Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XX


Again I had serious thoughts of removing my person and effects to the Brandon Arms. I could not quite believe I had seen a ghost; but neither was I quite satisfied that the thing was altogether canny. The apparition, whatever it was, seemed to persecute me with a mysterious obstinacy; at all events, I was falling into a habit of seeing it; and I felt a natural desire to escape from the house which was plagued with its presence.

At the same time I had an odd sort of reluctance to mention the subject to my entertainers. The thing itself was a ghostly slur upon the house, and, to run away, a reproach to my manhood; and besides, writing now at a distance, and in the spirit of history, I suspect the interest which beauty always excites had a great deal to do with my resolve to hold my ground; and, I dare say, notwithstanding my other reasons, had the ladies at the Hall been all either old or ugly, I would have made good my retreat to the village hotel.

As it was, however, I was resolved to maintain my position. But that evening was streaked with a tinge of horror, and I more silent and distrait than usual.

The absence of an accustomed face, even though the owner be nothing very remarkable, is always felt; and Wylder was missed, though, sooth to say, not very much regretted. For the first time we were really a small party. Miss Lake was not there. The gallant captain, her brother, was also absent. The vicar, and his good little wife, were at Naunton that evening to hear a missionary recount his adventures and experiences in Japan, and none of the neighbours had been called in to fill the empty chairs.

Dorcas Brandon did not contribute much to the talk; neither, in truth, did I. Old Lady Chelford occasionally dozed and nodded sternly after tea, waking up and eyeing people grimly, as though enquiring whether anyone presumed to suspect her ladyship of having had a nap.

Chelford, I recollect, took a book, and read to us now and then, a snatch of poetry—I forget what. My book—except when I was thinking of the tarn and that old man I so hated—was Miss Brandon's exquisite and mysterious face.

That young lady was leaning back in her great oak chair, in which she looked like the heroine of some sad and gorgeous romance of the old civil wars of England, and directing a gaze of contemplative and haughty curiosity upon the old lady, who was unconscious of the daring profanation.

All on a sudden Dorcas Brandon said—

'And pray what do you think of marriage, Lady Chelford?'

'What do I think of marriage?' repeated the dowager, throwing back her head and eyeing the beautiful heiress through her gold spectacles, with a stony surprise, for she was not accustomed to be catechised by young people. 'Marriage?—why 'tis a divine institution. What can the child mean?'

'Do you think, Lady Chelford, it may be safely contracted, solely to join two estates?' pursued the young lady.

'Do I think it may safely be contracted, solely to join two estates?' repeated the old lady, with a look and carriage that plainly showed how entirely she appreciated the amazing presumption of her interrogatrix.

There was a little pause.

'Certainly,' replied Lady Chelford; 'that is, of course, under proper conditions, and with a due sense of its sacred character and a—a—obligations.'

'The first of which is love,' continued Miss Brandon; 'the second honour—both involuntary; and the third obedience, which springs from them.'

Old Lady Chelford coughed, and then rallying, said—

'Very good, Miss!'

'And pray, Lady Chelford, what do you think of Mr. Mark Wylder?' pursued Miss Dorcas.

'I don't see, Miss Brandon, that my thoughts upon that subject can concern anyone but myself,' retorted the old lady, severely, and from an awful altitude. 'And I may say, considering who I am—and my years—and the manner in which I am usually treated, I am a little surprised at the tone in which you are pleased to question me.'

These last terrible remarks totally failed to overawe the serene temerity of the grave beauty.

'I assumed, Lady Chelford, as you had interested yourself in me so far as to originate the idea of my engagement to Mr. Wylder, that you had considered these to me very important questions a little, and could give me satisfactory answers upon points on which my mind has been employed for some days; and, indeed, I think I've a right to ask that assistance of you.'

'You seem to forget, young lady, that there are times and places for such discussions; and that to Mr.—a—a—your visitor (a glance at me), it can't be very interesting to listen to this kind of—of—conversation, which is neither very entertaining, nor very wise.'

'I am answerable only for my part of it; and I think my questions very much to the purpose,' said the young lady, in her low, silvery tones.

'I don't question your good opinion, Miss Brandon, of your own discretion; but I can't see any profit in now discussing an engagement of more than two months' standing, or a marriage, which is fixed to take place only ten days hence. And I think, Sir (glancing again at me), it must strike you a little oddly, that I should be invited, in your presence, to discuss family matters with Miss Dorcas Brandon?'

Now, was it fair to call a peaceable inhabitant like me into the thick of a fray like this? I paused long enough to allow Miss Brandon to speak, but she did not choose to do so, thinking, I suppose, it was my business.

'I believe I ought to have withdrawn a little,' I said, very humbly; and old Lady Chelford at the word shot a gleam of contemptuous triumph at Miss Dorcas; but I would not acquiesce in the dowager's abusing my concession to the prejudice of that beautiful and daring young lady—'I mean, Lady Chelford, in deference to you, who are not aware, as Miss Brandon is, that I am one of Mr. Wylder's oldest and most intimate friends; and at his request, and with Lord Chelford's approval, have been advised with, in detail, upon all the arrangements connected with the approaching marriage.'

'I am not going, at present, to say any more upon these subjects, because Lady Chelford prefers deferring our conversation,' said this very odd young lady; 'but there is nothing which either she or I may say, which I wish to conceal from any friend of Mr. Wylder's.'

The idea of Miss Brandon's seriously thinking of withdrawing from her engagement with Mark Wylder, I confess never entered my mind. Lady Chelford, perhaps, knew more of the capricious and daring character of the ladies of the Brandon line than I, and may have discovered some signs of a coming storm in the oracular questions which had fallen so harmoniously from those beautiful lips. As for me, I was puzzled. The old viscountess was flushed (she did not rouge), and very angry, and, I think, uncomfortable, though she affected her usual supremacy. But the young lady showed no sign of excitement, and lay back in her chair in her usual deep, cold calm.

Lake's late smoking with Wylder must have disagreed with him very much indeed, for he seemed more out of sorts as night approached. He stole away from Mr. Larkin's trellised porch, in the dusk. He marched into the town rather quickly, like a man who has business on his hands; but he had none—for he walked by the 'Brandon Arms,' and halted, and stared at the post-office, as if he fancied he had something to say there. But no—there was no need to tap at the wooden window-pane. Some idle boys were observing the dandy captain, and he turned down the short lane that opened on the common, and sauntered upon the short grass.

Two or three groups, and an invalid visitor or two—for Gylingden boasts a 'spa'—were lounging away the twilight half-hours there. He seated himself on one of the rustic seats, and his yellow eyes wandered restlessly and vaguely along the outline of the beautiful hills. Then for nearly ten minutes he smoked—an odd recreation for a man suffering from the cigars of last night—and after that, for nearly as long again, he seemed lost in deep thought, his eyes upon the misty grass before him, and his small French boot beating time to the music of his thoughts.

Several groups passed close by him, in their pleasant circuit. Some wondered what might be the disease of that pale, peevish-looking gentleman, who sat there so still, languid, and dejected. Others set him down as a gentleman in difficulties of some sort, who was using Gylingden for a temporary refuge.

Others, again, supposed he might be that Major Craddock who had lost thirty thousand pounds on Vanderdecken the other day. Others knew he was staying with Mr. Larkin, and supposed he was trying to raise money at disadvantage, and remarked that some of Mr. Larkin's clients looked always unhappy, though they had so godly an attorney to deal with.

When Lake, with a little shudder, for it was growing chill, lifted up his yellow eyes suddenly, and recollected where he was, the common had grown dark, and was quite deserted. There were lights in the windows of the reading-room, and in the billiard-room beneath it; and shadowy figures, with cues in their hands, gliding hither and thither, across its uncurtained windows.

With a shrug, and a stealthy glance round him, Captain Lake started up. The instinct of the lonely and gloomy man unconsciously drew him towards the light, and he approached. A bat, attracted thither like himself, was flitting and flickering, this way and that, across the casement.

Captain Lake, waiting, with his hand on the door-handle, for the stroke, heard the smack of the balls, and the score called by the marker, and entered the hot, glaring room. Old Major Jackson, with his glass in his eye, was contending in his shirt-sleeves heroically with a Manchester bag-man, who was palpably too much for him. The double-chinned and florid proprietor of the 'Brandon Arms,' with a brandy-and-water familiarity, offered Captain Lake two to one on the game in anything he liked, which the captain declined, and took his seat on the bench.

He was not interested by the struggle of the gallant major, who smiled like a prize-fighter under his punishment. In fact, he could not have told the score at any point of the game; and, to judge by his face, was translated from the glare of that arena into a dark and splenetic world of his own.

When he wakened up, in the buzz and clack of tongues that followed the close of the game, Captain Lake glared round for a moment, like a man called up from sleep; the noise rattled and roared in his ears, the talk sounded madly, and the faces of the people excited and menaced him undefinably, and he felt as if he was on the point of starting to his feet and stamping and shouting. The fact is, I suppose, he was confoundedly nervous, dyspeptic, or whatever else it might be, and the heat and glare were too much for him.

So, out he went into the chill, fresh night-air, and round the corner into the quaint main-street of Gylingden, and walked down it in the dark, nearly to the last house by the corner of the Redman's Dell road, and then back again, and so on, trying to tire himself, I think; and every time he walked down the street, with his face toward London, his yellow eyes gleamed through the dark air, with the fixed gaze of a man looking out for the appearance of a vehicle. It, perhaps, indicated an anxiety and a mental look-out in that direction, for he really expected no such thing.

Then he dropped into the 'Brandon Arms,' and had a glass of brandy and water, and a newspaper, in the coffee-room; and then he ordered a 'fly,' and drove in it to Lawyer Larkin's house—'The Lodge,' it was called—and entered Mr. Larkin's drawing-room very cheerfully.

'How quiet you are here,' said the captain. 'I have been awfully dissipated since I saw you.'

'In an innocent way, my dear Captain Lake, you mean, of course—in an innocent way.'

'Oh! no; billiards, I assure you. Do you play?'

'Oh! dear no—not that I see any essential harm in the game as a game, for those, I mean, who don't object to that sort of thing; but for a resident here, putting aside other feelings—a resident holding a position—it would not do, I assure you. There are people there whom one could not associate with comfortably. I don't care, I hope, how poor a man may be, but do let him be a gentleman. I own to that prejudice. A man, my dear Captain Lake, whose father before him has been a gentleman (old Larkin, while in the flesh, was an organist, and kept a small day school at Dwiddleston, and his grandfather he did not care to enquire after), and who has had the education of one, does not feel himself at home, you know—I'm sure you have felt the same sort of thing yourself.'

'Oh! of course; and I had such a nice walk on the common first, and then a turn up and down before the 'Brandon Arms,' where at last I read a paper, and could not resist a glass of brandy and water, and, growing lazy, came home in a 'fly,' so I think I have had a very gay evening.

Larkin smiled benignantly, and would have said something no doubt worth hearing, but at that moment the door opened, and his old cook and elderly parlour-maid—no breath of scandal ever troubled the serene fair fame of his household, and everyone allowed that, in the prudential virtues, at least, he was nearly perfect—and Sleddon the groom, walked in, with those sad faces which, I suppose, were first learned in the belief that they were acceptable to their master.

'Oh!' said Mr. Larkin, in a low, reverential tone, and the smile vanished; 'prayers!'

'Well, then, if you permit me, being a little tired, I'll go to my bed-room.'

With a grave and affectionate interest, Mr. Larkin looked in his face, and sighed a little and said:—

'Might I, perhaps, venture to beg, just this one night——'

That chastened and entreating look it was hard to resist. But somehow the whole thing seemed to Lake to say, 'Do allow me this once to prescribe; do give your poor soul this one chance,' and Lake answered him superciliously and irreverently.

'No, thank you, no—any prayers I require I can manage for myself, thank you. Good-night.'

And he lighted a bed-room candle and left the room.

'What a beast that fellow is. I don't know why the d— I stay in his house.'

One reason was, perhaps, that it saved him nearly a guinea a day, and he may have had some other little reasons just then.

'Family prayers indeed! and such a pair of women—witches, by Jove!—and that rascally groom, and a hypocritical attorney! And the vulgar brute will be as rich as Croesus, I dare say.'

Here soliloquised Stanley Lake in that gentleman's ordinary vein. His momentary disgust had restored him for a few seconds to his normal self. But certain anxieties of a rather ghastly kind, and speculations as to what might be going on in London just then, were round him again, like armed giants, in another moment, and the riches or hypocrisy of his host were no more to him than those of Overreach or Tartuffe.


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