DORCAS SHOWS HER JEWELS TO MISS LAKE.
Stanley Lake and his sister dined next day at Brandon. Under the cold shadow of Lady Chelford, the proprieties flourished, and generally very little else. Awful she was, and prompt to lecture young people before their peers, and spoke her mind with fearful directness and precision. But sometimes she would talk, and treat her hearers to her recollections, and recount anecdotes with a sort of grim cleverness, not wholly unamusing.
She did not like Wylder, I thought, although she had been the inventor and constructor of the family alliance of which he was the hero. I did not venture to cultivate her; and Miss Brandon had been, from the first, specially cold and repellent to Captain Lake. There was nothing very genial or promising, therefore, in the relations of our little party, and I did not expect a very agreeable evening.
Notwithstanding all this, however, our dinner was, on the whole, much pleasanter than I anticipated. Stanley Lake could be very amusing; but I doubt if our talk would quite stand the test of print. I often thought if one of those artists who photograph language and thought—the quiet, clever 'reporters,' to whom England is obliged for so much of her daily entertainment, of her social knowledge, and her political safety, were, pencil in hand, to ensconce himself behind the arras, and present us, at the close of the agreeable banquet, with a literal transcript of the feast of reason, which we give and take with so much complacency—whether it would quite satisfy us upon reconsideration.
When I entered the drawing-room after dinner, Lord Chelford was plainly arguing a point with the young ladies, and by the time I drew near, it was Miss Lake's turn to speak.
'Flattering of mankind, I am sure, I have no talent for; and without flattering and wheedling you'll never have conjugal obedience. Don't you remember Robin Hood? how—
And all this for leave to ride with her son to see her own brother at Gamwell.'
'I remember,' said Dorcas, with a smile. 'I wonder what has become of that old book, with its odd little woodcuts.
'Well, though the book is lost, we retain the moral, you see,' said Rachel with a little laugh; 'and it has always seemed to me that if it had not been necessary to say, "my honey, my love, and my dear," that good soul would not have said it, and you may be pretty sure that if she had not, and with the suitable by-play too, she might not have ridden to Gamwell that day.'
'And you don't think you could have persuaded yourself to repeat that little charm, which obtained her boon and one of his horses straightway?' said Lord Chelford.
'Well, I don't know what a great temptation and a contumacious husband might bring one to; but I'm afraid I'm a stubborn creature, and have not the feminine gift of flattery. If, indeed, he felt his inferiority and owned his dependence, I think I might, perhaps, have called him "my honey, my love, and my dear," and encouraged and comforted him; but to buy my personal liberty, and the right to visit my brother at Gamwell—never!'
And yet she looked, Lord Chelford thought, very goodhumoured and pleasant, and he fancied a smile from her might do more with some men than all gentle Joan's honeyed vocabulary.
'I own,' said Lord Chelford, laughing, 'that, from prejudice, I suppose, I am in favour of the apostolic method, and stand up for the divine right of my sex; but then, don't you see, it is your own fault, if you make it a question of right, when you may make it altogether one of fascination?'
'Who, pray, is disputing the husband's right to rule?' demanded old Lady Chelford unexpectedly.
'I am very timidly defending it against very serious odds,' answered her son.
'Tut, tut! my dears, what's all this; you must obey your husbands,' cried the dowager, who put down nonsense with a high hand, and had ruled her lord with a rod of iron.
'That's no tradition of the Brandons,' said Miss Dorcas, quietly.
'The Brandons—pooh! my dear—it is time the Brandons should grow like other people. Hitherto, the Brandon men have all, without exception, been the wickedest in all England, and the women the handsomest and the most self-willed. Of course the men could not be obeyed in all things, nor the women disobeyed. I'm a Brandon myself, Dorcas, so I've a right to speak. But the words are precise—honour and obey—and obey you must; though, of course you may argue a point, if need be, and let your husband hear reason.'
And, having ruled the point, old Lady Chelford leaned back and resumed her doze.
There was no longer anything playful in Dorcas's look. On the contrary, something fierce and lurid, which I thought wonderfully becoming; and after a little she said—
'I promised, Rachel, to show you my jewels. Come now—will you?—and see them.'
And she placed Rachel's hand on her arm, and the two young ladies departed.
'Are you well, dear?' asked Rachel when they reached her room.
Dorcas was very pale, and her gaze was stern, and something undefinably wild in her quietude.
'What day of the month is this?' said Dorcas.
'The eighth—is not it?—yes, the eighth,' answered Rachel.
'And our marriage is fixed for the twenty-second—just a fortnight hence. I am going to tell you, Rachel, what I have resolved on.'
'How really beautiful these diamonds are!—quite superb.'
'Yes,' said Dorcas, opening the jewel-cases, which she had taken from her cabinet, one after the other.
'And these pearls! how very magnificent! I had no idea Mark Wylder's taste was so exquisite.'
'Yes, very magnificent, I suppose.'
'How charming—quite regal—you will look, Dorcas!'
Dorcas smiled strangely, and her bosom heaved a little, Rachel thought. Was it elation, or was there not something wildly bitter gleaming in that smile?
'I must look a little longer at these diamonds.'
'As long, dear, as you please. You are not likely, Rachel, to see them again.'
From the blue flash of the brilliants Rachel in honest amazement raised her eyes to her cousin's face. The same pale smile was there; the look was oracular and painful. Had she overheard a part of that unworthy talk of Wylder's at the dinner-table, the day before, and mistaken Rachel's share in the dialogue?
And Dorcas said—
'You have heard of the music on the waters that lures mariners to destruction. The pilot leaves the rudder, and leans over the prow, and listens. They steer no more, but drive before the wind; and what care they for wreck or drowning?'
I suppose it was the same smile; but in Rachel s eyes, as pictures will, it changed its character with her own change of thought, and now it seemed the pale rapt smile of one who hears music far off, or sees a vision.
'Rachel, dear, I sometimes think there is an evil genius attendant on our family,' continued Dorcas in the same subdued tone, which, in its very sweetness, had so sinister a sound in Rachel's ear. 'From mother to child, from child to grandchild, the same influence continues; and, one after another, wrecks the daughters of our family—a wayward family, and full of misery. Here I stand, forewarned, with my eyes open, determinedly following in the funereal footsteps of those who have gone their way before me. These jewels all go back to Mr. Wylder. He never can be anything to me. I was, I thought, to build up our house. I am going, I think, to lay it in the dust. With the spirit of the insane, I feel the spirit of a prophetess, too, and I see the sorrow that awaits me. You will see.'
'Dorcas, darling, you are certainly ill. What is the matter?'
'No, dear Rachel, not ill, only maybe agitated a little. You must not touch the bell—listen to me; but first promise, so help you Heaven, you will keep my secret.'
'I do promise, indeed Dorcas, I swear I'll not repeat one word you tell me.'
'It has been a vain struggle. I know he's a bad man, a worthless man—selfish, cruel, maybe. Love is not blind with me, but quite insane. He does not know, nor you, nor anyone; and now, Rachel, I tell you what was unknown to all but myself and Heaven—looking neither for counsel, nor for pity, nor for sympathy, but because I must, and you have sworn to keep my secret. I love your brother. Rachel, you must try to like me.'
She threw her arms round her cousin's neck, and Rachel felt in her embrace the vibration of an agony.
She was herself so astonished that for a good while she could hardly collect her thoughts or believe her senses. Was it credible? Stanley! whom she had received with a coldness, if not aversion, so marked, that, if he had a spark of Rachel's spirit, he would never have approached her more! Then came the thought—perhaps they understood one another, and that was the meaning of Stanley's unexpected visit?
'Well, Dorcas, dear, I am utterly amazed. But does Stanley—he can hardly hope?'
Dorcas removed her arms from her cousin's neck; her face was pale, and her cheeks wet with tears, which she did not wipe away.
'Sit down by me, Rachel. No, he does not like me—that is—I don't know; but, I am sure, he can't suspect that I like him. It was my determination it should not be. I resolved, Rachel, quite to extinguish the madness; but I could not. It was not his doing, nor mine, but something else. There are some families, I think, too wicked for Heaven to protect, and they are given over to the arts of those who hated them in life and pursue them after death; and this is the meaning of the curse that has always followed us. No good will ever happen us, and I must go like the rest.'
There was a short silence, and Rachel gazed on the carpet in troubled reflection, and then, with an anxious look, she took her cousin's hand, and said—
'Dorcas, you must think of this no more. I am speaking against my brother's interest. But you must not sacrifice yourself, your fortune, and your happiness, to a shadow; whatever his means are, they hardly suffice for his personal expenses—indeed, they don't suffice, for I have had to help him. But that is all trifling compared with other considerations. I am his sister, and, though he has shown little love for me, I am not without affection—and strong affection—for him; but I must and will speak frankly. You could not, I don't think anyone could be happy with Stanley for her husband. You don't know him: he's profligate; he's ill-tempered; he's cold; he's selfish; he's secret. He was a spoiled boy, totally without moral education; he might, perhaps, have been very different, but he is what he is, and I don't think he'll ever change.'
'He may be what he will. It is vain reasoning with that which is not reason; the battle is over; possibly he may never know, and that might be best for both—but be it how it may, I will never marry anyone else.'
'Dorcas, dear, you must not speak to Lady Chelford, or to Mark Wylder, to-night. It is too serious a step to be taken in haste.'
'There has been no haste, Rachel, and there can be no change.'
'And what reason can you give?'
'None; no reason,' said Dorcas, slowly.
'Wylder would have been suitable in point of wealth. Not so well, I am sure, as you might have married; but neither would he be a good husband, though not so bad as Stanley; and I do not think that Mark Wylder will quietly submit to his disappointment.'
'It was to have been simply a marriage of two estates. It was old Lady Chelford's plan. I have now formed mine, and all that's over. Let him do what he will—I believe a lawsuit is his worst revenge—I'm indifferent.'
Just then a knock came to the chamber door.
'Come in,' said Miss Brandon: and her maid entered to say that the carriage, please Ma'am, was at the door to take Miss Lake home.
'I had no idea it was so late,' said Rachel.
'Stay, dear, don't go for a moment. Jones, bring Miss Lake's cloak and bonnet here. And now, dear,' she said, after a little pause, 'you'll remember your solemn promise?'
'I never broke my word, dear Dorcas; your secret is safe.'
'And, Rachel, try to like me.'
'I love you better, Dorcas, than I thought I ever could. Good-night, dear.'
And the young ladies parted with a kiss, and then another.