Wylder's Hand, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 14.

In which Various Persons Give Their Opinions of Captain Stanley Lake.

‘Stanley is an odd creature,’ said Rachel, so soon as another slight incline brought them to a walk; ‘I can’t conceive why he has come down here, or what he can possibly want of that disagreeable lawyer. They have got dogs and guns, and are going, of course, to shoot; but he does not care for shooting, and I don’t think Mr. Larkin’s society can amuse him. Stanley is clever and cunning, I think, but he is neither wise nor frank. He never tells me his plans, though he must know — he does know — I love him; yes, he’s a strange mixture of suspicion and imprudence. He’s wonderfully reserved. I am certain he trusts no one on earth, and at the same time, except in his confidences, he’s the rashest man living. If he were like Lord Chelford, or even like our good vicar — not in piety, for poor Stanley’s training, like my own, was sadly neglected there — I mean in a few manly points of character, I should be quite happy, I think, in my solitary nook.’

‘Is he so very odd?’ said Miss Brandon, coldly.

‘I only know he makes me often very uncomfortable,’ answered Rachel. ‘I never mind what he tells me, for I think he likes to mislead everybody; and I have been two often duped by him to trust what he says. I only know that his visit to Gylingden must have been made with some serious purpose, and his ideas are all so rash and violent.’

‘He was at Donnyston for ten days, I think, when I was there, and seemed clever. They had charades and proverbes dramatiques. I’m no judge, but the people who understood it, said he was very good.’

‘Oh! yes he is clever; I knew he was at Donnyston, but he did not mention he had seen you there; he only told me he had met you pretty often when you were at Lady Alton’s last season.’

‘Yes, in town,’ she answered, a little drily.

While these young ladies are discussing Stanley Lake, I may be permitted to mention my own estimate of that agreeable young person.

Captain Lake was a gentleman and an officer, and of course an honourable man; but somehow I should not have liked to buy a horse from him. He was very gentlemanlike in appearance, and even elegant; but I never liked him, although he undoubtedly had a superficial fascination. I always thought, when in his company, of old Lord Holland’s silk stocking with something unpleasant in it. I think, in fact, he was destitute of those fine moral instincts which are born with men, but never acquired; and in his way of estimating his fellow men, and the canons of honour, there was occasionally perceptible a faint flavour of the villainous, and an undefined savour, at times, of brimstone. I know also that when his temper, which was nothing very remarkable, was excited, he could be savage and brutal enough; and I believe he had often been violent and cowardly in his altercations with his sister — so, at least, two or three people, who were versed in the scandals of the family, affirmed. But it is a censorious world, and I can only speak positively of my own sensations in his company. His morality, however, I suppose, was quite good enough for the world, and he had never committed himself in any of those ways of which that respectable tribunal takes cognizance.

‘So that d — d fellow Lake is down here still; and that stupid, scheming lubber, Larkin, driving him about in his tax-cart, instead of minding his business. I could not see him to-day. That sort of thing won’t answer me; and he is staying at Larkin’s house, I find.’ Wylder was talking to me on the door steps after dinner, having in a rather sulky way swallowed more than his usual modicum of Madeira, and his remarks were delivered interruptedly — two or three puffs of his cigar interposed between each sentence.

‘I suppose he expects to be asked to the wedding. He may expect — ha, ha, ha! You don’t know that lad as I do.’

Then there came a second cigar, and some little time in lighting, and full twenty enjoyable puffs before he resumed.

‘Now, you’re a moral man, Charlie, tell me really what you think of a fellow marrying a girl he does not care that for,’ and he snapt his fingers. ‘Just for the sake of her estate — it’s the way of the world, of course, and all that — but, is not it a little bit shabby, don’t you think? Eh? Ha, ha, ha!’

‘I’ll not debate with you, Wylder, on that stupid old question. It’s the way of the world, as you say, and there’s an end of it.’

‘They say she’s such a beauty! Well, so I believe she is, but I can’t fancy her. Now you must not be angry. I’m not a poet like you — book-learned, you know; and she’s too solemn by half, and grand. I wish she was different. That other girl, Rachel — she’s a devilish handsome craft. I wish almost she was not here at all, or I wish she was in Dorcas’s shoes.’

‘Nonsense, Wylder! stop this stuff; and it is growing cold throw away that cigar, and come in.’

‘In a minute. No, I assure you, I’m not joking. Hang it! I must talk to some one. I’m devilish uncomfortable about this grand match. I wish I had not been led into it I don’t think I’d make a good husband to any woman I did not fancy, and where’s the good of making a girl unhappy, eh?’

‘Tut, Wylder, you ought to have thought of all that before. I don’t like your talking in this strain when you know it is too late to recede; besides, you are the luckiest fellow in creation. Upon my word, I don’t know why the girl marries you; you can’t suppose that she could not marry much better, and if you have not made up your mind to break off, of which the world would form but one opinion, you had better not speak in that way any more.’

‘Why, it was only to you, Charlie, and to tell you the truth, I do believe it is the best thing for me; but I suppose every fellow feels a little queer when he is going to be spliced, a little bit nervous, eh? But you are right — and I’m right, and we are all right — it is the best thing for us both. It will make a deuced fine estate; but hang it! you know a fellow’s never satisfied. And I suppose I’m a bit put out by that disreputable dog’s being here — I mean Lake; not that I need care more than Dorcas, or anyone else; but he’s no credit to the family, you see, and I never could abide him. I’ve half a mind, Charlie, to tell you a thing; but hang it! you’re such a demure old maid of a chap. Will you have a cigar?’

‘No.’

‘Well, I believe two’s enough for me,’ and he looked up at the stars.

‘I’ve a notion of running up to town, only for a day or two, before this business comes off, just on the sly; you’ll not mention it, and I’ll have a word with Lake, quite friendly, of course; but I’ll shut him up, and that’s all. I wonder he did not dine here to-day. Did you ever see so pushing a brute?’

So Wylder chucked away his cigar, and stood for a minute with his hands in his pockets looking up at the stars, as if reading fortunes there.

I had an unpleasant feeling that Mark Wylder was about some mischief — a suspicion that some game of mine and countermine was going on between him and Lake, to which I had no clue whatsoever.

Mark had the frankness of callosity, and could recount his evil deeds and confess his vices with hilarity and detail, and was prompt to take his part in a lark, and was a remarkably hard hitter, and never shrank from the brunt of the row; and with these fine qualities, and a much superior knowledge of the ways of the flash world, had commanded my boyish reverence and a general popularity among strangers. But, with all this, he could be as secret as the sea with which he was conversant, and as hard as a stonewall, when it answered his purpose. He had no lack of cunning, and a convenient fund of cool cruelty when that stoical attribute was called for. Years, I dare say, and a hard life and profligacy, and command, had not made him less selfish or more humane, or abated his craft and resolution.

If one could only see it, the manoeuvring and the ultimate collision of two such generals as he and Lake would be worth observing.

I dare say my last night’s adventure tended to make me more nervous and prone to evil anticipation. And although my quarters had been changed to the lower storey, I grew uncomfortable as it waxed late, and half regretted that I had not migrated to the ‘Brandon Arms.’

Uncle Lorne, however, made me no visit that night. Once or twice I fancied something, and started up in my bed. It was fancy, merely. What state had I really been in, when I saw that long-chinned apparition of the pale portrait? Many a wiser man than I had been mystified by dyspepsia and melancholic vapours.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49