Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XLVIII. In Which I Go to Brandon, and See an Old Acquaintance in the Tapestry Room.
To my surprise, a large letter, bearing the Gylingden postmark, and with a seal as large as a florin, showing, had I examined the heraldry, the Brandon arms with the Lake bearings quartered thereon, and proving to be a very earnest invitation from Stanley Lake, found me in London just about this time.
I paused, I was doubtful about accepting it, for the business of the season was just about to commence in earnest, and the country had not yet assumed its charms. But I now know very well that from the first it was quite settled that down I should go. I was too curious to see the bride in her new relations, and to observe something of the conjugal administration of Lake, to allow anything seriously to stand in the way of my proposed trip.
There was a postscript to Lake's letter which might have opened my eyes as to the motives of this pressing invitation, which I pleased myself by thinking, though penned by Captain Lake, came in reality from his beautiful young bride.
This small appendix was thus conceived:--
'P.S.--Tom Wealdon, as usual, deep in elections, under the rose, begs you kindly to bring down whatever you think to be the best book or books on the subject, and he will remit to your bookseller. Order them in his name, but bring them down with you.'
So I was a second time going down to Brandon as honorary counsel, without knowing it. My invitations, I fear, were obtained, if not under false pretences, at least upon false estimates, and the laity rated my legal lore too highly.
I reached Brandon rather late. The bride had retired for the night. I had a very late dinner--in fact a supper--in the parlour. Lake sat with me chatting, rather cleverly, not pleasantly. Wealdon was at Brandon about sessions business, and as usual full of election stratagems and calculations. Stanley volunteered to assure me he had not the faintest idea of looking for a constituency. I really believe--and at this distance of time I may use strong language in a historical sense--that Captain Lake was the greatest liar I ever encountered with. He seemed to do it without a purpose--by instinct, or on principle--and would contradict himself solemnly twice or thrice in a week, without seeming to perceive it. I dare say he lied always, and about everything. But it was in matters of some moment that one perceived it.
What object could he gain, for instance, by the fib he had just told me? On second thoughts this night he coolly apprised me that he had some idea of sounding the electors. So, my meal ended, we went into the tapestry room where, the night being sharp, a pleasant bit of fire burned in the grate, and Wealdon greeted me.
My journey, though by rail, and as easy as that of the Persian gentleman who skimmed the air, seated on a piece of carpet, predisposed me to sleep. Such volumes of fine and various country air, and such an eight hours' procession of all sorts of natural pictures are not traversed without effect. Sitting in my well-stuffed chair, my elbows on the cushioned arms, the conversation of Lake and the Town Clerk now and then grew faint, and their faces faded away, and little 'fyttes' and fragments of those light and pleasant dreams, like fairy tales, which visit such stolen naps, superseded with their picturesque and musical illusions the realities and recollections of life.
Once or twice a nod a little too deep or sudden called me up. But Lake was busy about the Dollington constituency, and the Town Clerk's bluff face was serious and thoughtful. It was the old question about Rogers, the brewer, and whether Lord Adleston and Sir William could not get him; or else it had gone on to the great railway contractor, Dobbs, and the question how many votes his influence was really worth; and, somehow, I never got very far into the pros and cons of these discussions, which soon subsided into the fairy tale I have mentioned, and that sweet perpendicular sleep--all the sweeter, like everything else, for being contraband and irregular.
For one bout--I fancy a good deal longer than the others--my nap was much sounder than before, and I opened my eyes at last with the shudder and half horror that accompany an awakening from a general chill--a dismal and frightened sensation.
I was facing a door about twenty feet distant, which exactly as I opened my eyes, turned slowly on its hinges, and the figure of Uncle Lorne, in his loose flannel habiliments, ineffaceably traced upon my memory, like every other detail of that ill-omened apparition, glided into the room, and crossing the thick carpet with long, soft steps, passed near me, looking upon me with a malign sort of curiosity for some two or three seconds, and sat down by the declining fire, with a side-long glance still fixed upon me.
I continued gazing on this figure with a dreadful incredulity, and the indistinct feeling that it must be an illusion--and that if I could only wake up completely, it would vanish.
The fascination was disturbed by a noise at the other end of the room, and I saw Lake standing close to him, and looking both angry and frightened. Tom Wealdon looking odd, too, was close at his elbow, and had his hand on Lake's arm, like a man who would prevent violence. I do not know in the least what had passed before, but Lake said--
'How the devil did he come in?'
'Hush!'was all that Tom Wealdon said, looking at the gaunt spectre with less of fear than inquisitiveness.
'What are you doing here, Sir?' demanded Lake, in his most unpleasant tones.
'Prophesying,' answered the phantom.
'You had better write your prophecies in your room, Sir--had not you?--and give them to the Archbishop of Canterbury to proclaim, when they are finished; we are busy here just now, and don't require revelations, if you please.'
The old man lifted up his long lean finger, and turned on him with a smile which I hate even to remember.
'Let him alone,' whispered the Town Clerk, in a significant whisper, 'don't cross him, and he'll not stay long.'
'You're here, a scribe,' murmured Uncle Lorne, looking upon Tom Wealdon.
'Aye, Sir, a scribe and a Pharisee, a Sadducee and a publican, and a priest, and a Levite,' said the functionary, with a wink at Lake. 'Thomas Wealdon, Sir; happy to see you, Sir, so well and strong, and likely to enlighten the religious world for many a day to come. It's a long time, Sir, since I had the honour of seeing you; and I'm always, of course, at your command.'
'Pshaw!' said Lake, angrily.
The Town Clerk pressed his arm with a significant side nod and a wink, which seemed to say, 'I understand him; can't you let me manage him?'
The old man did not seem to hear what they said; but his tall figure rose up, and he extended the fingers of his left hand close to the candle for a few seconds, and then held them up to his eyes, gazing on his finger-tips, with a horrified sort of scrutiny, as if he saw signs and portents gathered there, like Thomas Aquinas' angels at the needles' points, and then the same cadaverous grin broke out over his features.
'Mark Wylder is in an evil plight,' said he.
'Is he?' said Lake, with a sly scoff, though he seemed to me a good deal scared. 'We hear no complaints, however, and fancy he must be tolerably comfortable notwithstanding.'
'You know where he is,' said Uncle Lorne.
'Aye, in Italy; everyone knows that,' answered Lake.
'In Italy,' said the old man, reflectively, as if trying to gather up his ideas, 'Italy. Oh! yes, Vallombrosa--aye, Italy, I know it well.'
'So do we, Sir; thank you for the information,' said Lake, who nevertheless appeared strangely uneasy.
'He has had a great tour to make. It is nearly accomplished now; when it is done, he will be like me, humano major. He has seen the places which you are yet to see.'
'Nothing I should like better; particularly Italy,' said Lake.
'Yes,' said Uncle Lorne, lifting up slowly a different finger at each name in his catalogue. 'First, Lucus Mortis; then Terra Tenebrosa; next, Tartarus; after that, Terra Oblivionis; then Herebus; then Barathrum; then Gehenna, and then Stagium Ignis.'
'Of course,' acquiesced Lake, with an ugly sneer, and a mock bow.
'And to think that all the white citizens were once men and women!' murmured Uncle Lorne, with a scowl.
'Quite so,' whispered Lake.
'I know where he is,' resumed the old man, with his finger on his long chin, and looking down upon the carpet.
'It would be very convenient if you would favour us with his address,' said Stanley, with a gracious sneer.
'I know what became of him,' continued the oracle.
'You are more in his confidence than we are,' said Lake.
'Don't be frightened--but he's alive; I think they'll make him mad. It is a frightful plight. Two angels buried him alive in Vallombrosa by night; I saw it, standing among the lotus and hemlock. A negro came to me, a black clergyman with white eyes, and remained beside me; and the angels imprisoned Mark; they put him on duty forty days and forty nights, with his ear to the river listening for voices; and when it was over we blessed them; and the clergyman walked with me a long while, to-and-fro, to-and-fro upon the earth, telling me the wonders of the abyss.'
'And is it from the abyss, Sir, he writes his letters?' enquired the Town Clerk, with a wink at Lake.
'Yes, yes, very diligent; it behoves him; and his hair is always standing straight on his head for fear. But he'll be sent up again, at last, a thousand, a hundred, ten and one, black marble steps, and then it will be the other one's turn. So it was prophesied by the black magician.'
'I thought, Sir, you mentioned just now he was a clergyman,' suggested Mr. Wealdon, who evidently enjoyed this wonderful yarn.
'Clergyman and magician both, and the chief of the lying prophets with thick lips. He'll come here some night and see you,' said Uncle Lorne, looking with a cadaverous apathy on Lake, who was gazing at him in return, with a sinister smile.
'Maybe it was a vision, Sir,' suggested the Town Clerk.
'Yes, Sir; a vision, maybe,' echoed the cavernous tones of the old man; 'but in the flesh or out of the flesh, I saw it.'
'You have had revelations, Sir, I've heard,' said Stanley's mocking voice.
'Many,' said the seer; 'but a prophet is never honoured. We live in solitude and privations--the world hates us--they stone us--they cut us asunder, even when we are dead. Feel me--I'm cold and white all over--I died too soon--I'd have had wings now only for that pistol. I'm as white as Gehazi, except on my head, when that blood comes.'
Saying which, he rose abruptly, and with long jerking steps limped to the door, at which, I saw, in the shade, the face of a dark-featured man, looking gloomily in.
When he reached the door Uncle Lorne suddenly stopped and faced us, with a countenance of wrath and fear, and threw up his arms in an attitude of denunciation, but said nothing. I thought for a moment the gigantic spectre was about to rush upon us in an access of frenzy; but whatever the impulse, it subsided--or was diverted by some new idea; his countenance changed, and he beckoned as if to some one in the corner of the room behind us, and smiled his dreadful smile, and so left the apartment.
'That d--d old madman is madder than ever,' said Lake, in his fellest tones, looking steadfastly with his peculiar gaze upon the closed door. 'Jermyn is with him, but he'll burn the house or murder some one yet. It's all d--d nonsense keeping him here--did you see him at the door?--he was on the point of assailing some of us. He ought to be in a madhouse.'
'He used to be very quiet,' said the Town Clerk, who knew all about him.
'Oh! very quiet--yes, of course, very quiet, and quite harmless to people who don't live in the house with him, and see him but once in half-a-dozen years; but you can't persuade me it is quite so pleasant for those who happen to live under the same roof, and are liable to be intruded upon as we have been to-night every hour of their existence.'
'Well, certainly it is not pleasant, especially for ladies,' admitted the Town Clerk.
'No, not pleasant--and I've quite made up my mind it sha'n't go on. It is too absurd, really, that such a monstrous thing should be enforced; I'll get a private Act, next Session, and regulate those absurd conditions in the will. The old fellow ought to be under restraint; and I rather think it would be better for himself that he were.'
'Who is he?' I asked, speaking for the first time.
'I thought you had seen him before now,' said Lake.
'So I have, but quite alone, and without ever learning who he was,' I answered.
'Oh! He is the gentleman, Julius, for whom in the will, under which we take, those very odd provisions are made--such as I believe no one but a Wylder or a Brandon would have dreamed of. It is an odd state of things to hold one's estate under condition of letting a madman wander about your house and place, making everybody in it uncomfortable and insecure and exposing him to the imminent risk of making away with himself, either by accident or design. I happen to know what Mark Wylder would have done--for he spoke very fiercely on the subject--perhaps he consulted you?'
'No? well, he intended locking him quietly into the suite of three apartments, you know, at the far end of the old gallery, and giving him full command of the mulberry garden by the little private stair, and putting a good iron door to it; so that "my beloved brother, Julius, at present afflicted in mind" (Lake quoted the words of the will, with an unpleasant sneer), should have had his apartments and his pleasure grounds quite to himself.'
'And would that arrangement of Mr. Wylder's have satisfied the conditions of the will?' said the Town Clerk.
'I rather think, with proper precautions, it would. Mark Wylder was very shrewd, and would not have run himself into a fix,' answered Lake. 'I don't know any man shrewder; he is, certainly.'
And Lake looked at us, as he added these last words, in turn, with a quick, suspicious glance, as if he had said something rash, and doubted whether we had observed it.
After a little more talk, Lake and the Town Clerk resumed their electioneering conference, and the lists of electors were passed under their scrutiny, name by name, like slides under the miscroscope.
There is a great deal in nature, physical and moral, that had as well not be ascertained. It is better to take things on trust, with something of distance and indistinctness. What we gain in knowledge by scrutiny is sometimes paid for in a ghastly sort of disgust. It is marvellous in a small constituency of 300 average souls, what a queer moral result one of these business-like and narrow investigations which precede an election will furnish. How you find them rated and classified--what odd notes you make to them in the margin; and after the trenchant and rapid vivisection, what sinister scars and seams remain, and how gaunt and repulsive old acquaintances stand up from it.
The Town Clerk knew the constituency of Dollington at his fingers' ends; and Stanley Lake quietly enjoyed, as certain minds will, the nefarious and shabby metamorphosis which every now and then some familiar and respectable burgess underwent, in the spell of half-a-dozen dry sentences whispered in his ear; and all this minute information is trustworthy and quite without malice.
I went to my bed-room, and secured the door, lest Uncle Lorne, or Julius, should make me another midnight visit. So that mystery was cleared up. Neither ghost nor spectral illusion, but flesh and blood--though in my mind there has always been a horror of a madman akin to the ghostly or demoniac.
I do not know how late Tom Wealdon and Stanley Lake sat up over their lists; but I dare say they were in no hurry to leave them, for a dissolution was just then expected, and no time was to be lost.
When I saw Tom Wealdon alone next day in the street of Gylingden, he walked a little way with me, and, said Tom, with a grave wink--
'Don't let the captain up there be hard on the poor old gentleman. He's quite harmless--he would not hurt a fly. I know all about him; for Jack Ford and I spent five weeks in the Hall, about twelve years ago, when the family were away and thought the keeper was not kind to him. He's quite gentle, and sometimes he'd make you die o' laughing. He fancies, you know, he's a prophet; and says he's that old Sir Lorne Brandon that shot himself in his bed-room. Well, he is a rum one; and we used to draw him out--poor Jack and me. I never laughed so much, I don't think, in the same time, before or since. But he's as innocent as a child--and you know them directions in the will is very strong; and they say Jos. Larkin does not like the captain a bit too well--and he has the will off, every word of it; and I think, if Captain Lake does not take care, he may get into trouble; and maybe it would not be amiss if you gave him a hint.'
Tom Wealdon, indeed, was a good-natured fellow: and if he had had his way, I think the world would have gone smoothly enough with most people.