Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XXVI


Wylder's levanting in this way was singularly disconcerting. The time was growing short. He wrote with a stupid good-humour, and an insolent brevity which took no account of Miss Brandon's position, or that (though secondary in awkwardness) of her noble relatives. Lord Chelford plainly thought more than he cared to say; and his mother, who never minced matters, said perhaps more than she quite thought.

Chelford was to give the beautiful heiress away. But the receiver of this rich and peerless gift—like some mysterious knight who, having carried all before him in the tourney, vanishes no one knows whither, when the prize is about to be bestowed, and whom the summons of the herald and the call of the trumpet follow in vain—had escaped them.

'Lake has gone up to town this morning—some business with his banker about his commission—and he says he will make Wylder out on his arrival, and write to me,' said Lord Chelford.

Old Lady Chelford glanced across her shoulder at Dorcas, who leaned back in a great chair by the window, listlessly turning over a book.

'She's a strange girl, she does not seem to feel her situation—a most painful and critical one. That low, coarse creature must be looked up somehow.'

'Lake knows where he is likely to be found, and will see him, I dare say, this evening—perhaps in time to write by to-night's post.'

So, in a quiet key, Miss Dorcas being at a distance, though in the same room, the dowager and her son discussed this unpleasant and very nervous topic.

That evening Captain Lake was in London, comfortably quartered in a private hotel, in one of the streets off Piccadilly. He went to his club and dined better than he had done for many days. He really enjoyed his three little courses—his pint of claret, his cup of cafè noir, and his chasse; the great Babylon was his Jerusalem, and his spirit found rest there.

He was renovated and refreshed, his soul was strengthened, and his countenance waxed cheerful, and he began to feel like himself again, under the brown canopy of metropolitan smoke, and among the cabs and gaslights.

After dinner he got into a cab, and drove to Mark Wylder's club. Was he there?—No. Had he been there to-day?—No. Or within the last week?—No; not for two months. He had left his address, and was in the country. The address to which his letters were forwarded was 'The Brandon Arms, Gylingden.'

So Captain Lake informed that functionary that his friend had come up to town, and asked him again whether he was quite certain that he had not called there, or sent for his letters.—No; nothing of the sort. Then Captain Lake asked to see the billiard-marker, who was likely to know something about him. But he knew nothing. He certainly had not been at the 'Lark's Nest,' which was kept by the marker's venerable parent, and was a favourite haunt of the gay lieutenant.

Then our friend Stanley, having ruminated for a minute, pencilled a little note to Mark, telling him that he was staying at Muggeridge's Hotel, 7, Hanover Street, Piccadilly, and wished most particularly to see him for a few minutes; and this he left with the hall-porter to give him should he call.

Then Lake got into his cab again, having learned that he had lodgings in St. James's Street when he did not stay at the club, and to these he drove. There he saw Mrs. M'Intyre, a Caledonian lady, at this hour somewhat mellow and talkative; but she could say nothing to the purpose either. Mr. Wylder had not been there for nine weeks and three days; and would owe her, on Saturday next, twenty-five guineas. So here, too, he left a little note to the same purpose; and re-entering his cab, he drove a long way, and past St. Paul's, and came at last to a court, outside which he had to dismount from his vehicle, entering the grimy quadrangle through a narrow passage. He had been there that evening before, shortly after his arrival, with old Mother Dutton, as he called her, about her son, Jim.

Jim was in London, looking for a situation, all which pleased Captain Lake; and he desired that she should send him to his hotel to see him in the morning.

But being in some matters of a nervous and impatient temperament, he had come again, as we see, hoping to find Jim there, and to anticipate his interview of the morning.

The windows, however, were dark, and a little research satisfied Captain Lake that the colony was in bed. In fact, it was by this time half-past eleven o'clock, and working-people don't usually sit up to that hour. But our friend, Stanley Lake, was one of those persons who think that the course of the world's affairs should bend a good deal to their personal convenience, and he was not pleased with these unreasonable working-people who had gone to their beds, and brought him to this remote and grimy amphitheatre of black windows for nothing. So, wishing them the good-night they merited, he re-entered his cab, and drove rapidly back again towards the West-end.

This time he went to a somewhat mysterious and barricadoed place, where in a blaze of light, in various rooms, gentlemen in hats, and some in great coats, were playing roulette or hazard; and I am sorry to say, that our friend, Captain Lake, played first at one and then at the other, with what success exactly I don't know. But I don't think it was very far from four o'clock in the morning when he let himself into his family hotel with that latchkey, the cock's tail of Micyllus, with which good-natured old Mrs. Muggeridge obliged the good-looking captain.

Captain Lake having given orders the evening before, that anyone who might call in the morning, and ask to see him, should be shown up to his bed-room sans ceremonie, was roused from deep slumber at a quarter past ten, by a knock at his door, and a waiter's voice.

'Who's that?' drawled Captain Lake, rising, pale and half awake, on his elbow, and not very clear where he was.

'The man, Sir, as you left a note for yesterday, which he desires to see you?'

'Tell him to step in.'

So out went the waiter in pumps, and the sound of thick shoes was audible on the lobby, and a sturdier knock sounded on the door.

'Come in,' said the captain.

And Jim Dutton entered the room, and, closing the door, made, at the side of the bed, his reverence, consisting of a nod and a faint pluck at the lock of hair over his forehead.

Now Stanley Lake had, perhaps, expected to see some one else; for though this was a very respectable-looking fellow for his walk in life, the gay young officer stared full at him, with a frightened and rather dreadful countenance, and actually sprung from his bed at the other side, with an ejaculation at once tragic and blasphemous.

The man plainly had not expected to produce any such result, and looked very queer. Perhaps he thought something had occurred to affect his personal appearance; perhaps some doubt about the captain's state of health, and misgiving as to delirium tremens may have flickered over his brain.

They were staring at one another across the bed, the captain in his shirt.

At last the gallant officer seemed to discover things as they were, for he said—

'Jim Dutton, by Jove!'

The oath was not so innocent; but it was delivered quietly; and then the captain drew a long breath, and then, still staring at him, he laughed a ghastly little laugh, also quietly.

'And so it is you, Jim,' said the captain. 'And how do you do—quite well, Jim—and out of place? You've been hurt in the foot, eh? so old your—Mrs. Dutton tells me, but that won't signify. I was dreaming when you came in; not quite awake yet, hardly; just wait a bit till I get my slippers on; and this—' So into his red slippers he slid, and got his great shawl dressing-gown, such as fine gentlemen then wore, about his slender person, and knotted the silken cords with depending tassels, and greeted Jim Dutton again in very friendly fashion, enquiring very particularly how he had been ever since, and what his mother was doing; and I'm afraid not listening to Jim's answers as attentively as one might have expected.

Whatever may have been his intrinsic worth, Jim was not polished, and spoke, moreover, an uncouth dialect, which broke out now and then. But he was in a sort of way attached to the Lake family, the son of an hereditary tenant on that estate which had made itself wings, and flown away like the island of Laputa. It could not be said to be love; it was a sort of traditionary loyalty; a sentiment, however, not altogether unserviceable.

When they had talked together for a while, the captain said—

'The fact is, it is not quite on me you would have to attend; the situation, perhaps, is better. You have no objection to travel. You have been abroad, you know; and of course wages and all that will be in proportion.'

Well, Jim had not any objection to speak of.

'What's wanted is a trustworthy man, perfectly steady, you see, and a fellow who knows how to hold his tongue.'

The last condition, perhaps, struck the man as a little odd; he looked a little confusedly, and he conveyed that he would not like to be in anything that was not quite straight.

'Quite straight, Sir!' repeated Stanley Lake, looking round on him sternly; 'neither should I, I fancy. You are to suppose the case of a gentleman who is nursing his estate—you know what that means—and wants to travel, and keep quite quiet, and who requires a steady, trustworthy man to look after him, in such a way as I shall direct, with very little trouble and capital pay. I have a regard for you, Dutton; and seeing so good a situation was to be had, and thinking you the fittest man I know, I wished to serve you and my friend at the same time.'

Dutton became grateful and docile upon this.

'There are reasons, quite honourable I need not tell you, which make it necessary, James Dutton, that the whole of this affair should be kept perfectly to ourselves; you are not to repeat one syllable I say to you to your mother, do you mind, or to any other person living. The gentleman is liberal, and if you can just hold your tongue, you will have little trouble in satisfying him upon all other points. But if you can't be quite silent, you had better, I frankly tell you, decline the situation, excellent in all respects as it is.'

'I'm a man, Sir, as can be close enough.'

'So much the better. You don't drink?'

Dutton coloured a little and coughed and said—

'No, Sir.'

'You have your papers?'

'Yes, Sir.'

'We must be satisfied as to your sobriety, Dutton. Come back at half-past eleven and I'll see you, and bring your papers; and, do you see, you are not to talk, you understand; only you may say, if anyone presses, that I am thinking of hiring you to attend on a gentleman, whose name you don't yet know, who's going to travel. That's all.'

So Jim Dutton made his bow, and departed; and Captain Lake continued to watch the door for some seconds after his departure, as if he could see his retreating figure through it. And, said he, with an oath, and his hand to his forehead, over his eyebrow—

'It is the most unaccountable thing in nature!'

Then, after a reverie of some seconds, the young gentleman applied himself energetically to his toilet; and coming down to his sitting-room, he looked into his morning paper, and then into the street, and told the servant as he sate down to breakfast, that he expected a gentleman named Wylder to call that morning, and to be sure to show him up directly.

Captain Lake's few hours' sleep, contrary to popular ideas about gamesters' slumbers, had been the soundest and the most natural which he had enjoyed for a good many nights. He was refreshed. At Gylingden and Brandon he had been simulating Captain Stanley Lake—being, in truth, something quite different—with a vigilant histrionic effort which was awfully exhausting, and sometimes nearly intolerable. Here the captain was perceptibly stealing into his old ways and feelings. His spirit revived; something like confidence in the future, and a possibility even of enjoying the present, was struggling visibly through the cold fog that environed him. Reason has, after all, so little to do with our moods. The weather, the scene, the stomach, how pleasantly they deal with facts—how they supersede philosophy, and even arithmetic, and teach us how much of life is intoxication and illusion.

Still there was the sword of Damocles over his pineal gland. D—— that sheer, cold blade! D—— him that forged it! Still there was a great deal of holding in a horse-hair. Had not salmon, of I know not how many pounds' weight, been played and brought to land by that slender towage. There is the sword, a burnished piece of cutlery, weighing just so many pounds; and the horsehair has sufficed for an hour, and why not for another—and soon? Hang moping and nonsense! Waiter, another pint of Chian; and let the fun go forward.

So the literal waiter knocked at the door. 'A person wanted to see Captain Lake. No, it was not Mr. Wylder. It was the man who had been here in the morning—Dutton is his name.'

'And so it is really half-past eleven?' said Lake, in a sleepy surprise. 'Let him come in.'

And so in comes Jim Dutton again, to hear particulars, and have, as he hopes, his engagement ratified.


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