AN EVIL EYE LOOKS ON THE VICAR.
There were influences of a wholly unsuspected kind already gathering round the poor vicar, William Wylder; as worlds first begin in thinnest vapour, and whirl themselves in time into consistency and form, so do these dark machinations, which at times gather round unsuspecting mortals as points of revolution, begin nebulously and intangibly, and grow in volume and in density, till a colossal system, with its inexorable tendencies and forces, crushes into eternal darkness the centre it has enveloped.
Thou shalt not covet; thou shalt not cast an eye of desire; out of the heart proceed murders;—these dreadful realities shape themselves from so filmy a medium as thought!
Ever since his conference with the vicar, good Mr. Larkin had been dimly thinking of a thing. The good attorney's weakness was money. It was a speck at first; a metaphysical microscope of no conceivable power could have developed its exact shape and colour—a mere speck, floating, as it were, in a transparent kyst, in his soul—a mere germ—by-and-by to be an impish embryo, and ripe for action. When lust hath conceived it bringeth forth sin, and sin when it is finished bringeth forth death.
The vicar's troubles grew and gathered, as such troubles will; and the attorney gave him his advice; and the business of the Rev. William Wylder gradually came to occupy a good deal of his time. Here was a new reason for wishing to know really how Mark Wylder stood. William had undoubtedly the reversion of the estate; but the attorney suspected sometimes—just from a faint phrase which had once escaped Stanley Lake—as the likeliest solution, that Mark Wylder had made a left-handed marriage somehow and somewhere, and that a subterranean wife and family would emerge at an unlucky moment, and squat upon that remainder, and defy the world to disturb them. This gave to his plans and dealings in relation to the vicar a character of irresolution and caprice foreign to his character, which was grim and decided enough when his data were clear, and his object in sight.
William Wylder, meanwhile, was troubled, and his mind clouded by more sorrows than one.
Poor William Wylder had those special troubles which haunt nervous temperaments and speculative minds, when under the solemn influence of religion. What the great Luther called, without describing them, his 'tribulations'—those dreadful doubts and apathies which at times menace and darken the radiant fabric of faith, and fill the soul with nameless horrors. The worst of these is, that unlike other troubles, they are not always safely to be communicated to those who love us best. These terrors and dubitations are infectious. Other spiritual troubles, too, there are; and I suppose our good vicar was not exempt from them any more than other Christians.
The best man, the simplest man that ever lived, has his reserves. The conscious frailty of mortality owes that sad reverence to itself, and to the esteem of others. You can't be too frank and humble when you have wronged your neighbour; but keep your offences against God to yourself, and let your battle with your own heart be waged under the eye of Him alone. The frankness of the sentimental Jean Jacques Rousseau, and of my coarse friend, Mark Wylder, is but a damnable form of vicious egotism. A miserable sinner have I been, my friend, but details profit neither thee nor me. The inner man had best be known only to himself and his Maker. I like that good and simple Welsh parson, of Beaumaris, near two hundred years ago, who with a sad sort of humour, placed for motto under his portrait, done in stained glass, nunc primum transparui.
But the spiritual tribulation which came and went was probably connected with the dreadful and incessant horrors of his money trouble. The gigantic Brocken spectre projected from himself upon the wide horizon of his futurity.
The poor vicar! He felt his powers forsaking him. Hope, the life of action, was gone. Despair is fatalism, and can't help itself. The inevitable mountain was always on his shoulders. He could not rise—he could not stir. He could scarcely turn his head and look up beseechingly from the corners of his eyes.
Why is that fellow so supine? Why is his work so ill done, when he ought most to exert himself? He disgusts the world with his hang-dog looks. Alas! with the need for action, the power of action is gone. Despair—distraction—the Furies sit with him. Stunned, stupid, and wild—always agitated—it is not easy to compose his sermons as finely as heretofore. He is always jotting down little sums in addition and subtraction. The cares of the world—the miseries of what the world calls 'difficulties' and a 'struggle'—these were for the poor vicar;—the worst torture, for aught we know, which an average soul out of hell can endure. Other sorrows bear healing on their wings;—this one is the Promethean vulture. It is a falling into the hands of men, not of God. The worst is, that its tendencies are so godless. It makes men bitter; its promptings are blasphemous. Wherefore, He who knew all things, in describing the thorns which choke the word, places the cares of this world first, and after them the deceitfulness of riches and the lusts of other things. So if money is a root of evil, the want of it, with debt, is root, and stem, and branches.
But all human pain has its intervals of relief. The pain is suspended, and the system recruits itself to endure the coming paroxysm. An hour of illusion—an hour of sleep—an hour's respite of any sort, to six hours of pain—and so the soul, in anguish, finds strength for its long labour, abridged by neither death nor madness.
The vicar, with his little boy, Fairy, by the hand, used twice, at least, in the week to make, sometimes an hour's, sometimes only half an hours, visit at Redman's Farm. Poor Rachel Lake made old Tamar sit at her worsteds in the window of the little drawing-room while these conversations proceeded. The young lady was so intelligent that William Wylder was obliged to exert himself in controversy with her eloquent despair; and this combat with the doubts and terrors of a mind of much more than ordinary vigour and resource, though altogether feminine, compelled him to bestir himself, and so, for the time, found him entire occupation; and thus memory and forecast, and suspense, were superseded, for the moment, by absorbing mental action.
Rachel's position had not been altered by her brother's marriage. Dorcas had urged her earnestly to give up Redman's Farm, and take up her abode permanently at Brandon. This kindness, however, she declined. She was grateful, but no, nothing could move her. The truth was, she recoiled from it with a species of horror.
The marriage had been, after all, as great a surprise to Rachel as to any of the Gylingden gossips. Dorcas, knowing how Rachel thought upon it, had grown reserved and impenetrable upon the subject; indeed, at one time, I think, she had half made up her mind to fight the old battle over again and resolutely exercise this fatal passion. She had certainly mystified Rachel, perhaps was mystifying herself.
Rachel grew more sad and strange than ever after this marriage. I think that Stanley was right, and that living in that solitary and darksome dell helped to make her hypochondriac.
One evening Stanley Lake stood at her door.
'I was just thinking, dear Radie,' he said in his sweet low tones, which to her ear always bore a suspicion of mockery in them, 'how pretty you contrive to make this bright little garden at all times of the year—you have such lots of those evergreens, and ivy, and those odd flowers.'
'They call them immortelles in France,' said Rachel, in a cold strange tone, 'and make chaplets of them to lay upon the coffin-lids and the graves.'
'Ah, yes, to be sure, I have seen them there and in Père la Chaise—so they do; they have them in all the cemeteries—I forgot that. How cheerful; how very sensible. Don't you think it would be a good plan to stick up a death's-head and cross-bones here and there, and to split up old coffin-lids for your setting-sticks, and get old Mowlders, the sexton, to bury your roots, and cover them in with a "dust to dust," and so forth, and plant a yew tree in the middle, and stick those bits of painted board, that look so woefully like gravestones, all round it, and then let old Tamar prowl about for a ghost? I assure you, Radie, I think you, all to nothing, the perversest fool I ever encountered or heard of in the course of my life.'
'Well, Stanley, suppose you do, I'll not dispute it. Perhaps you are right,' said Rachel, still standing at the door of her little porch.
'Perhaps,' he repeated with a sneer; 'I venture to say, most positively, I can't conceive any sane reason for your refusing Dorcas's entreaty to live with us at Brandon, and leave this triste, and unwholesome, and everyway objectionable place.'
'She was very kind, but I can't do it.'
'Yes, you can't do it, simply because it would be precisely the most sensible, prudent, and comfortable arrangement you could possibly make; you won't do it—but you can and will practise all the airs and fooleries of a bad melodrama. You have succeeded already in filling Dorcas's mind with surmise and speculation, and do you think the Gylingden people are either blind or dumb? You are taking, I've told you again and again, the very way to excite attention and gossip. What good can it possibly do you? You'll not believe until it happens, and when it does, you'd give your eyes you could undo it. It is so like you.'
'I have said how very kind I thought it of Dorcas to propose it. I can't explain to her all my reasons for declining; and to you I need not. But I cannot overcome my repugnance—and I won't try.'
'I wonder,' said Stanley, with a sly look of enquiry, 'that you who read the Bible—and a very good book it is no doubt—and believe in all sorts of things—'
'That will do, Stanley. I'm not so weak as you suppose.'
'You know, Radie, I'm a Sadducee and that sort of thing does not trouble me the least in the world. It is a little cold here. May we go into the drawing-room? You can't think how I hate this—house. We are always unpleasant in it.'
This auspicious remark he made taking off his hat, and placing it and his cane on her work-table.
But this was not a tempestuous conference by any means. I don't know precisely what they talked about. I think it was probably the pros and cons of that migration to Brandon, against which Rachel had pronounced so firmly.
'I can't do it, Stanley. My motives are unintelligible to you, I know, and you think me obstinate and stupid; but, be I what I may, my objections are insurmountable. And does it not strike you that my staying here, on the contrary, would—would tend to prevent the kind of conversation you speak of?'
'Not the least, dear Radie—that is, I mean, it could have no possible effect, unless the circumstances were first supposed, and then it could be of no appreciable use. And your way of life and your looks—for both are changed—are likely, in a little prating village, where every human being is watched and discussed incessantly, to excite conjecture; that is all, and that is every thing.'
It had grown dark while Stanley sat in the little drawing-room, and Rachel stood on her doorstep, and saw his figure glide away slowly into the thin mist and shadow, and turn upward to return to Brandon, by that narrow ravine where they had held rendezvous with Mark Wylder, on that ill-omened night when trouble began for all.
To Rachel's eyes, that disappearing form looked like the moping spirit of guilt and regret, haunting the scene of the irrevocable.
When Stanley took his leave after one of these visits—stolen visits, somehow, they always seemed to her—the solitary mistress of Redman's Farm invariably experienced the nervous reaction which follows the artificial calm of suppressed excitement. Something of panic or horror, relieved sometimes by a gush of tears—sometimes more slowly and painfully subsiding without that hysterical escape.
She went in and shut the door, and called Tamar. But Tamar was out of the way. She hated that little drawing-room in her present mood—its associations were odious and even ghastly; so she sat herself down by the kitchen fire, and placed her pretty feet—cold now—upon the high steel fender, and extended her cold hands towards the embers, leaning back in her rude chair.
And so she got the girl to light candles, and asked her a great many questions, and obliged her, in fact, to speak constantly though she seemed to listen but little. And when at last the girl herself, growing interested in her own narrative about a kidnapper, grew voluble and animated, and looked round upon the young lady at the crisis of the tale, she was surprised to remark, on a sudden, that she was gazing vacantly into the bars; and when Margery, struck by her fixed and melancholy countenance, stopped in the midst of a sentence, the young lady turned and gazed on her wistfully, with large eyes and pale face, and sighed heavily.