Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XLVI


Rachel beheld the things which were coming to pass like an awful dream. She had begun to think, and not without evidence, that Dorcas, for some cause or caprice, had ceased to think of Stanley as she once did. And the announcement, without preparation or apparent courtship, that her brother had actually won this great and beautiful heiress, and that, just emerged from the shades of death, he, a half-ruined scapegrace, was about to take his place among the magnates of the county, and, no doubt, to enter himself for the bold and splendid game of ambition, the stakes of which were now in his hand, towered before her like an incredible and disastrous illusion of magic.

Stanley's uneasiness lest Rachel's conduct should compromise them increased. He grew more nervous about the relations between him and Mark Wylder, in proportion as the world grew more splendid and prosperous for him.

Where is the woman who will patiently acquiesce in the reserve of her husband who shares his confidence with another? How often had Stanley Lake sworn to her there was no secret; that he knew nothing of Mark Wylder beyond the charge of his money, and making a small payment to an old Mrs. Dutton, in London, by his direction, and that beyond this, he was as absolutely in the dark as she or Chelford.

What, then, did Rachel mean by all that escaped her, when he was in danger?

'How the — could he tell? He really believed she was a little—ever so little—crazed. He supposed she, like Dorcas, fancied he knew everything about Wylder. She was constantly hinting something of the kind; and begging of him to make a disclosure—disclosure of what? It was enough to drive one mad, and would make a capital farce. Rachel has a ridiculous way of talking like an oracle, and treating as settled fact every absurdity she fancies. She is very charming and clever, of course, so long as she speaks of the kind of thing she understands. But when she tries to talk of serious business—poor Radie! she certainly does talk such nonsense! She can't reason; she runs away with things. It is the most tiresome thing you can conceive.'

'But you have not said, Stanley, that she does not suspect the truth.'

'Of course, I say it; I have said it. I swear it, if you like. I've said plainly, and I'm ready to swear it. Upon my honour and soul I know no more of his movements, plans, or motives, than you do. If you reflect you must see it. We were never good friends, Mark and I. It was no fault of mine, but I never liked him; and he, consequently, I suppose, never liked me. There was no intimacy or confidence between us. I was the last man on earth he would have consulted with. Even Larkin, his own lawyer, is in the dark. Rachel knows all this. I have told her fifty times over, and she seems to give way at the moment. Indeed the thing is too plain to be resisted. But as I said, poor Radie, she can't reason; and by the time I see her next, her old fancy possesses her. I can't help it; because with more reluctance than I can tell, I at length consent, at Larkin's entreaty, I may say, to bank and fund his money.'

But Dorcas's mind retained its first impression. Sometimes his plausibilities, his vehemence, and his vows disturbed it for a time; but there it remained like the picture of a camera obscura, into which a momentary light has been admitted, unseen for a second, but the images return with the darkness, and group themselves in their old colours and places again. Whatever it was Rachel probably knew it. There was a painful confidence between them; and there was growing in Dorcas's mind a feeling towards Rachel which her pride forbade her to define.

She did not like Stanley's stealthy visits to Redman's Farm; she did not like his moods or looks after those visits, of which he thought she knew nothing. She did not know whether to be pleased or sorry that Rachel had refused to reside at Brandon; neither did she like the stern gloom that overcast Rachel's countenance when Stanley was in the room, nor those occasional walks together, up and down the short yew walk, in which Lake looked so cold and angry, and Rachel so earnest. What was this secret? How dared her husband mask from her what he confided to another? How dared Rachel confer with him—influence him, perhaps, under her very eye, walking before the windows of Brandon—that Brandon which was hers, and to which she had taken Stanley, passing her gate a poor and tired wayfarer of the world, and made him—what? Oh, mad caprice! Oh, fit retribution!

A wild voice was talking this way, to-and-fro, and up and down, in the chambers of memory. But she would not let it speak from her proud lips. She smiled, and to outward seeming, was the same; but Rachel felt that the fashion of her countenance towards her was changed.

Since her marriage she had not hinted to Rachel the subject of their old conversations: burning beneath her feeling about it was now a deep-rooted anger and jealousy. Still she was Stanley's sister, and to be treated accordingly. The whole household greeted her with proper respect, and Dorcas met her graciously, and with all the externals of kindness. The change was so little, that I do not think any but she and Rachel saw it; and yet it was immense.

There was a dark room, a sort of ante-room, to the library, with only two tall and narrow windows, and hung with old Dutch tapestries, representing the battles and sieges of men in periwigs, pikemen, dragoons in buff coats, and musketeers with matchlocks—all the grim faces of soldiers, generals, drummers, and the rest, grown pale and dusky by time, like armies of ghosts.

Rachel had come one morning to see Dorcas, and, awaiting her appearance, sat down in this room. The door of the library opened, and she was a little surprised to see Stanley enter.

'Why, Stanley, they told me you were gone to Naunton.'

'Oh! did they? Well, you see, I'm here, Radie.'

Somehow he was not very well pleased to see her.

'I think you'll find Dorcas in the drawing-room, or else in the conservatory,' he added.

'I am glad, Stanley, I happened to meet you. Something must be done in the matter I spoke of immediately. Have you considered it?'

'Most carefully,' said Stanley, quietly.

'But you have done nothing.'

'It is not a thing to be done in a moment.'

'You can, if you please, do a great deal in a moment'

'Certainly; but I may repent it afterwards.'

'Stanley, you may regret postponing it, much more.'

'You have no idea, Rachel, how very tiresome you've grown.'

'Yes, Stanley, I can quite understand it. It would have been better for you, perhaps for myself, I had died long ago.'

'Well, that is another thing; but in the meantime, I assure you, Rachel, you are disposed to be very impertinent.'

'Very impertinent; yes, indeed, Stanley, and so I shall continue to be until——'

'Pray how does it concern you? I say it is no business on earth of yours.'

Stanley Lake was growing angry.

'Yes, Stanley, it does concern me.'

'That is false.'

'True, true, Sir. Oh, Stanley, it is a load upon my conscience—a mountain—a mountain between me and my hopes. I can't endure the misery to which you would consign me; you shall do it—immediately, too' (she stamped wildly as she said it), 'and if you hesitate, Stanley, I shall be compelled to speak, though the thought of it makes me almost mad with terror.'

'What is he to do, Rachel?' said Dorcas, standing near the door.

It was a very awkward pause. The splendid young bride was the only person on the stage who looked very much as usual. Stanley turned his pale glare of fury from Rachel to Dorcas, and Dorcas said again,

'What is it, Rachel, darling?'

Rachel, with a bright blush on her cheeks, stepped quickly up to her, put her arms about her neck and kissed her, and over her shoulder she cried to her brother—

'Tell her, Stanley.'

And so she quickly left the room and was gone.

'Well, Dorkie, love, what's the matter?' said Stanley sharply, at last breaking the silence.

'I really don't know—you, perhaps, can tell,' answered she coldly.

'You have frightened Rachel out of the room, for one thing,' answered he with a sneer.

'I simply asked her what she urged you to do—I think I have a claim to know. It is strange so reasonable a question from a wife should scare your sister from the room.'

'I don't quite see that—for my part, I don't think anything strange in a woman. Rachel has been talking the rankest nonsense, in the most unreasonable temper conceivable; and because she can't persuade me to accept her views of what is Christian and sensible, she threatens to go mad—I think that is her phrase.'

'I don't think Rachel is a fool,' said Dorcas, quietly, her eye still upon Stanley.

'Neither do I—when she pleases to exert her good sense—but she can, when she pleases, both talk and act like a fool.'

'And pray, what does she want you to do, Stanley?'

'The merest nonsense.'

'But what is it?'

'I really can hardly undertake to say I very well understand it myself, and I have half-a-dozen letters to write; and really if I were to stay here and try to explain, I very much doubt whether I could. Why don't you ask her? If she has any clear ideas on the subject I don't see why she should not tell you. For my part, I doubt if she understands herself—I certainly don't.'

Dorcas smiled bitterly.

'Mystery already—mystery from the first. I am to know nothing of your secrets. You confer and consult in my house—you debate and decide upon matters most nearly concerning, for aught I know, my interests and my happiness—certainly deeply affecting you, and therefore which I have a right to know; and my entering the room is the signal for silence—a guilty silence—for departure and for equivocation. Stanley, you are isolating me. Beware—I may entrench myself in that isolation. You are choosing your confidant, and excluding me; rest assured you shall have no confidence of mine while you do so.'

Stanley Lake looked at her with a gaze at once peevish and inquisitive.

'You take a wonderfully serious view of Rachel's nonsense.'

'I do.'

'Certainly, you women have a marvellous talent for making mountains of molehills—you and Radie are adepts in the art. Never was a poor devil so lectured about nothing as I between you. Come now, Dorkie, be a good girl—you must not look so vexed.'

'I'm not vexed.'

'What then?'

'I'm only thinking.'

She said this with the same bitter smile. Stanley Lake looked for a moment disposed to break into one of his furies, but instead he only laughed his unpleasant laugh.

'Well, I'm thinking too, and I find it quite possible to be vexed at the same time. I assure you, Dorcas, I really am busy; and it is too bad to have one's time wasted in solemn lectures about stuff and nonsense. Do make Rachel explain herself, if she can—I have no objection, I assure you; but I must be permitted to decline undertaking to interpret that oracle.' And so saying, Stanley Lake glided into the library and shut the door with an angry clap.

Dorcas did not deign to look after him. She had heard his farewell address, looking from the window at the towering and sombre clumps of her ancestral trees—pale, proud, with perhaps a peculiar gleam of resentment—or malignity—in her exquisite features.

So she stood, looking forth on her noble possessions—on terraces—'long rows of urns'—noble timber—all seen in slanting sunlight and long shadows—and seeing nothing but the great word FOOL! in letters of flame in the air before her.


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