Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XXV. Captain Lake Looks in at NightfalL.
In the queer little drawing-room of Redman's Farm it was twilight, so dense were the shadows from the great old chestnuts that surrounded it, before the sun was well beneath the horizon; and you could, from its darkened window, see its red beams still tinting the high grounds of Willerston, visible through the stems of the old trees that were massed in the near foreground.
A figure which had lost its energy--a face stamped with the lines and pallor of a dejection almost guilty--with something of the fallen grace and beauty of poor Margaret, as we see her with her forehead leaning on her slender hand, by the stirless spinning-wheel--the image of a strange and ineffaceable sorrow, sat Rachel Lake.
Tamar might glide in and out; her mistress did not speak; the shadows deepened round her, but she did look up, nor call, in the old cheerful accents, for lights. No more roulades and ringing chords from the piano--no more clear spirited tones of the lady's voice sounded through the low ceilings of Redman's Farm, and thrilled with a haunting melody the deserted glen, wherein the birds had ended their vesper songs and gone to rest.
A step was heard at the threshold--it entered the hall; the door of the little chamber opened, and Stanley Lake entered, saying in a doubtful, almost timid way--
'It is I, Radie, come to thank you, and just to ask you how you do, and to say I'll never forget your kindness; upon my honour, I never can.'
Rachel shuddered as the door opened, and there was a ghastly sort of expectation in her look. Imperfectly as it was seen, he could understand it. She did not bid him welcome or even speak. There was a silence.
'Now, you're not angry with me, Radie dear; I venture to say I suffer more than you: and how could I have anticipated the strange turn things have taken? You know how it all came about, and you must see I'm not really to blame, at least in intention, for all this miserable trouble; and even if I were, where's the good in angry feeling or reproaches now, don't you see, when I can't mend it? Come, Radie, let by-gones be by-gones. There's a good girl; won't you?'
'Aye, by-gones are by-gones; the past is, indeed, immutable, and the future is equally fixed, and more dreadful.'
'Come, Radie; a clever girl like you can make your own future.'
'And what do you want of me now?' she asked, with a fierce cold stare.
'But I did not say I wanted anything.'
'Of course you do, or I should not have seen you. Mark me though, I'll go no further in the long route of wickedness you seem to have marked out for me. I'm sacrificed, it is true, but I won't renew my hourly horrors, and live under the rule of your diabolical selfishness.'
'Say what you will, but keep your temper--will you?' he answered, more like his angry self. But he checked the rising devil within him, and changed his tone; he did not want to quarrel--quite the reverse.
'I don't know really, Radie, why you should talk as you do. I don't want you to do anything--upon my honour I don't--only just to exercise your common sense--and you have lots of sense, Radie. Don't you think people have eyes to see, and ears and tongues in this part of the world? Don't you know very well, in a small place like this, they are all alive with curiosity? and if you choose to make such a tragedy figure, and keep moping and crying, and all that sort of thing, and look so funeste and miserable, you'll be sure to fix attention and set the whole d--d place speculating and gossiping? and really, Radie, you're making mountains of mole-hills. It is because you live so solitary here, and it is such a gloomy out-o'-the-way spot--so awfully dark and damp, nobody could be well here, and you really must change. It is the very temple of blue-devilry, and I assure you if I lived as you do I'd cut my throat before a month--you mustn't. And old Tamar, you know, such a figure! The very priestess of despair. She gives me the horrors, I assure you, whenever I look at her; you must not keep her, she's of no earthly use, poor old thing; and, you know, Radie, we're not rich enough--you and I--to support other people. You must really place yourself more cheerfully, and I'll speak to Chelford about Tamar. There's a very nice place--an asylum, or something, for old women--near--(Dollington he was going to say, but the associations were not pleasant)--near some of those little towns close to this, and he's a visitor, or governor, or whatever they call it. It is really not fair to expect you or me to keep people like that.'
'She has not cost you much hitherto, Stanley, and she will give you very little trouble hereafter. I won't part with Tamar.'
'She has not cost me much?' said Lake, whose temper was not of a kind to pass by anything. 'No; of course, she has not. I can't afford a guinea. You're poor enough; but in proportion to my expenses--a woman, of course, can live on less than half what a man can--I'm a great deal poorer than you; and I never said I gave her sixpence--did I? I have not got it to give, and I don't think she's fool enough to expect it; and, to say the truth, I don't care. I only advise you. There are some cheerful little cottages near the green, in Gylingden, and I venture to think, this is one of the very gloomiest and most uncomfortable places you could have selected to live in.'
Rachel looked drearily toward the window and sighed--it was almost a groan.
'It was cheerful always till this frightful week changed everything. Oh! why, why, why did you ever come?' She threw back her pale face, biting her lip, and even in that deepening gloom her small pearly teeth glimmered white; and then she burst into sobs and an agony of tears.
Captain Lake knew something of feminine paroxysms. Rachel was not given to hysterics. He knew this burst of anguish was unaffected. He was rather glad of it. When it was over he expected clearer weather and a calm. So he waited, saying now and then a soothing word or two.
'There--there--there, Radie--there's a good girl. Never mind--there--there.' And between whiles his mind, which, in truth, had a good deal upon it, would wander and pursue its dismal and perplexed explorations, to the unheard accompaniment of her sobs.
He went to the door, but it was not to call for water, or for old Tamar. On the contrary, it was to observe whether she or the girl was listening. But the house, though small, was built with thick partition walls, and sounds were well enclosed in the rooms to which they belonged.
With Rachel this weakness did not last long. It was a gust--violent--soon over; and the 'o'er-charged' heart and brain were relieved. And she pushed open the window, and stood for a moment in the chill air, and sighed, and whispered a word or two over the closing flowers of her little garden toward the darkening glen, and with another great sigh closed the window, and returned.
'Can I do anything, Radie? You're better now. I knew you would be. Shall I get some water from your room?'
'No, Stanley; no, thank you. I'm very well now,' she said, gently.
'Yes, I think so. I knew you'd be better.' And he patted her shoulder with his soft hand; and then followed a short silence.
'I wish you were more pleasantly lodged, Radie; but we can speak of that another time.'
'Yes--you're right. This place is dreadful, and its darkness dreadful; but light is still more dreadful now, and I think I'll change; but, as you say, there is time enough to think of all that.'
'Quite so--time enough. By-the-bye, Radie, you mentioned our old servant, whom my father thought so highly of--Jim Dutton--the other evening. I've been thinking of him, do you know, and I should like to find him out. He was a very honest fellow, and attached, and a clever fellow, too, my father thought; and he was a good judge. Hadn't you a letter from his mother lately? You told me so, I think; and if it is not too much trouble, dear Radie, would you allow me to see it?'
Rachel opened her desk, and silently selected one of those clumsy and original missives, directed in a staggering, round hand, on paper oddly shaped and thick, such as mixes not naturally with the aristocratic fabric, on which crests and ciphers are impressed, and placed it in her brother's hand.
'But you can't read it without light,' said Rachel.
'No; but there's no hurry. Does she say where she is staying, or her son?'
'Both, I think,' answered Rachel, languidly; 'but he'll never make a servant for you--he's a rough creature, she says, and was a groom. You can't remember him, nor I either.'
'Perhaps--very likely;' and he put the letter in his pocket.
'I was thinking, Rachel, you could advise me, if you would, you are so clever, you know.'
'Advise!' said Rachel, softly; but with a wild and bitter rage ringing under it. 'I did advise when it was yet time to profit by advice. I bound you even by a promise to take it, but you know how it ended. You don't want my advice.'
'But really I do, Radie. I quite allow I was wrong--worse than wrong--but where is the use of attacking me now, when I'm in this dreadful fix? I took a wrong step; and what I now have to do is to guard myself, if possible, from what I'm threatened with.'
She fancied she saw his pale face grow more bloodless, even in the shadow where he sat.
'I know you too well, Stanley. You want no advice. You never took advice--you never will. Your desperate and ingrained perversity has ruined us both.'
'I wish you'd let me know my own mind. I say I do--(and he uttered an unpleasant exclamation). Do you think I'll leave matters to take their course, and sit down here to be destroyed? I'm no such idiot. I tell you I'll leave no stone unturned to save myself; and, in some measure, you too, Radie. You don't seem to comprehend the tremendous misfortune that menaces me--us--you and me.'
And he cursed Mark Wylder with a gasp of hatred not easily expressed.
She winced at the name, and brushed her hand to her ear.
'Don't--don't--don't,' she said, vehemently.
'Well, what the devil do you mean by refusing to help me, even with a hint? I say--I know--all the odds are against us. It is sometimes a long game; but unless I'm sharp, I can't escape what's coming. I can't--you can't--sooner or later. It is in motion already--d-- him--it's coming, and you expect me to do everything alone.'
'I repeat it, Stanley,' said Rachel, with a fierce cynicism in her low tones, 'you don't want advice; you have formed your plan, whatever it is, and that plan you will follow, and no other, though men and angels were united to dissuade you.'
There was a pause here, and a silence for a good many seconds.
'Well, perhaps, I have formed an outline of a plan, and it strikes me as very well I have--for I don't think you are likely to take that trouble. I only want to explain it, and get your advice, and any little assistance you can give me; and surely that is not unreasonable?'
'I have learned one secret, and am exposed to one danger. I have taken--to save you--it may be only a respite--one step, the remembrance of which is insupportable. But I was passive. I am fallen from light into darkness. There ends my share in your confidence and your fortunes. I will know no more secrets--no more disgrace; do what you will, you shall never use me again.'
'Suppose these heroics of yours, Miss Radie, should contribute to bring about--to bring about the worst,' said Stanley, with a sneer, through which his voice trembled.
'Let it come--my resolution is taken.'
Stanley walked to the window, and in his easy way, as he would across a drawing-room to stand by a piano, and he looked out upon the trees, whose tops stood motionless against the darkened sky, like masses of ruins. Then he came back as gently as he had gone, and stood beside his sister; she could not see his yellow eyes now as he stood with his back to the window.
'Well, Radie, dear--you have put your hand to the plough, and you sha'n't turn back now.'
'No--you sha'n't turn back now.'
'You seem, Sir, to fancy that I have no right to choose for myself,' said Miss Rachel, spiritedly.
'Now, Radie, you must be reasonable--who have I to advise with?'
'Not me, Stanley--keep your plots and your secrets to yourself. In the guilty path you have opened for me one step more I will never tread.'
'Excuse me, Radie, but you're talking like a fool.'
'I am not sorry you think so--you can't understand motives higher than your own.'
'You'll see that you must, though. You'll see it in a little while. Self-preservation, dear Radie, is the first law of nature.'
'For yourself, Stanley; and for me, self-sacrifice,' she retorted, bitterly.
'Well, Radie, I may as well tell you one thing that I'm resolved to carry out,' said Lake, with a dreamy serenity, looking on the dark carpet.
'I'll hear no secret, Stanley.'
'It can't be long a secret, at least from you--you can't help knowing it,' he drawled gently. 'Do you recollect, Radie, what I said that morning when I first called here, and saw you?'
'Perhaps I do, but I don't know what you mean,' answered she.
'I said, Mark Wylder----'
'Don't name him,' she said, rising and approaching him swiftly.
'I said he should go abroad, and so he shall,' said Lake, in a very low tone, with a grim oath.
'Why do you talk that way? You terrify me,' said Rachel, with one hand raised toward his face with a gesture of horror and entreaty, and the other closed upon his wrist.
'I say he shall, Radie.'
'Has he lost his wits? I can't comprehend you--you frighten me, Stanley. You're talking wildly on purpose, I believe, to terrify me. You know the state I'm in--sleepless--half wild--all alone here. You're talking like a maniac. It's cruel--it's cowardly.'
'I mean to do it--you'll see.'
Suddenly she hurried by him, and in a moment was in the little kitchen, with its fire and candle burning cheerily. Stanley Lake was at her shoulder as she entered, and both were white with agitation.
Old Tamar rose up affrighted, her stiff arms raised, and uttered a blessing. She did not know what to make of it. Rachel sat down upon one of the kitchen chairs, scarce knowing what she did, and Stanley Lake halted near the threshold--gazing for a moment as wildly as she, with the ghost of his sly smile on his smooth, cadaverous face.
'What ails her--is she ill, Master Stanley?' asked the old woman, returning with her white eyes the young man's strange yellow glare.
'I--I don't know--maybe--give her some water,' said Lake.
'Glass of water--quick, child,' cried old Tamar to Margery.
'Put it on the table,' said Rachel, collected now, but pale and somewhat stern.
'And now, Stanley, dear,' said she, for just then she was past caring for the presence of the servants, 'I hope we understand one another--at least, that you do me. If not, it is not for want of distinctness on my part; and I think you had better leave me for the present, for, to say truth, I do not feel very well.'
'Good-night, Radie--good-night, old Tamar. I hope, Radie, you'll be better--every way--when next I see you. Good-night.'
He spoke in his usual clear low tones, and his queer ambiguous smile was there still; and, hat in hand, with his cane in his fingers, he made another glance and a nod over his shoulder, at the threshold, and then glided forth into the little garden, and so to the mill-road, down which, at a swift pace, he walked towards the village.