Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XL. The Attorney's Adventures on the Way Home.
Mr. Jos. Larkin was now moving alone, under the limbs of the Brandon trees. He knew the path, as he had boasted to Lord Chelford, from his boyhood; and, as he pursued his way, his mind got upon the accustomed groove, and amused itself with speculations respecting the vagaries of Mark Wylder.
'I wonder what his lordship thinks. He was very close--very' ruminated Larkin; 'no distinct ideas about it possibly; and did not seem to wish to lead me to the subject. Can he know anything? Eh, can he possibly? Those high fellows are very knowing often--so much on the turf, and all that--very sharp and very deep.'
He was thinking of a certain noble lord in difficulties, who had hit a client of his rather hard, and whose affairs did not reflect much credit upon their noble conductor.
'Aye, I dare say, deep enough, and intimate with the Lakes. He expects to be home in two months' time. He's a deep fellow too; he does not like to let people know what he's about. I should not be surprised if he came to-morrow. Lake and Lord Chelford may both know more than they say. Why should they both object merely to receive and fund his money? They think he wants to get them into a fix--hey? If I'm to conduct his business, I ought to know it; if he keeps a secret from me, affecting all his business relations, like this, and driving him about the world like an absconding bankrupt, how can I advise him?'
All this drifted slowly through his mind, and each suggestion had its collateral speculations; and so it carried him pleasantly a good way on his walk, and he was now in the shadow of the dense copsewood that mantles the deep ravine which debouches into Redman's Dell.
The road was hardly two yards wide, and the wood walled it in, and overhung it occasionally in thick, irregular masses. As the attorney marched leisurely onward, he saw, or fancied that he saw, now and then, in uncertain glimpses, something white in motion among the trees beside him.
At first he did not mind; but it continued, and grew gradually unpleasant. It might be a goat, a white goat; but no, it was too tall for that. Had he seen it at all? Aye! there it was, no mistake now. A poacher, maybe? But their poachers were not of the dangerous sort, and there had not been a robber about Gylingden within the memory of man. Besides, why on earth should either show himself in that absurd way?
He stopped--he listened--he stared suspiciously into the profound darkness. Then he thought he heard a rustling of the leaves near him, and he hallooed, 'Who's there?' But no answer came.
So, taking heart of grace, he marched on, still zealously peering among the trees, until, coming to an opening in the pathway, he more distinctly saw a tall, white figure, standing in an ape-like attitude, with its arms extended, grasping two boughs, and stooping, as if peeping cautiously, as he approached.
The good attorney drew up and stared at this gray phantasm, saying to himself, 'Yes,' in a sort of quiet hiss.
He stopped in a horror, and as he gazed, the figure suddenly drew back and disappeared.
'Very pleasant this!' said the attorney, after a pause, recovering a little. 'What on earth can it be?'
Jos. Larkin could not tell which way it had gone. He had already passed the midway point, where this dark path begins to descend through the ravine into Redman's Dell. He did not like going forward--but to turn back might bring him again beside the mysterious figure. And though he was not, of course, afraid of ghosts, nor in this part of the world, of robbers, yet somehow he did not know what to make of this gigantic gray monkey.
So, not caring to stay longer, and seeing nothing to be gained by turning back, the attorney buttoned the top button of his coat, and holding his head very erect, and placing as much as he could of the path between himself and the side where the figure had disappeared, marched on steadily. It was too dark, and the way not quite regular enough, to render any greater speed practicable.
From the thicket, as he proceeded, he heard a voice--he had often shot woodcocks in that cover--calling in a tone that sounded in his ears like banter, 'Mark--Mark--Mark--Mark.'
He stopped, holding his breath, and the sound ceased.
'Well, this certainly is not usual,' murmured Mr. Larkin, who was a little more perturbed than perhaps he quite cared to acknowledge even to himself. 'Some fellow perhaps watching for a friend--or tricks, maybe.'
Then the attorney, trying his supercilious smile in the dark, listened again for a good while, but nothing was heard except those whisperings of the wind which poets speak of. He looked before him with his eyebrows screwed, in a vain effort to pierce the darkness, and the same behind him; and then after another pause, he began uncomfortably to move down the path once more.
In a short time the same voice, with the same uncertain echo among the trees, cried faintly, 'Mark--Mark,' and then a pause; then again, 'Mark--Mark--Mark,' and then it grew more distant, and sounded among the trees and reverberations of the glen like laughter.
'Who's there?' cried the attorney, in a tone rather ferocious from fright, and stamping on the path. But his summons and the provocation died away together in the profoundest silence.
Mr. Jos. Larkin did not repeat his challenge. This cry of 'Mark!' was beginning to connect itself uncomfortably in his mind with his speculations about his wealthy client, which in that solitude and darkness began to seem not so entirely pure and disinterested as he was in the habit of regarding them, and a sort of wood-demon, such as a queer little schoolfellow used long ago to read a tale about in an old German story-book, was now dogging his darksome steps, and hanging upon his flank with a vindictive design.
Jos. Larkin was not given to fancy, nor troubled with superstition. His religion was of a comfortable, punctual, business-like cast, which according with his genius--denied him, indeed, some things for which, in truth, he had no taste--but in no respect interfered with his main mission upon earth, which was getting money. He had found no difficulty hitherto in serving God and Mammon. The joint business prospered. Let us suppose it was one of those falterings of faith, which try the best men, that just now made him feel a little queer, and gave his thoughts about Mark Wylder, now grown habitual, that new and ghastly complexion which made the situation so unpleasant.
He wished himself more than once well out of this confounded pass, and listened nervously for a good while, and stared once more, half-frightened, in various directions, into the darkness.
'If I thought there could be anything the least wrong or reprehensible--we are all fallible--in my allowing my mind to turn so much upon my client, I can certainly say I should be very far from allowing it--I shall certainly consider it--and I may promise myself to decide in a Christian spirit, and if there be a doubt, to give it against myself.'
This resolution, which was, he trusted, that of a righteous man, was, I am afraid, the effect rather of fright than reflection, and employed in that sense somewhat in the manner of an exorcism--whispered rather to the ghost than to his conscience.
I am sure Larkin did not himself suppose this. On the contrary, he really believed, I am convinced, that he scouted the ghost, and had merely volunteered this salutary self-examination as an exercise of conscience. He could not, however, have doubted that he was very nervous--and that he would have been glad of the companionship even of one of the Gylingden shopkeepers, through this infested bit of wood.
Having again addressed himself to his journey, he was now approaching that part of the path where the trees recede a little, leaving a considerable space unoccupied at either side of his line of march. Here there was faint moonlight and starlight, very welcome; but a little in advance of him, where the copsewood closed in again, just above those stone steps which Lake and his sister Rachel had mounted together upon the night of the memorable rendezvous, he fancied that he again saw the gray figure cowering among the foremost stems of the wood.
It was a great shock. He stopped short--and as he stared upon the object, he felt that electric chill and rising of the hair which accompany supernatural panic.
As he gazed, however, it was gone. Yes. At all events, he could see it no more. Had he seen it there at all? He was in such an odd state he could not quite trust himself. He looked back hesitatingly. But he remembered how very long and dark the path that way was, and how unpleasant his adventures there had been. And although there was a chance that the gray monkey was lurking somewhere near the path, still there was now but a short space between him and the broad carriage track down Redman's Dell, and once upon that he considered himself almost in the street of Gylingden.
So he made up his mind, and marched resolutely onward, and had nearly reached that point at which the converging screen of thicket again overshadows the pathway, when close at his side he saw the tall, white figure push itself forward among the branches, and in a startling under-tone of enquiry, like a conspirator challenging his brother, a voice--the same which he had so often heard during this walk--cried over his shoulder,
Larkin sprung back a pace or two, turning his face full upon the challenger, who in his turn was perhaps affrighted, for the same voice uttered a sort of strangled shriek, and he heard the branches crack and rustle as he pushed his sudden retreat through them--leaving the attorney more horrified than ever.
No other sound but the melancholy soughing of the night-breeze, and the hoarse murmur of the stream rising from the stony channel of Redman's Dell, were now, or during the remainder of his walk through these haunted grounds, again audible.
So, with rapid strides passing the dim gables of Redman's Farm, he at length found himself, with a sense of indescribable relief, upon the Gylingden road, and could see the twinkling lights in the windows of the main street.