IN WHICH MY SLUMBER IS DISTURBED.
The ladies had accomplished their ascension to the upper regions. The good vicar had marched off with the major, who was by this time unbuckling in his lodgings; and Chelford and I, tête-à-tête, had a glass of sherry and water together in the drawing-room before parting. And over this temperate beverage I told him frankly the nature of the service which Mark Wylder wished me to render him; and he as frankly approved, and said he would ask Larkin, the family lawyer, to come up in the morning to assist.
The more I saw of this modest, refined, and manly peer, the more I liked him. There was a certain courteous frankness, and a fine old English sense of duty perceptible in all his serious talk. So I felt no longer like a conspirator, and was to offer such advice as might seem expedient, with the clear approbation of Miss Brandon's trustee. And this point clearly settled, I avowed myself a little tired; and lighting our candles at the foot of the stairs, we scaled that long ascent together, and he conducted me through the intricacies of the devious lobbies up stairs to my chamber-door, where he bid me good-night, shook hands, and descended to his own quarters.
My room was large and old-fashioned, but snug; and I, beginning to grow very drowsy, was not long in getting to bed, where I fell asleep indescribably quickly.
In all old houses one is, of course, liable to adventures. Where is the marvellous to find refuge, if not among the chambers, the intricacies, which have seen the vicissitudes, the crimes, and the deaths of generations of such men as had occupied these?
There was a picture in the outer hall—one of those full-length gentlemen of George II.'s time, with a dark peruke flowing on his shoulders, a cut velvet coat, and lace cravat and ruffles. This picture was pale, and had a long chin, and somehow had impressed my boyhood with a singular sense of fear. The foot of my bed lay towards the window, distant at least five-and-twenty-feet; and before the window stood my dressing-table, and on it a large looking-glass.
I dreamed that I was arranging my toilet before this glass—just as I had done that evening—when on a sudden the face of the portrait I have mentioned was presented on its surface, confronting me like a real countenance, and advancing towards me with a look of fury; and at the instant I felt myself seized by the throat and unable to stir or to breathe. After a struggle with this infernal garotter, I succeeded in awaking myself; and as I did so, I felt a rather cold hand really resting on my throat, and quietly passed up over my chin and face. I jumped out of bed with a roar, and challenged the owner of the hand, but received no answer, and heard no sound. I poked up my fire and lighted my candle. Everything was as I had left it except the door, which was the least bit open.
In my shirt, candle in hand, I looked out into the passage. There was nothing there in human shape, but in the direction of the stairs the green eyes of a large cat were shining. I was so confoundedly nervous that even 'a harmless, necessary cat' appalled me, and I clapped my door, as if against an evil spirit.
In about half an hour's time, however, I had quite worked off the effect of this night-mare, and reasoned myself into the natural solution that the creature had got on my bed, and lay, as I have been told they will, upon my throat, and so, all the rest had followed.
Not being given to the fear of larvae and lemures, and also knowing that a mistake is easily committed in a great house like that, and that my visitor might have made one, I grew drowsy in a little while, and soon fell asleep again. But knowing all I now do, I hold a different conclusion—and so, I think, will you.
In the morning Mark Wylder was early upon the ground. He had quite slept off what he would have called the nonsense of last night, and was very keen upon settlements, consols, mortgages, jointures, and all that dry but momentous lore.
I find a note in my diary of that day:—'From half-past ten o'clock until two with Mark Wylder and Mr. Larkin, the lawyer, in the study—dull work—over papers and title—Lord Chelford with us now and then to lend a helping hand.'
Lawyer Larkin, though he made our work lighter—for he was clear, quick, and orderly, and could lay his hand on any paper in those tin walls of legal manuscripts that built up two sides of his office—did not make our business, to me at least, any pleasanter. Wylder thought him a clever man (and so perhaps, in a certain sense, he was); Lord Chelford, a most honourable one; yet there came to me by instinct an unpleasant feeling about him. It was not in any defined way—I did not fancy that he was machinating, for instance, any sort of mischief in the business before us—but I had a notion that he was not quite what he pretended.
Perhaps his personnel prejudiced me—though I could not quite say why. He was a tall, lank man—rather long of limb, long of head, and gaunt of face. He wanted teeth at both sides, and there was rather a skull-like cavity when he smiled—which was pretty often. His eyes were small and reddish, as if accustomed to cry; and when everything went smoothly were dull and dove-like, but when things crossed or excited him, which occurred when his own pocket or plans were concerned, they grew singularly unpleasant, and greatly resembled those of some not amiable animal—was it a rat, or a serpent? It was a peculiar concentrated vigilance and rapine that I have seen there. But that was long afterwards. Now, indeed, they were meek, and sad, and pink.
He had an ambition, too, to pass for a high-bred gentleman, and thought it might be done by a somewhat lofty and drawling way of talking, and distributing his length of limb in what he fancied were easy attitudes. If the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel, so are the elegances of a vulgar man; and his made me wince.
I might be all in the wrong—and was, no doubt, unreasonable—for he bore a high character, and passed for a very gentlemanlike man among the villagers. He was also something of a religious light, and had for a time conformed to Methodism, but returned to the Church. He had a liking for long sermons, and a sad abhorrence of amusements, and sat out the morning and the evening services regularly—and kept up his dissenting connection too, and gave them money—and appeared in print, in all charitable lists—and mourned over other men's backslidings and calamities in a lofty and Christian way, shaking his tall bald head, and turning up his pink eyes mildly.
Notwithstanding all which he was somehow unlovely in my eyes, and in an indistinct way, formidable. It was not a pleasant misgiving about a gentleman of Larkin's species, the family lawyer, who become viscera magnorum domuum.
My duties were lighter, as adviser, than I at first apprehended. Wylder's crotchets were chiefly 'mare's nests.' We had read the draft of the settlement, preparatory to its being sent to senior counsel to be approved. Wylder's attorney had done his devoir, and Mr. Larkin avowed a sort of parental interest in both parties to the indentures, and made, at closing, a little speech, very high in morality, and flavoured in a manly way with religion, and congratulated Mark on his honour and plain dealing, which he gave us to understand were the secrets of all success in life, as they had been, in an humble way of his own.