Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XXX. In Brandon Park.
To me, from association, no doubt, that park has always had a melancholy character. The ground undulates beautifully, and noble timber studs it in all varieties of grouping; and now, as when I had seen the ill-omened form of Uncle Lorne among its solitudes, the descending sun shone across it with a saddened glory, tipping with gold the blades of grass and the brown antlers of the distant deer.
Still pursuing her solemn and melancholy discourse, the young lady followed the path, accompanied by the vicar.
'True,' said the vicar, 'your mind is disturbed, but not by doubt. No; it is by truth.' He glanced aside at the tarn where I had seen the phantom, and by which their path now led them--'You remember Parnell's pretty image?
'So when a smooth expanse receives imprest Calm nature's image on its watery breast, Down bend the banks, the trees depending grow, And skies beneath with answering colours glow; But if a stone the gentle scene divide, Swift ruffling circles curl on every side, And glimmering fragments of a broken sun, Banks, trees, and skies, in thick disorder run.'
'But, as I said, it is not a doubt that agitates your mind--that is well represented by the "stone," that subsides and leaves the pool clear, it maybe, but stagnant as before. Oh, no; it is an angel who comes down and troubles the water.'
'What a heavenly evening!' said a low, sweet voice, but with something insidious in it, close at his shoulder.
With a start, Rachel glanced back, and saw the pale, peculiar face of her brother. His yellow eyes for a moment gleamed into hers, and then on the vicar, and, with his accustomed smile, he extended his hand.
'How do you do?--better, I hope, Radie? How are you, William?'
Rachel grew deadly pale, and then flushed, and then was pale again.
'I thought, Stanley, you were in London.'
'So I was; but I arrived here this morning; I'm staying for a few days at the Lodge--Larkin's house; you're going home, I suppose, Radie?'
'Yes--oh, yes--but I don't know that I'll go this way. You say you must return to Gylingden now, Mr. Wylder; I think I'll turn also, and go home that way.'
'Nothing would give me greater pleasure,' said the vicar, truly as well as kindly, for he had grown interested in their conversation; 'but I fear you are tired'--he looked very kindly on her pale face--'and you know it will cost you a walk of more than two miles.'
'I forgot--yes--I believe I am a little tired; I'm afraid I have led you, too, farther than you intended.' She fancied that her sudden change of plan on meeting her brother would appear odd.
'I'll see you a little bit on your way home, Radie,' said Stanley.
It was just what she wished to escape. She was more nervous, though not less courageous than formerly. But the old, fierce, defiant spirit awoke. Why should she fear Stanley, or what could it be to her whether he was beside her in her homeward walk?
So the vicar made his adieux there, and began, at a brisker pace, to retrace his steps toward Gylingden; and she and Stanley, side by side, walked on toward Redman's Dell.
'What a charming park! and what delightful air, Radie; and the weather so very delicious. They talk of Italian evenings; but there is a pleasant sharpness in English evenings quite peculiar. Is not there just a little suspicion of frost--don't you think so--not actually cold, but crisp and sharp--unspeakably exhilarating; now really, this evening is quite celestial.'
'I've just been listening to a good man's conversation, and I wish to reflect upon it,' said Rachel, very coldly.
'Quite so; that is, of course, when you are alone,' answered Stanley, serenely. 'William was always a very clever fellow to talk--very well read in theology--is not he?--yes, he does talk very sweetly and nobly on religion; it is a pity he is not quite straight, or at least more punctual, in his money affairs.'
'He is distressed for money? William Wylder is distressed for money! Do you mean that?' said Rachel, turning a tone of sudden surprise and energy, almost horror, turning full upon him, and stopping short.
'Oh, dear! no--not the least distressed that I ever heard of,' laughed Stanley coldly--'only just a little bit roguish, maybe.'
'That's so like you, Stanley,' said the young lady, with a quiet scorn, resuming her onward walk.
'How very beautiful that clump of birch trees is, near the edge of the slope there; you really can't imagine, who are always here, how very intensely a person who has just escaped from London enjoys all this.'
'I don't think, Stanley,' said the young lady coldly, and looking straight before her as she walked, 'you ever cared for natural scenery--or liked the country--and yet you are here. I don't think you ever loved me, or cared whether I was alone or in company; and yet seeing--for you did see it--that I would now rather be alone, you persist in walking with me, and talking of trees and air and celestial evenings, and thinking of something quite different. Had not you better turn back to Gylingden, or the Lodge, or wherever you mean to pass the evening, and leave me to my quiet walk and my solitude?'
'In a few minutes, dear Radie--you are so odd. I really believe you think no one can enjoy a ramble like this but yourself.'
'Come, Stanley, what do you want?' said his sister, stopping short, and speaking with the flush of irritation on her cheek--'do you mean to walk to Redman's Dell, or have you anything unpleasant to say?'
'Neither, I hope,' said the captain, with his sleepy smile, his yellow eyes resting on the innocent grass blades before him.
'I don't understand you, Stanley. I am always uncomfortable when you are near me. You stand there like an evil spirit, with some purpose which I cannot divine; but you shall not ensnare me. Go your own way, why can't you? Pursue your own plots--your wicked plots; but let me rest. I will be released, Sir, from your presence.'
'Really this is very fine, Radie, considering how we are related; I'm Mephistopheles, I suppose, and you Margaret, or some other simple heroine--rebuking the fiend in the majesty of your purity.'
And indeed in the reddish light, and in that lonely and solemn spot, the slim form of the captain, pale, sneering, with his wild eyes, confronting the beautiful light-haired girl, looked not quite unlike a type of the jaunty fiend he was pleased to suppose himself.
'I tell you, Stanley, I feel that you design employing me in some of your crooked plans. I have horrible reasons, as you know, for avoiding you, and so I will. I hope I may never desire to see you alone again, but if I do, it shall not be to receive, but to impose commands. You had better return to Gylingden, and leave me.'
'So I will, dear Radie, by-and-by,' said he, with his amused smile.
'That is, you won't until you have said what you meditate. Well, then, as it seems I must hear it, pray speak at once, standing where we are, and quickly, for the sun will soon go down, and one step more I will not walk with you.'
'Well, Radie, you are pleased to be whimsical; and, to say truth, I was thinking of saying a word or two, just about as idea that has been in my mind some time, and which you half divined--you are so clever--the first day I saw you at Redman's Farm. You know you fancied I was thinking of marrying.'
'I don't remember that I said so, but I thought it. You mentioned Caroline Beauchamp, but I don't see how your visit here could have been connected with that plan.'
'But don't you think, Radie, I should do well to marry, that is, assuming everything to be suitable?'
'Well, perhaps, for yourself, Stanley; but----'
'Yes, of course,' said Lake; 'but the unfortunate girl, you were going to say--thank you. She's, of course, very much to be pitied, and you have my leave to pity her as much as you please.'
'I do pity her,' said Rachel.
'Thank you, again,' said Stanley; 'but seriously, Radie, you can be, I think, very essentially of use to me in this affair, and you must not refuse.'
'Now, Stanley, I will cut this matter short. I can't serve you. I won't. I don't know the young lady, and I don't mean to make her acquaintance.'
'But I tell you that you can serve me,' retorted Stanley, with a savage glare, and features whitened with passion, 'and you shall serve me; and you do know the young lady intimately.'
'I say, Sir, I do not,' replied Rachel, haughtily and fiercely.
'She is Dorcas Brandon; you know her, I believe. I came down here to marry her. I had made up my mind when I saw you first and I'll carry my point; I always do. She does not like me, maybe; but she shall. I never yet resolved to make a woman like me, and failed. You need not look so pale; and put on that damned affected look of horror. I may be wild, and--and what you please, but I'm no worse than that brute, Mark Wylder, and you never turned up your eyes when he was her choice; and I knew things about him that ought to have damned him, and she's well rid of a branded rascal. And now, Rachel, you know her, and you must say a good word for me. I expect your influence, and if you don't use it, and effectually, it will be worse for you. You women understand one another, and how to get a fellow favourably into one another's thoughts. So, listen to me, this is a vital matter; indeed, it is, Radie. I have lost a lot of money, like a--fool, I suppose; well, it is gone, and this marriage is indispensable. I must go in for it, it is life or death; and if I fail through your unkindness (here he swore an impious oath) I'll end all with a pistol, and leave a letter to Chelford, disclosing everything concerning you, and me, and Mark Wylder.'
I think Rachel Lake was as near fainting as ever lady was, without actually swooning. It was well they had stopped just by the stem of a great ash tree, against which Rachel leaned for some seconds, with darkness before her eyes, and the roar of a whirlpool in her ears.
After a while, with two or three gasps, she came to herself. Lake had been railing on all this time, and his voice, which, in ill-temper, was singularly bleak and terrible, was again in her ears the moment she recovered her hearing.
'I do not care to quarrel; there are many reasons why we should not,' Lake said in his peculiar tones. 'You have some of my secrets, and you must have more; it can't be helped, and, I say, you must. I've been very foolish. I'll give up play. It has brought me to this. I've had to sell out. I've paid away all I could, and given bills for the rest; but I can't possibly pay them, don't you see; and if things go to the worst, I tell you I'll not stay. I don't want to make my bow just yet, and I've no wish to injure you; but I'll do as I have said (he swore again), and Chelford shall have a distinct statement under my hand of everything that has happened. I don't suppose you wish to be accessory to all this, and therefore it behoves you, Rachel, to do what you can to prevent it. One woman can always influence another, and you are constantly with Dorcas. You'll do all you can; I'm sure you will; and you can do a great deal. I know it; I'll do as much for you, Radie! Anything you like.'
For the first time her brother stood before her in a really terrible shape; she felt his villainy turning with a cowardly and merciless treason upon her forlorn self. Sacrificed for him, and that sacrifice used by him to torture, to extort, perhaps to ruin. She quailed for a minute in the presence of this gigantic depravity and cruelty. But Rachel was a brave lass, and rallied quickly.
'After all I have done and suffered!' said she, with a faint smile of unimaginable bitterness; 'I did not think that human wickedness could produce such a brother as you are.'
'Well, it is no news what you think of me, and not much matter, either. I don't see that I am a worse brother than you are a sister.' Stanley Lake was speaking with a livid intensity. 'You see how I'm placed; a ruined man, with a pistol to my head; what you can do to save me may amount to nothing, but it may be everything, and you say you won't try! Now I say you shall, and with every energy and faculty you possess, or else abide the consequences.'
'And I tell you, Sir,' replied Rachel, 'I know you; you are capable of anything but of hurting yourself. I'll never be your slave; though, if I pleased, I might make you mine. I scorn your threats--I defy you.'
Stanley Lake looked transported, and the yellow fires of his deep-set eyes glared on her, while his lips moved to speak, but not a word came, and it became a contortion; he grasped the switch in his hand as if to strike her.
'Take care, Sir, Lord Chelford's coming,' said the young lady, haughtily, with a contracted glance of horror fixed on Lake.
Lake collected himself. He was a man who could do it pretty quickly; but he had been violently agitated, and the traces of his fury could not disappear in a moment.
Lord Chelford was, indeed, approaching, only a few hundred yards away.
'Take my arm,' said Lake.
And Rachel mechanically, as story-tellers say, placed her slender gloved hand upon his arm--the miscreant arm that had been so nearly raised to strike her; and they walked along, brother and sister, in the Sabbath sunset light, to meet him.