Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXXIV


The story which, in his last interview with Lord Chelford, Stanley Lake had related, was, probably, as near the truth as he was capable of telling.

On the night when Mark Wylder had left Brandon in his company they had some angry talk; Lake's object being to induce Mark to abandon his engagement with Dorcas Brandon. He told Stanley that he would not give up Dorcas, but that he, Lake, must fight him, and go to Boulogne for the purpose, and they should arrange matters so that one or other must fall. Lake laughed quietly at the proposition, and Mark retorted by telling him he would so insult him, if he declined, as to compel a meeting. When they reached that lonely path near the flight of stone steps, Stanley distinctly threatened his companion with a disclosure of the scandalous incident in the card-room of the club, which he afterwards related, substantially as it had happened, to Jos. Larkin. When he took this decisive step, Lake's nerves were strung, I dare say, to a high pitch of excitement. Mark Wylder, he knew, carried pistols, and, all things considered, he thought it just possible he might use them. He did not, but he struck Lake with the back of his hand in the face, and Lake, who walked by his side, with his fingers on the handle of a dagger in his coat pocket, instantly retorted with a stab, which he repeated as Mark fell.

He solemnly averred that he never meant to have used the dagger, except to defend his life. That he struck in a state of utter confusion, and when he saw Mark dead, with his feet on the path, and his head lying over the edge, he would have given a limb almost to bring him back. The terror of discovery and ruin instantly supervened.

He propped the body against the bank, and tried to stanch the bleeding. But there could be no doubt that he was actually dead. He got the body easily down the nearly precipitous declivity. Lake was naturally by no means wanting in resource, and a certain sort of coolness, which supervened when the momentary distraction was over.

He knew it would not do to leave the body so, among the rocks and brambles. He recollected that only fifty yards back they had passed a spade and pick, lying, with some other tools, by the side of the path, near that bit of old wall which was being removed. Like a man doing things in a dream, without thought or trouble, only waiting and listening for a moment before he disturbed them, he took away the implements which he required; and when about to descend, a sort of panic and insurmountable disgust seized him; and in a state of supernatural dismay, he felt for a while disposed to kill himself. In that state it was he reached Redman's Farm, and his interview with Rachel occurred. It was the accidental disclosure of the blood, in which his shirt sleeve was soaked, that first opened Rachel's eyes to the frightful truth.

After her first shock, all her terrors were concentrated on the one point—Stanley's imminent danger. He must be saved. She made him return; she even accompanied him as far as the top of the rude flight of steps I have mentioned so often, and there awaited his return—the condition imposed by his cowardice—and made more dreadful by the circumstance that they had heard retreating footsteps along the walk, and Stanley saw the tall figure of Uncle Julius or Lorne, as he called himself, turning the far corner.

There was a long wait here, lest he should return; but he did not appear, and Stanley—though I now believe observed by this strange being—executed his horrible task, replaced the implements, and returned to Rachel, and with her to Redman's Farm; where—his cool cunning once more ascendant—he penned those forgeries, closing them with Mark Wylder's seal, which he compelled his sister—quite unconscious of all but that their despatch by post, at the periods pencilled upon them, was essential to her wretched brother's escape. It was the success of this, his first stratagem, which suggested that long series of frauds which, with the aid of Jim Dutton, selected for his striking points of resemblance to Mark Wylder, had been carried on for so long with such consummate art in a different field.

It was Lake's ungoverned fury, when Larkin discovered the mistake in posting the letters in wrong succession, which so nearly exploded his ingenious system. He wrote in terms which roused Jim Dutton's wrath. Jim had been spinning theories about the reasons of his mysterious, though very agreeable occupation, and announced them broadly in his letter to Larkin. But he had cooled by the time he reached London, and the letter from Lake, received at his mother's and appointing the meeting at Brandon, quieted that mutiny.

I never heard that Jim gave any member of the family the least trouble afterward. He handed to Lord Chelford a parcel of those clever and elaborate forgeries, with which Lake had last furnished him, with a pencilled note on each, directing the date and town at which it was to be despatched. Years after, when Jim was emigrating, I believe Lord Chelford gave him a handsome present.

Lord Chelford was advised by the friend whom he consulted that he need not make those painful particulars public, affecting only a dead man, and leading to no result.

Lake admitted that Rachel had posted the letters in London, believing them to be genuine, for he pretended that they were Wylder's. It is easy to look grave over poor Rachel's slight, and partly unconscious, share in the business of the tragedy. But what girl of energy and strong affections would have had the melancholy courage to surrender her brother to public justice under the circumstances? Lord Chelford, who knew all, says that she 'acted nobly.'

'Now, Joseph, being a just man, was minded to put her away privily.' The law being what? That she was to be publicly stigmatised and punished. His justice being what? Simply that he would have her to be neither—but screened and parted 'with privily.' Let the Pharisees who would have summum jus against their neighbours, remember that God regards the tender and compassionate, who forbears, on occasion, to put the law in motion, as the just man.

The good vicar is a great territorial magnate now; but his pleasures and all his ways are still simple. He never would enter Brandon as its master, and never will, during Dorcas Brandon's lifetime. And although with her friend, Rachel Lake, she lives abroad, chiefly in Italy and Switzerland, Brandon Hall, by the command of its proprietor, lies always at her disposal.

I don't know whether Rachel Lake will ever marry. The tragic shadow of her life has not chilled Lord Chelford's strong affection. Neither does the world know or suspect anything of the matter. Old Tamar died three years since, and lies in the pretty little churchyard of Gylingden. And Mark's death is, by this time, a nearly forgotten mystery.

Jos. Larkins's speculations have not turned out luckily. The trustees of Wylder, a minor, tried, as they were advised they must, his title to Five Oaks, by ejectment. A point had been overlooked—as sometimes happens—and Jos. Larkin was found to have taken but an estate for the life of Mark Wylder, which terminated at his decease. The point was carried on to the House of Lords, but the decision of 'the court below' was ultimately affirmed.

The flexible and angry Jos. Larkin then sought to recoup himself out of the assets of the deceased captain; but here he failed. In his cleverness—lest the inadequate purchase-money should upset his bargain—he omitted the usual covenant guaranteeing the vendor's title to sell the fee-simple, and recited, moreover, that, grave doubts existing on the point, it was agreed that the sum paid should not exceed twelve years' purchase. Jos. then could only go upon the point that it was known to Lake at the period of the sale that Mark Wylder was dead. Unluckily, however, for Jos.'s case, one of his clever letters, written during the negotiation, turned up, and was put in evidence, in which he pressed Captain Lake with the fact, that he, the purchaser, was actually in possession of information to the effect that Mark was dead, and that he was, therefore, buying under a liability of having his title litigated, with a doubtful result, the moment he should enter into possession. This shut up the admirable man, who next tried a rather bold measure, directed against the Reverend William Wylder. A bill was filed by Messrs. Burlington and Smith, to compel him to execute a conveyance to their client—on the terms of the agreement. The step was evidently taken on the calculation that he would strike, and offer a handsome compromise; but Lord Chelford was at his elbow—the suit was resisted. Messrs. Burlington and Smith did not care to run the awful risk which Mr. Larkin, behind the scenes, invited them to accept for his sake. There was first a faltering; then a bold renunciation and exposure of Mr. Jos. Larkin by the firm, who, though rather lamely, exonerated themselves as having been quite taken in by the Gylingden attorney.

Mr. Jos. Larkin had a holy reliance upon his religious reputation, which had always stood him in stead. But a worldly judge will sometimes disappoint the expectations of the Christian suitor; and the language of the Court, in commenting upon Mr. Jos. Larkin, was, I am sorry to say, in the highest degree offensive—'flagitious,' 'fraudulent,' and kindred epithets, were launched against that tall, bald head, in a storm that darkened the air and obliterated the halo that usually encircled it. He was dismissed, in a tempest, with costs. He vanished from court, like an evil spirit, into the torture-chamber of taxation.

The whole structure of rapine and duplicity had fallen through with a dismal crash. Shrewd fellows wondered, as they always do, when a rash game breaks down, at the infatuation of the performer. But the cup of his tribulation was not yet quite full. Jos. Larkin's name was ultimately struck from the roll of solicitors and attorneys, and there were minute and merciless essays in the papers, surrounding his disgrace with a dreadful glare. People say he has not enough left to go on with. He had lodgings somewhere near Richmond, as Howard Larkin, Esq., and is still a religious character. I am told that he shifts his place of residence about once in six months, and that he has never paid one shilling of rent for any, and has sometimes positively received money for vacating his abode. So substantially valuable is a thorough acquaintance with the capabilities of the law. I saw honest Tom Wealdon about a fortnight ago—grown stouter and somewhat more phlegmatic by time, but still the same in good nature and inquisitiveness. From him I learned that Jos. Larkin is likely to figure once more in the courts about some very ugly defalcations in the cash of the Penningstal Mining Company, and that this time the persecutions of that eminent Christian are likely to take a different turn, and, as Tom said, with a gloomy shrewdness, to end in 'ten years penal.'

Some summers ago, I was, for a few days, in the wondrous city of Venice. Everyone knows something of the enchantment of the Italian moon, the expanse of dark and flashing blue, and the phantasmal city, rising like a beautiful spirit from the waters. Gliding near the Lido—where so many rings of Doges lie lost beneath the waves—I heard the pleasant sound of female voices upon the water—and then, with a sudden glory, rose a sad, wild hymn, like the musical wail of the forsaken sea:—

The spouseless Adriatic mourns her lord.

The song ceased. The gondola which bore the musicians floated by—a slender hand over the gunwale trailed its fingers in the water. Unseen I saw Rachel and Dorcas, beautiful in the sad moonlight, passed so near we could have spoken—passed me like spirits—never more, it may be, to cross my sight in life.


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