LARCOM, THE BUTLER, VISITS THE ATTORNEY.
Now I may as well mention here an occurrence which, seeming very insignificant, has yet a bearing upon the current of this tale, and it is this. About four days after the receipt of the despatches to which the conference of Captain Lake and the attorney referred, there came a letter from the same prolific correspondent, dated 20th March, from Genoa, which altogether puzzled Mr. Larkin. It commenced thus:—
'Genoa: 20th march.
'DEAR LARKIN,—I hope you did the three commissions all right. Wealdon won't refuse, I reckon—but don't let Lake guess what the 150l. is for. Pay Martin for the job when finished; it is under 60l.. mind; and get it looked at first.'
There was a great deal more, but these were the passages which perplexed Larkin. He unlocked the iron safe, and took out the sheaf of Wylder's letters, and conned the last one over very carefully.
'Why,' said he, holding the text before his eyes in one hand and with the fingers of the other touching the top of his bald forehead, 'Tom Wealdon is not once mentioned in this, nor in any of them; and this palpably refers to some direction. And 150l.?—no such sum has been mentioned. And what is this job of Martin's? Is it Martin of the China Kilns, or Martin of the bank? That, too, plainly refers to a former letter—not a word of the sort. This is very odd indeed.'
Larkin's finger-tips descended over his eyebrow, and scratched in a miniature way there for a few seconds, and then his large long hand descended further to his chin, and his under-lip was, as usual in deep thought, fondled and pinched between his finger and thumb.
'There has plainly been a letter lost, manifestly. I never knew anything wrong in this Gylingden office. Driver has been always correct; but it is hard to know any man for certain in this world. I don't think the captain would venture anything so awfully hazardous. I really can't suspect so monstrous a thing; but, unquestionably, a letter has been lost—and who's to take it?'
Larkin made a fuller endorsement than usual on this particular letter, and ruminated over the correspondence a good while, with his lip between his finger and thumb, and a shadow on his face, before he replaced it in its iron drawer.
'It is not a thing to be passed over,' murmured the attorney, who had come to a decision as to the first step to be taken, and he thought with a qualm of the effect of one of Wylder's confidential notes getting into Captain Lake's hands.
While he was buttoning his walking boots, with his foot on the chair before the fire, a tap at his study door surprised him. A hurried glance on the table satisfying him that no secret paper or despatch lay there, he called—
And Mr. Larcom, the grave butler of Brandon, wearing outside his portly person a black garment then known as a 'zephyr,' a white choker, and black trousers, and well polished, but rather splay shoes, and, on the whole, his fat and serious aspect considered, being capable of being mistaken for a church dignitary, or at least for an eminent undertaker, entered the room with a solemn and gentlemanlike reverence.
'Oh, Mr. Larcom! a message, or business?' said Mr. Larkin, urbanely.
'Not a message, Sir; only an enquiry about them few shares,' answered Mr. Larcom, with another serene reverence, and remaining standing, hat in hand, at the door.
'Oh, yes; and how do you do, Mr. Larcom? Quite well, I trust. Yes—about the Naunton Junction. Well, I'm happy to tell you—but pray take a chair—that I have succeeded, and the directors have allotted you five shares; and it's your own fault if you don't make two ten-and-six a share. The Chowsleys are up to six and a-half, I see here,' and he pointed to the 'Times.' Mr. Larcom's fat face smiled, in spite of his endeavour to keep it under. It was part of his business to look always grave, and he coughed, and recovered his gravity.
'I'm very thankful, Sir,' said Mr. Larcom, 'very.'
'But do sit down, Mr. Larcom—pray do,' said the attorney, who was very gracious to Larcom. 'You'll get the scrip, you know, on executing, but the shares are allotted. They sent the notice for you here. And—and how are the family at Brandon—all well, I trust?'
Mr. Larcom blew his nose.
'All, Sir, well.'
'And—and let me give you a glass of sherry, Mr. Larcom, after your walk. I can't compete with the Brandon sherry, Mr. Larcom. Wonderful fine wine that!—but still I'm told this is not a bad wine notwithstanding.'
Larcom received it with grave gratitude, and sipped it, and spoke respectfully of it.
'And—and any news in that quarter of Mr. Mark Wylder—any—any surmise? I—you know—I'm interested for all parties.'
'Well, Sir, of Mr. Wylder, I can't say as I know no more than he's been a subjek of much unpleasant feelin', which I should say there has been a great deal of angry talk since I last saw you, Sir, between Miss Lake and the capting.'
'Ah, yes, you mentioned something of the kind; and your own impression, that Captain Lake, which I trust may turn out to be so, knows where Mr. Mark Wylder is at present staying.'
'I much misdoubt, Sir, it won't turn out to be no good story for no one,' said Mr. Larcom, in a low and sad tone, and with a long shake of his head.
'No good story—hey? How do you mean, Larcom?'
'Well, Sir, I know you won't mention me, Mr. Larkin.'
'Certainly not—go on.'
'When people gets hot a-talking they won't mind a body comin' in; and that's how the capting and Miss Rachel Lake they carried on their dispute like, though me coming into the room.'
'Just so; and what do you found your opinion about Mr. Mark Wylder on?'
'Well, Sir, I could not hear more than a word now and a sentince again; and pickin' what meaning I could out of what Miss Lake said, and the capting could not deny, I do suspeck, Sir, most serious, as how they have put Mr. Mark Wylder into a mad-house; and that's how I think it's gone with him; an' you'll never see him out again if the capting has his will.'
'Do you mean to say you actually think he's shut up in a madhouse at this moment?' demanded the attorney; his little pink eyes opened quite round, and his lank cheeks and tall forehead flushed, at the rush of wild ideas that whirred round him, like a covey of birds at the startling suggestion.
The butler nodded gloomily. Larkin continued to stare on him in silence, with his round eyes, for some seconds after.
'In a mad-house! Pooh, pooh! incredible! Pooh! impossible—quite impossible. Did either Miss Lake or the captain use the word mad-house?'
Or any other word—lunatic asylum, or a—bedlam, or—or any other word meaning the same thing?'
'Well, I can't say, Sir, as I remember; but I rayther think not. I only know for certain, I took it so; and I do believe as how Mr. Mark Wylder is confined in a mad-house, and the captain knows all about it, and won't do nothing to get him out.'
'H'm—very odd—very strange; but it is only from the general tenor of what passed, by a sort of guess work, you have arrived at that conclusion?'
'Well, Mr. Larcom, I think you have been led into an erroneous conclusion. Indeed, I may mention I have reason to think so—in fact, to know that such is the case. What you mention to me, you know, as a friend of the family, and holding, as I do, a confidential position—in fact, a very confidential one—alike in relation to Mr. Wylder and to the family of Brandon Hall, is of course sacred; and anything that comes from you, Mr. Larcom, is never heard in connection with your name beyond these walls. And let me add, it strikes me as highly important, both in the interests of the leading individuals in this unpleasant business, and also as pertaining to your own comfort and security, that you should carefully avoid communicating what you have just mentioned to any other party. You understand?'
Larcom did understand perfectly, and so this little visit ended.
Mr. Larkin took a turn or two up and down the room thinking. He stopped, with his fingertips to his eyebrow, and thought more. Then he took another turn, and stopped again, and threw back his head, and gazed for a while on the ceiling, and then he stood for a time at the window, with his lip between his finger and thumb.
No, it was a mistake; it could not be. It was Mark Wylder's penmanship—he could swear to it. There was no trace of madness in his letters, nor of restraint. It was not possible even that he was wandering from place to place under the coercion of a couple of keepers. No; Wylder was an energetic and somewhat violent person, with high animal courage, and would be sure to blow up and break through any such machination. No, no; with Mark Wylder it was quite out of the question—altogether visionary and impracticable. Persons like Larcom do make such absurd blunders, and so misapprehend the conversation of educated people.
Nothwithstanding all which, there remained in his mind an image of Mark Wylder, in the straw and darkness of a solitary continental mad-house—squalid, neglected, and becoming gradually that which he was said to be. And he always shaped him somehow after the outlines of a grizzly print he remembered in his boyish days, of a maniac chained in a Sicilian cell, grovelling under the lash of a half-seen gaoler, and with his teeth buried in his own arm.
Quite impossible! Mark Wylder was the last man in the world to submit to physical coercion. The idea, besides, could not be reconciled with the facts of the case. It was all a blundering chimera.
Mr. Larkin walked down direct to Gylingden, and paid a rather awful visit to Mr. Driver, of the post-office. A foreign letter, addressed to him, had most positively been lost. He had called to mention the circumstance, lest Mr. Driver should be taken by surprise by official investigation. Was it possible that the letter had been sent by mistake to Brandon—to Captain Lake? Lake and Larkin, you know, might be mistaken. At all events, it would be well to make your clerks recollect themselves. (Mr. Larkin knew that Driver's 'clerks' were his daughters.) It is not easy to meet with a young fellow that is quite honest. But if they knew that they would be subjected to a sifting examination on oath, on the arrival of the commissioner, they might possibly prefer finding the letter, in which case there would be no more about it. Mr. Driver knew him (Mr. Larkin), and he might tell his young men if they got the letter for him they should hear no more of it.
The people of Gylingden knew very well that, when the rat-like glitter twinkled in Mr. Larkin's eyes, and the shadow came over his long face, there was mischief brewing.