Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XXXI


Lord Chelford raised his hat, smiling: 'I am so very glad I met you, I was beginning to feel so solitary!' he placed himself beside Miss Lake. 'I've had such a long walk across the park. How do you do, Lake? when did you come?'

And so on—Lake answering and looking wonderfully as usual.

I think Lord Chelford perceived there was something amiss between the young people, for his eye rested on Rachel with a momentary look of enquiry, unconscious, no doubt, and quickly averted, and he went on chatting pleasantly; but he looked, once or twice, a little hard at Stanley Lake. I don't think he had an extraordinarily good opinion of that young gentleman. He seldom expressed an ill one of anybody, and then it was in very measured language. But though he never hinted at an unfavourable estimate of the captain, his intimacies with him were a little reserved; and I think I have seen him, even when he smiled, look the least little bit in the world uncomfortable, as if he did not quite enter into the captain's pleasantries.

They had not walked together very far, when Stanley recollected that he must take his leave, and walk back to Gylingden; and so the young lady and Lord Chelford were left to pursue their way towards Redman's Farm together.

It would have been a more unaccountable proceeding on the part of Stanley Lake, and a more romantic situation, if Rachel and his lordship had not had before two or three little accidental rambles together in the grounds and gardens of Brandon. There was nothing quite new in the situation, therefore; and Rachel was for a moment indescribably relieved by Stanley's departure.

The shock of her brief interview with her brother over, reflection assured her, knowing all she did, that Stanley's wooing would prosper, and so this cause of quarrel had really nothing in it; no, nothing but a display of his temper and morals—not very astonishing, after all—and, like an ugly picture or a dreadful dream, in no way to affect her after-life, except as an odious remembrance.

Therefore, little by little, like a flower that has been bruised, in the tranquillising influences about her, the young lady got up, expanded, and grew like herself again—not like enough, indeed, to say much, but to listen and follow his manly, refined, and pleasant talk, every moment with a pang, that had yet something pleasurable in it, contrasting the quiet and chivalric tone of her present companion, with the ferocious duplicity of the sly, smooth terrorist who had just left her side.

It was rather a marked thing—as lean Mrs. Loyd, of Gylingden, who had two thin spinsters with pink noses under her wing, remarked—this long walk of Lord Chelford and Miss Lake in the park; and she enjoined upon her girls the propriety of being specially reserved in their intercourse with persons of Lord Chelford's rank; not that they were much troubled with dangers from any such quarter. Miss Lake had, she supposed, her own notions, and would act as she pleased; but she owned for her part she preferred the old fashion, and thought the men did also; and was sure, too, that young ladies lost nothing by a little reserve and modesty.

Now something of this, no doubt, passed in the minds of Lord Chelford and his pretty companion. But what was to be done? That perverse and utterly selfish brother, Stanley Lake, had chosen to take his leave. Lord Chelford could not desert the young lady, and would it have been a very nice delicacy in Miss Lake to make her courtesy in the middle of the park, and protest against pursuing their walk together any further?

Lord Chelford was a lively and agreeable companion; but there was something unusually gentle, almost resembling tenderness, in his manner. She was so different from her gay, fiery self in this walk—so gentle; so subdued—and he was more interested by her, perhaps, than he had ever been before.

The sun just touched the verge of the wooded uplands, as the young people began to descend the slope of Redman's Dell.

'How very short!' Lord Chelford paused, with a smile, at these words. 'I was just going to say how short the days have grown, as if it had all happened without notice, and contrary to the almanac; but really the sun sets cruelly early this evening, and I am so very sorry our little walk is so soon to end.'

There was not much in this little speech, but it was spoken in a low, sweet voice; and Rachel looked down on the ferns before her feet, as they walked on side by side, not with a smile, but with a blush, and that beautiful look of gratification so becoming and indescribable. Happy that moment—that enchanted moment of oblivion and illusion! But the fitful evening breeze came up through Redman's Dell, with a gentle sweep over the autumnal foliage. Sudden as a sigh, and cold; in her ear it sounded like a whisper or a shudder, and she lifted up her eyes and saw the darkening dell before her; and with a pang, the dreadful sense of reality returned. She stopped, with something almost wild in her look. But with an effort she smiled, and said, with a little shiver, 'The air has grown quite chill, and the sun nearly set; we loitered, Stanley and I, a great deal too long in the park, but I am now at home, and I fear I have brought you much too far out of your way already; good-bye.' And she extended her hand.

'You must not dismiss your escort here. I must see you through the enchanted dell—it is only a step—and then I shall return with a good conscience, like a worthy knight, having done my devoir honestly.'

She looked down the dell, with a dark and painful glance, and then she said a few words of hesitating apology and acquiescence, and in a few minutes more they parted at the little wicket of Redman's Farm. They shook hands. He had a few pleasant, lingering words to say. She paused as he spoke at the other side of that little garden door. She seemed to like those lingering sentences—and hung upon them—and even smiled but in her eyes there was a vague and melancholy pleading—a wandering and unfathomable look that pained him.

They shook hands again—it was the third time—and then she walked up the little gravel walk, hardly a dozen steps, and disappeared within the door of Redman's Farm, without turning another parting look on Lord Chelford, who remained at the little paling—expecting one, I think—to lift his hat and say one more parting word.

She turned into the little drawing-room at the left, and, herself unseen, did take that last look, and saw him go up the road again towards Brandon. The shadows and mists of Redman's Dell anticipated night, and it was already deep twilight there.

On the table there lay a letter which Margery had brought from the post-office. So Rachel lighted her candles and read it with very little interest, for it concerned a world towards which she had few yearnings. There was just one sentence which startled her attention: it said, 'We shall soon be at Knowlton—for Christmas, I suppose. It is growing too wintry for mamma near the sea, though I like it better in a high wind than in a calm; and a gale is such fun—such a romp. The Dulhamptons have arrived: the old Marchioness never appears till three o'clock, and only out in the carriage twice since they came. I can't say I very much admire Lady Constance, though she is to be Chelford's wife. She has fine eyes—and I think no other good point—much too dark for my taste—but they say clever;' and not another word was there on this subject.

'Lady Constance! arranged, I suppose, by Lady Chelford—no great dot—and an unamiable family—an odious family—nothing to recommend her but her rank.'

So ruminated Rachel Lake as she looked out on her shadowy garden, and tapped a little feverish tattoo with her finger on the window pane; and she meditated a great while, trying to bring back distinctly her recollection of Lady Constance, and also vaguely conjecturing who had arranged the marriage, and how it had come about.

'Chelford cannot like her. It is all Lady Chelford's doing. Can I have mistaken the name?'

But no. Nothing could be more perfectly distinct than 'Chelford,' traced in her fair correspondent's very legible hand.

'He treats the young lady very coolly,' thought Rachel, forgetting, perhaps, that his special relations to Dorcas Brandon had compelled his stay in that part of the world.

Mingled with this criticism, was a feeling quite unavowed even to herself—a sore feeling that Lord Chelford had been—and this she never admitted to herself before—more particular—no, not exactly that—but more something or other—not exactly expressible in words, in his approaches to her, than was consistent with his situation. But then she had been very guarded; not stiff or prudish, indeed, but frank and cold enough with him, and that was comforting.

Still there was a sense of wonder—a great blank, and something of pain in the discovery—yes, pain—though she smiled a faint blushing smile—alone as she was; and then came a deep sigh; and then a sort of start.

'Rachel, Rachel, is it possible?' murmured the young lady, with the same dubious smile, looking down upon the ground, and shaking her head. 'Yes, I do really think you had begun to like Lord Chelford—only begun, the least little insidious bit; but thank you, wild Bessie Frankleyn, you have quite opened my eyes. Rachel, Rachel, girl! what a fool you were near becoming!'

She looked like her old pleasant self during this little speech—arch and fresh, and still smiling—she looked up and sighed, and then her dark look returned, and she said dismally,

'What utter madness!'

And leaned for a while with her fingers upon the window sash; and when she turned to old Tamar, who brought in her tiny tea equipage, it seemed as if the shadow of the dell, into which she had been vacantly gazing, still rested on her face.

'Not here, Tamar; I'll drink tea in my room; and you must bring your tea-cup, too, and we'll take it together. I am—I think I am—a little nervous, darling, and you won't leave me?'

So they sat down together in her chamber. It was a cheery little bed-room, when the shutters were closed, and the fire burning brightly in the grate.

'My good Tamar will read her chapters aloud. I wish I could enjoy them like you. I can only wish. You must pray for me, Tamar. There is a dreadful image—and I sometimes think a dreadful being always near me. Though the words you read are sad and awful, they are also sweet, like funeral music a long way off, and they tranquillise me without making me better, as the harping of David did the troubled and forsaken King Saul.'

So the old nurse mounted her spectacles, glad of the invitation, and began to read. Her reading was very, slow, and had other faults too, being in that sing-song style to which some people inexplicably like to read Holy Writ; but it was reverent and distinct, and I have heard worse even in the reading desk.

'Stop,' said Rachel suddenly, as she reached about the middle of the chapter.

The old woman looked up, with her watery eyes wide open, and there was a short pause.

'I beg your pardon, dear Tamar, but you must first tell me that story you used to tell me long ago of Lady Ringdove, that lived in Epping Forest, to whom the ghost came and told something she was never to reveal, and who slowly died of the secret, growing all the time more and more like the spectre; and besought the priest when she was dying, that he would have her laid in the abbey vault, with her mouth open, and her eyes and ears sealed, in token that her term of slavery was over, that her lips might now be open, and that her eyes were to see no more the dreadful sight, nor her ears to hear the frightful words that used to scare them in her life-time; and then, you remember, whenever afterwards they opened the door of the vault, the wind entering in, made such moanings in her hollow mouth, and declared things so horrible that they built up the door of the vault, and entered it no more. Let me have the entire story, just as you used to tell it.'

So old Tamar, who knew it was no use disputing a fancy of her young mistress, although on Sunday night she would have preferred other talk, recounted her old tale of wonder.

'Yes, it is true—a true allegory, I mean, Tamar. Death will close the eyes and ears against the sights and sounds of earth; but even the tomb secures no secrecy. The dead themselves declare their dreadful secrets, open-mouthed, to the winds. Oh, Tamar! turn over the pages, and try to find some part which says where safety and peace may be found at any price; for sometimes I think I am almost bereft of—reason.'


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