Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter VII


I believe the best rule in telling a story is to follow events chronologically. So let me mention that just about the time when Wylder and I were filming the trunks of the old trees with wreaths of lingering perfume, Miss Rachel Lake had an unexpected visitor.

There is, near the Hall, a very pretty glen, called Redman's Dell, very steep, with a stream running at the bottom of it, but so thickly wooded that in summer time you can only now and then catch a glimpse of the water gliding beneath you. Deep in this picturesque ravine, buried among the thick shadows of tall old trees, runs the narrow mill-road, which lower down debouches on the end of the village street. There, in the transparent green shadow, stand the two mills—the old one with A.D. 1679, and the Wylder arms, and the eternal 'resurgam' projecting over its door; and higher up, on a sort of platform, the steep bank rising high behind it, with its towering old wood overhanging and surrounding, upon a site where one of king Arthur's knights, of an autumn evening, as he rode solitary in quest of adventures, might have seen the peeping, gray gable of an anchorite's chapel dimly through the gilded stems, and heard the drowsy tinkle of his vesper-bell, stands an old and small two-storied brick and timber house; and though the sun does not very often glimmer on its windows, it yet possesses an air of sad, old-world comfort—a little flower-garden lies in front with a paling round it. But not every kind of flowers will grow there, under the lordly shadow of the elms and chestnuts.

This sequestered tenement bears the name of Redman's Farm; and its occupant was that Miss Lake whom I had met last night at Brandon Hall, and whose pleasure it was to live here in independent isolation.

There she is now, busy in her tiny garden, with the birds twittering about her, and the yellow leaves falling; and her thick gauntlets on her slender hands. How fresh and pretty she looks in that sad, sylvan solitude, with the background of the dull crimson brick and the climbing roses. Bars of sunshine fall through the branches above, across the thick tapestry of blue, yellow, and crimson, that glow so richly upon their deep green ground.

There is not much to be done just now, I fancy, in the gardening way; but work is found or invented—for sometimes the hour is dull, and that bright, spirited, and at heart, it may be, bitter exile, will make out life somehow. There is music, and drawing. There are flowers, as we see, and two or three correspondents, and walks into the village; and her dark cousin, Dorcas, drives down sometimes in the pony-carriage, and is not always silent; and indeed, they are a good deal together.

This young lady's little Eden, though overshadowed and encompassed with the solemn sylvan cloister of nature's building, and vocal with sounds of innocence—the songs of birds, and sometimes those of its young mistress—was no more proof than the Mesopotamian haunt of our first parents against the intrusion of darker spirits. So, as she worked, she lifted up her eyes, and beheld a rather handsome young man standing at the little wicket of her garden, with his gloved hand on the latch. A man of fashion—a town man—his dress bespoke him: smooth cheeks, light brown curling moustache, and eyes very peculiar both in shape and colour, and something of elegance of finish in his other features, and of general grace in the coup d'oeil, struck one at a glance. He was smiling silently and slily on Rachel, who, with a little cry of surprise, said—

'Oh, Stanley! is it you?'

And before he could answer, she had thrown her arms about his neck and kissed him two or three times. Laughingly, half-resisting, the young man waited till her enthusiastic salutation was over, and with one gloved hand caressingly on her shoulder, and with the other smoothing his ruffled moustache, he laughed a little more, a quiet low laugh. He was not addicted to stormy greetings, and patted his sister's shoulder gently, his arm a little extended, like a man who tranquillises a frolicsome pony.

'Yes, Radie, you see I've found you out;' and his eye wandered, still smiling oddly, over the front of her quaint habitation.

'And how have you been, Radie?'

'Oh, very well. No life like a gardener's—early hours, work, air, and plenty of quiet.' And the young lady laughed.

'You are a wonderful lass, Radie.'

'Thank you, dear.'

'And what do you call this place?'

'"The Happy Valley," I call it. Don't you remember "Rasselas?"'

'No,' he said, looking round him; 'I don't think I was ever there.'

'You horrid dunce!—it's a book, but a stupid one—so no matter,' laughed Miss Rachel, giving him a little slap on the shoulder with her slender fingers.

His reading, you see, lay more in circulating library lore, and he was not deep in Johnson—as few of us would be, I'm afraid, if it were not for Boswell.

'It's a confounded deal more like the "Valley of the Shadow of Death," in "Pilgrim's Progress"—you remember—that old Tamar used to read to us in the nursery,' replied Master Stanley, who had never enjoyed being quizzed by his sister, not being blessed with a remarkably sweet temper.

'If you don't like my scenery, come in, Stanley, and admire my decorations. You must tell me all the news, and I'll show you my house, and amaze you with my housekeeping. Dear me, how long it is since I've seen you.'

So she led him in by the arm to her tiny drawing-room; and he laid his hat and stick, and gray paletot, on her little marquetrie-table, and sat down, and looked languidly about him, with a sly smile, like a man amused.

'It is an odd fancy, living alone here.'

'An odd necessity, Stanley.'

'Aren't you afraid of being robbed and murdered, Radie?' he said, leaning forward to smell at the pretty bouquet in the little glass, and turning it listlessly round. 'There are lots of those burglar fellows going about, you know.'

'Thank you, dear, for reminding me. But, somehow, I'm not the least afraid. There hasn't been a robbery in this neighbourhood, I believe, for eight hundred years. The people never think of shutting their doors here in summer time till they are going to bed, and then only for form's sake; and, beside, there's nothing to rob, and I really don't much mind being murdered.'

He looked round, and smiled on, as before, like a man contemptuously amused, but sleepily withal.

'You are very oddly housed, Radie.'

'I like it,' she said quietly, also with a glance round her homely drawing-room.

'What do you call this, your boudoir or parlour?'

'I call it my drawing-room, but it's anything you please.'

'What very odd people our ancestors were,' he mused on. 'They lived, I suppose, out of doors like the cows, and only came into their sheds at night, when they could not see the absurd ugliness of the places they inhabited. I could not stand upright in this room with my hat on. Lots of rats, I fancy, Radie, behind that wainscoting? What's that horrid work of art against the wall?'

'A shell-work cabinet, dear. It is not beautiful, I allow. If I were strong enough, or poor old Tamar, I should have put it away; and now that you're here, Stanley, I think I'll make you carry it out to the lobby for me.'

'I should not like to touch it, dear Radie. And pray how do you amuse yourself here? How on earth do you get over the day, and, worse still, the evenings?'

'Very well—well enough. I make a very good sort of a nun, and a capital housemaid. I work in the garden, I mend my dresses, I drink tea, and when I choose to be dissipated, I play and sing for old Tamar—why did not you ask how she is? I do believe, Stanley, you care for no one, but' (she was going to say yourself, she said instead, however, but) 'perhaps, the least in the world for me, and that not very wisely,' she continued, a little fiercely, 'for from the moment you saw me, you've done little else than try to disgust me more than I am with my penury and solitude. What do you mean? You always have a purpose—will you ever learn to be frank and straightforward, and speak plainly to those whom you ought to trust, if not to love? What are you driving at, Stanley?'

He looked up with a gentle start, like one recovering from a reverie, and said, with his yellow eyes fixed for a moment on his sister, before they dropped again to the carpet.

'You're miserably poor, Rachel: upon my word, I believe you haven't clear two hundred a year. I'll drink some tea, please, if you have got any, and it isn't too much trouble; and it strikes me as very curious you like living in this really very humiliating state.'

'I don't intend to go out for a governess, if that's what you mean; nor is there any privation in living as I do. Perhaps you think I ought to go and housekeep for you.'

'Why—ha, ha!—I really don't know, Radie, where I shall be. I'm not of any regiment now.'

'Why, you have not sold out?' She flushed and suddenly grew pale, for she was afraid something worse might have happened, having no great confidence in her brother.

But she was relieved.

'I have sold my commission.'

She looked straight at him with large eyes and compressed lips, and nodded her head two or three times, just murmuring, 'Well! well! well!'

'Women never understand these things. The army is awfully expensive—I mean, of course, a regiment like ours; and the interest of the money is better to me than my pay; and see, Rachel, there's no use in lecturing me—so don't let us quarrel. We're not very rich, you and I; and we each know our own affairs, you yours, and I mine, best.'

There was something by no means pleasant in his countenance when his temper was stirred, and a little thing sometimes sufficed to do so.

Rachel treated him with a sort of deference, a little contemptuous perhaps, such as spoiled children receive from indulgent elders; and she looked at him steadily, with a faint smile and arched brows, for a little while, and an undefinable expression of puzzle and curiosity.

'You are a very amusing brother—if not a very cheery or a very useful one, Stanley.'

She opened the door, and called across the little hall into the homely kitchen of the mansion.

'Tamar, dear, Master Stanley's here, and wishes to see you.'

'Oh! yes, poor dear old Tamar; ha, ha!' says the gentleman, with a gentle little laugh, 'I suppose she's as frightful as ever, that worthy woman. Certainly she is awfully like a ghost. I wonder, Radie, you're not afraid of her at night in this cheerful habitation. I should, I know.'

'A ghost indeed, the ghost of old times, an ugly ghost enough for many of us. Poor Tamar! she was always very kind to you, Stanley.'

And just then old Tamar opened the door. I must allow there was something very unpleasant about that worthy old woman; and not being under any personal obligations to her, I confess my acquiescence in the spirit of Captain Lake's remarks.

She was certainly perfectly neat and clean, but white predominated unpleasantly in her costume. Her cotton gown had once had a pale pattern over it, but wear and washing had destroyed its tints, till it was no better than white, with a mottling of gray. She had a large white kerchief pinned with a grisly precision across her breast, and a white linen cap tied under her chin, fitting close to her head, like a child's nightcap, such as they wore in my young days, and destitute of border or frilling about the face. It was a dress very odd and unpleasant to behold, and suggested the idea of an hospital, or a madhouse, or death, in an undefined way.

She was past sixty, with a mournful puckered and puffy face, tinted all over with a thin gamboge and burnt sienna glazing; and very blue under the eyes, which showed a great deal of their watery whites. This old woman had in her face and air, along with an expression of suspicion and anxiety, a certain character of decency and respectability, which made her altogether a puzzling and unpleasant apparition.

Being taciturn and undemonstrative, she stood at the door, looking with as pleased a countenance as so sad a portrait could wear upon the young gentleman.

He got up at his leisure and greeted 'old Tamar,' with his sleepy, amused sort of smile, and a few trite words of kindness. So Tamar withdrew to prepare tea; and he said, all at once, with a sudden accession of energy, and an unpleasant momentary glare in his eyes—

'You know, Rachel, this sort of thing is all nonsense. You cannot go on living like this; you must marry—you shall marry. Mark Wylder is down here, and he has got an estate and a house, and it is time he should marry you.'

'Mark Wylder is here to marry my cousin, Dorcas; and if he had no such intention, and were as free as you are, and again to urge his foolish suit upon his knees, Stanley, I would die rather than accept him.'

'It was not always so foolish a suit, Radie,' answered her brother, his eyes once more upon the carpet. 'Why should not he do as well as another? You liked him well enough once.'

The young lady coloured rather fiercely.

'I am not a girl of seventeen now, Stanley; and—and, besides, I hate him.'

'What d—d nonsense! I really beg your pardon, Radie, but it is precious stuff. You are quite unreasonable; you've no cause to hate him; he dropped you because you dropped him. It was only prudent; he had not a guinea. But now it is different, and he must marry you.'

The young lady stared with a haughty amazement upon her brother.

'I've made up my mind to speak to him; and if he won't I promise you he shall leave the country,' said the young man gently, just lifting his yellow eyes for a second with another unpleasant glare.

'I almost think you're mad, Stanley; and if you do anything so insane, sure I am you'll rue it while you live; and wherever he is I'll find him out, and acquit myself, with the scorn I owe him, of any share in a plot so unspeakably mean and absurd.'

'Brava, brava! you're a heroine, Radie; and why the devil,' he continued, in a changed tone, 'do you apply those insolent terms to what I purpose doing?'

'I wish I could find words strong enough to express my horror of your plot—a plot every way disgusting. You plainly know something to Mark Wylder's discredit; and you mean, Stanley, to coerce him by fear into a marriage with your penniless sister, who hates him. Sir, do you pretend to be a gentleman?'

'I rather think so,' he said, with a quiet sneer.

'Give up every idea of it this moment. Has it not struck you that Mark Wylder may possibly know something of you, you would not have published?'

'I don't think he does. What do you mean?'

'On my life, Stanley, I'll acquaint Mr. Wylder this evening with what you meditate, and the atrocious liberty you presume—yes, Sir, though you are my brother, the atrocious liberty you dare to take with my name—unless you promise, upon your honour, now and here, to dismiss for ever the odious and utterly resultless scheme.'

Captain Lake looked very angry after his fashion, but said nothing. He could not at any time have very well defined his feelings toward his sister, but mingling in them, certainly, was a vein of unacknowledged dread, and, shall I say, respect. He knew she was resolute, fierce of will, and prompt in action, and not to be bullied.

'There's more in this, Stanley, than you care to tell me. You have not troubled yourself a great deal about me, you know: and I'm no worse off now than any time for the last three years. You've not come down here on my account—that is, altogether; and be your plans what they may, you sha'n't mix my name in them. What you please—wise or foolish—you'll do in what concerns yourself;—you always have—without consulting me; but I tell you again, Stanley, unless you promise, upon your honour, to forbear all mention of my name, I will write this evening to Lady Chelford, apprising her of your plans, and of my own disgust and indignation; and requesting her son's interference. Do you promise?'

'There's no such haste, Radie. I only mentioned it. If you don't like it, of course it can lead to nothing, and there's no use in my speaking to Wylder, and so there's an end of it.'

'There may be some use, a purpose in which neither my feelings nor interests have any part. I venture to say, Stanley, your plans are all for yourself. You want to extort some advantage from Wylder; and you think, in his present situation, about to marry Dorcas, you can use me for the purpose. Thank Heaven! Sir, you committed for once the rare indiscretion of telling the truth; and unless you make me the promise I require, I will take, before evening, such measures as will completely exculpate me. Once again, do you promise?'

'Yes, Radie; ha, ha! of course I promise.'

'Upon your honour?'

'Upon my honour—there.'

'I believe, you gentlemen dragoons observe that oath—I hope so. If you choose to break it you may give me some trouble, but you sha'n't compromise me. And now, Stanley, one word more. I fancy Mr. Wylder is a resolute man—none of the Wylders wanted courage.'

Captain Lake was by this time smiling his sly, sleepy smile upon his French boots.

'If you have formed any plan which depends upon frightening him, it is a desperate one. All I can tell you, Stanley, is this, that if I were a man, and an attempt made to extort from me any sort of concession by terror, I would shoot the miscreant who made it through the head, like a highwayman.'

'What the devil are you talking about?' said he.

'About your danger,' she answered. 'For once in your life listen to reason. Mark Wylder is as prompt as you, and has ten times your nerve and sense; you are more likely to have committed yourself than he. Take care; he may retaliate your threat by a counter move more dreadful. I know nothing of your doings, Stanley—Heaven forbid! but be warned, or you'll rue it.'

'Why, Radie, you know nothing of the world. Do you suppose I'm quite demented? Ask a gentleman for his estate, or watch, because I know something to his disadvantage! Why, ha, ha! dear Radie, every man who has ever been on terms of intimacy with another must know things to his disadvantage, but no one thinks of telling them. The world would not tolerate it. It would prejudice the betrayer at least as much as the betrayed. I don't affect to be angry, or talk romance and heroics, because you fancy such stuff; but I assure you—when will that old woman give me a cup of tea?—I assure you, Radie, there's nothing in it.'

Rachel made no reply, but she looked steadfastly and uneasily upon the enigmatical face and downcast eyes of the young man.

'Well, I hope so,' she said at last, with a sigh, and a slight sense of relief.


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