THE MASK FALLS.
There was a 'stop press' that evening in the county paper—'We have just learned that a body has been disinterred, early this afternoon, under very strange circumstances, in the neighbourhood of Gylingden; and if the surmises which are afloat prove well-founded, the discovery will set at rest the speculations which have been busy respecting the whereabouts of a certain gentleman of large property and ancient lineage, who, some time since, mysteriously disappeared, and will, no doubt, throw this county into a state of very unusual excitement. We can state, upon authority, that the coroner will hold his inquest on the body, to-morrow at twelve o'clock, in the town of Gylingden.
There was also an allusion to Captain Lake's accident—with the expression of a hope that it would 'prove but a trifling one,' and an assurance 'that his canvass would not be prevented by it—although for a few days it might not be a personal one. But his friends might rely on seeing him at the hustings, and hearing him too, when the proper time arrived.'
It was quite well known, however, in Gylingden, by this time, that Captain Lake was not to see the hustings—that his spine was smashed—that he was lying on an extemporised bed, still in his clothes, in the little parlour of Redman's Farm—cursing the dead mare in gasps—railing at everybody—shuddering whenever they attempted to remove his clothes—hoping, in broken sentences, that his people would give Bracton and—good licking. Bracton's outrage was the cause of the entire thing—and so help him Heaven, so soon as he should be on his legs again, he would make him feel it, one way or other.
Buddle thought he was in so highly excited a state, that his brain must have sustained some injury also.
He asked Buddle about ten o'clock (having waked up from a sort of stupor)—'what about Jim Dutton?' and then, whether there was not some talk about a body they had found, and what it was. So Buddle told him all that was yet known, and he listened very attentively.
'But Larkin has been corresponding with Mark Wylder up to a very late day, and if this body has been so long buried, how the devil can it be he? And if it be as bodies usually are after such a time, how can anybody pretend to identify it? And I happen to know that Mark Wylder is living,' he added, suddenly.
The doctor told him not to tire himself talking, and offered, if he wished to make a statement before a magistrate, to arrange that one should attend and receive it.
'I rather dislike it, because Mark wants to keep it quiet; but if, on public grounds, it is desirable, I will make it, of course. You'll use your discretion in mentioning the subject.'
So the captain was now prepared to acknowledge the secret meeting of the night before, and to corroborate the testimony of his attorney and his butler.
Stanley Lake had now no idea that his injuries were dangerous. He said he had a bad bruise under his ribs, and a sprained wrist, and was a little bit shaken; and he talked of his electioneering as only suspended for a day or two.
Buddle, however, thought the case so imminent, that on his way to the 'Brandon Arms,' meeting Larkin, going, attended by his clerk, again to the vicar's house, he stopped him for a moment, and told him what had passed, adding, that Lake was so frightfully injured, that he might begin to sink at any moment, and that by next evening, at all events, he might not be in a condition to make a deposition.
'It is odd enough—very odd,' said Larkin. 'It was only an hour since, in conversation with our policeman, Edwards, that I mentioned the fact of my having myself travelled from London to Shillingsworth last night with Mr. Mark Wylder, who went on by train in this direction, I presume, to meet our unfortunate friend, Captain Lake, by appointment. Thomas Sleddon, of Wadding Hall—at this moment in the "Brandon Arms"—is just the man; if you mention it to him, he'll go up with you to Redman's Farm, and take the deposition. Let it be a deposition, do you mind; a statement is mere hearsay.'
Comforted somewhat, reassured in a certain way, and in strong hopes that, at all events, such a muddle would be established as to bewilder the jury, Mr. Jos. Larkin, with still an awful foreboding weighing at his heart, knocked at the vicar's door, and was shown into the study. A solitary candle being placed, to make things bright and pleasant for the visitor, who did not look so himself, the vicar, very pale, and appearing to have grown even thinner since he last saw him, entered, and shook his hand with an anxious attempt at a smile, which faded almost instantly.
'I am so delighted that you have come. I have passed a day of such dreadful agitation. Poor Mark!'
'There is no doubt, Sir, whatsoever that he is perfectly well. Three different persons—unexceptionable witnesses—can depose to having seen him last night, and he had a long conference with Captain Lake, who is by this time making his deposition. It is with respect to the other little matter—the execution of the deed of conveyance to Messrs. Burlington and Smith's clients. You know my feeling about the note I wrote this morning a little—I will not say incautiously, because with a client of your known character and honour, no idea of the sort can find place—but I will say thoughtlessly. If there be any hanging back, or appearance of it, it may call down unpleasant—indeed, to be quite frank, ruinous—consequences, which, I think, in the interest of your family, you would hardly be justified in invoking upon the mere speculation of your respected brother's death.'
There was a sound of voices at the door. 'Do come in—pray do,' was heard in Dolly's voice. 'Won't you excuse me, but pray do. Willie, darling, don't you wish him to come in?'
'Most particularly. Do beg of him, in my name—and I know Mr. Larkin would wish it so much.'
And so Lord Chelford, with a look which, at another time, would have been an amused one, quite conscious of the oddity of his introduction, came in and slightly saluted Mr. Larkin, who was for a few seconds pretty obviously confounded, and with a pink flush all over his bald forehead, tried to smile, while his hungry little eyes searched the viscount with fear and suspicion.
Larkin's tone was now much moderated. Any sort of dealing was good enough for the simple vicar; but here was the quiet, sagacious peer, who had shown himself, on two remarkable committees, so quick and able a man of business, and the picture of the vicar's situation, and of the powers and terrors of Messrs. Burlington and Smith, were to be drawn with an exacter pencil, and far more delicate colouring.
Lord Chelford listened so quietly that the tall attorney felt he was making way with him, and concluded his persuasion by appealing to him for an opinion.
'That is precisely as I said. I knew my friend, Mr. Larkin, would be only too glad of an opinion in this difficulty from you,' threw in the vicar.
The opinion came—very clear, very quiet, very unpleasant—dead against Mr. Larkin's view, and concluding with the remark that he thought there was more in the affair than had yet come to light.
'I don't see exactly how, my lord,' said Mr. Larkin, a little loftily, and redder than usual.
'Nor do I, Mr. Larkin, at present; but the sum offered is much too small, and the amount of costs and other drawbacks utterly monstrous, and the result is, after deducting all these claims, including your costs, Mr. Larkin——'
Here Mr. Larkin threw up his chin a little, smiling, and waving his long hand, and saying, 'Oh! as to mine,' in a way that plainly expressed, 'They are merely put down for form's sake. It is playing at costs. You know Jos. Larkin—he never so much as dreamed of looking for them.'
'There remain hardly nine hundred and fifty pounds applicable to the payment of the Reverend Mr. Wylder's debts—a sum which would have been ample, before this extraordinary negotiation was commenced, to have extricated him from all his pressing difficulties, and which I would have been only too happy at being permitted to advance, and which, and a great deal more, Miss Lake, whose conduct has been more than kind—quite noble—wished to place in your client's hands.'
'That,' said the attorney, flushing a little, 'I believe to have been technically impossible; and it was accompanied by a proposition which was on other grounds untenable.'
'You mean Miss Lake's proposed residence here—an arrangement, it appears to me, every way most desirable.'
'I objected to it on, I will say, moral grounds, my lord. It is painful to me to disclose what I know, but that young lady accompanied Mr. Mark Wylder, my lord, in his midnight flight from Dollington, and remained in London, under, I presume, his protection for some time.'
'That statement, Sir, is, I happen to know, utterly contrary to fact. The young lady you mention never even saw Mr. Mark Wylder, since she took leave of him in the drawing-room at Brandon; and I state this not in vindication of her, but to lend weight to the caution I give you against ever again presuming to connect her name with your surmises.'
The peer's countenance was so inexpressibly stern, and his eyes poured such a stream of fire upon the attorney, that he shrank a little, and looked down upon his great fingers which were drumming, let us hope, some sacred music upon the table.
'I am truly rejoiced, my lord, to hear you say so. Except to the young party herself, and in this presence, I have never mentioned it; and I can show you the evidence on which my conclusions rested.'
'Thank you—no Sir; my evidence is conclusive.'
I don't know what Mr. Larkin would have thought of it; it was simply Rachel's letter to her friend Dolly Wylder on the subject of the attorney's conference with her at Redman's Farm. It was a frank and passionate denial of the slander, breathing undefinably, but irresistibly, the spirit of truth.
'Then am I to understand, in conclusion,' said the attorney, that defying all consequences, the Rev. Mr. Wylder refuses to execute the deed of sale?'
'Certainly,' said Lord Chelford, taking this reply upon himself.
'You know, my dear Mr. Wylder, I told you from the first that Messrs. Burlington and Smith were, in fact, a very sharp house; and I fear they will execute any powers they possess in the most summary manner.' The attorney's eye was upon the vicar as he spoke, but Lord Chelford answered.
'The powers you speak of are quite without parallel in a negotiation to purchase; and in the event of their hazarding such a measure, the Rev. Mr. Wylder will apply to a court of equity to arrest their proceedings. My own solicitor is retained in the case.'
Mr. Larkin's countenance darkened and lengthened visibly, and his eyes assumed their most unpleasant expression, and there was a little pause, during which, forgetting his lofty ways, he bit his thumb-nail rather viciously.
'Then I am to understand, my lord, that I am superseded in the management of this case?' said the attorney at last, in a measured way, which seemed to say, 'you had better think twice on this point.'
'Certainly, Mr. Larkin,' said the viscount.
'I'm not the least surprised, knowing, I am sorry to say, a good deal of the ways of the world, and expecting very little gratitude, for either good will or services.' This was accompanied with a melancholy sneer directed full upon the poor vicar, who did not half understand the situation, and looked rather guilty and frightened. 'The Rev. Mr. Wylder very well knows with what reluctance I touched the case—a nasty case; and I must be permitted to add, that I am very happy to be quite rid of it, and only regret the manner in which my wish has been anticipated, a discourtesy which I attribute, however, to female influence.'
The concluding sentence was spoken with a vile sneer and a measured emphasis directed at Lord Chelford, who coloured with a sudden access of indignation, and stood stern and menacing, as the attorney, with a general bow to the company, and a lofty nonchalance, made his exit from the apartment.
Captain Lake was sinking very fast next morning. He made a statement to Chelford, who was a magistrate for the county, I suppose to assist the coroner's inquest. He said that on the night of Mark Wylder's last visit to Brandon, he had accompanied him from the Hall; that Mark had seen some one in the neighbourhood of Gylingden, a person pretending to be his wife, or some near relative of hers, as well as he, Captain Lake, could understand, and was resolved to go to London privately, and have the matter arranged there. He waited near the 'White House,' while he, Stanley Lake, went to Gylingden and got his tax-cart at his desire. He could give particulars as to that. Captain Lake overtook him, and he got in and was driven to Dollington, where he took the up-train. That some weeks afterwards he saw him at Brighton; and the night before last, by appointment, in the grounds of Brandon; and that he understood Larkin had some lights to throw upon the same subject.
The jury were not sworn until two o'clock. The circumstances of the discovery of the body were soon established. But the question which next arose was very perplexed—was the body that of Mr. Mark Wylder? There could be no doubt as to a general resemblance; but, though marvellously preserved, in its then state, certainty was hardly attainable. But there was a perfectly satisfactory identification of the dress and properties of the corpse as those of Mr. Mark Wylder. On the other hand there was the testimony of Lord Chelford, who put Captain Lake's deposition in evidence, as also the testimony of Larkin, and the equally precise evidence of Larcom, the butler.
The proceedings had reached this point when an occurrence took place which startled Lord Chelford, Larkin, Larcom, and every one in the room who was familiar with Mark Wylder's appearance.
A man pushed his way to the front of the crowd, and for a moment it seemed that Mark Wylder stood living before them.
'Who are you?' said Lord Chelford.
'Jim Dutton, Sir; I come by reason of what I read in the "Chronicle" over night, about Mr. Mark Wylder being found.'
'Do you know anything of him?' asked the coroner.
'Nowt,' answered the man bluffly, 'only I writ to Mr. Larkin, there, as I wanted to see him. I remember him well when I was a boy. I seed him in the train from Lunnon t'other night; and he seed me on the Shillingsworth platform, and I think he took me for some one else. I was comin' down to see the Captain at Brandon—and seed him the same night.'
'Why have you come here?' asked the coroner.
'Thinkin' I might be mistook,' answered the man. 'I was twice here in England, and three times abroad.'
'Mr. Mark Wylder,' answered he.
'It is a wonderful likeness,' said Lord Chelford.
Larkin stared at him with his worst expression; and Larcom, I think, thought he was the devil.
I was as much surprised as any for a few seconds. But there were points of difference—Jim Dutton was rather a taller and every way a larger man than Mark Wylder. His face, too, was broader and coarser, but in features and limbs the relative proportions were wonderfully preserved. It was such an exaggerated portrait as a rustic genius might have executed upon a sign-board. He had the same black, curly hair, and thick, black whiskers: and the style of his dress being the same, helped the illusion. In fact, it was a rough, but powerful likeness—startling at the moment—unexceptionable at a little distance—but which failed on a nearer and exacter examination. There was, beside, a scar, which, however, was not a very glaring inconsistency, although it was plainly of a much older standing than the date of Mark's disappearance. All that could be got from Jim Dutton was that 'he thought he might be mistook' and so attended. But respecting Mr. Mark Wylder he could say 'nowt.' He knew 'nowt.'
Lord Chelford was called away at this moment by an urgent note. It was to request his immediate attendance at Redman's Farm, to see Captain Lake, who was in a most alarming state. The hand was Dorcas's—and Lord Chelford jumped into the little pony carriage which awaited him at the door of the 'Silver Lion.'
When he reached Redman's Farm, Captain Lake could not exert himself sufficiently to speak for nearly half-an-hour. At the end of that time he was admitted into the tiny drawing-room in which the captain lay. He was speaking with difficulty.
'Did you see Buddle, just now?'
'No, not since morning.'
'He seems to have changed—bad opinion—unless he has a law object—those d—d doctors—never can know. Dorcas thinks—I'll do no good. Don't you think—he may have an object—and not believe I'm in much danger? You don't?'
Lake's hand, with which he clutched and pulled Chelford's, was trembling.
'You must reflect, my dear Lake, how very severe are the injuries you have sustained. You certainly are in danger—great danger.'
Lake became indescribably agitated, and uttered some words, not often on his lips, that sounded like desperate words of supplication. Not that seaworthy faith which floats the spirit through the storm, but fragments of its long-buried wreck rolled up from the depths and flung madly on the howling shore.
'I'd like to see Rachel,' at last he said, holding Chelford's hand in both his, very hard. 'She's clever—and I don't think she gives me up yet, no—a drink!—and they think I'm more hurt than I really am—Buddle, you know—only an apothecary—village;' and he groaned.
His old friend, Sir Francis Seddley, summoned by the telegraph, was now gliding from London along the rails for Dollington station; but another—a pale courier—on the sightless coursers of the air, was speeding with a different message to Captain Stanley Lake, in the small and sombre drawing-room in Redman's Dell.
I had promised Chelford to run up to Redman's Farm, and let him know if the jury arrived at a verdict during his absence. They did so; finding that the body was that of Marcus Wylder, Esquire, of Raddiston, and 'that he had come by his death in consequence of two wounds inflicted with a sharp instrument, in the region of the heart, by some person or persons unknown, at a period of four weeks since or upwards.'
Chelford was engaged in the sick room, as I understood, in conference with the patient. It was well to have heard, without procrastination, what he had to say; for next morning, at a little past four o'clock, he died.
A nurse who had been called in from the county infirmary, said he made a very happy ending. He mumbled to himself, in his drowsy state, as she was quite sure, in prayer; and he made a very pretty corpse when he was laid out, and his golden hair looked so nice, and he was all so slim and shapely.
Rachel and Dorcas were sitting in the room with him—not expecting the catastrophe then. Both tired; both silent; the nurse dozing a little in her chair, near the bed's head; and Lake said, in his clear, low tone, on a sudden, just as he spoke when perfectly well—
'Quite a mistake, upon my honour.'
As a clear-voiced sentence sometimes speaks out in sleep, followed by silence, so no more was heard after this—no more for ever. The nurse was the first to perceive 'the change.'
'There's a change, Ma'am'—and there was a pause. 'I'm afraid, Ma'am, he's gone,' said the nurse.
Both ladies, in an instant, were at the bedside, looking at the peaked and white countenance, which was all they were ever again to see of Stanley; the yellow eyes and open mouth.
Rachel's agony broke forth in a loud, wild cry. All was forgotten and forgiven in that tremendous moment.
'Oh! Stanley, Stanley!—brother, brother, oh, brother!'
There was the unchanged face, gaping its awful farewell of earth. All over!—never to stir more.
'Is he dead?' said Dorcas, with the peculiar sternness of agony.
There could be no doubt. It was a sight too familiar to deceive the nurse.
And Dorcas closed those strange, wild eyes that had so fatally fascinated her, and then she trembled, without speaking or shedding a tear. Her looks alarmed the nurse, who, with Rachel's help, persuaded her to leave the room. And then came one of those wild scenes which close such tragedies—paroxysms of despair and frantic love, over that worthless young man who lay dead below stairs; such as strike us sometimes with a desolate scepticism, and make us fancy that all affection is illusion, and perishable with the deceits and vanities of earth.