MARK WYLDER'S SUBMISSION.
Every day the position grew more critical and embarrassing. The day appointed for the nuptials was now very near, and the bridegroom not only out of sight but wholly untraceable. What was to be done?
A long letter from Stanley Lake told Lord Chelford, in detail, all the measures adopted by that energetic young gentleman for the discovery of the truant knight:—
'I have been at his club repeatedly, as also at his lodgings—still his, though he has not appeared there since his arrival in town. The billiard-marker at his club knows his haunts; and I have taken the liberty to employ, through him, several persons who are acquainted with his appearance, and, at my desire, frequent those places with a view to discovering him, and bringing about an interview with me.
'He was seen, I have reason to believe, a day or two before my arrival here, at a low place called the "Miller's Hall," in the City, where members of the "Fancy" resort, at one of their orgies, but not since. I have left notes for him wherever he is likely to call, entreating an interview.
'On my arrival I was sanguine about finding him; but I regret to say my hopes have very much declined, and I begin to think he must have changed his quarters. If you have heard from him within the last few days, perhaps you will be so kind as to send me the envelope of his letter, which, by its postmark, may possibly throw some light or hint some theory as to his possible movements. He is very clever; and having taken this plan of concealing his residence, will conduct it skilfully. If the case were mine I should be much tempted to speak with the detective authorities, and try whether they might not give their assistance, of course without éclat. But this is, I am aware, open to objection, and, in fact, would not be justifiable, except under the very peculiar urgency of the case.
'Will you be so good as to say what you think upon this point; also, to instruct me what you authorise me to say should I be fortunate enough to meet him. At present I am hardly in a position to say more than an acquaintance—never, I fear, very cordial on his part—would allow; which, of course, could hardly exceed a simple mention of your anxiety to be placed in communication with him.
'If I might venture to suggest, I really think a peremptory alternative should be presented to him. Writing, however, in ignorance of what may since have passed at Brandon, I may be assuming a state of things which, possibly, no longer exists. Pray understand that in any way you please to employ me, I am entirely at your command. It is also possible, though I hardly hope it, that I may be able to communicate something definite by this evening's post.
'I do not offer any conjectures as to the cause of this very embarrassing procedure on his part; and indeed I find a great difficulty in rendering myself useful, with any likelihood of really succeeding, without at the same exposing myself to an imputation of impertinence. You will easily see how difficult is my position.
'Whatever may be the cause of Mark Wylder's present line of conduct, it appears to me that if he really did attend that meeting at the "Miller's Hall," there cannot be anything very serious weighing upon his spirits. My business will detain me here, I rather think, three days longer.'
By return of post Lord Chelford wrote to Stanley Lake:—
'I am so very much obliged to you for all the trouble you have taken. The measures which you have adopted are, I think, most judicious; and I should not wish, on consideration, to speak to any official person. I think it better to trust entirely to the means you have already employed. Like you, I do not desire to speculate as to the causes of Wylder's extraordinary conduct; but, all the circumstances considered, I cannot avoid concluding, as you do, that there must be some very serious reason for it. I enclose a note, which, perhaps, you will be so good as to give him, should you meet before you leave town.'
The note to Mark Wylder was in these terms:—
'DEAR WYLDER,—I had hoped to see you before now at Brandon. Your unexplained absence longer continued, you must see, will impose on me the necessity of offering an explanation to Miss Brandon's friends, of the relations, under these strange circumstances, in which you and she are to be assumed to stand. You have accounted in no way for your absence. You have not even suggested a postponement of the day fixed for the completion of your engagement to that young lady; and, as her guardian, I cannot avoid telling her, should I fail to hear explicitly from you within three days from this date, that she is at liberty to hold herself acquitted of her engagement to you. I do not represent to you how much reason everyone interested by relationship in that young lady has to feel offended at the disrespect with which you have treated her. Still hoping, however, that all may yet be explained,
'I remain, my dear Wylder, yours very truly,
Lord Chelford had not opened the subject to Dorcas. Neither had old Lady Chelford, although she harangued her son upon it as volubly and fiercely as if he had been Mark Wylder in person, whenever he and she were tête-à-tête. She was extremely provoked, too, at Dorcas's evident repose under this astounding treatment, and was enigmatically sarcastic upon her when they sat together in the drawing-room.
She and her son were, it seemed, not only to think and act, but to feel also, for this utterly immovable young lady! The Brandons, in her young days, were not wanting in spirit. No; they had many faults, but they were not sticks or stones. They were not to be taken up and laid down like wax dolls; they could act and speak. It would not have been safe to trample upon them; and they were not less beautiful for being something more than pictures and statues.
This evening, in the drawing-room, there were two very pretty ormolu caskets upon the little marble table.
'A new present from Mark Wylder,' thought Lady Chelford, as these objects met her keen glance. 'The unceremonious bridegroom has, I suppose, found his way back with a peace-offering in his hand.' And she actually peered through her spectacles into the now darkened corners of the chamber, half expecting to discover the truant Wylder awaiting there the lecture she was well prepared to give him; but the square form and black whiskers of the prodigal son were not discernible there.
'So, so, something new, and very elegant and pretty,' said the old lady aloud, holding her head high, and looking as if she were disposed to be propitiated. 'I think I can risk a conjecture. Mr. Wylder is about to reappear, and has despatched these heralds of his approach, no doubt suitably freighted, to plead for his reacceptance into favour. You have heard, then, from Mr. Wylder, my dear Dorcas?'
'No, Lady Chelford,' said the young lady with a grave serenity, turning her head leisurely towards her.
'No? Oh, then where is my son? He, perhaps, can explain; and pray, my dear, what are these?'
'These caskets contain the jewels which Mr. Wylder gave me about six weeks since. I had intended restoring them to him; but as his return is delayed, I mean to place them in Chelford's hands; because I have made up my mind, a week ago, to put an end to this odious engagement. It is all over.'
Lady Chelford stared at the audacious young lady with a look of incensed amazement for some seconds, unable to speak.
'Upon my word, young lady! vastly fine and independent! You chasser Mr. Wylder without one moment's notice, and without deigning to consult me, or any other person capable of advising you. You are about to commit as gross and indelicate a breach of faith as I recollect anywhere to have heard of. What will be thought?—what will the world say?—what will your friends say? Will you be good enough to explain yourself? I'll not undertake your excuses, I promise you.'
'Excuses! I don't think of excuses, Lady Chelford; no person living has a right to demand one.'
'Very tragic, young lady, and quite charming!' sneered the dowager angrily.
'Neither one nor the other, I venture to think; but quite true, Lady Chelford,' answered Miss Brandon, haughtily.
'I don't believe you are serious, Dorcas,' said Lady Chelford, more anxiously, and also more gently. 'I can't suppose it. I'm an old woman, my dear, and I sha'n't trouble you very long. I can have no object in misleading you, and you have never experienced from me anything but kindness and affection. I think you might trust me a little, Dorcas—but that, of course, is for you, you are your own mistress now—but, at least, you may reconsider the question you propose deciding in so extraordinary a way. I allow you might do much better than Mark Wylder, but also worse. He has not a title, and his estate is not enough to carry the point à force d'argent; I grant all that. But together the estates are more than most titled men possess; and the real point is the fatal slip in your poor uncle's will, which makes it so highly important that you and Mark should be united; bear that in mind, dear Dorcas. I look for his return every day—every hour, indeed—and no doubt his absence will turn out to have been unavoidable. You must not act precipitately, and under the influence of mere pique. His absence, I will lay my life, will be satisfactorily accounted for; he has set his heart upon this marriage, and I really think you will almost drive him mad if you act as you threaten.'
'You have, indeed, dear Lady Chelford, been always very kind to me, and I do trust you,' replied this beautiful heiress, turning her large shadowy eyes upon the dowager, and speaking in slow and silvery accents, somehow very melancholy. 'I dare say it is very imprudent, and I don't deny that Mr. Wylder may have reason to complain of me, and the world will not spare me either; but I have quite made up my mind, and nothing can ever change me; all is over between me and Mr. Wylder—quite over—for ever.'
'Upon my life, young lady, this is being very sharp, indeed. Mr. Wylder's business detains him a day or two longer than he expected, and he is punished by a final dismissal!'
The old lady's thin cheeks were flushed, and her eyes shot a reddish light, and altogether she made an angry sight. It was hardly reasonable. She had been inveighing against Miss Brandon's apathy under Wylder's disrespect, and now that the young lady spoke and acted too, she was incensed. She had railed upon Wylder, in no measured terms, herself, and even threatened, as the proper measure, that very step which Dorcas had announced; and now she became all at once the apologist of this insolent truant, and was ready to denounce her unreasonable irritation.
'So far, dear Lady Chelford, from provoking me to this decision, his absence is, I assure you, the sole reason of my having delayed to inform him of it.'
'And I assure you, Miss Brandon, I sha'n't undertake to deliver your monstrous message. He will probably be here to-morrow. You have prepared an agreeable surprise for him. You shall have the pleasure of administering it yourself, Miss Brandon. For my part, I have done my duty, and here and now renounce all responsibility in the future management of your affairs.'
Saying which, she rose, in a stately and incensed way, and looking with flashing eyes over Dorcas's head to a far corner of the apartment, without another word she rustled slowly and majestically from the drawing-room.
She was a good deal shocked, and her feelings quite changed, however, when next morning the post brought a letter to Chelford from Mark Wylder, bearing the Boulogne postmark. It said—
'Don't get riled; but the fact is I don't see my way out of my present business'—(this last word was substituted for another, crossed out, which looked like 'scrape')—'for a couple of months, maybe. Therefore, you see, my liberty and wishes being at present interfered with, it would be very hard lines if poor Dorcas should be held to her bargain. Therefore, I will say this—she is quite free for me. Only, of course, I don't decline to fulfil my part whenever at liberty. In the meantime I return the miniature, with her hair in it, which I constantly wore about me since I got it. But I have no right to it any longer, till I know her decision. Don't be too hard on me, dear Chelford. It is a very old lark has got me into this present vexation. In the meantime, I wish to make it quite clear what I mean. Not being able by any endeavour'—(here a nautical phrase scratched out, and 'endeavour' substituted)—'of mine to be up to time, and as these are P.P. affairs, I must only forfeit. I mean, I am at the lady's disposal, either to fulfil my engagement the earliest day I can, or to be turned adrift. That is all I can say.
'In more trouble than you suppose, I remain, dear Chelford, yours, whatever you may think, faithfully,