Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XXIX


Lady Chelford's wrath was now turned anew upon Wylder—and the inconvenience of having no visible object on which to expend it was once more painfully felt. Railing at Mark Wylder was, alas! but beating the air. The most crushing invective was—thanks to his adroit mystification—simply a soliloquy. Poor Lady Chelford, who loved to give the ingenious youngsters of both sexes, when occasion invited, a piece of her mind, was here—in the case of this vulgar and most provoking delinquent—absolutely tongue-tied! If it had been possible to tell Wylder what she thought of him it would, perhaps, have made her more tolerable than she was for some days after the arrival of that letter, to other members of the family.

The idea of holding Miss Brandon to this engagement, and proroguing her nuptials from day to day, to convenience the bridegroom—absent without explanation—was of course quite untenable. Fortunately, the marriage, considering the antiquity and the territorial position of the two families who were involved, was to have been a very quiet affair indeed—no festivities—no fire-works—nothing of the nature of a county gala—no glare or thunder—no concussion of society—a dignified but secluded marriage.

This divested the inevitable dissolution of these high relations of a great deal of its éclat and ridicule.

Of course there was abundance of talk. Scarce a man or woman in the shire but had a theory or a story—sometimes bearing hard on the lady, sometimes on the gentleman; still it was an abstract breach of promise, and would have much improved by some outward and visible sign of disruption and disappointment. Some concrete pageantries to be abolished and removed; flag-staffs, for instance, and banners, marquees, pyrotechnic machinery, and long tiers of rockets, festoons of evergreens, triumphal arches with appropriate mottoes, to come down and hide themselves away, would have been pleasant to the many who like a joke, and to the few, let us hope, who love a sneer.

But there were no such fopperies to hurry off the stage disconcerted. In the autumnal sun, among the embrowned and thinning foliage of the noble trees, Brandon Hall looked solemn, sad and magnificent, as usual, with a sort of retrospective serenity, buried in old-world glories and sorrows, and heeding little the follies and scandals of the hour.

In the same way Miss Brandon, with Lord and Lady Chelford, was seen next Sunday, serene and unchanged, in the great carved oak Brandon pew, raised like a dais two feet at least above the level of mere Christians, who frequented the family chapel. There, among old Wylder and Brandon tombs—some painted stone effigies of the period of Elizabeth and the first James, and some much older—stone and marble knights praying on their backs with their spurs on, and said to have been removed nearly three hundred years ago from the Abbey of Naunton Friars, when that famous monastery began to lose its roof and turn into a picturesque ruin, and by-gone generations of Wylders and Brandons had offered up their conspicuous devotions, with—judging from their heathen lives—I fear no very remarkable efficacy.

Here then, next Sunday afternoon, when the good vicar, the Rev. William Wylder, at three o'clock, performed his holy office in reading-desk and pulpit, the good folk from Gylingden assembled in force, saw nothing noticeable in the demeanour or appearance of the great Brandon heiress. A goddess in her aerial place, haughty, beautiful, unconscious of human gaze, and seen as it were telescopically by mortals from below. No shadow of trouble on that calm marble beauty, no light of joy, but a serene superb indifference.

Of course there was some satire in Gylingden; but, in the main, it was a loyal town, and true to its princess. Mr. Wylder's settlements were not satisfactory, it was presumed, or the young lady could not bring herself to like him, or however it came to pass, one way or another, that sprig of willow inevitably to be mounted by hero or heroine upon such equivocal occasions was placed by the honest town by no means in her breast, but altogether in his button-hole.

Gradually, in a more authentic shape, information traceable to old Lady Chelford, through some of the old county families who visited at Brandon, made it known that Mr. Wylder's affairs were not at present by any means in so settled a state as was supposed; and that a long betrothal not being desirable on the whole, Miss Brandon's relatives thought it advisable that the engagement should terminate, and had so decided, Mr. Wylder having, very properly, placed himself absolutely in their hands.

As for Mark, it was presumed he had gone into voluntary banishment, and was making the grand tour in the spirit of that lackadaisical gentleman in the then fashionable song, who says:—

  From sport to sport they hurry me,
    To banish my regret,
  And if they win a smile from me,
    They think that I forget.

It was known to be quite final, and as the lady evinced no chagrin and affected no unusual spirits, but held, swanlike and majestic, the even tenor of her way, there was, on the whole, little doubt anywhere that the gentleman had received his congé, and was hiding his mortification and healing his wounds in Paris or Vienna, or some other suitable retreat.

But though the good folk of Gylingden, in general, cared very little how Mark Wylder might have disposed of himself, there was one inhabitant to whom his absence was fraught with very serious anxiety and inconvenience. This was his brother, William, the vicar.

Poor William, sound in morals, free from vice, no dandy, a quiet, bookish, self-denying mortal, was yet, when he took holy orders and quitted his chambers at Cambridge, as much in debt as many a scamp of his college. He had been, perhaps, a little foolish and fanciful in the article of books, and had committed a serious indiscretion in the matter of a carved oak bookcase; and, worse still, he had published a slender volume of poems, and a bulkier tome of essays, scholastic and theologic, both which ventures, notwithstanding their merits, had turned out unhappily; and worse still, he had lent that costly loan, his sign manual, on two or three occasions, to friends in need, and one way or another found that, on winding up and closing his Cambridge life, his assets fell short of his liabilities very seriously.

The entire amount it is true was not very great. A pupil or two, and a success with his work 'On the Character and Inaccuracies of Eusebius,' would make matters square in a little time. But his advertisements for a resident pupil had not been answered; they had cost him something, and he had not any more spare bread just then to throw upon the waters. So the advertisements for the present were suspended; and the publishers, somehow, did not take kindly to Eusebius, who was making the tour of that fastidious and hard-hearted fraternity.

He had staved off some of his troubles by a little loan from an insurance company, but the premium and the instalments were disproportioned to his revenue, and indeed very nearly frightful to contemplate. The Cambridge tradesmen were growing minatory; and there was a stern person who held a renewal of one of his old paper subsidies to the necessities of his scampish friend Clarkson, who was plainly a difficult and awful character to deal with.

Dreadful as were the tradesmen's peremptory and wrathful letters, the promptitude and energy of this latter personage were such as to produce a sense of immediate danger so acute that the scared vicar opened his dismal case to his Brother Mark.

Mark, sorely against the grain, and with no good grace, at last consented to advance £300 in this dread emergency, and the vicar blessed his benefactor, and in his closet on his knees, shed tears of thankfulness over his deliverance, and the sky opened and the flowers locked bright, and life grew pleasant once more.

But the £300 were not yet in his pocket, and Mark had gone away; and although of course the loan was sure to come, the delay—any delay in his situation—was critical and formidable. Here was another would-be correspondent of Mark's foiled for want of his address. Still he would not believe it possible that he could forget his promise, or shut up his bowels of mercy, or long delay the remittance which he knew to be so urgently needed.

In the meantime, however, a writ reached the hand of the poor Vicar of Naunton Friars, who wrote in eager and confused terror to a friend in the Middle Temple on the dread summons, and learned that he was now 'in court,' and must 'appear,' or suffer judgment by default.

The end was that he purchased a respite of three months, by adding thirty pounds to his debt, and so was thankful for another deliverance, and was confident of the promised subsidy within a week, or at all events a fortnight, or, at worst, three months was a long reprieve—and the subsidy must arrive before the emergency.

In this there can be no dismay;
My ships come home a month before the day.

When the 'service' was over, the neighbourly little congregation, with a sprinkling of visitors to Gylingden, for sake of its healing waters, broke up, and loitered in the vicinity of the porch, to remark on the sermon or the weather, and ask one another how they did, and to see the Brandon family enter their carriage and the tall, powdered footman shut the door upon them, and mount behind, and move off at a brilliant pace, and with a glorious clangour and whirl of dust; and, this incident over, they broke up gradually into little groups, in Sunday guise, and many colours, some for a ramble on the common, and some to tea, according to the primitive hours that ruled old Gylingden.

The vicar, and John Hughes, clerk and sexton, were last out; and the reverend gentleman, thin and tall, in white necktie, and black, a little threadbare, stood on the steps of the porch, in a sad abstraction. The red autumnal sun nearing the edge of the distant hills,

Looked through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of its beams—

and lighted the thin and gentle features of the vicar with a melancholy radiance. The sound of the oak door closing heavily behind him and John Hughes, and the key revolving in the lock recalled him, and with a sigh and a smile, and a kindly nod to John, he looked up and round on the familiar and pretty scenery undecided. It was not quite time to go home; his troubles were heavy upon him, too, just then; they have their paroxysms like ague; and the quiet of the road, and the sweet air and sunshine, tempted him to walk off the chill and fever of the fit.

As he passed the little cottage where old Widow Maddock lay sick, Rachael Lake emerged. He was not glad. He would rather have had his sad walk in his own shy company. But there she was—he could not pass her by; so he stopped, and lifted his hat, and greeted her; and then they shook hands. She was going his way. He looked wistfully on the little hatch of old Widow Maddock's cottage; for he felt a pang of reproach at passing her door; but there was no comfort then in his thoughts, only a sense of fear and hopeless fatigue.

'How is poor old Mrs. Maddock?' he asked; 'you have been visiting the sick and afflicted, and I was passing by; but, indeed, if I were capable at this moment I should not fail to see her, poor creature.'

There was something apologetic and almost miserable in his look as he said this.

'She is not better; but you have been very good to her, and she is very grateful; and I am glad,' said Rachel, 'that I happened to light on you.'

And she paused. They were by this time walking side by side; and she glanced at him enquiringly; and he thought that the handsome girl looked rather thin and pale.

'You once said,' Miss Lake resumed, 'that sooner or later I should be taught the value of religion, and would learn to prize my great privileges; and that for some spirits the only approach to the throne of mercy was through great tribulation. I have often thought since of those words, and they have begun, for me, to take the spirit of a prophecy—sometimes that is—but at others they sound differently—like a dreadful menace—as if my afflictions were only to bring me to the gate of life to find it shut.'

'Knock, and it shall be opened,' said the vicar; but the comfort was sadly spoken, and he sighed.

'But is not there a time, Mr. Wylder, when He shall have shut to the door, and are there not some who, crying to him to open, shall yet remain for ever in outer darkness?'

'I see, dear Miss Lake, that your mind is at work—it is a good influence—at work upon the great, theme which every mortal spirit ought to be employed upon.'

'My fears are at work; my mind is altogether dark and turbid; I am sometimes at the brink of despair.'

'Take comfort from those fears. There is hope in that despair;' and he looked at her with great interest in his gentle eyes.

She looked at him, and then away toward the declining sun, and she said despairingly—

'I cannot comprehend you.'

'Come!' said he, 'Miss Lake, bethink you; was there not a time—and no very distant one—when futurity caused you no anxiety, and when the subject which has grown so interesting, was altogether distasteful to you. The seed of the Word is received at length into good ground; but a grain of wheat will bring forth no fruit unless it die first. The seed dies to outward sense, and despair follows; but the principle of life is working in it, and it will surely grow, and bring forth fruit—thirty, sixty, an hundredfold—be not dismayed. The body dies, and the Lord of life compares it to the death of the seed in the earth; and then comes the palingenesis—the rising in glory. In like manner He compares the reception of the principle of eternal life into the soul to the dropping of a seed into the earth; it follows the general law of mortality. It too dies—such a death as the children of heaven die here—only to germinate afresh with celestial power and beauty.'

Miss Lake's way lay by a footpath across a corner of the park to Redman's Dell. So they crossed the stile, and still conversing, followed the footpath under the hedgerow of the pretty field, and crossing another stile, entered the park.


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