Wylder's Hand, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 19.

The Tarn in the Park.

Next morning Stanley Lake, at breakfast with the lawyer, said —

‘A pretty room this is. That bow window is worth all the pictures in Brandon. To my eye there is no scenery so sweet as this, at least to breakfast by. I don’t love your crags and peaks and sombre grandeur, nor yet the fat, flat luxuriance of our other counties. These undulations, and all that splendid timber, and the glorious ruins on that hillock over there! How many beautiful ruins that picturesque old fellow Cromwell has left us.’

‘You don’t eat your breakfast, though,’ said the attorney, with a charming smile of reproach.

‘Ah, thank you; I’m a bad breakfaster; that is,’ said Stanley, recollecting that he had made some very creditable meals at the same table, ‘when I smoke so late as I did last night.’

‘You drove Mr. Wylder to Dollington?’

‘Yes; he’s gone to town, he says — yes, the mail train — to get some diamonds for Miss Brandon — a present — that ought to have come the day before yesterday. He says they’ll never have them in time unless he goes and blows them up. Are you in his secrets at all?’

‘Something in his confidence, I should hope,’ said Mr. Larkin, in rather a lofty and reserved way.

‘Oh, yes, of course, in serious matters; but I meant other things. You know he has been a little bit wild; and ladies, you know, ladies will be troublesome sometimes; and to say truth, I don’t think the diamonds have much to say to it.’

‘Oh? — hem! — well, you know, I‘m not exactly the confidant Mr. Wylder would choose, I suspect, in a case of that very painful, and, I will say, distressing character — I rather think — indeed, I hope not.’

‘No, of course — I dare say — but I just fancied he might want a hint about the law of the matter.’

The gracious attorney glanced at his guest with a thoroughly business-like and searching eye.

‘You don’t think there’s any really serious annoyance — you don’t know the party?’ said he.

I? — Oh, dear, no. Wylder has always been very reserved with me. He told me nothing. If he had, of course I should not have mentioned it. I only conjecture, for he really did seem to have a great deal more on his mind; and he kept me walking back and forward, near the mill-road, a precious long time. And I really think once or twice he was going to tell me.’

‘Oh! you think then, Mr. Lake, there may be some serious — a — a — well, I should hope not — I do most earnestly trust not.’ This was said with upturned eyes and much unction. ‘But do you happen, Captain Lake, to know of any of those unfortunate, those miserable connections which young gentlemen of fashion — eh? It’s very sad. Still it often needs, as you say, professional advice to solve such difficulties — it is very sad — oh! is not it sad?’

‘Pray, don’t let it affect your spirits,’ said Lake, who was leaning back in his chair, and looking on the carpet, about a yard before his lacquered boots, in his usual sly way. ‘I may be quite mistaken, you know, but I wished you to understand — having some little experience of the world, I’d be only too happy to be of any use, if you thought my diplomacy could help poor Wylder out of his trouble — that is, if there really is any. But you don’t know?’

No,’ said Mr. Larkin, thoughtfully; and thoughtful he continued for a minute or two, screwing his lips gently, as was his wont, while ruminating, his long head motionless, the nails of his long and somewhat large hand tapping on the arm of his chair, with a sharp glance now and then at the unreadable visage of the cavalry officer. It was evident his mind was working, and nothing was heard in the room for a minute but the tapping of his nails on the chair, like a death-watch.

‘No,’ said Mr. Larkin again, ‘I’m not suspicious — naturally too much the reverse, I fear; but it certainly does look odd. Did he tell the family at Brandon?’

‘Certainly not, that I heard. He may have mentioned it. But I started with him, and we walked together, under the impression that he was going, as usual, to the inn, the — what d’ye call it? —“Brandon Arms;” and it was a sudden thought — now I think of it — for he took no luggage, though to be sure I dare say he has got clothes and things in town.’

‘And when does he return?’

‘In a day or two, at furthest,’ he said.

‘I wonder what they’ll think of it at Brandon?’ said the attorney, with a cavernous grin of sly enquiry at his companion, which, recollecting his character, he softened into a sad sort of smile, and added, ‘No harm, I dare say; and, after all, you know, why should there — any man may have business; and, indeed, it is very likely, after all, that he really went about the jewels. Men are too hasty to judge one another, my dear Sir; charity, let us remember, thinketh no evil.’

‘By-the-bye,’ said Lake, rather briskly for him, rummaging his pockets, ‘I’m glad I remembered he gave me a little note to Chelford. Are any of your people going to Brandon this morning?’

‘I’ll send it,’ said the lawyer, eyeing the little pencilled note wistfully, which Lake presented between two fingers.

‘Yes, it is to Lord Chelford,’ said the attorney, with a grand sort of suavity — he liked lords — placing it, after a scrutiny, in his waistcoat pocket.

‘Don’t you think it had best go at once? — there may be something requiring an answer, and your post leaves, doesn’t it, at twelve?’

‘Oh! an answer, is there?’ said Mr. Larkin, drawing it from his pocket, and looking at it again with a perceptible curiosity.

‘I really can’t say, not having read it, but there may,’ said Captain Lake, who was now and then a little impertinent, just to keep Mr. Larkin in his place, and perhaps to hint that he understood him.

Read it! Oh, my dear Sir, my dear Captain Lake, how could you — but, oh! no — you could not suppose I meant such an idea — oh, dear — no, no. You and I have our notions about what’s gentlemanlike and professional — a — and gentlemanlike, as I say — Heaven forbid.’

‘Quite so!’ said Captain Lake, gently.

‘Though all the world does not think with us, I can tell you, things come before us in our profession. Oh, ho! ho!’ and Mr. Larkin lifted up his pink eyes and long hands, and shook his long head, with a melancholy smile and a sigh like a shudder.

When at the later breakfast, up at Brandon, that irregular pencilled scroll reached Lord Chelford’s hand, he said, as he glanced on the direction —

‘This is Mark Wylder’s; what does he say?’

‘So Mark’s gone to town,’ he said; ‘but he’ll be back again on Saturday, and in the meantime desires me to lay his heart at your feet, Dorcas. Will you read the note?’

‘No,’ said Dorcas, quietly.

Lady Chelford extended her long, shrivelled fingers, on which glimmered sundry jewels, and made a little nod to her son, who gave it to her, with a smile. Holding her glasses to her eyes, the note at a distance, and her head rather back, she said —

‘It is not a pretty billet,’ and she read in a slow and grim way:—

‘DEAR CHELFORD — I’m called up to London just for a day. No lark, but honest business. I’ll return on Saturday; and tell Dorcas, with dozens of loves, I would write to her, but have not a minute for the train.

‘Yours, &c.

‘M. WYLDER.’

‘No; it is not pretty,’ repeated the old lady; and, indeed, in no sense was it. Before luncheon Captain Lake arrived.

‘So Wylder has run up to town,’ I said, so soon as we had shaken hands in the hall.

‘Yes; I drove him to Dollington last night; we just caught the up train.’

‘He says he’ll be back again on Saturday,’ I said.

‘Saturday, is it? He seemed to think — yes — it would be only a day or so. Some jewels, I think, for Dorcas. He did not say distinctly; I only conjecture. Lady Chelford and Miss Brandon, I suppose, in the drawing-room?’

So to the drawing-room he passed.

‘How is Rachel? how is your sister, Captain Lake, have you seen her to-day?’ asked old Lady Chelford, rather benignantly. She chose to be gracious to the Lakes. ‘Only, for a moment, thank you. She has one of her miserable headaches, poor thing; but she’ll be better, she says, in the afternoon, and hopes to come up here to see you, and Miss Brandon, this evening.’

Lord Chelford and I had a pleasant walk that day to the ruins of Willerton Castle. I find in my diary a note —‘Chelford tells me it is written in old surveys, Wylderton, and was one of the houses of the Wylders. What considerable people those Wylders were, and what an antique stock.’

After this he wished to make a visit to the vicar, and so we parted company. I got into Brandon Park by the pretty gate near Latham.

It was a walk of nearly three miles across the park from this point to the Hall, and the slopes and hollows of this noble, undulating plain, came out grandly in the long shadows and slanting beams of evening. That yellow, level light has, in my mind, something undefinably glorious and melancholy, such as to make almost any scenery interesting, and my solitary walk was delightful.

People must love and sympathise very thoroughly, I think, to enjoy natural scenery together. Generally it is one of the few spectacles best seen alone. The silence that supervenes is indicative of the solitary character of the enjoyment. It is a poem and a reverie. I was quite happy striding in the amber light and soft, long shadows, among the ferns, the copsewood, and the grand old clumps of timber, exploring the undulations, and the wild nooks and hollows which have each their circumscribed and sylvan charm; a wonderful interest those little park-like broken dells have always had for me; dotted with straggling birch and oak, and here and there a hoary ash tree, with a grand and melancholy grace, dreaming among the songs of wild birds, in their native solitudes, and the brown leaves tipped with golden light, all breathing something of old-world romance — the poetry of bygone love and adventure — and stirring undefinable and delightful emotions that mingle unreality with sense, a music of the eye and spirit.

After many devious wanderings, I found, under shelter of a wonderful little hollow, in which lay, dim and still, a tarn, reflecting the stems of the trees that rose from its edge, in a way so clear and beautiful, that, with a smile and a sigh, I sat myself down upon a rock among the ferns, and fell into a reverie.

The image of Dorcas rose before me. There is a strange mystery and power in the apathetic, and in that unaffected carelessness, even defiance of opinion and criticism, which I had seen here for the first time, so beautifully embodied. I was quite sure she both thought and felt, and could talk, too, if she chose it. What tremendous self-reliance and disdain must form the basis of a female character, which accepted misapprehension and depreciation with an indifference so genuine as to scorn even the trifling exertion of disclosing its powers.

She could not possibly care for Wylder, any more than he cared for her. That odd look I detected in the mirror — what did it mean? and Wylder’s confusion about Captain Lake — what was that? I could not comprehend the situation that was forming. I went over Wylder’s history in my mind, and Captain Lake’s — all I could recollect of it — but could find no clue, and that horrible visitation or vision! what was it?

This latter image had just glided in and taken its place in my waking dream, when I thought I saw reflected in the pool at my feet, the shape and face which I never could forget, of the white, long-chinned old man.

For a second I was unable, I think, to lift my eyes from the water which presented this cadaverous image.

But the figure began to move, and I raised my eyes, and saw it retreat, with a limping gait, into the thick copse before me, in the shadow of which it stopped and turned stiffly round, and directed on me a look of horror, and then withdrew.

It is all very fine laughing at me and my fancies. I do not think there are many men who in my situation would have felt very differently. I recovered myself; I shouted lustily after him to stay, and then in a sort of half-frightened rage, I pursued him; but I had to get round the pool, a considerable circuit. I could not tell which way he had turned on getting into the thicket; and it was now dusk, the sun having gone down during my reverie. So I stopped a little way in the copsewood, which was growing quite dark, and I shouted there again, peeping under the branches, and felt queer and much relieved that nothing answered or appeared.

Looking round me, in a sort of dream, I remembered suddenly what Wylder had told me of old Lorne Brandon, to whose portrait this inexplicable phantom bore so powerful a resemblance. He was suspected of having murdered his own son, at the edge of a tarn in the park. This tarn maybe — and with the thought the water looked blacker — and a deeper and colder shadow gathered over the ominous hollow in which I stood, and the rustling in the withered leaves sounded angrily.

I got up as quickly as might be to the higher grounds, and waited there for awhile, and watched for the emergence of the old man. But it did not appear; and shade after shade was spreading solemnly over the landscape, and having a good way to walk, I began to stride briskly along the slopes and hollows, in the twilight, now and then looking into vacancy, over my shoulder.

The little adventure, and the deepening shades, helped to sadden my homeward walk; and when at last the dusky outline of the Hall rose before me, it wore a sort of weird and haunted aspect.

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