SIR JULIUS HOCKLEY'S LETTER.
Jos. Larkin mentioned in his conversation with the vicar, just related, that he had received a power of attorney from Mark Wylder. Connected with this document there came to light a circumstance so very odd, that the reader must at once be apprised of it.
This legal instrument was attested by two witnesses, and bore date about a week before the interview, just related, between the vicar and Mr. Larkin. Here, then, was a fact established. Mark Wylder had returned from Boulogne, for the power of attorney had been executed at Brighton. Who were the witnesses? One was Thomas Tupton, of the Travellers' Hotel, Brighton.
This Thomas Tupton was something of a sporting celebrity, and a likely man enough to be of Mark's acquaintance.
The other witness was Sir Julius Hockley, of Hockley, an unexceptionable evidence, though a good deal on the turf.
Now our friend Jos. Larkin had something of the Red Indian's faculty for tracking his game, by hardly perceptible signs and tokens, through the wilderness; and this mystery of Mark Wylder's flight and seclusion was the present object of his keen and patient pursuit.
On receipt of the 'instrument,' therefore, he wrote by return of post, 'presenting his respectful compliments to Sir Julius Hockley, and deeply regretting that, as solicitor of the Wylder family, and the gentleman (sic) empowered to act under the letter of attorney, it was imperative upon him to trouble him (Sir Julius H.) with a few interrogatories, which he trusted he would have no difficulty in answering.'
The first was, whether he had been acquainted with Mr. Mark Wylder's personal appearance before seeing him sign, so as to be able to identify him. The second was, whether he (Mr. M.W.) was accompanied, at the time of executing the instrument, by any friend; and if so, what were the name and address of such friend. And the third was, whether he could communicate any information whatsoever respecting Mr. M.W.'s present place of abode?
The same queries were put in a somewhat haughty and peremptory way to the sporting hotel-keeper, who answered that Mr. Mark Wylder had been staying for a week at his house, about five months ago; and that he had seen him twice—once 'backing' Jonathan, when he beat the great American billiard-player; and another time, when he lent him his copy of 'Bell's Life,' in the coffee-room; and thus he was enabled to identify him. For the rest he could say nothing.
Sir Julius's reply was of the hoity-toity and rollicking sort, bordering in parts very nearly on nonsense, and generally impertinent. It reached Mr. Larkin as he sat at breakfast with his friend, Stanley Lake.
'Pray read your letters, and don't mind me, I entreat. Perhaps you will allow me to look at the "Times;" and I'll trouble you for the sardines.'
The postmark 'Hockley,' stared the lawyer in the face; and, longing to break the seal, he availed himself of the captain's permission. So Lake opened the 'Times;' and, as he studied its columns, I think he stole a glance or two over its margin at the attorney, now deep in the letter of Sir Julius Hockley.
He (Sir J.H.) 'presented his respects to Mr. Larkens, or Larkins, or Larkme, or Larkus—Sir J.H. is not able to read which or what; but he is happy to observe, at all events, that, end how he may, the gentleman begins with a "lark!" which Sir J.H. always does, when he can. Not being able to discover his terminal syllable, he will take the liberty of styling him by his sprightly beginning, and calling him shortly "Lark." As Sir J. never objected to a lark, the gentleman so designated introduces himself with a strong prejudice, in Sir J.'s mind, in his favour—so much so, that by way of a lark, Sir J. will answer Lark's questions, which are not, he thinks, very impertinent. The wildest of all Lark's questions refers to Wylder's place of abode, which Sir J. was never wild enough to think of asking after, and does not know; and so little was he acquainted with the gentleman, that he forgot he was an evangelist doing good under the style and title of Mark. Lark may, therefore, tell Mark, if he sees him, or his friends—Matthew, Luke, and John—that Sir Julius saw Mark only on two successive days, at the cricket-match, played between Paul's Eleven—the coincidence is remarkable—and the Ishmaelites (these, I am bound to observe, were literally the designations of the opposing sides); and that he had the honour of being presented to Mark—saint or sinner, as he may be—on the ground, by his, Sir J.H.'s, friend, Captain Stanley Lake, of the Guards.'
Here was an astounding fact. Stanley Lake had been in Mark Wylder's company only ten days ago, when that great match was played at Brighton! What a deep gentleman was that Stanley Lake, who sat at the other end of the table with the 'Times' before him. What a varnished rascal—what a matchless liar!
He had returned to Gylingden, direct, in all likelihood, from his conferences with Mark Wylder, to tell all concerned that it was vain endeavouring to trace him, and still offering his disinterested services in the pursuit.
No matter! We must take things coolly and cautiously. All this chicanery will yet break down, and the conspiracy, be it what it may, will be thoroughly exposed. Mystery is the shadow of guilt; and, most assuredly, thought Mr. Larkin, there is some infernal secret, well worth knowing, at the bottom of all this. You little think I have you here! and he slid Sir Julius Hockley's piece of rubbishy banter into his waistcoat pocket, and then opened and glanced at half-a-dozen other letters, in a cool, quick official way, endorsing a little note on the back of each with his gold, patent pencil. All Mr. Jos. Larkin's 'properties' were handsome and imposing, and he never played with children without producing his gold repeater, and making it strike, and exhibiting its wonders for their amusement, and the edification of the adults, whose presence, of course, he forgot.
'Paul's Eleven have challenged the Gipsies,' said Lake, languidly lifting his eyes from the paper. 'By-the-bye, are you anything of a cricketer? And they are to play at Hockley, Sir Julius Hockley's ground. You know Sir Julius, don't you?'
'Very slightly. I may say I have that honour, but we have never been thrown together; a mere—a—the slightest thing in the world.'
'Not schoolfellows——you are not an Eton man, eh?' said Lake.
'Oh no! My dear father' (the organist) 'would not send a boy of his to what he called an idle school. But my acquaintance with Sir Julius was a trifling matter. Hockley is a very pretty place, is not it?'
'A sweet place. A great match was played between those fellows at Brighton: Paul's Eleven beat fifteen of the Ishmaelites, about a fortnight since; but they have no chance with the Gipsies. It will be quite a hollow thing—a one-innings affair.'
'Have you ever seen Paul's Eleven play?' asked the lawyer, carelessly taking up the newspaper which Lake had laid down.
'I saw them play that match at Brighton, I mentioned just now, a few days ago.'
'Ah! did you?'
'Did not you know I was there?' said Lake, in rather a changed tone. Larkin looked up, and Lake laughed in his face quietly the most impertinent laugh he had ever seen or heard, with his yellow eyes fixed on the lawyer's pink little optics. 'I was there, and Hockley was there, and Mark Wylder was there—was not he?' and Lake stared and laughed, and the attorney stared; and Lake added, 'What a d—d cunning fellow you are; ha, ha, ha!'
Larkin was not easily put out, but he was disconcerted now; and his cheeks and forehead grew suddenly pink, and he coughed a little, and tried to throw a look of mild surprise into his face.
'Why, you have this moment had a letter from Hockley. Don't you think I knew his hand and the post-mark, and your look said quite plainly, "Here's news of my friend Stanley Lake and Mark Wylder." I had an uncle in the Foreign Office, and they said he would have been quite a distinguished diplomatist if he had lived; and I was said to have a good deal of his talent; and I really think I have brought my little evidences very prettily together, and jumped to a right conclusion—eh?'
A flicker of that sinister shadow I have sometimes mentioned crossed Larkin's face, and contracted his eyes, as he said, a little sternly—
'I have nothing on earth to conceal, Sir; I never had. All my conduct has been as open as the light; there's not a letter, Sir, I ever write or receive, that might not, so far as I am concerned, with my good will, lie open on that table for every visitor that comes in to read;—open as the day, Sir:' and the attorney waved his hand grandly.
'Hear, hear, hear,' said Lake, languidly, and tapping a little applause on the table, while he watched the solicitor's rhetoric with his sly, disconcerting smile.
'It was but conscientious, Captain Lake, that I should make particular enquiry respecting the genuineness of a legal instrument conferring such very considerable powers. How, on earth, Sir, could I have the slightest suspicion that you had seen my client, Mr. Wylder, considering the tenor of your letters and conversation? And I venture to say, Captain Lake, that Lord Chelford will be just as much surprised as I, when he hears it.'
Jos. Larkin, Esq., delivered this peroration from a moral elevation, all the loftier that he had a peer of the realm on his side. But peers did not in the least overawe Stanley Lake, who had been all his days familiar with those idols; and the moral altitudes of the attorney amused him vastly.
'But he'll not hear it; I won't tell him, and you sha'n't; because I don't think it would be prudent of us—do you?—to quarrel with Mark Wylder, and he does not wish our meeting known. It is nothing on earth to me; on the contrary, it rather places me in an awkward position keeping other people's secrets.'
The attorney made one of his slight, gentlemanlike bows, and threw back his head with a lofty and reserved look.
'I don't know, Captain Lake, that I would be quite justified in withholding the substance of Sir Julius Hockley's letter from Lord Chelford, consulted, as I have had the honour to be, by that nobleman. I shall, however, turn it over in my mind.'
'Don't the least mind me. In fact, I would rather tell it than not. And I can explain to Chelford why I could not mention the circumstance. Wylder, in fact, tied me down by a promise, and he'll be devilish angry with you; but, it seems, you don't very much mind that.'
He knew that Mr. Larkin did very much mind it; and the quick glance of the attorney could read nothing whatever in the captain's pallid face and downcast eyes, smiling on the points of his varnished boots.
'Of course, you know, Captain Lake, in alluding to the possibility of my making any communication to Lord Chelford, I limit myself strictly to the letter of Sir Julius Hockley, and do not, by any means, my dear Captain Lake, include the conversation which has just occurred, and the communication which you have volunteered to make me.'
'Oh! quite so,' said the captain, looking up suddenly, as was his way, with a momentary glare, like a man newly-waked from a narcotic doze.