not even the sound of the voices reached him, with a rather short, broad-shouldered person, buttoned up in a surtout, and wearing a queer, Germanesque, felt hat, battered and crushed a good deal.
Mr. Larcom held his breath. He was profoundly interested. After a while, with an oath, he exclaimed—
Then, after another pause, he gasped another oath:—
'It is him!'
The square-built man in the surtout had a great pair of black whiskers; and as he stood opposite Lake, conversing, with, now and again, an earnest gesture, he showed a profile which Mr. Larcom knew very well; and now they turned and walked slowly side by side along the broad walk by that perpendicular wall of crisp brown leaves, he recognised also a certain hitch in his shoulder, which made him swear and asseverate again.
He would have given something to hear what was passing. He thought uneasily whether there might not be a side-path or orifice anywhere through which he might creep so as to get to the other side of the hedge and listen. But there was no way, and he must rest content with such report as his eyes might furnish.
'They're not quarrelling no ways,' murmured he.
And, indeed, they walked together, stopping now and again, as it seemed, very amicably. Captain Lake seemed to have most to say.
'He's awful cowed, he is; I never did think to see Mr. Wylder so affeard of Lake; he is affeard; yes, he is—that he is.
And indeed there was an indescribable air of subservience in the demeanour of the square-built gentleman very different from what Mark Wylder once showed.
He saw the captain take from the pocket of his paletot a square box or packet, it might be jewels or only papers, and hand them to his companion, who popped them into his left-hand surtout pocket, and kept his hand there as if the freightage were specially valuable.
Then they talked earnestly a little longer, standing together by the pond; and then, side-by-side, they paced down the broad walk by its edge. It was a long walk. Honest Larcom would have followed if there had been any sort of cover to hide his advance; but there being nothing of the kind he was fain to abide at his corner. Thence he beheld them come at last slowly to a stand-still, talk evidently a little more, and finally they shook hands—an indefinable something still of superiority in Lake's air—and parted.
The captain was now all at once walking at a swift pace, alone, towards Larcom's post of observation, and his secret confederate nearly as rapidly in an opposite direction. It would not do for the butler to be taken or even seen by Lake, nor yet to be left at the outside of the door and barred out. So the captain had hardly commenced his homeward walk, when Larcom, though no great runner, threw himself into an agitated amble, and reached and entered the little door just in time to escape observation. He had not been two minutes in his apartment again when he once more beheld the figure of his master cross the window, and heard the small door softly opened and closed, and the bolts slowly and cautiously drawn again into their places. Then there was a pause. Lake was listening to ascertain whether anyone was stirring, and being satisfied, re-ascended the stairs, leaving the stout and courteous butler ample matter for romantic speculation.
It was now the butler's turn to listen, which he did at the half-opened door of his room. When he was quite assured that all was quiet, he shut and bolted his door, closed the window-shutters, and relighted his pair of wax candles.
Mr. Larcom was a good deal excited. He had seen strange things that night. He was a good deal blown and heated by his run, and a little wild and scared at the closeness of the captain's unconscious pursuit. His head beside was full of amazing conjectures. After a while he took his crumpled letter from his pocket, unfolded and smoothed it, and wrote upon a blank half-page—
'RESPECTED SIR,—Since the above i ave a much to tel mos surprisen, the gentleman you wer anceous of tiding mister M. W. is cum privet, and him and master met tonite nere 2 in morning, in the long pond allee, so is near home then we suposed, no more at present Sir from your
'humbel servent JOHN
'i shall go to dolington day arter to-morrow by eleven o'clock trane if you ere gong, Sir.'
When the attorney returned, between eleven and twelve o'clock next morning, this letter awaited him. It did not, of course, surprise him, but it conclusively corroborated all his inferences.
Here had been Mark Wylder. He had stopped at Dollington, as the attorney suspected he would, and he had kept tryst, in the Brandon grounds, with sly Captain Lake, whose relations with him it became now more difficult than ever clearly to comprehend.
Wylder was plainly under no physical coercion. He had come and gone unattended. For one reason or other he was, at least, as strongly interested as Lake in maintaining secrecy.
That Mark Wylder was living was the grand fact with which he had just then to do. How near he had been to purchasing the vicar's reversion! The engrossed deeds lay in the black box there. And yet it might be all true about Mark's secret marriage. At that moment there might be a whole rosary of sons, small and great, to intercept the inheritance; and the Reverend William Wylder might have no more chance of the estates than he had of the crown.
What a deliverance for the good attorney. His money was quite safe. The excellent man's religion was, we know, a little Jewish, and rested upon temporal rewards and comforts. He thought, I am sure, that a competent staff of angels were placed specially in charge of the interests of Jos. Larkin, Esq., who attended so many services and sermons on Sundays, and led a life of such ascetic propriety. He felt quite grateful to them, in his priggish way—their management in this matter had been so eminently satisfactory. He regretted that he had not an opportunity of telling them so personally. I don't say that he would have expressed it in these literal terms; but it was fixed in his mind that the carriage of his business was supernaturally arranged. Perhaps he was right, and he was at once elated and purified, and his looks and manner that afternoon were more than usually meek and celestial.