A THREATENING NOTICE.
Stanley Lake was not a man to let the grass grow under his feet when an object was to be gained. It was with a sure prescience that Mark Wylder's letter had inferred that Stanley Lake would aspire to the representation either of the county or of the borough of Dollington. His mind was already full of these projects.
Electioneering schemes are conducted, particularly at their initiation, like conspiracies—in fact, they are conspiracies, and therefore there was nothing remarkable in the intense caution with which Stanley Lake set about his. He was not yet 'feeling his way.' He was only preparing to feel his way.
All the data, except the muster-roll of electors, were in nubibus—who would retire—who would step forward, as yet altogether in the region of conjecture. There are men to whom the business of elections—a life of secrecy, excitement, speculation, and combat—has all but irresistible charms; and Tom Wealdon, the Town Clerk, was such a spirit.
A bold, frank, good-humoured fellow—he played at elections as he would at cricket. Every faculty of eye, hand, and thought—his whole heart and soul in the game. But no ill-will—no malevolence in victory—no sourness in defeat. A successful coup made Tom Wealdon split with laughing. A ridiculous failure amused him nearly as much. He celebrated his last great defeat with a pic-nic in the romantic scenery of Nolton, where he and his comrades in disaster had a roaring evening, and no end of 'chaff' When he and Jos. Larkin carried the last close contest at Dollington, by a majority of two, he kicked the crown out of the grave attorney's chimney-pot, and flung his own wide-awake into the river. He did not show much; his official station precluded prominence. He kept in the background, and did his spiriting gently. But Tom Wealdon, it was known—as things are known without evidence—was at the bottom of all the clever dodges, and long-headed manoeuvres. When, therefore, Mr. Larkin heard from the portly and veracious Mr. Larcom, who was on very happy relations with the proprietor of the Lodge, that Tom Wealdon had been twice quietly to Brandon to lunch, and had talked an hour alone with the captain in the library each time; and that they seemed very 'hernest like, and stopped of talking directly he (Mr. Larcom) entered the room with the post-bag'—the attorney knew very well what was in the wind.
Now, it was not quite clear what was right—by which the good attorney meant prudent—under the circumstances. He was in confidential—which meant lucrative—relations with Mark Wylder. Ditto, ditto with Captain Lake, of Brandon. He did not wish to lose either. Was it possible to hold to both, or must he cleave only to one and despise the other?
Wylder might return any day, and Tom Wealdon would probably be one of the first men whom he would see. He must 'hang out the signal' in 'Galignani.' Lake could never suspect its meaning, even were he to see it. There was but one risk in it, which was in the coarse perfidy of Mark Welder himself, who would desire no better fun, in some of his moods, than boasting to Lake of the whole arrangement in Jos. Larkin's presence.
However, on the whole, it was best to obey Mark Wylder's orders, and accordingly 'Galignani' said: Mr. Smith will take notice that the other party is desirous to purchase, and becoming very pressing.
In the meantime Lake was pushing his popularity among the gentry with remarkable industry, and with tolerable success. Wealdon's two little visits explained perfectly the active urbanities of Captain Stanley Lake.
About three weeks after the appearance of the advertisement in 'Galignani,' one of Mark Wylder's letters reached Larkin. It was dated from Geneva(!) and said:—
'DEAR LARKIN,—I saw my friend Smith here in the café, who has kept a bright look out, I dare say; and tells me that Captain Stanley Lake is thinking of standing either for the county or for Dollington. I will thank you to apprise him that I mean to take my choice first; and please hand him the enclosed notice open as you get it; and, if you please, to let him run his eye also over this note to you, as I have my own reasons for wishing him to know that you have seen it.
'This is all I will probably trouble you about elections for some months to come, or, at least, weeks. It being time enough when I go back, and no squalls a-head just now at home, though foreign politics look muggy enough.
'I have nothing particular at present about tenants or timber, except the three acres of oak behind Farmer Tanby's—have it took down. Thomas Jones and me went over it last September, and it ought to bring near 3,000l. I must have a good handful of money by May next.
'Yours, my dear Larkin,
Folded in this was a thin slip of foreign paper, on which were traced these lines:—
'DEAR LARKIN,—Don't funk the interview with the beast Lake—a hyaena has no pluck in him. When he reads what I send him by your hand, he'll be as mild as you please. Parkes must act for me as usual—no bluster about giving up. Lake's afraid of yours,
Within was what he called his 'notice' to Stanley Lake, and it was thus conceived:—
'DEAR LAKE—I understand you are trying to make all safe for next election in Dollington or the county. Now, understand at once, that I won't permit that. There is not a country gentleman on the grand jury who is not your superior; and there is no extremity I will not make you feel—and you know what I mean—if you dare despise this first and not unfriendly warning.
Now there certainly was need of Wylder's assurance that nothing unpleasant should happen to the conscious bearer of such a message to an officer and a gentleman. Jos. Larkin did not like it. Still there was a confidence in his own conciliatory manners and exquisite tact. Something, too, might be learned by noting Lake's looks, demeanour, and language under this direct communication from the man to whom his relations were so mysterious.
Larkin looked at his watch; it was about the hour when he was likely to find Lake in his study. The attorney withdrew the little private enclosure, and slipt it, with a brief endorsement, into the neat sheaf of Wylder's letters, all similarly noted, and so locked it up in the iron safe. He intended being perfectly ingenuous with Lake, and showing him that he had 'no secrets—no concealments—all open as the day'—by producing the letter in which the 'notice' was enclosed, and submitting it for Captain Lake's perusal.
When Lawyer Larkin reached the dim chamber, with the Dutch tapestries, where he had for a little while to await Captain Lake's leisure, he began to anticipate the scene now so immediately impending more uncomfortably than before. The 'notice' was, indeed, so outrageous in its spirit, and so intolerable in its language, that, knowing something of Stanley's wild and truculent temper, he began to feel a little nervous about the explosion he was about to provoke.
The Brandon connection, one way or other, was worth to the attorney in hard cash between five and six hundred a-year. In influence, and what is termed 'position,' it was, of course, worth a great deal more. It would be a very serious blow to lose this. He did not, he hoped, care for money more than a good man ought; but such a loss, he would say, he could not afford.
Precisely the same, however, was to be said of his connection with Mark Wylder; and in fact, of late years, Mr. Jos. Larkin, of the Lodge, had begun to put by money so fast that he was growing rapidly to be a very considerable man indeed. 'Everything,' as he said, 'was doing very nicely;' and it would be a deplorable thing to mar, by any untoward act, this pilgrim's quiet and prosperous progress.
In this stage of his reverie he was interrupted by a tall, powdered footman, in the Brandon livery, who came respectfully to announce that his master desired to see Mr. Larkin.
Larkin's soul sneered at this piece of state. Why could he not put his head in at the door and call him? But still I think it impressed him, and that, diplomatically, Captain Lake was in the right to environ himself with the ceremonial of a lord of Brandon.
'Well, Larkin, how d'ye do? Anything about Raikes's lease?' said the great Captain Lake, rising from behind his desk, with his accustomed smile, and extending his gentlemanlike hand.
'No, Sir—nothing, Captain Lake. He has not come, and I don't think we should show any anxiety about it,' replied the attorney, taking the captain's thin hand rather deferentially. 'I've had—a—such a letter from my—my client, Mr. Mark Wylder. He writes in a violent passion, and I'm really placed in a most disagreeable position.'
'Won't you sit down?'
'A—thanks—a—well I thought, on the whole, having received the letter and the enclosure, which I must say very much surprises me—very much indeed.' And Larkin looked reprovingly on an imaginary Mark Wylder, and shook his head a good deal.
'He has not appointed another man of business?'
'Oh, dear, no,' said Larkin, quickly, with a faint, supercilious smile. 'No, nothing of that kind. The thing—in fact, there has been some gossiping fellow. Do you happen to know a person at all versed in Gylingden matters—or, perhaps, a member of your club—named Smith?'
'Smith? I don't, I think, recollect any particular Smith, just at this moment. And what is Smith doing or saying?'
'Why, he has been talking over election matters. It seems Wylder—Mr. Wylder—has met him in Geneva, from whence he dates; and he says—he says—oh, here's the letter, and you'll see it all there.'
He handed it to Lake, and kept his eye on him while he read it. When he saw that Lake, who bit his lip during the perusal, had come to the end, by his glancing up again at the date, Larkin murmured—
'Something, you see, has gone wrong with him. I can't account for the temper otherwise—so violent.'
'Quite so,' said Lake, quietly; 'and where is the notice he speaks of here?'
'Why, really, Captain Lake, I did not very well know, it is such a production—I could not say whether you would wish it presented; and in any case you will do me the justice to understand that I, for my part—I really don't know how to speak of it.
'Quite so,' repeated Lake, softly, taking the thin, neatly folded piece of paper which Larkin, with a sad inclination of his body, handed to him.
Lake, under the 'lawyer's' small, vigilant eyes, quietly read Mark Wylder's awful threatenings through, twice over, and Larkin was not quite sure whether there was any change of countenance to speak of as he did so.
'This is dated the 29th,' said Lake, in the same quiet tone; 'perhaps you will be so good as to write a line across it, stating the date of your handing it to me.'
'I—of course—I can see no objection. I may mention, I suppose, that I do so at your request.'
And Larkin made a neat little endorsement to that effect, and he felt relieved. The hyaena certainly was not showing fight.
'And now, Mr. Larkin, you'll admit, I think, that I've exhibited no ill-temper, much less violence, under the provocation of that note.'
'Certainly; none whatever, Captain Lake.'
'And you will therefore perceive that whatever I now say, speaking in cool blood, I am not likely to recede from.'
Lawyer Larkin bowed.
'And may I particularly ask that you will so attend to what I am about to say, as to be able to make a note of it for Mr. Welder's consideration?'
'Certainly, if you desire; but I wish to say that in this particular matter I beg it may be clearly understood that Mr. Wylder is in no respect more my client than you, Captain Lake, and that I merely act as a most reluctant messenger in the matter.'
'Just so,' said Captain Lake.
'Now, as to my thinking of representing either county or borough,' he resumed, after a little pause, holding Mark Wylder's 'notice' between his finger and thumb, and glancing at it from time to time, as a speaker might at his notes, 'I am just as well qualified as he in every respect; and if it lies between him and me, I will undoubtedly offer myself, and accompany my address with the publication of this precious document which he calls his notice—the composition, in all respects, of a ruffian—and which will inspire every gentleman who reads it with disgust, abhorrence, and contempt. His threat I don't understand. I despise his machinations. I defy him utterly; and the time is coming when, in spite of his manoeuvring, I'll drive him into a corner and pin him to the wall. He very well knows that flitting and skulking from place to place, like an escaped convict, he is safe in writing what insults he pleases through the post. I can't tell how or where to find him. He is not only no gentleman, but no man—a coward as well as a ruffian. But his game of hide-and-seek cannot go on for ever; and when next I can lay my hand upon him, I'll make him eat that paper on his knees, and place my heel upon his neck.'
The peroration of this peculiar invective was emphasised by an oath, at which the half-dozen short grizzled hairs that surmounted the top of Mr. Jos. Larkin's shining bald head no doubt stood up in silent appeal.
The attorney was standing during this sample of Lake's parliamentary rhetoric a little flushed, for he did not know the moment when a blue flicker from the rhetorical thunder-storm might splinter his own bald head, and for ever end his connection with Brandon.
There was a silence, during which pale Captain Lake locked up Mark Wylder's warning, and the attorney twice cleared his voice.
'I need hardly say, Captain Lake, how I feel in this business. I——'
'Quite so,' said the captain, in his soft low tones. 'I assure you I altogether acquit you of sympathy with any thing so utterly ruffianly,' and he took the hand of the relieved attorney with a friendly condescension. 'The only compensation I exact for your involuntary part in the matter is that you distinctly convey the tenor of my language to Mr. Wylder, on the first occasion on which he affords you an opportunity of communicating with him. And as to my ever again acting as his trustee;—though, yes, I forgot'—he made a sudden pause, and was lost for a minute in annoyed reflection—'yes, I must for a while. It can't last very long; he must return soon, and I can't well refuse to act until at least some other arrangement is made. There are quite other persons and I can't allow them to starve.'
So saying, he rose, with his peculiar smile, and extended his hand to signify that the conference was at an end.
'And I suppose,' he said, 'we are to regard this little conversation, for the present, as confidential?'
'Certainly, Captain Lake, and permit me to say that I fully appreciate the just and liberal construction which you have placed upon my conduct—a construction which a party less candid and honourably-minded than yourself might have failed to favour me with.'
And with this pretty speech Larkin took his hat, and gracefully withdrew.