MARK WYLDER'S HAND.
Just at the darkest point of the road, a little above the rude column which I have mentioned, Lake's horse, a young one, shied, stopped short, recoiling on its haunches, and snorted fiercely into the air. At the same time, the two dogs which had accompanied us began to bark furiously beneath in the ravine.
The tall form of Uncle Lorne was leaning against a tree at the edge of the ravine, with his left hand extended towards us, and his right pointing down the precipice. Perhaps it was this odd apparition that startled Lake's horse.
'I told you he was coming up—lend him a hand,' yelled Uncle Lorne, in great excitement.
No one at such a moment minded his maunderings: but many people afterwards thought that the crazed old man, in one of his night-rambles, had seen that which, till now, no one had imagined; and that Captain Lake himself, whose dislike of him was hardly disguised, suspected him, at times of that alarming knowledge.
Lake plunged the spurs into his beast, which reared so straight that she toppled backward toward the edge of the ravine.
'Strike her on the head; jump off,' shouted Wealdon.
But he did neither.
'D— it! put her head down; lean forward,' bellowed Wealdon again.
But it would not do. With a crash among briars, and a heavy thump from beneath that shook the earth, the mare and her rider went over. A shout of horror broke from us all; and Jekyl, watching the catastrophe, was very near pulling our horse over the edge, and launching us all together, like the captain, into the defile.
In a moment more we were all on the ground, and scrambling down the side of the ravine, among rocks, boughs, brambles, and ferns, in the deep shadows of the gorge, the dogs still yelling furiously from below.
'Here he is,' cried Jekyl. 'How are you, Lake? Much hurt, old boy? By Jove, he's killed, I think.'
He lay about twelve feet below the edge. The mare, now lying near the bottom of the gorge, had, I believe, fallen upon him, and then tumbled over.
Strange to say, Lake was conscious, and in a few seconds, he said, in reply to the horrified questions of his friend—
'I'm all smashed. Don't move me;' and, in a minute more—'Don't mind that d—d brute; she's killed. Let her lie.'
It appeared very odd, but so it was, he appeared eager upon this point, and, faint as he was, almost savage.
'Tell them to let her lie there.'
Wealdon and I, however, scrambled down the bank. He was right. The mare lay stone dead, on her side, at the bottom. He lifted her head, by the ear, and let it fall back.
In the meantime the dogs continued their unaccountable yelling close by.
'What the devil's that?' said Wealdon.
Something like a stunted, blackened branch was sticking out of the peat, ending in a set of short, thickish twigs. This is what it seemed. The dogs were barking at it. It was, really, a human hand and arm, disclosed by the slipping of the bank; undermined by the brook, which was swollen by the recent rains.
The dogs were sniffing and yelping about it.
'It's a hand!' cried Wealdon, with an oath.
'A hand?' I echoed.
We were both peering at it, having drawn near, stooping and hesitating as men do in a curious horror.
It was, indeed, a human hand and arm, disclosed from about the elbow, enveloped in a discoloured coat-sleeve, which fell back from the limb, and the fingers, like it black, were extended in the air. Nothing more of the body to which it belonged, except the point of a knee, in stained and muddy trousers, protruding from the peat, was visible.
It must have lain there a considerable time, for, notwithstanding the antiseptic properties of that sort of soil, mixed with the decayed bark and fibre of trees, a portion of the flesh of the hand was decomposed, and the naked bone disclosed. On the little finger something glimmered dully.
In this livid hand, rising from the earth, there was a character both of menace and appeal; and on the finger, as I afterwards saw at the inquest, glimmered the talismanic legend 'Resurgam—I will rise again!' It was the corpse of Mark Wylder, which had lain buried here undiscovered for many months. A horrible odour loaded the air. Perhaps it was this smell of carrion, from which horses sometimes recoil with a special terror, that caused the swerving and rearing which had ended so fatally. At that moment we heard a voice calling, and raising our eyes, saw Uncle Lorne looking down from the rock with an agitated scowl.
'I've done with him now—emeritus—he touches me, no more. Take him by the hand, merciful lads, or they'll draw him down again.'
And with these words Uncle Lorne receded, and I saw him no more.
As yet we had no suspicion whose was the body thus unexpectedly discovered.
We beat off the dogs, and on returning to Lake, found Jekyl trying to raise him a little against a tree. We were not far from Redman's Farm, and it was agreed, on hasty consultation, that our best course would be to carry Lake thither at once by the footpath, and that one of us—Wealdon undertook this—should drive the carriage on, and apprising Rachel on the way of the accident which had happened, and that her brother was on his way thither, should drive on to Buddle's house, sending assistance to us from the town.
It was plain that Stanley Lake's canvass was pretty well over. There was not one of us who looked at him that did not feel convinced that he was mortally hurt. I don't think he believed so himself then; but we could not move him from the place where he lay without inflicting so much pain, that we were obliged to wait for assistance.
'D— the dogs, what are they barking for?' said Lake, faintly. He seemed distressed by the noise.
'There's a dead body partly disclosed down there—some one murdered and buried; but one of Mr. Juke's young men is keeping them off.'
Lake made an effort to raise himself, but with a grin and a suppressed moan he abandoned it.
'Is there no doctor—I'm very much hurt?' said Lake, faintly, after a minute's silence.
We told him that Buddle had been sent for; and that we only awaited help to get him down to Redman's Farm.
When Rachel heard the clang of hoofs and the rattle of the tax-cart driving down the mill-road, at a pace so unusual, a vague augury of evil smote her. She was standing in the porch of her tiny house, and old Tamar was sitting knitting on the bench close by.
'Tamar, they are galloping down the road, I think—what can it mean?' exclaimed the young lady, scared she could not tell why; and old Tamar stood up, and shaded her eyes with her shrunken hand.
Tom Wealdon pulled up at the little wicket. He was pale. He had lost his hat, too, among the thickets, and could not take time to recover it. Altogether he looked wild.
He put his hand to where his hat should have been in token of salutation, and said he—
'I beg pardon, Miss Lake, Ma'am, but I'm sorry to say your brother the captain's badly hurt, and maybe you could have a shakedown in the parlour ready for him by the time I come back with the doctor, Ma'am?'
Rachel, she did not know how, was close by the wheel of the vehicle by this time.
'Is it Sir Harry Bracton? He's in the town, I know. Is Stanley shot?'
'Not shot; only thrown, Miss, into the Dell; his mare shied at a dead body that's there. You'd better stay where you are, Miss; but if you could send up some water, I think he'd like it. Going for the doctor, Ma'am; good-bye, Miss Lake.'
And away went Wealdon, wild, pale, and hatless, like a man pursued by robbers.
'Oh! Tamar, he's killed—Stanley's killed—I'm sure he's killed, and all's discovered'—and Rachel ran wildly up the hill a few steps, but stopped and returned as swiftly.
'Thank God, Miss,' said old Tamar, lifting up her trembling fingers and white eyes to Heaven. 'Better dead, Miss, than living on in sin and sorrow, better discovered than hid by daily falsehood and cruelty. Old Tamar's tired of life; she's willing to go, and wishin' for death this many a day. Oh! Master Stanley, my child!'
Rachel went into the parlour and kneeled down, with white upturned face and clasped hands. But she could not pray. She could only look her wild supplication;—deliverance—an issue out of the terrors that beset her; and 'oh! poor miserable lost Stanley!' It was just a look and an inarticulate cry for mercy.
An hour after Captain Stanley Brandon Lake, whose 'election address' was figuring that evening in the 'Dollington Courier,' and in the 'County Chronicle,' lay with his clothes still on, in the little drawing-room of Redman's Farm, his injuries ascertained, his thigh broken near the hip, and his spine fractured. No hope—no possibility of a physical reascension, this time.
Meanwhile, in the Blackberry Dell, Doctor Buddle was assisting at a different sort of inquisition. The two policemen who constituted the civil force of Gylingden, two justices of the peace, the doctor, and a crowd of amateurs, among whom I rank myself, were grouped in the dismal gorge, a little to windward of the dead body, which fate had brought to light, while three men were now employed in cautiously disinterring it.
When the operation was completed, there remained no doubt whatever on my mind: discoloured and disfigured as were both clothes and body, I was sure that the dead man was no other than Mark Wylder. When the clay with which it was clotted was a little removed, it became indubitable. The great whiskers; the teeth so white and even; and oddly enough, one black lock of hair which he wore twisted in a formal curl flat on his forehead, remained undisturbed in its position, as it was fixed there at his last toilet for Brandon Hall.
In the rude and shallow grave in which he lay, his purse was found, and some loose silver mixed in the mould. The left hand, on which was the ring of 'the Persian magician,' was bare; the right gloved, with the glove of the other hand clutched firmly in it.
The body was got up in a sheet to a sort of spring cart which awaited it, and so conveyed to the 'Silver Lion,' in Gylingden, where it was placed in a disused coach-house to await the inquest. There the examination was continued, and his watch (the chain broken) found in his waistcoat pocket. In his coat-pocket were found (of course, in no very presentable condition) his cigar-case, his initials stamped on it, for Mark had, in his day, a keen sense of property; his handkerchief, also marked; a pocket-book with some entries nearly effaced; and a letter unopened, and sealed with Lord Chelford's seal. The writing was nearly washed away, but the letters 'lwich,' or 'twich,' were still legible near the corner, and it turned out to be a letter to Dulwich, which Mark Wylder had undertaken to put in the Gylingden post-office, on the last night on which he appeared at Brandon.
The whole town was in a ferment that night. Great debate and conjecture in the reading-room, and even on the benches of the billiard-room. The 'Silver Lion' did a great business that night. Mine host might have turned a good round sum only by showing the body, were it not that Edwards, the chief policeman, had the keys of the coach-house. Much to-ing and fro-ing there was between the town and Redman's Farm, the respectable inhabitants all sending or going up to enquire how the captain was doing. At last Doctor Buddle officially interfered. The constant bustle was injurious to his patient. An hourly bulletin up to twelve o'clock should be in the hall of the 'Brandon Arms;' and Redman's Dell grew quiet once more.
When William Wylder heard the news, he fainted; not altogether through horror or grief, though he felt both; but the change in his circumstances was so amazing and momentous. It was a strange shock—immense relief—immense horror—quite overwhelming.
Mark had done some good-natured things for him in a small five-pound way; he had promised him that loan, too, which would have lifted him out of his Slough of Despond, and he clung with an affectionate gratitude to these exhibitions of brotherly love. Besides, he had accustomed himself—the organ of veneration standing prominent on the top of the vicar's head—to regard Mark in the light of a great practical genius—'natus rebus agendis;' he knew men so thoroughly—he understood the world so marvellously! The vicar was not in the least surprised when Mark came in for a fortune. He had always predicted that Mark must become very rich, and that nothing but indolence could prevent his ultimately becoming a very great man. The sudden and total disappearance of so colossal an object was itself amazing.
There was another person very strongly, though differently, affected by the news. Under pretext of business at Naunton, Jos. Larkin had driven off early to Five Oaks, to make inspection of his purchase. He dined like a king in disguise, at the humble little hostelry of Naunton Friars, and returned in the twilight to the Lodge, which he would make the dower-house of Five Oaks, with the Howard shield over the door. He was gracious to his domestics, but the distance was increased: he was nearer to the clouds, and they looked smaller.
'Well, Mrs. Smithers,' said he, encouragingly, his long feet on the fender, for the evening was sharp, and Mrs. S. knew that he liked a bit of fire at his tea 'any letters—any calls—any news stirring?'
'No letters, nor calls, Sir, please, except the butcher's book. I s'pose, Sir, you were viewing the body?'
'Mr. Wylder's, please, Sir.'
'The vicar!' exclaimed Mr. Larkin, his smile of condescension suddenly vanishing.
'No, Sir; Mr. Mark Wylder, please; the gentleman, Sir, as was to 'av married Miss Brandon.'
'What the devil do you mean, woman?' ejaculated the attorney, his back to the fire, standing erect, and a black shadow over his amazed and offended countenance.
'The devil,' in such a mouth, was so appalling and so amazing, that the worthy woman gazed, thunder-struck, upon him for a moment.
'Beg your pardon, Sir; but his body's bin found, Sir.'
'You mean Mr. Mark?'
'Yes, please, Sir; in a hole near the mill road—it's up in the "Silver Lion" now, Sir.'
'It must be the vicar's—it must,' said Jos. Larkin, getting his hat on, sternly, and thinking how likely he was to throw himself into the mill race, and impossible it was that Mark, whom he and Larcom had both seen alive and well last night—the latter, indeed, this morning—could possibly be the man. And thus comforting himself, he met old Major Jackson on the green, and that gentleman's statement ended with the words; 'and in an advanced stage of decomposition.'
'That settles the matter,' said Larkin, breathing again, and with a toss of his head, and almost a smile of disdain: 'for I saw Mr. Mark Wylder late last night at Shillingsworth.'
Leaving Major Jackson in considerable surprise, Mr. Larkin walked off to Edwards' dwelling, at the top of Church Street, and found that active policeman at home. In his cool, grand, official way, Mr. Larkin requested Mr. Edwards to accompany him to the 'Silver Lion,' where in the same calm and commanding way, he desired him to attend him to view the corpse. In virtue of his relation to Mark Wylder, and of his position as sole resident and legal practitioner, he was obeyed.
The odious spectacle occupied him for some minutes. He did not speak while they remained in the room. On coming out there was a black cloud upon the attorney's features, and he said, sulkily, to Edwards, who had turned the key in the lock, and now touched his hat as he listened,
'Yes, there is a resemblance, but it is all a mistake. I travelled as far as Shillingsworth last night with Mr. Mark Wylder: he was perfectly well. This can't be he.'
But there was a terrible impression on Mr. Jos. Larkin's mind that this certainly was he, and with a sulky nod to the policeman, he walked darkly down to the vicar's house. The vicar had been sent for to Naunton to pray with a dying person; and Mr. Larkin, disappointed, left a note to state that in writing that morning, as he had done, in reference to the purchase of the reversion, through Messrs. Burlington and Smith, he had simply expressed his own surmises as to the probable withdrawal of the intending purchaser, but had received no formal, nor, indeed, any authentic information, from either the party or the solicitors referred to, to that effect. That he mentioned this lest misapprehension should arise, but not as attaching any importance to the supposed discovery which seemed to imply Mr. Mark Wylder's death. That gentleman, on the contrary, he had seen alive and well at Shillingsworth on the night previous; and he had been seen in conference with Captain Lake at a subsequent hour, at Brandon.
From all this the reader may suppose that Mr. Jos. Larkin was not quite in a comfortable state, and he resolved to get the deeds, and go down again to the vicar's, and persuade him to execute them. He could make William Wylder, of course, do whatever he pleased.
There were a good many drunken fellows about the town, but there was an end of election demonstrations in the Brandon interest. Captain Lake was not going in for that race; he would be on another errand by the time the writ came down.