Wylder's Hand by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter VI. In Which Dorcas Brandon Speaks.
In answer to 'the roaring shiver of the gong' we all trooped away together to luncheon. Lady Chelford and Dorcas and Chelford had nearly ended that irregular repast when we entered. My chair was beside Miss Brandon; she had breakfasted with old Lady Chelford that morning, and this was my first meeting that day. It was not very encouraging.
People complained that acquaintance made little way with her. That you were, perhaps, well satisfied with your first day's progress, but the next made no head-way; you found yourself this morning exactly at the point from which you commenced yesterday, and to-morrow would recommence where you started the day before. This is very disappointing, but may sometimes be accounted for by there being nothing really to discover. It seemed to me, however, that the distance had positively increased since yesterday, and that the oftener she met me the more strange she became. As we went out, Wylder enquired, with his usual good taste: 'Well, what do you think of her?' Then he looked slily at me, laughing, with his hands in his pockets. 'A little bit slow, eh?' he whispered, and laughed again, and lounged into the hall. If Dorcas Brandon had been a plain woman, I think she would have been voted an impertinent bore; but she was so beautiful that she became an enigma. I looked at her as she stood gravely gazing from the window. Is it Lady Macbeth? No; she never would have had energy to plan her husband's career and manage that affair of Duncan. A sultana rather--sublimely egotistical, without reverence--a voluptuous and haughty embodiment of indifference. I paused, looking at a picture, but thinking of her, and was surprised by her voice very near me.
'Will you give me just a minute, Mr. De Cresseron, in the drawing-room, while I show you a miniature? I want your opinion.'
So she floated on and I accompanied her.
'I think,' she said, 'you mentioned yesterday, that you remembered me when an infant. You remember my poor mamma, don't you, very well?'
This was the first time she had yet shown any tendency, so far as I had seen, to be interested in anything, or to talk to me. I seized the occasion, and gave her, as well as I could, the sad and pretty picture that remained, and always will, in the vacant air, when I think of her, on the mysterious retina of memory.
How filmy they are! the moonlight shines through them, as through the phantom Dane in Retzch's outlines--colour without substance. How they come, wearing for ever the sweetest and pleasantest look of their earthly days. Their sweetest and merriest tones hover musically in the distance; how far away, how near to silence, yet how clear! And so it is with our remembrance of the immortal part. It is the loveliest traits that remain with us perennially; all that was noblest and most beautiful is there, in a changeless and celestial shadow; and this is the resurrection of the memory, the foretaste and image which the 'Faithful Creator' accords us of the resurrection and glory to come--the body redeemed, the spirit made perfect.
On a cabinet near to where she stood was a casket of ormolu, which she unlocked, and took out a miniature, opened, and looked at it for a long time. I knew very well whose it was, and watched her countenance; for, as I have said, she interested me strangely. I suppose she knew I was looking at her; but she showed always a queenlike indifference about what people might think or observe. There was no sentimental softening; but her gaze was such as I once saw the same proud and handsome face turn upon the dead--pale, exquisite, perhaps a little stern. What she read there--what procession of thoughts and images passed by--threw neither light nor shadow on her face. Its apathy interested me inscrutably.
At last she placed the picture in my hand, and asked--
'Is this really very like her?'
'It is, and it is not,' I said, after a little pause. 'The features are true: it is what I call an accurate portrait, but that is all. I dare say, exact as it is, it would give to one who had not seen her a false, as it must an inadequate, idea, of the original. There was something naive and spirituel, and very tender in her face, which he has not caught--perhaps it could hardly be fixed in colours.'
'Yes, I always heard her expression and intelligence were very beautiful. It was the beauty of mobility--true beauty.'
'There is a beauty of another stamp, equally exquisite, Miss Brandon, and perhaps more overpowering.' I said this in nearly a whisper, and in a very marked way, almost tender, and the next moment was amazed at my own audacity. She looked on me for a second or two, with her dark drowsy glance, and then it returned to the picture, which was again in her hand. There was a total want of interest in the careless sort of surprise she vouchsafed my little sally; neither was there the slightest resentment. If a wafer had been stuck upon my forehead, and she had observed it, there might have been just that look and no more. I was ridiculously annoyed with myself. I was betrayed, I don't know how, into this little venture, and it was a flat failure. The position of a shy man, who has just made an unintelligible joke at a dinner-table, was not more pregnant with self-reproach and embarrassment.
Upon my honour, I don't think there was anything of the roue in me. I own I did feel towards this lady, who either was, or seemed to me, so singular, a mysterious interest just beginning--of that peculiar kind which becomes at last terribly absorbing.
I was more elated by her trifling notice of me than I can quite account for. It was a distinction. She was so indescribably handsome--so passively disdainful. I think if she had listened to me with even the faintest intimation of caring whether I spoke in this tone or not, with even a flash of momentary resentment, I might have rushed into a most reprehensible and ridiculous rigmarole.
In this, the subtlest and most perilous of all intoxications, it needs immense presence of mind to conduct ourselves always with decorum. But she was looking, just as before, at the miniature, as it seemed to me, in fancy infusing some of the spirit I had described into the artist's record, and she said, only in soliloquy, as it were, 'Yes, I see--I think I see.'
So there was a pause; and then she said, without, however, removing her eyes from the miniature, 'You are, I believe, Mr. De Cresseron, a very old friend of Mr. Wylder's. Is it not so?'
So soon after my little escapade, I did not like the question; but it was answered. There was not the faintest trace of a satirical meaning, however, in her face; and after another very considerable interval, at the end of which she shut the miniature in its case, she said, 'It was a peculiar face, and very beautiful. It is odd how many of our family married for love--wild love-matches. My poor mother was the last. I could point you out many pictures, and tell you stories--my cousin, Rachel, knows them all. You know Rachel Lake?'
'I've not the honour of knowing Miss Lake. I had not an opportunity of making her acquaintance yesterday; but I know her brother--so does Wylder.'
'What's that?' said Mark, who had just come in, and was tumbling over a volume of 'Punch' at the window.
'I was telling Miss Brandon that we both know Stanley Lake.' On hearing which, Wylder seemed to discover something uncommonly interesting or clever in the illustration before him; for he approached his face very near to it, in a scrutinising way, and only said, 'Oh?'
'That marrying for love was a fatality in our family,' she continued in the same low tone--too faint I think to reach Mark. 'They were all the most beautiful who sacrificed themselves so--they were all unhappy marriages. So the beauty of our family never availed it, any more than its talents and its courage; for there were clever and witty men, as well as very brave ones, in it. Meaner houses have grown up into dukedoms; ours never prospers. I wonder what it is.'
'Many families have disappeared altogether, Miss Brandon. It is no small thing, through so many centuries, to have retained your ancestral estates, and your pre-eminent position, and even this splendid residence of so many generations of your lineage.'
I thought that Miss Brandon, having broken the ice, was henceforth to be a conversable young lady. But this sudden expansion was not to last. Ovid tells us, in his 'Fasti,' how statues sometimes surprised people by speaking more frankly and to the purpose even than Miss Brandon, and straight were cold chiselled marble again; and so it was with that proud, cold chef d'oeuvre of tinted statuary.
Yet I thought I could, even in that dim glimpse, discern how the silent subterranean current of her thoughts was flowing; like other representatives of a dynasty, she had studied the history of her race to profit by its errors and misfortunes. There was to be no weakness or passion in her reign.
The princess by this time was seated on the ottoman, and chose to read a letter, thus intimating, I suppose, that my audience was at an end; so I took up a book, put it down, and then went and looked over Wylder's shoulder, and made my criticisms--not very novel, I fear--upon the pages he turned over; and I am sorry to say I don't think he heard much of what I was saying, for he suddenly came out with--
'And where is Stanley Lake now, do you know?'
'I saw him in town--only for a moment though--about a fortnight ago; he was arranging, he said, about selling out.'
'Oh! retiring; and what does he propose doing then?' asked Wylder, without raising his eyes from his book. He spoke in a sort of undertone, like a man who does not want to be overheard, and the room was quite large enough to make that sort of secrecy easy without the appearance of seeking it.
'I have not an idea. I don't think he's fit for many things. He knows something of horses, I believe, and something of play.'
'But he'll hardly make out a living that way,' said Wylder, with a sort of sneer or laugh. I thought he seemed put out, and a little flushed.
'I fancy he has enough to live upon, without adding to it, however,' I said.
Wylder leaned back in his low chair, with his hands stuffed in his pockets, and the air of a man trying to look unconcerned, but both annoyed and disconcerted nevertheless.
I tell you what, Charlie, between you and me, that fellow, Stanley, is a d----d bad lot. I may be mistaken, of course; he's always been very civil to me, but we don't like one another; and I don't think I ever heard him say a good word of any one, I dare say he abuses you and me, as he does everyone else.'
'Does he?' I said. 'I was not aware he had that failing.'
'Oh, yes. He does not stick at trifles, Master Stanley. He's about the greatest liar, I think, I ever met with,' and he laughed angrily.
I happened at that moment to raise my eyes, and I saw Dorcas's face reflected in the mirror; her back was towards us, and she held the letter in her hand as if reading it, but her large eyes were looking over it, and on us, in the glass, with a gaze of strange curiosity. Our glances met in the mirror; but hers remained serenely undisturbed, and mine dropped and turned away hastily. I wonder whether she heard us. I do not know. Some people are miraculously sharp of hearing.
'I dare say,' said Wylder, with a sneer, 'he was asking affectionately for me, eh?'
'No; not that I recollect--in fact there was not time; but I suppose he does not like you less for what has happened; you're worth cultivating now, you know.'
Wylder was leaning on his elbow, with just the tip of his thumb to his teeth, with a vicious character of biting it, which was peculiar to him when anything vexed him considerably, and glancing sharply this way and that--
'You know,' he said, suddenly, 'we are a sort of cousins; his mother was a Brandon--a second cousin of Dorcas's--no, of her father's--I don't know exactly how. He's a pushing fellow, one of the coolest hands I know; but I don't see that I can be of any use to him, or why the devil I should. I say, old fellow, come out and have a weed, will you?'
I raised my eyes. Miss Brandon had left the room. I don't know that her presence would have prevented his invitation, for Wylder's wooing was certainly of the coolest. So forth we sallied, and under the autumnal foliage, in the cool amber light of the declining evening, we enjoyed our cheroots; and with them, Wylder his thoughts; and I, the landscape, and the whistling of the birds; for we waxed Turkish and taciturn over our tobacco.