Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XLIV


Certainly Stanley Lake was right about Redman's Dell. Once the sun had gone down behind the distant hills, it was the darkest, the most silent, and the most solitary of nooks.

It was not, indeed, quite dark yet. The upper sky had still a faint gray twilight halo, and the stars looked wan and faint. But the narrow walk that turned from Redman's Dell was always dark in Stanley's memory; and Sadducees, although they believe neither in the resurrection nor the judgment, are no more proof than other men against the resurrections of memory and the penalties of association and of fear.

Captain Lake had many things to think of. Some pleasant enough as he measured pleasure, others troublesome. But as he mounted the stone steps that conducted the passenger up the steep acclivity to the upper level of the dark and narrow walk he was pursuing, one black sorrow met him and blotted out all the rest.

Captain Lake knew very well and gracefully practised the art of not seeing inconvenient acquaintances in the street. But here in this narrow way there met him full a hated shadow whom he would fain have 'cut,' by looking to right or left, or up or down, but which was not to be evaded—would not only have his salutation but his arm, and walked—a horror of great darkness, by his side—through this solitude.

Committed to a dreadful game, in which the stakes had come to exceed anything his wildest fears could have anticipated, from which he could not, according to his own canons, by any imaginable means recede—here was the spot where the dreadful battle had been joined, and his covenant with futurity sealed.

The young captain stood for a moment still on reaching the upper platform. A tiny brook that makes its way among briars and shingle to the more considerable mill-stream of Redman's Dell, sent up a hoarse babbling from the darkness beneath. Why exactly he halted there he could not have said. He glanced over his shoulder down the steps he had just scaled. Had there been light his pale face would have shown just then a malign anxiety, such as the face of an ill-conditioned man might wear, who apprehends danger of treading on a snake.

He walked on, however, without quickening his pace, waving very slightly from side to side his ebony walking-cane—thin as a pencil—as if it were a wand to beckon away the unseen things that haunt the darkness; and now he came upon the wider plateau, from which, the close copse receding, admitted something more of the light, faint as it was, that lingered in the heavens.

A tall gray stone stands in the centre of this space. There had once been a boundary and a stile there. Stanley knew it very well, and was not startled as the attorney was the other night when he saw it. As he approached this, some one said close in his ear,

'I beg your pardon, Master Stanley.'

He cowered down with a spring, as I can fancy a man ducking under a round-shot, and glanced speechlessly, and still in his attitude of recoil, upon the speaker.

'It's only me, Master Stanley—your poor old Tamar. Don't be afraid, dear.'

'I'm not afraid—woman. Tamar to be sure—why, of course, I know you; but what the devil brings you here?' he said.

Tamar was dressed just as she used to be when sitting in the open air at her knitting, except that over her shoulders she had a thin gray shawl. On her head was the same close linen nightcap, borderless and skull-like, and she laid her shrivelled, freckled hand upon his arm, and looking with an earnest and fearful gaze in his face she said—

'It has been on my mind this many a day to speak to you, Master Stanley; but whenever I meant to, summat came over me, and I couldn't.'

'Well, well, well,' said Lake, uneasily; 'I mean to call to-morrow, or next day, or some day soon, at Redman's Farm. I'll hear it then; this is no place, you know, Tamar, to talk in; besides I'm pressed for time, and can't stay now to listen.'

'There's no place like this, Master Stanley; it's so awful secret,' she said, with her hand still upon his arm.

'Secret! Why one place is as well as another; and what the devil have I to do with secrets? I tell you, Tamar, I'm in haste and can't stay. I won't stay. There!'

'Master Stanley, for the love of Heaven—you know what I'm going to speak of; my old bones have carried me here—'tis years since I walked so far. I'd walk till I dropped to reach you—but I'd say what's on my mind, 'tis like a message from heaven—and I must speak—aye, dear, I must.'

'But I say I can't stay. Who made you a prophet? You used not to be a fool, Tamar; when I tell you I can't, that's enough.'

Tamar did not move her fingers from the sleeve of his coat, on which they rested, and that thin pressure mysteriously detained him.

'See, Master Stanley, if I don't say it to you, I must to another,' she said.

'You mean to threaten me, woman,' said he with a pale, malevolent look.

'I'm threatening nothing but the wrath of God, who hears us.'

'Unless you mean to do me an injury, Tamar, I don't know what else you mean,' he answered, in a changed tone.

'Old Tamar will soon be in her coffin, and this night far in the past, like many another, and 'twill be everything to you, one day, for weal or woe, to hearken to her words now, Master Stanley.'

'Why, Tamar, haven't I told you I'm ready to listen to you. I'll go and see you—upon my honour I will—to-morrow, or next day, at the Dell; what's the good of stopping me here?'

'Because, Master Stanley, something told me 'tis the best place; we're quiet, and you're more like to weigh my words here—and you'll be alone for a while after you leave me, and can ponder my advice as you walk home by the path.'

'Well, whatever it is, I suppose it won't take very long to say—let us walk on to the stone there, and then I'll stop and hear it—but you must not keep me all night,' he said, very peevishly.

It was only twenty steps further on, and the woods receded round it, so as to leave an irregular amphitheatre of some sixty yards across; and Captain Lake, glancing from the corners of his eyes, this way and that, without raising or turning his face, stopped listlessly at the time-worn white stone, and turning to the old crone, who was by his side, he said,

'Well, then, you have your way; but speak low, please, if you have anything unpleasant to say.'

Tamar laid her hand upon his arm again; and the old woman's face afforded Stanley Lake no clue to the coming theme. Its expression was quite as usual—not actually discontent or peevishness, but crimped and puckered all over with unchanging lines of anxiety and suffering. Neither was there any flurry in her manner—her bony arm and discoloured hand, once her fingers lay upon his sleeve, did not move—only she looked very earnestly in his face as she spoke.

'You'll not be angry, Master Stanley, dear? though if you be, I can't help it, for I must speak. I've heard it all—I heard you and Miss Radie speak on the night you first came to see her, after your sickness; and I heard you speak again, by my room door, only a week before your marriage, when you thought I was asleep. So I've heard it all—and though I mayn't understand all the ins and outs on't, I know it well in the main. Oh, Master Stanley, Master Stanley! How can you go on with it?'

'Come, Tamar, what do you want of me? What do you mean? What the d— is it all about?'

'Oh! well you know, Master Stanley, what it's about.'

'Well, there is something unpleasant, and I suppose you have heard a smattering of it in your muddled way; but it is quite plain you don't in the least understand it, when you fancy I can do anything to serve anyone in the smallest degree connected with that disagreeable business—or that I am personally in the least to blame in it; and I can't conceive what business you had listening at the keyhole to your mistress and me, nor why I am wasting my time talking to an old woman about my affairs, which she can neither understand nor take part in.'

'Master Stanley, it won't do. I heard it—I could not help hearing. I little thought you had any such matter to speak—and you spoke so sudden like, I could not help it. You were angry, and raised your voice. What could old Tamar do? I heard it all before I knew where I was.'

'I really think, Tamar, you've taken leave of your wits—you are quite in the clouds. Come, Tamar, tell me, once for all—only drop your voice a little, if you please—what the plague has got into your old head. Come, I say, what is it?'

He stooped and leaned his ear to Tamar; and when she had done, he laughed. The laugh, though low, sounded wild and hollow in that dark solitude.

'Really, dear Tamar, you must excuse my laughing. You dear old witch, how the plague could you take any such frightful nonsense into your head? I do assure you, upon my honour, I never heard of so ridiculous a blunder. Only that I know you are really fond of us, I should never speak to you again. I forgive you. But listen no more to other people's conversation. I could tell you how it really stands now, only I have not time; but you'll take my word of honour for it, you have made the most absurd mistake that ever an old fool tumbled into. No, Tamar, I can't stay any longer now; but I'll tell you the whole truth when next I go down to Redman's Farm. In the meantime, you must not plague poor Miss Radie with your nonsense. She has too much already to trouble her, though of quite another sort. Good-night, foolish old Tamar.'

'Oh, Master Stanley, it will take a deal to shake my mind; and if it be so, as I say, what's to be done next—what's to be done—oh, what is to be done?'

'I say good-night, old Tamar; and hold your tongue, do you see?'

'Oh, Master Stanley, Master Stanley! my poor child—my child that I nursed!—anything would be better than this. Sooner or later judgment will overtake you, so sure as you persist in it. I heard what Miss Radie said; and is not it true—is not it cruel—is not it frightful to go on?'

'You don't seem to be aware, my good Tamar, that you have been talking slander all this while, and might be sent to gaol for it. There, I'm not angry—only you're a fool. Good-night.'

He shook her hand, and jerked it from him with suppressed fury, passing on with a quickened pace. And as he glided through the dark, towards splendid old Brandon, he ground his teeth, and uttered two or three sentences which no respectable publisher would like to print.


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