Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XXXVII


It was rather trying, in this state of things, to receive from the triumphant baronet, with only a parenthetical 'Dear Lake, I beg your pardon,' a rough knock on the elbow of the hand that held his glass, and to be then summarily hustled out of his place. It was no mitigation of the rudeness, in Lake's estimate, that Sir Harry was so engrossed and elated as to seem hardly conscious of any existence but Miss Brandon's and his own.

Lake was subject to transient paroxysms of exasperation; but even in these be knew how to command himself pretty well before witnesses. His smile grew a little stranger, and his face a degree whiter, as he set down his glass, quietly glided a little away, and brushed off with his handkerchief the aspersion which his coat had suffered.

In a few minutes more Miss Brandon had left the supper-room leaning upon Lord Chelford's arm; and Sir Harry remained, with a glass of pink champagne, such as young fellows drink with a faith and comfort so wonderful, at balls and fêtes champêtres.

Sir Harry Bracton was already 'chaffing a bit,' as he expressed it, with the young lady who assisted in dispensing the good things across the supper-table, and was just calling up her blushes by a pretty parallel between her eyes and the sparkling quality of his glass, and telling her her mamma must have been sweetly pretty.

Now, Sir Harry's rudeness to Lake had not been, I am afraid, altogether accidental. The baronet was sudden and vehement in his affairs of the heart; but curable on short absences, and easily transferable. He had been vehemently enamoured of the heiress of Brandon a year ago and more; but during an absence Mark Wylder's suit grew up and prospered, and Sir Harry Bracton acquiesced; and, to say truth, the matter troubled his manly breast but little.

He had hardly expected to see her here in this rollicking, rustic gathering. She was, he thought, even more lovely than he remembered her. Beauty sometimes seen again does excel our recollections of it. Wylder had gone off the scene, as Mr. Carlyle says, into infinite space. Who could tell exactly the cause of his dismissal, and why the young lady had asserted her capricious resolve to be free?

There were pleasant theories adaptable to the circumstances; and Sir Harry cherished an agreeable opinion of himself; and so, all things favouring; the old flame blazed up wildly, and the young gentleman was more in love then, and for some weeks after the ball, than perhaps he had ever been before.

Now some men—and Sir Harry was of them—are churlish and ferocious over their loves, as certain brutes are over their victuals. In one of these tender paroxysms, when in the presence of his Dulcinea, the young baronet was always hot, short, and saucy with his own sex; and when his jealousy was ever so little touched, positively impertinent.

He perceived what other people did not, that Miss Brandon's eye once on that evening rested for a moment on Captain Lake with a peculiar expression of interest. This look was but once and momentary; but the young gentleman resented it, and brooded over it, every now and then, when the pale face of the captain crossed his eye; and two or three times, when the beautiful young lady's attention seemed unaccountably to wander from his agreeable conversation, he thought he detected her haughty eye moving in the same direction. So he looked that way too; and although he could see nothing noticeable in Stanley's demeanour, he could have felt it in his heart to box his ears.

Therefore, I don't think he was quite so careful as he might have been to spare Lake that jolt upon the elbow, which coming from a rival in a moment of public triumph was not altogether easy to bear like a Christian.

'Some grapes, please,' said Lake, to the young lady behind the table.

'Oh, uncle! Is that you, Lake?—beg pardon; but you are so like my poor dear uncle, Langton. I wish you'd let me adopt you for an uncle. He was such a pretty fellow, with his fat white cheeks and long nose, and he looked half asleep. Do, pray, Uncle Lake; I should like it so,' and the baronet, who was, I am afraid, what some people would term, perhaps, vulgar, winked over his glass at the blooming confectioner, who turned away and tittered over her shoulder at the handsome baronet's charming banter.

The girl having turned away to titter, forgot Lake's grapes; so he helped himself, and leaning against the table, looked superciliously upon Sir Harry, who was not to be deterred by the drowsy gaze of contempt with which the captain retorted his angry 'chaff.'

'Poor uncle died of love, or chicken pox, or something, at forty. You're not ailing, Nunkie, are you? You do look wofully sick though; too bad to lose a second uncle at the same early age. You're near forty, eh, Nunkie? and such a pretty fellow! You'll take care of me in your will, Nunkie, won't you? Come, what will you leave me; not much tin, I'm afraid.'

'No, not much tin,' answered Lake; 'but I'll leave you what you want more, my sense and decency, with a request that you will use them for my sake.'

'You're a devilish witty fellow, Lake; take care your wit don't get you into trouble,' said the baronet, chuckling and growing angrier, for he saw the Hebe laughing; and not being a ready man, though given to banter, he sometimes descended to menace in his jocularity.

'I was just thinking your dulness might do the same for you,' drawled Lake.

'When do you mean to pay Dawlings that bet on the Derby?' demanded Sir Harry, his face very red, and only the ghost of his smile grinning there. 'I think you'd better; of course it is quite easy.'

The baronet was smiling his best, with a very red face, and that unpleasant uncertainty in his contracted eyes which accompanies suppressed rage.

'As easy as that,' said Lake, chucking a little bunch of grapes full into Sir Harry Bracton's handsome face.

Lake recoiled a step; his face blanched as white as the cloth; his left arm lifted, and his right hand grasping the haft of a table-knife.

There was just a second in which the athletic baronet stood, as it were breathless and incredulous, and then his Herculean fist whirled in the air with a most unseemly oath: the girl screamed, and a crash of glass and crockery, whisked away by their coats, resounded on the ground.

A chair between Lake and Sir Harry impeded the baronet's stride, and his uplifted arm was caught by a gentleman in moustache, who held so fast that there was no chance of shaking it loose.

'D— it, Bracton; d— you, what the devil—don't be a—fool' and other soothing expressions escaped this peacemaker, as he clung fast to the young baronet's arm.

'The people—hang it!—you'll have all the people about you. Quiet—quiet—can't you, I say. Settle it quietly. Here I am.'

'Well, let me go; that will do,' said he, glowering furiously at Lake, who confronted him, in the same attitude, a couple of yards away. 'You'll hear,' and he turned away.

'I am at the "Brandon Arms" till to-morrow,' said Lake, with white lips, very quietly, to the gentleman in moustaches, who bowed slightly, and walked out of the room with Sir Harry.

Lake poured out some sherry in a tumbler, and drank it off. He was a little bit stunned, I think, in his new situation.

Except for the waiters, and the actors in it, it so happened that the supper-room was empty during this sudden fracas. Lake stared at the frightened girl, in his fierce abstraction. Then, with his wild gaze, he followed the line of his adversary's retreat, and shook his ears slightly, like a man at whose hair a wasp has buzzed.

'Thank you,' said he to the maid, suddenly recollecting himself, with a sort of smile; 'that will do. What confounded nonsense! He'll be quite cool again in five minutes. Never mind.'

And Lake pulled on his white glove, glancing down the file of silent waiters-some looking frightened, and some reserved—in white ties and waistcoats, and he glided out of the room—his mind somewhere else—like a somnambulist.

It was not perfectly clear to the gentlemen and ladies in charge of the ices, chickens, and champagne, between which of the three swells who had just left the room the quarrel was—it had come so suddenly, and was over so quickly, like a clap of thunder. Some had not seen any, and others only a bit of it, being busy with plates and ice-tubs; and the few who had seen it all did not clearly comprehend it—only it was certain that the row had originated in jealousy about Miss Jones, the pretty apprentice, who was judiciously withdrawn forthwith by Mrs. Page, the properest of confectioners.


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