IN WHICH LAKE UNDER THE TREES OF BRANDON, AND I IN MY CHAMBER, SMOKE OUR NOCTURNAL CIGARS.
Miss Lake declined the carriage to-night. Her brother was to see her home, and there was a leave-taking, and the young ladies whispered a word or two, and kissed, after the manner of their kind. To Captain Lake, Miss Brandon's adieux were as cold and haughty as her greeting.
'Did you see that?' said Wylder in my ear, with a chuckle; and, wagging his head, he added, rather loftily for him, 'Miss Brandon, I reckon, has taken your measure, Master Stanley, as well as I. I wonder what the deuce the old dowager sees in him. Old women always like rascals.'
And he added something still less complimentary.
I suppose the balance of attraction and repulsion was overcome by Miss Lake, much as he disliked Stanley, for Wylder followed them out with Lord Chelford, to help the young lady into her cloak and goloshes, and I found myself near Miss Brandon for the first time that evening, and much to my surprise she was first to speak, and that rather strangely.
'You seem to be very sensible, Mr. De Cresseron; pray tell me, frankly, what do you think of all this?'
'I am not quite sure, Miss Brandon, that I understand your question,' I replied, enquiringly.
'I mean of the—the family arrangements, in which, as Mr. Wylder's friend, you seem to take an interest?' she said.
'There can hardly be a second opinion, Miss Brandon; I think it a very wise measure,' I replied, much surprised.
'Very wise—exactly. But don't these very wise things sometimes turn out very foolishly? Do you really think your friend, Mr. Wylder, cares about me?'
'I take that for granted: in the nature of things it can hardly be otherwise,' I replied, a good deal startled and perplexed by the curious audacity of her interrogatory.
'It was very foolish of me to expect from Mr. Wylder's friend any other answer; you are very loyal, Mr. De Cresseron.'
And without awaiting my reply she made some remark which I forget to Lady Chelford, who sat at a little distance; and, appearing quite absorbed in her new subject, she placed herself close beside the dowager, and continued to chat in a low tone.
I was vexed with myself for having managed with so little skill a conversation which, opened so oddly and frankly, might have placed me on relations so nearly confidential, with that singular and beautiful girl. I ought to have rejoiced—but we don't always see what most concerns our peace. In the meantime I had formed a new idea of her. She was so unreserved, it seemed, and yet in this directness there was something almost contemptuous.
By this time Lord Chelford and Wylder returned; and, disgusted rather with myself, I ruminated on my want of general-ship.
In the meantime, Miss Lake, with her hand on her brother's arm, was walking swiftly under the trees of the back avenue towards that footpath which, through wild copse and broken clumps near the park, emerges upon the still darker road which passes along the wooded glen by the mills, and skirts the little paling of the recluse lady's garden.
They had not walked far, when Lake suddenly said—
'What do you think of all this, Radie—this particular version, I mean, of marriage, à-la-mode, they are preparing up there?' and he made a little dip of his cane towards Brandon Hall, over his shoulder. 'I really don't think Wylder cares twopence about her, or she about him,' and Stanley Lake laughed gently and sleepily.
'I don't think they pretend to like one another. It is quite understood. It was all, you know, old Lady Chelford's arrangement: and Dorcas is so supine, I believe she would allow herself to be given away by anyone, and to anyone, rather than be at the least trouble. She provokes me.'
'But I thought she liked Sir Harry Bracton: he's a good-looking fellow; and Queen's Bracton is a very nice thing, you know.'
'Yes, so they said; but that would, I think, have been worse. Something may be made of Mark Wylder. He has some sense and caution, has not he?—but Sir Harry is wickedness itself!'
'Why—what has Sir Harry done? That is the way you women run away with things! If a fellow's been a little bit wild, he's Beelzebub at once. Bracton's a very good fellow, I can assure you.'
The fact is, Captain Lake, an accomplished player, made a pretty little revenue of Sir Harry's billiards, which were wild and noisy; and liking his money, thought he liked himself—a confusion not uncommon.
'I don't know, and can't say, how you fine gentlemen define wickedness: only, as an obscure female, I speak according to my lights: and he is generally thought the wickedest man in this county.'
'Well, you know, Radie, women like wicked fellows: it is contrast, I suppose, but they do; and I'm sure, from what Bracton has said to me—I know him intimately—that Dorcas likes him, and I can't conceive why they are not married.'
'It is very happy, for her at least, they are not,' said Rachel, and a long silence ensued.
Their walk continued silent for the greater part, neither was quite satisfied with the other. But Rachel at last said—
'Stanley, you meditate some injury to Mark Wylder.'
'I, Radie?' he answered quietly, 'why on earth should you think so?'
'I saw you twice watch him when you thought no one observed you—and I know your face too well, Stanley, to mistake.'
'Now that's impossible, Radie; for I really don't think I once thought of him all this evening—except just while we were talking.'
'You keep your secret as usual, Stanley,' said the young lady.
'Really, Radie, you're quite mistaken. I assure you, upon my honour, I've no secret. You're a very odd girl—why won't you believe me?'
Miss Rachel only glanced across her mufflers on his face. There was a bright moonlight, broken by the shadows of overhanging boughs and withered leaves; and the mottled lights and shadows glided oddly across his pale features. But she saw that he was smiling his sly, sleepy smile, and she said quietly—
'Well, Stanley, I ask no more—but you don't deceive me.'
'I don't try to. If your feelings indeed had been different, and that you had not made such a point—you know—'
'Don't insult me, Stanley, by talking again as you did this morning. What I say is altogether on your own account. Mark my words, you'll find him too strong for you; aye, and too deep. I see very plainly that he suspects you as I do. You saw it, too, for nothing of that kind escapes you. Whatever you meditate, he probably anticipates it—you know best—and you will find him prepared. You have given him time enough. You were always the same, close, dark, and crooked, and wise in your own conceit. I am very uneasy about it, whatever it is. I can't help it. It will happen—and most ominously I feel that you are courting a dreadful retaliation, and that you will bring on yourself a great misfortune; but it is quite vain, I know, speaking to you.'
'Really, Radie, you're enough to frighten a poor fellow; you won't mind a word I say, and go on predicting all manner of mischief between me and Wylder, the very nature of which I can't surmise. Would you dislike my smoking a cigar, Radie?'
'Oh, no,' answered the young lady, with a little laugh and a heavy sigh, for she knew it meant silence, and her dark auguries grew darker.
To my mind there has always been something inexpressibly awful in family feuds. Mortal hatred seems to deepen and dilate into something diabolical in these perverted animosities. The mystery of their origin—their capacity for evolving latent faculties of crime—and the steady vitality with which they survive the hearse, and speak their deep-mouthed malignities in every new-born generation, have associated them somehow in my mind with a spell of life exceeding and distinct from human and a special Satanic action.
My chamber, as I have mentioned, was upon the third storey. It was one of many, opening upon the long gallery, which had been the scene, four generations back, of that unnatural and bloody midnight duel which had laid one scion of this ancient house in his shroud, and driven another a fugitive to the moral solitudes of a continental banishment.
Much of the day, as I told you, had been passed among the grisly records of these old family crimes and hatreds. They had been an ill-conditioned and not a happy race. When I heard the servant's step traversing that long gallery, as it seemed to the in haste to be gone, and when all grew quite silent, I began to feel a dismal sort of sensation, and lighted the pair of wax candles which I found upon the small writing table. How wonderful and mysterious is the influence of light! What sort of beings must those be who hate it?
The floor, more than anything else, showed the great age of the room. It was warped and arched all along by the wall between the door and the window. The portion of it which the carpet did not cover showed it to be oak, dark and rugged. My bed was unexceptionably comfortable, but, in my then mood, I could have wished it a great deal more modern. Its four posts were, like the rest of it, oak, well-nigh black, fantastically turned and carved, with a great urn-like capital and base, and shaped midway, like a gigantic lance-handle. Its curtains were of thick and faded tapestry. I was always a lover of such antiquities, but I confess at that moment I would have vastly preferred a sprightly modern chintz and a trumpery little French bed in a corner of the Brandon Arms. There was a great lowering press of oak, and some shelves, with withered green and gold leather borders. All the furniture belonged to other times.
I would have been glad to hear a step stirring, or a cough even, or the gabble of servants at a distance. But there was a silence and desertion in this part of the mansion which, somehow, made me feel that I was myself a solitary intruder on this level of the vast old house.
I shan't trouble you about my train of thoughts or fancies; but I began to feel very like a gentleman in a ghost story, watching experimentally in a haunted chamber. My cigar case was a resource. I was not a bit afraid of being found out. I did not even take the precaution of smoking up the chimney. I boldly lighted my cheroot. I peeped through the dense window curtain there were no shutters. A cold, bright moon was shining with clear sharp lights and shadows. Everything looked strangely cold and motionless outside. The sombre old trees, like gigantic hearse plumes, black and awful. The chapel lay full in view, where so many of the, strange and equivocal race, under whose ancient roof-tree I then stood, were lying under their tombstones.
Somehow, I had grown nervous. A little bit of plaster tumbled down the chimney, and startled me confoundedly. Then some time after, I fancied I heard a creaking step on the lobby outside, and, candle in hand, opened the door, and looked out with an odd sort of expectation, and a rather agreeable disappointment, upon vacancy.