Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XXXIII. The Ladies on Gylingden Heath.
Just at this moment they became aware of a timid little tapping which had been going on at the window during the latter part of this conference, and looking up, the attorney and the vicar saw 'little Fairy's' violet eyes peering under his light hair, with its mild, golden shadow, and the odd, sensitive smile, at once shy and arch; his cheeks were wet with tears, and his pretty little nose red, though he was smiling; and he drew his face aside among the jessamine, when he saw the gaunt attorney directing his patronising smile upon him.
'I beg pardon,' said the vicar, rising with a sudden smile, and going to the window. 'It is my little man. Fairy! Fairy! What has brought you here; my little man?'
Fairy glanced, still smiling, but very shamefacedly at the grand attorney, and in his little fist he held a pair of rather seedy gloves to the window pane.
'So I did. I protest I forgot my gloves. Thank you, little man. Who is with you? Oh! I see. That is right.'
The maid ducked a short courtesy.
'Indeed, Sir, please, Master Fairy was raising the roof (a nursery phrase, which implied indescribable bellowing), and as naughty as could be, until missis allowed him to come after you.'
'Oh! my little man, you must not do that. Ask nicely, you know; always quietly, like a little gentleman.'
'But, oh! Wapsie, your hands would be cold;' and he held the gloves to him against the glass.
'Well, darling, thank you; you are a kind little man, and I'll be with you in a moment,' said the vicar, smiling very lovingly on his naughty little man.
'Mr. Larkin,' said he, turning very gratefully to the attorney 'you can lay this Christian comfort to your kind heart, that you have made mine a hundredfold lighter since I entered this blessed room; indeed, you have lifted a mountain from it by the timely proffer of your invaluable assistance.'
Again the attorney waved off, with a benignant and humble smile, rather oppressive to see, all idea of obligation, and accompanied his grateful client to the glass door of his little porch, where Fairy was already awaiting him with the gloves in his hand.
'I do believe,' said the good vicar, as he walked down what Mr. Larkin called 'the approach,' and looking up with irrepressible gratitude to the blue sky and the white clouds sailing over his head, 'if it be not presumption, I must believe that I have been directed hither--yes, darling, yes, my hands are warm' (this was addressed to little Fairy, who was clamouring for information on the point, and clinging to his arm as he capered by his side). 'What immense relief;' and he murmured another thanksgiving, and then quite hilariously--
'If little man would like to come with his Wapsie, we'll take such a nice little walk together, and we'll go and see poor Widow Maddock; and we'll buy three muffins on our way home, for a feast this evening; and we'll look at the pictures in the old French "Josephus;" and Mamma and I will tell stories; and I have a halfpenny to buy apples for little Fairy.'
The attorney stood at his window with a shadow on his face, and his small eyes a little contracted and snakelike, following the slim figure of the threadbare vicar and his golden-haired, dancing little comrade; and then he mounted a chair, and took down successively four of his japanned boxes; two of them, in yellow letters, bore respectively the label 'Brandon, No. 1,' and 'No. 2;' the other 'Wylder, No. 1,' and 'No. 2.'
He opened the 'Wylder' box first, and glanced through a neat little 'statement of title,' prepared for counsel when draughting the deed of settlement for the marriage which was never to take place.
'The limitations, let me see, is not there something that one might be safe in advancing a trifle upon--eh?--h'm--yes.'
And, with his lip in his finger and thumb, he conned over those remainders and reversions with a skilled and rapid eye.
Rachel Lake was glad to see the slender and slightly-stooped figure of the vicar standing that morning--his bright little boy by the hand--in the wicket of the tiny flower-garden of Redman's Farm. She went out quickly to greet him. The sick man likes the sound of his kind doctor's step on the stairs; and, be his skill much or little, trusts in him, and will even joke a little asthmatic joke, and smile a feeble hectic smile about his ailments, when he is present.
So they fell into discourse among the autumnal flowers and withered leaves; and, as the day was still and genial, they remained standing in the garden; and away went busy little 'Fairy,' smiling and chatting with Margery, to see the hens and chickens in the yard.
The physician, after a while, finds the leading features of most cases pretty much alike. He knows when inflammation may be expected and fever will supervene; he is not surprised if the patient's mind wanders a little at times; expects the period of prostration and the return of appetite; and has his measures and his palliatives ready for each successive phase of sickness and recovery. In like manner, too, the good and skilful parson comes by experience to know the signs and stages of the moral ailments and recoveries which some of them know how so tenderly and so wisely to care for. They, too, have ready--having often proved their consolatory efficacy--their febrifuges and their tonics, culled from that tree of life whose 'leaves are for the healing of the nations.'
Poor Rachel's hours were dark, and life had grown in some sort terrible, and death seemed now so real and near--aye, quite a fact--and, somehow, not unfriendly. But, oh! the immense futurity beyond, that could not be shirked, to which she was certainly going.
Death, and sleep so welcome! But, oh! that stupendous LIFE EVERLASTING, now first unveiled. She could only close her eyes and wring her hands. Oh! for some friendly voice and hand to stay her through the Valley of the Shadow of Death!
They talked a long while--Rachel chiefly a listener, and often quietly weeping; and, at last, a very kindly parting, and a promise from the simple and gentle vicar that he would often look in at Redman's Farm.
She watched his retreating figure as he and little Fairy walked down the tenebrose road to Gylingden, following them with a dismal gaze, as a benighted and wounded wayfarer in that 'Valley' would the pale lamp's disappearing that had for a few minutes, in a friendly hand, shone over his dreadful darkness.
And when, in fitful reveries, fancy turned for a moment to an earthly past and future, all there was a blank--the past saddened, the future bleak. She did not know, or even suspect, that she had been living in an aerial castle, and worshipping an unreal image, until, on a sudden, all was revealed in that chance gleam of cruel lightning, the line in that letter, which she read so often, spelled over, and puzzled over so industriously, though it was clear enough. How noble, how good, how bright and true, was that hero of her unconscious romance.
Well, no one else suspected that incipient madness--that was something; and brave Rachel would quite master it. Happy she had discovered it so soon. Besides, it was, even if Chelford were at her feet, a wild impossibility now; and it was well, though despair were in the pang, that she had, at last, quite explained this to herself.
As Rachel stood in her little garden, on the spot where she had bidden farewell to the vicar, she was roused from her vague and dismal reverie by the sound of a carriage close at hand. She had just time to see that it was a brougham, and to recognise the Brandon liveries, when it drew up at the garden wicket, and Dorcas called to her from the open window.
'I'm come, Rachel, expressly to take you with me; and I won't be denied.'
'You are very good, Dorcas; thank you, dear, very much; but I am not very well, and a very dull companion to-day.'
'You think I am going to bore you with visits. No such thing, I assure you. I have taken a fancy to walk on the common, that is all--a kind of longing; and you must come with me; quite to ourselves, you and I. You won't refuse me, darling; I know you'll come.'
Well, Rachel did go. And away they drove through the quiet town of Gylingden together, and through the short street on the right, and so upon the still quieter common.
This plain of green turf broke gradually into a heath; and an irregular screen of timber and underwood divided the common of Gylingden in sylvan fashion from the moor. The wood passed, Dorcas stopped the carriage, and the two young ladies descended. It was a sunny day, and the air still; and the open heath contrasted pleasantly with the sombre and confined scenery of Redman's Dell; and altogether Rachel was glad now that she had made the effort, and come with her cousin.
'It was good of you to come, Rachel,' said Miss Brandon; 'and you look tired; but you sha'n't speak more than you like; and I'll tell you all the news. Chelford is just returned from Brighton; he arrived this morning; and he and Lady Chelford will stay for the Hunt Ball. I made it a point. And he called at Hockley, on his way back, to see Sir Julius. Do you know him?'
'Sir Julius Hockley? No--I've heard of him only.'
'Well, they say he is wasting his property very fast; and I think him every way very nearly a fool; but Chelford wanted to see him about Mr. Wylder. Mark Wylder, you know, of course, has turned up again in England. His letter to Chelford, six weeks ago, was from Boulogne; but his last was from Brighton; and Sir Julius Hockley witnessed--I think they call it--that letter of attorney which Mark sent about a week since to Mr. Larkin; and Chelford, who is most anxious to trace Mark Wylder, having to surrender--I think they call it--a "trust" is not it--or something--I really don't understand these things--to him, and not being able to find out his address, Mr. Larkin wrote to Sir Julius, whom Chelford did not find at home, to ask him for a description of Mark, to ascertain whether he had disguised himself; and Sir Julius wrote to Chelford such an absurd description of poor Mark, in doggrel rhyme--so like--his odd walk, his great whiskers, and everything. Chelford does not like personalities, but he could not help laughing. Are you ill, darling?'
Though she was walking on beside her companion, Rachel looked on the point of fainting.
'My darling, you must sit down; you do look very ill. I forgot my promise about Mark Wylder. How stupid I have been! and perhaps I have distressed you.'
'No, Dorcas, I am pretty well; but I have been ill, and I am a little tired; and, Dorcas, I don't deny it, I am amazed, you tell me such things. That letter of attorney, or whatever it is, must not be acted upon. It is incredible. It is all horrible wickedness. Mark Wylder's fate is dreadful, and Stanley is the mover of all this. Oh! Dorcas, darling, I wish I could tell you everything. Some day I may be--I am sick and terrified.'
They had sat down, by this time, side by side, on the crisp bank. Each lady looked down, the one in suffering, the other in thought.
'You are better, darling; are not you better?' said Dorcas, laying her hand on Rachel's, and looking on her with a melancholy gaze.
'Yes, dear, better--very well'--answered Rachel, looking up but without an answering glance at her cousin.
'You blame your brother, Rachel, in this affair.'
'Did I? Well--maybe--yes, he is to blame--the miserable man--whom I hate to think of, and yet am always thinking of--Stanley well knows is not in a state to do it.'
'Don't you think, Rachel, remembering what I have confided to you, that you might be franker with me in this?'
'Oh, Dorcas! don't misunderstand me. If the secret were all my own--Heaven knows, hateful as it is, how boldly I would risk all, and throw myself on your fidelity or your mercy--I know not how you might view it; but it is different, Dorcas, at least for the present. You know me--you know how I hate secrets; but this is not mine--only in part--that is, I dare not tell it--but may be soon free--and to us all, dear Dorcas, a woful, woful, day will it be.'
'I made you a promise, Rachel,' said her beautiful cousin, gravely, and a little coldly and sadly, too; 'I will never break it again--it was thoughtless. Let us each try to forget that there is anything hidden between us.'
'If ever the time comes, dear Dorcas, when I may tell it to you, I don't know whether you will bless or hate me for having kept it so well; at all events, I think you'll pity me, and at last understand your miserable cousin.'
'I said before, Rachel, that I liked you. You are one of us, Rachel. You are beautiful, wayward, and daring, and one way or another, misfortune always waylays us; and I have, I know it, calamity before me. Death comes to other women in its accustomed way; but we have a double death. There is not a beautiful portrait in Brandon that has not a sad and true story. Early death of the frail and fair tenement of clay--but a still earlier death of happiness. Come, Rachel, shall we escape from the spell and the destiny into solitude? What do you think of my old plan of the valleys and lakes of Wales? a pretty foreign tongue spoken round us, and no one but ourselves to commune with, and books, and music. It is not, Radie, altogether jest. I sometimes yearn for it, as they say foreign girls do for convent life.'
'Poor Dorcas,' said Rachel, very softly, fixing her eyes upon her with a look of inexpressible sadness and pity.
'Rachel,' said Dorcas, 'I am a changeable being--violent, self-willed. My fate may be quite a different one from that which I suppose or you imagine. I may yet have to retract my secret.'
'Oh! would it were so--would to Heaven it were so.'
'Suppose, Rachel, that I had been deceiving you--perhaps deceiving myself--time will show.'
There was a wild smile on beautiful Dorcas's face as she said this, which faded soon into the proud serenity that was its usual character.
'Oh! Dorcas, if your good angel is near, listen to his warnings.'
'We have no good angels, my poor Rachel: what modern necromancers, conversing with tables, call "mocking spirits," have always usurped their place with us: singing in our drowsy ears, like Ariel--visiting our reveries like angels of light--being really our evil genii--ah, yes!'
'Dorcas, dear,' said Rachel, after both had been silent for a time, speaking suddenly, and with a look of pale and keen entreaty--'Beware of Stanley--oh! beware, beware. I think I am beginning to grow afraid of him myself.'
Dorcas was not given to sighing--but she sighed--gazing sadly across the wide, bleak moor, with her proud, apathetic look, which seemed passively to defy futurity--and then, for awhile, they were silent.
She turned, and caressingly smoothed the golden tresses over Rachel's frank, white forehead, and kissed them as she did so.
'You are better, darling; you are rested?' she said.
'Yes, dear Dorcas,' and she kissed the slender hand that smoothed her hair.
Each understood that the conversation on that theme was ended, and somehow each was relieved.