Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XXIV


It was not very much past eleven that morning when the pony carriage from Brandon drew up before the little garden wicket of Redman's Farm.

The servant held the ponies' heads, and Miss Dorcas passed through the little garden, and met old Tamar in the porch.

'Better to-day, Tamar?' enquired this grand and beautiful young lady.

The sun glimmered through the boughs behind her; her face was in shade, and its delicate chiselling was brought out in soft reflected lights; and old Tamar looked on her in a sort of wonder, her beauty seemed so celestial and splendid.

Well, she was better, though she had had a bad night. She was up and dressed, and this moment coming down, and would be very happy to see Miss Brandon, if she would step into the drawing-room.

Miss Brandon took old Tamar's hand gently and pressed it. I suppose she was glad and took this way of showing it; and tall, beautiful, graceful, in rustling silks, she glided into the tiny drawing-room silently, and sate down softly by the window, looking out upon the flowers and the falling leaves, mottled in light and shadow.

We have been accustomed to see another girl—bright and fair-haired Rachel Lake—in the small rooms of Redman's Farm; but Dorcas only in rich and stately Brandon Hall—the beautiful 'genius loci' under lofty ceilings, curiously moulded in the first James's style—amid carved oak and richest draperies, tall china vases, paintings, and cold white statues; and somehow in this low-roofed room, so small and homely, she looks like a displaced divinity—an exile under Juno's jealousy from the cloudy splendours of Olympus—dazzlingly melancholy, and 'humano major' among the meannesses and trumperies of earth.

So there came a step and a little rustling of feminine draperies, the small door opened, and Rachel entered, with her hand extended, and a pale smile of welcome.

Women can hide their pain better than we men, and bear it better, too, except when shame drops fire into the dreadful chalice. But poor Rachel Lake had more than that stoical hypocrisy which enables the tortured spirits of her sex to lift a pale face through the flames and smile.

She was sanguine, she was genial and companionable, and her spirits rose at the sight of a friendly face. This transient spring and lighting up are beautiful—a glamour beguiling our senses. It wakens up the frozen spirit of enjoyment, and leads the sad faculties forth on a wild forgetful frolic.

'Rachel, dear, I'm so glad to see you,' said Dorcas, placing her arms gently about her neck, and kissing her twice or thrice. There was something of sweetness and fondness in her tones and manner, which was new to Rachel, and comforting, and she returned the greeting as kindly, and felt more like her former self. 'You have been more ill than I thought, darling, and you are still far from quite recovered.'

Rachel's pale and sharpened features and dilated eye struck her with a painful surprise.

'I shall soon be as well as I am ever likely to be—that is, quite well,' answered Rachel. 'You have been very kind. I've heard of your coming here, and sending, so often.'

They sat down side by side, and Dorcas held her hand.

'Maybe, Rachel dear, you would like to drive a little?'

'No, darling, not yet; it is very good of you.'

'You have been so ill, my poor Rachel.'

'Ill and troubled, dear—troubled in mind, and miserably nervous.'

Poor Rachel! her nature recoiled from deceit, and she told, at all events, as much of the truth as she dared.

Dorcas's large eyes rested upon her with a grave enquiry, and then Miss Brandon looked down in silence for a while on the carpet, and was thinking a little sternly, maybe, and with a look of pain, still holding Rachel's hand, she said, with a sad sort of reproach in her tone,

'Rachel, dear, you have not told my secret?'

'No, indeed, Dorcas—never, and never will; and I think, though I have learned to fear death, I would rather die than let Stanley even suspect it.'

She spoke with a sudden energy, which partook of fear and passion, and flushed her thin cheek, and made her languid eyes flash.

'Thank you, Rachel, my Cousin Rachel, my only friend. I ought not to have doubted you,' and she kissed her again. 'Chelford had a note from Mr. Wylder this morning—another note—his coming delayed, and something of his having to see some person who is abroad,' continued Dorcas, after a little pause. 'You have heard, of course, of Mr. Wylder's absence?'

'Yes, something—everything,' said Rachel, hurriedly, looking frowningly at a flower which she was twirling in her fingers.

'He chose an unlucky moment for his departure. I meant to speak to him and end all between us; and I would now write, but there is no address to his letters. I think Lady Chelford and her son begin to think there is more in this oddly-timed journey of Mr. Wylder's than first appeared. When I came into the parlour this morning I knew they were speaking of it. If he does not return in a day or two, Chelford, I am sure, will speak to me, and then I shall tell him my resolution.'

'Yes,' said Rachel.

'I don't understand his absence. I think they are puzzled, too. Can you conjecture why he is gone?'

Rachel made no answer, but rose with a dreamy look, as if gazing at some distant object among the dark masses of forest trees, and stood before the window so looking across the tiny garden.

'I don't think, Rachel dear, you heard me?' said Dorcas.

'Can I conjecture why he is gone?' murmured Rachel, still gazing with a wild kind of apathy into distance. 'Can I? What can it now be to you or me—why? Yes, we sometimes conjecture right, and sometimes wrong; there are many things best not conjectured about at all—some interesting, some abominable, some that pass all comprehension: I never mean to conjecture, if I can help it, again.'

And the wan oracle having spoken, she sate down in the same sort of abstraction again beside Dorcas, and she looked full in her cousin's eyes.

'I made you a voluntary promise, Dorcas, and now you will make me one. Of Mark Wylder I say this: his name has been for years hateful to me, and recently it has become frightful; and you will promise me simply this, that you will never ask me to speak again about him. Be he near, or be he far, I regard his very name with horror.'

Dorcas returned her gaze with one of haughty amazement; and Rachel said,

'Well, Dorcas, you promise?'

'You speak truly, Rachel, you have a right to my promise: I give it.'

'Dorcas, you are changed; have I lost your love for asking so poor a kindness?'

'I'm only disappointed, Rachel; I thought you would have trusted me, as I did you.'

'It is an antipathy—an antipathy I cannot get over, dear Dorcas; you may think it a madness, but don't blame me. Remember I am neither well nor happy, and forgive what you cannot like in me. I have very few to love me now, and I thought you might love me, as I have begun to love you. Oh! Dorcas, darling, don't forsake me; I am very lonely here and my spirits are gone and I never needed kindness so much before.'

And she threw her arms round her cousin's neck, and brave Rachel at last burst into tears.

Dorcas, in her strange way, was moved.

'I like you still, Rachel; I'm sure I'll always like you. You resemble me, Rachel: you are fearless and inflexible and generous. That spirit belongs to the blood of our strange race; all our women were so. Yes, Rachel, I do love you. I was wounded to find you had thoughts you would not trust to me; but I have made the promise, and I'll keep it; and I love you all the same.'

'Thank you, Dorcas, dear. I like to call you cousin—kindred is so pleasant. Thank you, from my heart, for your love; you will never know, perhaps, how much it is to me.'

The young queen looked on her kindly, but sadly, through her large, strange eyes, clouded with a presage of futurity, and she kissed her again, and said—

'Rachel, dear, I have a plan for you and me: we shall be old maids, you and I, and live together like the ladies of Llangollen, careless and happy recluses. I'll let Brandon and abdicate. We will make a little tour together, when all this shall have blown over, in a few weeks, and choose our retreat; and with the winter's snow we'll vanish from Brandon, and appear with the early flowers at our cottage among the beautiful woods and hills of Wales. Will you come, Rachel?'

At sight of this castle or cottage in the air, Rachel lighted up. The little whim had something tranquillising and balmy. It was escape—flight from Gylingden—flight from Brandon—flight from Redman's Farm: they and all their hated associations would be far behind, and that awful page in her story, not torn out, indeed, but gummed down as it were, and no longer glaring and glowering in her eyes every moment of her waking life.

So she smiled upon the picture painted on the clouds; it was the first thing that had interested her for days. It was a hope. She seized it; she clung to it. She knew, perhaps, it was the merest chimera; but it rested and consoled her imagination, and opened, in the blackness of her sky, one small vista, through whose silvery edge the blue and stars of heaven were visible.


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