Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XXII. In Which Captain Lake Meets a Friend Near the White House.
Lake had no very high opinion of men or women, gentle or simple.
'She listens, I dare say, the little spy,' said he.
'No, Master Stanley! She's a good little girl.'
'She quite believes her mistress is up stairs, eh?'
'Yes; the Lord forgive me--I'm deceiving her.'
He did not like the tone and look which accompanied this.
'Now, my good old Tamar, you really can't be such an idiot as to fancy there can be any imaginable wrong in keeping that prying little slut in ignorance of that which in no wise concerns her. This is a critical matter, do you see, and if it were known in this place that your young mistress had gone away as she has done--though quite innocently--upon my honour--I think it would blast her. You would not like, for a stupid crotchet, to ruin poor Radie, I fancy.'
'I'm doing just what you both bid me,' said the old woman.
'You sit up stairs chiefly?'
She nodded sadly.
'And keep the hall door shut and bolted?'
Again she nodded.
'I'm going up to the Hall, and I'll tell them she's much better, and that I've been in her room, and that, perhaps, she may go up to see them in the morning.'
Old Tamar shook her head and groaned.
'How long is all this to go on for, Master Stanley?'
'Why, d-- you, Tamar, can't you listen?' he said, clutching her wrist in his lavender kid grasp rather roughly. 'How long--a very short time, I tell you. She'll be home immediately. I'll come to-morrow and tell you exactly--maybe to-morrow evening--will that do? And should they call, you must say the same; and if Miss Dorcas, Miss Brandon, you know--should wish to go up to see her, tell her she's asleep. Stop that hypocritical grimacing, will you. It is no part of your duty to tell the world what can't possibly concern them, and may bring your young mistress to--perdition. That does not strike me as any part of your religion.'
Tamar groaned again, and she said: 'I opened my Bible, Lord help me, three times to-day, Master Stanley, and could not go on. It's no use--I can't read it.'
'Time enough--I think you've read more than is good for you. I think you are half mad, Tamar; but think what you may, it must be done. Have not you read of straining at gnats and swallowing camels? You used not, I've heard, to be always so scrupulous, old Tamar.'
There was a vile sarcasm in his tone and look.
'It is not for the child I nursed to say that,' said Tamar.
There were scandalous stories of wicked old Tiberius--bankrupt, dead, and buried--compromising the fame of Tamar--not always a spectacled and cadaverous student of Holy Writ. These, indeed, were even in Stanley's childhood old-world, hazy, traditions of the servants' hall. But boys hear often more than is good, and more than gospel, who live in such houses as old General Lake, the old millionaire widower, kept.
'I did not mean anything, upon my honour, Tamar, that could annoy you. I only meant you used not to be a fool, and pray don't begin now; for I assure you Radie and I would not ask it if it could be avoided. You have Miss Radie's secret in your hands, I don't think you'd like to injure her, and you used to be trustworthy. I don't think your Bible teaches you anywhere to hurt your neighbour and to break faith.'
'Don't speak of the Bible now; but you needn't fear me, Master Stanley,' answered the old woman, a little sternly. 'I don't know why she's gone, nor why it's a secret--I don't, and I'd rather not. Poor Miss Radie, she never heard anything but what was good from old Tamar, whatever I might ha' bin myself, miserable sinners are we all; and I'll do as you bid me, and I have done, Master Stanley, howsoever it troubles my mind;' and now old Tamar's words spoke--that's all.
'Old Tamar is a sensible creature, as she always was. I hope I did not vex you, Tamar. I did not mean, I assure you; but we get rough ways in the army, I'm afraid, and you won't mind me. You never did mind little Stannie when he was naughty, you know.'
There was here a little subsidence in his speech. He was thinking of giving her a crown, but there were several reasons against it, so that handsome coin remained in his purse.
'And I forgot to tell you, Tamar, I've a ring for you in town--a little souvenir; you'll think it pretty--a gold ring, with a stone in it--it belonged to poor dear Aunt Jemima, you remember. I left it behind; so stupid!'
So he shook hands with old Tamar, and patted her affectionately on the shoulder, and he said:--
'Keep the hall-door bolted. Make any excuse you like: only it would not do for anyone to open it, and run up to the room as they might, so don't forget to secure the door when I go. I think that is all. Ta-ta, dear Tamar. I'll see you in the morning.'
As he walked down the mill-road toward the town, he met Lord Chelford on his way to make enquiry about Rachel at Redman's Farm; and Lake, who, as we know, had just seen his sister, gave him all particulars.
Chelford, like the lawyer, had heard from Mark Wylder that morning--a few lines, postponing his return. He merely mentioned it, and made no comment; but Lake perceived that he was annoyed at his unexplained absence.
Lake dined at Brandon that evening, and though looking ill, was very good company, and promised to bring an early report of Rachel's convalescence in the morning.
I have little to record of next day, except that Larkin received another London letter. Wylder plainly wrote in great haste, and merely said:--
'I shall have to wait a day or two longer than I yesterday thought, to meet a fellow from whom I am to receive something of importance, rather, as I think, to me. Get the deeds ready, as I said in my last. If I am not in Gylingden by Monday, we must put off the wedding for a week later--there is no help for it. You need not talk of this. I write to Chelford to say the same.'
This note was as unceremonious, and still shorter. Lord Chelford would have written at once to remonstrate with Mark on the unseemliness of putting off his marriage so capriciously, or, at all events, so mysteriously--Miss Brandon not being considered, nor her friends consulted. But Mark had a decided objection to many letters: he had no fancy to be worried, when he had made up his mind, by prosy remonstrances; and he shut out the whole tribe of letter-writers by simply omitting to give them his address.
His cool impertinence, and especially this cunning precaution, incensed old Lady Chelford. She would have liked to write him one of those terse, courteous, biting notes, for which she was famous; and her fingers, morally, tingled to box his ears. But what was to be done with mere 'London?' Wylder was hidden from mortal sight, like a heaven-protected hero in the 'Iliad,' and a cloud of invisibility girdled him.
Like most rustic communities, Gylingden and its neighbourhood were early in bed. Few lights burned after half-past ten, and the whole vicinity was deep in its slumbers before twelve o'clock.
At that dread hour, Captain Lake, about a mile on the Dollington, which was the old London road from Gylingden, was pacing backward and forward under the towering files of beech that overarch it at that point.
The 'White House' public, with a wide panel over its door, presenting, in tints subdued by time, a stage-coach and four horses in mid career, lay a few hundred yards nearer to Gylingden. Not a soul was stirring--not a sound but those, sad and soothing, of nature was to be heard.
Stanley Lake did not like waiting any more than did Louis XIV. He was really a little tired of acting sentry, and was very peevish by the time the ring of wheels and horse-hoofs approaching from the London direction became audible. Even so, he had a longer wait than he expected, sounds are heard so far by night. At last, however, it drew nearer--nearer--quite close--and a sort of nondescript vehicle--one horsed--loomed in the dark, and he calls--
'Hallo! there--I say--a passenger for the "White House?"'
At the same moment, a window of the cab--shall we call it--was let down, and a female voice--Rachel Lake's--called to the driver to stop.
Lake addressed the driver--
'You come from Johnson's Hotel--don't you--at Dollington?'
'Well, I'll pay you half-fare to bring me there.'
'All right, Sir. But the 'oss, Sir, must 'av 'is oats fust.'
'Feed him here, then. They are all asleep in the "White House." I'll be with you in five minutes, and you shall have something for yourself when we get into Dollington.'
Stanley opened the door. She placed her hand on his, and stepped to the ground. It was very dark under those great trees. He held her hand a little harder than was his wont.
'All quite well, ever since. You are not very tired, are you? I'm afraid it will be necessary for you to walk to "Redman's Farm," dear Radie--but it is hardly a mile, I think--for, you see, the fellow must not know who you are; and I must go back with him, for I have not been very well--indeed I've been, I may say, very ill--and I told that fellow, Larkin, who has his eyes about him, and would wonder what kept me out so late, that I would run down to some of the places near for a change, and sleep a night there; and that's the reason, dear Radie, I can walk only a short way with you; but you are not afraid to walk a part of the way home without me? You are so sensible, and you have been, really, so very kind, I assure you I appreciate it, Radie--I do, indeed; and I'm very grateful--I am, upon my word.'
Rachel answered with a heavy sigh.