Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XVII


Though Rachel was unfit for letter-writing, she was still more unfit for slumber. She leaned her temple on her hand, and her rich light hair half covered her fingers, and her amazing interview with Dorcas was again present with her, and the same feeling of bewilderment. The suddenness and the nature of the disclosures were dream-like and unreal, and the image of Dorcas remained impressed upon her sight; not like Dorcas, though the same, but something ghastly, wan, glittering, and terrible, like a priestess at a solitary sacrifice.

It was late now, not far from one o'clock, and around her the terrible silence of a still night. All those small sounds lost in the hum of midday life now came into relief—a ticking in the wainscot, a crack now and then in the joining of the furniture, and occasionally the tap of a moth against the window pane from outside, sounds sharp and odd, which made her wish the stillness of the night were not so intense.

As from her little table she looked listlessly through the window, she saw against the faint glow of the moonlight, the figure of a man who seized the paling and vaulted into the flower garden, and with a few swift, stumbling strides over the flower-beds, reached the window, and placing his pale face close to the glass, she saw his eyes glittering through it; he tapped—or rather beat on the pane with his fingers—and at the same time he said, repeatedly: 'Let me in; let me in.'

Her first impression, when she saw this person cross the little fence at the road-side was, that Mark Wylder was the man. But she was mistaken; the face and figure were Stanley Lake's.

She would have screamed in the extremity of her terror, but that her voice for some seconds totally failed her; and recognising her brother, though like Rhoda, in Holy Writ, she doubted whether it was not his angel, she rose up, and with an awful ejaculation, she approached the window.

'Let me in, Radie; d— you, let me in,' he repeated, drumming incessantly on the glass. There was no trace now of his sleepy jeering way. Rachel saw that something was very wrong, and beckoned him toward the porch in silence, and having removed the slender fastenings of the door, it opened, and he entered in a rush of damp night air. She took him by the hand, and he shook hers mechanically, like a man rescued from shipwreck, and plainly not recollecting himself well.

'Stanley, dear, what's the matter, in Heaven's name?' she whispered, so soon as she had got him into her little drawing-room.

'He has done it; d— him, he has done it,' gasped Stanley Lake.

He looked in her face with a glazed and ashy stare. His hat remained on his head, overshadowing his face; and his boots were soiled with clay, and his wrapping coat marked, here and there, with the green of the stems and branches of trees, through which he had made his way.

'I see, Stanley, you've had a scene with Mark Wylder; I warned you of your danger—you have had the worst of it.'

'I spoke to him. He took a course I did not expect. I'm not well.'

'You've broken your promise. I see you have used me. How base; how stupid!'

'How could I tell he was such a fiend?'

'I told you how it would be. He has frightened you,' said Rachel, herself frightened.

'D— him; I wish I had done as you said. I wish I had never come here. Give me a glass of wine. He has ruined me.'

'You cruel, wretched creature!' said Rachel, now convinced that he had compromised her as he threatened.

'Yes, I was wrong; I'm sorry; things have turned out different. Who's that?' said Lake, grasping her wrist.

'Who—where—Mark Wylder?'

'No; it's nothing, I believe.'

'Where is he? Where have you left him?'

'Up there, at the pathway, near the stone steps.'

'Waiting there?'

'Well, yes; and I don't think I'll go back, Radie.'

'You shall go back, Sir, and carry my message; or, no, I could not trust you. I'll go with you and see him, and disabuse him. How could you—how could you, Stanley?'

'It was a mistake, altogether; I'm sorry, but I could not tell there was such a devil on the earth.'

'Yes, I told you so. He has frightened you' said Rachel.

'He has, maybe. At any rate, I was a fool, and I think I'm ruined; and I'm afraid, Rachel, you'll be inconvenienced too.'

'Yes, you have made him savage and brutal; and between you, I shall be called in question, you wretched fool!'

Stanley was taking these hard terms very meekly for a savage young coxcomb like him. Perhaps they bore no very distinct meaning just then to his mind. Perhaps it was preoccupied with more exciting ideas; or, it may be, his agitation and fear cried 'amen' to the reproach; at all events, he only said, in a pettish but deprecatory sort of way—

'Well, where's the good of scolding? how can I help it now?'

'What's your quarrel? why does he wait for you there? why has he sent you here? It must concern me, Sir, and I insist on hearing it all.'

'So you shall, Radie; only have patience just a minute—and give me a little wine or water—anything.'

'There is the key. There's some wine in the press, I think.'

He tried to open it, but his hand shook. He saw his sister look at him, and he flung the keys on the table rather savagely, with, I dare say, a curse between his teeth.

There was running all this time in Rachel's mind, and had been almost since the first menacing mention of Wylder's name by her brother, an indistinct remembrance of something unpleasant or horrible. It may have been mere fancy, or it may have referred to something long ago imperfectly heard. It was a spectre of mist, that evaporated before she could fix her eyes on it, but was always near her elbow.

Rachel took the key with a faint gleam of scorn on her face and brought out the wine in silence.

He took a tall-stemmed Venetian glass that stood upon the cabinet, an antique decoration, and filled it with sherry—a strange revival of old service! How long was it since lips had touched its brim before, and whose? Lovers', maybe, and how. How long since that cold crystal had glowed with the ripples of wine? This, at all events, was its last service. It is an old legend of the Venetian glass—its shivering at touch of poison; and there are those of whom it is said, 'the poison of asps is under their lips.'

'What's that?' ejaculated Rachel, with a sudden shriek—that whispered shriek, so expressive and ghastly, that you, perhaps, have once heard in your life—and her very lips grew white.

'Hollo!' cried Lake. He was standing with his back to the window, and sprang forward, as pale as she, and grasped her, with a white leer that she never forgot, over his shoulder, and the Venice glass was shivered on the ground.

'Who's there?' he whispered.

And Rachel, in a whisper, ejaculated the awful name that must not be taken in vain.

She sat down. She was looking at him with a wild, stern stare, straight in the face, and he still holding her arm, and close to her.

'I see it all now,' she whispered.

'Who—what—what is it?' said he.

'I could not have fancied that,' she whispered with a gasp.

Stanley looked round him with pale and sharpened features.

'What the devil is it! If that scoundrel had come to kill us you could not cry out louder,' he whispered, with an oath. 'Do you want to wake your people up?'

'Oh! Stanley,' she repeated, in a changed and horror-stricken way. 'What a fool I've been. I see it at last; I see it all now,' and she waved her white hands together very slowly towards him, as mesmerisers move theirs.

There was a silence of some seconds, and his yellow ferine gaze met hers strangely.

'You were always a sharp girl, Radie, and I think you do see it,' he said at last, very quietly.

'The witness—the witness—the dreadful witness!' she repeated.

'I'll show you, though, it's not so bad as you fancy. I'm sorry I did not take your advice; but how, I say, could I know he was such a devil? I must go back to him. I only came down to tell you, because Radie, you know you proposed it yourself; you must come, too—you must, Radie.'

'Oh, Stanley, Stanley, Stanley!'

'Why, d— it, it can't be helped now; can it?' said he, with a peevish malignity. But she was right; there was something of the poltroon in him, and he was trembling.

'Why could you not leave me in peace, Stanley?'

'I can't go without you, Rachel. I won't; and if we don't we're both ruined,' he said, with a bleak oath.

'Yes, Stanley, I knew you were a coward,' she replied, fiercely and wildly.

'You're always calling names, d— you; do as you like. I care less than you think how it goes.'

'No, Stanley; you know me too well. Ah! No, you sha'n't be lost if I can help it.' Rachel shook her head as she spoke, with a bitter smile and a dreadful sigh.

Then they whispered together for three or four minutes, and Rachel clasped her jewelled fingers tight across her forehead, quite wildly, for a minute.

'You'll come then?' said Stanley.

She made no answer, and he repeated the question.

By this time she was standing; and without answering, she began mechanically to get on her cloak and hat.

'You must drink some wine first; he may frighten you, perhaps. You must take it, Rachel, or I'll not go.'

Stanley Lake was swearing, in his low tones, like a swell-mobsman to-night.

Rachel seemed to have made up her mind to submit passively to whatever he required. Perhaps, indeed, she thought there was wisdom in his advice. At all events she drank some wine.

Rachel Lake was one of those women who never lose their presence of mind, even under violent agitation, for long, and who generally, even when highly excited, see, and do instinctively, and with decision, what is best to be done; and now, with dilated eyes and white face, she walked noiselessly into the kitchen, listened there for a moment, then stole lightly to the servants' sleeping-room, and listened there at the door, and lastly looked in, and satisfied herself that both were still sleeping. Then as cautiously and swiftly she returned to her drawing-room, and closed the window-shutters and drew the curtain, and signalling to her brother they went stealthily forth into the night air, closing the hall-door, and through the little garden, at the outer gate of which they paused.

'I don't know, Rachel—I don't like it—I'm not fit for it. Go back again—go in and lock your door—we'll not go to him—you need not, you know. He may stay where he is—let him—I'll not return. I say, I'll see him no more. I'll get away. I'll consult Larkin—shall I? Though that won't do—he's in Wylder's interest—curse him. What had I best do? I'm not equal to it.'

'We must go, Stanley. You said right just now; be resolute—we are both ruined unless we go. You have brought it to that—you must come.'

'I'm not fit for it, I tell you—I'm not. You were right, Radie—I think I'm not equal to a business of this sort, and I won't expose you to such a scene. You're not equal to it either, I think,' and Lake leaned on the paling.

'Don't mind me—you haven't much hitherto. Go or stay, I'm equally ruined now, but not equally disgraced; and go we must, for it is your only chance of escape. Come, Stanley—for shame!'

In a few minutes more they were walking in deep darkness and silence, side by side, along the path, which diverging from the mill-road, penetrates the coppice of that sequestered gorge, along the bottom of which flows a tributary brook that finds its way a little lower down into the mill-stream. This deep gully in character a good deal resembles Redman's Glen, into which it passes, being fully as deep, and wooded to the summit at both sides, but much steeper and narrower, and therefore many shades darker.

They had now reached those rude stone steps, some ten or fifteen in number, which conduct the narrow footpath up a particularly steep acclivity, and here Lake lost courage again, for they distinctly heard the footsteps that paced the platform above.


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