Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Lake glided from the feast with a sense of a tremendous liability upon him. There was no retreat. The morning—yes, the morning—what then? Should he live to see the evening? Sir Harry Bracton was the crack shot of Swivel's gallery. He could hit a walking-cane at fifteen yards, at the word. There he was, talking to old Lady Chelford. Very well; and there was that fellow with the twisted moustache—plainly an officer and a gentleman—twisting the end of one of them, and thinking profoundly, with his back to the wall, evidently considering his coming diplomacy with Lake's 'friend.' Aye, by-the-bye, and Lake's eye wandered in bewilderment among village dons and elderly country gentlemen, in search of that inestimable treasure.

These thoughts went whisking and whirling round in Captain Lake's brain, to the roar and clatter of the Joinville Polka, to which fifty pair of dancing feet were hopping and skimming over the floor.

'Monstrous hot, Sir—hey? ha, ha, by Jove!' said Major Jackson, who had just returned from the supper-room, where he had heard several narratives of the occurrence. 'Don't think I was so hot since the ball at Government House, by Jove, Sir, in 1828—awful summer that!'

The major was jerking his handkerchief under his florid nose and chin, by way of ventilation; and eyeing the young man shrewdly the while, to read what he might of the story in his face.

'Been in Calcutta, Lake?'

'No; very hot, indeed. Could I say just a word with you—this way a little. So glad I met you.' And they edged into a little nook of the lobby, where they had a few minutes' confidential talk, during which the major looked grave and consequential, and carried his head high, nodding now and then with military decision.

Major Jackson whispered an abrupt word or two in his ear, and threw back his head, eyeing Lake with grave and sly defiance. Then came another whisper and a wink; and the major shook his hand, briefly but hard, and the gentlemen parted.

Lake strolled into the ball-room, and on to the upper end, where the 'best' people are, and suddenly he was in Miss Brandon's presence.

'I've been very presumptuous, I fear, to-night, Miss Brandon, he said, in his peculiar low tones. 'I've been very importunate—I prized the honour I sought so very much, I forgot how little I deserved it. And I do not think it likely you'll see me for a good while—possibly for a very long time. I've therefore ventured to come, merely to say good-bye—only that, just—good-bye. And—and to beg that flower'—and he plucked it resolutely from her bouquet—'which I will keep while I live. Good-bye, Miss Brandon.'

And Captain Stanley Lake, that pale apparition, was gone.

I do not know at all how Miss Brandon felt at this instant; for I never could quite understand that strange lady. But I believe she looked a little pale as she gravely adjusted the flowers so audaciously violated by the touch of the cool young gentleman.

I can't say whether Miss Brandon deigned to follow him with her dark, dreamy gaze. I rather think not. And three minutes afterwards he had left the Town Hall.

The Brandon party did not stay very late. And they dropped Rachel at her little dwelling. How very silent Dorcas was, thought Rachel, as they drove from Gylingden. Perhaps others were thinking the same of Rachel.

Next morning, at half-past seven o'clock, a dozen or so of rustics, under command of Major Jackson, arrived at the back entrance of Brandon Hall, bearing Stanley Lake upon a shutter, with glassy eyes, that did not seem to see, sunken face, and a very blue tinge about his mouth.

The major fussed into the house, and saw and talked with Larcom, who was solemn and bland upon the subject, and went out, first, to make personal inspection of the captain, who seemed to him to be dying. He was shot somewhere in the shoulder or breast—they could not see exactly where, nor disturb him as he lay. A good deal of blood had flowed from him, upon the arm and side of one of the men who supported his head.

Lake said nothing—he only whispered rather indistinctly one word, 'water'—and was not able to lift his head when it came; and when they poured it into and over his lips, he sighed and closed his eyes.

'It is not a bad sign, bleeding so freely, but he looks devilish shaky, you see. I've seen lots of our fellows hit, you know, and I don't like his looks—poor fellow. You'd better see Lord Chelford this minute. He could not stand being brought all the way to the town. I'll run down and send up the doctor, and he'll take him on if he can bear it.'

Major Jackson did not run. Though I have seen with an astonishment that has never subsided, fellows just as old and as fat, and braced up, besides, in the inflexibilities of regimentals, keeping up at double quick, at the heads of their companies, for a good quarter of a mile, before the colonel on horseback mercifully called a halt.

He walked at his best pace, however, and indeed was confoundedly uneasy about his own personal liabilities.

The major surprised Doctor Buddle shaving. He popped in unceremoniously. The fat little doctor received him in drawers and a very tight web worsted shirt, standing by the window, at which dangled a small looking-glass.

'By George, Sir, they've been at mischief,' burst forth the major; and the doctor, razor in hand, listened with wide open eyes and half his face lathered, to the story. Before it was over the doctor shaved the unshorn side, and (the major still in the room) completed his toilet in hot haste.

Honest Major Jackson was very uncomfortable. Of course, Buddle could not give any sort of opinion upon a case which he had not seen; but it described uglily, and the major consulted in broken hints, with an uneasy wink or two, about a flight to Boulogne.

'Well, it will be no harm to be ready; but take no step till I come back,' said the doctor, who had stuffed a great roll of lint and plaister, and some other medicinals, into one pocket, and his leather case of instruments, forceps, probe, scissors, and all the other steel and silver horrors, into the other; so he strutted forth in his great coat, unnaturally broad about the hips; and the major, 'devilish uncomfortable,' accompanied him at a smart pace to the great gate of Brandon. He did not care to enter, feeling a little guilty, although he explained on the way all about the matter. How devilish stiff Bracton's man was about it. And, by Jove, Sir! you know, what was to be said? for Lake, like a fool, chucked a lot of grapes in his face—for nothing, by George!'

The doctor, short and broad, was now stumping up the straight avenue, under the noble trees that roofed it over, and Major Jackson sauntered about in the vicinity of the gate, more interested in Lake's safety than he would have believed possible a day or two before.

Lord Chelford being an early man, was, notwithstanding the ball of the preceding night, dressing, when St. Ange, his Swiss servant, knocked at his door with a dozen pockethandkerchiefs, a bottle of eau-de-cologne, and some other properties of his métier.

St. Ange could not wait until he had laid them down, but broke out with—

'Oh, mi Lor!—qu'est-il arrivé?—le pauvre capitaine! il est tué—il se meurt—he dies—d'un coup de pistolet. He comes de se battre from beating himself in duel—il a été atteint dans la poitrine—le pauvre gentil-homme! of a blow of the pistol.'

And so on, the young nobleman gathering the facts as best he might.

'Is Larcom there?'

'In the gallery, mi lor.'

'Ask him to come in.'

So Monsieur Larcom entered, and bowed ominously.

'You've seen him, Larcom. Is he very much hurt?'

'He appears, my lord, to me, I regret to say, almost a-dying like.'

'Very weak? Does he speak to you?'

'Not a word, my lord. Since he got a little water he's quite quiet.'

'Poor fellow. Where have you put him?'

'In the housekeeper's lobby, my lord. I rather think he's a-dying. He looks uncommon bad, and I and Mrs. Esterbroke, the housekeeper, my lord, thought you would not like he should die out of doors.'

'Has she got your mistress's directions?'

'Miss Brandon is not called up, my lord, and Mrs. Esterbroke is unwillin' to halarm her; so she thought it better I should come for orders to your lordship; which she thinks also the poor young gentleman is certainly a-dying.'

'Is there any vacant bed-room near where you have placed him? What does Mrs. —— the housekeeper, say?'

'She thinks, my lord, the room hopposit, where Mr. Sledd, the architeck, slep, when 'ere, would answer very nice. It is roomy and hairy, and no steps. Major Jackson, who is gone to the town to fetch the doctor, my lord, says Mr. Lake won't a-bear carriage; and so the room on the level, my lord, would, perhaps, be more convenient.'

'Certainly; tell her so. I will speak to Miss Brandon when she comes down. How soon will the doctor be here?'

'From a quarter to half an hour, my lord.'

'Then tell the housekeeper to arrange as she proposes, and don't remove his clothes until the doctor comes. Everyone must assist. I know, St. Ange, you'll like to assist.'

So Larcom withdrew ceremoniously, and Lord Chelford hastened his toilet, and was down stairs, and in the room assigned by the housekeeper to the ill-starred Captain Lake, before Doctor Buddle had arrived.

It had already the dismal character of a sick chamber. Its light was darkened; its talk was in whispers; and its to-ings and fro-ings on tip-toe. An obsolete chambermaid had been already installed as nurse. Little Mrs. Esterbroke, the housekeeper, was fussing hither and thither about the room noiselessly.

So this gay, astute man of fashion had fallen into the dungeon of sudden darkness, and the custody of old women; and lay helpless in the stocks, awaiting the judgment of Buddle. Ridiculous little pudgy Buddle—how awful on a sudden are you grown—the interpreter of death in this very case. 'My case,' thought that seemingly listless figure on the bed; 'my case—I suppose it is fatal—I am to go out of this room in a long cloth-covered box. I am going to try, alone and for ever, the value of those theories of futurity and the unseen which I have quietly scouted all my days. Oh, that the prophet Buddle were here, to end my tremendous suspense, and to announce a reprieve from Heaven.'

While the wounded captain lay on the bed, with his clothes on, and the coverlet over him, and that clay-coloured apathetic face, with closed eyes, upon the pillow, without sigh or motion, not a whispered word escaped him; but his brain was appalled, and his heart died within him in the unspeakable horror of death.

Lord Chelford, too, having looked on Lake with silent, but awful misgivings, longed for the arrival of the doctor; and was listening and silent when Buddle's short step and short respiration were heard in the passage. So Larcom came to the door to announce the doctor in a whisper, and Buddle fussed into the room, and made his bow to Lord Chelford, and his brief compliments and condolences.

'Not asleep?' he enquired, standing by the bed.

The captain's lips moved a disclaimer, I suppose, but no sound came.

So the doctor threw open the window-shutters, and clipped Stanley Lake's exquisite coat ruthlessly through with his scissors, and having cleared the room of all useless hands, he made his examination.

It was a long visit. Buddle in the hall afterwards declined breakfast—he had a board to attend. He told Lord Chelford that the case was 'a very nasty one.'

In fact, the chances were against the captain, and he, Buddle, would wish a consultation with a London surgeon—whoever Lord Chelford lead most confidence in—Sir Francis Seddley, he thought, would be very desirable—but, of course, it was for the family to decide. If the messenger caught the quarter to eleven up train at Dollington, he would be in London at six, and could return with the doctor by the down mail train, and so reach Dollington at ten minutes past four next morning, which would answer, as he would not operate sooner.

As the doctor toddled towards Gylingden, with sympathetic Major Tackson by his side, before they entered the town they were passed by one of the Brandon men riding at a hard canter for Dollington.

'London?' shouted the doctor, as the man touched his hat in passing.

'Yes, Sir.'

'Glad o' that,' said the major, looking after him.

'So am I,' said the learned Buddle. 'I don't see how we're to get the bullet out of him, without mischief. Poor devil, I'm afraid he'll do no good.'

The ladies that morning had tea in their rooms. It was near twelve o'clock when Lord Chelford saw Miss Brandon. She was in the conservatory amongst her flowers, and on seeing him stepped into the drawing-room.

'I hope, Dorcas, you are not angry with me. I've been, I'm afraid, very impertinent; but I was called on to decide for you, in your absence, and they all thought poor Lake could not be moved on to Gylingden without danger.'

'You did quite rightly, Chelford, and I thank you,' said Miss Brandon, coldly; and she seated herself, and continued—

'Pray, what does the doctor really say?'

'He speaks very seriously.'

'Does he think there is danger?'

'Very great danger.'

Miss Brandon looked down, and then, with a pale gaze suddenly in Chelford's face—

'He thinks he may die?' said she.

'Yes,' said Lord Chelford, in a very low tone, returning her gaze solemnly.

'And nobody to advise but that village doctor, Buddle—that's hardly credible, I think.'

'Pardon me. At his suggestion I have sent for Sir Francis Seddley, from town, and I hope he may arrive early to-morrow morning.'

'Why, Stanley Lake may die to-day.'

'He does not apprehend that. But it is necessary to remove the bullet, and the operation will be critical, and it is for that specially that Sir Francis is coming down.'

'It is to take place to-morrow, and he'll die in that operation. You know he'll die,' said Dorcas, pale and fierce.

'I assure you, Dorcas, I have been perfectly frank. He looks upon poor Lake as in very great danger—but that is all.'

'What brutes you men are!' said Dorcas, with a wild scorn in her look and accent, and her cheeks flushed with passion. 'You knew quite well last night there was to be this wicked duel in the morning—and you—a magistrate—a lord-lieutenant—what are you?—you connived at this bloody conspiracy—and he—your own cousin, Chelford—your cousin!'

Chelford looked at her, very much amazed.

'Yes; you are worse than Sir Harry Bracton—for you're no fool; and worse than that wicked old man. Major Jackson—who shall never enter these doors again—for he was employed—trusted in their brutal plans; but you had no excuse and every opportunity—and you have allowed your Cousin Stanley to be murdered.'

'You do me great injustice, Dorcas. I did not know, or even suspect that a hostile meeting between poor Lake and Bracton was thought of. I merely heard that there had been some trifling altercation in the supper-room; and when, intending to make peace between them, I alluded to it, just before we left, and Bracton said it was really nothing—quite blown over—and that he could not recollect what either had said. I was entirely deceived—you know I speak truth—quite deceived. They think it fair, you know, to dupe other people in such affairs; and I will also say,' he continued, a little haughtily, 'that you might have spared your censure until at least you had heard what I had to say.'

'I do believe you, Chelford; you are not vexed with me. Won't you shake hands?'

He took her hand with a smile.

'And now,' said she, 'Chelford, ought not we to send for poor Rachel: her only brother? Is not it sad?'

'Certainly; shall I ask my mother, or will you write?'

'I will write,' she said.


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